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I went into the inner office, got my hat and tugged it down on my skull. I went back out, opened one of the drawers of my secretary’s desk and took out a small sign, then went out into the hallway and locked the door behind me. I stuck the sign into the gap in the frame that held the pebbled glass in the upper panel of the door and adjusted the pasteboard hands on the clock face to show whoever might have cared that I’d be back in ten minutes. I started off down the hallway but turned back to move the minute hand further to give myself half an hour. I then walked to the elevators, rode one down to the ground floor and gave a nod to the girl behind the cigar counter as I went out through the lobby. The McBride Building stood on the north side of the street, a little to the west of the Stockton. It was newer than the Stockton, built in the 1940s. The generational lag of the Land of the Dead meant that it looked like it had been built sometime during the Great War. The Stockton itself looked like it had been built around 1890 even though the cornerstone said 1923. I crossed in the middle of the street, dodging traffic, and a demon opened the brass-trimmed plate-glass doors as I approached. Hired by the management to give people the impression that their tenants should be taken very seriously, the doorman’s presence smelled to me of dyeing a rabbit’s skin and calling it mink. Like the Stockton, the McBride had a cigar counter; only here the 10˘ cigars went for a quarter and the Ridge Street Journal was used as a screen for the tabloids and racing forms—a nice, tidy metaphor for class. Behind the counter a bored girl watched an alleged customer play the dice game. He was failing spectacularly at not looking like the building’s detective. He looked too much like a gum heel in his poorly-cut suit and the battered hat pushed back on his head to fool anyone except maybe himself and almost certainly his employers. The woman herself wore a pink dress with randomly-placed white spots of varying sizes and large white buttons down the back and large lace bows at the shoulders. The little-girl look was spoiled by the platinum-blond wig on her skull and the fat, black cigarette dangling from her molars. The faux hair shone like polished silver and was shaped into waves seemingly rigid enough for a washboard.
I went toward the bank of elevators and studied the directory. It was the usual mix of small-time lawyers, investment brokers, theatrical agents, and other professions of similar borderline legality up to and including private detectives. Just as the little gunman had said, Steinauer—first name Richard—occupied suite 704. There was nothing else on the directory about him which meant, I supposed, that if you had to ask what he did then you probably didn’t need his services. I joined the small group of people going into the one elevator car stopped at the ground floor. When the demon standing watch over the bank of elevators saw that no more customers were coming his way, he rapidly thumbed his clicker to tell the human operator to take the car up. I got out on the seventh floor, found suite 704, and stopped to examine the small, engraved brass plate fixed to the wall to the right of the door. Richard Steinauer, it read, Numismatist. I reached up with one hand and scratched near my left ear hole. A funny sort to be mixed up with a gambler, I thought, but maybe the gunsel’s Mr. Maxwell was only a very dissatisfied customer who had bought what he thought were uncleaned Roman coins which had turned out to be subway tokens.
Feeling pleased with this private smart-aleck crack, I turned the well-polished brass knob and pushed open the door. The room beyond was quite a nifty spread. A deep, burgundy carpet reached up to give my ankles a gently caress as I walked into the room. The walls were paneled in dark wood halfway up and then papered in red and gold stripes the rest of the way to the moulded plaster ceiling. I couldn’t decide if the overall effect was that of a funeral parlor or a whorehouse. Tall glass display cases lined three of the walls and near the fourth, to the right as I entered, sprawled a mahogany desk not quite large enough to play football on. It was cluttered with a few books, a small stack of carelessly-piled trays of coins apparently taken from one or more of the display cases, a ledger of some kind, a Swedish-style telephone, and a collection of the usual junk found on desks. Beyond this was a door marked ‘Private’ while opposite the entrance was another door with nothing at all to say for itself. Sitting behind the desk was a broad-shouldered man dressed in gray tweeds with suede elbow patches. He gave off the aura of a man who frequently smiled but never with his eyes (even when he’d had them). A swell nest to run a nice, cozy racket from, was the thought that first entered my mind. Easy, Frankie, said a second thought. You’re here to be a good neighbor. The first thought replied with a sharp snort. As usual, it had the last word.
The man rose from behind the desk as I entered and came around it toward me with his right hand extended and a big, invisible smile on his fossilized face. I took my hat off with my left hand while he grabbed my right and brought up his own left to give me a two-fisted shake. “Hello! Hello, there,” he said in a hearty, booming voice that was much quieter than it had any right to be. “It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he continued with too much sincerity to be believed. “My name is Richard Steinauer. How may I help you today?”
“Actually, I came over to help you, Mr. Steinauer,” I said. “In an informal way, that is.” I took my wallet out of my breast pocket and fished out a card to give him. He looked it over and the eyebrows he didn’t any more have crawled upwards in puzzlement. “As you can see, my suite number is also 704. Most days that would just be a very uninteresting coincidence. This one is different.”
Steinauer absently put my card into one pocket of his suit coat, then took out a pack of cigarettes and a butane lighter with from another. “You interest me, Mr. Wells. Informally, of course,” he said in a careless tone as he shook a butt loose and set it between his jaws. “What is this help you mentioned? And what does it have to do with our shared suite number?” When the cigarette tip was glowing orange he put the lighter and coffin nails back into their home pocket.
I sent him a ‘smile’ no better than a mild grimace. “A small-time, pulp-magazine hood came into my office a few minutes ago saying he was making a delivery. He addressed me by your name and showed me a piece of artillery as long as your forearm.” Steinauer had been reaching up with one hand as if to take the cigarette from his mouth. That hand was slowly lowered as I went on. “He implied he was acting on behalf of someone named Maxwell.” The numismatist’s calcified face might have gotten even chalkier. “Obviously, he thought he was in this building. I thought you should know.”
The hand moved up again and finally took a hold of the butt. Steinauer took the cigarette from his mouth and looked at its ashy tip much too casually. “And what happened to this visitor of yours? You, obviously,” the emphasis he gave that word came off a little snide, “came to no harm.”
“I persuaded him to give up his piece,” I said with the impression of a leer, “and then some nice men in blue invited him over to play twenty questions.”
Steinauer showed me the ghost of a tight smile. I didn’t care for the style or the fit. “An interesting story, Mr. Wells,” he said. “I appreciate your telling me this.” He took a puff and then moved closer to his desk to give the butt a sharp flick over the brass ashtray sitting on one corner. “But I wonder if you’re missing the obvious. Isn’t it possible that this fellow was being disingenuous?” He tried on the smile again. He must have realized himself it was a poor fit because he quickly took it off. “Perhaps you were his target. I imagine your line of work can be somewhat more dangerous than mine.”
“And you think he was trying to throw me off the scent?” I shook my head. “Sorry. Doesn’t click. That’s not the way these birds operate. If they come to pop you, they want you to know why you’re getting the juice. They save the mystification for the bulls.”
He put the smile on again. It didn’t look any better on him that it had before. “You may be right,” he said, “but I think it scarcely matters now. If the police have this man, then he’s no longer a danger...to either of us.” He stubbed out the cigarette with somewhat more force than was strictly necessary.
“You’re forgetting the gunsel’s Mr. Maxwell,” I said, ignoring the implied brush off.
“Maxwell, you say?” he asked, trying to be disingenuous himself.
I shrugged. “I didn’t really come here for information,” I lied. “You’re business with Diamond is your own.” Steinauer drew himself up. He had another try at the smile, but it was looking a little threadbare now. “Good luck ducking whatever trouble you’re in.” I put my hat back on, then turned and walked out before the coin dealer could find anything to say to that.
I went down the hallway and turned the corner toward the elevators. There was a woman standing near their closed doors wearing a dark-blue, knee-length dress suit with matching gloves and hat with a little bit of black mesh down over her eye sockets. She stood in a fidgety posture that suggested she was waiting for a car to arrive. Under her curious stare I put my back to the corner I’d just come around and peeped toward Steinauer’s door. I heard the doors of one elevator shaft open behind me. I glanced over and saw the woman standing partway into the car that had just arrived, one hand resting on the frame and turning her quizzical eye sockets toward me. I tipped my hat at her and she shook her head in a way that suggested she thought I was daffy and stepped fully into the car. Its doors closed and I heard it rattle its way to some other floor. My attention was already focused again in the direction of the numismatist’s door. After about fifteen minutes I decided he really wasn’t going to come boiling out any time soon and went over to the elevators to punch the call button. A car arrived eventually and I rode it back down to the ground floor. I walked out of the building past the cigar counter. The dick in the cheap suit was gone while Platinum Wig was selling a magazine to some specimen wearing a baseball cap backwards. Back out on the sidewalk I paused and turned to look up at the McBride. I scratched near my left ear hole again, shrugged, and crossed the street back to my own building.
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