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The Cold, Cold Ground
A Smashing Detective Story
By William Campbell Gault
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Popular Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Chills and Thrills
It was early fall, and faintly chilly, outside. In my office, the thermometer was well over seventy, but Miss Townsbury had brought some chill with her.
Make no mistake, form no mental picture because of the 'Miss'. She was between forty and fifty years of age, dressed in some brown and eye-repelling type of ribbed silk. An iceberg, in brown silk. Blue eyes, blue as frozen sea water, and features sharp as icicles, with an icicle's thinness to her spare figure. There was nothing about her to indicate that she had ever melted or would ever melt.
She was telling me about the girl named Flame. Flame was the daughter of her brother's second wife—if you follow me. That is, her brother had married twice. For his second wife, he had married a divorcee. This divorcee had a daughter by her first marriage. This daughter's name was Flame. I hope it's all clear. Flame was missing.
Miss Townsbury had begun to suspect something was amiss when she wrote to Flame (Miss Flame Harlin) at her apartment in town, inviting her to come up and spend a weekend at the Townsbury country place. There had been no answer.
Miss Townsbury had phoned, twice, without success. This morning, she had come to town to do some shopping and had dropped in at the girl's apartment. The accumulation of newspapers and mail at the front door, the accumulation of milk bottles at the rear door, had convinced Miss Townsbury that things were not as they should be. I asked her if she had gone to the police. She shook her head emphatically. "I didn't think it wise to bring them into it, Mr. Jones." She paused. "Not until we are sure that Miss Harlin is—really missing." If she wasn't sure, why had she come to me?
At twenty dollars a day (and expenses), I thought it best not to ask that question.
I asked some other questions.
Miss Harlin was an entertainer, a comedienne.
Did she sing? Did she juggle? Did she crack jokes?
She sang. "Though her voice wasn't anything extraordinary, you understand. That doesn't seem necessary, today, however. She had—whatever it is the public wants, today. Her songs were very well received."
I knew what the public wanted, today and every day, and so did she. She was being genteel. I asked: "She isn't married, of course?"
A thin, cool smile. "No. She was engaged, at one time, to a Mr. Rodney Carlton. There's a possibility ..." She stopped.
I said: "You think there's a possibility they may have eloped?"
"Eloped?" The gaze came up to meet mine, then moved away. "Eloped? No. I suppose that could be a polite phrasing." The gaze direct again. "Miss Harlin, I might remind you, is an entertainer. She has always lived an undisciplined life. Her standards of conduct are theatrical standards. Am I being clear?"
I gave her a reproving glance. I said softly: "You're being completely frank, Miss Townsbury. Have you any reason, other than those, to believe that Miss Harlin might have done what you're suggesting?"
The figure stiffened in my leatherette chair. "None. However, under the circumstances, you can see why I came to a private detective."
"The police," I told her, "are very discreet in matters of this kind. You wouldn't need to fear any unpleasant publicity." Not much, I thought, not much.
The cold eyes surveyed me haughtily. "Are you telling me, in your indirect way, that you don't want this case, Mr. Jones?"
I hastened to correct her on that. I explained about ethics, and the necessity for private operatives to cooperate with the police, and the rest of the blarney that gives my work its high moral tone.
She relaxed again, with a rustle of heavy silk. She answered all the rest of my questions quickly and competently. When she rose to leave, she said: "I do think, if you don't discover anything in a reasonable length of time, we should go to the police."
I told her I thought that would be best.
She left, and I went to the window, as is my fashion. There was a Mercedes town car parked at the curb. As she approached it, a tall and dark man in a chauffeur's uniform stepped out of the car to open the door on the curb side. I watched, until the Mercedes moved around the corner with a contemptuous snort from its tail pipe.
Such high-class trade I get in my shabby office. Was it my reputation? The penuriousness of my clients? What it was in this case, I didn't find out until later. Anyway, I decided that I would go and see this Rodney Carlton, first.
Downstairs, I stood on the curb a minute, watching a kid punt a football. It kept sliding off his foot wrong—he wasn't getting directly behind the ball. Well, he had a lot of years ahead of him.
I walked up two blocks, to where the Dusy was parked. I started her elegant motor, and headed her east.
The very-near-east, where the rooming houses are, I passed through. The upper-east, where the fine apartments are, I also passed through. In the far-upper-east, the neighborhood can't make up its mind. There are some new apartments, and some fine old homes. There are some cottages, new and inexpensive, but pleasant and in good taste.
This Rodney Carlton's address was one of the cottages. A low white place, with red shutters, with a red door. With a man in the front yard.
THE MAN had a golf club in his hands. It looked like a nine iron. He was trying to chip some balls he had into a washtub in the middle of the yard. He'd play each shot carefully and easily, with fine form, but they were all short.
"More wrist," I said. "You're not getting enough wrist into them."
He looked up at me and out at the car. He studied me. Then: "You can't be a collector, not with a Duesenberg. Are you selling insur— Who the hell are you. anyway?"
I shook my head. "My name is Jones, Mortimer Jones. I'm looking for a girl named Flame Harlin."
He stood frozen a moment, a thin, good-looking young man with dark hair, with apprehension in his dark blue eyes. "Flame—she's missing? You—expected to find her here?" He was staring now, and his voice roughened. "Who the hell are you, anyway?"
"I'm a private investigator," I told him quietly. "Miss Townsbury has hired me to locate Miss Harlin, whom she has reason to suspect is missing." What a hell of a sentence that was.
He was still staring. "That old battle-axe hired you? Why should she care? She doesn't give a damn for Flame, either way."
"I wouldn't know about that," I said. "I thought, perhaps, you—"
"Come on in," he said, and started for the door. I followed.
Rodney Carlton indicated a chair, and took one himself. He said: "Miss Harlin and I were engaged, at one time, you understand. But I haven't seen her for a month. How long has she been—been missing?"
"A week," I said, "at the least. I'll know more later." I told him about the papers and the milk, about Miss Townsbury's phone calls and her letter.
When I had finished, he was thoughtful. He was considering something, I could tell. Finally, he said: "I've—" He was blushing. "I've a key to—to Miss Harlin's apartment, if—" He paused. "Could I go along, if we took a look in there?"
"I don't see why not," I said. "It's just as illegal for two to enter as for one. I'd be breaking the law, either way."
He rose. "I guess you private detectives don't worry much about breaking the law. I'll get a coat."
The movies, I thought. It's the movies that give people those kinds of ideas about us.
While he went to get his coat, I went quietly on my rubber heels to the desk. He was a poet, I saw. There was a half-born child of his mood this moment in the typewriter. I read: Deep, where the ground is cold. Deep, where the sun never shines. Deep and cold and all alone, Bury them, Bury them deep.
Then he was standing beside me, blushing again. "Bad?" he asked.
"I'm no judge," I said.
"I have a small income," he explained. "Thank God I don't need to depend on that stuff for a living."
"I've seen worse," I said, "in print," and hoped he wouldn't ask me where.
When we went out again, the sun was shining, and what had started as an early fall day was now a late summer day. Bury them, bury them deep ... It stuck with me, for some reason.
The upper east side was where Miss Harlin lived. In a small and neat four-apartment building of stone and frame on a quiet, elm-shaded street. Her apartment was on the second floor.
I saw the papers, there. I pawed through them, and discovered that the earliest was eight days old. You'd think the paper boy would— But that was neither here nor there.
Eight days, then ... Rodney Carlton handed me his key, and I fitted it, and the door swung open with a slight squeak.
The sunshine was slanting through the tall windows in the high living room. It was an expensively furnished, spacious and definitely feminine apartment—off-white and pastels the basic motif.
There was a faint and lovely fragrance haunting the air.
Everything was in order, everything shipshape. I asked him: "Did she have a maid? Wouldn't the maid bring in the milk and the papers and pick up the mail downstairs?"
"She has no servants," he said. "She can afford them, all right, but she claims she'd be bored silly all day, if she couldn't clean house."
We went from there to a bathroom in peach, to an ivory dining room, to a bedroom in orchid.
Nothing in the place. No exotic girl with a dagger in her throat, no distinguished gent with a neat hole in his aristocratic forehead, no blood, no mess, no clues at all.
The kitchenette was white tile, with a black rubber tile floor: Not even one dirty dish in the sink, nor one spilled grain of sugar. It was like a display home, all the way through.
I opened the back door and brought in the milk and put it in the refrigerator. There was some cheese in there, some wine, some butter, some cold meats.
There was nothing in the apartment to indicate a hurried trip, to indicate violence. It was as though she was gone for the day. But she'd been gone for eight.
I looked through some drawers. I looked through a scrapbook she kept, of newspaper items about herself. There might be something there. I took it along with me when we left.
RODNEY was quiet, in the car. He was looking sick. I asked: "Do you have a picture of her?" He nodded. "Could I borrow it?"
"Of course." His eyes were straight ahead, on the road. His poet's imagination would be working now, thinking the unthinkable. I said: "Everything may be all right. We're not sure of anything so far."
"Sure," he said. "Sure, of course." The Dusy made no comment, purring softly under her hood, moving quietly through the upper east side to the far upper east side, to the cottage of Rodney Carlton.
I waited in the car while he went in to get the picture. When he brought it out, it was wrapped in brown paper. I didn't open it, but put it on the seat beside me.
"Don't think about it," I said. "We don't know anything."
"Don't think about it?" His voice was ragged. "She was my life, that's all. She was all there is in the world for me."
A typical poetic exaggeration, I thought. He hasn't even seen her for a month, I thought. I drove from there down to headquarters. I went in and up to the second floor, to the Missing Persons Bureau. Old Pop Delaney was behind his mission oak desk in there, manufacturing cheap cigar smoke.
"What d'ya know?" he said. "It's been a long time." He had a round head, topped with snow white hair. He had a smooth face, unwrinkled, though he was crowding seventy. But perhaps he'd never worried—he had always worked for the city. So had I, for a while.
I told him about the need for discretion.
"You get all that carriage trade, don't you?" he asked. "How do you do it, Jonesy?"
I ignored that. I showed him the picture, and looked at it myself for the first time.
A tinted picture. A girl with jet hair and Pacific-blue eyes and with that challenge, that bold and alluring something that makes men aware of the person possessing it, that something more than beauty.
"Hey," Pop said. "All right, huh?" Then he frowned. "This the best you got?"
"It's good enough for me." I said.
"Yeh, but for reproduction, a glossy print would be better. You got any others?"
"Just that," I said.
He rolled the cigar in his mouth, studying the picture. "O.K., I'll do what I can. You can pick this up this afternoon." He continued to roll the cigar and study the picture. He shook his head sadly. "I'm an old man, Jonesy," he said, "an old, old man."
I left him with his dreams.
I was just going through the big entrance door downstairs, when I heard a voice. The voice. My worst friend and unkindest critic, the boss of Homicide, Devine.
"What's your hurry, Jones?" he wanted to know.
"No hurry," I said. "That was my usual gait. How are things with you?" As though I cared, as though he couldn't be dying, right at my feet, without my caring.
"O.K.," he said. "No murders, no important ones, anyway. Got a vacation coming up, end of the month." He smiled. "In on business?"
"N-o-o," I lied. "Just dropped in to say 'hello' to some of the boys. I'm glad everything is quiet."
"You never drop in at Homicide any more," he said. "Not mad at us, are you? No hard feelings? We work together, don't we, Jones?"
"Always," I said. "Cooperation, as the Chief says."
"That's right," he said. "Be good, boy."
"I will," I promised. "I'm going to cut my cigarettes down to two packs a day, any day now." I left him, and went out into the sun.
He'd be checking now. He'd be prowling the department, trying to find out my business. He didn't like me. He knew I could have his job, any time I wanted it, and he would never like me. But Pop would tell him nothing. Everyone at the department disliked him as much as I did.
The Dusy chuckled, when I kicked her into life.
Back at the office, I went up the stairs slowly, mulling over all I had seen and heard this morning, searching for a thread to untangle, searching for something that didn't fit, some piece out of the proper focus. I found nothing.
I opened my door quietly. It's never locked.
There was a man sitting in the leatherette chair on the customer's side of my desk. A beefy man with a broad placid face, and eyes without expression. Wearing a cheap blue suit and a blue shirt with a brown tie. Wearing a tough expression he'd seen somewhere. A private operative we're not too proud to have in the trade, a gent named Moose Lundgren.
"What's cooking, Jonesy?" he wanted to know.
"Nothing much." I went over to sit in my mahogany swivel chair. "Murder or two, couple of bank robberies—you know how it is."
He smiled genially. "And hotel skippers and jealous husbands or wives and labor trouble—that's how it is, huh?"
"Not labor trouble," I said. "I leave that alone."
He shrugged his bulky shoulders. "Maybe you can afford to be particular."
I lit a cigarette out of the new pack, and offered him one, which he refused. I asked: "Something on your mind, Moose?"
He expelled his breath through his flabby mouth. "Well, that Harlin dame—"
I tensed, waiting. He seemed to be hesitating I said: "What about her?"
He smiled. "I saw you leave her apartment. I was watching it, at the time, and I wondered—" Again, he stopped, in his hesitant way. "What you got on her, Jonesy? What's the angle?"
"What's yours?" I countered. "You were watching her apartment? Why?"
He smiled expansively. "Why? Why would I be? For pay, of course. A party hired me to do it."
"How long ago?" I asked him. "When did you start watching it?"
He froze up. That stubborn look came to his pig eyes, and he shook his head. "You ask too many questions."
"You started it," I told him. "I've got more questions than answers—I guarantee you that."
He pulled a cheap cigar out of his breast pocket and took some time biting off the end. He lighted it slowly.
I thought, he's going to get pompous now. He's going to sound important.
He said: "This guy I'm working for is a pretty big operator, Jonesy. Kind of short-tempered, too. You and I would work better together."
I laughed. I said: "I'll decide that. Don't try to scare me."
He shrugged, a la Greenstreet. He studied his cigar. Then his muddy eyes met mine. "Val Every," he said, and nothing more.
Excerpted from The Cold, Cold Ground by William Campbell Gault. Copyright © 1975 Popular Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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