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Maxwell’s gambling dive was about about four miles outside the city limits and about another two miles off the main highway to Rubacava. It used to be a hotel back before the internal combustion engine came to the Land of the Dead; in those days the land routes to the Ninth Underworld were thick with inns, hotels, hostels, and all the other words that mean a place to flop for the night. There was a big die-off among those joints after the automobile became common. Most by now had been torn down or converted to other uses. Maxwell’s dump was a large, rambling house that used to be an inn. It was L shaped, two-and-a-half stories high with a deep, columned porch running the whole lengths of the inside angle. It was painted white and looked something like two plantation houses jammed together at 90°. Between the two wings of the house was a simple grass lawn and stretching beyond that a field of crushed rock for parking. Daylight was long gone but lights inside and outside lit the place up as if it were noon.
Back in the horse-and-buggy days the house was right on the highway, but that got straighter to suit the automobile and now it was connected to the modern highway by a narrow strip of blacktop. I made the hackie pull his machine off the road just short of the parking lot told him to wait. I walked the rest of the way to the house. When I reached the lawn I could hear the buzz of the suckers inside. The entrance was in the join between the two wings. I went up the steps and crossed the porch. The double doors were Dutch and the top halves were wide open. No one was visible inside until I reached for one latch and a big bruiser stepped suddenly into view—not one of the number who visited me earlier—and gave me the up and down. He said he didn’t know me and demanded my name. I gave my right one and he looked off to his left. What he saw must have satisfied him because he opened the door and let me in. Then he quickly and efficiently patted me down before I could jump at the suddenness of it. That satisfied him even more and he welcomed me in a tone that said he thought I was getting into a tough spot. Then he drifted off to perch on a tall stool set just to the left of the door. To the right was the hat check room. In there with the girl was another bruiser on another stool and a phone fixed to the wall near his head. I gave my hat to the girl and took stock of the foyer I was in.
It didn’t look much different from what a hotel foyer ought to look like if it had been 175 years ago: rose-patterned wallpaper, darkly varnished wood trim, potted ferns and high-backed, thinly cushioned chairs suitable for squirming on long Sunday afternoons. At the far end two stair cases went up to the second floor, one to each wing. In the shadows underneath a closed door could be made out. A little to the front of the ends of each stair case were broad arches leading into the main rooms on the ground floor. Through the left-hand arch was the casino. Through the right-hand one was a lounge bar and dance floor.
I went into the lounge. The bar was just left of the entrance. At the far end of the room was the band. They were just taking up their positions as I walked in. Their instruments were already laid out and the evening was hardly young, so they must have been on a break. They launched into a Paul Whiteman number that was too big for their handful. Three couples got up from among the tables that crowded the room to self-consciously wrestle around the small dance floor in front of the band. I took a table that let me see both the entrance to the lounge and the closed door in the wall behind the band. A waiter complete with small towel draped over one forearm came over and I ordered a highball. He brought it somewhat less than a year later. I nursed it while I waited, careful to make the drink last. I already had most of a bottle of scotch and a snifter of brandy in me and I was tight enough without letting myself get poisoned.
For nearly an hour I was left alone. I looked idly around and from time to time took a small mouthful of the highball just to let anyone who might be interested know that I wasn’t completely inert. It got interesting, the nothing that was happening. I wondered whether the hackie was waiting like I told him to. I wondered what Diamond was up to. I couldn’t doubt that he was here somewhere and that he knew I was, too. I figured he was trying to be psychological, leaving me alone to see if I’d get nervous and do something stupid. As if being in his sin den all on my lonesome wasn’t stupid enough. I certainly wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of blinking first. I intended to sit on my tail until closing time, if it came to that. They’d at least have to try throwing me out if they wanted to lock up.
Of course it didn’t come to that. Before the hour was up a man in a monkey suit came over to me and suggested I go to the casino. I said that was an excellent idea, and why didn’t I think of that for myself, and on which crooked game did he suggest I throw my money away? The speech didn’t throw him like I thought it might. Maybe he was working from a script my smart mouth wasn’t gumming up too badly. He suggested blackjack. He said the casino was this way, and helpfully pointed in the right direction. I thanked him for saving me the trouble of buying a map and compass and went to the casino, highball in hand, with the flunky helpfully trailing behind to make sure I didn’t wind up somehow in darkest Africa instead.
I went to the blackjack table and wasn’t very surprised or alarmed to find that the only empty seat was next to the leader of the face-rearranging crew that had come to my office earlier in the evening. He shoved a small pile of chips in front of me. “I kept watch on them for you,” he said.
“Thanks,” I said. “It completely slipped my mind I had any.”
The big man seemed to nod his head slightly and I tossed a chip in and the dealer dealt each of the players two cards. I lifted up mine enough to see what they were. Two aces: a heart and a club. “Hit me,” I said in my turn and the gorilla next to me projected a grin. The dealer gave me a six of spades. I decided to stand. When everyone had refused more cards they all got turned over. I had the highest hand, but there was a murmur of consternation from everyone—apart from the dealer and my neighbor—when the former turned over an ace of clubs of his own. It gave the goon his pretext. “I think you’d better come with me,” he growled, getting to his feet and pulling me up by one lapel.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m sure your boss wants to see me right away.”
“Mr. Maxwell doesn’t like cheaters in his joint,” the big man said, more loudly than necessary as he drove me toward the casino entrance.
“Uh, huh,” I said and laid one finger alongside my nose hole. He gave me a shove in the back that wasn’t quite hard enough to knock me down.
We crossed the foyer to the staircase nearest the lounge entrance and he gave me a nudge that told me to go up. The stairs stopped at one end of a long hallway which looked no different than if the place had still been a hotel. When he got to the other end my companion knocked on a door in a particular way—three quick raps and two slower. The door was wood but the sound wasn’t exactly like that of bone on wood. The door was opened from the inside and I was pushed through.
“Here he is, boss,” the gorilla said. Another man shut the door behind us. I took a glance and saw that I had been right: the back of the door was covered by a sheet of thick steel. The room I found myself in was large enough to have been a pair of rooms originally before its conversion into a plush office. Several scattered table and floor lamps filled the space with a soft, twilight glow. The windows were covered by heavy, red drapes. The carpet could have been red, or could have been brown, and was nearly deep enough to require snow shoes to cross it. There were darkly-varnished bookcases full of leather-bound books all with uncreased spines. There were upholstered chairs scattered here and there and a couple of sofas, a small bar in one corner, and a drinks trolley near the sofas. In the middle of it all sprawled a massive desk. Behind this a man in a sharply-cut, dark-green pinstripe suit sat in throne-like leather chair. A crimson cravat spilled from under his jaw down the front of whatever shirt he wore. A stick pin with a large emerald set in the end pierced the cravat just above where a living man’s heart would have been. Another crimson triangle jutted from his breast pocket. The majority of this expensive tailoring was obscured by the equally expensive woman who sat in the man’s lap. Even seated she appeared tall. She wore a form-fitting, blood-red sequined sheath with sleeves that disappeared under long white gloves. At first her face was turned away from me and a long, curly, strawberry-blond wig obscured her skull as she kept her gaze on the man in whose lap she sat.
The man’s empty eye sockets bored into me for a few seconds, then he told the other two men to drift. When they went, he told me to sit. I sat in the chair set in front of the desk. Then he told the woman she’d better go, too. She looked at me for the first time. I started, probably visibly, to find myself looking at an apparently flesh-and-blood woman. Her eyes were blue but vacant and surrounded by long, stiff lashes; her pink cheeks were rouged and her full lips were painted a glistening red. “Oke, Maxie,” she said in a low, throaty purr in response to the man’s dismissal. Her lips parted as she spoke but they didn’t otherwise move to shape the words. I wondered how far the life-like disguise went and with how much detail. She stood and got a pat on the rump as she went. The dress, I saw as she came around the desk, went down to her ankles. It tapered so much at the hem that it barely permitted walking. This, and the four-inch heels she wore, gave her a mincing step rather like the effect of Chink foot binding. She left the room by a door at the far end of the room. The man stared after her with obvious lust.
When the door closed behind the woman, the man looked at me again and said, “I don’t think we need bother introducing ourselves to each other, do we Mr. Wells?”
“Indeed we do not...Maxie,” I needled Diamond.
He projected an angry frown. “I would be very careful were I you, Mr. Wells,” he said in what no doubt was meant to be a menacing tone. “Your situation is precarious enough without getting smart with me.”
I wondered if he took English lessons from Oscar and if the Irishman offered refunds. “No doubt you would be careful,” I answered. “That was a neat trick at the blackjack table...though I have to wonder why you bothered.”
“Discretion is a virtue that has served me well,” he said archly, “a virtue you would have done well to have practiced yourself.”
“Don’t preach to me about virtue,” I said in as hard a tone as I could. “Was that display,” I nodded to the door the woman had gone through, “supposed to convince me of your saintliness?”
I miscalculated. He didn’t get angry. Instead he looked amused. “Come now, Mr. Wells,” he said with a light chuckle. “We’re both more alike than you know. We both fought in the Great War. We both saw how cheap, meaningless, and morally arbitrary life is.”
“Part of that’s probably true,” I said. “Maybe we were both in the war. But I learned a very different lesson. Maybe morality is arbitrary—I won’t argue the point with you one way or the other—but it’s the only thing that keeps the worlds from flying into small, jagged pieces.”
Diamond was quiet for a moment. Then he shook his head, projecting an aura of sadness like a man disappointed in his first-born son. “A pretty speech, Mr. Wells,” he said, “but I fear we’re straying from the reason I brought you here: which is to ask why you continue to interfere in matters which don’t concern you even after you’ve firmly been warned off?”
“I wasn’t involved in this until you sent your toughs,” I answered. “Like you I’m a businessman, in my own small way. I don’t take jobs where there isn’t any profit to be had. Steinauer didn’t hire me and I wasn’t trying to pry a job out of him. The cops tried to interest me, but they couldn’t persuade me to join in. It took your boys to do that.”
“And yet,” Diamond said in a cold tone, “Mr. Steinauer had your business card in his pocket.” He sounded like a man who thought he had caught me in a lie.
I shrugged. “I introduced myself with it.” I was getting tired of explaining that. “I’ve got bushels of ’em and none implies a contract.” I projected a leer. “But suppose you’re right. Suppose Steinauer’s having my card really did mean something. You’ve got that card now. Am I on your payroll?”
“You are impertinent,” he said in a tone meant to be scolding. I took it as sulking.
“And you’re not as clever as you think you are,” I said in a flat, cold tone. “Tell me, after you caught up with Steinauer and he still refused to help in your counterfeiting scheme, did you sprout him like you sprouted your gunsel, Nussbaum?”
Diamond might have had the look of a man struggling to maintain a poker face, but maybe that was wishful thinking on my part. He gave me a practiced laugh. “Surely Mr. Steinauer sprouted that petty criminal—who had nothing to do with me—and then fled the city.”
I laughed myself, and it was purely spontaneous. “Now, who’d believe a cockeyed yarn like that?” I asked.
“The police...” he began.
I cut him off. “Just because the bouquet was found in Steinauer’s offices? That’s dippy. Cops don’t think like that and neither do private dicks. What evidence do you think there is that ties Steinauer to Nussbaum’s sprouting?”
“You should know that better than anyone, Mr. Wells,” Diamond said. He might have sounded a little worried. “After all, he did threaten you under the impression that you were Mr. Steinauer.”
“Yeah, but Steinauer didn’t get agitated about it until I suggested that you were behind little Hershel. It’s only then that he started taking me seriously.”
“How vivid your imagination is,” Diamond said projecting an icy grin.
“It gets better,” I assured him. “It’s true that Steinauer cleared out of his swanky coin shop—or tried to—but some other ham-fisted character ransacked his desk and files. Who was it? One of your pet monkeys?”
“Undoubtedly it was the gun man,” Diamond said, “who was caught in the act by Mr. Steinauer.”
“First you say Steinauer sprouted Nussbaum because he knew Nussbaum was gunning for him; and now you say he sprouted him for breaking and entering. Can’t you make up your mind? Anyway, who put up the sugar to spring Nussbaum?”
“Surely Mr. Steinauer himself,” Diamond said, “for revenge.”
“I wonder how Nussbaum found the time to ransack Steinauer’s joint during all this expensive revenge taking. And I wonder how Steinauer could be dope enough to take Nussbaum to his own office suite to sprout him when the city fathers have so thoughtfully provided all those anonymous dark alleys. And I’m still wondering what evidence you think there is that definitely links Steinauer to the sprouting.” I flattered myself that Diamond would be sweating now if he still had the anatomy for it.
“You would know that better than I, Mr. Wells. You, not I, were at the scene of the crime.”
“Yeah, I was,” I said, “and I sure as hell didn’t see anything that made me think Steinauer did it. The cops don’t think he did it, either.” As far as I knew, that is; and that wasn’t necessarily very far. Tom had no reason to confide in me everything he knew or even suspected about his case. But Diamond probably wouldn’t know that. I was banking on it. “Maybe some important piece of phony evidence wasn’t planted like it should have been,” I suggested. I got the impression that Diamond’s attention shifted to the steel-backed door. I took a bigger guess. “Did the goon you sent to threaten me bungle the job? The cops are certain you’re behind the whole thing.” That was the bunk. I didn’t know anything of the kind. “What do you suppose that gorilla left undone? Whatever it was, the DA is happier than I’ve seen him in years.”
I was right: Diamond wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was. Instead of selling me a bill of goods, he let me talk my head off and sell him one. He was on his feet now, bellowing “Harrison!” at the armored door. It opened and Harrison (I finally had a name for the goon who had been pushing me around all evening) came in. “Yeah, boss?” he asked.
“Why didn’t you follow my instructions in the Nussbaum business?” he demanded.
“Boss?” the big ape asked, sounding confused and a little worried. His attention shifted nervously back and forth between Diamond and myself.
“He’s setting you up for the fall, pal,” I said quietly and sent a warm smile his way.
Diamond gaped at me.
Harrison didn’t notice. Confusion was replaced with anger. “God damn you, you filthy prick!” he bellowed at Diamond. “You think you can double-cross me and get away with it?!”
Diamond swayed a little, like he felt a faint coming on. Maybe it was starting to dawn on him what kind of game I was playing. One hand reached toward his breast pocket, maybe only for the handkerchief, but before it could get there I shouted “He’s going for his gat!” and dove over the nearest sofa.
The gorilla pulled out his own daisy maker in pure defensive reflex and fired wildly toward Diamond. He missed. Fortunately, Diamond really did pack a rod. He had ducked down before Harrison’s gat barked, knocking over the lamp closest to his desk in the process, and had his own cannon out a fraction of a second later. He was telling the truth about one thing: he really had been in the Great War. He treated the edge of the desk like the top of a trench. He made a very small target as Harrison uselessly fired another dart. Diamond popped up just enough and plugged the goon on the first try. Harrison went down screaming and thrashing. Stems, leaves and buds opening into flowers tore through his clothing in their explosive growth. Another couple of toughs appeared in the doorway, drawn by the noise, and Harrison managed to shriek “It’s him! It’s him!” before going still. His pals made up their own minds about who he was talking about. Out came the artillery. Diamond laid down his own careful fire in return, but with much less accuracy than before. He was spooked, now. He kept himself hidden behind the desk and shouted at his men to stop shooting, that it was him; but his voice was tight with fear and the fact that he’d accidentally reduced the dim light around the desk into near darkness didn’t help him a bit. The two gunmen laughed and kept spitting seeds at the desk.
I demonstrated my own wartime experience to no one but myself as I wormed my way along the floor to the other door using furniture as cover. More of Diamond’s mob started crowding in the armored doorway to add their own cannons to the battle. The boys were focused entirely on the big desk. “We’ve got the gum heel trapped back there,” I heard one of the first two say to the newcomers. “I’m not Wells!” Diamond shrieked and popped off a couple of rounds. Another goon went down. I got through the other door without drawing any sproutella rounds my way.
I found myself in a bedroom. The woman in the faux flesh was sitting stiffly on the edge of the bed. A magazine lay open behind her on red silk sheets. I jammed my left hand into my coat pocket and pointed it’s forefinger at her through the fabric. “You’re helping me out of here, see?” I said in my best Eddie Robinson growl.
The woman nodded, staring with her expressionless glass eyes and frozen rubber face at the concealed finger pointing at her. “There’s a back way,” she said in a soft, frightened voice. Gats continued to bark at each other in the next room.
“Show me,” I said with a purely verbal bark.
She gingerly got up, only partly on account of her narrow dress, and led me through a different door into the bathroom. She assured me she wasn’t up to anything and before I could ask what she was talking about, she grabbed the shower rod, raised her feet, and swung them over the edge of the tub. She let go of the shower rod, twisted the shower head in a certain way and the back wall opened up. She led me through into a secret stairwell. She closed the disguised door and we descended to the ground floor. She was going too slowly. I stopped her and tore one side of her dress up to the hip. Silk stockings covered fake skin that continued up past the top of the rip. We continued descending at greater speed.
We came out in the kitchen. It was empty. I could hear a big commotion beyond the double swinging doors. The woman took me out the back door. I prodded her in a wide arc around the building, keeping out of the lights, toward where I hoped the taxi was still parked. A crowd was spilling wildly out of the house toward the parking lot.
My luck was holding. The cab was where I had left it. The chauffeur was standing next to his open door, one foot still in the machine, staring over the top in wonder at all the cars piling by. He jumped when he saw me pop out of the darkness. He jumped higher when he saw what I was shoving into the back of his cab.
“Sweet Jesus...!” he began.
“Skip it,” I ordered. “Get on your radio and tell your dispatcher to get some law out here. Say we’ve got a gangland battle on our hands. Say Frank Wells is asking for Lieutenant Tom Lang.”
The driver got behind the wheel and got on the radio, pleading with his dispatcher to take him seriously. I ducked my head into the back of the cab. “Don’t even think of trying to get away,” I warned the woman. “And why don’t you take off that obscene get up?”
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