Read an Excerpt
Fit to Kill
A Mike Shayne Mystery
By Brett Halliday
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1958 Brett Halliday
All rights reserved.
The telephone jangled.
Timothy Rourke felt strongly tempted to ignore it. He had a tall, cool drink in his hand, and until he saw the bottom of the glass he didn't feel like moving.
He had just arrived back at his hotel after a guided tour of the capital. He wasn't accustomed to walking for so long at a stretch, and his feet hurt. In company with a party of school teachers from Cleveland, Ohio, he had looked at the cathedral, the market, the old fortifications above the Caribbean, as well as an indefinite number of bronze statues of Marshal Gonzalez, who had been president of this Central American republic for as long as anyone cared to remember.
It had been a harrowing day. The guide had annoyed Rourke intensely by his praise of the Marshal, who in Rourke's opinion was a bum of the first water. The school teachers had been excited by Rourke's presence. Unattached male tourists were rare in these parts. He was thin to the point of looking undernourished. There were cavernous hollows beneath his eyes, and the various segments of his skeleton seemed to be rather loosely hung together. Long years as a crime reporter on the Miami Daily News had made him hard-bitten and cynical, but this didn't show on the surface. He invariably aroused the maternal instinct of all unmarried women over thirty, to his immense disgust. They wanted to feed him and put some meat on his bones, and make him give up smoking, drinking and keeping late hours, all the habits of a lifetime.
The phone continued to ring, breaking into the purr of the air-conditioner. Rourke sighed. He had been a newspaperman too long; he had to answer it. This might be the call he'd been waiting for.
Getting up with an effort, he crossed the room, picked up the phone and said hello.
"Señor Rourke?" said a man's voice.
The tone was low and cautious. Rourke's grip on the phone tightened. Ostensibly on vacation, he was actually after a story. Marshal Gonzalez won elections easily, by posting policemen in each polling place to watch the voters. But it was no secret, in spite of the most absolute censorship in the hemisphere, that many of his people didn't love him. They showed their feelings by setting off bombs, chalking slogans on walls, occasionally by demonstrating in the streets. Since his arrival, Rourke had been trying to get in touch with a representative of the underground opposition.
"Yeh, this is Rourke," he said.
"Excellent," the voice replied in a conspiratorial whisper. "Perhaps the North American señor will enjoy a tour of the city after dark? I will show you some places very chic, very daring. The most fantastic entertainment you have witnessed in your life. And for this service what is my fee, señor? Absolutely nothing. I will be most happy to do it, to have an opportunity to practice my English."
Rourke expressed an exclamation of annoyance.
"Sorry," he snapped. "Not interested."
"Señor Rourke!" the voice said insistently. "Take my advice. There are certain places of entertainment, respectable enough in appearance, where a North American tourist would be plundered without mercy. Whereas in the establishments to which I will conduct you, the wheels are honest, the liquor is of excellent quality and low price, the bartenders never under any condition put drugs in a customer's drink. You can eat and drink with confidence. Do let me be your guide for the evening, without recompense."
When Rourke said nothing, he went on with a trace of desperation: "You are a reporter, yes? A man of the world. The things I will show you, you have never even heard mentioned before. The girls are most lively, impulsive, full of spirit." He paused and said with meaning, "I can say no more over the telephone."
And then Rourke understood. A tout for a gambling joint would have no way of knowing he was a reporter. They were talking through the hotel switchboard, which was undoubtedly monitored.
He said reluctantly, "I was planning to have dinner sent in, but you make it sound interesting."
"Good," the voice said with relief.
"But to give you warning," Rourke went on, playing the role of an experienced traveler about to explore the nightlife of a foreign capital, "I'll cash a traveler's check for fifty dollars, and that's all I'll have with me. I want you to know there's an upper limit. Pass the word."
There was reproach in the other's voice. "Please accept my assurance — I am not in the least interested in robbing you. Shall we fix on seven o'clock?"
"In the lobby?"
After a brief hesitation, the voice replied, "I think not in the lobby. On occasion the manager of your hotel has accused me of annoying his guests, although I did nothing but offer my services. Do this, if you will be so kind. Turn to the right as you come out onto the Avenida Gonzales. I will await you at the second corner. So you will know me, I will wear a flower on my coat."
"Okay," Rourke said. "At seven."
He hung up thoughtfully. He finished his drink, watching the time, and made himself another. He dashed off airmail postcards to his city editor and his friend Mike Shayne in Miami, and dropped them into the mail chute beside the elevators. Then he showered and put on a fresh suit. He had another drink in the bar downstairs, and for the first time he faced the fact that he was frankly scared. He couldn't stop thinking of the death, some years back, of an American reporter named George Polk, a case well known to every newspaperman. Through an underground contact, Polk had set out to interview the leaders of rebel forces in Greece. It would have made a terrific story if he had come back with it. But he didn't come back.
At five minutes to seven, Rourke decided that he couldn't go through with it. He already had enough for a story. No one knew about the phone call, and the smart thing for Rourke to do was to sit here on a comfortable bar-stool and go on drinking.
Two minutes later he was walking out through the hotel's main entrance. He turned right. At the second intersection he stopped and carefully lighted a cigarette, looking for a man with a flower.
As he shook out the match, a small British car swung in to the curb. The driver, a dark-haired youth with a small orchid in his button-hole, leaned all the way over and unlatched the door. "Señor Rourke?" he called cheerfully. "Get in, if you please."
Rourke backed into the little car, folding his knees high. The youth came down hard on the gas as the traffic policeman waved them on. They shot forward, with a clash of gears.
"It is somebody else's car," he apologized. "I am not experienced with it."
The reporter studied his companion. He was only a boy, and Rourke doubted if he was old enough to be issued a driver's license. He glanced continually at the rear-view mirror.
"We are being followed, I think," he remarked calmly.
Rourke gave a nervous laugh. "Why should anybody want to follow a tourist around the night-spots?"
The boy grinned delightedly. "But gambling is against the law in our country! Oh, absolutely. And as for the very pretty and lively girls I spoke of on the telephone, they also are very much against the law. Hold on," he said abruptly. "Do just as I tell you."
He swung the wheel sharply, and with a squealing of tires on the pavement, the little car shot into a side street. The boy became suddenly reckless, darting into the left-hand lane to pass a truck, then squeezing past another car on the right. After another quick turn, he hit the brakes and snapped off the ignition.
"Across the street, Señor Rourke."
He was out of the car in an instant, plunging straight across through the heavy traffic. Horns blared at him, and somebody shouted. Rourke, more cautious, arrived at the opposite sidewalk a few steps behind him. The boy was beckoning urgently. They went into a narrow arcade, a cobble-stoned alley lined with shops. A taxi was waiting at the opposite end of the arcade, its motor idling. Rourke followed the boy into the back seat. The door slammed. An instant later they joined the stream of traffic moving out of the downtown area, toward the residential section and the beaches.
The boy wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, very excited.
"Like clock-work, señor. It does not always go like that, I assure you. When one thing is right, another is wrong. But this time, you were standing in the appointed spot, the taxi was waiting —"
"Now maybe you'll tell me what it's all about," Rourke said.
The boy turned serious. All at once he looked much older.
"You are on holiday, Señor Rourke?" he said. "But you are also a newspaper reporter, as we have taken the trouble to ascertain, and you are in a habit of asking questions. You have asked waiters and other chance acquaintances their opinion of the regime — in a rather imprudent manner, by the way. We were naturally curious about this North American journalist who was interested in our political affairs."
"Who is we?"
The boy straightened. "The Revolutionary Democratic Students' Union, an affiliate of the National Provisional Committee for Free Elections. Now, to get down to business. Does the name Jaimé Ramirez mean anything to you?"
Rourke considered. "I've seen it somewhere. Who is he?"
"Before his death," the boy answered, looking straight ahead, "he was a leader of the democratic youth, the bravest, the most dedicated — I am proud to say I was his colleague. He was murdered by the police."
He stopped, and Rourke saw a knot of muscle at the hinge of his jaw.
"That is not an unusual occurrence in our country," the boy went on. "He disappeared one night. The next morning his body was thrown from an automobile, traveling fast through the outskirts of the city. He had been badly beaten. His fingernails had been torn off."
"Yes," Rourke growled. "Now I remember where I saw the name."
"There is no doubt of the identity of the murderers. The pattern was clear. And that is the whole point, you see — the people must know that if they are foolish enough to dream of democracy and freedom, such will be their fate. But meanwhile the partisans of the Marshal, his friends in the United States, can say to us, where is your proof? Gonzalez is a family man who loves music, not at all the monster he is painted. These are the two faces of a policy of terror. You exploit it at home, and deny it abroad."
"And this time you can prove the cops did it?"
"Precisely, señor. Usually the victim is picked up when he is alone, but with Jaimé, that was impossible. He was careful to have someone with him at all times. So we have a witness to his abduction. We wish to have her story appear in the North American newspapers."
He looked out, and spoke in Spanish to the driver, who decreased his speed and turned off into a neighborhood of rundown tenements, big barrack-like buildings of crumbling concrete and plaster. The road became worse the farther they went from the main avenue. Presently they pulled up and the boy advised Rourke politely to watch his step getting out. The sidewalk was only a dirt path.
Rourke didn't like the looks of the neighborhood, and he hesitated an instant before following the boy down a short flight of outside steps.
They entered a dank, unlighted basement. When the reporter's eyes adjusted to the half-light, he saw a bare table and several straight chairs.
A woman was sitting against the wall in the shadows. She was all in black, her face hidden.
"The North American reporter," the boy announced triumphantly. "Please, señor. Please to sit down."
Going to a cupboard, he brought out a bottle of rum and three glasses. He offered one to the woman, but she refused it with a shake of the head. Rourke and the boy clinked glasses while the boy murmured a toast in Spanish. The rum, Rourke discovered, was sweet and very strong.
"We must not remain here long," the boy said. "You will understand that it is impossible for the señora to tell you her name. She will relate the circumstances of Jaimé's disappearance, and if there is anything you do not understand, please ask for an explanation."
Rourke looked toward the woman. She leaned forward, her hands clasped on her knees. Her face was still hidden.
"Señor, this is how it happened with Jaimé," she said, speaking in strongly accented English, which the reporter followed without difficulty. "I keep a small house. When such-and-such a one is in trouble, he comes to me and if he is a true friend of the committee, I let him stay hidden until his friends can come for him, you understand? Jaimé Ramirez I knew well, from other occasions. There was a lad always in trouble." She laughed silently. "Always in trouble, sometimes with the police, sometimes with the husbands of young married women."
"Señora," the boy put in from across the table.
"Perhaps I do him an injustice," she said. "But he was handsome, that one. I myself — but never mind. This time he had clearly scored some kind of political triumph, from certain small things he said. He seemed more than ordinarily happy. He laughed and joked with us that first night, and was too excited to sleep. I naturally did not press for details. I wish to know nothing of my guests' doings, outside my four walls."
"How long did he stay?" Rourke asked.
"One night, one day. They came for him the second night. We were eating supper, a little after dark. A knock came at the door. No one knew that Jaimé was there, but we prepared for surprises, you will realize. In my district, the buildings huddle together, and there are ways a person can leave secretly. I have been visited by police only once before, and I lost no one to them then, thank the gentle Virgin. Before I unbarred the door, Jaimé and the others made preparation for a hasty departure."
She leaned forward, and spoke more rapidly. Rourke knew that he would remember every word, every inflection.
"It was a man," she said, "a stranger. I could see little of him, but he had a look I did not care for. He stood well back from the door, holding out a note. 'For Jaimé,' he said. I naturally replied that I knew of no one by that name. I told him to be off before I called the police, and much more of that nature. But he persisted. At last I took the note, pretending it was the only way I could be rid of him, and closed the door. Locked it. After reading the note, Jaimé at once made ready to leave. I did not try to dissuade him, although at that moment, I confess it, I had a feeling as though a warning had sounded. I bade him good-bye with tears in my eyes. From the window, behind the curtain, I watched him walk away with the stranger, his coat thrown carelessly over his shoulders. He was afraid of nothing, Jaimé. Then I heard the sound of an automobile motor. A black American car came slowly along the street. Jaimé looked around in alarm, and leaped to one side. He was not quick enough. The other caught him about the waist and forced him across the sidewalk. Another of the devils reached out and dragged him into the car. Then the motor roared. Black smoke spurted from the exhaust. They left our neighborhood very fast."
"And next morning, as I told you, Señor," the boy said, "Jaimé's body, almost nude, was thrown from just such a car in the suburbs."
"How do you know it was a cops' car?" Rourke asked.
The woman laughed. "We know, Señor."
The boy said seriously, "First, the color. It was black. Second, it was the make known as Chevrolet, one door on each side. Third, a radio aerial, tied down. To you, perhaps, these points might have no meaning, but we are familiar with such cars, I assure you. Only the police have them."
After weighing the story in silence for a moment, Rourke asked the woman, "Would you know the man if you saw him again?"
"I hope I do not see him a second time!" she exclaimed. "I do not love our police so greatly that I wish for their company."
The boy said anxiously, "You do not understand, señora. This will not seem obvious to North Americans, as it does to us. Will you describe the man you saw?"
"It was dark," she said doubtfully, "his hat was pulled over his face. He was shorter than many men, I believe, wide across the shoulders. Very much the policeman in appearance, and I mistrusted him at first sight. In only one thing was he not typical. He wore thick glasses, with curving lenses. I remember those great eyes blinking at me."
Excerpted from Fit to Kill by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1958 Brett Halliday. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.