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I spent the rest of the day working on the aggravating case of a woman looking for a husband who did not want to be found. He was easy enough to trace; even his cracked wife could have done it if she’d tried. I was reduced to the role of diplomat for both sides, trying to persuade either party to surrender: that the wife should give up hooking up with her husband again, or that the husband give in and meet with his wife. Eventually the husband wouldn’t see me any more and the wife tearfully accused me of not trying. But she was keeping me on, hoping that tomorrow would be different. I could scarcely contain my anticipation.
It was getting late when the woman finally let me go. I headed back toward my office, noticed the time while still in the taxi, and got out at William’s drug store for an egg-salad sandwich and cup of coffee. Then I walked to my own building, intending to finish up a few things and then go home. It was late enough that the newsstand outside the drug store was starting to display the early editions of some morning papers and the lobby of the Stockton was nearly deserted. I was walking toward the elevators when four members of the bulging-armpit fraternity came out of the shadows toward me.
“You Wells?” the lead gorilla asked. Before I could answer he said, “We’re gonna have a talk, see?”
“Sure,” I said. “Tomorrow.” I turned to walk on when the one with the power of speech jabbed something cold, hard and blunt into the small of my back. “Uh-uh,” he scolded. “Now, see?”
I turned slowly toward him and looked down the barrel of yet another sproutella revolver.
“Now, look, boys,” I said, trying to put a reasonable tone into my voice, “I’ve had a long day and I’m tired. You don’t want to annoy me when I’m tired.”
The big ape hefted his gat a little. “It ain’t filled with lead, mug,” he said. “We’re all going up to your office. Get me?”
“Yeah,” I said. “My office is just where we’re going.”
“Glad to hear it.”
We trooped along to the open elevators. My escort filed into one car behind me. The wide-eyed-if-he’d-had-any operator took us up to my floor.. Then, after getting off and walking down to my door, the one holding the cannon against my spine said, “Unlock the door.”
“Silly me,” I said. “I was going to use a brick.” I got out my keys, turned the right one in the lock, and pushed the door open. The talkative gorilla shoved me into the office with his free paw. All four followed as I rocketed in while they closed the door behind them.
I bounced off my secretary’s desk and managed to get myself upright again while the one with the gat planted himself in front of me. The others took up positions at the other compass points.
“Do come in,” I said coldly.
“Thanks,” the big monkey said unpleasantly. “We will.”
There was a pause as he stood there, projecting a silly grin. I finally said, “For someone who wants to talk, you’re strangely quiet. Who sent you?”
The gorilla slowly pocketed his piece. That got me worried. “Who says anyone sent us?” he asked.
“You boys don’t look like you’ve enough brains among you to come up with the idea on your own,” I answered. “Whatever you came to say, say it and dust.”
The man behind me punched me where my kidneys used to be. It had the intended effect.
“You should be more respectful,” the one in front of me said. “We’re here to do you a good turn. Aren’t we boys? Sure we are. We’ve got some advice for you, gumheel.”
“I’m listening,” I said, standing a few degrees off plumb now.
“Then listen with both ear holes,” the first man commanded. “You lay off Steinauer and everything to do with him. He’s not a baby you want to play with.”
“So who says I’m playing with him?” I asked.
The answer was another kidney punch from the man behind me, and one to my temple from the man on my left. I shook that off as best I could and said, “Could you repeat that? These other boys were making too much noise.”
That got a small nod from the man in front of me. “You already know who. And you know why.”
“No, not why,” I said. “I’m not working for Steinauer. I wouldn’t even know about him if that hophead with a daisy maker hadn’t mistaken my office for his.”
The gorilla looked thoughtful. The effort seemed to give him a slight headache. Then he brightened. “If that’s so,” he asked, “why did Steinauer have your card on him?” By his smug tone he clearly thought he’d caught me. In a way he had. With the clarity of hindsight I realized it had been a bad move to have given my card to a marked man. The fact that my playmates knew about it hinted at an unpleasant fate for Steinauer. And possibly a similar one for myself.
“I went over after the gunsel was taken away, to warn Steinauer he was in danger,” I answered. “I used the card to introduce myself, one professional to another.”
My interrogator chewed that over for a moment, then at a tiny gesture the one on the right spun me toward him and landed one where my stomach used to me. He turned me back to his leader, who said, “That’s for being too conscientious.” I wondered where he had learned such a big word.
I tried to straighten up a little and said, “I had no reason then not to go over there.”
The lead gorilla shrugged and said, “Then you just weren’t thinking.” He paused and seemed to look up at something in the air behind me. “You also went to see that bull, Lang. And then you went with him to Steinauer’s dump again.” His attention shifted back to me. “Why?”
He seemed to know my movements very well. I’m sure the dumb ape didn’t realize it, but he was telling me much more than I was telling him. “Back in 1926 he blackballed me from the Freemasons,” I answered. “We’ve been like second cousins ever since.”
Each of the other three gave me more reasons not to like them. When they had finished, they let me haul myself back to my feet.
“Why?” the first man asked again.
My ribs hurt but I took a deep enough breath for the next speech. “First, the lieutenant needed a statement about that morning.” The man looked slightly unhappy. “Second, he wanted me to identify what was left of little Hershel. Third, there’s going to be an inquest into that sprouting and I’ll be dragged in for that, too. Now, I’ll tell you just once more: I’m not working for Steinauer and I’m not working with the police. I’m just caught in the crossfire and there’s not one goddamned thing I can do about it.”
The first man gave that some hard thought. “Oke,” he finally said, “you go to that hearing if you have to, but besides that you keep your nose clean. And here’s why...” Then all four of them gave me a good working over with both hands and feet. They were professionals. They did nothing that did any permanent damage. They beat and kicked me only enough to get their point across and leave no doubt as to their sincerity. It took less than five minutes. Then they let themselves out while I lay curled up on the carpet, still conscious and wondering why I didn’t have sense enough to black out. After a few moments of this I pulled myself to my feet and shuffled into the inner office where I put myself into the chair behind my desk and got the bottle of scotch out of its drawer along with a glass. I unscrewed the cap, poured a shot or three, and tried to anesthetize myself.
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