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Murder on Wheels
A Hildegarde Withers Mystery
By Stuart Palmer
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1932 Bretano's, Inc
All rights reserved.
Like the note of a pitch-pipe between the lips of some mad, unearthly chorus leader, the traffic officer's whistle sounded its earsplitting E above high C. Rush hour traffic on the Avenue, which had just been granted a green light, stopped jarringly, with a screech of brakes. All but the open Chrysler roadster, which as Officer Francis X. Doody had noted from the corner of his vigilant blue eye, was veering crazily towards the left instead of keeping on south past the impassive stone lions of the Library as was its proper course ...
Officer Doody took the whistle out of his mouth and bellowed "Hey!" But the echoes were still sounding back their flattened versions of his blast when there came a sickening crash of tortured glass and metal. The open blue Chrysler had come to rest with its front end inextricably entangled with the fender of a northbound Yellow taxi.
"Where do you think you're goin'?" Doody spoke his piece by rote as he strode wearily over toward the scene of the smash. He jerked the white gloves from his big red hands as he went, remarking audibly that this was just about what he could have expected of his lousy luck, anyway. As if it wasn't enough, on the tag end of a dreary November afternoon, to have it start snowing just as the crowds were pouring out of shops and office buildings! To cap it all, some dumb driver had to pick the busiest corner in Manhattan to try a forbidden left turn in the middle of a Go light. "One damn thing after another!" Doody was mumbling.
Then he stopped suddenly, his arms akimbo. Swiftly the realization came over him that there was something decidedly wrong here, something "phoney" as he himself would have expressed it. Mechanically his lips formed the words ... "One damn thing after another ..."
It was at that moment that this accident began to be different from all other accidents. For there wasn't any driver behind the wheel of the Chrysler roadster. There wasn't anybody in the car at all. It was deserted, wandering, derelict.
Doody walked clear around the wreck, oblivious to the interrupted traffic and to the din of the sirens. His jaw was thrust forward belligerently, but his expedition drew a blank.
"Smart guy, huh?"
But nobody answered him. He rubbed his eyes, half-blinded by the thick falling flakes of the sooty precipitate which passes for snow in Manhattan.
The driver of the wounded taxi scrambled down from his seat at Doody's command. His name, he insisted, was Al Leech. Doody had a hard time to get him to speak loudly enough to be heard. Somewhere in the vast reaches of his skinny throat his voice seemed to have a way of losing itself. He was naturally small and nervous, and his eyes were unnaturally wild.
Doody took the little man by the shoulder and shook him vigorously, for lack of a better victim.
"Come clean, you! Where did the driver of that Chrysler go?"
The cab-driver swallowed with obvious difficulty, and then pointed up the street. "I saw him, I tell yer! I saw him ... he's there!"
Doody turned, and at that moment the street lights came on, slightly increasing the confusion without adding greatly to the visibility. "You saw who where?"
The cabbie pulled away from Doody's clutch, still pointing. His grimy finger indicated a spot perhaps thirty yards away, across Forty-second Street and up Fifth a little distance.
Doody rubbed at his eyes again. The snowfall was thickening, and this was the period between the dark and the daylight which Longfellow, in an earlier age, dedicated as "the children's hour" and which has since been diverted from children to cocktails. The pale yellow glow of the street lamps fought the last of the winter daylight, and a nearby church clock was striking five-thirty.
Even Officer Doody could see that something lay quietly and still in the narrow lane between north and south-bound traffic on the Avenue—something that vaguely resembled a sack, and was not.
Doody took several uncertain steps forward, and then remembered his post of duty. He drew his whistle, let forth a series of staccato blasts, and then waited a moment for an answer. There was no answer. He tried again, and drew another blank.
The street was already jammed enough to block traffic both ways. Let it stay that way for a while, Doody reflected. And he set out on the run toward the gathering crowd which already had surrounded that shapeless sack on the pavement.
He fought his way through the mob, the little cab-driver directly in his rear. For the hundredth time the big cop wondered at the sudden appearance of the curious crowd which always seems to spring out of nowhere, like worms after the rain, at the first cry of an accident.
Halfway through the jam he whirled and caught the cab-driver by the shoulder. "It's an accident case, sure enough," he yelled above the din. "You get to the nearest phone and get an ambulance, quick. Get Bellevue—no, Roosevelt is closer. Scram!"
Obediently the little man turned and dashed toward the corner. By means of a perfect off- tackle plunge, Doody came at last to the bull's eye of the rapidly increasing circle.
"Get back, will yez? What's the trouble here?"
Nobody answered him. They were all looking down, down to the glistening asphalt where a young man lay sprawled out on his back ... a big young man with fair hair. It was a face that would have been thought more than handsome under ordinary circumstances, but it was not handsome now.
He was dressed, this accident case of Doody's, in a thick overcoat of yellow camel's hair, with pigskin gloves on his somewhat small hands and bright tan shoes on his feet. The brim of a crushed felt hat protruded from beneath one shoulder, and a cigarette still burned merrily into the furry overcoat lapel where it must have dropped from lips now black and contorted.
A snappy dresser, this accident case. But there was one detail of his array which did not jibe with Doody's ideas of what the well dressed young man will wear this season. Around his neck, just above the soft pinned collar and the blue-gold tie of printed silk, was another and heavier cravat—a noose of twisted hempen rope!
Doody blew his whistle again, a dozen short sharp blasts. Then he sank slowly to his knees, and touched the face, on which the snowflakes were still melting as they fell. The head rolled loosely, almost too loosely, to one side as he brought his reluctant fingers against the flesh. Then Doody got a grip on the knot in the half-inch rope, and worked it until it came loose in his hand. But as the rope came away, it left a cruel red stigma around the throat of the young man who lay there on the asphalt.
From the knot, this rope ran off somewhere under the encroaching feet of the multitude. Doody hauled on it vigorously, glad of something definite to get his hands on. With a certain amount of useless advice and assistance from the crowd the end was gathered in, not without an old lady or two being upset in the process.
He had expected to find something at the end of it. It stood to reason that a man can't be hanged unless he is hanged from something. But there was only a binding of fine silk thread, dark blue in color, to keep the end from ravelling.
Doody kicked aside his landlubberly coil, and stared again at that unlovely face which looked rather horribly up at the sky. "Another suicide," he said aloud. "Get back, all of yez! Why don't somebody hunt up the officer on this beat?"
He sent another series of blasts echoing above the howling sirens of the blocked autos, which now were jammed all the way down to the Empire State Building.
"Suicide or not, I got to get the street clear," decided Doody aloud. "Come on, some of you. Give me a hand and we'll get him inside." He pointed to the nearest bystander. "You, there!"
An apple-peddler shook his head vehemently and backed away out of sight. His place in the inner circle of the curious was taken by a youngish man in a derby, whose fingers tugged nervously at a yellow mustache as he saw what lay at his feet. He dropped his brief case, and seemed to have some trouble in taking his eyes from the face of the man who lay in the street.
"Good God, it's Laurie Stait!" The words seemed torn from his lips.
"So? You know him, huh? Well, never mind." Doody motioned imperatively. "Grab his legs. We can't let him lay here in the street."
If the new arrival was willing, he hid it successfully. But Doody insisted. "Come on, if you know him you don't need no introduction. Grab his legs."
He bellowed at the crowd until a narrow lane was formed, and the two of them lifted the unhappy young man to the curb, across the sidewalk, and in through the wide doors of the Enterprise Trust Building.
"Here, you can't bring that man in here!" shouted the elevator starter. "You can't do it ..."
"Horsefeathers," retorted Doody. "We did do it, see? And you'll like it."
The crowd in the lobby was closing in again. One woman screamed that she was about to faint, and then pressed forward for a better view.
The young man with the mustache stood irresolute. "Officer, is he dead?"
"I'm not the medical examiner," said Doody shortly. "This is the patrolman's job, not mine. I got to get back on my corner."
The stranger bent almost unwillingly for a moment over the body, his ear pressed against the heart. He fumbled a bit with the victim's coat. "That's nearer than I'd want to be," observed somebody in the crowd. The young man bent closer, and then suddenly stood up. "How did this happen?"
"Never mind that" Doody came closer. "You say you know this fellow?"
The stranger stood there, staring at the body.
"Come on, speak up! What's your name? Friend or relative of the deceased, if he is deceased? What did you say his name was?"
"I—I don't know, officer."
"None of that. You said you knew him. Do you know him or don't you?"
"I don't know if I know him or not!"
Doody's homely face wrinkled into a scowl. "Why, you ..." He was interrupted by the speedily increasing wail of an approaching siren. The crowd surged toward the door as a Dodge special-built truck came lurching down the Avenue and skidded to a stop at the curb outside. Doody signalled vigorously with waves of his arm.
It wasn't the white ambulance that Doody had expected, but a black truck with the red initials P D on the side.
There were three men in the front seat. Two of them wore plain blue uniforms and the other had on a Chesterfield with the collar turned up around his ears.
He slid down to the street and pushed through the crowd. "Heard you had a stiff up here," he said casually. "Where's it laying?"
"But I didn't send for you, Doc. I sent for the ambulance!"
"Yeah? Well, the guy who phoned in said there was a stiff up here. I happened to be down at the Morgue and I thought I'd run up and get it over quick." He touched the body gently with his foot.
"Pretty, very pretty, Doody my boy. Don't weep because you didn't get your ambulance. The interne wouldn't have taken this carcass aboard anyways. It's cooling off already." He knelt down. "Well, I'm a son of a gun! As Doc Bloom's assistant medical examiner, I've seen plenty of hangings in this town, particularly since the bottom fell out of Wall Street, but I never saw a guy snap his own neck before. They have to drop 'em twenty feet on a gallows to do that."
He stood up and dusted off his hands. "Where'd you cut him down from? Hang himself in the elevator shaft?"
Doody told him where they'd found the body. "Hung himself out of the window, I guess."
"Oh, yeah? Well, if he'd fallen from any window, he'd be bruised up worse than he is." The Doctor signalled to his two stretcher-bearers. "Take it away," he yelled.
They came in with a strip of canvas stretched between two poles. The rope was coiled neatly on the dead man's chest, and they lifted their burden.
Just then an unforeseen interruption occurred.
A rasping voice, a voice that reeked with authority, came from behind them.
"Ixnay, you dopes, ixnay!"
A tall, gaunt man in a loose gray topcoat was pushing through the crowd. His lower lip protruded belligerently, and a dead cigar was clamped in one corner of his mouth.
"Put it down, you. You guys would have to go to night school for years before you'd get to be half-wits!"
The stretcher, gruesome burden and all, was dropped hurriedly to the floor again. A sheepish look came over the stretcher-bearers' faces, and Officer Doody saluted.
"I didn't know you were here, Inspector. It's just another suicide, and I moved him in here so traffic could go on."
"That's too bad," said Inspector Oscar Piper. He lit his cigar methodically. "Don't you know that you ought to have a couple of plain-clothes men on a mixup like this before you can start carting the body around?" He swung around the crowded lobby. "Where's the patrolman on this beat?"
"I don't know," admitted Doody. "That's why I was blowing my whistle."
"You blew it so long that I had to leave a lady sitting over in Whyte's restaurant and dash out to find what was coming off. I figured it was a Red parade at the least." Inspector Piper shrugged his shoulders. "I guess it was a lot of fuss over nothing. It's a hell of a note when the Homicide Squad can't have a quiet cup of tea without picking up every two-for-a-dime suicide. Sorry I interrupted, Levin. You can cart the stiff off on my authority. Get him out of this mob, anyway. How'd he die?"
"Fracture of the first and second cervical vertebrae," said Dr. Levin. "A very neat job of hanging, I'll say. He's been dead not more than half an hour. I'd say less. Body temperature is—" he took out a little thermometer from the dead man's mouth—"just a little less than ninety-six."
"Okay. Doody, who cut him down?"
Doody told what he knew. Inspector Piper frowned. "That doesn't make sense, man. Well, never mind. Get back to your corner before all New York gets jammed bumper to headlight—hey, wait a minute. Did you find out who he is?"
Doody nodded. "His name is Stait, a fellow said. I didn't look in the pockets."
"A fellow said? What fellow?" Suddenly the Inspector was really interested.
Doody scratched his chin, and stared around the crowded lobby. The air went out of him like a pricked balloon.
"There was a fellow here, Inspector. But he must of left without waiting to give his name. A tall guy—with a little moustache!"
"Never mind, never mind. Get back on your corner. Blowing a whistle is just your speed, Doody." Piper turned to the waiting morgue attendants. "Go ahead, take it away. I guess he must have jumped off the first floor window upstairs, though it's funny nobody saw him commit suicide." Doody took his departure with obvious relief.
"If this stiff was lying in the middle of the street, he couldn't have jumped from a window," pointed out Dr. Levin. "They don't fall outwards, they fall straight down. Besides, he's hardly bruised."
"I guess I've seen enough hangings to know suicide when I run across it," said Oscar Piper testily. He leaned over the body and felt at the inside coat pocket. It was empty of wallet or of anything else. Swiftly his hands went through the other pockets. A ring of keys, a wafer-thin watch set in a transparent case of pure crystal, a linen handkerchief with the initials in blue, "L S," three crumpled one dollar bills and some silver. That was all.
"Now that's funny," observed the Inspector. He was thoughtful. "That's damned funny. A guy who carries one of those five-hundred dollar watches usually packs a wallet and some dough, not to speak of calling cards and all that."
"Still think it's suicide, Oscar?"
The Inspector whirled around at the voice. Standing at his shoulder was a woman of perhaps thirty-nine or so, a woman possessed of a certain unusual determination of character if her chin and the bridge of her nose were to be taken as evidence. She was dressed in the fashion of some years ago if in any fashion at all, and she gripped a well- worn umbrella firmly in one hand. The crowd pushed back discreetly to let her through.
"Hildegarde Withers! I didn't know you followed me!"
"You didn't think I was going to sit there in Whyte's and eat your cinnamon toast as well as my own, did you?" Her voice was pitched low, but it had an edge on it. "The last time you heard a police alarm and walked out on me you left me sitting in a taxi outside City Hall until the Marriage License bureau had closed. I'm not letting you get away from me again that way."
Excerpted from Murder on Wheels by Stuart Palmer. Copyright © 1932 Bretano's, Inc. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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