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KISS THE KILLER
I HOPE WHILE you’re about it, you break a leg,” I said politely.
Sergeant Redmond, who was looking down at his notebook, slid his eyes up at me without lifting his head. “Morrison,” he said reproachfully. He blew air heavily through his nose. “How about a little more coffee, please?” he said.
I got up off the leather sofa, took his cup and went to the desk, where the electric percolator was burbling contentedly. “Break a leg, or shoot yourself accidentally while cleaning your gun, or get hit by a Greyhound bus,” I said. “Anything like that’ll do.”
“Why do you talk to me so mean?” Redmond said, taking the cup and waving away the cream I offered him.
“Because of that disgusting one-track mind of yours,” I said. “I see it’ll take something drastic to knock you on to another track.”
Redmond took a sip, savored it, swallowed it. “A murder is a murder,” he said. Then he floated a glance around at Linda Irwin, as if he’d said a very clever thing.
Linda gave him nothing back. Her face was pale and motionless, a quiet oval in the noisy environs of her red hair.
Redmond turned back to me. “I’m expecting your hundred percent cooperation. Morrison. A murder is a murder. There’s no way of getting around it, pal.”
“There’s a way of getting around it.”
“Okay,” he said, batting his eyelids pleasantly. “You tell me.”
“I know you have to investigate it. That’s what you get paid for. All I’m asking you is not to work so damned hard at it. That’s all. Just don’t knock yourself out. Give the killer a break —just a little bit of a break.”
Redmond slupped up some coffee noisily. He made believe he was choking. “You’re a nice kid, Morrison,” he said. “I’ve known you . . . how many years? I like you. But not when you try comedy. It smells. Now what d’you say?—let’s get down to business.”
“Mind if I make a speech?” I said.
The other detective, Ed Travis, sitting across the room, muttered something impatient.
“Cut it out, Morrison, I can’t spend the night here,” Redmond said. His notebook was open on his knees, his silver pencil in one hand while he handled the coffee with the other.
“I’m making a speech,” I said. I sat down on the arm of the leather sofa. Linda watched me tautly, her arms twisted together across the front of her green silk bathrobe. “A murder is a murder,” I said. “Whoever did it shouldn’t have done it. There’s no argument about that. If I’d known who was planning to do it, I’d have gone over and said, ‘Look, don’t go doing any murders. You’ll only get in trouble. It’s against the law. This jerk you’re planning to kill ought to be killed, all right, but better let the cops and the courts take care of him. They’ll put him away for a nice long time. What do you want to get your hands all dirtied up with murder for?’ That’s what I would have said, if I’d known who was planning to do the murder. Only, I didn’t know. So it happened. So now where are we? A creep who should have been killed a long time ago is now properly killed. Whoever took the trouble to do it is a very nice person. A benefactor of society. Maybe a little too impulsive, but we’ve all got our weaknesses. Now, if you grab this person and get the goods on him, you know what that means. A life sentence. Or the chair. Willful, premeditated killing—no question about it. So that’s what your fussing around is going to accomplish—getting a perfectly decent person sent up for his life. Now—”
“You know who you remind me of?” Redmond said.
“Skip it. What I’m trying to—”
“Gabriel Heatter. Perfect imitation. I’m just waiting for the commercial.”
“Okay, here’s the commercial. You’re a man with brains, Redmond, but you act like a goddam firehorse. Somebody hollers murder, and you go running out with all your bells clanging. Here’s one time you have to forget you’re a detective and remember you’re supposed to be a human being. You know that the guy who was killed was one of the lower types of worm, and all the people on your suspect list are okay people. You can’t, you just can’t treat this like one of your routine murder cases.”
Redmond’s long, fleshy cheeks and heavy lips were pulled tight and solemn, and for a moment I thought he’d actually been listening to me. Then he said: “Morrison, I sympathize with you. Right down to here. But.”
I looked at him. I let out a useless breath. “Redmond, you have any kids?” I said sourly.
“Sure thing. Four—and a fifth in the oven.”
“What would you do if you caught a guy selling your kids narcotics?”
“Get the narcotics squad on his tail,” Redmond said cheerily.
“I see. You couldn’t possibly get so sore that you’d put a slug in the guy?”
“Might. If I lost my head.”
“Okay! You see what I mean. Here’s the one murder anybody could commit. A creep who’d peddle marihuana to kids. You catch him at it, you instinctively want to slaughter him. Like stepping on a roach. Can you get sore at somebody who’d do it—somebody who’d take the trouble to do the community a favor like that? Redmond, you don’t want to arrest this killer. What you want to do is kiss him.”
Redmond jacked his beefy torso up off the sofa, creaking its springs, and put the coffee cup on the desk. He turned back to me. “Morrison, you’ve got a good case.” He flung out a big hand, generously. “But that’s for the court. The judge and jury’ll take all that into consideration. You can count on them being lenient as all hell. That’s got nothing to do with me. My part of the show is to bring in the one that did it. Which is what I’m intending to do.”
He went back to the sofa, set its springs creaking in the opposite direction, and put his red-covered notebook back on his knee. “Okay, let’s start all over again. Let’s take this business about the reefers from when you first heard about it. I mean, which one of these guys was the first that told you about it?”
Simple as that.
Point your finger. Throw a stone.
I sat there, perched on the hard arm of the sofa like a squab on a fork, and looked around this stupid room—at the group of photos piled all over the wall at my left, and the big wall calendar facing me with the picture of the lady harpist and last month’s page still hanging on it, and next to that the glass case loaded with silver trophy cups, and next to that Linda, sitting as stiffly as the lady on the calendar.
The silence swirled around us and piled up in drifts.
“Okay, Morrison, speak your piece,” said Redmond, beginning to sound not like the most patient man in the world.
Linda made a nervous movement—her fingers went across her cheek, flicked back some of her silky red hair as if it were lint. “You might as well tell him and get it over with,” she said, her voice swaddled in weariness.
What did a guy do in a situation like this? Was I supposed to act like a fourteen-carat jerk and blab all I knew about these people who were mostly my friends? It wasn’t anything I could laugh off. Any help I gave this cop was going to help throw somebody into the pen, maybe the death-house, somebody who had no more business being there than I did. What sense was there in doing that? Could anybody give me three good reasons? I couldn’t blame Redmond for his peculiar slant—the way you make a living always shapes your judgment— but was there any sense in my seeing things the way he did?
“I’ll tell you the story,” I said.
I could tell him part of it. I didn’t know any law that said I had to tell him exactly the way it was ...
THE WAY IT was, was a calm afternoon, with September blowing breezily in through the windows of the gym, diluting the smells of the underwashed kids. I had four of the kids around me, eager youngsters with Golden Gloves in their eyes. I was showing them how to work out on the heavy bag. Jab and right cross. Once more: jab and right cross. Snap the left—don’t let it stay out there—pull it right back. Then throw your right and put your shoulder behind it. Now, again . . . A few yards away from us, two boys were, practicing some judo throws I’d taught them; slapping each other down on the mat with appealing sadism. At the other end of the gym, two teams or girls were making an ecstatic racket playing volleyball. Through the doorway, out in the lobby, were more kids, who were loudly discussing such world affairs as our coming track and field meet, the finals in the ping-pong tournament, and what boy had been hanging around what girl’s house more than somewhat.
That was the way it was, this peaceful afternoon at the South Philadelphia Youth Center, when Paul Sardona, a member of our board of trustees, walked into the gym.
“Morrison, I want to talk to you—right away,” he said, and walked on past me toward my office.
“Be right with you, Paul,” I said. The four young terrors looked up at me unhappily. “Knock off for ten minutes, boys,” I said. “Lie down on the mat and relax.”
I went across the gym after Paul Sardona. His head rode rigidly on his long, rangy body; his arms scarcely swung with his steps. Whatever was on his mind had a lot of weight to it.
It hadn’t even left room for him to be aware that he shouldn’t be walking across the middle of the gym floor in his street shoes.
He went through my office door, sat down on the canvas cot I kept for first-aid emergencies, and barely gave me time to sit down behind my desk before he spoke:
“Morrison, the boys are getting reefers.”
“No,” I said, stupidly. I sat there trying not to hear what I’d just heard—I ducked and dodged, but the words chased me and caught up with me.
“They’re getting reefers,” he repeated, as if he were talking to an idiot.
And maybe he was. All along I’d been thinking that this was one kind of trouble I didn’t have to watch out for—a kind of trouble that might happen in other places but never here. I’d thought I knew these kids so well, I could predict how they’d react in the face of any such temptation. A very silly idea on my part.
Just how silly, Paul Sardona showed me. The closed hand resting in his lap opened—swung out. Something white flew lightly through the air and fell with hardly a sound on the green desk blotter.
A cigarette. Handmade. A little thinner than an ordinary cigarette, a little shorter. With the paper tucked in at both ends, hiding the contents.
“How—where’d you get this?” I jabbered.
Hey, that’s a shame, I wanted to say. I wanted to say other things, too, but they all sounded equally stupid. Paul Sardona said nothing. He gave me a long face. I mean he had a naturally long face—long welts for cheeks, long bony nose, deep-cut wrinkles curving down around the corners of his droopy black mustache—but everything now seemed doubly elongated with sadness. There was even something sad about the way his black hair was slicked down so perfectly, yet not quite successfully hiding the bare spot on the top of his head.
“Where did Vincent get it?” I said, finally finding something sensible to say.
“From Mike Holman’s boy.”
“What? Mike Hol—which boy’re you talking about?”
“The oldest one.”
“Not Buddy!” That hurt. That really hurt.
Paul Sardona eyed me coldly. I seemed a lot more worked up about the Holman boy than about his son Vincent.
But I had no time to be worried about his feelings now. What was staring me in the face, up from that desk blotter, was the makings of an epidemic.
“We’ve got to work fast on this,” I said. “Where’s Vincent?”
“In his room,” Paul said, his lips tight.
“Let’s get hold of him. Does Mike Holman know about this?”
“I phoned him a little while ago.”
“I told Holman to bring him over here.”
“Good. If we move fast, maybe we can clean this up before anybody gets hurt . . . Buddy Holman—lord, that’s a kick in the face. Vincent, too,” I added quickly. “He’s such a good kid.”
“Vincent is a very good boy,” Paul Sardona said firmly. “He was pushed into it.”
“Of course. I should have had my eye out for the possibility of something like this, only I thought— it’s stupid, but I thought all this publicity, all the stuff about dope in the papers and on radio and TV the last year or so—I thought it would scare the kids away from the stuff for good. I should have been a little smarter than that.”
“What good’s smart?” Paul’ said. “Smart as you are, boys get around you. The only thing I think about this, Morrison— I think it’s better we don’t get the police in it.”
“Those judges, they don’t have any sense. They take a boy, just a boy who don’t know any better, got sucked into something—they take him and send him to the workhouse—give him a record. I don’t want anything like that happening to Vincent.”
“I’m with you there, Paul. We’ll keep the kids out of it.”
His mouth twisted sourly. “This can be a big mess.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ll try to run down the guy the kids got it from and put him out of circulation. It won’t be necessary to mention the kids’ names.”
“No names. We don’t want any names in this.”
“Right,” I said. Paul could get pretty repetitious if he had a mind to. But a nice guy. “I’d better call Mike up and get started—”
The steps outside were quick and heavy. I winced for my poor gym floor—but when Mike Holman came into view, I saw he was walking around the rim of the floor, where scarring didn’t matter.
He came fast—his thick body plugged the doorway. “Where’s Buddy?” he blatted at me. “You seen him?”
“No, haven’t seen him around,” I said, talking quietly to calm him down.
Mike Holman looked at Paul, looked around the room, as if we might be hiding the boy, somewhere. He shook his head. His tousled blond hair was wilder than usual. He was wearing a leather jacket, an open-throated shirt. He looked as if he’d just got up.
“He ran away,” he said dully.
“What d’you mean?” I said, getting anxious.
“Ran out of the house. I was talking to him . . .” Mike’s wandering glance located the empty chair against the righthand wall, under the medicine cabinet. He tramped over to it, as if walking uphill. He sat down, his thick thighs drawing his trousers taut. “Morrison, what’s going on?” he said.
“I don’t know. I’m just hearing about it. What’s about Buddy? What did he say?”
“Nothing.” He looked across at Paul Sardona. “What did Vincent say?”
“He got it from your boy.” Paul’s voice was tinged with unfriendliness. “That’s all Vincent knows about it—your boy gave it to him. Vincent didn’t smoke it. There it is.” He nodded at the desk.
Mike Holman stood up halfway out of his chair and had a look. He dropped down again. “I didn’t find any. He’d had one and ... he must’ve smoked it.”
“Okay, it’s not that awful,” I said. “Just one reefer —he’s not a lost soul. Where did he get it?”
Mike’s blond eyebrows twisted impatiently. “That’s what I’m telling you—he wouldn’t say.” He stuck his hand into his jacket pocket and brought out a rumpled cigarette pack. “He said it’d be ratting to tell. You know Buddy. I told him it wasn’t ratting—I told him how bad the stuff is and what it can do to kids and how it was his duty to tell me—and he ran out of the house.”
“How long ago was this?”
“An hour—about an hour. I let him go—I thought he’d come right back. But he didn’t. I’m beginning to think—” his eyes rolled up uneasily.
“Don’t begin to think,” I told him. “You flustered the kid, you made him ashamed—it’s the naturalest thing for him to stay out of sight till he can work up enough nerve to face his dad again.”
Mike shifted his attention to a cigarette and made a lot of fuss about getting it lighted.
Paul Sardona stood up abruptly. “I don’t think you need me any more.”
“I want to talk to Vincent,” I said.
“He can’t tell you any more than I told you. But it’s okay—you can talk to him if you want. Come over my place—I’m making him stay in his room.”
Mike looked up at him. “I’m sorry about all this.”
“That’s okay,” Paul said with a jog of his shoulders. “It’s not your fault. That Buddy, he’s a wild boy.”
“No,” Mike protested.
“That’s okay. Don’t worry about it.” Paul walked to the doorway, sleek and unruffled in his midnight-blue worsted. He turned. “Look, Mike, don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming you, you know what I mean? It’s the same trouble for me and you both. Boys—boys will always get in trouble . . .” He hunted for something else to say, then let it go at that. “Morrison, you’ll call me up if you find out something else?”
He went out, looking calmer than when he came in. Which always happens when you run into somebody who’s more worried than you are.
I looked at the reefer Paul had left on my desk. I took my letter opener and teased open one end of the cigarette. A tiny bit of the contents spilled out on the desk blotter—a dull green-brown crumble, like leaf mold. I bent close and sniffed it. There was a strong smell to it. Hard to describe—neither familiar nor alien. Something like musty hay, but with a spicy tang to it.
I packed the reefer in an envelope and locked it in the top drawer of the desk. “Any idea where we can look for Buddy?” I said.
Mike shook his head. “He could be anywhere.”
I got up. “I’ll put some of the kids out looking for him. Wait here a minute.”
But he scrambled up and followed me out of the office. “What do you think?” he said scratchily. “What do you think about Buddy?”
Mike Holman was a solid piece of man, a free-swinging two hundred-pounder, a former football player and Marine with a couple of ribbons in important colors. It was way out of character for him to hang on my sleeve and ask me what did I think, huh? what did I think? But that was what happened when you hero-worshiped a son.
“The last kid in the world who should’ve done that,” he said.
Of course, he had a point. Buddy was really a prize kid. A happy kid, happy all through, helpful—always helping me fix things, arrange events—popular with other kids, a first-rate athlete, husky, built very much like his old man, full of zing, willing to try anything . . .
“And that’s what a kid does to you,” Mike said wanly.
“Cut it out,” I said, getting annoyed. “What do you want? He’s a kid. What is he—fourteen, fifteen?”
“Okay—what do you expect? Kids that age’ll try anything—you know that. Wait till we find him. You won’t have any more trouble with Buddy—take my word for it.”
We were out of the gym now, walking into the lobby— swimming, rather, through a pounding, roaring sea of kids, kids male and female, kids eight to sixteen, kids light and dark and well-dressed and sloppy, and all, without exception, talking. They were cluttered on the benches that lined both sides of the lobby, cluttered around the bulletin boards, dangling on the banisters leading up to the second-floor meeting rooms and game rooms. “Hi, Mr. Morrison,” I got from every side. Or bolder, “How ya doin, Mr. Morrison?” Or shyer, “Hello, Mr. Morrison.” Even with this new worriment, I couldn’t help reacting to all this pure young adulation. It was quite a feeling. I’d been at the Youth Center for almost a year now and I still hadn’t got used to this treatment. Prior to coming here, I’d been athletic director at a summer resort and manager of a center-city gym for adults, and people had been a little more demanding, a little more critical. Now I could do no wrong. I couldn’t scratch my ear without it being taken as a sign of manliness and promptly imitated by a score of kids.
I waved both hands to down the noise. Faces became still, grave—quick shsh’s quieted whatever kids hadn’t noticed me.
“Anybody see Buddy Holman this afternoon?” I said,
Faces twisted around, tried hard to see Buddy Holman, tried hard to have seen him earlier, looked desperately at each other for assistance, turned back to me in shameful futility. One boy ventured, “I saw him yesterday,” but he was shsh’d into disgrace.
“Okay, never mind,” I said abruptly. “If anybody sees him, tell him . . . tell him he hasn’t signed up for the track and field meet.”
I took Mike’s arm and steered him back into the gym. “Changed my mind,” I said. “I didn’t want the kids speculating, talking this thing up. I want to keep it to as few mouths as possible.”
Mike looked at me as if I’d said something very deep.
“You go home,” I said. “Maybe he’s already back. If he is, send him over here. Maybe he’ll be more willing to talk to me.”
“Buddy never keeps anything from me,” Mike said, sounding very much hurt.
“Okay, okay.” I was getting a little impatient with Mike, and his son, too. How could Buddy have messed us up this way? “Maybe he’s ashamed to talk to you about this. If you see him, don’t make any fuss—just say I want to talk to him about something. Okay?”
Mike walked away slowly, not answering. He went into the crowded lobby again, looking like a storm-tossed schooner careening through a school of dolphins.
“Hey, Mr. Morrison!” The four young killers I had abandoned at the punching bag stood around forlornly, the big-boxing gloves dangling on their spindly arms. “We already rested more’n ten minutes,” one of the boys protested. “Ain’t we going to practice any more?”
“You know what to do—I showed you—just keep doing it. I’m tied up.”
I left them. They gave me an “aw!”—then quickly broke into a squabble about who would attack the bag first.
I went to my office. I switched my sneakers to street shoes, put on my tan windbreaker, took a swipe at my hair in the mirror, then went around the rim of the gym, through the lobby and out into the dusty September afternoon. For the moment— in spite of their eager young faces, their freshness, their adulation—I was pretty fed up with other people’s kids.
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