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“I’ve got a package for you from Mr. Maxwell.”
I had been searching through the clutter on the desk in the outer office, looking for a file that should have been on my own desk but wasn’t. Usually there was no clutter and files were where they were supposed to be but when Jen went on vacation things got lost somehow. My back was to the outer door when I heard it open and the quiet, almost girlish voice spoke. The words themselves were reasonably innocent. The way they were said was not. I turned and saw a man standing in the doorway. He was on the small side, barely five feet tall. He wore a battered and stained dark-green fedora, pulled low over his eye sockets, and a once-sharp gray pinstripe suit showing obvious signs of wear and mending with plenty of give around the left armpit for a shoulder holster. The little man stepped into the room and pushed the door closed with one scuffed and scratched wing-tipped shoe while the dark, empty pits where eyes had once been stayed fixed on me. My own gaze was drawn to the large sproutella pistol he held in one skeletal hand, so small and delicate it made the weapon appear enormous.
“Do I have to sign for it?” I asked a distracted tone.
“No smart talk, Steinauer!” the little man yipped, still in a low voice. He came closer, hefting the muzzle higher. “Mr. Maxwell doesn’t like double-crossers, damn me to hell if he don’t!”
“You’re halfway there right now, pipsqueak,” I said with a laugh that didn’t convey amusement.
“God damn you!” the little man hissed in barely-suppressed rage, coming closer. He jammed the muzzle of his gun, hard, into my ribs. I don’t think he liked being laughed at. “You’re gonna scream and scream and scream and I’ll watch you sprout and blubber for help and I’ll laugh myself hoarse all the while!” I had the impression that his face—if he had one of flesh—would have been flushed with a thin film of perspiration. The eyes he didn’t have showed the ghosts of unnaturally small pupils.
I looked down at the heater pressed tight against my chest. I felt a lot better for seeing that. Sure, he couldn’t miss from that distance; but neither could I. “The laugh’s on you, junior,” I said and brought my left up in a swipe that knocked the arm holding the gat aside while I nailed its owner on the button with my right. The gunsel staggered back and I followed with a couple of lefts to the side of his skull and then brought my right up again under his jaw. His fingers went loose on the butt of the gun which I scooped up before it fell to the floor. I made a fist around the hammer and trigger guard and struck the dazed little man across the temple with the barrel. I drew back for a second blow but it wasn’t needed. The gunman’s knees bent in different directions and he crumpled to the floor. He didn’t stir. I stepped on one outstretched hand; gently at first, then harder. I gave him a good kick in the ribs just to be certain he was really out of it. Satisfied at last, I tucked his daisy maker into my pants’ waist—after slipping the safety on—and went into the inner office to get a pair of handcuffs, one with a longer-than-usual chain.
I went back out to the pile of cloth and bones near the outer door and snapped one of the bracelets on the unconscious gunman. I hauled him into one of the wooden chairs customers could wait in if they wanted, pulled his arms behind the back of the chair, threaded the chain through the slats, and cuffed the other wrist. Not exactly escape-proof but it would do. I phoned downtown and then waited the twenty minutes it took for the regular gumheels to show up. After nearly fifteen, the movement of one foot and the slight scrape of chain against wood told me that my sparring partner had come to and now was shamming being unconscious.
I gave the foot that had twitched a hard kick. “I know you’re awake, pipsqueak,” I said harshly.
The little man raised his head, saw his own piece in my hand, looked me in the face and said accusingly, “You pistol-whipped me.” He sounded indignant, as if he felt he hadn’t been treated fairly. I laughed. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, even to my ear holes. “You pistol-whipped me!” he accused again, louder, as if he thought I hadn’t heard the first time.
“Just one little, loving tap,” I said. “You went down easy, kid.” I shook my head in mock disappointment. “Just another five-and-dime punk who can dish it out but can’t take it.”
“My head hurts,” he said sulkily. I shrugged and set a careless leer in front of my skull. “You’ll be sorry,” he pouted. “Just you wait and see,” he said when I didn’t bust out crying for shame. “You think Mr. Maxwell wasn’t happy with you before, Steinauer? You just wait until he hears about this.”
“You wait until a judge hears about this.” I tapped the gat’s barrel with my left forefinger. “You can get 75 to 200 just for packing one of these babies.”
The little man made an anatomically improbable suggestion. I laughed again and he glared at the floor for the next few minutes. The floor, a natural coward, kept quiet for fear of provoking harsher treatment. Eventually there was a sharp rap at the outer door. I opened it and three cops drifted in. Two were uniformed bulls I didn’t know. The third was Lieutenant Tom Lang, a plain-clothes detective from Sprouting (the Land of the Dead’s version of a homicide department). The cannon the Littlest Cæsar had been carrying made this Tom’s party.
“’lo, snoop,” Tom said, giving my prisoner a careless-seeming glance. “How’s tricks?”
“Swell,” I answered. “It’s getting so I don’t even have to send out for my meat any more. It walks in off the street and begs to be put in the icebox.”
“It pays to advertise,” Tom said with a short, sharp chuckle. “So who is this runt?”
“Search me,” I said. “He just walked in, said he had a package for me, and tickled my ribs with this.” I handed Tom the gunsel’s rod, butt first. “I didn’t have too much trouble taking it away from him.” An understatement if ever there was one.
“He pistol-whipped me!” the little man squeaked. Tom made like he hadn’t heard but, at a small gesture only someone who knew him would notice, one of the uniformed cops gave the punk a sock that nearly spun his skull around on its pin. I might have tsk-ed in disapproval if I’d had a tongue, and if I had actually disapproved.
“He also said the package came from a Mr. Maxwell,” I continued as though that little display of police brutality hadn’t happened, “and he twice called me Steinauer.”
Tom scratched his jaw. “Could be Clarence Maxwell, I suppose.” That would be ‘Diamond’ Maxwell, a big-time gambling racketeer who a succession district attorneys had never managed to indict. Grand juries somehow never seemed able to get enough evidence to satisfy them and star witnesses had the habit of suddenly not remembering anything when they reached the stand—when they reached it at all.
“Maybe,” I said, “but this punk isn’t the usual sort he hires.” I shrugged. “Search me if that makes it more or less likely that Diamond sent him. I’m more curious about who his Steinauer is.”
“Like you don’t know your own name,” the gunsel said in a mumbled sneer.
I held up my hand when the uniformed cop made to land another one on the little man. He lowered his fist even though want I wanted didn’t really carry much weight with him. He subsided only because Tom had backed me up with a small nod. “What makes you think I’m your Steinauer?” I asked the gunsel. “I’ve never seen you before, and I’d take bets that you’ve never seen me.”
“I’m not dumb,” the little gunman said despite the evidence to the contrary. “Your office is in suite 704 in the McBride building. This is 704.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but in the Stockton building. The McBride is across the street.” I went over to the door to the hall and opened it far enough so the little man could clearly see the black-edged gilt lettering painted on the pebbled glass pane: Franklin Wells / Private Investigations / Civil—Criminal—Missing Persons. The gunsel should have seen it on his way in. Apparently he hadn’t. Now he stared blankly at the words for a second or two and then seemed to shrink even smaller as he finally realized his mistake. “If you’re not dumb,” I said as I closed the door again, “then I don’t know who would be.”
“Steinauer isn’t a name I’m familiar with,” Tom said, “but if there’s any connection with Clarence Maxwell there might be something on him in the files. Or he might have a record all his own.”
“Yeah, maybe,” I said. “But whoever Steinauer is, this mug,” I jerked my thumb at the gunsel, “is keeping me from my work.” That was as close as I would ever come to telling Tom to breeze.
He nodded, getting the message and not seeming to mind it very much. “I expect you want your cuffs back,” he said, taking a pair of his own out of his pocket.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling out my keys and, finding the right one, I took my bracelets off the little man after the cop with the steamroller fists hauled him out of the chair. Tom snapped his own cuffs on the punk.
“I might want you to come downtown later, Frankie,” Tom said, “but we’ll probably get all we need out of this runt.” He pocketed the sproutella gun. “Let me know what you find out anything about Steinauer.” He me knew well enough to know I would be doing some digging on my own.
“Sure,” I said. “See you in a while, Tom.”
He nodded again. At another slight gesture, one of the uniformed cops opened the door and they hauled the gunsel out of the office. Tom followed and closed the door behind him.
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