Brett Halliday

Heads You Lose


Michael Shayne moaned and jabbered in his sleep. A faint and insistent ringing disturbed him. Subconsciously he reached out a long arm and his hand fumbled over the night table beside his bed. A glass clattered to the floor. He threw back the covers and sat up in bed, yawning widely.

The faint sound of the telephone persisted, and slowly he remembered why it was so muffled and far away. The instrument was in the other room and the bedroom door was closed. He couldn’t reach out and lift it from the night table any more. That was in the other apartment one flight up where he had lived with Phyllis before her death.

Remembering sent a surge of pain through Shayne and cleared his sleep-drugged mind. He reached for the switch above the bed and flooded the room with light, clawed knobby fingers through his coarse red hair and swung his feet to the floor. Barefooted and in pajamas, he padded into the adjoining room to answer the monotonous summons.

He growled, “Hello,” into the mouthpiece.

An excited voice said, “Hello… hello! That you Mike Shayne?”

“Yeh. It’s me.”

“This here’s Clem. Clem Wilson. You know… the filling station out on the trail.”

“Sure. I know. What the hell…?”

“Look, Mike, I got to see you right now. You got to hurry or it may be too late.”

“But it’s midnight,” Shayne protested. “I was catching up on my sleep.”

“You ain’t asleep now,” Clem Wilson yelled. “You got to come right now. I tell you, by God, I got something…” The vibrant and urgent appeal broke off suddenly.

Shayne said impatiently, “Clem… are you still there?”

“Right here.” Wilson spoke in a swift, shaky undertone. “I got to hang up. That’s him comin’ back. If he catches me telephonin’…”

A crash as of broken glass jangled in Shayne’s ear, followed by a dull thud, like the sound of a falling body. He yelled, “Clem! What’s happening out there?”

Pressing the receiver hard against his ear, he heard the faint creak of a door and footsteps coming nearer to the instrument at the other end. Then, shatteringly loud in the receiver came the sharp crack of a pistol. Almost immediately the line was closed by the harsh bang of the receiver being replaced on Clem Wilson’s telephone.

Shayne’s angular features tightened, deepening the hollows in his cheeks. He held the connection down hard for an instant, lifted it and spoke tersely to the clerk at the switchboard: “Get the police quick! There’s trouble out on Tamiami Trail… the first filling station this side of the Wildcat. Get that? Somebody’s been shot out there. And get my car out, Tommy. I’ll be down soon as I can dress.” He slammed the receiver up and trotted into the bedroom, stripping off his pajama coat as he ran. He snatched up his clothes and flung himself into them, paused long enough to slide a bottle of cognac into a side pocket of a belted trench coat. Grabbing a soiled and much- abused felt hat, he jammed it down over his uncombed hair and slammed the door shut behind him.

The clock in the apartment lobby pointed to ten minutes past midnight when he strode from the elevator. The night clerk, a round-faced young man, leaned eagerly over the desk and reported:

“I called the police right away, Mr. Shayne. And one of the boys is getting your car. What’s happened this time? What’s going on?” His blue eyes shone with hero worship for the tall, lanky detective, and with curiosity.

“I’m afraid a friend of mine has just got himself murdered, Tommy. Did you tell the cops the first filling station this side of the Wildcat?”

“I sure did, Mr. Shayne,” Tommy answered vigorously. “Was it the man who rang you so long?”

Shayne nodded. “Did you talk to him?”

“Only to tell him you didn’t answer your phone. But he told me to keep on ringing. I noticed he sounded terribly excited and he said it was awfully important, so I kept on trying to get you.”

Shayne fingered a cigarette from a pack in his pocket, frowned heavily at it and struck a match. He said somberly, “If I’d answered the phone sooner it might not have happened. I’ve got to start leaving the door open.” He shrugged wide shoulders and set his jaw in a hard line. He started toward the door, hesitated, and half-turned to say, “See about getting my telephone moved to the bedroom.”

Turning back, Shayne met a youth running through the front door. Breathlessly the boy announced, “Your car’s outside, Mr. Shayne. I got it quick as I could.”

Shayne said, “Thanks,” and longlegged through the door where his car waited with the motor idling. He slid behind the wheel and drove south over the Miami River drawbridge, keeping his headlights dimmed and holding his speed to twenty miles an hour in compliance with the strict dimout regulations. The street lights were blacked facing the ocean, but light from the landward side shone upon the street as he drove south along the palm-lined avenue.

There were no other cars abroad after he turned west on Eighth Street, the beginning of the Tamiami Trail through the Everglades to Tampa. Driving away from the ocean, Shayne switched on bright lights and accelerated to thirty-five. There wasn’t any great hurry now, of course. The police should be at Clem Wilson’s filling station, but he carefully kept the needle at the top speed limit.

Accustomed for many months to the dimout and gasoline restrictions, Shayne no longer noticed the paucity of vehicular traffic, but this, coupled with deserted business buildings on the Trail beyond Coral Gables, gave added protection to criminals who took advantage of the wartime necessities to rob and murder.

Morosely he watched the road, slowing as he approached a blinking red light in the center of the highway. There were two cars parked on the edge of the pavement, and a policeman waved him to a stop with a red-lensed flashlight. Recognizing the officer in the police radio car, Shayne leaned out and said:

“Hello there, Gary, what’s doing?”

“Hello, Shayne,” Gary answered. “Go ahead. There’s hell to pay up there at the filling station.” He waved his red light toward a cluster of lights by the side of the road a half mile west.

Shayne asked, “Is Clem Wilson dead?”

“Yeh. The chief and the M.E. are up there looking him over.”

As Shayne shifted gears to drive away he noticed that the second car parked on the edge of the pavement was a green Buick coupe with the right rear wheel jacked up. It appeared to have been deserted temporarily, and he drove on to the filling station.

Three cars were parked beside the gasoline pump in front of the three-room building which served as both business and living quarters for the Wilson family. Shayne pulled up behind the cars and got out.

A bright light blazed in the front room office, and half a dozen men were crowded into the small space. The door stood open and one pane of glass was out, lying in shattered bits on the floor just inside the threshold.

Chief Gentry looked up from a squatting position and nodded stolidly as Shayne stopped in the doorway. The Miami Chief of Detectives was a big man with a generous paunch. He breathed audibly, mopped sweat from his heavy, florid features, but he did not speak at once.

The police doctor knelt beside the corpse of Clem Wilson. The dead man was middle-aged. His tall, spare frame, clad in greasy overalls and a faded cotton shirt, lay in a crumpled heap on the floor. He was partially bald, with leathery features and a prominent Adam’s apple. The front of his shirt was stained with blood, and there was an ugly hole where his left eye had been.

Turning his morose gray eyes from the corpse, Shayne saw Mrs. Wilson pressed against a wooden counter at the other side of the room. Her sharp face and deep-set eyes showed only bewilderment. Her thin hands clutched a flowered cotton wrapper to her body, and gray hair hung in limp strands around her neck and face. Her bare feet were thrust into shapeless cloth slippers, and her attitude was that of a woman so dulled by poverty and hopelessness that one more shock could have little effect upon her.

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