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The rat hole they rented me for an office was on the sixth floor of a dilapidated building in the dead-end section of San Luis Beach. From sunrise to dusk the noise of the out-town traffic and the kids yelling at one another in the low-rent tenement strip across the way came through the open window in a continuous blast. As a place to concentrate in, it ranked lower than the mind of a third-rate hoofer in a tank-town vaudeville act.
That was why I did most of my headwork at night, and for the past five nights I had been alone in the office flexing my brain muscles while I tried to find a way out of the jam. But I was licked and I knew it. There was no way out of this jam. Even at that it took me a couple of brain sessions to reach this conclusion before I decided to cut my losses and quit.
I arrived at the decision at ten minutes after eleven o'clock on a hot July night exactly eighteen months after I had first come to San Luis Beach. The decision, now it was made, called for a drink, and I was holding up the office bottle in the light to convince myself it was as empty as my trouser pockets when I heard footsteps on the stairs.
The other offices on my floor and on the floors below were shut for the night. They closed around six o'clock and stayed that way until nine the following morning. I and the office mice had popped into our holes as the footsteps creaked up the stairs. The only visitors I'd had in the past month were the cops. It didn't seem likely that Lieutenant of the Police Redfern would call at this hour, but you never knew. Redfern did odd things, and he might have thought up an idea of getting rid of me. He liked me no more than he liked arattlesnake—perhaps even a little less—and if he could run me out of town even at eleven o'clock at night it would be all right with him.
The footsteps came along the passage. They were in no hurry: slow, measured steps with a lot of weight in them.
I felt in my vest pocket for a butt, struck a match and lit up. It was my last butt, and I had been saving it up for an occasion like this.
There was a light in the passage, and it reflected on the frosted panel of my door. The desk lamp made a pool of light on the blotter, but the rest of the rat hole was dark. The panel of light facing me picked up a shadow as big feet came to rest outside my door. The shadow was immense. The shoulders overflowed the lighted panel; on the pumpkinlike head was the kind of hat the cloak-and-dagger boys used to wear when I was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Fingernails tapped on the panel, the doorknob turned, the door swung open as I shifted the desk lamp.
The man who stood in the doorway looked as big as a two-ton truck. He was as thick as he was broad, and had a ball-round face, skin tight with hard, pink fat. A black hairline mustache sat below a nose like the beak of an octopus, and little black eyes peered at me over two ridges of fat, like sloes in sugar icing. He might have been fifty, not more. There was the usual breathlessness about him that goes with fat people. The crown of his wide black hat touched the top of the door, and he had to turn his gross body an inch or so to enter the office. An astrakhan collar set off his long, tight-fitting black coat and his feet were encased in immaculately polished shoes, the welts of which seemed a good inch and a half thick.
"Mr. Jackson?" His voice was hoarse and scratchy and thin. Not the kind of voice you'd expect to come out of the barrel of a body he carried around on legs that must have been as thick as young trees to support it.
"Mr. Floyd Jackson?"
I nodded again.
"Ah!" The exclamation came out on a little puff of breath. He moved farther into the room, pushed the door shut without turning. "My card, Mr. Jackson." He dropped a card on the blotter. He and I and the desk filled up the office to capacity, and the air in the room began to fight for its breath.
I looked at the card without moving. It didn't tell me anything but his name. No address, nothing to say who he was. Just two words: Cornelius Gorman.
While I looked at the card, he pulled up the office chair to the desk. It was a good strong chair, built to last, but it flinched as he lowered his bulk onto it. Now he had sat down there seemed a little more space in the room—not much, but enough to let the air circulate again.
He folded his fat hands on the top of his stick. A diamond, a shade smaller than a doorknob, flashed like a beacon from his little finger. Cornelius Gorman might be a phoney, but he had money. I could smell it, and I have a very sensitive nose when it comes to smelling money.
"I've been making enquiries about you, Mr. Jackson," he said, and his small eyes searched my face. "I hear you are quite a character."
The last time he called, Lieutenant of the Police Redfern had said more or less the same thing, only he had used a coarser expression.
I didn't say anything, but waited, and wondered just how much he had found out about me.
"They tell me you're smart and tricky—very, very tricky and smooth," the fat man went on in his scratchy voice. "You have brains, they say, and you're not over-honest. You're a reckless character, Mr. Jackson, but you have courage and nerve and you're tough." He looked at me from over the top of his diamond and smiled. For no reason at all the office seemed suddenly very far from the ground and the night seemed still and empty. I found myself thinking of a cobra coiled up in a bush—a fat cobra, sleek but dangerous.
"They tell me you have been in San Luis Beach for eighteen months," he continued breathlessly. "Before that you worked for the Central Bonding Agency, New York, as one of their detectives. A detective who works for a bonding company, they tell me, has excellent opportunities for blackmail. Perhaps that was why they asked you to resign. No accusations were made, but they found you were living at a scale far beyond the salary you were paid. That made them think, Mr. Jackson. A bonding agency can't be too careful."
He paused and his little eyes probed inquisitively at my face, but that didn't get him anywhere. "You resigned," he went on after a pause, "and soon after you became an investigator with the Hotel Protection Association. Later, one of the hotel managers complained. It seems you collected dues from certain hotels without giving the company's receipt. But it was your word against his, and the company reluctantly decided the evidence was too flimsy to prosecute, but you were asked to resign. After that you lived on a young woman with whom you were friendly—one of the many young women, they tell me. But she soon tired of giving you money to spend on other young women, and you parted.
"Some months later you decided to set up on your own as a private investigator. You obtained a licence from the State Attorney on a forged affidavit of character, and you came to San Luis Beach because it was a wealthy town and the competition was negligible. You specialized in divorce work, and for a time you prospered. But there are also opportunities for blackmail, so I understand, even in divorce work. Someone complained to the police, and there was an investigation. But you are very tricky, Mr. Jackson, and you kept out of serious trouble. Now the police want to run you out of town. They are making things difficult for you. They have revoked your licence, and to all intents and purposes they have put you out of business—at least, that's what they think, but you and I know better."
I leaned forward to stub out my butt and that brought me close to the diamond. It was worth five grand, probably more. Smarter guys than Fatso Gorman have had their fingers cut off for rocks half that value. I began to get ideas about that diamond.
"Although you are still trying to operate as a private investigator, you can't advertise, nor can you put your name on your door. The police are watching you, and if they find you are still taking commissions they'll prosecute you. Up to now, although you have passed the word around amongst your saloon-keeper friends that you'll accept a client without asking questions, no one has hired you, and you're down to your last nickel. For the past five nights you have been trying to make up your mind whether to stay or quit. You have decided to quit. Am I right, Mr. Jackson?"
"Check," I said, and eased myself farther back in my chair.
I was curious. There was something about Fatso Gorman that got me. Maybe he was a phoney; maybe he was flashing the diamond to impress me, but there was a lot more to him than a cloak-and-dagger hat and a five-grand diamond. His little black eyes warned me he was geared for quick thinking. The shape of his mouth gave him away. Turn a sheet of paper edgeways on and that'll give you an idea of how thick his lips were. I could picture him sitting in the sun at a bullfight. He'd be happy when the horse took the horn. That was the kind of guy he was. A horse with its belly ripped open would be his idea of fun. Although he was fat, he was immensely strong, and I had a feeling if ever he got his hand around my throat, he could squeeze blood out of my ears.
"Don't quit, Mr. Jackson," he was saying. "I have a job for you."
The night air, coming in through the open window on to the back of my neck, felt chilly. A moth appeared out of the darkness and fluttered aimlessly around the desk lamp. The diamond continued to make bright patterns on the ceiling. We looked at each other. There was a pause long enough for you to walk down the passage and back.
Then I said, "What kind of a job?"
"A tricky job, Mr. Jackson. It should suit you."
I chewed that over. Well, he knew what he was buying. He had only himself to blame.
"Why pick on me?"
He touched the hairline mustache with a fat thumb.
"Because it's that kind of a job."
That seemed to take care of that.
"Go ahead and tell me," I said. "I'm up for sale."
Gorman let out a little puff of breath. Probably he thought he was going to have trouble with me, but he should have known I wouldn't quarrel with a guy who owned a diamond that size.
"Let me tell you a story as I heard it today," he said, "then I'll tell you what I want you to do." He puffed more breath at me, and went on. "I am a theatrical agent."
He'd have to be something like that. No one would wear a cloak-and-dagger hat and an astrakhan collar in this heat for the fun of it.
"I look after the interests of a number of big stars and a host of little ones," he told me. "Among the little stars is a young woman who specializes in stag party entertainments. Her name is Veda Rux. She is what is known in the profession as a stripper. She has a good act, otherwise I wouldn't handle her. It is art in its purest form." He eyed me over the top of the diamond and I tried to look as if I believed him, but I didn't think I convinced him. "Last night Miss Rux performed at a dinner given to a party of businessmen by Mr. Lindsay Brett." The little black eyes suddenly jumped from the diamond to my face. "Perhaps you have heard of him?"
I nodded. I had made it my business to know something about everyone in San Luis Beach who had more than a five-figure income. Brett had a big place a few miles outside the city limits, the last big estate on Ocean Rise where the millionaires hide out. Ocean Rise is a twisting boulevard, lined on either side by palm trees and tropical flowering shrubs, and cut in the foothills that surround the city's outskirts. The houses up there are set back in their own grounds and screened by twelve-foot walls. You needed money to live on that boulevard— plenty of money. Brett had money all right; as much as he could use. He had a yacht, three cars, five gardeners and a yen for fresh young blondes. When he wasn't throwing parties, getting drunk or necking blondes, he was making a pile of jack out of two oil companies and a string of chain stores that stretched from San Francisco to New York.
"After Miss Rux had given her performance, Brett invited her to join the party," Gorman went on. "During the evening, he showed her and his guests some of his valuable antiques. It seems he had recently acquired a Cellini dagger. He opened the wall safe to show it to his guests. Miss Rux was sitting close to the safe, and as he spun the dial operating the lock, she memorized the combination without realizing what she was doing. She has, I may say, a remarkably retentive memory. The dagger made a great impression on her. She tells me it is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen."
So far I wouldn't figure where I came into any of this. I wanted a drink. I wanted to go to bed. But I was broke and stuck with Fatso and had to make the best of it. I began to think about his diamond again.
"Later, when the guests had retired, Brett showed Miss Rux to her room. It had been arranged for her to stop over at Brett's place for the night as the party was expected to go on to the small hours of the morning. Alone with her, Brett reverted to type. He probably thought she would be an easy conquest. She repulsed him."
"Many men think that when a dame entertains in a G-string the writing goes up on the wall."