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Race Williams thought he had seen it all until he came face to face with the mystery of The Tag Murderer: the killer who left metal emblems pinned to each of his victims' corpses. Solving the case is only made more complicated when The Flame, Race's femme fatale, becomes entangled in the mystery: what's her role? And is Race in her crosshairs too? One of the best adventures in the Race Williams series. Story #20 in the Race Williams series.Carroll John Daly (1889–1958) was the creator of the first hard-boiled private eye story, predating Dashiell Hammett's first Continental Op story by several months. Daly's classic character, Race Williams, was one of the most popular fiction characters of the pulps, and the direct inspiration for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.
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Carroll John Daly
© 2017 Steeger Properties, LLC. Published by arrangement with Steeger Properties, LLC, agent for the Estate of Carroll John Daly.
“The Tag Murders” originally appeared in the March–June, 1929 issues of Black Mask magazine.
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Race Williams” is a trademark of the Estate of Carroll John Daly. “Black Mask” is a trademark of Steeger Properties, LLC, and registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The Evening Blade
That the police are helpless to cope with this latest “crime wave” may be a nerve-racked, panicky statement. But that they have not met the situation is undoubtedly a fact which the uncompleted crime records of the past few months will show.
Organized crime may be scoffed at in the district attorney’s office. It may be laughed down by the police department. But it cannot be denied that murder, robbery, blackmail, and even arson have been perpetrated under such similar conditions and circumstances as to make it apparent to the most “level-headed citizen” that some directing hand or hands are behind the recent and prolonged series of outrages that have struck terror to our city.
It may be “scatter brained” or even “childish”—as our contemporaries have hinted—to connect up small, round, metal tags with any deeply-rooted and well-organized industry of crime. That a “master mind,” with the single purpose of purloining from prosperous citizens the fruits of their labor, would leave behind him such “silly” indications of scorn and defiance of the police has been ridiculed. “Childish” that? Perhaps, if these metal indications of “jobs” all perpetrated by the same gang did not serve some other purpose. But each tag carries a message of fear—not only to the law-abiding and long-suffering citizen, but to the denizens of the underworld as well.
Five underworld characters—namely: two gang leaders, two ex-convicts, and one nationally known counterfeiter—have been done to death on the streets of the lower city. And upon the person of each, or in close proximity to the body, was found one of these strange metal tags. “Childish” this? “Scatter brained” this? Scorn and defiance to the police? Or was it something else? Was it as a warning to others that these men died?
It has taken this latest outrage—the robbery at twelve o’clock noon of Burton’s Jewelry Store on Fifth Avenue, and the brutal killing of a clerk—to stir our city to real action. Gregory Ford and his nationally known detective agency have been retained by the Consolidated Association of Merchants of New York City.
Interviewed, Gregory Ford gave out a bit of information that will be as interesting to the public as it was surprising and startling to this newspaper. Race Williams—gun-toting and gun-using, self-styled “private investigator,” who has on numerous occasions figured in sensational newspaper stories—is to be hired by the Ford Agency.
The New York Evening Blade has more than once condemned the district attorney for not watching more closely, and stopping with drastic measures the activities of this so called detective—Race Williams. But here is a matter that calls, perhaps, to a fight of fire with fire—and by that we begrudgingly admit that we mean “gun-fire.”
The Evening Blade cannot agree with the ethics of Mr. Race Williams. We cannot commend to the public his past activities in the many cases he has handled. But we can, and do, admit that no matter what our opinion may be, Race Williams has gotten results. In plain words—for once, this paper is in absolute accord with the methods of this notorious gunman, Race Williams. We want an end to these outrages. We want the men who are responsible for them. And we want them—in the parlance of the Old West—“Dead or alive.”
I read the editorial through again, then laid the paper down on the flat desk. According to the precedent laid down by fiction heroes, I should—in outraged dignity—horsewhip the writer of that article. But I didn’t. I took a laugh instead. Besides, this is the age of high-powered advertising—and that write-up was good business. Just one frown in the whole thing! Gregory Ford’s crack that he had hired me. There wasn’t a word of truth in that. Gregory Ford hadn’t made a peep about this case, though he had called me up and in his bluff, genial way tried to find out just how busy I was.
But that was like Gregory. He always played to the gallery. He simply wanted to see how the newspapers would take to me as his assistant. If they put up a terrible squawk, he could deny the interview—at least, say that he was misquoted; and in proof of his indignant denials, point to the fact that he never approached me on the subject.
However, The Evening Blade was not my favorite sheet. And I had not just picked up the paper and read the editorial by chance. Not by a jugful I hadn’t. It had been clipped from the paper and sent in to me by my office boy, Jerry, who spoke now, as I looked up at him.
“The bloke’s waitin’ outside.” Jerry jerked a thumb toward the door to the outer office—and when I waited for further information, “A mean, messy-looking bird, that looks as if he went in for hardware—wholesale.” I had picked Jerry up in the underworld and his jargon, if inelegant, was expressive.
“Show the lad in, Jerry, and I’ll listen to his swan song.”
Jerry grinned—slipped through the door, and I set the stage for the lad whose card was a complete editorial. And he came, letting his big body slip through the door in sections—for more effect. He was one tough-looking baby and no mistake. Plenty of body, but his face had been neglected. He had too much mouth and not enough eyes. His nose, though generous, had lost itself back in the center of his face. But the nose was there—closer inspection made one think it was all over his face. His ears, if he had any, were tucked under a checked cap. He was set up in new scenery, for a Broadway success.
“You’re Williams?” he chirped, through the side of his mouth as he spat on my new rug. I frowned slightly. I felt that we were not going to get along—decidedly, I did not get that psychological impression that here was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“Name of Little—Paul Little.” He pounded himself on the chest. “From Chi—want to know more?”
“Someone been robbing your flower garden?” I smiled over at him as he leaned forward, working his ugly pan into grotesque caricatures. But I watched his hands. Typical gunman—no finesse to this bird.
He sort of slipped the “flower garden” crack around his mouth with his tongue—lost the point entirely—and crossing to the desk behind which I sat, stood looking down at me.
“I’m a man of few words.” He tried to look uglier, but doubled for a comic instead. “You’ve read the spiel in The Blade. I’ve come to tell you there’s no show. In plain words—” he smacked his lips, “if you mix yourself up with them metal tags, I’ll lay ya out. Want it plainer?”
I leaned back slightly and laughed. An ordinary gunman, this. Real cheap stuff. I would have felt sorry for him if it wasn’t for the new rug. That thought brought another frown. Still, this boy had been taken in. Someone was joshing him or me—or someone wanted to see him packed in ice.
“Ya needn’t laugh it off.” Thick lips curled. “You’ve bluffed it out with the New York boys, maybe—but I’m a different lad again. I ain’t aimin’ to harm ya none, and perhaps I’ll even slip ya a little change though that part weren’t my thought. But—you raise one hand, like what that paper says—an’ I’ll cop ya through the noodle.”
I shrugged my shoulders and talked to him like a Dutch uncle.
“Someone’s been having a game with you, Baby,” I told him. “I don’t know what they paid you to come here and spill your bedtime story. But you’re miscast for this act. You can’t make a ‘heavy’ out of a ‘comic.’ ” I shot my right hand out and pointed toward the door. “On your way!”
He snickered once—licked at his lips—laughed, sort of harshly and mirthlessly—rolled his eyes—cursed slightly, while his face did a couple of colors, and—his thick head finally got the point that he was simply small change to me. It was just as that dawned on him that he lost his head and went for his gun.
His gun started up as my left hand crossed the desk. He never had a chance. The muzzle of my gun smacked down upon his knuckles—a heavy automatic crashed to the floor. He struck out wildly with his left hand—and I cracked him. He half spun, flayed out like a windmill, took another bust on what he was pleased to call his nose, and crashed to the floor.
“You miserable hound!” I kicked him to his feet. “Where did you get that stuff that you could come around here and spit on my rug? Now—out. And if your boss wants to know why you’re still alive, tell him the truth. It’s not my big heart, but my new rug. I wouldn’t mess it up with the likes of you.” And I clouted him another as I knocked him out of my private office and kicked him through the outer door, which Jerry held open.
This bird had craved action—and what’s more, he had gotten action. He had no complaint coming. I don’t cart around one hundred and ninety pounds of beef and muscle for county fair prizes.
I watched the lad crack the banister, then turned to Jerry—returned his grin of appreciation, and stepping back into the office closed the door. As a rule I don’t go in for light comedy.
“Jerry—” I gave the boy a lesson in character study, “you can’t always tell the sort of a heart that beats beneath a tough face. This lad was a fake; a set up; a cheap, blustering, imitation gunman, who’d no more have the guts to use a gun than—”
Two shots followed one another in quick succession. Jerry dropped to the floor with me. A picture swayed on the wall as glass clattered to the floor. Two neat round holes punctured the gilt letters that spelled my name on the office door.
One minute later, when I had dashed to the door and swung it open, the hall was empty. Three minutes later it was crowded with excited tenants, and I knew that on the first of the month my landlord would again try to break my lease. I shook my head as I returned to the office and locked the door.
Jerry grinned at me as I passed to my inner room.
“What was that you were saying about character, Mr. Williams?”
I liked Jerry. He didn’t stammer or stutter or get excited. I had plucked him almost from the gate of a reform school, before he was fully eligible to be a New York gunman.
But I was thinking and rubbing my chin and, perhaps smiling a little. After all, I had sized up “Baby” wrong. He had the will to use a gun, even if he lacked finesse. And what’s more, he had been sporting two rods. Yes—next time, Baby would have to be reckoned with more seriously. Oh—I wasn’t alarmed. Not for myself anyway. It was Baby and Baby’s future I was thinking of. It looked like I’d have to give him a jolt of lead.
I didn’t more than lit a butt when the phone rang. This would be Gregory Ford, I thought. And for once I was right. Gregory Ford, master detective, was on the job.
“Been trying to get you for a couple of days.” He lied genially. “Got a big thing on, and not forgetting the good turn you did me in that Howard Quincy Travers—‘The Hidden Hand’—affair, why—I’d like to line you up. It’s a queer, childish sort of game—been reading about it; this pinning of tags on murdered stiffs.”
“Saw about it in The Evening Blade—about myself, too.”
“Just like a newspaper.” Gregory was not perturbed as he lied smoothly on. “A reporter from The Blade cornered me at the club—and—well, you know what an admirer of you I am, Race. I did happen to say that I thought you’d be just the lad for that case, and—well—I might even have said I was trying to get in touch with you. Bad stuff, this newspaper notoriety—I like to work quietly.” He paused a moment, and then: “Did you spot the way The Blade set me up—‘nationally known detective’ and all that?” I could feel his cigar slip across his face at the end of the wire.
There wasn’t any use to up and bawl Gregory Ford out. He always started his man-hunt with a great bally-ho. He liked the big noise to precede the racket; with me I like the big noise to end the racket. But I stalled Gregory along. He spoke of the Consolidated Merchants’ Protective Association—the big money behind the show, and said that I could practically write my own ticket.
“It’s that editorial that made a hit,” he finished. “I’d like you to meet me at Burton’s Jewelry Store—five o’clock. I’ve got what I consider some real information. Just sign up with me and I’ll spill the works.”
But I wouldn’t definitely sign myself up with Gregory Ford. Personally, he was all right—but I didn’t like his methods. Besides, there was my natural dislike of private detective agencies. But I didn’t turn Gregory’s offer down flat. I told him I’d meet him at Burton’s Jewelry Store. After all, I’m no amateur—and the fee might be too big to resist. Besides, the longer I hung off the more I’d be worth to Gregory if I did sign up with him.
There were a couple of hours to kill yet, and things being dull I sat back with my feet on the desk and smoked. Not “thought” exactly, though I did sort of have a vague idea that the best policy is to shoot any “gun” who threatens you. It wasn’t my conscience that forbade such a policy—rather, the persistency of the law in demanding an explanation, and that new rug.
Personally, Baby’s threat to blow me over didn’t bother me any. Offhand, I could name a dozen or more better men who had made the same threat. I guess most any gunman in the underworld was willing to take a shot at me if conditions were right. But I shook my head. Decidedly, I had made a mistake with Baby. Rug or no rug, his bullets had missed me by inches.
The phone rang again. This time it was a pleasant surprise. I was going to get in the Big Money, and not work for Gregory Ford. The party on the end of the wire was Alexander Burton, owner of the Burton jewelry establishment.
He spilled his stuff in quick, sharp jerks. He had read The Evening Blade—gotten in touch with Gregory Ford, and pinned him down to the fact that Gregory had not actually engaged me yet.
“I’m not a member of the Merchants’ Association,” Burton told me. “But I feel I should do something myself—something independent and personal—and bear such an expense. Of course, if you prefer to work in with Mr. Ford—”
“I prefer to work alone.” I cut him flat on that.
There was more, of course, but it didn’t matter. It was close to four o’clock. Burton wanted to see me personally, and I wanted to see Burton. There was nothing more to it but to get my hat.
The Burton store was high class stuff. No bargains or prices appeared in the window. There was simply some ten-cent cut glass pieces that sold for a few hundred dollars and a necklace that bore no price because of the fear of blocking traffic on Fifth Avenue.
The police were there, too—half a dozen detectives, maybe—who sauntered about, trying to look like innocent passersby. Down the side street I spotted a high-powered car, and saw the canvas cover thrown carelessly in the back, which probably hid a dozen riot guns. This innocent belief that the criminal returns to the scene of his crime is great stuff. I never put much stock in it. I suppose some criminal must have come back at one time or another, though, to start the proverb.
I entered the store and pretended not to see the noses that pressed against the window outside. But I couldn’t help a smile and a nod at the clerk who stood behind the show case nearest the door. You’ve seen jewelry clerks, know what they look like. This lad was big and broad, with a thick neck and a bullet head. His chin just shot defiance out over the counter, and his hard eyes almost dared a customer to buy something. He frowned at me as I passed. He was Detective Sergeant O’Rourke, from Headquarters. The flower in his button hole only made things worse. Most crooks would know him. I liked him. He was one of the few officers who went after his man with a gun in each hand.
Still, his game wasn’t altogether dead fish. His position was such that he couldn’t be seen until the customer was fairly inside the door. You could lay odds that if a known crook stuck his face inside that door he wouldn’t take it out again—at least, not all of it.
Alexander Burton proved a long, slim, overdressed, highly polished gentleman, whose habit of rubbing his hands together ingratiatingly had worn on him until it stuck even now, in the years of prosperity. He pulled me into his private office, and with a nod of introduction to his male secretary, a slimmer and somewhat shorter reproduction of himself, busted right into the story of the crime of three days before.
“Let’s hit the present before we go to the past,” I interrupted him. “Why the protection—Detective Sergeant O’Rourke, out front—and the police parade around the block?”
“You noticed that?” Burton kept rubbing his hands.
“Of course—couldn’t miss it. Do they expect the gunman to come back? Did he forget something?”
“He forgot to kill a man.” It was the male secretary behind the desk who spoke for the first time “No—no, Mr. Burton. If you engage Mr. Williams, here, he must know the truth, no matter how fantastic. Burton has asked for this protection, but he hasn’t told the police why—or truthfully, why. I think the police should know. I think, anyway, that you should know, Mr. Williams.”
“There, of course, Bloomfield.” Burton frowned at his secretary. “I called in Mr. Williams for that very purpose. He must advise us. But the police and the newspapers are too closely connected. We must not have unpleasant notoriety—alarming notoriety. But let me tell you of the hold-up from the very beginning.”
I had read all the details of the hold-up, but told him to “shoot”—which he did.
“On Monday, just before one o’clock—Mr. Norris, the murdered clerk, was on duty where Sergeant O’Rourke now stands. There were no customers in the store. Unfortunately, none of the three clerks on duty in the front of the store saw the hold-up man enter and turn to Mr. Norris. But they did hear Mr. Norris greet him, and did see Mr. Norris smile. This, over the shoulder of the customer, who proved to be the leader—or perhaps the only criminal.”
“The doorman—did he see him come in?”
“No.” Burton shook his head. “If you remember, it was raining. The doorman was seeing a client—a well-known client—to her car. None of the men saw more than the back of the man at Mr. Norris’ counter, until the man turned. Then he had a gun in either hand and a mask covering his face.
“After that, things happened very quickly. The man at Mr. Norris’ counter took three pearl necklaces—each one of great value. That Mr. Norris expected him and took the necklaces from the safe, is beyond question.”
“Did Mr. Norris tell you that he expected such a customer?”
“Not by name.” Burton frowned slightly. “I should have requested that, of course—” his hands spread apart. “But Mr. Norris had been with me for thirteen years—and for twenty years before that with one of the biggest and—”
“Men who have spent lifetimes with concerns as models of all the virtues, have been tempted.” I shrugged my shoulders. “In the heart of every man there lurks the germ of a crook. But the fact that Norris is dead—proves his honesty. Did Norris resist—make an outcry—try to attract attention, or—”
“He just stood there with his hands in the air,” Bloomfield cut in. “I was in the store. I was facing him and he was looking down the barrel of the criminal’s gun. Norris’ eyes were wide and puzzled—more than frightened. The man who held the gun simply scooped up the necklaces, and as he backed toward the door he shot twice, both bullets going directly through Norris’ head.” The secretary’s words came faster and his tongue came out and licked at his lips. “It was a brutal, unnecessary murder. I saw Norris die—saw the light snap out of his eyes before he crashed forward on his face.”
There was silence for a moment, then the secretary spoke again—high pitched and nervous this time, and partly accusing too, I thought.
“It was a brutal murder—and while Mr. Burton holds his tongue and pretends to believe another’s lie—why—the murderer walks a free man.”
“Just what do you mean?” I turned to the secretary now.
“I mean that Phil Harris, the bookkeeper, saw the man—he must have seen him—and known him too. Didn’t he shout out afterwards that he saw the man? Wasn’t he in the little curtained alcove, where experts examine gems before they purchase them for clients? Didn’t he come from there afterwards? I saw him come out; heard him say that he knew the man. Now—he denies it—says that, in fear, he thought he recognized a customer—a well-known customer.”
“Now, Mr. Burton—” I put the professional look on him, “what do you think of this story? Do you think that this bookkeeper knew the man?”
Burton hesitated, and then answered honestly enough.
“I think that he did recognize someone or thought that he did. But now—he is frightened, or doubts his own vision.”
Then he told me Harris was in a room behind the office, working on some books. He pointed over his shoulder.
“Poor fellow.” Burton seemed genuinely concerned. “He’s really in bad shape over the whole affair. I tell him to stay home, but he won’t. And while he’s here he keeps muttering to himself.”
“He’s afraid to speak out.” The secretary, Bloomfield, horned in again. “Afraid of what was found at the entrance to the store.”
I swung and faced Bloomfield. Before, he had been about as entertaining as the ghostly voices in Shakespeare’s plays. Now, he was becoming interesting.
“And what was found at the entrance to the store?” I asked, and knew the answer to the question before ever it was spoken.
“A tag,” he said. “One of those tags of death the newspapers tell of. The murderer dropped it there.”
So here was our friend of whom the editorial spoke, advertising himself again. I wanted to get a look at that tag, but Burton told me the police had it. Good enough! I’d listen to what this Phil Harris had to say. If he was hiding anything, I’d soon find out—through fear or a guilty conscience didn’t matter. Here was something baffling the police that might be cleared up in a couple of minutes. The identity of this criminal known—if not that of this Tag guy himself. Maybe, one of his little playfellows, who would talk.
Phil Harris came in. He wasn’t young and he wasn’t old. But he was one worried lad and no mistake. There was ink on his fingers, and even on the white cuffs of his shirt. He may have been working on some books for Mr. Burton, but I wouldn’t like to count on the accuracy of those books.
He sized me up as a dick without a moment’s hesitation.
“I didn’t see anything, Mr. Burton,” he started, in self-defense. “I thought I did, at first. I thought it was a regular customer of ours. I thought—foolish thoughts. And now, when I’m over my fright,” he trembled out the words, “I realize what a fool I was. Why—I have nothing to hide. I would not be here if I did. I’m not well, and—”
I stepped across the room and laid a hand on his shoulder. It wasn’t a heavy hand, but he sank a couple of feet nearer the ground and I had to pull him erect again.
“Harris,” I said slowly, “perhaps you don’t know much. But—what little you do know and don’t speak may be most unfortunate for you. For when the police get it out of you, they’ll still think you’re keeping more back.”
“The police! The police!” He did a ring ’round Rosey. “They’re not going to question me again! They couldn’t. I wouldn’t—I couldn’t tell them anything.” He cast an appealing glance at Alexander Burton.
“You will.” I jerked his head around again so that he faced me. “They have most persuasive ways. Now, if you gave the police a wrong lead by mistake, they’d arrest you and give you the works. But I’ll simply check up on your story; just tell me who you thought you saw.”
“The police—are coming here—for me?”
“Better death than dishonor,” Bloomfield horned in. And the word “death” simply blew up Harris. He was on me in an instant, clinging to my arm and telling me that he knew nothing. I wasn’t any too pleased when I chased Bloomfield from the room. But I gave an excuse for my action.
“Watch out for Gregory Ford,” I told Bloomfield. “Not a peep about Harris, here,” I warned him. “And tell me the moment Ford comes.” And when he looked at me blankly, “Ford, the detective—he’s to be here at five.”
So I shut out the secretary and returned to Phil Harris. I had to start all over again with Harris and watch Burton bring him a drink of water and mix him a bromide with an ease that bespoke many bromides going around the Burton establishment lately. As for me—I lack patience, I guess. But here was a lad who knew something; the name of the murderer of the clerk, Norris, and, perhaps, even the identity of this Head Tag guy. If I could have gotten an excuse to chase Burton out, I’d of jarred up this Harris lad’s nerves with something stronger than bromide. I’d have opened his face so he’d be talking like a phonograph record.
But Burton was there with “poor boy” and “nothing to fear,” which started Harris “fearing” all over again. And on top of that, who walked in without so much as “if you please” but another chap who had to grasp Burton by both hands and run through a riot of stuff?
“It’s terrible,” the new lad, a big blond fellow, shot out. “And how does Dorothy take it? I returned at once, as soon as I read the paper and learned just how close to death you were. Haven’t seen the poor girl yet.” And, with that, he went straight to “fishing”—the lack of government-supplied streams, and almost at once switched to find out what Harris was blubbering about.
It was great fun all around, and made things much easier for me! But luckily Harris was too tied up with his own woes to see the blond lad or hear him, and finally Burton got him outside and I was left alone with Harris.
I didn’t fully get the advantage of being alone with him until Harris found it out for himself. Then he came to life. He hurried about, and went through all the pantomimes of an old lady looking for burglars in her room. He even listened at the doors and looked into such impossible places that I got the impression the murderer must be a midget. Then Harris swung to me, and his cheeks were red and his eyes alive.
“I’ve never had anything but lucid moments in my life.” He clutched at both my sleeves and looked up in my eyes. “No one would believe me, maybe—not even you. But I’ll tell you what I saw—then I’ll—but it’ll be up to you. I was directly behind the curtain and I was looking through because I knew who was coming to see Mr. Norris, and knew that a necklace was to be bought, and was just curious as to which necklace it would be. You see, Norris told me and—”
And Burton walked in again. He was full of apologies and explanations as to the visitor who “so unceremoniously interrupted us.” But he didn’t see that he was just as bad. For, the moment he entered, Harris shut up like a whole order of clams. And all I learned from Burton was that the visitor was one Bob Reynolds—and that he was engaged to Burton’s daughter, and had cut off his vacation when he read of the crime “way up in the Maine woods.” Which was sweet and cute of Mr. Reynolds, but I wished he’d stayed in the Maine woods just a bit longer.
It was worse than a subway jam the way they walked in and out of that office. That goes to show what one hold-up will do to an establishment that caters to the élite.
Now I was between two fires. Harris was about to open up and give the show away, clear up the whole case of who murdered the clerk, Norris, and who stole the necklace—and maybe give me a chance to lay my hands on this Head Tag, who was terrorizing the whole city. Silly—advertising these tags. Somehow, it was difficult to connect it up with high-class crime or a high-class criminal.
But my immediate trouble was—should I hear what Harris had to tell first, or talk money with Burton. It’s a good thing to have an understanding as to the price of my services in advance. I’m not exactly in this man-hunting game for the thrill it gives me or the amusement I get out of it.
After all, though, there must be something of the artistic temperament in me. Harris was ripe for a talk, and he certainly hadn’t been before—while that lame duck of a secretary, or Burton, or even the big blond prospective son-in-law were in the room. No—I’d listen to Harris while he was ripe to talk. As Shakespeare or some lad chirped, “He could a tale unfold.” So I shoved Burton back into the entrance hall to his office, spotted the sharp eyes of Detective Sergeant O’Rourke on me through the glass door which led to the store, winked over at him, and closing the door went back to Harris.
“Now, me lad”—I played the paternal sire in great form as I patted him on the back—“you’re afraid of something, aren’t you?”
He nodded and gulped.
“But you want to do the right thing by the law, by Mr. Burton and by the dead clerk, Norris. You think you saw someone—someone you recognized.”
Again came the nod—emphatically, this time, as he looked up at me from his chair and nervously opened and closed his fingers.
“We all make mistakes in moments of excitement,” I told him kindly. “Now, tell me just who you think you saw. I’ll check up on your story—and if you’re wrong, the thing will go no further. Now—”
“Who I think I saw.” Harris came to his feet now and leaned heavily upon the desk. “God help me, Mr. Williams—I recognized beyond the shadow of a doubt the murderer of Mr. Norris. I knew it then—that’s why I could do nothing to prevent it. It was all over in an instant—the two shots—the face of Norris. Is it any wonder that I doubted my own senses? I wonder he didn’t see me as I peered through the curtains. I didn’t draw back—I couldn’t. I didn’t even call out—I couldn’t. I—”
“Yes—yes. The man you thought—”
And the parade was on again. Bloomfield burst in the door—burst in, perhaps, like a man who’d been listening. But this time he had an excuse—he came on a real mission. I saw the face of Gregory Ford over his shoulder; the big round cheeks, the dominant chin, the wide staring eyes—and even the cigar that drooped in his mouth.
“Gregory Ford is here!” he shouted. “Did—did Harris talk?”
And he didn’t—and he couldn’t or wouldn’t, right then. Besides, Gregory Ford’s hand was pushing against the glass door. Phil Harris was standing back near the desk, his mouth wide open, his eyes bulging. Then he turned and stumbled toward the rear door and the narrow hall that led to the little office in the back, where the books were kept.
“Give him a drink, Bloomfield.” I pushed the secretary after the bookkeeper. “See that he talks to no one but me—and let him wait there till I get a chance to talk to him.”
The door closed behind Bloomfield and Gregory Ford strutted majestically through the other door. He looked solemnly at me for a moment—then:
“Making yourself comfortable, I see.” He leaned back against the flat desk, throwing a leg over the corner of it. “Ahead of me, aren’t you?”
“Always ahead of you, Gregory.” I couldn’t help putting that crack over on him. “And if you have any real information, don’t spill it to me—that is, in misunderstanding. I’ve been hired by Alexander Burton.”
He was a cold bird, was Gregory Ford. His cigar shot up as his teeth closed upon it. It was a full minute before he spoke, and there was no change in his voice as he pushed his derby back on his head. Gregory Ford had copied his stuff from the stage detectives—and what’s more, he knew it. When people hired him as a detective, they were not disappointed. They got exactly what they expected—what they had seen on the stage. Maybe he assumed most of it—maybe it came naturally to him—but, as he said himself, it was good advertising.
“I’m mighty glad you’ve lined up with Burton.” His head went down on his chest. “It was the papers that rushed me into you—and, after all, Race, you wouldn’t fit. This will be brains, not guns. It’s bigger than I thought.” He stretched out a hand and grasped mine. “I’ve sort of had an eye on you lately. I’m glad to know that you’ve got a case again.” And after that dirt he came to business. “Anything stirring?”
“Not a thing—just got here.” I smiled.
“Too bad—too bad.” His head wagged. Then he shrugged his shoulders. “Well—if this bookkeeper, Phil Harris, won’t talk to you, maybe he’ll talk to me.”
“Phil Harris—bookkeeper! What do you know about him?” I was jarred into the words. Surely, I had understood that Harris’ recognition of the criminal was still kept from the police and Gregory Ford.
“Gregory Ford knows everything.” He threw out his chest and stuck his thumbs in the armpits of his vest. “I’ll do all I can for you—provided, of course, you don’t get to blundering things up on me. Well—did Harris talk to you?”
I simply shook my head. After all, there was nothing specially startling in Gregory Ford’s disclosure about Harris. Other clerks must have heard Harris shout out that he recognized the gunman. Perhaps, at the time, they didn’t get the full significance of his words—but later—now—when they went over the events with a clearer, less excited mind.
“Harris is keeping books—back in there.” Gregory jerked a finger toward the door that the bookkeeper had passed through a minute or two before. “Let’s have him out and hear his chatter.” And when I half came to my feet, blocking the passage, “Well—do you and me listen in together, or do I tip the works to Sergeant O’Rourke and make it an open affair?” Gregory’s hand pounded down on the desk. There was a step behind us. We turned toward the door together. O’Rourke stood in the entrance, glaring across at us.
“Nice trap we’re hoping to spring here, and you lads tramping all over the premises and shouting at each other. And don’t think the likes of you two can put anything over on this Department. We’re onto Harris—onto him from the first crack. We’ve tagged him day and night—with human, not metal, tags—and now you lads come and rain on the parade. I’m telling you what’s what. This Harris was in on the steal, if he wasn’t in on the murder. That threw him. ‘Remorse’ is what’s got him. Remorse and fear. He’s afraid to talk and he’s afraid not to—and we’re afraid to push him too hard. Probably he only knows a lad’s face and a phony name—but he’s got to get his share, and sooner or later he’ll meet the Big Boy—this lad who checks out his dead like they were a trunk.” O’Rourke shot a thick finger out at us. “Remember that! And remember that Mary only had one little lamb. Don’t try to make a herd out of it.
“Now, Mr. Burton—and you too, Bloomfield,” he swung on the jeweler and his secretary as they entered together, “don’t try to play games you don’t understand. Seek all the advice you want from private sources—but murder’s a public affair, and if you get sticking your hands into the wheels of justice don’t be surprised if you lose a finger.”
“Whatever I’ve done is for the best—I thought—”
“Don’t think—don’t judge—and don’t hide anything from the police. I’m not questioning your purpose—but,” he swung suddenly on Burton, “Harris did know and did recognize this criminal—or thinks that he did. Come—is that the truth?”
“Why—I think—yes, I think that is the truth.”
“Did he tell you who that person was?”
“No, he didn’t. He seemed to think that he was mistaken after—but surely Harris wasn’t connected with the crime.”
“Here’s a go. Get the information from him if you can, without exciting his suspicion—then tell us. We’ll—or better still, where’s Harris now?” O’Rourke demanded. “There’s been too many fingers in this pie already.”
Burton and the secretary both pointed toward the little door.
“Come on then.” O’Rourke waved a hand that took in the whole group of us. “Things have gotten too mixed up for simple trailing, now. You can all hear Harris’ story and put what significance on it you wish.”
“I don’t think he’ll talk to the police—now,” Burton stammered.
“Maybe not.” O’Rourke shook his head. “That’ll be for him to decide But he’ll talk here or at Headquarters, and what he says now will decide where he sleeps tonight.” And as he went toward the rear door, Reynolds, the blond prospective son-in-law, joined the party, from the reception room. “If you feel that a dozen or more people should be dragged into the affair—why—bring them in. I’m not particular.” With that, O’Rourke jerked out a small pad and, turning, eyed us viciously.
Mr. Alexander Burton half bowed—rather awkwardly. The secretary, Bloomfield, grinned sheepishly. But Reynolds, the son-in-law-to-be, nodded vacantly. Gregory Ford let his cigar slip about his mouth, and muttered, “Here, here now—I say.” While I grinned my appreciation over at the sergeant. Like me, he was a lad who wanted action.
Having sufficiently bulldozed the outfit, Sergeant O’Rourke pulled himself erect, jerked back his shoulders, and walking across the room violently kicked open the swinging door to the little hall. Gregory and I crowded in behind him.
A few disdainful sniffs and O’Rourke jerked open the door to the little room where the bookkeeper, Harris, worked.
“I say, now—me lad—” His big, bass voice jerked to a muffled stop.
Eyes were staring vacantly out at us. There was a knife in Harris’ chest.
I got an eyeful over O’Rourke’s shoulder, and pushing him aside crossed quickly to Harris. This was no occasion to pull the knife out of his chest. Straight and stiff, he sat in the chair—his head thrown back. I know death when I see it. This lad had gone out like a light.
No need for O’Rourke and Gregory Ford to reconstruct that crime. At least, not for my benefit. There was a door directly behind the dead bookkeeper. The murderer had entered through that, softly crossed the thick rug, jerked Harris’ head back—preventing a cry that would be audible in the adjoining room—and then dug the long heavy knife into his chest.
But I wasn’t looking at Harris now. I was looking at the object before him—the yellowish-brown metal disk that stood out vividly on the white page of an open ledger. O’Rourke snapped it up ahead of me—not because he was that quick, but because I was more cautious. The law was not on my side of the fence. If O’Rourke hadn’t been there I’d have copped it quick enough.
I slipped out the unlocked door behind the dead Harris, saw that it led down a narrow hallway to the rear of the store and the great vaults, and that it was deserted. Then I thought of the secretary, Bloomfield. I had sent him in with Harris. I swung toward him suddenly—maybe, accusing words on my lips. But I never spoke those words. His face turned a vivid white, to almost at once slip to a pasty yellow. His eyes fairly bulged, and a thick dry tongue licked drier lips.
He didn’t shriek exactly, though you thought the shriek was there—even though no more than a gurgle came from his lips. He swayed forward slightly, and as I went to catch him he pulled himself up sharp and sank backwards into the arms of Alexander Burton.
At an order from O’Rourke, Burton and the big blond half carried, half dragged the fainting secretary back into Burton’s office.
O’Rourke watched them go, then turned quickly to Gregory and me.
“Look here, boys”—his eyes fairly shone—“they’ll rake me at Headquarters if they find out. But I’m going to give you a chance to meet me on even ground. We want this tag pinner. I’m looking for justice, more than honor.” He ducked his hand into his jacket pocket and laid three tags down upon the white surface of the ledger. “Spot this outfit and smell the dead fish!”
Gregory Ford and I leaned over eagerly and examined the three bits of metal. Two were identical—like the tags used for checking bags. And on each of those two tags was scratched roughly—“T.D.” The third tag was bigger, though shaped about the same. And though the size was not noticeable at first glance, the lettering was—for the “T.D.” on the larger, single tag was cut sharply into the metal.
“ ‘T.D.’—Tags of Death.” O’Rourke breathed the words deeply, far back in his throat. “Gents, this larger tag is one of a number which have been found on murdered criminals throughout the underworld—while these two smaller tags come—one from the dead clerk, Norris, who was shot through the back—and one, as you saw here, on the ledger.”
“And the other tags—that the newspapers speak of?” I asked.
“All matched the larger tag. And the conclusion?” O’Rourke shrugged.
“Simple.” Gregory Ford’s cigar shot across his lips. “The larger tags have given out—or the leader has changed his design—or—or someone else has horned in on the game of ‘tag with death.’ ”
“Right.” O’Rourke nodded. “It seems silly, don’t it? And we’ve denied any significance in it to the papers. But the truth is—well—this ‘T.D.’ is anything but the product of mental disorder. It’s the biggest Racket game that has ever been played, to date. What do you think of the game, Race—this death here?”
I shrugged my shoulders. I was thinking of the secretary, alone with Phil Harris. I was thinking of that rear hallway that led to the back of the store and the vaults. And I was thinking of what Phil Harris had told me. That he knew the hold-up man and the murderer of Norris beyond a doubt. Yes—I was thinking that this was an inside job.
O’Rourke was thorough enough. And it didn’t take him long to find out that Bloomfield was with Harris just before his death. Both Bloomfield and I admitted that. But no clerk had seen Bloomfield pass down that rear hall and through the store, to join us in Burton’s office. And the significance of that, though seemingly simple at first, was really startling. For if Bloomfield had admittedly passed down that hall, and no one saw him—then anyone else might have passed down that hallway unobserved.
Such thoughts and deductions were not for me. Great stuff for the police department and Gregory Ford, perhaps—but I had already found my case. Playing a hunch? Maybe. But Bloomfield was my meat. Maybe he killed Harris. Maybe he didn’t. But I’d stick to him.
I stayed around while O’Rourke and Gregory Ford went to work. The store was closed; the clerks were all brought in and questioned. Did it clear things up? Not a bit. Any one of half a dozen might have slipped down that hall and murdered Harris. Even Burton or the big blond son-in-law-to-be could have pulled the trick, if every one was telling the truth. At that, as far as the employees knew, a stranger might have walked in and sauntered through the store, killed Harris and gone out again. Though we all dismissed that idea. For the simple reason, that a stranger would be spotted where an employee wouldn’t be especially noticed.
Each clerk’s alibi was the same. They were watching O’Rourke, or the front door, or the detectives who passed back and forth before the windows. They could tell what each did or didn’t do—tell every movement that O’Rourke made before he left the counter to trot in on Gregory and me. It was one grand mess.
Every lad could remember just what he was doing for the past fifteen minutes, but none could remember what the other fellow was doing. Yet, a clear-thinking, cold-blooded man had walked down that hallway, pushed open the door or found the door open, and killed Harris, and slipped back into the store again—well—say in sixty seconds—or even less, if conditions were right—and certainly they seemed ideal.
Gregory Ford and O’Rourke catered to the idea that the hold-up had been well planned; that someone had been planted in the store to make conditions right. They checked up on the past of every employee. Phil Harris seemed to have a clear record and had been there many years. The secretary, Bloomfield, had drifted around a bit. But each new position had been to his advantage. He had never left an employer except to better himself. Only two clerks had been employed there less than a year. Their records seemed good, and O’Rourke or Gregory would check them up.
O’Rourke made no arrests. As for me—I left before the body was removed. I didn’t need any doctor to tell me how Harris had died. There was no doubt that scientific conclusions would be drawn from it but to me Harris had been kicked out with a knife in his chest. And if the truth were told—I favored Bloomfield for the job. And what’s more, I think O’Rourke did—and also Gregory Ford. They took such pains to make each other and me think he was a poor, innocent, frightened lamb.
Burton was wandering around like a wet hen. But I got him aside long enough to make a figure. Then I lied nobly to O’Rourke and Gregory Ford, that I was going to slip through the lower city and see what I could learn about this Tag gang.
Both of them agreed with me. Both of them patted Bloomfield on the back and sympathized with his suffering on seeing his friend dead—his friend, whom he had been with but a few minutes before. It was a touching scene.
Shadowing is a good game. I’m bulky, but as good as the next fellow at it, I guess. Still, to shadow Bloomfield would be tough going—that is, for me personally. I called up the office and got my boy, Jerry. He’s the original of Mary’s little lamb.
From a hallway across the street I watched Burton’s store. The clerks left first. Then Burton and the big blond son-in-law-to-be, arm in arm. Last to leave was Bloomfield—that is, last of the staff. Two dicks remained on the premises.
Bloomfield had what is known to the moving picture fraternity as a guilty conscience. His every movement registered caution and alarm. He almost backed through a plate-glass window as he bumped against a harness bull. Could Gregory and O’Rourke have passed him up? And they hadn’t.
A lad with a briefcase swung out of a hallway, for all the world like a young lawyer, and turned briskly in the wake of the now hurrying Bloomfield. A broad-shouldered chap, who’d been admiring shirts in a window, suddenly snapped into life, consulted his watch and was reminded of an appointment, for he too kept in step with the young lawyer. And last of all, a boy skipped out of a drug store with an ice-cream cone in his hand and joined the parade. Jerry was also on the job.
If Bloomfield was a professional, he’d be onto the crowd he was attracting in a few minutes. Then what? Would he be nonchalant and light a cigarette, as the advertisements advise, or would he try to beat the crowd? I hoped he wouldn’t try the latter. O’Rourke would sure pinch him before he got away.
A week passed and Jerry still trailed Bloomfield. There was nothing suspicious in the secretary’s actions. He spent his time between the jewelry store, his own apartment, and an occasional visit to Mr. Burton’s house. His movements were less furtive and suspicious. Jerry doubted that he gave a thought to being followed. And then Jerry gave me a start.
“The parade increased, Mr. Williams,” he said on the eighth night. “It’s hard to be sure of it, but I think someone else is following this Mr. Bloomfield.”
“What, Jerry—you can’t spot the shadow!”
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