The little man with the gun looked down on the big man who was about to die … .
In the nearly dark room the odor of incense was overpowering; there seemed to be blood in it. Under the dull red light from the single lamp the big man, scarcely visible, looked like one already dead. He lay curled up on the couch, mouth slack, his features strained as through this deep sleep he knew the presence of death.
Twice the little man raised the gun in a trembling hand! The third lime he fired, point blank, then whirled and fired … .
Chief of Homicide Lou Stringer let himself down into the doctor's leather easy chair. He was still young, but there were furrows in his brow and circles under his eyes. He'd gotten his ulcers quarterbacking pro football; they'd grown worse on the police force.
He said "Hi, Doc."
"Hello, Lou," Dr. Dann said. His black eyes, usually sharp, were clouded. The two men were old friends, but this time he didn't rise, and offer his hand, and start scolding because the homicide chief wasn't taking care of his ulcers.
"You don't look so good," Lou said. "Worried about something?"
He nodded at the picture of a pretty high school girl on the doctor's desk.
"Betty here — she still got the Hollywood itch?"
Dr. Dann glanced briefly at the picture of his daughter, an expression that he instantly suppressed crossing his face.
"No!" he snapped.
"You needn't bite my head off. I was only asking."
"Sorry, Lou," the doctor relented. "I've been irritable — not much sleep. Betty's all right — now."
"That's good," Lou said absently. "You didn't come to talk about Betty."
"No, I guess not. I don't really know why I did come." Lou shrugged helplessly. "You know the way I work. There's a killing and I go around in a fog, hoping something will turn up."
Dr. Dann leaned back and folded his hands over his stomach.
"I know the way you work," he said quietly. "You go fumbling around, helpless as a fox. And it doesn't matter who got killed, or how much he deserved to die — someone always gets convicted for it."
"It's the Victor Starke killing this time."
"Of course. It happened last night, and it happened only two blocks from here. Whether it's murder or suicide, if it happens in my neighborhood I can expect you."
"So can everyone else." Lou closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the chair. "What can you tell me about the guy?"
"Starke was a vicious criminal the law couldn't, or wouldn't, touch," the doctor said coldly. "He posed as a talent scout, but his real profession was blackmail, though what any woman could see in his vapid face is beyond me. He had his office laid out like a parlor, with incense, concealed music, low lights — "
"You know the layout pretty well. You must have had dealings with him."
"What do you mean by dealings ?"
There was a perceptible pause before the homicide chief, his eyes still closed, said, "Medical, of course."
"No. I went to see him about the Medina girl. She was my patient. He laughed me out of his office. Two weeks later she committed suicide. But you know that."
"I didn't know why. You didn't say, the first time. What else ?"
Lou's eyes were open now; the lids had parted imperceptibly and his gaze brooded on the picture of Betty.
"You're not much help," he said. "Though I can begin to understand now how it is nobody knows anything, nobody saw anything, nobody heard anything. And why nobody wants me to do anything. What you say fits our picture of him. Charges in New York, in Miami and Frisco, but nothing pinned on him. The women wouldn't testify. He must have had something."
The doctor made an ugly sound.
Lou ignored it, continuing, "He had a few theater-agency connections to maintain a front. Now take Betty here — "
"Leave Betty out of it!" Dr. Dann snarled, half-rising from his chair.
"No offense, Doc," Lou said mildly. "I was just going to use her for an example."
"Use somebody else!"
"Okay, okay. Let's take the Medina girl. Starke sees her, tells her she has possibilities, and gives her his card. The first couple of times she comes to his office — he called it a studio — everything is on the up and up. He gives her a script to read, coaches her a bit, and pretty soon he's got the kid dizzy thinking she's going places. Then he works up to that low lights and soft music routine — "
"I don't want to hear these details!" Dr. Dann cried. "I know what his methods were! He's dead, and that ends it!"
"Sorry Doc. I was just thinking aloud. I got a pretty good idea what happened, but if you're busy … ."
"Well, once in a while he got a kid with talent and turned her over to a coaching school, tying her up with a contract. But someone like the Medina girl might end up performing at stag parties. The bait would be raising money for her career, getting experience — the kid would believe anything he told her. A nice deal for Starke, who got fifty percent of what she earned. Not so good for the girl, who went along step by step until she was way over her head. So the motive wasn't hard to find. One of the girls — "
"No," Dr. Dann began, but the homicide chief interrupted with an upraised hand.
"Ever chivalrous, eh, doc? Can't believe a woman would do it ? I was going to say one of the girls had a boyfriend, father — some man who wouldn't stand by and take it any more than I would if it was my kid. We know it was a man because we have a clear heel-print on the waxed floor. Now all we have to do is locate him. It shouldn't be hard. Starke left a complete file card on all his girls."
Dr. Dann exhaled slowly.
"Knowing all you do about Starke, you still intend to track down the man who him? You intend to expose and disgrace the girl that man was trying to protect? Or avenge?"
"My job is to bring the man in," the homicide chief said doggedly. "If he were my own brother I'd have to do it. What happens then is up to the jury."
He was silent a moment.
"Funny thing you should say he was shot. I didn't mention that, nor did the newspapers."
"It doesn't matter. He was shot all right. And that's the embarrassing thing about this case. We'd rather not find the man who shot him. There's no charge we can hold him on."
Dr. Dann stared.
"That doesn't make sense!"
"It makes plenty of sense. The door to Starke's place was open, so our man with the gun didn't break in. Nobody heard the shot, so he didn't disturb the peace. And — he didn't kill Starke. In that light, and wrought up the way he must have been, he wouldn't notice that Starke was already dead, with the knife still in his back. Fingerprints on it, too, by the way. So you can see why we're just quietly forgetting the man with the gun."
For a moment the two men faced each other. Then the homicide chief said, "You ought to take a week off. Doc. You're looking peaked."
He placed a five-by-eight file card on the desk and stood up to leave.
"Something for you to get rid of," he said quietly. "I know you didn't kill Starke, and there's no use dragging Betty's name into this."
Lou paused at the door and looked inquiringly over his shoulder at the doctor's call.
Dr. Dann was standing behind his desk, a little man whose flashing black eyes offset his lack of stature.
"About those ulcers, you. Be in my office tomorrow. It's an order!"
"Okay." Lou grinned. " Be seeing you, Doc."
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