Woken by the telephone, Mike Shayne is disoriented. Though he has been alone since his wife was murdered, he has not gotten used to sleeping by himself. The voice on the other end of the telephone snaps him back into reality. It’s his friend Clem Wilson, calling from a filling station outside of Miami, and there is terror in his voice. He has time for just a few words before Shayne hears the crack of broken glass and the thud of a falling body.
By the time he reaches the filling station, the police are already there and Wilson has two bullets in his chest—and either of them would have been enough to kill him. Clem Wilson was mixed up in something he couldn’t handle, and if Mike Shayne can’t set aside his grief and unravel the mystery, his friend will not be the last to die.
Heads You Lose is the 8th book in the Mike Shayne Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Heads You Lose
A Mike Shayne Mystery
By Brett Halliday
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1956 Brett Halliday
All rights reserved.
Michael Shayne moaned and jabbered in his sleep. A faint and insistent ringing disturbed him. Subconsciously he reached out a long arm and his hand fumbled over the night table beside his bed. A glass clattered to the floor. He threw back the covers and sat up in bed, yawning widely.
The faint sound of the telephone persisted, and slowly he remembered why it was so muffled and far away. The instrument was in the other room and the bedroom door was closed. He couldn't reach out and lift it from the night table any more. That was in the other apartment one flight up where he had lived with Phyllis before her death.
Remembering sent a surge of pain through Shayne and cleared his sleep-drugged mind. He reached for the switch above the bed and flooded the room with light, clawed knobby fingers through his coarse red hair and swung his feet to the floor. Barefooted and in pajamas, he padded into the adjoining room to answer the monotonous summons.
He growled, "Hello," into the mouthpiece.
An excited voice said, "Hello ... hello! That you Mike Shayne?"
"Yeh. It's me."
"This here's Clem. Clem Wilson. You know ... the filling station out on the trail."
"Sure. I know. What the hell ...?"
"Look, Mike, I got to see you right now. You got to hurry or it may be too late."
"But it's midnight," Shayne protested. "I was catching up on my sleep."
"You ain't asleep now," Clem Wilson yelled. "You got to come right now. I tell you, by God, I got something ..." The vibrant and urgent appeal broke off suddenly.
Shayne said impatiently, "Clem ... are you still there?"
"Right here." Wilson spoke in a swift, shaky undertone. "I got to hang up. That's him comin' back. If he catches me telephonin' ..."
A crash as of broken glass jangled in Shayne's ear, followed by a dull thud, like the sound of a falling body. He yelled, "Clem! What's happening out there?"
Pressing the receiver hard against his ear, he heard the faint creak of a door and footsteps coming nearer to the instrument at the other end. Then, shatteringly loud in the receiver came the sharp crack of a pistol. Almost immediately the line was closed by the harsh bang of the receiver being replaced on Clem Wilson's telephone.
Shayne's angular features tightened, deepening the hollows in his cheeks. He held the connection down hard for an instant, lifted it and spoke tersely to the clerk at the switchboard: "Get the police quick! There's trouble out on Tamiami Trial ... the first filling station this side of the Wildcat. Get that? Somebody's been shot out there. And get my car out, Tommy. I'll be down soon as I can dress."
He slammed the receiver up and trotted into the bedroom, stripping off his pajama coat as he ran. He snatched up his clothes and flung himself into them, paused long enough to slide a bottle of cognac into a side pocket of a belted trench coat. Grabbing a soiled and much-abused felt hat, he jammed it down over his uncombed hair and slammed the door shut behind him.
The clock in the apartment lobby pointed to ten minutes past midnight when he strode from the elevator. The night clerk, a round-faced young man, leaned eagerly over the desk and reported:
"I called the police right away, Mr. Shayne. And one of the boys is getting your car. What's happened this time? What's going on?" His blue eyes shone with hero worship for the tall, lanky detective, and with curiosity.
"I'm afraid a friend of mine has just got himself murdered, Tommy. Did you tell the cops the first filling station this side of the Wildcat?"
"I sure did, Mr. Shayne," Tommy answered vigorously. "Was it the man who rang you so long?"
Shayne nodded. "Did you talk to him?"
"Only to tell him you didn't answer your phone. But he told me to keep on ringing. I noticed he sounded terribly excited and he said it was awfully important, so I kept on trying to get you."
Shayne fingered a cigarette from a pack in his pocket, frowned heavily at it and struck a match. He said somberly, "If I'd answered the phone sooner it might not have happened. I've got to start leaving the door open." He shrugged wide shoulders and set his jaw in a hard line. He started toward the door, hesitated, and half-turned to say, "See about getting my telephone moved to the bedroom."
Turning back, Shayne met a youth running through the front door. Breathlessly the boy announced, "Your car's outside, Mr. Shayne. I got it quick as I could."
Shayne said, "Thanks," and longlegged through the door where his car waited with the motor idling. He slid behind the wheel and drove south over the Miami River drawbridge, keeping his headlights dimmed and holding his speed to twenty miles an hour in compliance with the strict dimout regulations. The street lights were blacked facing the ocean, but light from the landward side shone upon the street as he drove south along the palm-lined avenue.
There were no other cars abroad after he turned west on Eighth Street, the beginning of the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to Tampa. Driving away from the ocean, Shayne switched on bright lights and accelerated to thirty-five. There wasn't any great hurry now, of course. The police should be at Clem Wilson's filling station, but he carefully kept the needle at the top speed limit.
Accustomed for many months to the dimout and gasoline restrictions, Shayne no longer noticed the paucity of vehicular traffic, but this, coupled with deserted business buildings on the Trail beyond Coral Gables, gave added protection to criminals who took advantage of the wartime necessities to rob and murder.
Morosely he watched the road, slowing as he approached a blinking red light in the center of the highway. There were two cars parked on the edge of the pavement, and a policeman waved him to a stop with a red-lensed flashlight. Recognizing the officer in the police radio car, Shayne leaned out and said:
"Hello there, Gary, what's doing?"
"Hello, Shayne," Gary answered. "Go ahead. There's hell to pay up there at the filling station." He waved his red light toward a cluster of lights by the side of the road a half mile west.
Shayne asked, "Is Clem Wilson dead?"
"Yeh. The chief and the M.E. are up there looking him over."
As Shayne shifted gears to drive away he noticed that the second car parked on the edge of the pavement was a green Buick coupé with the right rear wheel jacked up. It appeared to have been deserted temporarily, and he drove on to the filling station.
Three cars were parked beside the gasoline pump in front of the three-room building which served as both business and living quarters for the Wilson family. Shayne pulled up behind the cars and got out.
A bright light blazed in the front room office, and half a dozen men were crowded into the small space. The door stood open and one pane of glass was out, lying in shattered bits on the floor just inside the threshold.
Chief Gentry looked up from a squatting position and nodded stolidly as Shayne stopped in the doorway. The Miami Chief of Detectives was a big man with a generous paunch. He breathed audibly, mopped sweat from his heavy, florid features, but he did not speak at once.
The police doctor knelt beside the corpse of Clem Wilson. The dead man was middleaged. His tall, spare frame, clad in greasy overalls and a faded cotton shirt, lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. He was partially bald, with leathery features and a prominent Adam's apple. The front of his shirt was stained with blood, and there was an ugly hole where his left eye had been.
Turning his morose gray eyes from the corpse, Shayne saw Mrs. Wilson pressed against a wooden counter at the other side of the room. Her sharp face and deep-set eyes showed only bewilderment. Her thin hands clutched a flowered cotton wrapper to her body, and gray hair hung in limp strands around her neck and face. Her bare feet were thrust into shapeless cloth slippers, and her attitude was that of a woman so dulled by poverty and hopelessness that one more shock could have little effect upon her.
The medical examiner rocked back on his heels, looked up at Chief Gentry and said, "Either bullet would probably have been fatal. Thirty-two's, I think. The one in his chest was shot through the glass ... the other by someone standing directly over him."
Mrs. Wilson began crying silently when the examiner made his pronouncement. Her eyes stayed wide open and tears trickled into the crevices of her pinched cheeks. She let go her tight hold on her wrapper and wrung her hands, but made no other movement.
Will Gentry went over to her and said soothingly, "We know how you feel, Mrs. Wilson, but you've got to help us all you can. How did this happen?"
She pressed her lips tightly together, shook her head mutely from side to side, and copious tears dripped from her chin onto her wrapper.
A uniformed policeman behind Gentry shuffled his feet and cleared his throat. Detective Sergeant Grayson was in plain clothes beside him. Shayne didn't recognize either of the other two men crowding the small office. One was a youth wearing a modified zoot suit with brown and purple stripes. The other stranger was a tall man with clean-cut, impassive features. He wore a well-tailored gray business suit and held an expensive Panama hat in his right hand. One trouser leg of his suit was badly torn. His calm gray eyes rested on Mrs. Wilson with an expression of sober pity.
Shayne pushed past them to stand beside Chief Gentry, and facing Mrs. Wilson. He said quietly, "You remember me, Mrs. Wilson. Clem was telephoning me when it happened."
She nodded her unkempt head. "Sure, Mr. Shayne, I know." Her voice had a high, nasal quality. "Clem come runnin' in to ask me your telephone number and I couldn't remember and he had to look it up. He was scared-like. No ... more mad, I reckon. I didn't know what'd got into him. Talkin' to hisself he was, when he went out to phone you. Then I ... I heard what sounded like shootin'..." She broke off and her eyes were filled with terror as they moved from one officer to another. It was as though realization of the tragedy suddenly came to her. Her body swayed and trembled violently.
Shayne caught the emaciated flesh of her forearm and held her steady. He asked gently, "Where were you when you heard the shots, Mrs. Wilson?"
"I ... I was in bed a'ready. In the back, you know. Time I could get out here the car was gone, an' Clem ... was layin' there. I knew he was dead soon's I looked at 'im."
"You didn't see the car, nor anybody?" Gentry asked.
Her head moved jerkily and negatively. "I didn't see nothin'. I heard the car drivin' off. There'd been some men here talkin' to Clem. It was right after they left when he come in to hunt up your number." Her tears started afresh, washing away the terror, and hopelessness again became her only outward show of emotion.
Gentry turned to Shayne and asked, "What do you know about it, Mike? You had the squad cars called out."
"Only what Clem told me over the phone before he was shot." He glanced over his shoulder at the men in mufti behind him. "Who are those two men?"
"The kid is a Herald police reporter. He's new on the job. And you," Gentry said to the tall man, "didn't you say your car was broken down close by?"
"I had a flat tire. I was changing it when I heard the shooting up here. My name is Carlton ... Herbert P. Carlton. I live in Coral Gables. I hurried up here as fast as I could after hearing the shots and seeing a car whiz past me. Matter of fact the car almost ran over me. I had to jump back into the side of the road and tore my pants." He looked down ruefully at his knee, then went on, "I knew that something must be wrong. I had been here only a moment when you arrived."
"What kind of a car whizzed past you? Exactly what did you see?" Gentry demanded.
"It was a sedan ... some dark color ... with two men in the front seat." Carlton paused and a thought crease formed between his eyes. After a moment's hesitation, he went on diffidently:
"I'd been noticing something queer going on up here. That is ... well, you know how it is at night when you're alone on the highway changing a tire. You notice things ... and perhaps your imagination works overtime. The lights of the filling station were the only thing I could see. In fact, I debated about coming here to get my tire changed, but decided the damage to the tire would be too great, so I changed it myself. As I worked, I kept glancing up here."
"Where is your car now?" Gentry asked.
"About a half-mile down the road. I didn't quite finish changing the tire. Thought I'd better hurry up here to see what the trouble was."
"Go on," Gentry said.
Mr. Carlton stroked his chin meditatively, and with a hint of apology in his voice resumed:
"I'm explaining this to give you the picture as I saw it. Probably it isn't important. I noticed a car parked here and it stayed quite a while. Then a man got in and drove away. I watched the car come toward me, but it stopped a couple of hundred yards up the road from my car, turned around, and went back. Well, I watched, thinking perhaps the driver was turned around in his direction and had started out the wrong way. But ... it pulled in here at the filling station again. Almost at once I heard what sounded like a backfire. Then I saw a man running in the door and heard another shot and then he ran out and the car roared away. I could see him quite plainly in the bright light outside the station. Before I had time to make up my mind what I ought to do, the car shot past me, too close for comfort. As I say, there were two men in the front seat. I felt something must be wrong, so I hurried up here as fast as I could. I'm afraid none of that will be of much assistance," he ended deprecatingly.
"Could you get the license number ... or see the men?" Chief Gentry asked.
"It all happened too fast," Carlton said regretfully. "I didn't think to try to get the license number. That probably would have been impossible. But with the moon so bright and with a dim light on their instrument board I did get a glimpse of the men. But it was only a glimpse."
"Could you identify either or both of them if you saw them again?" Gentry queried.
Carlton hesitated, his gaze resting briefly on the corpse on the floor. A flicker of fear swept across his features. He moved his head slowly and spoke with unnecessary force. "No. No ... I'm afraid not."
Shayne had been standing aside studying Carlton keenly. He moved up beside Gentry and said harshly, "You're evading the issue, Carlton. You're afraid to admit you might be able to identify those men, aren't you?"
Carlton compressed his lips and looked coldly at Shayne. "After all, I'm merely an innocent bystander. I don't ..."
"You're afraid," Shayne charged. "You don't want to stick your neck out. You'd stand by and see a couple of murderers go free rather than put your own life in jeopardy by appearing against them."
"But I have done what I could," Carlton argued. "The car passed me going at terrific speed, and ..."
"You had the advantage of standing still as the car approached you. The moonlight is bright, and you say there was a light on the instrument board. Now you were very curious about what the men were up to, they almost ran you down, and you probably made every effort to get a good look at them."
"Wait a minute, Mike." Gentry caught Shayne's arm and pulled him back. "Mr. Carlton seems to be doing what he can. And now, Carlton," he went on, taking a step nearer to the man, "if you're holding something back because you might endanger your own life, let's have it, and we'll guarantee you full police protection."
Carlton looked from Gentry to the dead man, moistened his lips, and took a step backward. "It isn't up to me," he burst out. "I'm a private citizen. It's police work ... dealing with murderers." He turned toward the door.
"Wait a minute," Shayne called harshly. "This is more than a police job. Clem Wilson was murdered because he had guts enough to stand up for what's right. For his country, by God. He died fighting an enemy that's just as dangerous as any Jap or German. It is up to you, Carlton. It's up to every citizen to help us catch his killers."
Chief Gentry frowned and demanded of Shayne, "What are you talking about? Some sort of subversive activity connected with this killing?"
Excerpted from Heads You Lose by Brett Halliday. Copyright © 1956 Brett Halliday. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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