An escapee from a Spanish prison hunts for his best friend’s killer in New York
For more than a year, Kit McKittrick languishes in a Fascist prison, his days spent in darkness and his nights tortured by fear of his limping jailer, whose name he never learns. He escapes Spain with the help of Louie Lepetino, a childhood friend who came with him to fight on behalf of the Republican cause. Back in the United States, Kit heads out West to recover from his ordeal, while Louie returns to a life of cafés and cocktail parties in New York. But Kit’s convalescence is cut short when he learns Louie has taken a fatal tumble out of a window, and he journeys to New York to discover who gave his savior the final push. Only a woman could have led Louie to his death, Kit thinks, and New York is full of femmes fatales. But man or woman, Louie’s murderer should watch out for Kit: He wants vengeance, and he’s willing to kill for it.
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About the Author
Dorothy B. Hughes (1904–1993) was a mystery author and literary critic. Born in Kansas City, she studied at Columbia University, and won an award from the Yale Series of Younger Poets for her first book, the poetry collection Dark Certainty (1931). After writing several unsuccessful manuscripts, she published The So Blue Marble in 1940. A New York–based mystery, it won praise for its hardboiled prose, which was due, in part, to Hughes’s editor, who demanded she cut 25,000 words from the book. Hughes published thirteen more novels, the best known of which are In a Lonely Place (1947) and Ride the Pink Horse (1946). Both were made into successful films. In the early fifties, Hughes largely stopped writing fiction, preferring to focus on criticism, for which she would go on to win an Edgar Award. In 1978, the Mystery Writers of America presented Hughes with the Grand Master Award for literary achievement
Read an Excerpt
The Fallen Sparrow
By Dorothy B. Hughes
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1970 Dorothy B. Hughes
All rights reserved.
He stared out at the treadmill of windows and the grimy windows stared right back at him. They weren't saying welcome, nor was he giving back any of that welcome stuff. It shouldn't have been that way. He'd been so sick for New York every day and night of those five months on the God-forsaken ranch, his very muscles had ached. Now he was here and all he had to give it was a grimy look multiplied mirrorwise on the rear walls of brick tenement. It wasn't the way he'd thought New York would welcome his return when he'd left it last September. But Louie wasn't dead then.
In the tunnel. That was the way you came into the city of shining towers, through a tunnel. That was the way you ought to come into Manhattan. See the black heart before you were dazzled by the chromium-plated wings and turrets. He smooshed his nose against the cold Pullman pane. It felt good.
There was a moment when the lights failed, there in the narrow corridor where he stood to be first on the platform when the train pulled in. It didn't often happen that way—tunnels weren't any sport on efficient American trains—but this time it did. In that moment of dark, something little bumped against his sleeve, not very hard, and someone's small husky voice murmured, "I beg your pardon."
The dim orange came feebly to light then and Kit saw her hurrying into the Pullman, his Pullman. But she hadn't had a berth in that car on the run in from Chicago. She hadn't been in the diner or the bar or the lounge. If she had he'd have seen her, even feeling as he did. Probably some movie starlet with a snotty keep-out compartment. Even feeling as he did, he leaned backwards from the window now to see her rear view disappearing through his Pullman. He wasn't interested. She had narrow hips under that black dress and her sheer legs were matched beauties. There was only one thing wrong with that picture. He leaned his head against the cold glass. She was a dame. And it was a dame that got Louie.
Louie didn't leap or fall out of any hotel window. Not Louie. Someone pushed him. It had to be a dame. If it weren't, he wouldn't be dead. He wouldn't let any man get the jump on him. He was dead because he was a gentleman. He was a funny guy that way, a gentleman like in old-time books. That was why dames could take him and did take him. He wouldn't hit back. There was a dame in it or Louie wouldn't have been pushed out of a twelfth story window on to Fifth Avenue and 55th Street.
They were in with a little jerk. The porter passed him. Kit picked up the bag between his feet. He was right behind the navy coat and cap, first on the vestibule, first to step into the gray steam of the lower level. He held to his bag as if it had something besides dirty shirts and shaving tackle in it. He wasn't having any wait for the red caps. The cold steamy air slapped his face. He breathed it in and liked its clammy bite. Coldness gave you starch. He'd felt better about things ever since he waked in the February blizzard of Chicago. He hadn't been able to think on the damn ranch; summer in January was cloyingly false. That had been the trouble in Spain, too damn hot. He shut his teeth on Spain.
He had long legs and they took long strides. He was in a hurry now; he'd wasted five weeks as it was. That was how he happened to see the girl again. She went through the gate ahead of him. He wouldn't have known her but he recognized the legs. They were as good as he'd thought. She had a sable coat now, the color of money, and a blob of sable on her head. He saw her legs and the sable and the cloudy black hair on her shoulders. He didn't see her face. She wasn't a big movie star; nobody was taking pictures of her. She didn't have any red cap in tow either and the bag she carried didn't look big enough to hold a nightgown. He wondered why she'd bumped him there in the dark; there'd been plenty of room for the porter to pass him later and the porter would have made three of her. If it was a pickup, she'd changed her mind quickly enough; or he was the wrong guy. A few years ago he might have played follow the leader but not today. He didn't see her after he passed through the gate, and he moved his legs faster now, as if even wondering about a girl had delayed him.
He went through the main terminal like a football player through a weak line, without slowing speed and without being touched. Up the ramp and out to 42nd Street. He stood there only for a breath, catching the lights of New York and the even sharper cold air against him, and he moved again. Ignoring the terminal cabs he walked towards Madison to catch a familiar cruiser.
He said, "Seventeenth precinct headquarters."
The cabbie clinked the meter and eyed him with some doubt. That was Geoffrey's tailor, Geoffrey's college, Geoffrey's clubs. He didn't resemble a policeman's son any more. He didn't even resemble the son of a policeman who'd made the grade of Tammany tycoon.
He pushed open the doors at 163 East 51st and he stood there, his feet spraddled, his chin hard. He asked, "Where's Tobin?"
The cop at the desk eyed him as if he were kind of crazy. He was, at the moment, but the cop shouldn't have known it. He asked back, "Who?"
"Tobin. William Tobin. Inspector Tobin. Toby." The name kept coming out of his mouth like hailstones.
"His office's down at Centre Street," the cop began.
"Don't give me that," Kit said. "He hangs out here. He always has. Ever since he first got his rookie badge and was assigned to this precinct. Where is he?"
The cop took his pen out of his mouth. "Who wants to know?"
He said, "I'm Kit McKittrick."
Maybe the cop recognized part of the name; maybe he merely decided Kit was harmless. He said, "If you're so damn smart, you find him. He might be around somewhere. Usually is." He yawned. "I don't know where he's at. I just come on myself." He opened a tabloid across his face.
Kit let his grip thump to the floor. "Thanks," he said. "Keep an eye on my bag. I don't want it hooked." He pushed through to another room; it smelled worse of golden oak than the first. There wasn't anyone in there. He opened another door into a smaller room with a roll top desk taking up most of it. Tobin wasn't here either. There was only another copper on a bench hiding behind another tab. This one had a Dublin face. He'd be kind to old folks and children but he was big enough to be able to push his knuckles against any crook's map without worrying. He was as big as Kit McKittrick.
He let the tab down an inch and said, "Want something?"
"Not here." He wasn't smart like the cop outside; he made matter-of-fact statement, put up the tab screen again. That ended it for him.
It didn't end it for Kit. He demanded, "Where is he? Do you know where he is? If he isn't here and you don't know where he is, what's his home address?"
The cop inched the paper down with righteous reluctance. "You want to see Tobin?"
"Yeah." Kit didn't say: What the hell do you think I'm doing, paying off a bet? He didn't say it because the dumb cop was polite not smart, even if he did prefer the news to Kit's conversation.
"Can I help you out? I'm Sergeant Moore."
It didn't matter who he was and the name didn't mean anything except that the map of Ireland on his face wasn't phony. Kit said, "No. I want to see Tobin."
Moore was ready to return to the sports page. He said, "He's washing his hands or something. He'll be back." He moved his feet off the bench so Kit could sit down. Kit didn't. He stood there with his top coat pushed back and his hands jammed in his trousers pockets. He'd meet Tobin standing on his own two feet and no nonsense about it.
He hadn't seen Toby for maybe fifteen years but he wasn't particularly astonished that the Inspector wasn't as big as he remembered. He himself hadn't been six foot two, weight 187, when he was a twelve-year-old kid. Tobin came in through another door pretty soon. He was thin with a thin face and he couldn't have been more than five eleven. He kept his hat on his head and his cigarette in his mouth. He didn't look like Princeton '18. He was surprised to see a stranger in his private hideout because he put his eyebrows up, but he didn't say anything. He let Kit do that.
Kit said, "You're Inspector Tobin?" He knew it but he wanted to be sure.
Tobin kept on walking around his big desk until he was sitting in the squeaky old revolving chair. He said, "Yeah," without moving his mouth or his cigarette.
"Inspector Tobin, the head of New York City's homicide squad?"
"Yeah." If Tobin was puzzled, his hat hid it.
Kit's voice was loud and harsh. "Why the hell did you give out that Louie's death was accidental?"
Tobin looked up sharp at that and Moore dropped the tabloid. The Inspector's eyebrows were close together. But his voice was quiet "You mean Louie Lepetino?"
"Yeah." Kit stood there firm as a hunk of iron, as if he'd never known what it was to shake and shiver and not be able to stop it.
Tobin pushed his hat over to the other side of his head. "Because it was," he said.
Kit let his voice be very quiet now. "That's a lie."
Sergeant Moore asked perplexed, "Who are you, Mister?"
Kit shrugged him off as if the cop were touching his coat sleeve. "What's that go to do with it?" He said, "For the record, if you have to have it, I'm Kit McKittrick."
Tobin's eyebrows were slanted now. "Old Chris McKittrick's son."
"Yeah. I'm Chris McKittrick's son."
Moore said, "I knew him."
Kit didn't look at him. All the coppers knew Chris McKittrick some time or other. He kept watching Tobin, waiting for an answer.
Tobin gave it when he yawned. Kit knew then that it wasn't going to do any good his coming here with anger for the Inspector. Tobin talked through the second yawn just as if he were some gossipy old hen at a hen party. "I knew Chris myself. So he was your father—"
Kit took the conversation away from Chris. He said, "That hasn't anything to do with my being here. I want to know about Louie."
Tobin didn't yawn now. He opened a penknife and began paring at his thumb nail. "What about Louie?"
"I'm asking you." Kit's anger was solidifying; he was calmer outside but inside he was uglier. "I'm asking you what happened to him? And why you called it an accident?"
"Suppose I ask you what you have—had—to do with Lieutenant Lepetino?" He pared his forefinger next.
Kit's voice was hard. "He was my best friend." Louie was his only friend. The others didn't count, not even Ab; college friends, society friends; bar friends, International Brigade friends. Louie was his real friend. And the god-damned New York police sat on their tails and said it was an accident. He'd never believed they were crooked before because he was Chris McKittrick's son and Chris had pounded the pavements at one time himself. Someone had bought them off. They knew Louie hadn't jumped out of a hotel window.
"Where you been hiding out?" Tobin shot that one.
Moore elucidated. "You weren't at the church. Louie had a swell funeral."
Kit kept his hands clenched in his pockets. "I haven't been hiding out. I've been—" He hesitated. Silly word he had to use, him looking like a well-tailored ox. "I've been recuperating at a ranch out West. I didn't know Louie was dead. No one sent me the papers. I wouldn't know it now only my mother happened to mention it in a letter."
Sandwiched it in between a new hat she was getting from Det and a meeting of London Helpers at the Astor. Somebody she hadn't seen since the night Louie Lepetino was killed. And, more casually, "You know he fell from a window at The George."
Kit had known then it was a lie. And he'd driven eighty miles to Tucson the next day because the University there kept files of the Times. He'd read the whole story and made certain it was a lie. Then he'd driven eighty miles back to the ranch, packed his things, taken the next train east. He couldn't fly because he hadn't that much money on hand. He couldn't cash that large a check so late in the month. And he didn't wire the trustees for money because he didn't want anyone to know he was returning to New York until he arrived and began making trouble. He didn't want the murderer to be ready for him. He couldn't ask Geoffrey Wilhite for help although Geoffrey had been a good stepfather for twelve years, two years less than old Chris had been dead. Too good to him; he couldn't ask more. Moreover, he didn't want his mother to tell him he'd promised to stay a year out West and get on his feet again.
The train had delayed him enough and he didn't like Tobin delaying him further, holding out on him. He made cold statement. "You know damn well Louie didn't kill himself."
Tobin pared complacently. "I didn't say that. I said it was an accident."
"You know damn well he didn't fall out of any window." Louie'd been raised on New York windows, tenement windows, not guarded like hotel windows.
The Inspector shrugged.
Kit took a step forward. "You know damn well he was pushed."
Moore asked then, "Do you have any proof of that?"
"Proof? Proof?" He swung on the copper and then he controlled again. "I knew Louie."
Tobin's voice was flat. "How well'd you know him?"
His mouth curled. "I knew him from the time we wore diapers."
Even Tobin lifted his eyes on that. "Yeah?"
"Yeah." He sucked his breath in. "And I know Louie wouldn't jump out of a window or fall out of one. Not in his right mind."
Tobin got up out of the chair and sat on the edge of the desk. "Maybe he wasn't in his right mind." His eyes were half-shut. "Maybe you know he'd got mixed up in a pretty fast crowd—your kind of a crowd, Princes and Duchesses and what. Or maybe you don't know if you've been playing cowboy for more, than a couple of months. What do you think of that, Mr. Wise Guy?"
Kit held on tight to his pockets.
"Maybe you think you know more than the whole New York homicide squad. Maybe you turned kind of psychic on that dude ranch. Or maybe you just got bored and are trying to drum up a good murder." He scratched a match on his shoe and blew it out. "Arizona lets you rich kids play cowboy as long as you pay for it but I'll be damned if New York is going to start letting you play detective even if your name is McKittrick. Run along now. Forget it. You'll have more fun at the Stork than here."
Kit kept holding on tight until Tobin finished his piece. There was a white line around his lips. He said, "Louie Lepetino was murdered. I'm going to find out who did it. And I'm going to find out why you wouldn't find out who did it."
Tobin scratched another match. His voice was sharper and his eyes hard. "Run along, oil can. You stink."
Kit took his hands out of his pockets. They clenched again and then he relaxed them. He took his time buttoning his top coat. He spoke softly. "All right, gramps. I'll twenty-three skidoo. Your patter's as corny as your ideas." He cocked his hat. "If you ever get the lead out of your feet and the seat of your pants—and your alleged brains, maybe you'll think of some of the answers without being psychic."
He walked loud on the battered wooden floor. He turned around at the doorway. He was even grinning a little. "Louie got me a permit from the Commissioner to carry a gun. His being in an accident doesn't rescind that, does it?"
Tobin said, "Good for a year," and he asked as an afterthought, "Why do you want to carry a gun?"
Kit grinned wider but it wasn't funny. "To shoot people, dope. To shoot people." He was laughing as he banged out, through the empty second room, into the stuffy lighted front. The cop was still reading the paper. Kit swung up his bag, said, "Thanks for nothing, Sarge," and went out into the dark of evening.
He gulped the air thirstily as he walked to Lexington. It seemed hours he'd waited for Tobin but it wasn't. His wrist said eight-twenty. He hailed a cab, gave the Park Avenue address, and settled against the leather. He might as well go home and make some plans before proceeding. It was even possible that his mother might help out. She'd remembered Louie enough to notice his death. One thing certain she couldn't be less help than Tobin. And she ought to know that he'd returned so she could double the grocery order. All at once he felt good. He wasn't at all nervous or depressed. He knew he was going to avenge Louie. Maybe he was psychic after all.
Excerpted from The Fallen Sparrow by Dorothy B. Hughes. Copyright © 1970 Dorothy B. Hughes. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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