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The rest of the evening and the next day went by without any noise about the Steinauer business so far as I knew. I took care of my own cases but half expected Tom or maybe even Steinauer himself to come calling. I told Tom the truth when I said I wasn’t interested in taking on the case with him, but I was hoping somewhat that Steinauer would start thinking after he heard about the gunsel and decide to open up. But he didn’t. Not to me, anyway.
But early on the morning of the second day after Nussbaum’s visit, before I had even left my apartment, Tom paid me a call. He kept his hat on when I opened the door. “I need you to come with me,” he said by way of greeting.
“Trouble?” I asked. Tom nodded. “Am I in it?” He shook his head. “Then you won’t mind if I clean up breakfast.” That one wasn’t a question. Tom shrugged and leaned against the door frame.
I made quick work of the cleaning up, grabbed my hat and coat, and Tom and I were off. “What’s stirring?” I asked as we rode down in the elevator.
“That case you won’t work on,” he said. “I want you to identify someone.”
“I’m a big boy,” I said. “I could have gotten downtown all on my lonesome.”
“Don’t ride me today,” Tom said quietly. “I’m not feeling playful.”
“Prickly,” I observed and Tom stiffened. “So who am I supposed to identify and why?”
Tom looked at me a moment. The nothing in his eye sockets seemed emptier than usual. “You’ll see why,” he finally said. “As for who...you’re a big boy. You’ll figure it out.”
Since he didn’t seem in the mood for idle chatter, either, I kept my jaw wired for most of the trip. I was surprised when he drove us in the direction of my office. I was less surprised when he pulled up in front of the McBride building and stopped the car. “Steinauer?” I asked when Tom had shut off the motor. He just looked at me again, then got out of the car. I followed and together we rode up to the 7th floor. We went down the hall and I saw Steinauer’s door with a uniformed cop stationed outside holding back a small crowd. We shouldered our way through the rubber-necks and the cop let us through the door. We both kept our hats on.
The front room of the suite looked much like it had been two days previously. The main difference being that Steinauer’s big desk looked like it had been searched pretty thoroughly and with a destructive impulse most cops usually manage to keep in check. Books had been ripped apart, some of the knick-knacks had been broken, and locked drawers had been roughly forced open. Other than the desk, nothing else in the room seemed to have been disturbed. The unmarked door, which had been closed the other day, was now wide open. “Through here,” Tom said, gesturing toward the open door.
We went through, Tom following me. Two things got my attention right away: the open vault and the shrub on the floor. “Judas!” I swore, glancing into the vault. It was mostly empty; only a couple of scraps of paper and part of a torn envelope were visible on the floor inside. I knelt down beside the sprouted soul and pushed aside the leaves and blossoms obscuring the face. “It’s the gunsel!” I exclaimed in surprise, having expected Steinauer. “It’s Nussbaum.”
“You sure?” Tom asked.
“Of course I’m sure,” I said in an annoyed growl, standing up again. “You don’t forget a guy who threatens to sprout you.”
Tom nodded. “Thanks.” He pushed his hat back a little to give his forehead a rub. “This stinks,” he declared and jammed his fists in his pockets.
“What is he doing here?” I gestured at the sprouted gunsel. “I thought you had him on ice.”
“Last night someone coughed up the berries to spring him. I don’t know who,” he said before I could ask. “It was a woman, someone who wasn’t dressed much like she could have that much kale herself. According to the clerk who dealt with her, that is.” Tom paused. “In fact, there aren’t that many people in the Land of the Dead who could raise that much in cash. Bail on attempted sprouting ain’t exactly chicken feed. And there are even fewer people with the motive to bail out human sewage like Nussbaum.”
“Careful,” I said with a savage ‘grin’. “He just might be listening.” Tom glared and I kept talking. “I think you’re right, of course. Only one person fits both bills, and that’s his Mr. Maxwell.” I looked down on the gunsel. “What do you say, Hershel? Did Diamond make your garden grow?” The gunsel didn’t say a word. “Fine time to take the Fifth,” I grunted.
“You know, Steinauer himself could have planted this punk’s bulb,” Tom countered. “He might consider it appropriate payback. And there’s a lot of money to be made in rare coins.”
“Most of which would be plowed right back into inventory,” I pointed out, “like in any other business. That collection in the other room looks like it’s intact. The vault’s empty, sure, but we don’t know what...if anything...was in it. Steinauer is supposed to be sharp. Would he hock his merchandise—assuming he could in a short time—just to pop the errand boy?”
“Always supposing Steinauer is as sharp as you say he is,” Tom said and then growled deep in his non-existent throat. “But I suppose you’re right in saying he couldn’t have raised all that cash on rare coins, not that quick.” He pulled his hat off his skull, ran the other hand over the dome, then jammed the hat back down. “One thing you don’t know yet is that Steinauer seems to have taken a powder. The neighbors say he didn’t open up shop yesterday, and he’s not at his house. We’re still checking the hotels, but nothing says he has to register under his right name.”
“He could have taken off after I left him,” I allowed. “He seemed pretty rattled when I mentioned Diamond to him. Who found the gunsel?”
“Cleaning staff,” Tom answered. “Most of the building shuts down by six or seven in the evening. There’s a dancing school and a couple other outfits that keep going longer. It takes time to do a building this size. They start on the ground floor around 10 PM. It was between four and four-thirty this morning when they got up here.”
“That was almost four hours ago. Why the hold-up getting me down here?”
“You’re not on this case,” Tom reminded me. “I had no reason to pry you out of your warm, soft bed so early.”
“Is that a dig?”
“It’s a fact,” he said with a shrug. “There was simply no reason to bring you down here until we’d given the place a good going over. Not that it’s done us much good,” he said grumpily. “If there’s one thing I miss about being alive, it’s fingerprints. Dental impressions are no damn good unless the perp decides to gnaw on something.” I had to chuckle at that image. “I want you to look at something else,” he said, walking over to the open vault door. “Take a look at the locking mechanism.” He pointed.
I looked. It was an old-fashioned door, even for when the McBride was built. The lock used a key rather than tumblers, but the bolts were thick, solid rods of steel while the door and frame were cast iron. The keyhole was large and set in an elaborately engraved brass plate. There were nicks and scratches on it but most were old enough their patina made them nearly invisible. None suggested the lock had ever been picked. Tom would have seen all that so I didn’t bother telling him what I had observed. I only said, “Looks like whoever opened the door last used the key to do it.”
“Sure,” Tom said. “Now come take a look at this.” He led me back into the front room and around behind the desk. “Nobody used a key on those drawers, did they?”
I bent to finger the splintered wood around the locks of the jimmied drawers. “No,” I agreed. “Looks like it was done by someone in a big hurry, or someone who didn’t care about finesse.” I straightened up and jerked one thumb at the door marked ‘Private’. “What’s back there?” I asked.
“A bigger mess,” Tom said. “Looks like Steinauer’s private office to me, just like you’d expect. You saw the hardware in the room Nussbaum is in. Steinauer must have used that room for cleaning and whatnot, aside from whatever the vault was used for.” He paused. “Maybe you’ll say I’m crazy, but I think whoever trashed the place was interested in Steinauer personally.”
“No, not even though I think it,” I said. “Assuming the vault hasn’t been standing open for years, and assuming it was opened in roughly the same time frame as the refinishing,” I pointed at the ruined desk, “then maybe we’re looking at the work of two people, or two sets of people. Someone with a key to the vault cleaned that out very neatly. Someone without keys searched the desk.” I paused to open the private door and stuck my head through. “And the other desk and file cabinets.” I closed the door again. “What about the lock on the outer door?” I asked. “I didn’t notice when we came in.”
“Expertly picked,” Tom answered. “Whoever it was was willing to be careful while in the hallway.”
“The display cases are intact,” I mused aloud after digesting that, “and they’re still full of coins and banknotes and whatnot.” I stopped to think a little. “The really valuable stuff might have been kept in the vault, but Steinauer wasn’t keeping lead quarters out here, either.” I paused again. “Steinauer could have screwed after I let him know Diamond, or whoever, had tried to sprout him and have taken his most important inventory with him. And then someone else came along and trashed the dump looking for...something. They didn’t touch the coins. They might have been after records or something more personal or something incriminating that Steinauer kept or was supposed to have kept here. Is that more or less what you were thinking?”
“Except for that part about Steinauer himself taking stuff out of the vault,” Tom admitted. “If he did that, he might have taken whatever it was these other parties were after. If there were other parties. It all makes a kind of sense but it doesn’t help any—not when we don’t know what the hell these mugs might have been looking for or why.”
“The reason why the gunsel was sprouted is obvious enough,” I said. “He failed to make the hit and he could talk.”
“He never did,” Tom said.
“But his pals couldn’t depend on that,” I said and Tom nodded slightly, “and certainly not his employer—Diamond or whoever. But why sprout...or dump...him here?”
“It ties into Steinauer,” Tom observed. “Maybe Nussbaum’s here to send him a message. He was discovered too late for the early editions but the news should have hit the streets by now. Steinauer’s bound to learn of it sooner or later.”
“What message, exactly?” I asked.
“Search me,” Tom admitted with a shrug. “But they left Nussbaum where he was certain to be found and quick. They may have assumed that Steinauer would be the one to discover him.”
“Makes sense,” I said, “except you still have no real motive for any of it. Why the gunsel was sent after Steinauer, why anyone would want to search this suite, or why any ‘message’ should be sent to Steinauer.” I ticked the items off on my fingers. “Do you wonder why I prefer private sleuthing?”
Tom’s chuckle had a bitter tone. “No. But some of us don’t have the choice.” He paused. “Not to imply that I don’t know my own business, but where would you go next if this mess were in your lap?”
I shrugged. “Apart from trying to trace Steinauer? Chercher la femme. She’s your only link between the gunsel and whoever sprouted him.”
“I already thought of that. She might have a record, especially if she’s connected with Diamond Maxwell. I’ve got the people who saw her last night going over the mug books right now. Is that your only idea?” Tom asked.
“You could bring Diamond in for questioning,” I suggested with a leer. “Give him the Perry Mason treatment and I’m sure he’ll break down.”
“Funny man,” Tom grumbled. “Oke, snoop, make tracks. I’m done with you, for now.”
I nodded. “See you at the inquest,” I said and went on my way.
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