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42 Keys to Murder

by Edward Churchill

Newspaper correspondent Nick Burney and his wife Sue become a pair of high-powered sleuths when they take the trail after the killing of Homer Hansel, the snooping society editor.

CHAPTER I
One Column Less

NICK BURNEY, Rock City correspondent for the Las Verdes Sentinel, sat nervously in the battered Ford pick-up while his wife, Sue, stopped and started as the lights along Tremont Street turned red and green and red again. Although midnight had long since passed, Las Verdes, the gambling metropolis situated in a shallow desert bowl so big that the mountains seemed small in the distance, was still going strong.

Scores of the thousands of pedestrians enraged Nick Burney and his wife by crossing in front of them; the half-mile of neon signs gave the broad thoroughfare a glare of unreality; the casinos were packed tight with a tense humanity; cafes and even stores were wide open.

"They ought to try going to bed some time," Sue grumbled, as she slammed on her brakes to avoid hitting a pair of drunks.

Burney glanced at the luminous dial on his wrist watch as Sue tooled their battered truck through the alley in back of the newspaper offices.

"Good heavens, baby!" he exclaimed. "It's after three o'clock. They'll soon be coming in to get out the paper."

"Having worked since nine yesterday morning," Sue replied, as the brakes groaned the ancient conveyance to a halt behind the building, "I'm getting darned sick of giving my all for the rag."

Nick Burney ran his hand through his unruly black mop of hair, picked up an envelope full of copy, climbed out. He wished he hadn't had that last drink at the Estrella Club on the twenty-five mile drive in from Rock City. It was getting him down. He was weaving, half way between reality and never-never land.

"Coming along?" he asked.

"Whither thou goest, I goest," came from the car. Tall, thin Nick Burney watched Sue pile out, slim and boyish in a pair of tight-fitting dungarees and a sweater. Her short, black hair was as snarled as her husband's. Her upturned nose was red from the sun. A smile flickered over her full lips as she looked up at him, made a genial moon out of her round face, even in the ghastly fluorescent light which poured from the windows of the ground floor offices.

"After we give the sheet our pound of flesh, how's about a snort?" she asked.

"That's a deal. I'm so groggy I don't know whether I'm coming or going. My system needs a shock."

Burney fished a long, slim hand into his trousers pocket, pulled out a bunch of keys, put one on the lock and turned it. As he opened the door to the deserted editorial rooms he peered beyond, saw a light in a small office ahead.

"Homer Hansel, our around-the-town columnist, has got caught and he's pushing the deadline, too," he said to Sue. "I wish I had a lush job like his at his salary—dishing out the dirt on this place—instead of being walled off down in Rock City."

He held the door for Sue and they went into the editorial office. He laid the envelope of Rock City trivia on the desk of George Ashton, the managing, editor. He looked at the boxes against the wall, saw a note in his, took it and read it. Sue pulled his arm down so she could read, too.

It stated, in uneven rows of type which was hard to read because of the bitten off tails of the "t's" and other maladjustments:

Coral Crane, the movie star, is at the Rock City Hotel with her son, Bobby. Divorce? Interview Her. GDA.

Burney's lips emitted a low whistle.

"That noise sounds like a mating call," Sue said. "I don't like it."

"I'll talk to her on the front porch, mommie, and you can hide behind a bush and watch." He paused. "Look—you run next door to the King's Bar and order up. I'll be right along. Hansel's got the lowdown on everything in town, and he may be able to give me a tip on this baby."

Sue's smile erased the pale fatigue on her features. "I think I can take a drink easier than face Hansel," she said, her voice low. "I don't like that ape."

She turned, slipped through the door. Burney threaded his way among the desks which cluttered the crowded editorial room, turned the corner at the end, waved good-by to his wife, and went up a short corridor. He opened the door to the cubicle.

At first he thought the columnist was asleep. The red-head's arms were over the pullout of his desk and the back of his head was toward the correspondent. All that Burney could see was a mass of red hair. That is, until he leaned over so that he could see Hansel's face—or what was left of it. A bullet had entered it at the bridge of the nose.

BURNEY shuddered and turned away from the body. He got control of himself, and quickly surveyed the office. The first thing he noticed were the glasses, obviously feminine, in a harlequin frame, lying near the edge of the desk. He picked them up, sniffed them. They exuded a faint odor of perfume. He slipped them into the inside pocket of his gabardine jacket.

The next thing he saw was the opened padlock. It had held a steel bar running down the front of Hansel's filing cabinet, locking each of the four drawers in place. He pulled on the bar, freed the drawers, and started going through them. The one holding photographs hadn't been touched, but the others had received a thorough going over. They were in considerable disorder. He had seen Hansel open those drawers, and the columnist had kept them neat.

He could see that one envelope had been removed. This was clear to him because there was a clean space where it had rested, in the dust. The dust gave the exact dimensions. His quick survey showed that nothing else had been taken. The dust disclosed that quite definitely.

Next he screwed up his courage, and forced himself to run over the body of the late Hansel. He found a large envelope in his inside coat pocket and thrust it into his own jacket.

Then he started looking for the murder weapon. He couldn't see it anywhere on the open floor and decided that it might be under the desk. He got down on his hands and knees, began exploring the shadows.

It was then that the shadows got darker— quite suddenly. First he saw a beautiful flash of light, which he decided in his waning moments had the color given off by atomic bombs. After that brilliant display he lapsed into complete darkness.

When he started coming back to life he had the feeling someone was dunking him by the heels in a large body of water.

"Hey!" he complained. "Stop it!"

He blinked, opened his eyes, and through the film of liquid saw Sue. He also saw the big, empty paper cup which had been used to inundate him.

"What happened?" Sue demanded, fright in her white face. "Are you all right, darling?"

Burney shook his head to clear it. He became aware that someone was standing besides Sue. He recognized Joe, the stoop- shouldered old night watchman.

"When you didn't come right away, I started getting worried," Sue said. "In fifteen minutes, I was positively jittery. I was afraid something might have happened to you. I ran back here. You had the key. I couldn't get in. I banged on the door. When nobody answered, I got panicky.

"I went looking for Joe here. I spent an hour finding him."

Joe pleaded in a high, cracked voice, "Don't tell the boss, please, Mr. Burney. I was jest down at th' Frontier havin' a short one."

"It's out of my hands, Joe. If you'd been on the job, this wouldn't have happened."

"What?" demanded Sue.

Painfully, he pulled himself into a sitting position with Sue's aid. He shook his head to clear it further. He couldn't see the body of Hansel from his position.

"Look at him!" he demanded. "What's the matter with you two? He's dead!"

"Who's dead?" Joe asked, stupidly.

They heard a clamor in the editorial rooms. Burney knew what it meant. The early shift was coming in to get out the first afternoon edition. Sue and Joe swung around, satisfied themselves, and then Sue demanded, "What in the world are you talking about? Were you and Hansel drinking? Did you pass out?"

"I was knocked out. I tell you, Homer Hansel's dead. His body—"

He pulled himself on his feet as he spoke, looked down at the desk. The body of Homer Hansel was gone!

There were voices.

BURNEY looked at the door. He saw George Ashton, the managing editor, whose features looked as if they'd been drawn on a brown egg, husky and as disheveled as a wet airedale, backing up Sue. Beside Ashton, peering over his ample shoulders, were Phil Walsh, the general assignment man, Bill Hackwood, the sports editor, and Skeeter Simms, who was leg man for Homer Hansel. Hansel's column was a "must'" for the Las Verdes readers; he had the dirt on everybody in the wide-open gambling community. Skeeter Simms, who looked like an involuntarily retired jockey, stared at him with red-rimmed eyes.

"Hi, Burney!" Ashton exclaimed. "Aren't you and Sue up a little late?"

Burney glared around him belligerently.

"Let's get this straight, everybody!" he snapped. "There's been a murder here."

Ashton grinned at him. "Crocked again, eh Burney? If you've got to get fried, do it in Rock City. You know that our revered publisher, Kramer, doesn't like his joint littered up with drunks."

"Can the clowning, George!" Burney snapped. "There's been a murder here and-"

A sudden thought struck him. The pullout had been shoved back into the desk. He grabbed the handle, jerked it out.

"Have ...

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