“Sorry we couldn't arrange it. Max was shot, Johnny'.”

“That's what I said.”

“You did, right out loud. Only thing, it wasn't until we got the medical report we knew there was a bullet in him. He didn't look as though he needed one. Now we come to the odd part.” The gray eyes were veiled momentarily as the lieutenant blinked at the drifting cigarette smoke, but the voice continued evenly. “The muscle got just as good a going over. They're not talking about where they got it- yet, anyway-but there's the usual bicuspid disarray, multiple contusions, and abrasions. And something else.”

“Something else?”

“Yes. One of the muscle is down flat on his back with a few little things disarranged in his chest and ribs.” Lieutenant Dameron leaned forward over the desk and pointed a forceful finger. “Kind of took me back, Johnny, listening to the doc reel off the medical lingo for what was busted, bent, and twisted. Took me back I hate to think how many years to a cellar in Taranto with another sawbones reeling off a list of what was busted, bent, and twisted on a guy had just put three slugs in you. You'd be surprised how alike it sounded.”

“You don't have to play cop with me, Joe. Head-to-head, you get answers.”

“I get answers anyway, Johnny.”

“I got one word for that statement. Probably not much used in your august presence lately.”

The apple cheeks darkened, but Lieutenant Dameron smiled. “How'd we wind up like this? I came over here to sign you up.”

Johnny couldn't keep the surprise from his voice. “Sign me up? For what?”

The lieutenant stubbed out his cigarette. “Max was a tough little hood, Johnny, but recently he'd been taken over by someone who evidently shaves with carborundum. The ground swell I get is that Max was fronting for something that was to be based here, and they felt they had to have you in, or out. Max muffed the assignment. Exit Max. Now how about a little of that head-to-head talk.”

“Say please.”

“Please, you complete bastard-!”

“Okay. Max had been trying to move in on me for a month. I kept standin' him off; I figured he wanted to tuck a couple of girls upstairs like he's done in a couple of other places on 45th Street. Last night him and his crowd laid for me in a parked elevator, which didn't give them much racing room. After we talked it over I threw them out in the alley.”

Lieutenant Dameron placed his hands together at his chin in the shape of a church steeple and peered at Johnny over them. “You haven't gone back much, evidently. Think you had an audience in the alley?”

“That kind of audience should have made a little noise.”

“It should, at that. Although this seems to be a very careful crowd. With that introduction, though, I'd say you're a cinch to hear from them again. I'm glad I played my hunch and came over here. You can keep me posted.”

The silence built up in the office; Johnny rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Did you really think I'd pigeon for you, Joe?”

The red-faced man spread his hands wide, palms down, his face bland. “Who said anything about pigeoning? Couldn't you use a little excitement? You so damn proud of the way you're living?”

“You're almost making a case, Joe.” Johnny leveled a concentrated stare at the man behind the desk, who sat silent. “If I thought you were asking me, an' not tellin' me-”

Still silent, Lieutenant Dameron fished out another cigarette and lit it. He inhaled deeply, leaned far back in his chair, crossed his legs, and said nothing.

Johnny shook his head negatively, almost regretfully. “You're on the make for something, Joe. I know you. You'd give me an apple for an orchard any day. I don't trust you. We may have been on the same team once, but that was an accident. Besides, you were always a great one to let a few piddlin' little rules and regulations get in the way of gettin' something done. Anyway, how do you know their offer might not be better than yours? If you ever get around to making one?”

The ruddy-faced man laughed and slapped his open palms down on the desk top. “Offer? After what you did to the Greeks bearing gifts? You're odds on to see the lightning before you hear the thunder, boy.”

“I think they'll want to talk it over.”

“It might pay you to be careful in case they don't.” The cigarette in his hand described a brief, encompassing circle. “You get a feeling sometimes, Johnny. This is a big one. It's not women. It's supposed to be something coming in on boats-dope, diamonds, take your pick. So how about it?”

“How about it? What's in it for me, Joe, even if I said yes? You don't really want me, anyway. Would you turn me loose to get the job done?”

“Sure.” The big man said it easily, but he watched Johnny narrowly. “This is civilization, though.”

“You'd be gettin' a man, not a method, Joe.”

“Now wait a minute. You couldn't go off half-cocked-”

“I sent for you, Lieutenant?”

“All right, all right, damn you. Look… think it over, will you? We can work it out. You can't expect me to put my pension on the line just because you happen to feel like outmuscling somebody-”

“I don't expect anything, Joe. I'm not on the team.”

“Think it over. I'll call you tomorrow.” Lieutenant Dameron rose to his feet and walked to the door. He hesitated with it open as though about to say something else, changed his mind, nodded briefly and went out, and the door closed softly behind him.

Johnny dropped down in the chair which Ronald Frederick had vacated earlier. He sat for a long time, his eyes unseeingly on the paneled wall, his mind racing in tight little circles….

The telephone broke into his sleep, and he rolled over and reached for it. “Yeah.”

“Eleven thirty, Johnny.”

“Yeah. Thanks, Myrna.”

He sighed, stretched, yawned widely, and reluctantly left the bed for the shower. When he emerged the phone was ringing again. He picked it up. “I heard you, Myrna. I'm up.”

“This is Sally, Johnny.”

“Oh. You still at the apartment?”

“No, I'm downstairs. Vic just called and said he'd be a little late.”

“All right. We'll manage.” He started to lower the phone, then raised it again on impulse. “Sally? Come on up.”

“Now? What for?”

“I'll draw you a diagram when you get here.”

“Someone might see me.”

“Hustle your skinny tail up here, ma. This is no courtship.”

“Yes, Gallahad.” The faintly mocking inflection in the cool voice was still in his ears when he let her in the door. As always her clothes looked too big for her, but the warmly generous mouth ignited under his hard lips. “Mmmmm! What juiced you up, man?”

“You talk too much.”

“Hey! I have to wear these clothes!”

“I'll lend you a suit.”

“Johnny! Damn you-!”

“Save your breath, ma.”

From the bed he could hear her opening bureau drawers. “Pincushion in the bathroom, Sally.”

“That's a fine place for it-”

He sat up lazily on the edge of the bed as she came out of the bathroom, dressed. She walked across to him and slid naturally into his arms, and he ruffled her hair. After a moment he probed experimentally a ridged collarbone. “You're a sure-God plucked chicken, ma.”

She twisted indignantly. “I'm the best damn woman you ever had, and you know it!”

“You're not too far down the ladder at that, kid. And pound for pound you're in a class by yourself. A man'd have to be a pig to want any more woman than you are. Except for exercise, of course.”


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