Murder Makes A Claim

Lee E. Wells

This page formatted 2011 Blackmask Online.

http://www.blackmask.com

Popular Detective , April 1946

 

Tom Coville Does Some Hot Sleuthing When a Corpse is Found Holding a Soldering Iron!

CHAPTER I. Hot Clue

RAIN was making a liar of the California Chamber of Commerce. The wipers fussed busily over the glass but still the water streamed down, distorting the street lights, and the tires constantly swished through puddles of water. Tom Coville wheeled off the boulevard and cut south on a street bordering a maze of railroad tracks to the right.

Coville leaned over the wheel, peering ahead for some landmark. Scattered factory buildings were a dark blur, and now and then a street light feebly fought against the downpour. Tom swore softly and stopped at the next street corner.

He rolled down the window squinted his eyes against the rain and tried to make out the sign. Somewhere down here was the Soto Company plant and a neat little case of burglary and murder.

It was Soto Avenue, right enough, so Coville meshed gears and rolled slowly on. The way seemed to get darker, except for the spots of green and red on the railroad switches to the right.

For a long stretch there was only the wet ribbon of the street before his headlights and then, surprisingly, a low building loomed. Several cars were parked before it and some bore the insignia of the police.

Tom wheeled to the narrow curb. This was the place. He stepped out and sank ankle-deep in adobe mud. A voice hailed him and a wet slicker rustled and glittered.

“Where do you think you're going?”

The policeman didn't like the weather, either. His flash blinded Tom Coville.

Coville stood still.

“California Casualty Company,” he said. “Slauson phoned for me.”

The officer played the light over the insurance investigator. Coville was tall and lean.

His arms were long, gangly, and the mud on his shoes made his feet seem much larger than they were. The policeman seemed satisfied.

“Go on to the door. Clancy can tell the lieutenant about you.”

Coville grinned and clumped along a wet strip of concrete to the narrow office door. Another policeman used a flash on him and Coville identified himself.

CLANCY opened the door and yelled inside, then nodded for Coville to enter. Coville stepped inside. He scraped some of the mud off his feet in the little foyer, threw his sodden hat onto a long bench and pushed through the door beside the receptionist's empty desk.

He blinked under the bright light from overhead. The main office was a big barn of a room lined with desks. At one side was a counter, surmounted by the wire of a cashier's cage.

The police were over there. Beyond the cage an open door led to the factory and Coville had a glimpse of a body sprawled on the floor.

A big man with bulging blue eyes and a harried frown, hurried toward him. The man, whose thick lips managed to be pursy, had fat, pink jowls. He extended his hand.

“Mr. Coville? Glad you came. I'm Slauson.”

Coville shook hands.

“You must have called the company as soon as you did the police.”

Slauson nodded.

“I did, because this looked bad. I wanted you people to be in on it from the beginning.

It'll save time when I make the claim. There's Lieutenant Gray right over there.”

Coville nodded to Lieutenant Gray. The Homicide man straightened from before an open safe.

He lighted a cigarette and grinned at Coville.

“Three out of every four cases gets you in my hair—what there is of it,” he said.

Coville smiled and walked forward to the safe. He peered over the broad back of a detective.

The safe had been rifled. Drawers were open and papers in the bottom were lying in disorder.

“What's missing?” Tom asked.

Gray pulled at his ear lobe. He was a handsome man with piercing gray eyes and a steel-trap mouth.

His black hair thinned back from the temples.

“Slauson says that all the cash receipts are missing and some negotiable securities.”

Slauson made a defeated gesture with his pudgy hands. “I'd say about fifty thousand, counting the securities. I'd planned to swing a deal in the morning so that I could buy the factory building next to me. I need more room to handle the stuff I'm making.”

Coville turned slowly, looking around the office. “What happened?” he demanded.

Gray motioned him toward the factory door and Coville followed the officer. A flash bulb went off with startling abruptness. The face of the dead man in the factory looked weirdly purple for an instant.

The victim had been fairly young. He wore no coat or vest and the blood from the bullet hole in the white shirt had darkened.

The dead fingers still clutched a soldering iron.

“That's Jim Thorne,” whispered Slauson. “He was my cashier and bookkeeper. A swell kid,”

Coville edged to one side and the police photographer put another plate holder in his camera.

His flash gun flamed again and he started putting things away in leather cases.

Someone switched on a single ceiling light and the reflector bathed the corpse as though it lay in a spotlight. Coville judged Jim Thorne to have been a shade under thirty. The brown eyes were already blank and glassy.

The thin fingers gripped tightly on the handle of the soldering iron.

Coville looked around. In the outer edge of shadows he saw the orderly bulk of machines, lathes, turrets, drills and further off the big outline of a steel shear. Lieutenant Gray was talking again.

“The robbers broke in back there, along the railroad track,” he said.

Coville looked up.

“Burglar alarm?”

Slauson shook his head.

“I guess Jim hadn't set it. Our watchman was out checking the warehouse and switches and he didn't hear a thing, not even the shot. It was raining, you know,”

LIEUTENANT GRAY pointed down an aisle of lathes. “As I see it, the robbers came down this aisle toward the office. Probably Jim Thorne was in the wash room at the time. We found his vest hanging there. Anyway, the coast looked clear to the prowlers and they came in. The safe was open and they ransacked it. Coming out, they ran into Thorne.”

Slauson sighed.

“Jim was a good man. He'll be hard to replace.”

“Thorne put up a fight, but the prowlers were getting the best of him,” Gray went on. “He picked up the soldering iron and the robbers must have shot him about then. They made their escape and the watchman finally came in and found Thorne.”

“Like this?” asked Coville, scratching his long chin.

Gray nodded and thoughtfully pulled a cigarette out of his pack.

“He hasn't been dead long and the soldering iron was still warm when the watchman found him.”

“I wonder what he was doing?” Coville mused.

Slauson swung his bulk around and walked to a nearby work bench. He pulled the light chain and pointed to a box with a great deal of intricate wiring.

“Jim liked to fuss around with electrical gadgets. He was working on a new type of communicator switch. We make 'em here.”

COVILLE walked over, leaving muddy tracks on the cement. He saw one or two freshly soldered contacts. He turned. Slauson pulled out the light.

“California Casualty carries my insurance, and I thought you'd eliminate some of the preliminary investigations if you were right here,” the owner explained.

Coville shook his head.

“You make the claim through the usual channels, Slauson. My job is to recover the money and the securities.”

“Do you think you can do it?” Slauson sounded surprised.

Coville laughed mirthlessly. “I don't know,” he said. “I can try.”

They rejoined Gray and the three of them walked to the men working around the rifled safe.

Slauson sat thoughtfully on the edge of a desk while Coville knelt down beside Gray before the safe.

Suddenly Coville jumped up and turned swiftly to Slauson.

“Where's your first aid kit?” he demanded.

Slauson's bulgy eyes widened with surprise. He pointed to a door at the rear of the office.

“We keep it in there.”

Coville tapped Gray's back.

“Let's take a look.”

Gray frowned and he pulled at his earlobe. “My men have gone over everything, Tom.”

Coville nodded.

“Sure, I don't doubt it. But I'd like a peek for myself.”

They went to the wash room, Slauson lumbering close behind them. At first glance, the place was in order, but Coville wasn't satisfied. He prowled around and finally knelt down to peer in the shadows under the lavatory.

He grunted triumphantly and his long arm reached out. He fished a second and then arose.

He held up a partially used tube of a popular salve for burns. The cap was gone and some of the cream had smeared down over the tube.

His eyes gleamed.

“Well, there's one new bit of information,” he muttered.

Slauson looked puzzled.

“But—I don't get it. We always keep that stuff on hand. Someone must have used it and dropped it.”

Coville grinned, his thin lips looking almost wolfish. “Sure, but look.” He carefully touched the cream with his finger. “Still soft and the cap's missing. This stuff was used tonight—for a burn. Jim Thorne defended himself with a hot soldering iron, Mr. Slauson. The prowler was burned.”

CHAPTER II. Missing Car

GRAY stared a second, then stepped to the door. He called one of the officers. “Take any prints you find on this tube,” he ordered, and Coville passed it over. Gray smiled ruefully. “That puts you one up, Tom. Stick around, you might find the murderer hiding under a lathe.”

“Who knows?” Coville said with such seriousness that both the detective and Slauson stared at him.

Gray's sharp glance circled the wash room.

“There might be some prints on these tile walls and porcelain fixtures. I'll have the print man go over 'em.”

He walked back into the main office while Coville moved to the cashier's cage and turned to face the door that led into the factory.

From his position, he could see very little. Thoughtfully he circled the room, glancing at the desks, then went to the factory door. He ginger-stepped around Thorne's body and stood by the work bench where the unfinished electrical gadget lay.

His fingers drummed impatiently on the wood of the bench. From here he could see neither the cage nor the safe. He gave Jim Thorne a long, thoughtful look and returned to the outer office.

Slauson was just disappearing into his private sanctum. Coville sauntered after him and pushed in. The luxurious office was big, two large windows taking up almost all of the corner space. They were shuttered now with Venetian blinds. A deep pile rug gave the effect of walking on a cushion of air. Slauson looked up from the mammoth desk, richly polished.

Coville sank down in a soft leather chair, his eyes appreciative. In one corner was a portable bar.

“This is a palace, Slauson,” he said. “You're really comfortable.”

Slauson nodded.

“Thanks. I believe in the good things if you can get 'em.”

Coville's thin brows arched and he glanced around again.

“I wouldn't mind working late in this office,” he admitted.

Slauson leaned back. “Neither do I. In fact, I've put in a lot of time here.”

“Tonight?” Coville asked.

Slauson shook his head.

“Unfortunately, no. Maybe Jim would have been alive, if I had.”

Coville shrugged. “Could be. Where does Thorne park his car?”

Slauson jerked his head toward one of the windows.

“We have our own parking lot right out here,” he said. “His car's gone.”

Coville slouched down in the chair and crossed his thin legs. “Stolen?”

Slauson's eyebrows went up.

“I think so. He drove it this morning and it should still be there. Lieutenant Gray has a call out on its plates.”

Coville smiled.

“Good man, Gray. He'll crack this if anyone does.”

Slauson leaned forward putting a fat hand on the desk blotter.

“Mr. Coville, will your company question my claim? This hits you doubly hard. I carry a burglary and theft with you. Jim's car is also insured with you under my fleet policy.”

Coville looked thoughtful.

“I think the claim will be fairly handled, Slauson. I can't talk for the adjustment boys, of course.”

“But you?” Slauson insisted.

Coville nodded. “My report will have some bearing. How about Thorne's life insurance? Know anything about it?”

Slauson relaxed. He took a deep breath. “Sure. The California Life and Assurance carries double indemnity. Face of the policy, fifty thousand.”

Coville sat bolt upright in startled surprise. “Wow! One hundred thousand smackers. Who's the beneficiary?”

Slauson shook his head. His bulging eyes looked tired. “I wouldn't know. That was Jim's business.”

Coville's lean face was grim now. “The California Life and Assurance is tied up with the California Casualty, Mr. Slauson. I act for both of them.”

Slauson let a moment or two go by before he spoke.

“I didn't know that,” he said.

Coville pulled his long length from the chair and paced to the door and back again. “One hundred thousand for Thorne's death. Fifty thousand to cover your burglary loss and say a thousand on Thorne's car if it's not recovered. One hundred and fifty-one thousand my company takes right on the chin.”

SLAUSON wagged his head with concern. “Too bad, Coville, and I regret it. But that's a risk your companies take, isn't it?”

“It is,” said Coville. “But not lying down, Slauson. We don't like it that way. I'll send our man out tomorrow, and you can make the formal claim against the company. That's about all I can do.”

Slauson smiled and extended his hand. “Thanks, anyway, Coville. I wish you luck on your investigation.”

Tom Coville strolled back to the main office. The photographers and print men had finished and the morgue boys were just walking in with their long wicker basket. Coville hurried to Lieutenant Gray.

“Slauson tells me Thorne's car is missing. Can you give me the dope?”

Gray nodded and pulled out a notebook.

“A light-blue coupe bearing a 'C' ration sticker. Plate number thirty-four, CY eight.”

As Coville jotted down the figures, Gray picked up a raincoat and pulled it on.

He glanced at Coville. “That's all we can do now, I guess.”

“The watchman's story checks?” Tom Coville asked hopefully.

Gray pulled his collar up around his neck. “Yep. He came in, found Thorne dead, and gave us a buzz.”

Coville jerked his thumb toward the private office.

“When did he show up?”

Gray's brows raised.

“Slauson? Not long after. The watchman located him at a night spot. He hurried right over.”

Tom Coville nodded and said good night. He paused at the door, looking out at the solid sheet of falling rain, glanced resignedly at his feet, pulled his slicker closer and ran for his car.

He started the engine and pulled away from the curb. His thoughts were dwelling on Thorne's car.

The killer or killers had come here afoot, probably from the nearest car line. They had used Thorne's car to get away from the scene of the murder as quickly as possible. Knowing the car would be wanted by the police, they would soon abandon it. Coville remembered the ancient story of the lost horse and its discovery.

“If I were a horse, where would I be,” he muttered to himself.

As he drove along he noticed license plates on parked cars, but when he reached the boulevard and the car line, he hadn't discovered the stolen automobile. Feeling a deep sense of disappointment, he crossed the line and continued on south. Within a block he found Thorne's missing coupe.

He drove slowly by, peering out through the rain to see if anyone was inside. There wasn't. Satisfied, he parked and his long legs took him back through the rain to Jim Thorne's car. It was unlocked.

Coville snapped on the dome light. The keys dangled in the ignition lock and nothing seemed to be disturbed. There were gobs of brown mud on the floor that Thorne couldn't have put on there himself. The murdered cashier had been at the plant all day and the rain hadn't started until late in the afternoon.

Coville pulled himself inside and began going through the glove compartment. There wasn't anything of importance there—an old road map, a map of Los Angeles, a ration book with a few coupons left, a pair of gloves. Coville swore under his breath. He lighted a cigarette and then twisted around. The ledge behind the seat was clean.

Slowly he climbed out of the car. Low, squat houses were barely discernible in the darkness and rain and there were a lot of bushes around. Coville locked Thorne's car, putting the keys in his pocket. He returned to his own auto and picked up his flashlight.

For awhile he prowled around in the trunk of Thorne's machine but found nothing important. He swore and dropped the lid. He swung the flash around toward the bushes. The light passed over the bundle the first time, it blended so well with the mud.

Then the bundle registered in Coville's mind and he swung the light back. He stepped closer and bent down. The sodden heap was a muddy coat. Coville picked it up and played the light over it. His eyes widened when he saw a burned streak that ran from the end of one sleeve upward almost to the elbow.

COVILLE straightened and went back to his car. Under the dome light, he examined the coat. It was old and worn. There was no maker's or dealer's tag anywhere. Coville went through the pockets and his fingers touched cardboard in the inside pocket. He pulled it out.

Rain and mud had just about ruined the card, but Coville made out the name “Elite Repair Service,” with an address on Boyle Street. Coville replaced the card in the pocket, took it to Thorne's car and, unlocking the door, pitched it inside.

He then glanced at his watch, returned to his own machine, turned it around and streaked north toward Boyle Heights. He wanted to see the proprietor of the Elite Repair Service very badly. As he passed the Soto Company, Coville noticed that the place was dark. Evidently Slauson had gone home.

At last the industrial buildings gave way to a district of small homes, apartment houses and modest stores. Coville passed an occasional movie house showing Spanish-language films. He was in that part of Los Angeles known as the Mexican quarter.

He began to feel the excitement that always came when he was on a direct lead. The trail was getting warmer.

The Elite Repair Service was dark. Coville pulled to the curb and stared at the store through the driving rain. Old suits hung in a dusty window and just beyond he caught the vague gleam of a pressing machine. The entrance was narrow, squeezed between the projecting show window and the entrance to the upstairs flats.

Coville climbed out and pounded on the door but no one answered.

At last he returned to his car and drove across town to his home on South Berendo. It was far after midnight and Coville was tired. He unlocked the door to his apartment and snapped on the light.

Lieutenant Gray blinked and pulled himself up from the davenport.

Gray yawned.

“I've been waiting for you, Tom,” he drawled.

Coville's lips pressed tight and water dripped from his hat brim. “I can see that,” he snapped. “How'd you get in?”

The officer grinned.

“Now, Tom, don't pry into professional secrets. But in this case it was the custodian. He's probably waiting for gunshots now.”

Gray fumbled for a cigarette while Colville doffed his wet coat, pulled off his soaked shoes and rummaged in a closet for his slippers. At last Coville sat down and stretched his long legs out in front of him.

He lighted a cigarette and watched Gray through the fog of blue smoke.

“What's on your mind?” he asked finally.

Gray sighed regretfully.

“Tom, you were one private investigator I thought would play fair. None of this hiding of evidence or cutting away from us on your own line. Why didn't you report that car?”

Coville snorted.

“Give a man time! I just got home. How did you know about it?”

Gray smiled and it made his face frank and boyish. But it didn't hide the steel glitter of his eyes.

“One of the squad cars pulled out right behind you. They had no intention of following you at first, but you acted like you were looking for something. Well, one thing led to another.”

Coville grunted and fished in his pocket. He threw the ring of keys to Gray who caught them with a catlike movement of his arm.

“Should I have broken in a house to give you a ring?” Coville asked.

Gray examined the keys.

“No, nothing like that, Tom, but I thought I'd save you the trouble. So I made myself at home. What did you find?”

Coville studied the end of his cigarette.

“A coat with a long; bad burn on the sleeve. Jim Thorne knew how to use a soldering iron. I found this, too, and I've been tracing it down. No luck as yet.”

He passed over the sodden card and Lieutenant Gray looked at it.

“Boyle Heights,” he said.

Coville nodded.

“It's a lead, but Mr. Elite wasn't at his shop. I'm going around in the morning and see what gives.”

Gray nodded and put the card in his notebook.

“Maybe I'd better go with you,” he suggested. “You don't mind?”

Coville crushed out his cigarette.

“In an official capacity, yes. Suppose you tag along and stay outside in the car. I'll take the coat in, say I found it, and want to return it to the owner. I might get something that way. But two of us walking in is too much like two detectives trying to get information; our man will tell us nothing.”

Gray frowned across the room, then shrugged.

“You're right, Tom. Okay, that's the way we'll play it. Want me to meet you somewhere close?”

Coville mentioned the corner of Fourth and Boyle and Gray stood up. “I'll be there. Pleasant dreams, Tom.”

“The same to you, housebreaker.”

Gray grinned and walked out. Tom Coville sat quietly in his chair, listening to the faint night sounds for a while, then went to bed.

CHAPTER III. A Slender Thread

DAYLIGHT came too soon and there was no sunshine. The clouds were a solid mass of musty gray and the rain still fell. Tom rolled out of bed and prepared a light breakfast in the little kitchenette. The rain showed no sign of letting up.

He glanced at his watch and hurriedly finished his coffee. In a few minutes he drove through the wet streets toward the meeting place. Gray was waiting in an inconspicuous black sedan. He signaled with his horn and Coville pulled to the curb a few yards away. He sloshed back through the rain and crawled in beside Gray.

The lieutenant was cheerful and it irritated Coville. Rain is a nuisance and it did no good to California's reputation. Coville frowned and ignited a cigarette.

Gray pointed ahead.

“I spotted the Elite Repair Service and saw its distinguished owner opening up.”

Coville nodded sourly.

“You got the coat?” Gray reached back over the seat and gave the garment to Coville.

“There it is.”

Coville rolled it up.

“I'll see you later.” He stepped out into the rain, hunched his shoulders and walked down the street toward the tailor shop.

A few dripping and miserable Mexicans scurried by him. He passed a tamale factory, and a bland Chinese grinned placidly from the window of his laundry.

Coville turned in at the Elite Repair Service. A bell jangled loudly as he pushed open the door. Steam filled the room. The presser hissed loudly at him as a man turned from it to the counter.

“Yes, please?”

He was a little man with bent shoulders and a worried frown on his high brow. His nose was large and his eyes were black, alert, snapping. He wore no coat and his vest was faded, his white shirt a little yellow and the open collar frayed.

Coville looked uncertain. “You the owner?”

The man smiled. “That's me, Meyer Jacobs. You have a suit to press, or maybe a hole for me to sew up?”

Coville shook his head and placed the coat on the counter. “I found this last night, lying right out on the sidewalk. It looks like a good coat to me, and I thought maybe the guy that owns it wouldn't like to lose it.”

Jacobs stared at the muddy coat. He touched the fabric and his lips made a distasteful shape at the mud and dirt.

“Mmmm, it could be a good coat. What is it you want to know?”

Coville pulled out the card. “I found this in the pocket. Maybe you'd know who owns it. I figure perhaps the fellow was on a bender and—you know, you do some crazy things sometimes.”

Jacobs nodded and looked at the card. His interest in the coat quickened. He picked it up and shook it out. He stared at the front and then his eyes widened when he saw the burn. He traced it with his finger. He examined the lapels and then the lining.

He grinned. “Sure, I did work on this coat. That's my own lining. No one in Los Angeles fixes lining like I do. See?”

Coville dutifully looked and was appreciative of the workmanship. “Then you know who it belongs to?”

Jacobs dropped the coat. He shook his head.

“Mister, I do a hundred jobs like this in a month. I press, I patch holes, and I alter. People come, people go. Sure, I did this job but I don't know whose coat it is.”

Coville looked disappointed.

“That's a shame. It's a good coat.”

Jacobs brightened.

“I don't remember names. Why should I care. But, Mister, I don't forget a face. You, I'd remember your face for years, if I should happen to meet you on the street.”

Coville looked up quickly.

“That's a handy talent.”

Jacobs looked pleased. “I don't believe I've forgotten the face of anybody who's done business with me during the last ten years. If I see the man who owns this coat, I'll know him. His name? I'd never remember that.”

Coville drummed his long fingers on the counter, frowning out the wet window. Here was a lead definitely going dead on him. It was practically the only lead in the case.

He turned to see Jacobs narrowly watching him. Coville acted sheepish. “Jacobs, I got to confess. I don't want to return this feller's coat very bad. But I met him at a bar. He borrows some money from me, see, and I'm a little under the weather. This morning I can't remember his name.”

JACOBS looked thoroughly shocked. “Drinking too much is bad—foolish.”

Coville sighed.

“No, but I'm hooked. Now maybe you'll see this bird and remember his name. Here's my telephone number. It'll be worth five bucks to you to give me a ring.”

Coville scribbled his number on a sheet of notebook paper and Jacobs eagerly read it. He nodded, folded the paper and stuck it in his vest pocket. “I'll keep my eye out, Mister. If I see this man, I'll remember him.”

Coville nodded, rolled up the coat and walked to the door. Jacobs still stood leaning on the counter, his dark face curious. Coville opened the door and the bell jangled again.

He turned.

“Is most of your trade right around here?”

Jacobs shrugged and looked mournful.

“Trade? I tell you, I haven't got half the trade my careful work should bring in. Yes, most of my customers live around here.”

Gray was waiting patiently in the black sedan. He looked up when Coville came plowing through the rain and jerked open the door. The thin man sank down in the seat and pitched the coat to the back. He shrugged at Gray.

“No luck yet. The tailor don't know who owns the coat, but he remembers faces.”

Lieutenant Gray's lips pressed into a thin line and he looked discouraged.

“That's a thin thread to hang an arrest on. I had hopes.”

Coville's thin faced appeared more angular than ever.

“We've got a chance, Gray. The bird who had a new lining put in the coat lives somewhere in this district.”

The police officer grunted. He waved his hand at the street and the district generally.

“That narrows it down some. We've only got a thousand or so places to search. Tom, you really make it sound easy.”

Coville shifted and grinned.

“It's not that bad. Our friend got burned and he's going to get something to treat it. So we visit the drug stores and doctors in the neighborhood.”

Gray whistled.

“I see what you mean. Look, I'll scoot down to headquarters and get some of the boys on the job. It'll take time.”

Coville climbed out of the car.

“Okay. In the meantime, I'll do a little snooping of my own.”

Gray raised his finger.

“Remember, we work together.”

Coville laughed and then scowled as a gust of wind blew rain in his face.

“I'll remember. If I find anything, you'll know.”

The first drug store Coville entered was a Mexican place. It had window signs in both Spanish and English. Coville edged his way around a group of olive-skinned youths and moved up to a dusty stationery counter. The proprietor bustled busily from behind a wood partition.

He rubbed his fat hands together. “Si, Señor. What can I do for you?”

Coville looked at him.

“Answer a question. Have you given any customer something for a burn?”

The fat little man looked blank and his heavy lids blinked rapidly over his black eyes. “I do not understand. Burn?”

Coville nodded.

“He's got some money coming. Insurance. Savvy? I got to find him.”

The druggist shrugged.

“So? Insurance. I see. No, I do not sell anything for a burn in a week.”

Coville thanked the druggist and left the store. He turned north, watching both sides of the street. In the next three blocks he stopped at two drug stores, a Mexican herbalist's and a doctor's office. None of them had treated anyone for burns recently, nor had the shops sold salve for such an injury.

Coville came down the stairs from the doctor's office and stood on the street corner. The Elite Repair Service was a couple of blocks south and Coville wondered how many stops he would have to make before he covered all the druggists and doctors. Needles in haystacks would probably be much easier to find.

He set his jaw and plodded through the rain. He thought of Lieutenant Gray and swore softly under his breath. Coville wished that he had a bunch of men under him whom he could send out in this weather.

His shoes were beginning to “squidge” and his feet felt damp. He glanced skyward and saw nothing but rainclouds. He spotted a large chain drug store. He tackled it, and drew a complete blank. Morosely he sat at the fountain and had a lime and lemon.

 

OUT in the rain again, he hesitated at the corner. He noticed a dilapidated sign down a narrow side street and turned that way. The shop was one that specialized in herbs and patent medicines.

The rain gave the place a damp, musty smell. The proprietress was a short, fat woman, who waddled when she walked. She had hair on her upper lip. Her close set eyes were suspicious.

Coville couldn't get anywhere. She pretended not to understand English and then tried to sell him a bottle of Aztec Nature Water. A single weak bulb glowed dimly against the dark shadows of the shop and high-lighted the crafty lines about the woman's eyes and lips.

Coville finally pulled out his billfold and held it suggestively in his hand.

“Again, Señora. You have sold nothing for burns?”

She glanced at the billfold with greedy eyes.

“I do not know, Señor. Why should it be my business?”

Coville pulled out a bill, tempting her. “It is too bad you do not remember, Señora. It might be worth a few pesos.”

The woman squinted, pursed her fat lips and folded her thick arms on the dirty counter.

“Money helps me think, Señor. Maybe for money I might remember—” She halted in mid-sentence.

The bill came a little further from the leather.

“It is getting more clear, Señora?” Coville suggested softly.

She bobbed her head and the coarse black locks shook loosely around her face. “Si, si, Señor. This morning I sell some linseed oil. For burns? Quien sabe?”

Coville's face lighted. He pulled the five out and held it in his hand. The woman's face lighted.

“Another one to match it, Señora, if you remember the burn—and the name.”

Her hesitation vanished. She struck her forehead an exasperated blow. “I remember, Señor! This head of mine is no good sometimes. There is a burn, along the arm from the wrist to the elbow.”

Coville held back his elation. “And the name?” he persisted.

“Pedro Manelle came in just this morning. I asked him how he got burned. Pedro wouldn't tell. He bought linseed oil.”

Coville extended the two fives, and then quickly drew them back when the woman grabbed for them.

“Pedro lives where?” he asked.

She was surly and wouldn't answer. Coville shrugged and made a show of slowly putting the bills back in the wallet. She watched them disappear, her eyes brooding. Coville shoved the wallet in his pocket and thanked her. He started toward the door.

His hand was on the knob when the woman shrieked after him. “Señor—wait! I recall the address. Si, I know where Pedro live now.” She eyed him suspiciously. “The ten dollars will be mine?”

Coville waited, ready to walk out if she stalled again.

“Yes, Señora, if you tell me the address.”

It was a number on Cummings, just off Third. Coville gave her the bills and left the shop.

So Pedro Manelle had a burn on his arm and had bought linseed oil! Coville turned and hurried across Boyle, headed eastward. It seemed to him that the rain had slackened a little and he felt better.

He turned south on Cummings, his eyes searching for the number across the street. He finally found it, over a dark stairway that led upward between a meat market and a Mexican tobacco shop. His long strides didn't pause as he kept on to the next corner.

He used the phone booth in another little drug store, dialing police headquarters. In a few moments Lieutenant Gray answered.

“This is Tom Coville. How are your boys doing?”

Gray snorted.

“I don't know. I haven't heard from them. In this rain they're probably reading a comic magazine at some coffee pot.”

Coville chuckled.

“I've got our man spotted. Pedro Manelle has a bad burn that needs linseed oil. The burn is from his wrist to his elbow.”

Gray whistled. “Where are you, Tom?” He sounded excited. “I'll be right out.”

Coville hesitated a moment.

“I'm just ready to go over there. Give me a little time and meet me at Third and Cummings, a drug store.”

GRAY repeated the address and hung up. Coville walked out of the booth and strolled slowly to the door. From the corner he could see the dark doorway that led to Pedro Manelle's hideout. Coville shifted restlessly from one foot to the other.

Then his eyes lighted and he pulled his hat brim lower. He stepped out into the rain and crossed the street. Keeping his head low against the push of the wind, he walked up the street until he came to the meat market. He gave a quick glance around and stepped quickly through the doorway.

It closed behind him and the wind shut off as though controlled by a switch. But the rain beat a steady tattoo outside and the narrow landing at the foot of the shadowy stairs was dark. A few rusted mail boxes lined one wall, names scribbled on papers below them.

Coville went along the list and came to Inez Manelle in Apartment Four. He loosened his raincoat and started climbing the stairs. Assorted smells struck him, none of them good.

He halted on the first landing. Blank doors faced him—Apartments One and Two. Behind him a small hall extended and the stairs continued upward.

He thought he heard a light scurry of steps and he listened. The sound was not repeated. He walked quietly down the hall and started to climb again. The next landing was the same as the one below. Coville shoved his hat back on his head and knocked on the door of Number Four.

There was no answer. He knocked once more, louder and longer. There was a long wait and Coville began to get restless. He again rapped sharply on the wood panels.

He heard a faint sound beyond, then a woman's voice asked:

“Who is it?”

Coville raised his voice. “Insurance agent,” he answered.

There was another pause and Coville thought he heard whispering. After a time the bolt snicked back. He assumed his blandest and most engaging smile.

A girl stood framed in the doorway. She was a dark, curvesome beauty in a skimpy dress that accented her lithe figure. She had a dark, oval face, ripe lips that held a slow, langorous smile and black eyes that smoldered. Coville stood speechless.

She looked hard at him.

“You are the new man, no?”

Coville gulped.

“I—I, yes, I am. I got to see Pedro Manelle about his policy. He's—”

Her gesture stopped him. “Si si. This insurance is always changing. Come in. I'll call Pedro.”

She turned and walked into the garishly furnished room with swinging hips. Coville swallowed and stepped inside. The girl turned across the room, smiling at him.

Still staring at her, Coville reached behind him, his hand groping for the door. He found it and pushed it closed. This must be Inez Manelle, he thought, Pedro's wife—or his sister. He heard a breath quickly sucked in behind him.

He tensed and tried to turn. He didn't make it. Something hard and heavy connected with his skull. He felt himself falling and instinctively his long arms reached out. He hit the floor and rolled, the room spinning. He had a glimpse of a dark face with a tiny mustache, lips lifted from gleaming teeth.

The girl swore and jumped forward. Her skirts swirled above her knees, and then the point of her slipper caught Coville in the chin. He wasn't interested in anything after that.

CHAPTER IV. A New Idea

COVILLE opened his eyes and then blinked them against the dull light that came in the rain-streaked windows. He heard movement nearby and cautiously looked around.

Lieutenant Gray sat in an easy chair and studied him impersonally. He grinned.

“Needn't play doggo any more, Tom. You're among friends.”

Coville blinked and turned his head. A couple of heavy, plainclothes men stood beside him and from down here their feet looked enormous. He groaned and pulled himself up, his long body moving in disjointed jerks. At last he stood swaying and holding his head.

“When did you come to the rescue?” he demanded.

“Five minutes ago,” Gray answered. His face hardened. “Why didn't you wait for me, Tom? This Pedro fellow might have murdered you.”

Coville sat down in another chair. “Pedro's not so bad, but that Inez woman swings a mean toe.” He tested his chin and it still seemed to be all in one piece.

He told Gray what had happened while the police went through the little apartment. They found nothing of interest. Definitely the Manelles had pulled stakes. Gray accepted the officers' report of failure with an expressive grunt.

He pulled himself from the chair.

“If you feel like it, Tom, we'd better pull out. There's nothing here.”

Coville asked Gray to give him a lift to where he had parked his car on Boyle Street.

A few minutes later, he climbed into his car and pushed the key in the ignition lock. He pulled away from the curb heading for the office of the California Casualty on Spring Street.

He made his report and then hid himself in his little office. His head ached and his chin felt as if it would come unhinged. He scowled out the window at the wet roofs and buildings below him and thought of the Manelles.

He blamed himself for blundering in and scaring off the prey. If he had waited for Gray things would have gone all right. But still he might have gotten a little further along, had Pedro known he was not police. But Pedro had been too suspicious and impulsive.

The phone rang and he picked it up. It was Slauson and over the phone the man's voice sounded just as heavy as his body.

“I've been wondering if you've made any progress, Mr. Coville. Naturally I've an interest in bringing Jim's murderer to justice.”

Coville sighed. “We nearly had the man, but he got away,” he confessed. “However, the police know him and it won't be long before we have him behind bars.”

“That's fine! That's fast work, Mr. Coville, too fast for the police. I'll bet you had a great deal to do with it.”

“A little,” Coville answered.

Slauson cleared his throat.

“And the money, Mr. Coville?”

“We haven't seen a shred of it. If we can get our hands on Pedro Manelle, we might get somewhere.”

Slauson sounded surprised.

“Mexican, eh? Well, that's some progress. But I doubt if we ever see that money or those securities again. Of course, the loss is to your company, but I just don't like to see it stolen.”

Coville tried to sound more encouraging than he felt. “We have a good chance of getting it. We'll see how things come out. Maybe we'll have good news soon.”

Slauson sighed.

“I hope so. Let me know.”

He hung up and Coville returned to his staring out the window. He thought about the aspects of the case. He remembered how Jim Thorne had looked sprawled out on the floor. He swung around to the desk and picked up the phone. He called the California Life and Assurance Company and identified himself.

“I'd like to know the beneficiary on the policy of James Thorne, fifty thousand, double indemnity. The death claim should be filed or in process of filing. Buzz me back.”

He replaced the receiver and held onto the phone, his eyes faraway and thoughtful in his narrow face. He picked it up again and asked for the underwriting department.

“We have an auto policy covering the machine of James Thorne of the Soto Company. It may be in the claim department by now—theft. See if we ordered a credit report on James Thorne and let me have a transcript of it. Make it fast, if you can.

HE REPLACED the phone and turned back to the window. His fingers were drumming a tattoo when the phone rang. He swept it up, expecting an answer on one of the two calls.

It wasn't. He had to go right away out to Beverly Hills and look over the scene of a store holdup, the loss covered by the California Casualty.

He looked out at the rain, swore and shrugged his slicker. Going out, he asked his stenographer to take the call from the California Life and put the dope along with the credit report on his desk. He'd look them over in the afternoon when he got back.

The new assignment took a long time. Coville scented an inside job and a possible attempt to defraud the insurance company. He did not get through until six and by then he knew the office to be closed. He was tired and wet and hungry so he headed for his apartment. The phone was ringing.

It was Lieutenant Gray.

“I've been trying to get you, Tom. Justice caught up with Pedro Manelle.”

Coville's voice lifted.

“You got him.”

Gray chuckled.

“Yeah, but not like you think. We found him in the Los Angeles River. Someone shut him up but good.”

Coville stared at the wall, his eyes shadowed.

“Maybe it was his partner who worked with him.”

“Who knows?” Gray snorted. “It might have been someone who had to close his mouth. Pedro was wanted under a couple of aliases for burglary and armed robbery. I guess that's it, Tom. We didn't find the swag.”

It was a fitting end to a disheartening day, Coville thought, as he hung up. He ate wearily and had a cigarette before he went to bed. But for a long time he couldn't sleep.

He stared up into the darkness of the ceiling and thought about Pedro and Jim Thorne and Slauson. Now and then the wind gusted the rain against the windows and Coville thought blasphemously about that. At last he drifted off into a troubled sleep.

He arrived at the office the next morning haggard-eyed and bone-weary. It still rained. The reports he wanted were on his desk, and his stenographer had a cheery smile that had no place in his mood. Coville hung his dripping hat on a hook and slumped down at his desk.

He picked up the credit report on Jim Thorne first and scanned it. Thorne had been an engineer and had held several fine jobs before he joined the Soto Company.

He had also invented two or three electrical gadgets that he had patented and his royalties had been good. With the proceeds he had bought a silent partnership with Slauson in the Soto Company where he now was employed.

Coville dropped the credit report and picked up the note from the California Life and Assurance. James Thorne had made his mother beneficiary of four-fifths of his policy, the remainder payable to the Soto Company.

Coville whistled softly. Under the terms of the policy, Slauson stood to gain some twenty thousand dollars. Coville quickly placed some figures on a pad and added them up. The answer was pretty hefty.

He called Lieutenant Gray. “For the record, what club was Slauson at when the watchman called him?” he asked.

Gray sounded surprised.

“The Latin Quarter.”

Coville thanked him and hung up. He stared at the wet window. The Latin Quarter at Ninth and Vermont wasn't exactly Slauson's type of night spot. He would be more apt to hit the La Conga or the Coconut Grove.

On impulse he grabbed his coat and hat, left the office, drove quickly out Seventh, and turned north. In a short time he stopped before the closed doors of the Latin Quarter.

It was a corner place, garish with heavy red drapes over the windows and red-painted doors. A board held pictures of the performers behind glass.

Coville stared at the photo of Elena, the feature entertainer. Inez Manelle smiled pertly at him, and coyly held a yard or so of cheesecloth over her curves. Coville shoved his hat over his eyes and studied the girl. Things began to click—and fast.

He turned slowly away and slogged back to the car. He lighted a cigarette, studied the glowing end and then flipped it away. He meshed gears and drove back to the office.

Mr. Momsen, the adjuster of claims, listened to him. Mr. Momsen leaned his bulk back in a swivel chair and twirled a watch chain, his cold blue eyes boring into Coville. But that was just Mr. Momsen's manner.

Coville finished and Mr. Momsen continued to twirl the chain.

“It looks that way,” he said with the bass roll of a judge pronouncing sentence. “I'll give you the order to go over the Soto Company books.”

HE CALLED a secretary and rapidly dictated a few lines. He utterly disregarded Coville until the girl brought in the transcription. He signed it with a flourish and passed it to Coville.

“That's highly irregular under the circumstances. I hope that you definitely have a lead and definitely find something. I'm relying on your judgment.”

Coville grinned.

“This will bring things to a head. I'll let you know.”

He returned to his own little office and placed a couple of calls. He told Gray of Elena at the Latin Quarter and the officer chuckled.

“We were just ahead of you, Tom. My boys got that lead. But there's a chance she won't show up tonight. She'll figure her best bet is to get out of L. A., as soon as she can. By the way, she was neither Pedro's wife nor sister. Yeah, playing someone else to keep Pedro in funds.”

“Was that someone else our friend Slauson?” Coville asked.

Gray gasped.

“I don't know yet. But, Tom, you've given me an idea.”

Coville smiled.

“I might give you more. I got an order to go over his books, and I'm on my way out there.”

He broke the connection and called the Soto Company. Slauson sounded surprised.

“But I don't see why. Of course, you can go over the books all you please, but that has nothing to do with the loss. That claim was made legally.”

'''No doubt,” Coville agreed. “But sometimes the executives here want to cover every possible angle. I'll make the examination with the least disturbance to your office.”

Slauson was silent a moment.

“Will it be a general audit?”

“No,” Coville answered. “I want to see the cash and personal accounts, the capital and earned surplus. I'd like to see reserve accounts set up for future expansion or losses.”

Slauson was silent again. After a pause, he let out a gusty breath. “All right, Coville. I'll have those ledgers for you. By the way, I'm having lunch up in town this noon. Suppose I pick you up right after lunch and drive you out here? It'll save your tires and gasoline, and I want to show I'm fully cooperative with the California Casualty.”

Coville frowned, and then surrendered. If his guess was wrong, it would pay him to keep Slauson friendly. He agreed on the time and meeting place and hung up.

He spent the rest of the morning reviewing what he knew, checking and rechecking. It all added up and balanced and he hoped the figures in the Soto Company's books would finish the case.

Slauson met him at the corner of Broadway and Seventh. The big man held the car door for him and grinned widely. He seemed to be in a good humor and Coville felt relief. He wanted no suspicious questioning that he couldn't answer.

Miraculously the rain suddenly stopped and the sun promised to break through the clouds. Everything, Coville thought, was clearing up. Slauson puffed on a big cigar. They rolled out of traffic.

Slauson's bulging blue eyes cut sideways to Coville and he rolled the cigar to one corner of his lips.

“I have an unexpected call out by Ascot Speedway,” he said. “It will only take a short time. You won't mind?”

Coville shook his head.

“No. It will only take a few minutes to check the figures I want.”

Slauson nodded and turned on Main. They rolled through the traffic, neither man saying anything. Coville shifted restlessly. Beneath Slauson's quiet exterior, he detected tension. The big man said little until they were north of the Hall of Justice.

He settled back behind the wheel.

“How is the case going?”

Coville kept his eyes straight ahead.

“We'll wind it up today. There were a few loose ends the murderer overlooked and he made one bad move. That gave us the right tip.”

Slauson grunted.

“The money?”

“The murderer has it—and the securities.”

Slauson turned right on Alhambra and increased the speed of his car. Traffic had thinned considerably, only a few pleasure cars and commercial vehicles rolling ahead of them. They turned north on Soto Street.

AHEAD and to the right loomed the Ascot Speedway. Around them, the regular procession of street corners had disappeared. Lincoln Park was to the left. Slauson abruptly stopped the car, rolling it to one side of the road.

Though Coville had expected it, Slauson moved so quickly he caught Coville flat. The little automatic jabbed into Coville's ribs and Slauson spoke softly.

“So I made a mistake.' I have always hated people who discovered my mistakes.”

Coville raised his eyes from the gun. Slauson's thick lips seemed to hang heavier, and there was a dull, hopeless look in his bulging eyes. Coville managed to keep his voice flat.

“You're taking this way out?”

Slauson nodded. “And you with me. I'll never go to trial and let you hang me. No one can triumph over me.” He sighed, but the gun still remained firm in Coville's ribs. “For my own information, how did you know?”

Coville fished carefully in his pocket and pulled out a cigarette. He lighted it.

“You should have closed the safe door the night you killed Thorne. A cashier wouldn't leave it wide open and work in another room where he couldn't see it. Obviously, someone was there who Thorne knew, who had access to the safe. That was you.”

Slauson considered it a moment. “The burglar still could have done it,” he suggested.

Coville shook his head.

“That won't hold water. Pedro Manelle fought with Thorne. After Thorne was dead, had the safe been closed, Manelle would have had to use soup to blast it. He didn't. The girl angle queered you. You were playing around with Elena, Pedro's girl friend and Pedro was agreeable to earning a few dishonest dollars. He was to rifle the safe. You came down that night, planning to open it for him. Thorne threw all those plans haywire. He caught Pedro sneaking to the office and went after him with a soldering iron.

“You couldn't let Pedro be captured, he knew too much. You shot Thorne, probably with this gun tight here. Ballistics will bring that out.”

Slauson smiled slowly.

“That will concern neither you nor me in a few minutes. But you're right, Coville.”

Coville drew deeply on his cigarette. “Inez Manelle was primed to give you an alibi at the Latin Quarter for the night,” he said. “When we got on Pedro's trail and came close to catching him, you got worried. You couldn't afford to let us grab him. So—exit Pedro Manelle, by this same accurate gun. How did you shut Inez up?”

Slauson shrugged his thick shoulders.

“She's got an apartment in Hollywood. One of the studios is interested in her. My connections.”

Coville raised his brows.

“Simple! One other flaw in your scheme was the amount of the insurance and who benefited. That much money makes a company wary, Slauson. In each case, you benefited indirectly through the Soto Company. Had you wasted too much money on Inez? I don't see why you stuck your neck out.”

Slauson fumbled for the door latch.

“You're uncanny, Mr. Coville. You would have been a great asset to your company. I had spent too much and Thorne was pressing hard for an accounting. The robbery I planned would have fixed things. The murder was something that—well, just happened along. And now we'll close the books, Mr. Coville.”

He started edging out of the seat, the gun level. Coville raised his cigarette and took another long drag. Suddenly his hand dropped. The burning cigarette pressed hard against the pudgy hand that held the gun. Slauson jerked as he felt the pain and Coville, dropping the cigarette, grabbed his wrist, twisting it upward.

The gun exploded. Glass shattered as the slug tore through the windshield. Coville threw himself forward, his fist pounding at the fat face. Slauson was caught in an awkward position. The steering wheel hampered him, but he fought back with a quiet, desperate fury. The gun roared again and Coville felt a slash of fire along his side.

He twisted hard on the man's wrist, pulling the gun up and back. For a long,

eternal moment they sat quiet and straining. The sweat popped out on Slauson's face and Coville felt the muscles of his wrist and arm tremble against the mighty pressure the big man brought against it. The cords stood out in Slauson's neck.

Coville wrenched back further, calling on a deep reserve of strength. The gun fired again, the explosion muffled. Slauson's bulging eyes widened in deep surprise. He stared at Coville, the thick lips slack. Suddenly he went limp and fell out of the car.

Coville stared down at the ground. Slauson's breath blubbered in agonized gasps. His shirt stained an ugly red. Coville sank back in the seat, weak from reaction. When he had pulled himself together, Slauson was dead.

Coville climbed from the car. Far ahead he saw a filling station hidden in the trees. He started walking. A few yards away he halted and looked back. Slauson's body was an ugly heap beside the rich limousine. Coville turned and started again for the telephone in the filling station. He'd call Gray and then the office.

Both of them could close the file on Jim Thorne's murder. Coville felt the splatter of raindrops and looked up. New clouds were coming in over the mountains. He pulled up his coat collar and plodded on. Rain was a fitting climax, after all.