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Murder on Their Minds
By George Harmon Coxe
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1957 George Harmon Coxe
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THE Courier Building stands at the intersection of two narrow streets, one of which has been designated as one-way while the other bounds the front of the structure and continues on to flank the loading platforms and the company parking lot beyond. Kent Murdock, the Courier's picture chief the past few years, was cutting across the angle of this intersection on his way to his office when he heard the "beep" of an automobile horn accompanied by a woman's voice that called his name.
Stopping with one foot on the curb, he glanced to his right, seeing the blue sedan opposite and recognizing at once the blonde that looked out at him from the lowered window on the driver's side. It was a pretty face, and young, smiling now that his attention had been secured. He grinned back, making a small salute and then, because the traffic was steady on this late-spring afternoon and the clearance meager, he crossed behind the car and came up to open the opposite door.
"Hi, Rita," he said as he slid in beside her. "Waiting for me?"
"They told me upstairs you probably wouldn't be long. They said I could wait but—"
He chuckled when she hesitated, aware that as a waiting room the studio—a term used to designate the photographic department—was both uninviting and uncomfortable. He also understood the invitation, since it was seldom that the studio had a visitor as easy to look at as Rita Alderson.
"Yes," he said. "I don't blame you."
"So"—she smiled again—"I thought I'd try to catch you here."
He waited, wondering now just why she should come at all, for though he had known her for some time the relationship was tenuous and existed because of her husband, who had been a long-time friend of his before his death in an auto crash three months earlier.
They had been driving down the South Shore after a Saturday night party—George and Rita Alderson—with Rita at the wheel. There had been some low-lying fog in spots and coming into a curve the lights of an approaching car apparently blinded her. The inquest showed that the speed was moderate at the time the car hit the tree, but as sometimes happens the result was difficult to understand. For while the man was killed instantly, the woman escaped with minor abrasions and a twisted ankle. Because Murdock had thought so often about this during the past weeks, he gave his attention to the girl, aware that she was looking out the windshield at the car ahead, her hands on the wheel and a certain tension in the frown that puckered the corners of her eyes.
He did not help her and presently, still not looking at him, she said: "I thought—"
She stopped again and whatever it was she was thinking seemed to be giving her a hard time. She tried again.
"It's about that detective you recommended to Harriett Alderson."
"He's back in town."
Murdock waited, still wondering about her concern. When she did not continue he corrected her. He said it was Arthur Enders, the Alderson attorney, who had actually suggested Brady.
"But you—well, you're sort of a friend of the family, and Harriett asked you about him, didn't she?"
"I told her if she wanted a really honest private detective she couldn't do better than Tom Brady."
"Yes. And I thought—what I mean is—I heard he was coming here to have you take some pictures. Maybe not pictures exactly, but to make copies of certain papers."
Murdock said it was news to him. He said he hadn't heard about it. "I haven't seen Tom in a month," he added.
"He said there were some things he wanted to put on film," she continued, "so he'd have a permanent record of them. So I thought maybe, since you're a friend of mine—you are, aren't you?"
Murdock was still confused but he was beginning to get an inkling of what might be in the back of her mind. The inference that followed bothered him. He wondered if he should try to stop her before she committed herself, but it was difficult to concentrate now because she was looking right at him and her eyes had a quality that most men found compelling.
He saw that she wore a tailored navy dress and a black cloth coat, with a matching bit of felt topping her blonde hair. Having seen her in a bathing suit he knew that her figure was exciting, the legs straight and well shaped, her slenderness amply rounded in the proper places. Her face, which was rather long, with a full mouth and noticeable cheekbones, had a certain prettiness that had always seemed somewhat ordinary to Murdock until he remembered her eyes. Dark blue and well spaced, the black lashes startling in their thickness, they had a direct and somehow ingenuous quality that made one forget everything else at the time, exerting a queer sort of fascination that was difficult to ignore and giving the impression that, at the moment, you were the only guy in the world.
Because Murdock felt the pull of her glance as she waited for him to reply, he looked away as he answered her question. He said he liked to think he was her friend.
"And if you take pictures," she said quickly, "you have to see what you're taking. I mean, you'd know what the papers—or whatever they are—say, wouldn't you?"
Murdock found his pack of cigarettes. When she refused he lit his own. Certain now of what she had in mind, he decided it was time to stop her before they both became embarrassed.
"I know he's doing some work for Harriett Alderson," he said. "I know he's been out of town and I haven't seen him since he's been back. In fact, I didn't know he was back so I don't know anything about taking any pictures for him."
He hesitated, still conscious of her gaze and feeling his way along. "But if you're right about that I have an idea the only reason he'd come to me—after all, there are plenty of commercial photographers around—is because we're old friends and he knows he can trust me."
"I imagine these papers you speak of are confidential, aren't they?"
"Well—I suppose they are."
"And if Harriett Alderson is paying him she's entitled to see his reports first, isn't she? ... So why don't you see Brady himself?"
"I'm going to—later. But I thought if I could get some idea of just what—"
She let the word trail and there was a sag in her shoulders as her hands slipped from the wheel to her lap. Once again she was staring out the windshield and when she spoke her voice was quiet and defeated.
"You're right, of course. I shouldn't have come. I guess I'm not very bright about a lot of things. I get carried away by some stupid impulse without stopping to think."
"Lots of people do."
"I guess I didn't realize that if you told me what the papers were about you'd be cheating on a friend. So can we forget it?" She sat up and pressed hard on the starter. "Can we pretend I never came?"
She turned to him before he could reply, her smile spurious but her tone once again animated.
"We're still friends, aren't we?"
"I'm glad." She put her hand on his knee. "I'm not likely to forget how much you helped me after the—accident.... Thanks, Kent," she said.
"Thanks?" he said, reaching for the door handle.
"For not letting me spoil it."
She backed up as he closed the door, cut the wheel hard. Her front bumper kissed the one ahead of her as she angled into the street, and Murdock watched her straighten out, a frown warping his bony face and his dark eyes thoughtful.
For another moment he stood there, a lean, straight-standing man in a well-cut, lightweight raincoat; for it was cool for this time of year and overhead the sky was overcast, the breeze whipping straight in from Georges Bank to carry with it the smell of rain on the way. Oblivious now of the traffic in the street, as well as the ebb and flow of overalled men from the mechanical departments who were sneaking over to the near-by tavern to take on a quick beer, he considered again the girl and her odd mission until he realized he was wasting his time. Then, grunting softly, he quickly crossed the street.CHAPTER 2
THE STUDIO at the Courier—which published morning, evening, and Sunday—consisted of a series of rooms connected by a poorly lighted corridor which led from the anteroom to the printing room and continued on to double back and give access to the four developing cubicles.
Glass-and-wood partitions had been erected in one corner of the anteroom to include one of the two windows and form a cubby which served as Murdock's office. Inside there was room for a desk with its chair, a small table at one end of the desk, a visitor's chair at the other. A tier of green metal filing cabinets was tucked in one corner, and since there was no more floor space all other equipment had to be stacked vertically: the table holding a duplicate of the two-way radio in the city room, the monitor, which indicated which of the five company radio cars was in use, balanced on top of the radio.
The anteroom had but one occupant as Murdock came in, a photographer named Klime who was off at four and was at the moment putting on his coat. Klime, who was not adverse to picking up a little overtime when he could, wanted to know if Murdock had anything more and Murdock said he would look.
A glance at the monitor told him three cars were in use and there was nothing in the assignment book that needed immediate attention. A quick check with the city desk assured him that things were under control, so he passed the word to Klime, shucked off his coat, and squeezed into his chair. He had no more than settled himself when a movement at his elbow caught his eye and he glanced round to find Tom Brady blocking the doorway, a briefcase in his hand.
Murdock's grin was quick and genuine. "Hey," he said happily. "Come in. Sit down if you can.... Where've you been, stranger?"
Brady leaned his weight against the doorframe and pushed back his hat, a ruddy-faced man with a shock of gray hair. Looking shorter than he was because of his thick, powerful body and neck, he had dark eyes and thick graying brows and a gruff-voiced way of speaking that was neither loud nor unpleasant. He would be sixty-two on his next birthday and he had retired a year and a half ago from the police department after thirty-eight years of service—as a beatman, plainclothesman, and detective—to open a small one-man office as a private detective. Now, as he took his time answering Murdock, his smile was broad and he had the manner of a man who was momentarily well pleased with himself.
"Travelin', son," he said. "Travelin'. Ask me where?"
"Consider yourself asked."
"San Francisco, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Miami Beach. I even got to stop overnight with Alice and my two grand-children."
"All of it. Places I never expected to see, ever. One month, son. A straight hundred a week and all expenses, and I had plenty.... Also," he said, winking, "a fat bonus. A real fat bonus if I turn in a complete report. And I think I have."
He moved inside to put aside the briefcase and ease his weight down in the chair and said: "You know when I retired I didn't have a dime except my pension and my insurance, which I didn't want to touch."
"Because you spent it all educating your daughter, and then—"
"Never mind why. You know I didn't expect to make much at this private-eye business. I wanted to keep busy and maybe make a few bucks to help out the pension and to see how it would be away from all those years of rules, regulations, and red tape. You helped me with the license and the bond and the office furniture."
"So what? You paid me back."
"And for once," Brady said, ignoring the interruption, "I get the kind of a job a guy dreams of like a hood dreams of making a big score. Why? Because of the build-up you gave me with old lady Alderson."
Recalling Harriett Alderson, Murdock chuckled at Brady's descriptive phrase. He said he hadn't given any big build-up.
"All I said was that I'd known you for a long time, that you'd been an honest cop for thirty-eight years."
"She'd never seen a private investigator before," Brady said. "She let it be known that she did not approve of the breed, but she had this idea stuck firmly in her mind. She had to have help, so she hired me. I'll be giving her her report tomorrow."
He opened the briefcase, took out a manila envelope—which seemed to be the only thing in it—and closed the case.
"Cast your bread upon the waters," he said. "You give me a plug with Mrs. Alderson, I give you the chance to earn some pin money." He tapped the envelope. "I have worked long and hard to get these records. I want permanent proof of them in case something happens to them. You told me once that all newspaper photographers did outside work when they got the chance. Does that still go?"
Murdock agreed that this was true and did not add that to forbid such sideline jobs would cause a bitter revolt in the shop. For just as some reporters had small publicity accounts to augment their salaries, so did photographers. As they went about their daily tasks, they picked up assignments from small advertisers, from acquaintances who wanted a wedding, a reception, or some personal milestones preserved on film. The office rule permitted such extra-curricular activity so long as it was done on the photographer's time; the other rule, that the man use his own supplies, was seldom obeyed. Murdock usually knew when one of his men was printing pictures for some personal account; he also knew that company film, paper, and flashbulbs were being used, but so long as the privilege was not abused he tried to remain blind to the practice because there had been times in his early days on the paper that he too had needed the extra income. More recently he had limited his work to an occasional wedding that could afford his price, and an infrequent assignment from some picture magazine.
"I will need fourteen negatives," Brady was saying, "and I will pay five dollars apiece."
"Forget it," Murdock said. "You can pay for the film."
"Quiet!" said Brady in his rough-voiced way. "This is not friendship, this is business. This is expense money and the old lady can well afford it. Should she complain I will tell her that the five dollars is not just to pay for the film and your time but for your co-operation as well. I will point out that this is a confidential and important job and that you are known to be a close-mouthed lad with a forgetful memory."
He hesitated, his tone more serious. "And that part is true enough. You will have to see what you photograph but you will read no more than you have to, since it is no concern of yours. That is why I came here. Can we do it now?"
Opposite the office door were two heavy steel cabinets. One of these held supplies and each man had a key to it; the other contained cameras and lenses and special equipment as well as Murdock's personal cameras. Now, taking out the Graphic and locking the cabinet, he led the way down the corridor to the table and equipment that had been put there for copying. When he had set up the camera and adjusted the lights he began to work.
From that point on it was impossible, as Brady had said, not to see what he was doing. The documents he photographed were assorted in size and character. Some were negative photostats with blackish background and the contents in white, some were copies of records, some were affidavits, two were letters.
Because the actual work was practically automatic and presented no problem, most of his mind was free to speculate and it was difficult not to. He remembered the things that Rita Alderson had said and wondered why she had been so concerned. He listened to Brady give a sketchy account of his travels, and because silence was embarrassing under the circumstances he asked who had been handling Brady's accounts while he had been away.
"Frank Kirby," Brady said. "Not that there was so much to handle."
And as he enumerated these accounts, Murdock considered Frank Kirby, who shared an office with Brady and had once been a police officer. Other than that the two men had little in common, for Kirby was closer to Murdock's age, with a record in the department that included a citation for shooting it out, while off duty, with three thugs who were holding up a delicatessen. That he had resigned later on was due to a reprimand and a transfer that he felt was unwarranted.
"He could have been a good cop," Brady said.
"Kirby," Brady said. "If he hadn't been such a hothead he could have made sergeant."
"How's he doing on his own?"
Brady shrugged. "He makes a living and he likes being his own boss. Now and then we work on a thing together."
Excerpted from Murder on Their Minds by George Harmon Coxe. Copyright © 1957 George Harmon Coxe. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
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