Dan Marlowe

Shake a Crooked Town


Clouds of steam in the hotel bathroom obscured the bright fall sunlight gleaming from the white-tiled walls. Inside the glassed-in shower compartment Johnny Killain spun the cold faucet wide open. He did a five-second jig beneath the icy cascade and bounded out onto the bath mat, trailing vapory mists. Vigorously, he attacked himself with a towel, sparing only a freshly healed scar below his ribs and a small, taped-on bandage high on his broad chest.

Arms, shoulders, neck, chest, and back fused into a massive, heavily-muscled torso. His waist was lean, his thighs solid. Both chest and thighs were ridged with old scars. Weather-bronzed, high-cheekboned features were dominated by a several-times-broken nose and a hard mouth. His eyes were more gray than blue, and tawny-yellow hair bristled damply above the craggy face.

He knotted the wet towel about his middle and strode barefooted out into a comfortable bed-sitting room. A series of impatient knocks at the door diverted him from the cabinet and the bourbon bottle toward which he had been heading. He opened the door and had a thick white envelope sealed with scotch tape thrust into his hand by a wavy-haired bellman with the face of a choir boy.

“It's from Chet,” the bellboy announced.

“What the hell is it, Richie?” Johnny turned it over in his hand. Chet Rollins was the Hotel Duarte's auditor.

Richie was already on his way down the corridor. “Chet said he'd call you,” he said over his shoulder and disappeared into the elevator.

Johnny hefted the package experimentally, then squeezed it. He shook it against his ear. Learning nothing, he shrugged and started to close the door. He had heard no sound out in the corridor but a man's foot thrust over the sill prevented the door from closing. Johnny did a doubletake at sight of the of the foot and re-opened the door.

“Killain?” the man outside inquired, his eyes running idly over Johnny. “I see that it is.” His voice was harsh Not that we ever met.” He held out his hand. You fit your description.

Johnny made no move to take the hand. The man was chunky, with wide shoulders and thinning reddish hair. He had lumpy brows, a distinct pallor, and a badly scarred lower jaw that disfigured his entire face. “You make it a practice to barge up an' jam your foot into a closin' door, you're odds on to wind up gimpy,” Johnny told him.

The stocky man smiled, stiffened facial scars working visibly. “The password is Toby Lowell,” he said.

Johnny stepped aside and the stocky man entered. Johnny closed the door, tossed the sealed white envelope on the bureau and went to the closet for a robe, pushing aside a row of blue-gray uniforms. Slipping into the robe, he studied his visitor's short-sleeved sport shirt and worn-looking khaki pants. The man's muscular left arm was crooked at the elbow in a way that suggested to Johnny a recent break. His lips were thin and pale and his brown eyes small and hot-looking. It was a wary, cynical face. “So what's with Toby Lowell?” Johnny asked.

“I'm Carl Thompson, Killain.” The red-haired man's voice had the rasp of authority plus an aggressive impatience, Johnny thought. “You and I worked for Lowell a few years back but not at the same time. I called him at the State Department and asked him if he knew anyone footloose and fancy free still thumbing his nose at regulations. He said he thought I'd find you here.”

“Sit down, Thompson.” Johnny gestured at a leather-covered armchair. “Drink?”

“Don't mind if I do.” Carl Thompson settled himself lightly in the chair with his hands on the arms. To Johnny the hands looked tense. “Before you start asking me what Toby looks like, in case you're wondering if I know,” Thompson continued, “he looks like a whooping crane with St. Vitus' Dance. His code name then was Pajarito. Little Bird. You were Manos. Short for Manos de Muerte. I was Carmesi.” A hand brushed at his thinning red hair before it dropped to the multiple-scarred jawline. The hot-looking little eyes seemed to smolder. “This was more recent.”

Johnny removed a bourbon bottle and two double-shot glasses from the cabinet against the wall. He applied the bottle to the glasses liberally. “Ice? Chaser?” he inquired, with a nod at the three-quarter-sized refrigerator in a corner. Thompson shook his head negatively and Johnny handed him a drink. The stocky man sipped at it. Johnny turned his own glass bottom up and hunched his shoulders against the bourbon's impact. He set down the empty glass. “What're you here to sell me, Thompson?”

“I knew you were the man as soon as I remembered your name,” Thompson said obliquely. “I used to hear Sam Kusserow tell about the time you got him out of Perpignan. Each time he told it Sam sounded surprised all over again.” The red-haired man sipped again at his drink. “You never knew it, but you did me a hell of a favor one time. You happen to recall a night you came down out of the hills at Bagneres-de-Luchon lugging a raggedy-assed young girl carrying an old shotgun weighed as much as she did?”

“Sure,” Johnny said, interested. “Just a kid. We were runnin' shot-down pilots over the border into Spain. She was herdin' sheep in the hills there an' knew every blade of grass for fifty miles. Plenty guts, too. We'd run onto a patrol that night. What the hell was her name?”

“Micheline Laurent. I married her.”

“The hell you did.” Johnny couldn't hide his surprise. “She looked about fourteen.”

“She was. She didn't stay fourteen, though. I went back afterward.”

“You're with the State Department?”

“A mug like me?” Thompson shook his head. “No. I just asked Toby as a favor to put me in touch with someone from the old days. Someone who could hold up his end.” He pointed with his still half-filled glass at Johnny's robe. “What I saw before you put that robe on makes me think the old boy sent me to the right address. What kind of exercise do you get these days that puts a bandage on your chest and a fresh hole in your ribs?”

“I'm waitin' for the sales talk, Thompson.”

Carl Thompson reached in a pocket with his free hand and tossed a glittering object across the room. Johnny caught it and looked down at part of a gold badge in his hand. It had been torn jaggedly through the center from top to bottom. The raised letters POL were on one line and immediately below were the letters CHI. “Guy laughed at me just before he ripped that up with his hands,” the red-haired man said huskily. “Then he ripped me up, too. Eight weeks in the hospital.” He fingered his disfigured face, his hand trembling.

“Ripped it up with his hands,” Johnny echoed thoughtfully. He balanced the half-badge on his palm. “Ripped it up with-” His voice died away as he snicked at the ragged edge with a thumbnail. He tested the edge experimentally with his thumbs, then turned it around to the smooth side. He flexed his wrists, secured the best finger grip he could manage on the remaining piece, and bore down. His hands crept down between his knees and beneath the robe his back arched. When his hands came up he looked down at the faint, wavy crease in the gold that was the only impression he had made on the badge. He tossed the badge back to Thompson. “I pass.”

“Not if you had a whole badge to start with.” Thompson sounded confident. His hot little eyes peered up at Johnny. “How'd you like to go after the guy that tore it up?”

“My mother didn't raise any foolish children.”

“I'm serious, Killain.”

“So am I, man. Why should I? What the hell is all this? You were a police chief somewhere?”

“I was. And I will be again.” The tone was bleak. “Just as soon as I find someone to watch my back while I show the bastards who think they're running the town what's what. That's where you come in.”

“Me? Say, you're-” Johnny stared at the man in the chair. “Where'd this happen?”

“Upstate. Jefferson.”

“Jefferson,” Johnny repeated. He massaged a thumb gently. “That's about-oh, seventy-five thousand

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