In sun-soaked Florida, Crane pursues a kidnapper in between drinks
It does not take much to lure Bill Crane to Florida in the wintertime. The weather would be temptation enough, but the fact that there is money to be made and gin to be drunk makes a trip to Key Largo irresistible. His ever-soused companion, Doc Williams, at his side, Crane sets out south to find out who has been threatening millionaire playboy Penn Essex with blackmail notes, first on his pillow, then in his wallet, demanding $50,000—“or else.” But as Crane soon learns, the threat is not to Penn, but to his sister.
When beautiful young Camelia is kidnapped, Crane and Doc look for traitors inside the family circle. Lurching from cocktail hour to cocktail hour, they will do everything they can to find the missing girl, knowing that murderers—and hangovers—could strike at any moment.
About the Author
All the while, Latimer was writing fast-paced mystery novels such as The Lady in the Morgue (1936) and The Dead Don’t Care (1938). After fighting in World War II, he returned to Hollywood, where he continued writing novels and became a staff writer for the Perry Mason show.
Read an Excerpt
The Dead Don't Care
A Bill Crane Mystery
By Jonathan Latimer
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1938 Jonathan Latimer
All rights reserved.
SUNSET SPLASHED gold paint on the windows of the white marble house, brought out apricots and pinks and salmons in the flowering azaleas. The Buick convertible turned left around the freshly scrubbed trunk of a royal palm, gravel crunching under its tires; then right around a fountain, and came to a halt below a marquee of iron and amber glass.
Thomas O'Malley, awe on his long, dark face, ran gray eyes over the massive front of the house, allowed his breath to pass his lips in a half whistle of admiration.
"Not bad," he said.
His companion shut off the convertible's engine. His name was William Crane and he was looking at the brass knocker on the great ebony door with perplexity. "Are you supposed to pound that thing?" he demanded. A partially recovered black eye, his left, gave him a humorously reckless appearance.
"Why not?" O'Malley asked. "We got invitations."
"All right." Crane slid off the leather seat onto the gravel. He mounted the three crescent-shaped steps, was about to raise the knocker when a noise from the drive made him turn his head.
Two pink flamingos slowly approached the roadster from the fountain. They walked with rheumatic dignity; moving their stiltlike legs deliberately, carrying their heads at an inquiring angle. Their eyes were like highly polished waistcoat buttons.
"For the love of Mike!" said Crane.
"I'm glad you see 'em too," O'Malley said from the convertible. "For a minute I thought I had the horrors again. What in hell are they?"
The flamingos halted ten feet from him. They looked, with their patrician beaks, their politely inquiring heads, their bright unblinking eyes, like two elderly savants. They looked as though they were wondering what in hell O'Malley was.
"They're kind of birds," said Crane vaguely, turning back to the knocker.
O'Malley, apprehensive of the flamingos, slid under the Buick's wheel and followed Crane. As he neared the ebony door it opened, disclosing a dour man with black hair and unfriendly lips. Years of repression had made a mask of his face. He was the butler.
"Mr O'Malley?" he asked. "And Mr Crane?"
He wore patent leather shoes, dark trousers, a dubonnet-red cummerbund and a white drill coat tailored like a mess jacket.
"Mr Crane," Crane said, "... and Mr O'Malley."
"Beg your pardon, sir." The man left the ebony door open, came out on the first crescent-shaped step. "Mr Essex is expecting you. Shall I bring in your luggage?"
Crane gave him the convertible's keys. "In the rumble."
He started to follow the butler down the steps, but O'Malley's elbow nudged his ribs. "Take a gander at the window above the door."
Casually Crane's eyes roved over the grounds, the house. He saw the arched back of the fountain, the green expanse of lawn, the dusk-subdued azaleas, the palms, the white wall of the house, the window above the door....
His eyes went on to the roadster, to the butler tugging at the rumble seat, but his mind retained a photographic impression of the window. A man was seated in the recess, his face shadowed by a hat pulled over his eyes. He was peering down at them. He looked sinister.
The butler had the rumble seat open. He put one foot on the chromium bumper and reached down for the large pigskin suitcase. His drill jacket slid up his back, disclosing a small blue pistol, possibly a 25-caliber Colt, tucked away under his cummerbund.
For a divided second Crane's and O'Malley's eyes met.
One hand on the knob of the door to Crane's bedroom, the butler said, "I shall try to locate Mr Essex, sir."
"Thank you," said Crane.
The butler's eyes were small and black and unblinking. He stared into the room until the door, apparently closing of its own volition, swung shut with a thud.
O'Malley was seated on the arm of an easy chair. "Nice-looking guy," he observed.
"Like a wildcat." Crane flung open the french window on the side of the room opposite the door, stepped out onto a Spanish balcony. "Hello! The ocean!"
Below him was a very large patio, luxuriant with small palms, clumps of tropical flowers, gaily colored umbrellas and metal tables and chairs painted a brilliant orange. At the open end of the patio was a white swimming pool and in back of that was a magnificent beach of ash-blond sand. Rollers from the Atlantic, moving ponderously, cast themselves on the beach, making silver lines in the dusk.
Moving to the french window, O'Malley dispassionately regarded the scene. "What's the setup here?" he asked. Speaking made the cigarette dangling from his lips glow angrily.
Crane shrugged his shoulders. He was enchanted by the perfection of the view, by the serenity of the verdant patio, by the languid beat of the surf, by the soft warm wind on his face; a wind heavy with the perfume of flowers. He could almost taste the wind.
"Well, we should worry," said O'Malley, "as long as the food is good."
Crane lighted a cigarette and contentedly filled his lungs with smoke. The food would be good, and the liquor. And the beds. He was very tired after the long drive from Charleston and he thought with pleasure of the double bed in his room. He always slept well with the noise of the sea in his ears. It was pleasant, too, to be sent from rain-swept New York into the languorous perfection of Miami in March, or rather the perfection of Key Largo, fifty miles south of Miami.
Moreover, he approved of what he had seen of the Essex house, of the Essex estate. He always preferred to pursue his occupation as a detective in luxurious surroundings among rich, congenial people. One of the troubles with crime was its prevalence among criminals.
O'Malley said, "I could do with a bottle of beer."
Crane leaned one elbow on the balcony rail. "Ring up Old Lynx Eyes and tell him to fetch you one," he suggested. He peered out at the ocean, navy blue now that the sun had set.
"Good idea," said O'Malley.
Left alone, Crane wondered what had happened to the young Essexes. It couldn't have been very serious or he'd have read about it in the newspapers. They were always in the newspapers. The boy, Penn, twenty-five years old, had a penchant for fast automobiles, chorus girls and breach-of-promise suits, in the order named. The girl, Camelia, twenty-three years old, had most recently been forcibly taken from a Grace liner as she was about to elope to Peru with a gentleman styling himself Count Paul di Gregario, of the Holy Roman Empire. The removal had been accomplished by attorneys for the Union Trust Company, trustee of the Essex fortune and guardian of the Essex children, which had discovered there was no longer a Holy Roman Empire and therefore Di Gregario was no count. He was also, it developed, already married.
Crane hoped that O'Malley would be thoughtful enough to order two bottles of beer. He decided to go in and make certain of the second bottle. He flipped his cigarette into the air, paused to watch the arc of the descending coal. His eyes caught sight of the figure of a man on another balcony over the left wing of the house, at right angles to his balcony. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck and resisted an impulse to dive through the french window to his room. The man might have been a statue, so motionless did he hold himself. There was the same sinister intentness, the same poise, the same down-pulled hat that had characterized the man in the front window, but Crane did not think this was the same man. This man seemed smaller, but he looked very unpleasant.
Once inside his room, Crane wiped his forehead with a linen handkerchief. "Whew!" he said. He opened the closet door and looked inside, then peered under the bed.
O'Malley watched him from the bathroom door. "Lost something?"
"I thought maybe they had a guy tucked in here too." Crane told him of the man on the balcony and added, "The house is full of 'em."
"Maybe the Seminoles have risen," suggested O'Malley.
Crane was about to say, "Nuts," when there was a knock on the door. Instead he said, "Maybe it's the beer"; then, louder, "Come in."
A hollow-chested young man in a white linen suit came into the room. He had a thin face, blond hair and a pointed chin. He didn't look well. He looked very much like his newspaper pictures.
He smiled at them, said, "I'm Penn Essex." Carefully he closed and bolted the door. "I'm certainly glad to see you," he said.
Crane introduced O'Malley and himself, then asked, "What's the trouble? Colonel Black didn't have time to tell us." He sat down on a bedspread the color of guava jelly, rested an arm on the carved headpiece.
Essex sat in the larger of the two easy chairs. His face was mostly eyes. He began, "It started ..." then abruptly turned toward Crane, anger in his voice. "I suppose I'm a fool to be in a funk over this; it's so damn silly. But I am. And you'll laugh...."
"No, we won't," said Crane. "Start at the beginning."
"Well, anyway, you know about these things ... whether they're real or not." He paused and they could hear the deep noise of the surf. "It's notes."
"Here." Essex uncoiled from his chair, thrust three sheets of paper in Crane's hand. "Read them." He turned to O'Malley, leaning against the hall door, and said, "Probably somebody's idea of a practical joke." His voice didn't sound convincing.
Crane examined the first note. It was crudely printed in red ink on a diagonally torn sheet of white paper. It read:
You come clean or else ... Follow instructions when they come ... Dont try to escape because I am watching every move you make ...
"Well, well, well," said Crane in a pleased tone of voice. He laid the note face down on the bed and picked up the second between his thumb and forefinger.
Hire more guards if you like ... They will do you no good ... Your instructions are to get fifty thousand dollars ($50,000) in unmarked bills ... Keep them handy ...
This sheet of paper had also been torn diagonally from a larger piece. Crane picked up the first piece and placed the two together. They matched. The ink on both, too, was red. The paper seemed to be of excellent texture and Crane held first one note, then the other to the light, but there was no watermark.
Essex was pacing back and forth in front of O'Malley. His feet were noisy on the absinthe-green tile floor, silent on the red-and-black-and-white Mexican saddle rug. His eyes kept coming back to Crane.
The third sheet was torn like the others and the ink was red. Crane held it to his nose and drew a long, slow breath. There was no odor. He read:
The time nears when you must pay your debt ... You have a choice ... fifty thousand in small unmarked bills ... or your life! Instructions follow ... Don't try to escape ...
Crane blinked his eyes, laid the sheet on the bed and said, "The fellow's getting familiar; he didn't call you mister in the last note."
"Familiar?" Essex' eyes were wide. "You don't know how familiar he is."
"What do you mean?"
"The way he gets the notes to me." Abruptly Essex halted, one foot ahead of the other, in the middle of a step. "I find one in my wallet, another——"
"Wait." Rays from the indirect lamp in the corner shadowed Crane's eyes, made both of them appear to have been blacked. "Better tell us in chronological order. When did you get the first note?"
Essex returned to his chair, sat with elbows on knees, chin on fists. "The first note came just a month ago, on the twenty-seventh of February. It was the damnedest thing.... I had some rooms at the Waldorf in New York and I woke up in the morning with something scratching my chin. It was the note, pinned to the pillow." He smiled at Crane. "I never came out of a hang-over so quickly in my whole life."
Crane, who was also troubled with hang-overs, felt a bond of sympathy between them. He smiled, too, and asked, "Any idea how it got there?"
Essex shook his head.
"Anybody staying with you?"
After a pause so slight that Crane could not be sure it was a pause, Essex replied, "Nobody but Brown, my man."
"Not exactly a valet. Sort of a combination valet and bodyguard. He used to be a top-flight welter-weight."
From the door O'Malley spoke. "Buster Brown?"
"Yes. That was his ring name. His real name's Chester."
"I saw him fight Tony Capezzio in Pittsburgh," said O'Malley. "He hung his Sunday punch on the wop in the fourth round."
"Did you come home alone that night, Mr Essex?" inquired Crane.
"Yes. I went to a party and I guess I got a little tight, but I certainly would have known if anybody came home with me."
O'Malley said, "He would've been a great fighter if he hadn't had such big feet. He was always falling over them." He nodded reminiscently. "He carried dynamite in both hands."
"He still does," said Essex.
Crane asked, "And you don't think he could have put the note on your pillow?"
"He could have, all right, but I don't think he did. Especially in view of the others."
"Yes, you better tell us about the others."
"Well, the next note (the one about the fifty thousand dollars) came the day after I got down here. That was ten days ago. I found it in my wallet."
Essex' grin failed to conceal his anxiety. "I can't even imagine how it got there. The Eye must be handy at magic. I put five hundred dollars in the wallet and drove up to Miami for a fling at the Blue Castle; that's Roland Tortoni's place, y'know." Crane bobbed his head and Essex continued, "The note wasn't there when I put the five hundred in the wallet, but when I opened it to buy some chips for the roulette game it fell out. I can tell you it gave me a start."
"I can see how it might," said Crane.
"And a funny thing was that two of the five one-hundred-dollar bills had disappeared."
O'Malley said, "That wouldn't be funny to me." He was resting one arm on the doorknob; his silver-streaked head against the upper panel. His gray-blue eyes rested on Crane's brown eyes. "A dip?"
"Might be." Crane explained to Essex, "Mr O'Malley suggests someone might have picked your pocket, removed the two hundred dollars, inserted the note and then replaced the wallet."
"That's barely possible," agreed Essex, "but it seems to me a very risky way for The Eye to get the note to me."
Crane asked, "Where was Brown that evening?"
"Somewhere between New York and Miami, driving the Bugatti down. That's why I've eliminated him."
Crane frowned. "And the third note?"
"It came four days ago, in the morni——"
With a liquid movement O'Malley unlocked the door, turned the knob, flung the door open. A man in a white monkey coat regarded them with a startled expression on his face. He carried a tray on which there were two glasses, four bottles of Heineken's imported Holland beer. He had black hair, big brown eyes, a small round face.
"I believe you desired beer ...?"
"Bring it in," said Crane.
The man put the tray on the small table beside the bed, fumbled in his pocket.
"Never mind," said Crane. "We'll open them." He shook his head in response to the question in O'Malley's eyes.
O'Malley stepped out of the doorway, let the servant depart and closed and bolted the door. "I think the guy was doing some listening," he said.
Essex' face was pale. "I hope not; I'd hate to have everybody know about the notes or that you are detectives." He brushed by Crane's knees, picked up the french phone by the bed, spun the dial once. "Craig," he said, "how long ago did you send Carlos up to Mr Crane's room with the beer?"
The phone spluttered.
"Thanks." Essex turned to Crane. "Five minutes."
O'Malley said, "Let's get the guy and find out what his idea is."
"We'd better wait," said Crane. "We don't want to tip our hand yet." He took one of the dark green bottles, tossed it to O'Malley. "You've got an opener, haven't you, Tom?"
O'Malley opened the bottle, exchanged it for an unopened one. Essex said he didn't believe he cared for any beer. O'Malley drank his beer from the bottle, Crane from a glass. It tasted fine. It was smoother, less carbonated than American beer.
After a second drink Crane asked, "And the third note?"
"That one really scared me. I ..."
"I don't blame you for being scared," said Crane in a sympathetic tone. "Fifty thousand or your life ..."
"That wasn't what did it. I've received lots of nasty letters." He moved nervously in his chair. "But never one like this." He made a feeble attempt to laugh. "It was in my hand when I woke up—in my hand!"
Excerpted from The Dead Don't Care by Jonathan Latimer. Copyright © 1938 Jonathan Latimer. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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