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By Charles Williams
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 Charles Williams
All rights reserved.
They were down at Miami International between thunder showers at 3:40 p.m. Ingram, a big, flat-faced man with aloof grey eyes and an almost imperceptible limp, followed the other passengers out of the DC-6 into the steamy vacuum left behind by the departing squall. His leg had stiffened a little, as it always did when he had to sit still for very long, and he thrust the foot down savagely against the pull of tendons as taut as winched halyards. He checked through Immigration, and when he was cleared by Customs he waved off the porter with a curt shake of his head, carried the old suitcase out to the lower ramp, and took a taxi downtown to the La Perla, the shabby third-rate hotel he'd first checked into some fifteen days before and had used as a base of operations ever since. There was no mail for him. Well, it was too soon.
"You can have the same room, sir, if you'd like," the clerk said.
"All right," he replied indifferently. It commanded a view of a dank airwell, but was cheaper than the outside ones. He signed the registry card and rode the palsied elevator to the third floor. The operator, a bored worldling of nineteen, picked up the suitcase and preceded him down a corridor where flooring creaked beneath its eroded carpet.
The room was high-ceilinged and dim and passably clean, stamped with the drab monotony of all cheap hotel rooms and that air of being ready, with the same weary and impervious acquiescence, for sleep, assignation, or suicide. The bathroom with its old-fashioned tub was just to the left of the doorway. Beyond its corner the room widened to encompass a greyish and sway-backed slab of bed, a dresser marked with cigarette burns and the bleached circular stains of old highball glasses, and, at the far end, beside the window looking into the airwell, a writing desk, on top of which were the telephone, a coin-operated radio, and a small lamp with a dime-store shade. It had begun to rain again. He could see it falling into the airwell beyond the parted slats of the Venetian blind. Looks like the set for an art motion-picture, he thought; all we need is a Message and a couple of rats.
The youth deposited the suitcase on a luggage stand at the foot of the bed and switched on the air-conditioning unit installed in the lower half of the window. Ingram dropped a quarter in his hand. He let it lie there for an insulting half-second before he closed the fingers, and started to look up at Ingram with the bright insolence of the under-tipped, but collided with an imperturbable grey stare that changed his mind. "Thank you," he said hurriedly, and went out.
Ingram ran hot water into the tub and stripped, hanging his suit in the wardrobe with the automatic neatness of a man accustomed to policing his own loneliness. After rinsing the drip-dry shirt, he selected a wooden hanger for it and hooked it on the curtain rod. When he got into the tub, he stretched his legs out and put his hands on the knee of the left one, forcing it down against the pull of the tendons. Sweat stood out on his face. It was better, he thought. He'd got rid of the crutches a month ago, and then the cane, just before he'd come up from San Juan. In another month the limp would be gone entirely, and there'd be nothing left but the scar tissue. After a while he climbed from the tub, blotted himself as well as he could with the sleazy and undersized towels, and put on a pair of boxer shorts. The skin across the hard wedge of his back and shoulders and the flat planes of his face had a faint yellowish cast, the residue of old tan faded by weeks in the hospital. The slick, hairless whorls and splotches of scar tissue around his left hip and in back of his left leg still had an ugly look, and would probably never tan again. He made the futile gesture of running a comb through the intransigent nap of greying dark hair, and went out into the bedroom.
He broke the seal on the Haig & Haig half bottle he'd bought in Nassau, and poured a drink. He selected one of the thin cigars from the leather case in his suit, lighted it, and looked at his watch on the dresser. He'd better call Hollister and explain what he'd done. He was just reaching for the telephone when someone rapped on the door.
He put down the drink and opened it. There were two men in the dingy hallway. The nearer one crowded the door just enough to prevent its being closed again, and asked, "Your name John Ingram?"
"Yes," he said. "What is it?"
The other flipped open a folder containing a badge. "Police. We'd like to talk to you."
He frowned. "About what?"
"We'd better come inside."
"Sure." He stepped back. They came in and closed the door. One took a quick look into the bathroom, and then into the wardrobe reaching in to pat the suit hanging there. Ingram went over to the suitcase lying open on its stand at the foot of the bed, and started to reach inside. "Keep your hands out of there," the other man ordered.
He straightened. "What the hell? I just wanted to put on some pants."
"You'll get 'em. Just stand back."
The one who'd checked the bathroom and wardrobe came Over and riffled expertly through the contents of the bag. "Okay," he said. Ingram took out a pair of grey slacks and started to put them on. The two detectives noticed the scars. One of them opened his mouth to say something, but looked again at the big man's face and closed it.
"Who are you?" Ingram asked. "And what is it you want?"
It was the one near the doorway who replied. "I'm Detective Sergeant Schmidt, Miami Police." He was a dark, compactly built man in his early thirties with an air of hard-bitten competence about him, neatly dressed in a lightweight suit and white shirt. He nodded to the other. "This is Arthur Quinn. You're from Puerto Rico—is that right?"
"More or less," Ingram replied.
"What do you mean, more or less? That's what the hotel register says."
"I lived in San Juan for the past three years."
"What line of work are you in?"
"I was in the boat-repair business down there. Another man and I had a boatyard and marine railway."
"Is that what you're doing now?"
"No. We had a bad fire. He was killed in it, and his widow wanted out, so we liquidated what was left."
"What are you doing in Miami?"
"Looking for a boat."
"To buy, you mean?"
"That's right," he replied. "What's this all about?"
Schmidt ignored the question. "You checked in here the first time fifteen days ago, but you've been gone for the past eight. Where've you been?"
"Nassau. Tampa. Key West."
"When were you in Key West?" Quinn asked. He was a slender, greying man with a narrow face and rather cold eyes. He looked more like the manager of a loan company than a cop, Ingram thought.
"Sunday," he said. "A week ago yesterday."
The two men exchanged a glance. "And you went down there to look at a boat?" Quinn asked.
Ingram nodded. "A schooner called the Dragoon. What about it?"
Quinn smiled. It didn't add any appreciable warmth to his face. "We thought you knew. The Dragoon was stolen."
Ingram had started to take a drink of the whisky. He lowered the glass, stared blankly at the two men, and went over and sat down beside the desk. "Are you kidding? How could anybody steal a seventy-foot schooner?"
"It seems to be easy, when you know how," Quinn replied. He moved nearer the desk. Schmidt leaned against the corner of the bathroom and lighted a cigarette.
"When did it happen?" Ingram asked.
"Oddly enough, the next night after you were aboard," Quinn said.
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Ingram asked quietly.
"It means you'd better come up with some answers. Somebody cased that job, and you look mighty good for it."
"You mean just because I was aboard? That boat was for sale, and open to inspection by anybody."
"The watchman says you were the only one that'd been aboard for nearly a month. He gave us a description of you, and we traced you back here."
"Description? Hell, I told him my name, and where I lived."
"He says you gave him some name, but he couldn't remember it. So it could have been a phony."
"Well, I'll have to admit that makes sense."
"Don't get snotty, Ingram. You can answer these questions here, or I can take you back down there and let you answer 'em. I'm from the Monroe County Sheriff's Department. That boat had been lying there at her mooring in the harbour for nearly a year, but whoever stole it knew she was still in condition to go to sea."
"Maybe they towed her away."
"She left under her own power." Quinn leaned his arms on the desk and stared coldly. "So how would they know there was even an engine aboard, let alone whether it'd run or not, or whether there was any fuel in the tanks, or the starting batteries were charged? You were on there all afternoon, poking into every thing, according to old Tango. You started the engine and ran it, and inspected the rigging and steering gear, took the sails out of their bags and checked them—"
"Of course I did. I told you I was looking for a boat to buy. You think I went down there just to find out what colour it was painted? And, incidentally, what was the watchman doing all the time they were getting away with it? He lived aboard."
"He was in the drunk tank of the Dade County jail. Clever, huh?"
"Dade County? How'd he get up here?"
"He was helped. He went ashore Monday night in Key West and had a few drinks, and all he can remember is he ran into a couple of good-time Charlies in some Duval Street bar. About three o'clock in the morning a patrol car found him passed out on the sidewalk on Flagler Street here in downtown Miami. He didn't have any money to pay a fine, so it was three days before he got out, and it took him another day to thumb his way back to Key West and find out the Dragoon was gone. Of course, everybody around the Key West water front knew it was, but didn't think anything of it. He'd already told several people there'd been a man aboard thinking of buying it, so they took it for granted it'd been moved to Marathon or Miami to go on the ways for survey. See? Just a nice convenient string of coincidences, so the boat was gone four days before anybody even realized it was stolen."
"I was in Tampa Monday night," Ingram said. "Also Tuesday, and Tuesday night."
"Can you prove it?"
"Sure. You can check with the Grayson Hotel there. Also with a Tampa yacht broker named Warren Crawford. I was in his office a couple of times, and aboard a ketch named the Susannah. If you'll look in the breast pocket of my coat you'll find the receipted hotel bill. And the stub of an airline ticket from Tampa to Nassau, Wednesday morning, and a receipted hotel bill from Nassau for Wednesday night to last night. Then there's a Pan American Airways ticket stub for the flight from Nassau back to Miami. I landed here at three-forty this afternoon and came straight to the hotel. Anything else?"
Schmidt had already removed the receipts and ticket stubs from the coat and was riffling through them. "Seems to be right."
"But he could still have cased the job," Quinn insisted. "The whole thing's too pat. And if he was just the finger man, he'd make sure he had an alibi." He whirled on Ingram. "Let's take another look at this pipe-dream you were going to buy the Dragoon. What'd you expect to do with it?"
"Sail it out to Honolulu. I'm thinking of going back in the charter business. That's what I used to do, here and in Nassau."
"You know the owner's asking price?"
"Sure. Fifty-five thousand dollars."
The detective surveyed the room with a contemptuous smile. "You must be one of those eccentric millionaires."
Ingram felt his face redden. "What I pay for hotel rooms is my business."
"Come off it, Ingram! You expect us to believe a man living in a fleabag like this really intended to buy a fifty-five-thousand-dollar yacht? How much money have you got?"
"That's also my business."
"Suit yourself. You can tell us, or sweat it out in jail while we find out ourselves. What bank's your money in?"
"All right, all right. The Florida National."
"About twelve thousand."
"We can check that, you know. There'll be somebody at the bank till five."
Ingram gestured toward the telephone. "Go ahead."
"So you expected to buy a fifty-five-thousand-dollar yacht with twelve thousand?"
It might have been more sensible to explain, but he was growing a little tired of Quinn's attitude and he'd never been a man who took kindly to being pushed. He leaned forward in the chair and said, very softly, "And if I did? Quote me the law against it, by section and paragraph. And stop breathing in my face."
"Come on, Ingram! Let's have it. How many of you were there, and where's the boat headed?"
"If you won't take my word for it, call the owner. I wrote to her."
"In a pig's eye. You wouldn't even know who the owner is."
"Mrs. C. R. Osborne, of Houston, Texas. Her address is in that black notebook in my bag."
Schmidt gave him a thoughtful glance, and removed the notebook. Quinn, however, smiled coldly, and said, "Funny she didn't mention it. We talked to her about an hour ago and told her we were looking for a man named Ingram, but she'd never heard of you."
"You mean she's here in town?" he asked.
"Yes, she's here," Schmidt said. "She flew in this afternoon. When did you mail that letter?"
"Saturday morning, from Nassau," he replied. "Maybe she left Houston before it was delivered."
"We can find out. But what'd you say in it?"
"I made her an offer of forty-five thousand for the Dragoon, subject to the usual conditions of survey."
"And payable how?"
"All right," Schmidt said crisply, "if you did write a letter, which I doubt, it has to be a bona-fide offer, or a phony—in which case it's probably a deliberate alibi. You haven't got forty-five thousand dollars. So what were you going to use for money? Put up or shut up."
Ingram hesitated. Then he shrugged wearily, and said, "All right. I was acting for a third party."
"His name's Fredric Hollister, and he's president of Hollister-Dykes Laboratories, Inc., of Cleveland, Ohio. They manufacture ethical drugs. He's at the Eden Roc Hotel; go ahead and call him."
"Why didn't you tell us this in the first place?" Schmidt demanded.
"Partly, I suppose, because it was none of your damned business," he said. "But principally because he didn't want it known the buyer was a corporation until after the deal was set, because of the effect it might have on the price. I was to select the boat, subject to his final approval, and then take over as captain. We'd pretty well settled on the Dragoon after I gave him the report on it Sunday night, but decided to wait till I'd looked at the others in Tampa and Nassau before we committed ourselves. I'm supposed to call him this afternoon."
Schmidt nodded. "Can I use your phone?"
"Sure. Go ahead."
The detective picked it up. "Get me the Eden Roc Hotel, in Miami Beach," he said, and waited. The room was silent except for the faint humming of the air-conditioner. "Mr. Fredric Hollister, please ... Oh? ... Are you sure? ... And when was this?"
Ingram stared at his face, conscious of a very cold feeling that was beginning to spread through his stomach. Schmidt hung up, and snapped, "Get your clothes on, fella."
"What is it?"
"Hollister checked Out of the Eden Roc a week ago. On Monday night."
Excerpted from Aground by Charles Williams. Copyright © 1960 Charles Williams. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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