Suddenly his fingers were around Jordan's throat.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
SPOKEN LIKE A TRUE BIGOT
Wilson had no idea of using force on Jordan. He was certain his gift of gab would do the trick. He climbed the porch and rang the bell, smiling faintly.
Leslie Jordan opened the door, gazed at him in surprise for a moment, then invited him in. Wilson found himself in a clean, well-kept living room. The room was warm and Wilson felt the sweat break out on his forehead. He loosened his collar with a huge forefinger.
“I guess you think I’m a rat,” Wilson said as Jordan offered him a chair.
Jordan’s eyes were cold.
“After what I saw this afternoon, what else can I think?” Wilson could sense Jordan’s dislike growing deeper every second. “But it didn’t come as a surprise,” Jordan continued. “I suspected you were cheating on your wife a year ago.”
Wilson took out a white silk handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He kept his eyes fixed on Jordan, probing for a weakness. Jordan was middle-aged, with a thin austere face and a body so skinny that it made Wilson think of an undernourished child. Unconsciously Wilson compared the strength in his own huge body with Jordan’s weakness. He had noticed the look of grudging admiration that flitted over Jordan’s face at the sight of his broad shoulders and trim hips.
Wilson said, “Suppose I did cheat on my wife — does that make me an ogre?”
Instantly Wilson realized his words were a mistake. He could sense Jordan’s disgust. Jordan had gone to an easel, taken up a paint brush which he had been twirling rapidly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. As soon as Wilson spoke, the twirling stopped. Jordan threw him a quick glance.
“I don’t know what you call a man who cheats on his dying wife,” he said. “Ogre seems a hit mild.”
He daubed the brush in purple paint and added a faint shadow to the canvas he was working on.
“You don’t mind if I work, do you? This piece has to be in the hands of my agent tomorrow morning. A commercial artist lives by the clock, you know.”
He added four swift strokes to the canvas and two large crosses appeared against a background of two struggling figures.
“I’m doing an illustration for a new movie,” he continued. “It seems to fit in with our conversation. The picture’s named ‘Double Cross’.”
Double Cross! Someday this little punk would go too far with his name-calling and his moral snobbery and Wilson would break his skinny neck.
Wilson licked his lips.
“Okay, so I’m a rat. But why kill your sister to get at me?”
Wilson was a fluent talker. He made it sound reasonable. What happened to himself was unimportant. But surely Jordan must realize that Mary was in no conditon to stand a severe shock. The news of her husband’s infidelity would kill her just as surely as a bullet.
“Under the circumstances can you afford to tell her?”
Jordan kept his brush busy, pausing only now and then to get a fresh perspective on the painting, then plunging back to work again. The canvas had come alive. Two figures, locked in a life and death struggle, slowly came to life in the shadows cast by the giant crosses.
“Her death will be on your hands.”
“Aren’t you the one who did the cheating?”
Wilson bit his lower lip.
“Spoken like a true bigot,” he said. “If this is your moral code, you can keep it.”
He swallowed hard, then added, “You don’t love your sister — all you love is your own bigotry.”
“You’re a fine one to talk about love.”
Wilson hesitated. He had never expected Jordan would cling to his scruples even if it meant the death of someone he loved dearly. But there was no doubt of it. Jordan’s face was like a chunk of granite in its frozen determination.
Even before he spoke, Wilson knew the answer to his next question: “But at least you’ll wait a few weeks — till she’s a little stronger?”
“I’m going to tell her this afternoon.”
His face twisted in disgust and he avoided Wilson’s eyes.
Wilson cursed under his breath. He was beaten. What could he do now? In despair he heard Jordan saying:
“You’re trying to picture my sister as a whimpering coward — but you see, Wilson, I know her well enough to realize she’d rather face the truth, no matter how bitter, than continue to live in a fool’s paradise.”
HALF A MILLION DOLLARS
There went a half-million dollars!
Gone! The chance of a lifetime, because of one small indiscretion. All his work, all his scheming would count for nothing. From now on he would have to sweat for his money like the rest of the chumps.
What made it really hurt, though, was that it had to happen now, on the eve of success. Only yesterday the doctor told him that the cancer had gotten out of hand and Mary would die in less than six months. Six months more — one hundred and eighty days — and he would have been rolling in money, sole heir to his wife’s fortune.
What a fool he had been to take up with that little blonde! He should have waited. Six months from now he could have gotten a thousand dolls like her — just by whistling.
Helpless rage tore at him as he stared at Jordan. This meddling fool was going to shoot off his mouth and ruin everything. He stood there like a little tin god, with his nose about a foot in the air, and thought he could pass judgment on his betters. Wilson fought desperately for self-control. At least he wouldn’t give Jordan the satisfaction of —
“You never loved my sister,” Jordan was saying. “You’ve simply hung around like a vulture waiting for her to die so you could squander her money.”
“You dirty — “ The words stuck in Wilson’s throat. Blood was hammering, in his ears. His hands closed into tight fists.
“But you couldn’t wait till she was dead.”
“Shut up! I’ll — “
Through a red haze, Wilson saw Jordan’s face twist in loathing. He was on his feet before he realized it. His fist smacked on Jordan’s cheek bone.
Jordan spun sideways, then thudded to the floor. Blood spurted from a gash in his cheek. Wilson threw himself on Jordan’s body and smashed it with all the power in his 225 pounds.
Jordan threw his arms around Wilson’s back, trying to draw him close enough to smother those sledge-hammer blows. Wilson struggled to free his arms, then suddenly his fingers were around Jordan’s throat.
Jordan’s hands beat a brief tattoo on Wilson’s back; then after a moment they were still.
Wilson let his fingers relax on Jordan’s throat. He got to his feet. His mind refused to grasp what had happened. He kept staring at that twisted body on the floor. Then all at once he realized … MURDER!
He fought down a panic-stricken impulse to run. That would never do. His fingerprints were all over the place and quite possibly he had dropped something during the struggle.
He must be calm. Think! Think! Suddenly he remembered that no one had seen him enter the building a half-hour before. It would be a simple matter to erase his fingerprints, leave the apartment without being seen … . Then who could prove he’d ever been there?
He whipped out his handkerchief. Within five minutes he’d gone over everything in the apartment he could possibly have touched. Then he dropped to his hands and knees and examined every inch of the floor. Now that he had decided on a course of action he was calm, and as he straightened up a smile creased the corners of his mouth. Perhaps it was better like this after all. Jordan would never get in his hair again.
He put on his hat, took one last look around. Satisfied, he let himself out of the apartment, making sure that the safety lock clicked behind him.
Luck was with him. The elevator was not in use, and a few seconds later he found himself on the ground floor. Now came the tough part. The door of the elevator was solid steel and he had no way of knowing what lay outside in the foyer.
He took a deep breath, jerked open the door and stepped through — right into the arms of a tall, heavy-set man in a blue serge suit.
“Something wrong?” The heavy-set man eyed Wilson suspiciously.
There was only one thing Wilson could do.
“I suppose it’s really nothing,” he bluffed, “but an hour ago I got a call from my brother-in-law, Mr. Jordan. He asked me to rush over right away. Said it was important and to tell the truth he did sound a bit upset. And now — when he doesn’t answer his doorbell … .”
The heavy-set man rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to check. I’m the manager here and of course 1 have a pass key.”
At the door of Jordan’s apartment, the manager took a ring of keys from his pocket and chose one. He pushed open the door.
“My lord!” The manager froze.
Jordan’s body lay exactly as Wilson had left it. Sightless eyes glared up at the ceiling. The lingers curved like the claws of a beast ready to spring. And the lips, torn and bloody, curled luck in a silent snarl.
Wilson fumbled for the telephone.
“Get me policy headquarters,” he stammered, and the horror in his voice was real enough. Before his mind’s eye flashed the picture of a hangman’s noose.
* * * * *
The police sergeant was big and beefy and he chewed a black cigar. He had just come out of Jordan’s apartment and joined Wilson and the manager in the hallway, where they had waited ever since the police arrived. Inside the apartment, a squad of detectives methodically turned the rooms upside down.
The sergeant carried a black notebook in his hand.
“You were saying a little while ago that Jordan was in some kind of trouble ?”
“Just a rumor,” Wilson said reluctantly. “Jordan was supposed to have been playing around with some fellow’s wife, but of course I don’t believe it. Jordan — “
“Never mind what you believe,” the sergeant interrupted. “What else did you hear?”
“It’s really a lot of talk … .Well, anyway, this fellow was supposed to have threatened Jordan’s life.”
The sergeant looked up.
“I did catch a glimpse of him one afternoon on the street.”
Wilson dipped into his imagination and drew forth a complete man. He made it convincing. No longer was he afraid. This dumb cop was going for his story hook, line and sinker. For a few months they would look for this mythical man, send out his phony description to every police station in the country; then they would forget about the case and file it away in the “forever file.” Another unsolved murder!
“I understand this fellow drifted into town a few weeks ago,” Wilson was saying. “He was a gambler, I believe. Came from somewhere back east.”
The sergeant wrote something in his notebook.
“Anyway Jordan met him at a card game.”
Wilson took off his overcoat and laid it across the banister. It was hot and stuffy in the narrow hallway and he was beginning to sweat profusely.
“Then Jordan met this fellow’s wife,” he continued, “and — well, you know the rest of the story. I still can’t believe he’s — “
Suddenly Wilson realized something was wrong.
The sergeant had stopped writing In his little red notebook. He stood staring at Wilson with an odd look in his eyes. “Would you mind turning around again?”
“What’s this, a gag?”
Wilson’s face was calm but inside his chest his heart pounded like a jackhammer. Something was wrong — but what? He slowly turned his back to the sergeant.
Behind him the sergeant suddenly chuckled. “You know for a moment you had me convinced.”
“What do you mean?” Wilson spun around.
“Take off your suit coat and look at the back of it.”
Wilson tore off his coat On the back of it were several streaks of lurid red paint. The streaks were broken and faltering, as if drawn by a shaky hand.
“I forgot to tell you,” the sergeant said, “we found a paint brush in Jordan’s hand.”
Wilson’s mind raced back to the fight. Suddenly he remembered how Jordan’s arms had been around his body, how Jordan had clawed at his back. That cursed paint brush! Jordan had kept it clutched in his hand during the struggle. Wilson groaned. He’d been too busy erasing his fingerprints to notice the brush.
The sergeant stared at the red streaks for a moment, then drew out his handcuffs.
“It’s funny,” he said, “those streaks on the back of your coat form a couple of rough crosses.”
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