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Coffin Custodian

By Stephen McBarron

The only way a trigger trio of crooks could unlock the mystery of the missing evidence was to use Detective Nason's body as a coffin key.

RICHTER looked over his beer at me, his mouth still on the rim of the glass, his little agate eyes squinting from under blond, woolly brows. He took his mouth an eighth of an inch from the glass, and without raising his head any higher, said:

"What do you say, Nason?"

I wiggled a thumb toward the entrance to the beer joint, "I say, scee-rew, Richter. No dice." I leaned over and tapped his chest with a forefinger. "And tell that whack-slappy fighter of yours, Harney, that he's taken his last mouthful of resin dust. 'Cause he's finished."

Richter straightened and didn't look quite so much like a blond, bloated spider any more. "Am I to understand you're adamant about this?"

I nodded slowly and decisively. "Like One-Punch Harney's skull."

I shot another gander at the shrivelled, evidently hopped-up monkey cuddled over a highball glass down at the end of the bar, saw him jerk his gaze away from me. I didn't notice the two beefy individuals in the corner booth at all—yet.

I said to Richter: "And if your rodman at the end of the bar wants to make something of it, it'll be his last gun party."

Richter had come in alone, but I figured he'd had the rodman all set at the bar, just in case I made trouble. I wasn't worried, mind. I was prepared, knowing it was high time the vultures gathered to sing dirges at my funeral.

Richter's thick lips rolled over his teeth, his agate eyes changed to smoky marble. "You'll be sorry, Nason. You won't live another day, holding out like this."

I heard the click of heels approaching our table, looked up, grinned. She was very angry, and it made her very beautiful. I didn't know how beautiful she was when she wasn't angry, because I'd never seen her before.

She had on a brown swagger coat, no hat. Her dark hair curled thickly about her ears, and her eyes were a deep, limpid brown—with sparkles, right now. She said:

"Are you the detective, Nason?"

"Yes," I said, still grinning. "The detective."

Her jaw muscles rippled and a few more sparkles shot from her eyes. She didn't believe in hedging around the bush, got straight to the point.

"When Jason Felz died yesterday, he left you as custodian of the evidence he had accumulated during his short career as Special Prosecutor. I want that evidence. Or at least that small part of it pertinent to the case of Jeffrey Carlson. I must have it."

I rose slowly, pushed out a chair for her. "Zat so?"

SHE stepped back, her face a rigid white mask. Maybe it was my slugflinging reputation that did it. I shrugged, sat down. If she meant to give me the impression my nearness might contaminate her, I shed it like a duck sheds water.

I looked up at her, jerked a thumb at Richter. "This bedbug has the same thing in mind. You see, his fighter, Slug-daffy Harney, batted a young girl to death one night in a drunken rage. He almost got away with it, but Felz got wind of it, dug up convincing evidence against him— enough to sizzle the bum."

My thumb waggled at Richter again. "As I said, this mouse wants to buy said criminal findings from me, seeing as how Felz trusted me with the whereabouts of his cached records."

I spread my palms. "So I just told him to go whistle. Now I'd hate like hell to have to be that rude to you."

Her little jaw muscle actually bulged. But my attention was pulled from her when Richter shoved back his chair and stood up, fuming.

"So my fighter is a murderer, hanh?" he growled, his fat, ruddy face seeming to take on added pouches because of its deepening color. "And you think I'm a slob, hanh? All right! You asked for it, mister!"

With one more look of baleful rage at me, he swung past the table. I saw his pudgy hand go out in a gesture to the cokey at the end of the bar. Then Richter was gone.

The girl must have sensed what was coming. She stepped back till her gorgeous spine was against the bar, looked from me to the approaching gunman, who had slid from his stool and started for my table.

The tavern, so far as I could see at the time, was empty save for us three and the bartender, who evidently didn't like trying to argue with the cokey. He just stood behind the bar and watched, his eyes wide, his face pale and troubled.

I figured Richter must have been pretty desperate to go to such drastic lengths as to have a gunman down me in a public place. Obviously, in view of what had happened, this lad was of an imported variety, else he wouldn't have worked so openly.

I didn't even stand at the cokey's approach. That's how much respect I had for this bedbug. He moved closer with a spidery-like motion, not fully straightening his legs with each step. His arms swung with a deceptive looseness, his face was a sallow, tight-skinned corpse-head.

He stopped five feet from the table, and his threadlike lips writhed. They said: "Why don't you stop trying...

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