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Death's Playgirl

By Lawrence Treat
Author of "A Half Holiday on Homicide," etc.

When a detective plays bellhop on the fugitive trail,
he expects to be the guests' stooge. But this agency man found he'd
been sent on a doom-marked errand—with a coffin check for a tip

PROBABLY everybody in the bar heard her. I wouldn't know. All I can say is that I was ten or fifteen feet away when she called out in that radio voice of hers that could carry across the continent.

"Boy!" she said, and I stopped and looked at her. I'd just come back from the main building with some cards for the drunks at the corner table. "Boy, will you go over to my bungalow and fetch my bag? It's on my bureau and I left my money in it."

"In just a minute, ma'am," I said.

Me saying "ma'am" to Diana Garvin! The last time I spoke to her I was threatening her with a ten-year rap and she was pleading for a break. And though she didn't get that particular ten-year stretch, she came close and she was trying to get even with me now.

Whenever she saw me she had an errand. Get her bathing cap. Get her a towel, some cigarettes, see if she had any mail. And tips? She might give me two cents when she left the place, as a sort of gag to show what she thought of me.

I'm an N.D.A. man—National Detective Agency—and I'd taken this bellhop job at Forest Castles to try to get a line on one Barelli. He'd been mixed up in a big jewel robbery down in Miami, and now he was lying low. I could expect to find him on a hotel staff somewhere, so I took this summer job and kept my ears open.

Forest Castles consists of a number of small buildings and cottages. Even the bar is a separate structure. So Diana wanted me to go from the bar over to her bungalow and get a pocketbook with an unknown amount of money in it. I should have known right off that there was something fishy, but I never thought she'd tangle with the N. D. A. She should have had enough of that.

When I'd delivered the cards I walked over to Diana's table. She was sitting with a couple of the Talbot brothers.

"If you give me your key," I said, "I'll get that for you."

"But my key's in the bag," she answered.

"So you want me to get a pass key from the office?"

Grant Talbot said, "Never mind. You can use mine."

Diana and a widow from Kansas and the Talbots were all in the same bungalow, which was one of the larger ones. The front door has a snap lock, but you have to lock the individual rooms by key, so that was all right. Either she had her room key or the door was open.

I took the key from Talbot and went out.

THE houses are tucked away among the pines, and at night the paths are marked with colored lights. The pine grove was dark now and a storm was coming up.

As I stepped out of the bar the wind hit me and almost tore the door out of my hand. I looked up. There wasn't a star to be seen and the sky had a murky blackness and the smell of storm. A flash of lightning ripped from the east and thunder began growling, long and ugly.

I could sniff rain. I followed the colored lights to the bungalow. The door was locked and I opened it and went into Diana's room. It was messy with stuff she'd tossed around when she'd dressed for dinner. There was no bag on the bureau.

I opened a couple of drawers and moved some clothes and looked in the closet, but there was no pocketbook, so I went back to the bar. The wind had dropped and the thunder sounded nearer, but the rain hadn't started yet. It was going to be a whopper when it came.

Just before I opened the door, I heard Diana singing. She'd always had a good voice, and ever since she'd almost been put away in jail it had kept her straight. Radio work. She wasn't one of the topnotchers, but she acted as if she was. And now, as I opened the door, she was just finishing a request number. The applause banged out the slam of the door, but she saw me, and as soon as the noise died down she said: "Well?"

Naturally, everybody looked. I began to get a sick feeling. Here was I, just a bellhop, and she was a guest at a swell hotel and something of a celebrity besides. "Well?" she demanded, and everybody stared as if I was standing in the glare of a spotlight.

"Sorry," I said. "I couldn't find it."

Nobody said anything, but I could feel the reaction as surely as if they'd all yelled: "Nerts."

"You mean," she said icily, "that you took it. I had five hundred dollars in my purse."

I didn't answer. There was a rumble of thunder from outside, but the storm was nothing compared to what I was in for.

"Five hundred dollars," she repeated. "And I'm going to do whatever is necessary to recover it."

"Madam," I answered. She'd pulled it off all right. Here I was the crook and she the injured innocent. She was getting back at me for that other time, and doing it with a vengeance.

"Madam," I said, "I'm a little dumb, maybe, but I'm bright enough to stay out of an asylum for the feebleminded, and nobody that bright would take money when he'd be the first person suspected. Why set myself up for the fall guy?"

"Because," she stated, "a knife cuts both ways. To do the apparently stupid is sometimes brilliant, and the very obviousness of your guilt might be your very best protection."

"Might be, but isn't. And knives don't cut both ways. They're sharp on one side and dull on the other. And I'm on the dull side. I'm no master mind. I'm just innocent."

"Boy Blue," she smiled.

That smile was as good as a knife in my back, except that it didn't draw blood—yet.

"Sure," I said. "Boy Blue, having a nightmare. Am I the only person who could have gotten in your room?"

That was when Grant Talbot stood up. "Suppose you step over here and we'll straighten this out," he said.

There were three Talbots. Harry and Ralph and Grant. They were about as different as three brothers can be who look exactly alike. The same straight dark hair, the same black eyes, the same straight noses and well-formed mouths and bony chins.

In Grant it was all strength. Stern and capable and reliable. And in Harry it was weakness—too much good looks and too much laughter and dissipation. But in Ralph it was a combination of the two. He was plump and jovial and you weren't exactly sure what was behind his geniality. Grant's firmness or Harry's weakness. Each of which, in its way, was something to be scared of.

Diana sat down with them and I remained standing. I could feel her laughing at me, even though she didn't crack a smile.

IT MADE me sore. Everybody in the place was straining his ears for fear he'd miss a word. I decided attack was my best defense, and I let loose a broadside.

"Just because I'm wearing a uniform and stand up while you sit down doesn't give you the right to accuse," I snapped. "In the first place, the three of you had a dozen opportunities to my one. And in the second place how do I know Miss Garvin ever had that much money to lose? Just because she says so?"

Harry started to say something but Grant put up his hand. I could see I had a tough nut to crack. Three brothers. From bits of conversation I'd picked up, I knew they hadn't been together since they were kids and that they'd planned this vacation for years.

The three Talbots. The three musketeers. No matter what happened, they'd cover each other and they'd stick, and I'd made a mistake accusing them. I didn't think one of them had actually taken the money, and it was dumb of me to shoot off my mouth.

At any rate, Grant held up his hand. "The three of us," he said, "have been together all evening. I'm afraid that if one of us stole it, the three of us did." His look dared me to speak. I didn't believe him, but what could I do? I gulped and looked around.

Grant took a couple of nickels out of his pocket. "Let's have a little music," he said. "I like noise."

That was so everybody wouldn't hear. I took the nickels and went over to the mechanical Victrola. As I passed the bar, Mac gave me the high sign. He had something he wanted to tell me. I turned on the music and then I stopped and said: "Well?"

He didn't answer. I looked around and Harry was standing there. "A round of scotch," he said. "And if you got anything to say, say it over at the table."

I walked on back.

Grant said: "Well? Any reason for your accusation?"

"Any reason for yours?" I countered.

Grant said, "I ought to slap your face in," but Harry interrupted and said: "Me first, Grant." Then Ralph chimed in with: "No—me. I need the exercise."

Grant smiled grimly. "Let's go outside," he suggested.

I sat down. "All right," I said. "I'm in a hole. I'm going to let you in on something." I took my N.D.A. identification card out of my pocket and slid it across the table. "Have a look," I said. "Free."

Grant picked it up. He wasn't impressed. "What are you—the house detective?" he asked.

Mac was making signals from behind the bar, and pointing. I didn't I get it.

"I'm on a case," I said. "I'm working here in the hope that I'll turn up a guy by the name of Barelli."

"What's that got to do with us?" demanded Grant.

"You asked."

"And. what's it got to do with my money?" demanded Diana.

"As a bellhop, you might think I grabbed the stuff; as an N. D. A. man on a case, you ought to know better."

"I'm not so sure," she answered. "I've heard of detectives who were not entirely honest."

"You'd know more about that than I would."

Grant said something about wisecracks, but I only half listened. Mac was still signaling and I decided to go straight up to him and ask what it was all about.

"Excuse me," I said. "I'll be right back." And I started for the bar.

I never got there. As I took my first step, that clap of thunder hit us. The noise did, at least. It was like a physical blow that crashed down on the shack and smacked everything down. At the same time the lights went out.

The bolt didn't hit the building, but it hit close and it got the electric wires. Noise and darkness, and a moment later the rain smacking on the roof. It was sudden and it was scary. A couple of women yelled and a chair fell over and the phonograph began winding down, slow and scratchy and sick.

I wheeled to the left, smacked into a table and felt my way around it. There was a cupboard in that direction and a half dozen candles in it. I had no matches in my pocket. I edged past the table. Somebody bumped into me, grunted and leapt away.

At the other side of the room the first match flared. I looked at the little paddle of yellow flame and it blinded me for a second or so. I rubbed my eyes. Then I saw where the cupboard was and I circled another table and fumbled for the candles.

"Match?" I said. Somebody handed me one and I lit the first candle. By that time the fear was over. People were beginning to laugh. The rain was drumming on the roof and you could hear it dripping from the gutters. I was busy lighting candles and handing them out when somebody screamed.

Really screamed.

I LOOKED in the wrong direction, trying to locate the scream. Then feet pattered and I looked at the bar. Mac was leaning across it, and he was leaning very peculiarly.

I didn't believe it until I reached the bar. He was crumpled forward, his head propped on his arms, and his arms resting on the counter. He made a grotesque corpse, with his white jacket and sprawling torso and the knife in his back.

Whatever he'd wanted to tell me had been important, but I'd never learn it now.

I did some fast thinking. If Diana could pin a murder on me, she'd gloat the rest of her life. The three Talbots were sore and they were on Diana's side. Mac had tried to say something, but as far as anybody knew it might have been a piece of evidence against me. And just before the lights went out, I'd been heading for the bar.

I turned around slowly. They could see what happened, but for the moment the chief reaction was shock. I noticed Diana. She was hugging herself and rocking with silent laughter.

"Folks," I yelled. "Stay right where you are. There's been a murder and nobody's leaving till we get things straightened out. I'm a private detective working for the National on another case, but murder's more important. First of all, I want a list of everybody here. Name, where he sat and a short statement telling what he did and what he saw while the lights were out, and whether he can swear that the other people at his table stayed in their seats."

I looked them over. The honeymoon couple and the fat lady were sitting in the far corner. Since they wouldn't have had time to reach the bar and get back to their places, I could count them out.

"You!" I called out. "I'm going to let you take charge of that. There's stationery in the cupboard. Pass it around and nobody else leaves his seat. Except that I want a doctor, if there's one here."

One of the drunks stood up. He was cold sober now. "I'm a physician," he said.

His examination was mere formality. Mac was dead as a stone. He'd been stabbed with the wooden-handled knife that he used for slicing sandwiches and that he'd kept on the back shelf in plain sight. Practically anybody in the room could have grabbed it.

I went back to the table where the three Talbots and Diana were waiting. "Personally," I remarked, "I'd say it was between the five of us. Myself, I'm a dick and I had no motive. Diana wouldn't kid around while I was here, and she's wearing a light dress that would have been seen and she hasn't the nerve or the strength to get a guy like Mac with one blow. So much for the two of us. Two from five leaves three!"

Grant lit a cigarette. "I didn't move," he said. "And Harry and Ralph couldn't have moved without my knowing it."

"I'll back that up," added Ralph, and Harry's lips tightened as he said: "And me. Me too."

Diana smiled. "I'd have noticed also. And that leaves just you, Mister detective."

"Besides," said Grant, "even though I'm no professional in this sort of thing, I'd like to point out that you don't have murder without a motive."

"Don't worry about motives, Talbot. I can answer that one right now."


"I said I could; I didn't say I would."

Grant smiled. "If that's your attitude, I don't see why we should bother cooperating. You have no authority around here. You stuck your nose in, and you risk getting it smashed. Let's go outside. You, me and a couple of my brothers."

"I need re-enforcements," I answered. "My mother didn't foresee this situation or she wouldn't have made me an only son. Now look here. The three of you have access to Diana's bungalow, haven't you?"

"Miss Garvin's," corrected Harry.

"Miss Garvin's," I said. "And Diana left her door open so that anyone of you could have walked in."

"Miss Garvin, you mean," corrected Ralph.

"Just as I said. Besides that, anyone of you could have walked up to Mac and gotten back here before the first match was lit. It stands to reason that if I had time to do it, you had also."

"Except that we have alibis," maintained Grant. "Suppose you butt out and call the sheriff."

"I'll try. But if the electric wires are down, the phone's probably dead too. But I'll try anyhow."

THERE was a phone in the corner. I cranked it up and listened. There wasn't a sound. We were cut off from the rest of the world until the repair men got to work.

I came back. "Like I thought, it's disconnected. I'm going over to the office and report this and send some one with a car to get the sheriff. Meanwhile let me have your keys, the three of you. Whoever was in Diana's room left fingerprints."

"Miss Garvin's," corrected Grant.

He was getting monotonous.

"Miss Garvin's," I said.

She smiled. "The Talbot boys were in my room this afternoon. We had a drink just before dinner, so naturally you'll find their fingerprints."

She was lying. I could tell it from the look of surprise on Harry's face.

"We'll check that statement in the same way. Fingerprints. Meantime I'll go to the office and arrange for you to sleep somewhere else, and also about getting the sheriff."

I got up. Grant and Ralph and Harry got up too.

There was nothing I could do about it. They were acting sort of strange for three innocents and I began to get the glimmer of an idea. Suppose one of them had taken the money and killed Mac; the other pair didn't know which one it was, and by sticking together they protected the innocent as well as the guilty. Their tactics were good.

I opened the door and held it for them. "You first," said Grant.

I grinned. "I'm just an employee. The guests always come first."

Grant went out, a tall stern man, swinging his arms free. Ralph followed. His fist was clenched and his eyes were narrow. Harry came last. He loosened his tie slightly and spat on his hands. I slammed the door and followed them.

The ground was like a quagmire. The heavy rain had stopped, but it was still drizzling. A gray rim of light was creeping up from the east, but elsewhere, the thunderclouds were still black.

The Talbots stopped ominously. I said: "Take it easy. I have a gun on me and—"

Ralph lunged. I didn't have a gun, of course, but I'm fast. I leapt and my feet skidded and I slid towards the nearest tree. I grabbed the trunk and swung myself around it.

Ralph went sprawling on his face. I heard him swearing. A tall form loomed up and charged at my tree. I dug in my heels and boomed forward. My fist caught Grant in the face, just to the side of the mouth. It stopped him like a stone wall. The sound of the smack was dull, flat, and it must have hurt him. My fist felt jarred but it didn't even tingle. I lowered my head and went slogging off among the trees.

For the next hour or so I was busy. I reported the robbery and murder and had to explain who I was. Dorsey, who owned and ran the place, seemed to feel that a guy who palmed himself off as a bellhop was capable of anything. I had to argue with him. I had to bring him over to the bar. I had to try and persuade him to keep everybody, including the occupants, out of the Talbot-Garvin bungalow.

I didn't manage that. I had to find somebody willing to go for the sheriff, but a half hour later he came back with the news that the bridge was out and we were cut off from the world.

It was two a.m. when I finally was ready to turn in. I had a bunk in a sort of cubby-hole at the back of a tool shed. It wasn't luxurious but it was private and I'd staged a few friendly parties there, in the vain hope of digging up some dope on Barelli.

The sky was clear by now and as I came through the trees into the little clearing where my shack stood, I noticed the door was open. I never locked it and my first thought was that if the door had been open all this time, the rain must have flooded me out. But my second thought was that somebody was, or had been, in there.

I skirted the trees and slunk quietly through the grass. I put my eyes to the partly open door and looked in.

It was Jimmy Dunnegan, one of the other bellhops. He was leaning over my bed and feeling the mattress. He'd pulled the bedclothes back and his fingers were sliding along the seam. Suddenly he gasped and bent down.

I ducked away as he glanced at the door. When I looked again, he was remaking the bed. I stood where I was and let him smooth up the blankets and sheets, give a hurried look around the cubbyhole and then open the door.

He jumped back as if he'd seen a ghost. I said: "Hello, Jimmy. Waiting for me?"

HE KEPT staring for a moment and then he nodded his head. "Y-yes. I w-wanted to hear what

happened. I was waiting for you and then I decided maybe you weren't coming and I was on my way back."

I stepped inside the shack and closed the door. It banged and the latch didn't catch and the door bounced open a couple of inches. That was what must have happened when Jimmy came in.

"Don't play me for a sucker, Jimmy. What did you put in my mattress?"

"Nothing. I—I was lying down on the bed and it got mussed. I thought I'd smooth it up again."

I ripped back the blanket and felt for the hole in the mattress, but when I poked my fingers in it I couldn't find anything.

I frowned. "Jimmy," I said. "Let's have the truth."

"I told you."

"You cut that slit in the mattress."

"I was looking. They said you'd stolen five hundred dollars and I thought maybe—I didn't mean it, though— honest!"

"Jimmy," I said. "What's that in your pocket?"

He didn't answer. I walked up and pulled his hand out of his pocket and felt inside. I pulled out a thick roll. I didn't count it, but from the size and denominations it could easily be five hundred.

I sat down. "Well?" I said. "Explain yourself."

His eyes got big and his mouth quivered and suddenly the words began spilling out. "I heard about what happened and I thought that maybe you really did take the money and I began thinking about it and then I just couldn't keep away. If you had it you hid it, and I wanted to look.

"They'd never suspect me and if you hadn't hid it well they'd get it back anyhow. So I came here and looked and sure enough I found it. In the mattress. You couldn't give me a little of it, could you? I need it so bad."

"Not a cent."

I sat down on the bed. I couldn't help believing Jimmy. Besides, there was the slit in the mattress and nothing in it, and the fact that he'd finished doing whatever he'd come for and had been on his way out when he saw me. So I had to believe he'd found the five hundred.

"Jimmy," I said. "I'll tell you something funny. I didn't even know that five hundred was in my mattress."

So the whole thing was a deliberate frame. The errand Diana sent me on. But could she have engineered it all alone? And why would she? She was getting too much fun out of sending me on errands and not tipping me; why bother running big risks?

Then I remembered my other idea, the one I'd had around the time I'd left the bar with the three Talbots.

"Jimmy, what do you know about me? And what do you know about tonight?"

"You're a dick," he answered promptly. "An N. D. A. man. You been looking for somebody named Barelli. That's why you gave those parties here, so we'd open up. But half the staff knows, and they just won't squeal to a dick."

"Mac knew," I said. "He was going to come out with it. He was going to tell me who Barelli was, but Barelli was in the bar and killed him before he could talk. Took advantage of the storm. Well, who's Barelli?"

Jimmy didn't answer.

"It's just water off my back," I said. "Here I find you with the five hundred bucks, and so it follows either you took it yourself or else you know who did and know it was planted. Either way I'm clean and all I do is turn you over to the sheriff in the morning. So—who's Barelli?"

He still didn't answer. I figured he was plenty scared about something and I repeated the question for the last time.

"Who's Barelli?"

"I am," said a voice.

He'd been standing there all the time, at the partly open door, just as I'd done a few minutes ago when Jimmy had taken the roll. He had a gun in his hand and Jimmy could see it and I couldn't. No wonder Jimmy had been scared to talk.

I turned around slowly and wondered what I could do now.

It was Ralph. The plump one.

"Two little bellhops," he said. "And one of them thought he was tough."

"Not tough—clever," I corrected. "I know better now. You were on to me from the beginning, weren't you?"

He grinned. "Sure. And if I'd beat it, somebody would have wised you up. Besides, my two brothers were ready to stand by me, just like tonight. 'So I stuck close and watched. Nobody was likely to squeal while I was still around. They were too scared. And my brothers would never have believed it. Grant the lawyer, and Harry the liquor salesman!"

"And Diana?" I asked.

"Miss Garvin," he smiled. "An old friend of mine. And now let's walk. Only this time—you first." He waved the gun.

I DIDN'T see how he was going to get away with it. Half the staff knew who he was. Mac wasn't popular and maybe they wouldn't give Barelli away on his account. But if anything happened to Jimmy, it would be different. Everybody'd be scared and they'd want to see Barelli arrested.

I walked. Ralph, or Barelli, said: "Over towards the kitchen, boys."

His slightest wish was my command. He was in a hole and he was desperate and he had a gun. It was a combination I didn't want to take chances with. Besides, he had something in mind and I might get a break by and by. You never know.

I was plenty scared, but Jimmy could hardly walk. His face was pale and his movements were stiff and awkward and his knees kept knocking together. I muttered: "Don't worry, kid. You can tell your mother about it next month."

He tried to grin, but he wasn't very good at it. A sort of widening of his lips that pulled down his face muscles. Still, I'll give him credit; he tried.

At the kitchen door Barelli said: "Open it." I turned the knob and went inside. A couple of ten watt bulbs were burning. The place was vast and cold and empty. One wall was lined with ranges. In front of the ranges stood an enormous wooden table and beyond that were the dish racks, about eight feet high. There was an open space near the table and then the dish-washing sinks that lined the wall.

Barelli stood near the edge of the table, waving the gun carelessly. "I have an idea," he said. "Naturally, I'm not telling you what it is, but it's a good one. The only trouble with it is that while it whitewashes me, it demands the sacrifice of one of you. I'm going to let you argue it out—with these."

He opened the drawer and took out two butcher knives. He slid them across the table. They were big, murderous- looking blades, razor-sharp. One good swipe and you could slice off a guy's head. I shivered.

I glanced at Jimmy. I wasn't sure whether his brain was working clearly enough to get the idea, but I got it. We were to hack each other up, and whoever survived—Barelli would finish him off. In the morning somebody'd find two corpses and the five hundred dollars.

The mystery would be cleared up nicely. For Barelli. The inference would be that I'd stolen the money and killed Mac who knew what I'd done. Then Jimmy had caught on, but my second killing had been less successful.

My mouth was dry and my lips cracked when I moved them. I could feel the skin tear like tissue paper. I picked up a knife and tried to talk to Jimmy with my eyes. I guess they didn't say much. He just stood there and whispered: "No—no!"

"Come on," I said. I spoke slowly and gulped between phrases. "Don't be a sissy. He's giving one of us a chance. That's fair enough, isn't it?"

Jimmy stopped whispering and began shaking his head. I turned to Barelli and said: "What do you do with a guy like that?"

"Cut him up a little," he answered. "That'll start him off."

"Okay," I said. "Just as soon as I roll up my sleeves."

Like a butcher. Sure.

I kept the big knife in my hand while I slipped off my coat. When I had my arms out, I started to throw it aside, carelessly.

Started to. That's how it looked to Barelli, and that's how it was supposed to look. But before it had left my hand, I gave it a flip and shot it straight for Barelli's face. At the same instant I ducked and came at him from the side.

THE gun thundered twice and smashed china. I hacked down with the knife. My coat hit Barelli in the face and dropped over his gun. I didn't even know the gun was out of his hands until I heard it fall and saw him reeling backwards.

He lifted a hand that was streaming with blood. One of the fingers was hanging by a few shreds of skin. I kicked him with all my might and he skidded against the stove, bounced and tried to grab an iron skillet.

I'd picked up his gun by that time. I just said, "Stop it," and he stopped.

"I didn't kill Mac!" he blubbered. That seemed to be all he was worried about, so I let it go for the moment.

"You took the five hundred," I snapped.

He nodded. "I had to. If I left here without my brothers, you'd guess I was Barelli before I reached the railroad station. And while I was here, I had to pay blackmail or somebody would have given me away. That's why I was broke and had to take the money from Diana."

"From Miss Garvin," I said.

He mumbled: "Yes. But I didn't kill Mac."

"How'd the five hundred get in my mattress?" I demanded.

"I put it there. The sheriff would be sure you stole it and then that you killed Mac to prevent his squealing on you. Mac—he knew everything. He knew I was Barelli. I was going crazy with worry. My only hope was to make the sheriff arrest you for larceny and murder. Then I'd be safe and nobody else would care whether I was Barelli or not."

It was a bright enough idea, but it ended up with Barelli, or Ralph Talbot, on trial for the murder of Mac. It took a local jury eighteen minutes to convict.

We were all at the trial, and after it was over I took Diana for a drink. "You knew Ralph was really Barelli," I said. "When did you learn he'd taken your money?"

"Long before I came to the bar," she answered. "I accused him of it, but he threatened to tell about my past. That would have meant the end of my radio career. So I thought up the trick of sending you for my bag and then accusing you of taking the money. You'd have to solve the case and recover the money in order to clear yourself. And it worked, too."

Sure it worked. We often talk about it, Diana and me.