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Duck Death

By Margaret Rice

 Joe Holliday, detective, had seen everything. But he got the surprise of his life when a character needed help to get a duck. A live duck—for a man who would soon be a dead pigeon 

JOE HOLLIDAY was climbing into his coupe when someone asked, "Can you help me?" Joe swung around to see a short, fat man. The little man was well dressed and prosperous-looking, but he was obviously very distressed.

"About what?" asked Joe. The guy in pin-stripes, frocktail coat and Homburg was strictly east of the Mississippi. Either that, or he ran one of Los Angeles' fancy funeral parlors.

"The pet shop across the street is closed," complained the guy, "and I must have a live duck right away. I don't know the city and wondered if you could direct me."

"Ducks are so important," replied Joe. "Especially in this day and age."

There was no malice in his lean hawk face. Joe was feeling good. A client had paid a fee. The detective business wasn't so bad after all. Anyway, he didn't have much malice.

The little man's round, placid face was unhappy. "I must have a duck," he stressed, "by three o'clock this afternoon."

"You have a half hour," pointed out Joe. Then he realized the other's very real anxiety. "Okay," he added, "hop in. I will get you a duck as obviously you need one."

The guy looked like he had been given candy. He climbed happily into the coupe and explained, "Being Sunday makes it difficult to get one. If I had known, I could have brought one from New York—I just flew in. I telephoned Cynthia when I arrived and she asked me to bring Uncle Ben a duck. He is rather eccentric. It seemed very vital to him."

Joe appraised his guest—the mild, well-bred moon face, neat clipped mustache and serious brown eyes. The gay was outfitted and mannered as if he ran banks for a living.

The coupe stopped at a swank chop suey joint that called itself Li Ting's Oriental Gardens. Li had an elegant setup with modernistic architecture, but he was strictly old-time San Francisco Chinese. Li kept live fowl in the basement since it was handier and cheaper that way.

As Joe parked, his little passenger protested, "A restaurant! Oh no, the duck must be alive."

"It will be," assured Joe. He went in the front door and asked the hatcheck girl, "Where's the boss?"

The old man was in a carefully appointed office that radiated decor. Li was gracious. He sold Joe a duck for only two dollars more than it would cost at the market.

"Thanks," said the detective. "I suppose this includes the blue-ribbon pedigree."

"It is good business," replied Li without anger.

"It sure is," agreed Joe. But he didn't worry. His little friend peeled bills off a giant-sized bankroll. The duck was hard to handle even with its feet tied. It had a pair of beady eyes and a mean, hissing tongue. Li made them take it out the back way.

"You are a jolly good sport," stated the little guy. "By the way, I am Seymour West of New York. I would like to have you come along and meet Cynthia. Her Uncle Ben is having a party and you might be amused."

"I'm Joe Holliday," said the detective, "and I like being amused."

THE house was a big one in Beverly Hills. It was loaded with wasted dough. It might have been Tudor, but the architect must have considered expense and gone overboard with balconies. A grey-haired, sour-faced butler admitted them.

A woman was coming down the curved staircase. She was wearing a floating pink chiffon dress and on her it floated good. For forty, she was lovely with bright blue eyes, a fresh skin and a smile that meant a smile. Joe liked her.

"Seymour!" she cried. The meeting was very tender and romantic. Then she saw the duck and said to the butler, "Charles, take it to my room and make sure it can't get out. I'll take it to Uncle Ben when he awakens from his nap. I can't imagine what he wants with it."

"Neither can I," mused Charles in a mournful voice. "It beats me." He vanished with the creature.

Cynthia was so happy, and it made Joe feel happy too. And he hadn't had a drink for three hours.

"I've brought a friend to the party," said Seymour. "Cynthia, Miss Howard, this is Mr. Holliday."

"I'm delighted you are here, Mr. Holliday," she replied, "but the party is off. Uncle Ben changed his mind a few hours ago and I telephoned everyone not to come. But that doesn't mean we can't have a party." The butler had returned and she said, "Charles, please bring champagne and things to the library. Seymour, we are celebrating your being here."

It was obvious that Seymour wanted to be alone with his girl, so Joe said, "Nice flowers out there on the patio," and angled in that direction.

"Be in the library within twenty minutes," called Cynthia. "Remember, we're having a party."

Joe wondered why the two didn't get married. It was so obvious they were in love. He strolled around the patio, enjoying the place—it was loaded with loveliness. Then his eyes turned from the scenery and lingered on a less lovely sight. A thin, very wrinkled old guy in a monstrous gray tweed coat was sitting in a deck chair—an arrogant, florid character with shaggy gray hair and burning brown eyes. Joe got no greeting. He figured this was Uncle Ben.

"Nice day," ventured Joe.

"Hand me my golf cap," ordered the old guy. Joe complied. The man clamped it hard on his head and growled, "Who are you?"

"Nobody," returned Joe honestly. "But I got simple aspirations."

"Sit down."

JOE sat down. He didn't feel like visiting with characters but he had twenty minutes to kill before assaulting the champagne in the library.

"I'm Ben Howard," said the guy. "Ever sail around the Horn?"

"No," admitted Joe.

Uncle Ben snapped, "That's the trouble with young folks these days. Never do anything—no real men anymore."

"The way we live," explained Joe without enthusiasm.

The character flashed some false teeth and cackled, "'You're honest. Tell me this, have you ever been afraid of anything?" He drank from the glass that was on the near-by table.

"Sure," admitted Joe. "But an inventory would take too long."

The brown eyes burned brighter. A claw came out of the coat. "I'm afraid of just one person," the old man said. "But that person is afraid of only one thing." Then he coughed harshly, his eyes rolled up in his head, and he died.

Joe stared. Uncle Ben was dead. Living breath had suddenly left that old body. Joe checked. There was no use calling doctors. It made him rather sick. It had happened so suddenly. The old guy looked as though he had enough fire for ten years more.

Joe stared at the empty glass on the table. He picked it up and sniffed. Brandy—and something else. Joe got curious—maybe it was medicine but then he knew for sure it wasn't. No one ever took cyanide for medicine. Uncle Ben had been murdered.

Joe hated to interrupt the love scene—it was very touching. Seymour looked like a fat operatic tenor about to burst into song. It was tough to break the news and follow up with the suggestion to call the cops. Everything was rough for a few minutes.

Charles entered saying, "Mr. Jones is here." Cynthia said, "Show him in, please." She had dignity that Joe liked. Seymour was doing a nice job of comforting her.

A smooth, well-fed character in striped pants and a swallowtail coat entered. Pink-faced and blond with blue shining eyes, he radiated polish, He looked like a guy going to a party and that's what he was because he said, "Am I too early? Where is everyone? It is three-thirty and the invitation said three to six."

"Didn't I call you?" Cynthia asked. "I thought I called everyone."

"Why, no?" the well-fed character replied. "At least, I never got the message." He got very disturbed as though the party had meant much to him—like a kid having been told there was no Santa Claus.

Cynthia fought back some tears and managed to explain, "Uncle Ben called it off. There were fifty people on his list and I must have slipped up. Logan, Uncle Ben is dead!"

Logan Jones stared at his hostess and said slowly, "I'm frightfully sorry, Cynthia; I didn't know. Well, I'll shove along now."

Joe prevented Logan Jones from leaving. "Stay a while," he advised. "Uncle Ben was murdered. The cops will want to see everyone on the premises. If you aren't here when they come, they'll send out a dragnet for you. It's routine with them."

Logan agreed that it was wise he stay. Joe called the police. Cynthia and Seymour went into the sun room. Logan glanced after them and said, "I'll wait in the living room."

Joe finally joined the couple. He figured he might as well be busy although he wasn't employed on the case. The police detective in charge would be a grim, bald number named Elsing. Joe wished he could get real smart and solve things. Well, he could try. Elsing had nothing but insults for private detectives.

"Uncle Ben have any enemies?' he asked.

"Loads of them," mused Cynthia. "He was a cutthroat in business and in every aspect. He loved inviting people he hated and being nasty to them. They had to take it, too, because he had some hold over them."

"Do you have the party list?" asked Joe. "I'd like to see it."

"Why, yes," she replied. "It's on the desk in my room. I'll get it for you. Uncle Ben made it up and as usual, scribbed mean things about the people on it, not that I can remember just what."

AFTER she left, Seymour stated "Cynthia didn't kill Uncle Ben—she couldn't hurt a fly. Certainly she has no motive. She has plenty of money of her own—I know because I handle her financial affairs. She was awfully good to that old pirate and he adored her."

The talk swung to stocks and bonds. Joe's investments were limited to two-buck bets at the dog races. Steel and oil quotations were fascinating but went on too long. Joe got worried. Cynthia had been away long enough to find a dozen lists and have a bath. So Joe decided to check.

Finally he found her in her room. She was lying unconscious on the floor. Someone had given her a vicious blow on the head. A bloody brass vase was on the carpet. She wasn't dead but her breathing was all wrong. Joe grabbed the phone and called Emergency.

Then he looked for the party list. Fresh ashes smoldered in the fireplace. Joe figured the assailant had eavesdropped on the downstairs conversation, had followed Cynthia and conked her and had burnt the list. The ashes were too fine to be checked with chemicals for clues. It was damned certain the killer was incriminated by the list.

Joe told Seymour to remain with Cynthia until the ambulance came. While waiting for the police and the ambulance to arrive, Joe thought he'd get in some work. There was the possibility that Cynthia had destroyed the list and beaned herself to cover up. Seymour had an alibi because Joe had been with him all the time. Maybe Cynthia had killed Uncle Ben and the lovebirds were in cahoots.

Joe didn't like this theory because he liked Cynthia. He would check on Charles and Logan Jones.

The butler was drinking beer in the pantry. His pale blue eyes were red as he said, "The master was a mean old devil but we got along." He noticed Joe eyeing the beer, and commented, "This is my own supply. I don't steal liquor from the family. Besides, they don't keep beer and all I can drink is beer."

"You been here the last thirty minutes?" asked Joe.

"No pixie has been drinking them," answered Charles, indicating the empty bottles. Joe got in routine questions about whether Charles had heard or seen anyone around. Apparently, the beer had absorbed Charles' full attention.

Logan Jones was parked in a huge chair in the living room. The radio was at a low tone. Logan seemed tied up in the broadcast of a prize fight.

"How much longer," demanded Mr. Jones, his eyes very bright and annoyed, "must I wait here? I have things to do, and this fight is lousy. Hell, both of them should have knocked each other out forty minutes ago. Schultz had the Iron Man down on the nine count but the bell saved him. Why didn't he polish him off instead of going into a May dance?" Then Logan, in a bored voice, gave Joe a very precise account of what had occurred for the last forty minutes. A beautiful alibi, but it demanded checking.

Then Emergency and the cops arrived. Cynthia was discovered to be in a critical condition. Seymour begged permission to go with her but Elsing was tough.

"It took you a long time to get here," remarked Joe. "What did you do—detour by the way of San Francisco?"

"We got the wrong address," growled the cop, "and broke up a big crap game. Now that we're here, though, we aim to work. Give me your version, Holliday, then tell me the truth."

The usual cigar got planted in Elsing's iron jaws. While the cop lined up everyone, Joe got busy on the telephone in the next room. He called friend Ed at the radio station and asked, "Will you do me a favor?"

"I can't loan you more than fifty bucks," cheerfully returned Ed.

Then Joe launched into what he wanted. Ed whistled. Pretty soon Ed was reading a complete transcription of the Schultz-Iron Man fight. Joe clocked each incident. Logan Jones had a swell alibi—he could not possibly have eavesdropped and then gone upstairs to bash Cynthia and bum the list. Joe got unhappy until Ed commented:

"It was a lousy fight. I don't know why they bothered to relay the broadcast."

"What do you mean?" asked Joe.

"Well, on any decent radio, the fight could have been heard at noon. I think they were nuts to make a transcription for three P. M. too."

JOE figured that Logan could have heard the noon broadcast and remembered it. As he hung up the phone, he began to feel himself getting excited. He went upstairs to Cynthia's room. The duck was sitting on the bed.

"Hello, chum," Joe greeted it. "You are going to be bait. Uncle Ben was afraid of someone who was afraid of something. Suddenly Uncle Ben wants a duck—and for what? It is a damned nice theory he was going to scare someone with something, and you're it."

Also, Joe knew that neither Cynthia, Seymour, nor Charles had showed fright at sight of the duck. He would try it on Logan. At least, be could test the theory.

It sounded crazy, but Joe had read books on psychology. He knew that some people were deathly afraid of heights, some went wild at sight of snakes or mice, some couldn't stand being in an elevator. Joe knew his phobias, all right. Well, he figured, maybe this guy couldn't stand seeing a duck. Maybe he'd been scared by one while a child. Joe hadn't come across exactly such a case in his books, but it could happen to a man, all right.

Elsing was hammering at Seymour, Logan and Charles. Quietly Joe put down the duck. The creature waddled into the room. Seymour noticed it with curiosity. Charles saw it duck was intent on understanding Elsing's rapid-fire questions. Logan said, "You again!" but betrayed no emotion. The duck wandered out the patio door.

"She's out of danger," cried Seymour to Joe. "Mr. Elsing telephoned and they said she would be all right. She has even regained consciousness."

"And doesn't know who slugged her," mourned the cop.

But Joe knew who had struck her and stolen the list. Logan Jones had just given himself away when he had remarked, "You again!" about the duck. The creature hadn't been out of the bedroom; therefore Logan must have seen it there. It didn't mean Logan had killed Uncle Ben but it was pretty damned sure be had slugged Cynthia and burnt the list. Joe wondered about Logan being afraid of the duck—he had to work on that.

He called Elsing out of the room and they passed words back and forth for a while. Elsing was a tough guy to sell. "You need more proof. If that guy gets a smart lawyer, he could tie it into knots. There isn't any evidence."

Joe sighed. That I know. So I want you to cooperate with a trap."

"You and your traps!" snorted the cop. "You should be in the North Woods." He looked as though be wished Joe were there now. Finally he gave in. Charles likewise co-operated—the beer had put him into a blissful mood.

"This is just like a play, huh?" he asked. "It's pretend? You ain't goin' to keep me locked up or hang me or somethin' like that?"

"Not unless I get hard up for a suspect," grimly remarked Elsing. "If times get tough, I can pin a charge on Holliday."

It was announced that Charles was being taken to Headquarters for further questioning. Things looked dark for Charles. The police left. Joe managed to detain Logan.

"Well," said Logan with relief, "that is over." He looked quite cheerful.

"Not altogether," informed Joe, looking like a lazy hawk. "You see, I am sort of an amateur detective. Uncle Ben had a duplicate of the party list and I know where it is because he told me. But I didn't tell the cops about it. No siree, I'm solving the crime all by myself."

"You are?" stated Logan. "Where is it?" Joe tried to look dumb and felt it wasn't hard. "I'm not telling anyone," he replied. "But I'm going to get it right now. Good-by, Mr. Jones. Nice meeting you."

JOE ambled slowly out of the room. The house was deathly still now. The stairs seemed a mile long. Joe reached Cynthia's room. He opened the door and went inside. The duck that had been planted there waddled toward him.

"If you don't scare Logan Jones enough," Joe told it, "I will fit you into a roasting pan."

He pretended to read a piece of paper that he took out of the desk drawer. The door opened very softly. It closed. Joe knew it was being locked outside by a cop. He was alone with a possible killer and the duck.

"I want that paper," came the gentle whisper. The fat face breathing on him was wet dough now. Joe felt perspiration too. Logan Jones had a gun. The detective had been positive that Jones wasn't packing a rod.

"Where did you get that?" asked Joe. "At the corner drug store?"

"It belonged to Uncle Ben," replied Logan. "I got it out of his room."

"I know why you want the list," prompted Joe.

"Give it to me," was the cold demand. Joe dropped it but picked it up. Also, he picked up the duck that was hidden in the big wing chair. "Okay; I don't argue with guns," said Joe. He didn't like the inhuman look in Logan's eyes.

"You'll never argue with anyone again," replied Logan Jones as Joe moved forward.

Then the duck quacked. Logan's hand trembled. "Put down that thing," he said, his voice nervous.

Joe put down the duck, but so close to Logan that it touched the guy's pants. Logan let out a yelp as though a rattlesnake had bit him.

"Get away from me," he cried as he backed to the door. The duck followed.

"Uncle Ben didn't get time to scare you with the duck," stated Joe, "because you slipped cyanide into his glass of water."

Logan was frantic. He blubbered and trembled and mouthed meaningless words. But he held on to the gun and all Joe had was words. Joe kept talking fast and finally what Logan was saying made sense.

"I had to kill him," whimpered Logan as he tugged at the locked door. "He would ruin me! That damned party—I had counted on it to distract attention from me—I didn't know it had been called off. I hadn't even been invited. That damned party!" Frantically he pulled at the door but his gun-hand was still pointed at Joe.

The detective saw it now—why Logan wanted the list because it was proof he hadn't been invited to the party. Joe remembered when Logan had first arrived and had made it clear he had been invited. Logan wanted the list because he was afraid of being suspected if he would be caught in a lie.

The duck brushed against Logan and the guy yelled in terror, "Get away from me!" He shot at the duck and missed. He shot at Joe. Wildly, he shot around the room. Then Elsing came out of the dressing closet. The cops took over.

Later, downstairs in the library, Elsing mused, "That guy was certainly scared of the duck. Well, we got a full confession." He looked at the duck that was sitting in the big comfortable lounge chair. "You may be evidence," he told it, "but you can't have the best chair in the house." He pushed it off and sat down. Joe took a hard, straight-backed chair. Elsing sat there puffing away at a cigar as though he had solved the crime, but suddenly he looked unhappy. He got up. The duck had laid an egg. Joe felt very happy.