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Don't Meddle With Murder

A Johnny Castle Novelet

By C. S. Montanye

The sports-reporter sleuth keeps up with his reading—and smashes into fast action when he spots a clue to crime between the lines!


THE two cauliflowers were going at it tongs and hammer. The smaller, a lippy kid with orange-colored hair, was taking a pasting. Which annoyed my host no end. Barney Koppel, fight promoter, stationery store owner and ex- paper hanger, had gone to the trouble of inviting me down to Ziggy's gym to observe what he called "the flashiest lightweight discovery in the last sixty years—now under my exclusive management" in action.

That was the lad with the orangeade locks. Something had slipped in the workout. A look across at Ziggy's blackavised countenance, and a big wink from the gymnasium owner's left lid, told me where the wires were crossed. Ziggy, knowing Koppel wanted to cut a hunk of publicity in the Orbit—the sheet for which I composed numerous sporting sonnets—had arranged to rib Barney for my benefit. The work horse, instead of taking the terrific slapping around Koppel had no doubt ordered, was tearing into "the greatest lightweight discovery in sixty years" like a Kansas tornado.

Barney, plucking out his few remaining hairs, one by one, broke away from my side and jumped up into the gym ring. He took a left and a right before he got between the brawlers. He pushed his groggy find onto a stool and waved both arms in frenzied agitation.

"I've been robbed! You done that, Ziggy!

You tried to make a monkey out of my boy in front of Mr. Castle! I should die like a dog in the street if I ever come back here again!"

The black-faced Ziggy, two hundred and forty pounds even, shook like a bowl of jello, all six flavors. Barney pushed his leather-swinger into a bathrobe and conducted him to a dressing room, leaving the air blue behind him.

"What a character!" Ziggy wiped mirth tears from his eyes and looked at me. "He's got a punk who can't punch harder than an Erie conductor and right away he wants a page spread in your paper, Johnny. Can I stand by and watch him get away with it?"

A pair of new future greats climbed into the ring for some exercise. I looked at my watch. Three-fifteen and a fraction. Time to get back to the Orbit's office and see if there were any telephone calls or mail.

Also, I remembered suddenly, the Number One gal in my life was meeting me at five at Billy Austin's place. And Miss Libby Hart liked being kept waiting the same as a chorine likes kitchen work.

I STARTED toward the door when Barney Koppel came out and grabbed my arm.

"Look, Mr. Castle! You seen what happened.

Jobbed—by that fat no-good. A laughing-stock! The boy's really sensational in his own bracket. They ring a light heavy in on him. It's like wrestling with a kid—uneven, what I mean. Wait'll I break him at the Kris Kringle A. C. Tuesday night a week."

I nodded him off and was heading for an exit when I stopped.

A man came in. Just an ordinary, large- footed specimen of the breed, but familiar to me from the top of his dusty felt down to his well-polished, square-toed shoes.

Detective Larry Hartley of Homicide!

There was plenty of mayhem on tap at Ziggy's resort, but it wasn't like Hartley to check on it. Captain Fred Mullin's best man was usually reserved for special assignments. Hartley didn't see me as he pounded in. I made a show of lighting a cigarette and watched.

On the other side of the gym, Hartley gave Ziggy the office. He pulled a chair out and sat down beside the dark-complexioned load of blubber. I could see Ziggy shake his head and nod as Detective Hartley went into conversation. A couple of minutes passed and the squirrels of curiosity began to scamper around in the back of my mind.

Which was bad. A sports writer for a dignified Manhattan daily had no business mixing with what didn't concern him. Several times that had happened in the past—with results that narrowly kept me from being measured for a pair of wings. Meddling with murder and cracking into crime, while bringing me some local fame as an amateur sleuth, had neither improved my blood pressure count nor softened my arteries any.

And, more to the point, Libby had laid down her own law in a few select words. They ran something like this:

"Either you stop doubling for a Centre Street character or you get your ring back. I don't mean the one that goes on the Bell System, either."

I thought of that as I stood there, watching Hartley mumble in the gym owner's private ear.

It was none of my business; no brass off my watch. Still, I had a hunch that something important was being broiled. Hartley never made visits unless they added up. All my reportorial instincts surged to the fore.

"Here we go again!" an inner voice chortled. "Hang onto your Stetson!"

The parley didn't last long. With a grunt Hartley got up and went out. I was downstairs and was around the corner when he laid his Number Twelves on the sidewalk. Further down the street was a regulation police prowl car. A cop and another man were in it. Hartley made it three and the official heap buzzed off.

As it passed the corner my suspicions were confirmed. In the front seat I gandered another familiar face. It belonged to the head of Homicide—a cold, shrewd-eyed pan with all the animation of a marble quarry and a mouth made to order for sneers and leers.

Captain Fred Mullin, in person!

I went back to Ziggy's in a rush. If Mullin had sent Hartley to the gym, and thought enough of it to ride uptown with him, nothing less than Grade A murder must be on the book.

But Ziggy, when I asked him if he'd seen my cigarette case around, shook his head and grinned.

"You should ask Hartley things like that, Johnny. He was here a minute ago. What's the answer—mebbe you want to find out what he was quizzing me about. I seen you standing over there watching."

"Not a bad idea," I drawled. "Some time I can slip in a nice write-up about your establishment. Perhaps I can even tuck in one of those photos you had taken twenty years ago— when you were young and less repulsive."

Ziggy raised a brow. Unlike morphine he was nobody's dope. But like most of the Broadway sporting gallery he had a craving for seeing his name in print.

"No kidding, Johnny."

"Come on," I said. "What bends?"

ZIGGY studied the fistic action of the two sluggers in the ring before he put on a cagy look and lowered his voice.

"Poor Kenny Stangl," he said, from the left side of his mouth. "Picked up in an alley at six this morning—with more holes in him than a twenty-dollar suit hung in a closet full of moths! Tough, huh?"

I went back to the Orbit office, thoughtfully reflective. What Ziggy revealed was interesting. Kenny Stangl, one of the Rialto wolf pack, was a big shot along the lane. That is, as an ex-gunsel and a large drinker. Stangl had tangled with the police on several memorable occasions. That he always came out first best was due to a smart mouthpiece and a distressing lack of evidence. In fact, folks who had seen Kenny use a hot rod had become vague and forgetful in a witness chair.

So now he had been picked up in an alley, looking like a sieve.

I said a polite good afternoon to Beth Wheaton, prima donna of the plugs, as I braked at her switchboard.

"Any calls, darling—for me?"

Beth flicked a blue eye uninterestedly over the top of the board.

"One from somebody named Hart—a dame. She wants you to call her immediately, if not sooner. I wrote the number down somewhere. I'll look it up and see if I've misplaced it."

"Do that," I said, and wandered into Bill Jamison's domain.

Jamison was a star leg man for the Orbit.

Bill's department was crime in all its vicissitudes, murder a specialty. Once he had dreamed of being a college professor, teaching English. Now he wrote a reasonable facsimile of the same language, with vernacular embellishments, and made Times Square his campus.

"Hi, Johnny," was his greeting. "Pull up a chair."

"Remember Kenny Stangl?" I led off with. "Sure do," he said. "Bad news in blue serge. What's he been up to now?"

"Not up—down. In the gutter. Blasted. Rubbed. Perforated. Haven't you heard?"

Jamison looked at me with a frown.


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