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THE BLACK DARK MURDERS
IT WAS one of those days. There wasn’t enough breeze to tickle a smoke-ring, for one thing, and, for another, I couldn’t get things organized. For example, I had my chair tipped against the wall and my feet up on the desk. As soon as I maneuvered the chair to a comfortable angle, I couldn’t reach the bourbon, and, when I could reach the bourbon, the ice cubes were a couple inches too far away. I adjusted my chair a dozen times, but something was always wrong. Eventually I said to hell with it and just sat there.
I’d been reading in The Trib about a guy some-place-or-other who was starting out to push a wheel-barrow around the world, planning to pound his footsies against highways for twelve years, and I was thinking how it takes all kinds of guys to make a world, when the door banged open and Hal Cooper came in.
“Hello, Hal. Have a drink.”
“Thanks. Not right now.”
“What’s the matter? Sick?”
Hal’s lean face was anxious, and his brown eyes were tired and a little red. He looked as though he’d dropped a couple more pounds, although it may have been merely the way his blue serge suit hung from his shoulders. Anyway, he had a solemn, intent, almost funereal air and, being pessimistic at the moment, I knew that whatever he was going to say wouldn’t cheer me any.
“Look, Phil, I’m in a jam. I need you to take a job off my hands.”
It wasn’t that I had anything against Hal Cooper, understand. He looks like Franchot Tone and he’s a right guy—not to mention my partner and co-owner of the Keene & Cooper Detective Agency, Private Investigations Throughout The World, as it says in the Redbook. But it was hot and humid and I definitely wasn’t interested in anything requiring physical activity.
“Phil, this is important. I’d handle it myself, but it looks like the Courtley case is going to break and I’ve got to go to New York. The only plane available leaves in two hours. If you’ll—”
“Sorry, Hal. I’m tired. Besides, as you may remember, I just got back from Salt Lake City. I need a complete rehabilitation—or do I mean rejuvenation?”
“I wish I were.” I splashed more bourbon over an ice cube and took a long swallow. “In fact, I intend to be. I almost forgot.”
“For Chrissake!” His face started to get red and his hands tightened on the edge of the desk. “A case is a case. I told you I intended to handle it myself, and, if it weren’t for this Courtley thing coming up suddenly, I wouldn’t even mention it to you. But I’ve got to go to New York and—”
“I just finished a case.”
“So I’m tired. I need a rest.”
“You do like hell.” He certainly sounded disgusted. “You need a rest like I do four thumbs. I know what you think”—he pointed a long finger at me—“you think that, because there’s a few bucks in the bank, you can sit on your can and loaf for a couple months.”
“The bank account is bulging like a fat woman’s brassiere.”
“That won’t last forever. We’ve got to keep making contacts. You want to build up the business, don’t you?”
“Sure. But it doesn’t have to be done today, does it?”
“Business is business. We can’t side-track a client like Carter Ledmon until you happen to feel like working. This is a break for us, Phil. He heard about the way we handled that Anaconda investigation and came to us instead of one of the bigger agencies. If he doesn’t get something resembling service, he’ll—”
“Did you say Carter Ledmon?” “Yes. Know him?”
“Natch. He and the Security Trust Company are the one and same.”
“That’s right. He’s—”
“He also has a charming daughter. I saw her hanging on his arm in Marshall Field’s one day. At least, I think she was his daughter. Reddish hair, sort of Rita Hayworthish, and very lovely lips. I noticed her lips particularly, because—”
“You needn’t explain. I know how your mind works.” He paused and stared at me speculatively. “How’d you like to go to New York, Phil, and wind up the Courtley thing while I tend to this Ledmon matter? If you start right away, you can—”
“Wait a minute.” I shifted my weight forward and set all four legs of my chair back on the floor. “Why the switcheroo? What’s Ledmon got on his mind?”
“It’s one of those dull, routine things, Phil. You wouldn’t enjoy it.” His thin shoulders jiggled. “I have the Courtley papers in a folder on my desk. You can look them over on the plane. As soon as you get to New York, go directly—”
“I’m not going to New York. And you needn’t try to razzle-dazzle me. What’s this Ledmon thing?”
“Well, it’s his daughter.”
“He wants her protected.”
“She goes to Royce College.”
“Haven’t you heard about the murder?”
“You seem to forget that I just dragged my ugly carcass back from Salt Lake City.”
“Well, a student was murdered—and Ledmon is worried. This is the first time she’s been away from home and, like the doting parent he is, he wants an eye kept on her. I know you don’t like jobs like that, Phil, so, not expecting this Courtley thing to break for another month, I offered to do it myself. Of course, if I can wind up the New York deal in a day or two, I’ll come right back and—”
“Who was murdered?”
“A girl—name of Helen Sweeney.”
“Well, that’s as good a way as any—and better than most. What’s my friend Captain Noonan doing?”
“The usual—situation well in hand, important clue just discovered, arrest expected any moment. You know the line.”
“Meaning he’s getting nowhere. Is that why Ledmon’s worried?”
“I don’t think he has much respect for the police.”
“I know what he means.” I took another sip of bourbon and let it splash around in my mouth. “When was the Sweeney girl killed?”
“A week ago, eh?” I found a cigaret and took my time lighting it. “You know, Hal, Ledmon has an angle, otherwise he wouldn’t be worried about his kid. Murder’s bad, but it isn’t exactly a novelty in Chicago. Sometimes there’s twenty or thirty a month. Because one girl happened to get killed at the school his kid’s attending, is no reason—”
“I know, Phil, but there’s something peculiar about the set-up.”
“Well, it’s one of those senseless things. And it was done in absolute darkness.”
“Aren’t most murders?”
“I said absolute darkness. There wasn’t a speck of light of any kind. In other words, the killer couldn’t have seen his victim. The cops think the murderer is a maniac, someone who killed her simply for the sake of killing.”
“It’s a fact, Phil. Her boy friend, Allen Beck, was with her, and they were walking across campus when it happened—”
“You mean, he saw her killed?”
“No, it was too dark. They were walking, arm in arm, when she lurched forward. Beck thought she’d stumbled. He tried to help her up, but, in trying to raise her, he felt the knife protruding from her back.”
“What’d he do?”
“He ran for help, naturally.”
“He aroused the preceptress of a nearby dormitory, and she phoned for a doctor, but, by the time he arrived, she was dead. Beck insists they were utterly alone, that he heard no sounds of any kind, and that, in the utter darkness, he hadn’t even been able to see her as she walked beside him. Obviously, he couldn’t have seen her assailant.”
“If Beck couldn’t see her, the murderer couldn’t see either.”
“I suppose Beck’s in the jug?”
“Well, no. They don’t think he did it.”
“Look, Hal. If Beck and this babe were alone, and it was too dark for anyone to see them, then he’s the only one who could have knifed her. He grabbed her, plunged in the knife, and—”
“You haven’t seen Beck.”
“He couldn’t grab anything. Besides, there isn’t a reason in the world why he should kill her. And, if he had killed her, he wouldn’t have run for help right away.”
“He might have.”
“Maybe, but the cops don’t think so.”
I sat and thought about it. It did seem screwy, particularly the part about the police not locking up Beck. “It’s funny I didn’t see something about it in the Utah papers. That kind of a murder usually makes a big stink.”
“They’ve been keeping it quiet for fear excessive publicity will ruin the college.” Hal’s lips tightened a trifle. “Colleges are big business, you know—and they swing weight in the places that count.”
I lifted my glass and drained the rest of the bourbon out of it. Then, with a little sigh, I picked up the bottle, the glass, and the dish of ice cubes, and, carrying them over to a filing cabinet, dropped them into the bottom drawer and slammed the drawer shut.
“What does Ledmon want us to do?”
“Keep an eye on the kid.”
“Why a detective? A wet-nurse would work out better.”
“He wants her protected, but he doesn’t want her to know about it. He says she’s stubborn and independent and would resent his providing special protection.”
“So what do I do? Dodge from tree to tree whenever she goes for a walk?”
“Look, Phil, if he’s willing to pay, why shouldn’t we follow through and collect the dough?”
“I can think of one reason, and that’s this: A man can’t trail a good-looking girl without attracting attention, especially on a college campus. As for doing it without her knowledge, that’s impossible.”
“Well, that’s what he wants done—and that’s what I told him we’d do.”
“You said you’d intended to do the job yourself, Hal. Suppose you tell me in little words how you planned to watch this babe without her knowing it.”
Hal hesitated, then swallowed guiltily. “I thought I’d matriculate as a student, then pretend to be an admirer of hers. If she thought me devoted to her, it’d seem natural for—”
“Please!” I had to stop him before I laughed in his face. “The idea’s terrific, but you aren’t the type. Maybe it’s a good thing I got back in time to take over.”
“I don’t see what—”
“Skip it. Did you get a retainer?”
“He gave me a check for a thousand.”
“What rate did you quote him?”
“Twenty-five a day.”
“Hell, you should have asked for fifty. Ledmon’s filthy with dough.”
“We’ve only been getting twenty, Phil, and—”
“I know, but the job has its dangerous angles. If this killer circulates around in the dark, like you say, and doesn’t care who he knifes—well, my shoulders are pretty broad. They’ll make an easy target.”
“Ledmon can throw a hell of a lot of business our way. The way I figure it—”
“I know how you figure it, Hal. You’re practical—and I admit it. But I like to take dough while the taking’s good. Was his daughter a pal of this Helen Sweeney?”
“No. She didn’t even know her.”
“I don’t get it. What makes him think she needs special protection?”
“She’s his daughter and, like any parent, he doesn’t want anything to happen to her. After all, Phil, he has plenty of dough. He probably figures that, even though no one would want to kill her, she could be mistaken for someone else, and—”
“With those lips and that hair?”
“In the dark, one girl looks pretty much like another, especially those college kids. They wear the same kind of sweaters and skirts—and they all have long hair. Ledmon probably thinks that—”
“Suppose it’s dark and I’m with her. Suppose someone pokes a knife at her, but I can’t see him. What do I do besides run like hell and call the cops?”
“I don’t know, Phil. Ledmon said he wanted an eye kept on her—and that’s what I promised him to do. It’s for his own peace of mind, I think, more than anything. Until the killer is caught, he wants to feel he’s doing everything possible to protect her.”
“What’s her name?”
“Marilyn Ledmon. Nice. Sort of glamorous, like her hair.
He glanced at his watch. Starting for the door, he paused long enough for a final warning. “I’m depending on you, Phil, to be careful. If Ledmon—”
“Better hurry, Hal. The plane won’t wait.”
“Have a nice trip. I’ll take care of everything.” And that’s exactly what I intended to do.
I WANDERED DOWN to the Detective Bureau, cornered my old friend Sergeant Griff, and got him to show me the file on the Sweeney case.
Helen Sweeney had been eighteen years old, born in Hartford, Connecticut, and, until matriculating at Royce College, had never visited Chicago. She had been completing her freshman year. Scholastic record excellent. Quiet, sedate, studious. Rarely had dates, almost never attended parties. Had seemed fond of Allen Beck, a sophomore, and occasionally went on long walks with him, but, according to her girl friends, the relationship had been strictly platonic.
She had weighed one-sixteen. Height five-two. Pretty, with loose brown hair and a smoothly oval face. Photographs showed her body crumpled on its left side, one arm thrown grotesquely toward her head, and a profusion of blood on the back of her sweater and skirt. The grass was brown with blood and seemed to have been violently disarranged, as though she’d kicked and struggled while dying. The handle of a knife protruded from her back like the stalk of a thick plant. It looked as though it had been driven in with force and precision.
The file, of course, covered an immense amount of police work which, when boiled down, didn’t prove anything except that Helen Sweeney had been knifed to death by a person unknown while in the company of Allen Beck. Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Sweeney, had been unable to suggest a motive for the murder. The entire faculty and student body had been interviewed. So on and so on.
“The thing I don’t understand, Sarge, is this Beck. How come you let him off so easy?”
“Are you kidding?”
“No. He’s a natural as a suspect. I should think you’d have him on the way to Joliet by now.”
“Listen, Phil, we grilled Beck plenty, and the only reason we let him go is that we couldn’t get anything out of him. We even tried the lie detector.”
“What’d it show?”
“It showed he was telling the truth, which is what we thought all the time. He doesn’t look like a fellow who’d throw a knife.”
“They were just walking along, eh?”
“Yeah. They stopped at the college library, returned some books, took a turn or two about the campus, and were returning to her dormitory when it happened. Beck says they were walking slowly, arm in arm, along the eastern side of a rock-edged pond which the college has in the center of the campus. He admits he put his arms around her and kissed her. Just once, he says, and that’s all. Nothing passionate, just a friendly little smack to which she didn’t object.”
“But, for Chrissake, Sarge—”
“You don’t get the idea, Phil. The most incredible thing is the way it happened. Beck had his arms around her and was kissing her, see? After that one kiss, she pulled away from him, slipped her arm under his, and said: ‘That’s enough for now.’ Then she lurched forward, just as though she’d tripped on something, and almost pulled him off balance. He says he laughed and reached to catch her, but the next instant she let out a scream, jerked away from him, and collapsed on the ground.” Sergeant Griff spread his hands graphically. “There was a knife in her back.”
“Well, Beck was too startled to do anything. He thought she’d hurt herself, or had fainted, and he tried to get her to her feet. While trying to raise her, he touched the knife and felt blood, so he ran to Keel Dormitory for help. They phoned for a doctor and rounded up a couple flashlights, but it wasn’t any use.”
“Why the flashlights?”
“That’s what I meant when I said you didn’t get the idea. That campus is black dark at night. It’s full of winding walks which, when night falls, are darker than hell. Romantic, you know, and handy—but dangerous. When the murder occurred, the entire campus was as black as the ace of spades. Beck says he couldn’t even see the girl’s face, so whoever knifed her just jabbed it in without seeing his victim.”
“He had to aim the knife. If he couldn’t see her, he couldn’t aim it.”
“I don’t blame you for being skeptical. But I walked across that campus the following night—and that convinced me. You never saw such absolute darkness. It’s like a 100% blackout.”
“It’s funny Beck didn’t hear something.”
“It was quite a while before he realized anything was wrong. Besides, they’d thought they were alone.”
“Is the campus still dark like that?”
“Practically. The college doesn’t want the rustic beauty of the place, as they call it, marred by a lot of wires.”
“What do you think about the chances for a repeat performance?”
“Another murder?” Sergeant Griff shook his head. “There’d be hell to pay, Phil—that’s for sure. I don’t think there’s much chance, though. Not unless the guy really is a maniac.”
“Did it occur to you boys that this girl might not have been intended to be the victim? If the murderer couldn’t see, he might have thought he was striking Beck.”
“It’s an idea.”
“Think about it, will you?”
“Sure, Phil—matter of fact, we did.”
“It adds the same either way. Beck had no enemies, and neither did the girl. If Beck were killed, no one stood to gain a thing—and the same for the girl.”
“I suppose you’ve got guards spotted around the campus?”
“I expect to be out there for a few days. I’d like to think the police have things under control.”
“Carter Ledmon—you know, Security Trust Company —hired us to keep an eye on his kid.”
“You private guys get the breaks. We’re doing everything that can be done, so he’s paying you for doing nothing. What the hell’s the idea?”
“Name it and I’ll give it to you. All I know is that he’s paying dough for my services. You’d take it, wouldn’t you?”
“That’s what I’m doing.”
“Well, good luck to you. If you ran into anything, let me know.”
Sergeant Griff was a nice guy. He was never officious, never tried to throw his weight around. Of course, he was as ready to make a quick buck as any copper, but I didn’t mind that. Captain Noonan was different. He was a capable officer and a good homicide man, but he had delusions of grandeur and never forgot he was captain of detectives and an enforcer of law and order. If ever a guy liked to bark an order and see someone jump, Noonan was that guy. And you couldn’t depend on him. I’d slipped him the long green on several occasions—and he’d taken it—but he’d never paid off. Which is why I walked out of the Detective Bureau without bothering to visit him.
I went to my apartment, changed into a pair of gray flannel slacks, a linen sports shirt, and an Old fashioned, then started for Royce College, taking a Ravenswood Subway to the end of the line and a Surface Lines bus the rest of the way. The bus dropped me at the corner of Watson and Fifth Street, about a block from the campus.
I stood there for ten or fifteen minutes, trying to decide what to do. Although Royce was within the city limits of Chicago, I felt as though I’d travelled a hundred miles. Watson Street, the neighborhood’s main business thoroughfare, was straight, clean, and small-townish. The stores were small, neat, unobtrusive. Even the people on the street were different from those of metropolitan Chicago. At Northwestern the girls wore smart dresses and dabbed Chanel Five on their ear lobes, and the fellows wore sport jackets and smoked highly polished pipes. At Royce, girls sauntered along in brown-and-white saddle shoes, plain skirts, knitted sweaters, bobby socks, and imitation pearl necklaces. They walked with loose-hipped strides, carrying books under their arms. The fellows—well, they were different, too—they were callow, uncertain, a little Esquire-ish, as though they wanted to act both intelligent and worldly but didn’t quite know how to go about it.
Not having had any lunch, I wandered across Watson Street and turned in at a restaurant. The sign said: Ye Eat Shoppe. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t a hash house, but it looked like one. A row of eight leatherette-covered stools lined a white marble-topped counter to the left, and scattered tables and chairs filled the rest of the small, hot room. A glass cigar case, supporting a small National cash register, stood near the door. In addition to the cash register, there was a bowl of toothpicks, a tin can soliciting pennies for Greek Relief, and a glass change tray which, in faded letters, pleaded: “Thank You Call Again.” To the rear, a pair of worn swinging doors cut through to a kitchen, from whence emerged a rattle of pans, the smell of stewing tomatoes, and a waitress.
I barely gave her a glance, which proved that I was hungry. Walking to the far end of the counter, I sat down and let my eyes slip down between the grease spots on the menu.
The waitress strolled over and stood in front of me. I noticed the green and beige of her uniform over the top of the menu, and I felt her eyes flicking over the top of my head. Her uniform was dirty where it rubbed against the counter, but, a little higher up, it bulged pleasantly. I raised my eyes and looked at her. She was young— maybe nineteen—with a face as smooth and pretty as an illustration from a “She’s Lovely! She’s Engaged!” cold cream ad. And she had loose ash-blond hair which fell in soft curls to her shoulders.
“May I have your order, sir?”
Her voice was cool and disinterested. It was like having cold water splashed in my face.
“What’s a Western Steak?”
She tossed her head. “It’s like scrambled eggs with celery and onion and green pepper and ham chopped up”—one of her hands made a chopping motion—“and there’s gravy on it.”
“You talked me into it.”
“No. Just the so-called steak.”
“Yes. No cream.”
She wrote the order down on a pale-green service cheek, banged through the swinging doors, and called the order. Then she came back, rummaged in a drawerful of battered silverware, found a knife, a fork, and a spoon. She set the assortment in front of me, brought a tumbler of water, a chip of pale butter, a plate with two slices of bread, and a folded paper napkin. Then she leaned against the rear counter, her eyes blank.
A bell tinkled in the kitchen, finally. She straightened, banged through the swinging doors again, and returned with a plate laden with gravy, mashed potatoes, and brown patties resembling hamburger.
While I ate, she stood a few feet away, folding paper napkins and putting them into a drawer. I felt her eyes drift toward me several times, but she was careful not to be caught staring. When I finished, she came over and removed the plate.
“Apple pie, if you have it, with some cheese.”
“I’ll see.” She cut a slice of apple pie, slid it onto a plate, and drifted back to the kitchen with it. When she came back, a thick slab of yellow cheese rested on top of the pie. “Will this do?”
“It’s beautiful. It’s as good as anything I’ve ever seen at the Palmer House.”
“I like cheese on apple pie, too.”
I nodded and started in on the pie. When I finished, I looked at her frankly, letting my eyes wander over her hair, her cheeks, her lips, her neck, and so on. My eyebrows twitched and I quick looked back at her face.
“What are you doing behind that counter?”
She seemed startled, for her eyes flew wide and a smile which had been hovering on her lips vanished.
“I work here.”
“You don’t look like a hash-slinger.” I raised my cup and stared at her over the edge of it. “New at the racket?”
“I work part-time.” Her eyes became skeptical, as though she couldn’t quite multiply or divide me. Was I nosy—or working up to a proposition? She couldn’t decide which. “You’re new around here, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” I wrinkled my nose and tipped my head toward campus. “I’m thinking of taking a couple courses at the college.’
“Oh, really?” Her voice loosened up considerably, became almost friendly. “I’m a student there—that’s why I work here part-time. For my board, you know.”
“That explains it.”
“Never mind.” I finished the coffee and slid off the stool. “I’ll tell you the next time I see you.”
“All right.” Her lips curved into a smile, but it was a cool smile, the kind you never can tell about. “I can wait.”
I walked toward the front of the restaurant and waited in front of the cigar case. She rang up 82¢ on the register and dropped my change into the glass tray. I picked up the coins and jingled them in my hand. She was about my height, maybe a half-inch smaller.
“What’s your name, baby?”
“I like it.” She tossed her head and the lids of her eyes tightened a little insolently. “Anything else you’d like to know?”
“What time do you finish work?”
“My name’s Phil—Philip Keene. I’ll be back at eight.”
She seemed a little bewildered as I walked out.
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