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One More Murder

By G. T. Fleming-Roberts

Star reporter Barney Ghent plans the perfect killing—and the girl he loves is caught in a murder trap.

CHAPTER ONE
Not Quite Dead

FROM across Martindale Street, Barney Ghent noticed that the door of the old Pomeroy house had opened. Somebody came down the short approach to the sidewalk. A woman. She turned north and ran, holding her purse up tight against her breast. She wasn't Mrs. Taylor, Harry Pomeroy's housekeeper. She was younger than Mrs. Taylor and her skirts were short. Barney hadn't seen anything of her face in the darkness. He didn't know who she was, didn't think it was important anyway.

Inside his tan balmacaan, Barney Ghent's shoulders shrugged. When there was nothing left of the fleeing woman except the skish-skish sound the toes of her shoes made on the concrete, he turned and moved without haste down the steps of Sam's Subway, the basement cafe in the Martindale Apartment Building. The smell of food sickened him, but he opened the door and went in anyway.

The place wasn't crowded. A woman sat a little apart from the table nearest the door, as though she waited for somebody. One of her knees was over the other and she dangled a blue kid pump from a silk-stockinged toe. She wore a black skirt and a blue-fox jacket that was open to reveal the frothy front of a white blouse. Pale gold hair rolled up from her brow and seemed to be important in securing a silly, brimless hat. A closeup might have discerned lines that were fortyish about her eyes and mouth and the shadowy prophecy of a double chin. But not even another woman could have made an uncomplimentary remark about her figure.

When Barney Ghent showed himself in the door, the woman uncrossed her legs, slid her foot into her pump. She gave the impression of standing erect without leaving her chair.

"Barney," she said, and raised gloved fingers toward a pretty mouth. "Barney Ghent!" It was as though she was seeing a ghost. And possibly she was.

Barney kept his right hand in the pocket of his coat, his fingers on the still warm revolver there. He raised his hat with his left hand. He thought ironically that he was still "Gentleman" Ghent, formerly police reporter on the Evening Star, and there was still time for him to notice an attractive woman like Marsha Hopson. He might have been surprised at finding her here except that surprise was one of the emotions he was forced to deny himself in order to live a little longer.

He asked Marsha Hopson if he might sit down, and when she didn't seem to hear him he sat down anyway. A dying man ought to have some privileges.

Marsha, he noticed, had not yet relaxed, as though she still doubted his substance.

"I—I thought you were—were—"

"Dead?" he concluded, smiling. "No, I'm not dead."

Only dying. He had perhaps six days before that thin-walled bubble in the arch of his aorta would let go.

As Dr. Fritz Wulfing had explained it to him, the gunman's bullet had nicked the big artery leading from the heart, causing a weakness in the wall. Under pressure of the blood surging from his ticker, a sort of blister had been formed at this point, growing larger all the time, like a tire's inner tube getting ready to blow. An aneurism, Wulfing had called it. Death might come any time, with the next breath. Or then again, if the Ghent luck held out; he might live for nearly a week if he completely avoided every sort of excitement.

He wasn't supposed to leave his apartment, or his bed for that matter. Yet this afternoon he had discharged his nurse, dressed himself, and here he was living on time borrowed from the undertaker.

"Care to pinch me?" he asked Marsha.

A smile trembled on her mouth. "I'm glad, Barney," she said and sounded as though she was. "When Mat came back from visiting you, he sounded awfully pessimistic about your chances."

Mat Hopson was attorney for the Evening Star, and Marsha's second husband. Her first was Harry Pomeroy, who lived just across the street.

This was Sunday night, and Mat had visited Barney Ghent on Friday. Barney remembered Friday particularly, because that was the day that Fritz Wulfing had brought him the revolver—the revolver that was at moment in Barney's right coat pocket, its barrel still warm. He'd asked Wulfing for the gun as a protective measure, he claimed; he didn't want some other hophead killer to steal the fragment of life that was still left to him.

Barney Ghent laughed with less restraint than at any time since Dr. Wulfing had told him the bad news about himself.

"That was because I told Mat I couldn't smoke," he said. "Mat ably figured that a Ghent without cigar is a Ghent without hope."

Marsha shuddered. "It must have been terrible." She referred to shooting, of course, "They got the guy, didn't they?"

Barney nodded. The gunman was in jail, maybe praying that Barney Ghent would live, so that he might escape the chair. The joker was that probably no one had told the killer that Barney Ghent was going to die.

"What was it all for, Barney?" Marsha asked.

He gestured without lifting his hands completely from the table. "One of those things. A newspaperman uncovers somebody's protected racket, blows the story into headlines, thus ruining somebody's chance for re-election. And the newsman's byline turns out to be a death warrant."

"Well, it's not something that happens twice," she said. "I mean, you'll take precautions."

He grinned, thinking, No, it won't happen again. And the dead don't have to take precautions. They don't even care.

"What are you doing here?" he asked aloud. "Haunting the old haunts?" He meant the Pomeroy house across the street, her home when she was married to Harry Pomeroy.

Marsha lowered her lids and he noticed that the blue of her eye shadow was startling against the sudden pallor of her face.

"I've been waiting here for over an hour for Mat," she said and studied the designs she drew on the tablecloth with a pointed fingernail. "This is our first wedding anniversary."

"Congratulations," Barney said.

"And Mat and I met here, you know," she went on anxiously. "That night Harry Pomeroy and I had gone round and round. I slammed out of the house and came over here to eat. Forgot my purse, of course. Mat was here and came to the rescue."

Marsha raised her blue eyes above Barney Ghent's face and to the door.

She smiled a little. "He's been my hero ever since," she concluded quietly.

Barney Ghent looked over his own thick shoulder and saw Mat Hopson coming in the door. He was a tall, trim man with a certain sort of dignity that was not overbearing. He could get by with a Chesterfield overcoat, a derby, and mustache wax. He could carry a cane in the Middle West without exciting suspicion. Women looked from him to Marsha and envied her. To the Evening Star, Mat Hopson was the sort of personality who could settle a libel suit out of court without losing the newspaper subscription of the plaintiff.

Barney Ghent stood up, put out his right hand to Mat Hopson's gloved fingers.

"You've made a remarkable recovery," Mat said, pumping Barney's arm. "Downright startling! Look, here, old man, aren't you pushing things a little too fast?"

Barney looked from Mat to Marsha. He forced a laugh. "Fifteen minutes with your charming wife and I'm a well man. The doctors ought to discover her!"

Then he turned so that Marsha could not see his face and put a finger on his lips. Mat Hopson understood and nodded almost imperceptibly. Hopson knew that Barney was going to die, but Barney didn't want Marsha to know it. He didn't want sympathy. He didn't need it. He was having a hell of a good time tonight and sympathy mustn't spoil it.

Barney declined to join Mat and Marsha at dinner, lifted his battered hat to Marsha, and left the basement cafe. That was at thirty-eight minutes after eight. He took four full minutes to walk to the end of the block, where he stood on the corner and listened to the approaching wail of a police siren. His pulse quickened, and he knew that was danger to the thin-walled sack of his chest.

He turned abruptly from Martindale Street, walked west into the cool wind that drove scant, spitting rain out of the dark sky. He pushed his hat up from his forehead and lifted his face to the wind and rain. He was feeling all right. There was no pain except the stiff soreness of the bullet wound itself. Dr. Fritz Wulfing had told him there would be no pain at the end, but then Fritz Wulfing was a friend as well as a physician.

"And how the hell does he know?" Barney whispered into the darkness. Then his lips curled bitterly and he tried to consider himself objectively, like a corpse in a crime story.

He was pretty good at that. He might have written his own obituary, except that that hinted of dramatics. Lord, how he hated dramatics! When a story broke, Gentleman Ghent got the facts, put them down tersely in good newspaper style. He was a damned good reporter. Never be an interpretive writer. Never drift into fiction, because he wouldn't know a dramatic situation if he met one. And he'd met plenty. He was calloused to dramatic situations.

He guessed that was why be could think coldly about his own death, Maybe he was the nucleus of a dramatic situation and didn't know it. He came around the block and into Martindale again. The siren was silent, but the red eye of the squad car was beaming down the street from a point directly in front of the Pomeroy house. This time Barney crossed Martindale to the east side, instead of walking by Sam's Subway again. And he went toward the narrow, red brick dwelling that belonged to Harry Pomeroy.

Behind the police car was a small, shiny new coupe with press plates bolted on about the licenses. That would belong to Benny Dean, who had ridden into the police-reporter job that had been Barney's. Barney grinned at the coupe and walked up the approach to the front door. A cop named Fitzgerald stood on the steps talking to some neighbors or passers-by who wanted to know what this was all about. Barney shouldered up to the cop, said hello.

"I heard you were sick with lead poison, Barney," Fitzgerald said, and stared incredulously.

"Just released today." Barney jerked his thumb toward the door. "What goes on?"

"Harry Pomeroy got it," the cop said.

"Bad?"

"As bad as they come. Go on in, Barney. That cub from your paper will have to grow a crop of corns to fill your shoes!"

Barney went into a narrow hall that was all Turkey-red carpet, somber walls, worn plush settee, and walnut stairway. Benny Dean hung on a wall phone that had cost Harry Pomeroy fifty cents a month less than the other kind. He was asking for Caster at the city desk with one side of his mouth and trying to bite through a candy bar with the other side. He didn't see Barney.

Barney Ghent walked behind Benny and jerked the receiver away from Benny's ear.

"Hey, who the—" When Benny saw who it was his chubby face fell almost far enough to bounce on the floor.

"Barney!" he gasped.

Barney pointed with his forefinger at the phone. "When you address that big cluck call him Mister Caster, son, and you'll get to be famous and get shot at like me." He leaned over the transmitter and hugged the receiver to his ear.

Caster was yelling, "Barney. Is that you, Barney?"

"Me," Barney admitted. "I'm taking over for Dean."

"But you can't, damn it! You—you're supposed to be—be sick!"

Barney chuckled without mirth. "Just one more murder, Chief. Then I promise to stay out of your hair for life. I'm really going to enjoy this one, Chief."

He could hear Caster punishing his gum. In his mind's eye he could see the lean jaws chopping up and down. He grinned at the phone. This was tough for Caster, because Caster knew that Barney was going to die and knew, further, that Barney didn't want sympathy. It was almost pathetic the way Caster had dropped into Barney's flat every now and then, all the while Barney was in bed, to tell lies about all the big plans Henishaw and the other big shots at the paper were making for Barney's future. Caster had even worked himself up to such a pitch of enthusiasm over Barney's non-existent future that he had promised to send him to Germany to cover the cold war.

"Okay, Barney," Caster said finally. "It's fine of you to sort of show Benny the ropes before the paper sends you to South America."

Barney Ghent hung up and turned to Dean.

"Benny, one of the things you want to learn is not to phone Caster until you've got something besides the fact a guy was shot. He likes you to have your story first, see?"

Then he turned his back on Dean and went up the carpeted steps to the...

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