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Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 24


A few minutes later I was breathing normally again.

"Me?"

"You."

"Me?" I repeated. Then, hurrying to correct the impression I was a moron, I said, "Who?"

This, of course, did not improve things.

"You. Now, if you're asking why--"

I brushed my hands through the air.

"Please. Just a second. Let me adjust to being kicked in the face here." I shut my eyes. "Yes. Why?"

"Your fingerprints were all over the lab where Lester was killed."

I was stunned. Elmer's glue should have covered my fingerprints. The glue must have come off when I yanked on that ratcheted window.

The Chief had more surprises. "Since Richard was shot with a similar shotgun, and since you had access to Richard's office, I'm betting you were involved in his shooting, as well."

I scooted my chair forward. "As they say in massage parlors, 'Hold everything!' During Richard's attack, I have an alibi, a witness"--I stretched it a bit--"my girlfriend. When Richard was shot, we were sitting on the back of a reporter in the Lobster's parking lot! Call her, please!"

The Chief's voice grew icicles.

"And what is the name of this young lady whose taste, at the moment, is very much in question?"

"Ann Berlin. She'll corroborate my alibi."

"Ann Berlin," the Chief repeated as though trying to place a familiar name. "Granting she backs your story, it still won't provide an alibi, because the shotgun was rigged to fire automatically with a sound-activated device."

That explained why I'd never seen a gunman leaving the Lobster--he'd come and gone. If my life were a cartoon, a light bulb would have appeared above my head. "My fingerprints, you say?" I pulled myself up a little taller. "You mean, you found Barney Rubble's fingerprints at the scene of the crime. The name I gave you."

"Your fingerprints, Mr. Clark Baker." She let this revelation sink in, perhaps enjoying whatever facial expression resulted from my stomach feeling as if it had collapsed like a stomped-on Dixie cup. "I lifted your fingerprints off the ceramic cigarette case you so kindly passed to me on your first visit."

I swallowed hard. That explained why she'd handled the cigarette case so gingerly.

"How'd you match my prints?"

"I figured you for a Fluke groupie, so I checked your prints in Fluke's hometown. The police faxed the name that matched your prints, along with your personal data sheet and photo."

With cold grey eyes, she gazed into my face. I imagined she knew everything about me. I shifted a little on the chair (although some might say I squirmed).

"Did you check the prints on the steel dart I gave you?"

"Those belonged to Harry Hickabob. Can you explain why one of Lester's employees was trying to kill you?"

Actually, he seemed mostly to want to delay me and I have no idea why.

"Can't even guess? Well, I think a jury will find it compelling evidence of a feud, and a motive sufficient for you to have murdered Lester." She opened the stenciled file and handed me a typed confession that she wanted me to sign unprotestingly, like an innocent, trusting calf being led through the door at "Oscar Mayer."

"What's wrong, Mr. Baker?"

"Why would I shoot Richard, my friend? And my employer." I started to say just 'Richard, my friend' but added 'and my employer' in case she didn't have any friends. "What was my motive for shooting him? It doesn't make sense!"

"Murder has little to do with sense. It has to do with obsession."

"But I didn't do it," I whined like any normal two-year-old. "Where did you find the shotgun?"

"Doctors told us the pellets entered Richard's body on a downward path, which we traced to the rafters. The shotgun was tied to a crossbeam."

The rafters! Sheesh! I had deduced the gunman was tall. "How could I have rigged a shotgun to fire automatically? I mean, I'm not mechanically inclined. I'm dazzled by the concept of Kleenex; draw one out, and another pops up! Magic!"

Her sigh told me how much she accepted that alibi.

"Do you think just because Cavalry is small, the police are country bumpkins?" The words were playful but the meaning was not.

I didn't even consider answering.

She removed the cigarette from her mouth and jabbed it in my direction.

"Time to confess. And try to look a shade less green, will you? It's not your color." She shoved the confession sheet across the desk, then read me my rights.

"Call a lawyer, if you think it'll help." She picked up the telephone and plunked it down in front of me so hard that it gave out a brief ring of complaint. I stared at it catatonically. She offered me the receiver.

I felt like I was sinking in quicksand and she was offering me a breath mint.

I held out my palm and the Chief dropped the receiver into it. I dialed the Suite Night and while the phone was ringing, I asked the Chief, "Exactly what did you mean by 'the shotgun was rigged to fire automatically'?"

She must have assumed I was playing innocent just to piss her off. She closed her eyes and went tight all over. For a brief happy moment I thought she was going to have a stroke. Instead, she said, "The shotgun was triggered by a sound-activated device taped under Mr. Tipton's desk."

The desk clerk at the Suite Night finally answered with a yawn. I said, "Room 300, please." The phone rang again. Ann answered.

I lowered my voice hoping to disguise the panic in it. "Ann?"

"Clark! You okay?"

"Like a duck in orange-sauce. The police are about to throw me in jail for shooting Lester and Richard."

"Are you joking?"

"I will explain to you, as my lawyer, when you get here."

The Chief puffed a cigarette as she said, "Knowing Judge Silvers, tell your lawyer to bring about two hundred fifty grand to cover bail."

Air escaped from me as though my lungs had been pierced.

Ann had heard the Chief.

"I'll try to get it."

I doubted she could get a quarter million dollars. Most of our friends were rock musicians with financial portfolios consisting primarily of discount pizza coupons. And, judging from the old Dodge that Ann had borrowed, none of her friends needed a forklift to carry their bankbook.

"In the meantime," Ann raised her voice, "tell the Chief everything." She hung up. I realized, too late, that she probably hadn't heard the correct dollar amount of the bail, since the Chief was puffing while speaking.

I handed the phone back to the Chief. I sensed in her the growing embryo of belief in my story.

Perhaps now is a good time to offer her a bribe. What is the going rate nowadays for bribing a policeman? Does a Chief cost extra? Is there a discount for cash?

That's when I became aware of a police officer who had entered the room without my noticing him. The Chief called the officer "Stubby." Even though he was about six-foot-six inches tall, Stubby's arms seemed too long for his body. He pulled me up out of the chair, spun me around, twisted my elbow up over my head, then muscled me forward.

What the heck, might as well go with him.

He forced me out of the Chief's office and through the hall, but let me go down the stairs under my own power. Probably my reward for going along meek as a lamb. But I had a feeling if I'd resisted at all, he'd have bounced me down every step.

In the basement, cops who moments ago seemed preoccupied, found time to glare at me like I had crawled up out of a sewer. Stubby escorted me to a table and jabbed my fingers onto an ink pad. Someone took my picture.

I was led back upstairs, past the receptionist (tossing down her nail file and picking up a buffer), through a door, and down a row of cells. Our footfalls seemed loud. The only other sounds were snoring from one cell and a low chuckle from another.

After passing a dozen overcrowded cells, a soft voice from a cell ahead called out, "How's Hoover?" Two slender hands were sticking out through the cell bars.

I smiled at a woman dressed in what looked like a negligee, but was probably a silk dress. "Hi, Joy. Hoover's fine, thanks." I lowered my voice. "What'd they nab you for?"

The little-girl timbre of her voice dropped a throaty notch or two. "Providing my pastor with a lot of sermon topics."

Oh.

Stubby nudged me forward. I nodded to Joy.

"See you."

It wasn't fair. Neither Joy nor I belonged in jail. The justice system was out of whack. I knew from watching television how it was supposed to work. If you were one of the good guys, you would end up chatting and laughing with attractive people on a tropical beach when the program ended. Whereas, bad guys were catapulted in a flaming car into a brick wall.

Stubby opened the door to a cell that held two guys who looked as if their spare time had been devoted to reading girlie magazines and looking through peep holes. How can they lock me in a cell with these degenerates? Oh yeah. I keep forgetting. The Chief doesn't like me very much.

For the next several hours I sat with my two cell mates on a hard bench, like three Kewpie dolls in a row. I worked on my prospective defense to the jury: "Ladies and gentlemen, I couldn't possibly have rigged a shotgun to fire automatically. I will bring to the stand reliable witnesses who will testify I can barely operate a shower curtain."

Stiffly, I stood and walked to the cell door. In the cell across from me a drunk tried to yodel, but his voice cracked. He began to cry. Life hadn't rewarded his hopes and dreams. He wasn't alone in that, of course, but he seemed to be taking it particularly hard. While thinking about his pain, and how deep it must run, I saw Chief York coming down the hall.

"Chief. If you let me out, I'll never again ask you for a date."

"In that case, you're free to go."

Although it seemed unbelievable, when she opened the door, I squeezed out, turned, and gave my cell mates a farewell grin, enjoying their open-mouthed expressions.

"Bail has been guaranteed," the Chief whispered with her head lowered sadly, I sensed for all humanity.

Joy, three cells away, said good-bye and gave me the kind of wave where you hold your hand still and wiggle your fingers.

As I waved back, my attention was diverted to a commotion in the lobby, where someone hollered, "Who's head of this maggot pile?" The receptionist said, "You can't go in there."

Slim Twitchle put a sidestep move on the receptionist that would have done even O.J. Simpson proud. It left her with a handful of air and eyes the size of dinner plates. She took the defeat well, throwing up her hands in despair.

"You're a crude, slow-leak asshole." When angered, the oriental doll had a strong Brooklyn accent.

Over his shoulder, Slim responded, "If I were a vain person, I'd resent that. Fortunately for me, I'm a spiteful one." He burst down the corridor with a tape recorder and microphone in hand. He stopped at a cell and was prompting a prisoner to air a grievance about being treated unfairly.

An idea popped into my head.

"I was wrongfully imprisoned."

"I do my best," the Chief said.

I nodded to Slim. "Recognize him?"

"Badge says PRESS, but I don't know him."

"He's Slim Twitchle of the Beacon Hill Examiner."

"I've heard of him. A prize shit."

"Olympic gold."

The Chief's expression clouded. "What's he doing here?"

"Looking for a story. He can turn a church bazaar into a sordid scandal. Who knows what he can do with wrongful imprisonment. . . ." Slim was ten yards away, his snaky eyes taking in the Chief and me.

The Chief stepped in front of me. "You can't do this!"

"I can even do it with a smile. But I won't--if you release Joy."

The Chief managed to look bewildered and aghast and angry and superior all at the same time. If I got a chance, I would ask her how she did that. She licked her lower lip, then nodded agreement a split second before Slim's microphone jumped on her face like a second nose. "Why was Mr. Baker arrested?"

I stepped between Slim and the Chief.

"Speeding, and for resisting arrest."

Slim pushed the microphone into my face.

"False arrest?"

"No."

"Police brutality?"

I turned my head so he could see the gash on my ear.

"Snap a photo."

Slim plucked a camera from his pocket and snapped a picture so close-up that my ear probably looked like the artwork of Freddie Krueger.

"What's the story?"

"This is the gruesome result of using the new-and-improved Terrig razor blade."

Slim knew he'd been duped and practically stamped his foot in vexation.

I reached into my jacket pocket and handed him the three confidential research reports I'd heisted from Laurel.

"I think you'll find these interesting."

Slim read the titles, saw the confidential stamp, whistled softly, thanked me, and scurried away.

My hand on the lobby door, I turned to the Chief.

"Thanks."

She politely responded "you're welcome", but I knew the notion of releasing Joy annoyed her, even if she wouldn't have kept Joy long anyway. When I closed the door, I heard her kick the wall and say shit shit shit shit.

The receptionist hollered through the door, "You okay, Chief?"

"I'm all aglow. It's the lucky criminal I catch tomorrow."

* * *

I was a free man. I walked from the police station slowly and with dignity. I jumped as high as I could and knocked an icicle from an awning of the Vinyl Fetish. I winked at the mannequin, sang harmony with two winos warbling "Dashing through the Dough," and helped a homeless lady drag a stunted, distorted Christmas tree that I was pretty sure Joyce Kilmer had never seen.

I looked at my watch: nine p.m. Some poor sucker was waiting for me at Union Street and Jefferson Avenue. He'd regret having played games with me. He'd know now that I was as devious as he; that my brain wasn't a chew toy or something I took out and played with.

Life was good.

In the recesses of my mind a revelation started gnawing through. Something the Chief had said. No. No . . . no . . . YES! The gunman had used a sound-activated device. An electronic bug.

Lester had been an electronics expert in the military. If Ransacker worked for Lester, and planted a bug in my room during his first break-in, it would explain why nothing was stolen. It would also explain how The Rat knew when to attack me in the alley, and how Mungo knew when to break into the Suite Night.

If he wanted me gone now, was he planning to break in again?

I ran to a phone booth and called my room. It rang ten, twelve, fourteen times. Ann didn't pick up.

Am I too late? I caught sight of myself in the cracked glass of the phone booth. My hair was disheveled, my cheeks flushed, my eyes bulging. I looked like a man in emotional shock. A caricature of myself.

A taxi approached. Considering the frantic way I hailed it the driver didn't dare not stop. At the Suite Night I threw him some money, and bolted through the lobby. Outside my room I heard Hoover waddling around. I opened the door. Hoover wagged his tail and yelped and flung himself about so joyfully that when I went to pat him, I missed. Alice hopped out from under the bed.

I knocked on Ann's door. No answer.

I looked out the window and saw Mungo in a car at the end of the alley, listening to what I guessed was a receiver. On the backseat was a silver fox fur coat, probably the coat Lester had worn the night Richard was shot.

I started searching my room for Lester's bug. To cover up the sounds of moving furniture, I whistled. Hoover listened, his expressive face worried.

"It's a beautiful day, okay?" Hoover leaned against my leg the way he leans when he's nervous.

Then his ears pricked alert and he cocked his head. He growled softly. I heard someone scrambling up the stairwell.

I raced to lock the door.

Mungo smashed through it, sending me reeling backwards. I tripped over my suitcase and crashed hard to the floor, head first. A deep pool of darkness opened and I started to dive in. I wanted to yell at Hoover to run away, but I couldn't. I had no will, only eyes, as in a dream. I blacked out.

Then shock waves rippled the pool of darkness. Sound. Hoover was barking. The darkness shimmered, hazy variable light, then my eyes focused.

Mungo landed a hard kick on Hoover's side, splaying him to the ground. When Mungo shifted his weight for another kick, I tried to tackle him. He turned and clotheslined me, then grabbed my throat.

I yelled but no sound escaped. His hand pressed so hard against my throat I could barely breathe. Then he suddenly let go, stepped behind me, and picked me up in a bear hug.

"Where are they?"

"Where are what?"

"The test procedures worth ten-grand."

"I don't know." I tried to squirm away, but he clutched me like a beast with a death grip on its prey and carried me toward the fire escape.

Hatful of Pain 25

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