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Lady in Peril
By Lester Dent
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Ace Books, Inc.
All rights reserved.
SOMEONE BROUGHT A NEWSPAPER INTO THE Senate chamber about midafternoon and it passed from hand to hand like a hot potato.
Guessing roughly as to the number, about half the senators turned for a look at Loneman after they read the headline.
Mostly the looks sent at Loneman were sympathetic. A few were notably not friendly. There were no indifferent looks.
Of course Loneman sensed something. He tried to think what it might be. He was not successful.
Then Senator Harold Abbot from the upstate third, glancing at the newspaper, turned as pale as a piece of fish in a deepfreeze. Senator Abbot bowed his head, his shoulders sagged. For some time the only gesture Senator Abbot made was to touch his closed eyelids with his fingertips. Eventually the Senator lurched erect and in a thick, angry voice, the Senator asked for the floor.
"May I address a question to the Chair?" Senator Abbot said. He was top man in the Senate, could be the next governor. He got attention. "If the Chair will condescend to answer, will the Chair tell us why a notorious hatchetman for a vested interest in this state, a man who holds no elective office, is permitted to sit unchallenged on the floor of this legislative chamber?" he said. "Is it because this man is so powerful, so malevolent in his oblation of vengeance that the Chair fears to expel him?"
Senator Abbot's shaggy, raging voice subsided. He sat down.
Why, thought Loneman, the old fool must mean me!
And this was correct. For presently a pageboy came to ask Loneman to leave the working floor of the Senate. Loneman did so.
Loneman carried quiet anger behind his tight lips and dark brown eyes. He was compact and tanned, a six-foot man of thirty. He had dark red hair, the color of very old mahogany, and he was dressed in a proper, dark hard-finished sharkskin. He didn't know why he'd been kicked out of the Senate chamber.
He had been sitting in the chamber visiting with a senator friend. It was true he was a little out of line. The Senate chamber was for senators, Loneman was a lobbyist. But the sessions were not run to strict rule. They did it different in Washington, but this was government on the state level in Missouri. Loneman left the chamber, strode past the doorman, irritation and surprise giving his eye a glint.
"Why the boot in the pants, Mr. Loneman?" the doorman said.
"Beats me too." He was a pale-skinned, erect man in his seventies. He had been here at the Senate chamber door when Loneman came to the state capitol seven years ago. "I've seen Senator Abbot deliver a chewing-out before," the doorman said. "But I never saw him show so much fang."
"Yes," Loneman said. "He gave me quite a bite."
"They were handing a newspaper around. Something in it set Abbot off, you think?"
"I got that idea," Loneman said. "Did you see what was in the paper?"
"No, sir," the doorman said. "You want me to get you a copy?"
"I'll pick it up myself," Loneman said.
"Well," the doorman said, "a quiet afternoon sure got livened up."
The arched marble capitol corridor was as crowded as usual when Senate was in session. Loneman was spoken to pleasantly, waved at; he took big hands out of his pockets to wave back. He had a wide mouth, a large chin, a muscular neck, and the effect did not exactly make him handsome. He looked like a man other men would like, and they did, with a few noteworthy exceptions.
Senator Abbot's blow-up was no good for Loneman. He needn't be told. Senator Abbot was the state's great crusader. The Senator lacked humor, he was built like a well-worn bulldozer. He'd headed many investigation committees in his day. None had been laughing matters. Senator Abbot was a fair man, an honest man, but he was a business man's senator and he hated co-operatives. Since Loneman worked for the largest co-op in the state, Ploughman Co-operative, he was cast as villain in the Senator's eye. A hundred thousand people doing business in the state, a few had to be crooks. By and large there was honesty, but sometimes there wasn't, for people are people. It did not follow that all co-op men were thieves, a fact Loneman felt that Senator Abbot was convinced of.
I wonder, Loneman asked himself, if he got the truth about Grocer Jones?
That was the worry? Recently Senator Abbot's committee had pulled off the greatest coup of the Senator's career. Out of that hundred thousand people, thirteen food handlers, a whole thieving baker's dozen, had been rooted out by the committee. Rooted out, indicted, and some jailed, for illegal price-fixing deals. Plain robbery, a type the public understood. This combined with Senator Abbot's gubernatorial yen were important; the spring primaries were not far away. Understandably, Senator Abbot was happy with it all. He'd have been happier if the baker's dozen were co-op men, which they weren't, not one. But he was happy. To a degree, happy in ignorance. He didn't know Grocer Jones was Loneman's brother-in-law.
This Grocer Jones had been a dream witness. His name was David Stanley Jones. He owned and operated a food market in St. Louis. He was a slender, quiet man, gray-haired, soft-voiced, a churchman, and convincing. The price-fixers were hurting him; he got his evidence on them the simplest possible way. He roped them—became friendly, visited their homes, their drinking parties in country lodges—with a wire recorder in one pocket and a good camera in the other. The newspapers gave him the handle Grocer Jones. He was terrific, as any brother of Loneman's wife, Gabriella, was sure to be.
Grocer Jones had stood before Loneman. "I'm your brother-in-law, Loney," he said. "But I don't want it known." This was before he went to Senator Abbot. Before the newspapers called him Grocer Jones. "Don't see why," Loneman said.
"Simple," the quietly angry groceryman said. "I'm not going to Senator Abbot wearing any kind of a co-op tag. I want his heart in this."
"What's the real reason?" Loneman asked. "You think someone in Ploughman might be in on the steal? That it?"
"That would be a reason too, wouldn't it?" The groceryman had not shown Loneman his evidence. Loneman hadn't asked to see it.
"If there's a crook in Ploughman, I'll wring the so-and-so's neck," Loneman said, meaning it.
"Exactly," the groceryman said. "Such a crook wouldn't let a brother-in-law of yours within a mile. Right? Put that down as my second reason, in case I need one."
"Senator finds out, I get rawhided," Loneman said. "But O.K."
The way it worked out, every Senator came to know Grocer Jones as Loneman's discovery. But the brother-in-law angle was kept under cover.
Now Loneman walked straight ahead down the fine old capital corridor. His eyes were grim. His mind was uneasy—he was out on the limb at another place. He had not told Director that Abbot was being foxed a bit. He had not told the boss. If you worked for Ploughman, you told Director such things.
This Director was named Enoch Bumpus. He was the head of Ploughman Co-operative. He was a grand terror of a man. He was built like a grizzly bear. He had the manners of a hop-toad. His heart was as full of gold as is Fort Knox. His version of formal business garb was a blue denim overall jumper; he could call a hundred farmers by their first names in any county. It was he who had kept Senator Abbot from getting the governorship when Eisenhower made his first sweep: Director and the Senator were not exactly buddy-buddy.
"Boy, did you get the heave-o!" A hand clamped on Loneman's shoulder from behind. "Did you get told!"
Loneman turned. "Ed Allen," he said. His voice was cold and sarcastic, "My cup runneth over."
Ed Allen's soft stubby fingers kneaded Loneman's shoulder. Ed was a heavy chub of a man. He wore a flashy, pinstripe suit, a fashionable narrow-brim hat. He was laughing at Loneman from behind expressionless, remarkably blue eyes.
"Rambunctious way for old Abbot to act," Ed Allen said. "Cracking down on a Ploughman man. Didn't think he had the viscera."
"Say guts," Loneman said. "Fits you better."
"My, my—feel like biting somebody, don't we?" Ed Allen said. He, like Loneman, was a Ploughman man. Ed Allen was higher brass than Loneman; Ed sat next to Director in policy meetings. But it was Loneman's feeling that Ed Allen was reeling just about big enough in his britches to try to get Director's job. Ed's getting to be just the size rooster that Director shoots off the roost, was Loneman's thought. When it came, it would be no battle of the herd bulls. Ed Allen wasn't in Director's league.
"I had no right to be on the Senate floor," Loneman said. "I wasn't elected to anything."
"Don't blame me."
"What are you doing around here, anyway?" Loneman asked coldly.
Ed Allen shrugged. "Recess from the office," he said. "What have you done to Abbot?"
A Senator named Westwood from the southern part of the state came out of the chamber with a Senator named Green from Kansas City. Both greeted Loneman pleasantly. Westwood, a man with a friendly smile, a flair for diplomacy, was Senator Abbot's best friend. He gave Loneman's arm a genial touch, said, "Sorry about what just happened, Loney. Probably Abbot didn't mean it to be quite so rough."
Senator Green said, "What's an oblation, anyway?"
Before Loneman could stop him, Ed Allen said, "An oblation is a ritualistic offering—and that's what old fool Abbot will be if he don't lay off Ploughman."
Both Senators gave Ed Allen cold stares. By their senatorial code, it was all right for one lawmaker to speak unkindly of another, but a different matter for an outsider to do the same thing.
Both Senators left without saying anything. Loneman watched them go; his lips shaped a soundless whistle of regret.
"I tinkled ice in their veins, didn't I?" Ed Allen said.
"That was Westwood." Loneman's words were harsh. "He and Senator Abbot are ..." Loneman crossed two fingers.
"So," Ed Allen said. "I wanted him to know."
Loneman said, "That threat you just made will go straight to Abbot."
"Abbot's the one I wanted to know," Ed Allen said. "Time he found out he can't whack a Ploughman man any time he feels like it."
"It was Westwood and Green you just jabbed," Loneman said.
A newspaperman by the name of Hicks came from the Senate press balcony. Hicks was a news bureau man. Not overly neat, a bit of cigarette ash usually somewhere on his dark suit, he was an amiable man, a sponger of drinks and small favors. He was a good news hawk. Hicks said, "Hello, Loney." He looked at Ed Allen without expression.
"You know Ed Allen?" Loneman said.
"I know him," Hicks said. "He's the snake-doctor for your outfit, isn't he?"
Ed Allen laughed. "I was just leaving." A dark forked vein appeared on his kewpie forehead. "I'll see you chaps later," he said, and walked away.
Loneman looked at Hicks. "What's the snake-doctor bit?"
Hicks shrugged. "Those shiny blue eyes, and the high hand he give me a time or two," he said. "Loney, your outfit ought to keep that guy away from the capitol building. He loses friends too fast."
Loneman said, "Everybody has a cross to bear."
"Loney, about Senator Abbot," Hicks said. "For what it's worth to your peace of mind, I don't think the AP man is going to file anything on the bawling out you got. If the AP doesn't file, I won't have to."
Loneman said, "Thanks." He was grateful.
"If you gave me a statement about the death, it might help," Hicks said. "Or do you want that to come from Director—" Hicks went silent. Long experience interviewing had given Hicks the ability to know complete dumfoundment when he saw it. Hicks gripped Loneman's arm. "Loney, don't you know what was in that newspaper?" he asked.
Loneman stared at Hicks. "The newspaper they passed around the Senate floor?"
Hicks nodded. "Shall I tell you what was in it?"
Loneman said, "Yes. Do that."
"Bad news," Hicks said. He examined Loneman's rugged face again; the mystification there was complete. "Grocer Jones," Hicks said.
"What about Grocer Jones?"
"Dead," Hicks said.
After a while, in a thickened voice, Loneman said, "How?"
Loneman said, "No, that is not right." He said it in the way he might say that the world is flat. "Not David Jones, not Gabe's brother." He was speaking quietly with the thickness coming up to choke his voice. "Not Gabe's brother." Loneman lifted a troubled face. "This is wrong," he said.
"Positive identification," Hicks said. "The car came straight down a steep hill headed for a bridge and hit it. Concrete bridge." Hicks moved his gaze away from the unbelieving pain in Loneman's face. "Such a straight shot at the bridge, they figure it had to be suicide. That and the fact they found the gas feed jammed wide open in a way that couldn't have been accidental."
"Any witnesses?" Loneman was guttural with suffering.
"No," Hicks said. "Happened about two hours ago."
"Route B. That's a hilly road southeast of the city," Hicks said.
Loneman nodded. He was suddenly empty of words. Now he could recall vaguely that a moment ago he had said enough to reveal to Hicks that Grocer Jones was Gabe's brother. He did not care. He did not even wish his mind had been more perceptive, his tongue less free. It was a great blow to him, hearing Grocer Jones was dead. His face felt wooden.
"Will you excuse me, Hicks," he said.
Hicks watched Loneman walk heavily away. Suddenly Hicks threw up a hand, started to call out to Loneman. Hicks changed his mind. Instead he took a note from his pocket. It had been handed Hicks before he left the press balcony, by a messenger from his office. Hicks re-read it. A woman seen earlier today with Grocer Jones, believed to be Mrs. Loneman. Check with Loney? the note said. Hicks put it back in his pocket.
Hicks used a telephone. He spoke to the bureau of vital statistics. "I want to check up on my hearing," he said. "Did Grocer Jones—David Stanley Jones—have a sister named Gabriella? Look it up, will you."CHAPTER 2
LONEMAN NOW HAD ONE URGENT NEED. To reach his wife ahead of the newspaper or a radio. To tell her, more gently than newspaper or radio, that her brother was dead. He didn't know if he could do this more gently. He could only try.
The stark nature of the need hurried his walk. He left the capitol by the north facade. Here a downsweep of marble steps faced a fountain. In the fountain stood four stone boys who held ugly stone fish which spurted water from their mouths, also two stone men holding stone snakes which likewise spurted water from their mouths. Beyond, the river was majestic, beautiful unless one noted how muddy the water was. To the right stood the governor's manse. Loneman, who usually got a lift from the view, got none now.
He hurried through the short walk east to the Ploughman Building. A monolithic building, it was impressive, stainless. A prestige piece. In the Ploughman Building, Loneman worked and lived. His apartment was on the top floor.
Loneman's heavy jaw tightened. He couldn't be sure his wife had put her illness far enough behind to take a shock like this. She was eating well, sleeping normally, and some laughter was back in her life. And yet doubts knotted his stomach.
"Better call Doc," he thought uneasily.
He rode the elevator to the third floor. He stood before Doctor Thomas' secretary, and his voice was heavy with anxiety. "Doc in?" he said.
"Why, hello, Mr. Loneman." She smiled. She was neat and blond, but middle-aged. "Do you want to go right in? Or shall I announce you. Doctor is alone."
"Never mind." Loneman walked into the inner office.
Doctor Thomas was standing at the window. He was a big, thick-bodied outdoorsy man; he had a worn double-barreled shotgun in his hand. "Just the pigeon I need," he said to Loneman. He breathed on the shining shotgun stock, rubbed it with his sleeve. "Going out on my houseboat tonight. Ducks are flying. This is one of the really rare times when I feel like company. Wanta come?"
Excerpted from Lady in Peril by Lester Dent. Copyright © 1959 Ace Books, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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