THE MAN WHO WAS MURDERED TWICE
LAND OF PROMISE
The Panama liner Commanche, red-funneled, broad of beam, and jammed with tourists, curved around the starboard side of the breakwater lighthouse, straightened its course, and with engines turning over at half speed, steamed importantly through the oily waters of the coastal city harbor towards its Pacific berth.
Proudly arrogant, it ignored snorting tugs, odorous fishing boats, and tramp steamers cargoed with lumber, bricks and oil.
It has been said, with more malice than charity, that this Pacific coastal city was striving desperately to be metropolitan, and was failing miserably. It has also been said that it was nothing more than a hick town suffering with growing pains.
All this is far from the truth. The coastal city is as old as the Conquistadors, as rambling as New York’s lower East Side.
Above all things, this coastal city never did things by halves. So it could not fail miserably. If it failed at all, it would fail with flags of all nations flying, bands blaring, searchlights stabbing the night sky, and airplanes writing the word in letters of smoke miles long above her California shores.
Its harbor, curiously enough, was thirty miles or more away from the city proper which would seem to speak rather well for the astuteness of its city fathers. The ships of the world fouled its waters, unloaded their merchandise and departed. The battle wagons of the Pacific, sleek gray cruisers, gunboats, battleships and plane-carriers, disgorged, regularly, all the hard-bitten sailors and marines of the fleet—in fact these same gentlemen occasionally took the city apart to see what made it tick.
All this was not apparent to the eager-eyed passengers on the coast-wise ship, Commanche, as the oil tanks, lumber piles, fish debaucheries and scavenger boats floated past the Commanche’s jutting prow.
The coastal city was insidious. It sort of fastened itself to one like a mild attack of hives. It made everybody itch to be bigger and better than everybody else. Religions and cults flourished in its sunshine like green bay trees. Slot machines tinkled. Nickels rattled. Punchboards gave out useless numbers. People cheated on cash registers here as elsewhere.
And scandal, murder and rape blushed in the news headlines, was marvelled at and forgotten. The coastal city was no miserable failure, it was a miserable success.
Forward on the main deck of the Commanche stood a lean, dark, dissolute young man, negligent in appearance and cold sober. Ned Anderson was darker than the rest of the passengers because of a prolonged sojourn in parts of Ethiopia.
He had existed comfortably among the natives. He had existed not so comfortably among the invaders. Boredom made him ill along with assorted fevers. Now he was on his way home to the coastal city to renew his interest in the affairs of an estate which kept him in pampered if not bored ease.
But several things had happened during Ned Anderson’s long sojourn among Haile’s former subjects. During his absence of two years on the Dark Continent and other continents as well, his estate had been purged systematically and completely. In other words he had been rather unkindly but thoroughly robbed of his entire fortune.
Had he known the exact status of his financial resources at the moment the red-funneled Commanche was entering the harbor, he would have been less kindly disposed towards the world in general, and coastal city in particular. Being young, ignorant of his loss, and proud of his birthplace, he looked forward to his homecoming as something in the nature of an event. He hummed tunelessly as he surveyed all these familiar landmarks.
“Well,” remarked a stout passenger, squinting from the shoreward sights to the tanned face of Ned Anderson. “I can’t hand this place much. Far as I know it might be New Jersey on a sunny morning—allowing the sun was shining, y’understand. Same kind of boats. Same scum on the water. Same stink. Same . . .”
Ned Anderson yawned. “My good fellow,” he observed, cheerfully, “have you ever seen any of the ports in Africa? You haven’t. I can tell that at a glance. They’re terrible. Hot, oppressive, and when the sun gets just right, that Red Sea is red—not blue or pink, but downright red.”
“I heard you, Mister, the first time you said red. But I ain’t interested in Africa. I’m talking about America. Listen. I come from New Jersey to see California, and I came like you through the Panama Canal. And I ain’t seen anything yet on this trip but a lot of riff-raff of this and that. By God, I came out here to see something grand and magnificent. And what do I see? Ask me!”
“All right,” said Anderson. “What do you see?”
The stout man squinted and blew his nose. “A lot of water, docks, lumber piles and boats. Listen here. I live in Hoboken. I got all this scenery in my back yard, as you might say. I work in a brewery. I’ve been saving my money for this vacation. And when I start to figure what this trip is setting me back, I wish I had banked my money and hauled a rocking chair out on my back porch. Could have seen the same sights from there and not spent a nickel. Bah! California here I come. It’s a racket.”
“Brother,” said Anderson, staring dreamily shoreward. “Your philosophy is sound, but your logic, rotten. What you need is a drink. Come to my cabin. There’s still time before this old hulk cramps to her berth.”
Eastward across the state, by a matter of some three hundred miles, a bunch of coastal city cops cluttered the main highways leading into California from Nevada and Arizona. The idea behind this cluttering was somewhat involved, but its actual execution was simple.
Bums must be kept out, turned back. People with lucre, jobs and homes were welcomed, stickers placed on their windshields, cars searched for bags of forbidden fruit, license numbers checked, and the fortunate ones were allowed to enter the interior.
The cops, red of face, husky, trimly uniformed, did an excellent job in handling their disagreeable task. The Press damned them with equal partiality. Headlines ran: COSSACKS COERCE COMING CITIZENS. POLICE PURGE BORDER BUMS. And the poor cops sweated and wished they were back home where it wasn’t so damned hot.
Two boys in a ramshackle Ford braked to a stop at the barricade. They came from the wilderness of dust and parched fields. Their hopes were high, their cash reserve low. Cold meat for the cops.
“All right, son,” said Sergeant Breen, not unkindly, to the lad behind the wheel. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Yeah? Why Santa Barbara?”
“We got jobs there.”
“Got anything to prove it?”
“How long since you had your last meal?”
“Then you must be broke. I’m sorry, lads. But I’ll have to turn you back. Those are my orders. This state is already over-crowded, and our relief agencies have just about gone insane trying to figure how everybody’s to be housed and fed. Hi, Terry. Take these two lads over to the Desert Inn, fill their bellies with all they can eat and have it charged to me. Then see that they roll eastward towards the Colorado River Bridge.” He turned. “Who’s next?” His eyes lighted on a gleaming, low-slung, red Auburn with New York license plates. Behind the wheel crouched a man with a pale, boyish face. Beside him sat a hard-visaged man, wide of mouth, thick lips, and a hoarse, guttural voice. He grinned at the police sergeant, took a fat roll of bills from his pocket, and peeled off a twenty.
“We’re fixed with plenty of dough, Sergeant,” he said, extending the money out the open window. “Okay to push on?”
Sergeant Breen nodded. “Okay with me. Let him through, boys.”
The gleaming car swung past the barricade and went dusting down the hot, desert road.
Sergeant Breen looked at the twenty. He called to another cop. “Just to keep the record clear, McBurney. One of them birds—they looked like a couple of hoods to me—slipped me this twenty. Take it over to Dago Joe’s Inn and have him put it against the food bill we’re paying for out of our own pockets. This job is the nuts. Here I’m just married hardly a week—and stuck out here in the Styx! All right, who’s next?”
He passed through two cars of well known make, then stopped a noisy truck. “Ha,” he chortled. “And where to, Mr. McClusky?”
“Oi, such a policeman,” said the driver, a red-bearded son of Israel. “I’m goink to Lonk Beach, y’understand. See, in de back. Tires, old metal, old magazines and nusspapers.”
“That’s fine,” said Sergeant Breen. “But you’re a hell of a long ways from Long Beach. Lemme see your license.” He squinted at the car license wrapped around the steering column, examined the driving license, grunted and returned the small card to its owner. “Drive on, McClusky.”
The red-bearded son of Israel drove on into the dust clouds created by the cars that went before. Business slacked off for a moment. Then came a man on foot, his face red with heat and moist with perspiration. He looked vexed.
“Just a moment,” called out Sergeant Breen. “Where are you headed?”
“To the coastal city,” said the man. “I started out with a car. I was robbed of the car and most of my money which was in the side pocket of the door.”
“Them’s sad words, stranger,” grinned the sergeant. “I’ve heard them plenty. There must be a lot of thieves working the highways bordering California. Tough I calls it. What’s your name?”
“Edward Smith. I’m a law clerk. And I have good reasons for coming to California. I’ve got a job.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Smith. And who’s this job with?”
Edward Smith took a folded sheet of paper from his pocket. “Here’s the offer of work from . . .”
“I can read plenty good,” said Breen, taking the letter from Smith’s hand, noticing as he did so the missing joint on the little finger of the man’s right hand. The heading was that of an investment broker with offices in the coastal city. The letter ran:
Dear Mr. Smith: I have examined your credentials and found them satisfactory. Enclosed you will find a cashier’s check for your expenses west. Will expect you not later than the 15th inst.
Yours very truly,
Sergeant Breen returned the letter to its owner. “Looks legal to me, Mr. Smith. I guess I can take a chance on you.”
Edward Smith nodded. “Thanks, officer. How far is the city from here?”
“Roughly three hundred miles. But if you walk it, it’ll seem like three thousand. Why don’t you take a bus? There’ll be one going through here after supper tonight.”
The face of Edward Smith broke into a wan smile.
“That’s a good idea, officer. I think I’ll wait for it. I’m somewhat fatigued with walking.”
If Edward Smith was a good law clerk, his training did not end there. He was also a good poker player. With that sure instinct of men who know their way around, he found a poker game in the town and a seat among the players.
He had five dollars when he sat down. The session lasted three hours. When Edward Smith got up from the table he still had his five dollars, and seventy besides.
He smiled wanly on the other gentlemen, apologized for having to quit the game. Quit the game, ate a substantial supper at Dago Joe’s Desert Inn, stepped onto a trans-continental motor bus, and was whisked across the state over desert and mountains, and into the fastness of the sleeping coastal city.
In an apartment at the Belvedere Arms, two men discussed a radiogram dispatched from the Commanche. The message read:
GILLESPIE SECURITY BROKERAGE COMPANY. ARRIVING WEDNESDAY. STAYING AT COMMODORE TEMPORARILY. SEND ME NEW CHECKBOOK.
James Gillespie, slender, innocuous in appearance, clean-shaven and outwardly nervous, flipped the message towards the other man.
“He’s here, Baron. Registered at the Commodore this afternoon. And I needn’t tell you I’m worried sick. The last time I heard from him he expected to be away another six months—time enough to get everything taken care of, and all risks eliminated.”
George Baron, counselor at law, bail-bond expert, fixer extraordinary, and a man of parts, smiled suavely. There was about this attorney an aura of respectable urbanity. His cheekbones were high, prominent. Eyes, wide-spaced. Hair slightly gray about the temples and matched by a trim, gray mustache. He could exude a warm, personal charm on occasion. His reputation was brilliant, but spotted. He got along.
“I trust,” said George Baron, “that you sent him the new checkbook. Because if you didn’t . . .”
“But I did,” said Gillespie. “What else could I do?”
“Nothing. But cheer up. That fellow Smith will be here, maybe tonight. When I sent the check I wrote a letter on your stationery. I also have his picture. Startling, Gillespie—the resemblance between you.”
A frown creased Gillespie’s forehead. “I’ll be glad when this business is finished. The girl suspects that everything is not quite right. It was that confounded check. She saw it, but didn’t say anything, but I saw a queer look in her eyes.”
“We’ve got a good man following her. She can’t do anything without our knowledge.”
“You think we can safely trust this man?”
“As much as anybody can be trusted.”
“Just the same I’m worried. I have a feeling that . . .”
“You should have thought of all of this at the time you lost all your own money and started to think about how easy it would be to make use of Anderson’s account.”
“Oh, how was I to know? Things looked right for a killing in the market. I thought I saw some good chances to clean up. Anderson was far away, drunk probably. And I had the power of attorney. Well, I figured wrong. The Wall Street boys cleaned me . . .”
“Not quite, Gillespie. There’s still a little matter of about two hundred thousand in cash and negotiable securities. The agreement was, I believe, that we would split this amount evenly provided I arranged things as originally planned.”
James Gillespie admitted this fact. “That was the agreement, but it seems somewhat involved. Isn’t there any other way out?”
“None that would provide the maximum of safety. Want to call the deal off? Want to handle the thing yourself? Maybe it’s on your mind to skip the country and leave your attorney holding the sack as it were?”
“Nothing like that, Baron. Everything’s in your hands. Just the same, when the hue and cry goes out from the police and sheriff’s offices, I’m the man they’ll be looking for. So the quicker you get things fixed, the easier I’m going to feel about my future.”
George Baron nodded gravely. “Of course. I understand your grievance, and I can’t blame you for being—shall we say, nervous. But give me time. My outside talent is on the way from New York. When they’ve done their work, I’ll pay them off, and they’ll go back east. It’s really going to be quite simple—and effective.”
“It had better be,” growled Gillespie. “Anderson may be a sap in a lot of ways, but there’s no telling what he’ll do if he becomes the least bit suspicious and asks for an immediate accounting. It would make things difficult to handle.”
“I don’t believe,” said Baron, lighting a panatela and inhaling pleasantly, “that there’ll be any trouble from that direction. After all, Ned Anderson isn’t overly endowed with gray matter. Just sit tight and leave everything to me. Now pour me a small Vermouth, then I’ll be leaving.”
Gillespie, his hand not quite steady, reached for a tall, narrow bottle. “I don’t mind being accidentally killed, Baron, just so long as the police don’t . . .”
“I’ll handle the police,” promised George Baron, setting down his empty glass and getting up. “There’ll be no trouble about the identification. Get hold of yourself. Hell, accidents are happening every day. The investigation and medical examiner’s report will be simple routine.”
Gillespie nodded drearily as the door closed behind the departing attorney’s back. But there was a glazed, hunted look in his eyes. Never had he wholly trusted George Baron. He hadn’t trusted him when he had taken out a certain insurance policy that was, in a way, an unusual form of protection.
A thinnish smile parted his lips. Even Baron didn’t know about the terms of this particular policy.