We are proud to present this Joe Hannibal short story in two parts by Wayne D. Dundee. Originally published in 1986 it got nominations that year for an Edgar, a Shamus, and an Anthony. So, here's the first part with the second an last part appearing next week.
I want to warn you right up front,” Myra Caine said after I’d settled into the booth across from her, “that getting involved with me may expose you to grave danger.”
I grinned. “You’re beautiful enough to take a man’s breath away,” I conceded, “but I hardly think that could prove fatal.”
She gave a quick, impatient shake of her head. “It’s no joking matter, Mr. Hannibal. This maniac may have me on the brink of hysteria, but I’m not overreacting. He’s crazy and he’s dangerous and he’s already responsible for three deaths.”
“You’re certain of that?”
“If you mean did I actually see him do it, of course not. But he told me he did, and I believe him. Three men are dead, there’s no denying that.”
“But the police failed to see any connection in those deaths, and two of them remain on the books as accidents.”
“Yeah, well I know better. I’m the connection. And the first two killings were only made to look like accidents.”
A buxom young barmaid appeared at that point to take our drink orders. In the rather tense silence that followed her interruption, I hung a cigarette from the corner of my mouth, set fire to it, and studied my prospective client through the curling smoke.
She was a beauty all right. Early thirties, medium height, heart-shaped face highlighted by almond eyes and a sensual, full-lipped mouth above a terrific body well displayed in a pantsuit of clinging blue silk. All topped off with thick chestnut hair and wrapped in some exotic, unfamiliar, but doubtless very expensive scent.
“Let’s do it this way,” I said after the drinks had arrived. “I’ll tell you everything the judge has already told me, and then you can fill in the holes. Fair enough?”
She reached for her highball glass. “Fair enough,” she said.
“You’re a call girl. Five hundred a night. Very exclusive. You’ve been operating here in Rockford for approximately six years, and you regularly entertain some of the most prominent men in northern Illinois. Everything was going great for you until a couple weeks ago when one of your johns—”
“I hate that term.”
“—until one of your customers started getting too posses¬sive. He claimed he loved you and even went so far as to propose marriage. When you laughed it off, he went a little crazy. Said he wouldn’t allow other men continue to touch you and if any did he swore he’d kill them. You refused to see him anymore, naturally enough, but you failed to take his threat seriously. And then came the night one Albert Renman died shortly after spending some time with you. From all appearances, it was one of those freak accidents; he fell going up the back steps of his house, fell and broke his neck. But the next day you got a phone call from your loony admirer—”
“His name is Earl Mardix.”
“—and this Mardix claimed he was the one responsible for Renman’s death. You hung up on him when he tried to give you all the gory details. It shook you up plenty, but you managed to convince yourself that he was just trying to take advantage of a grisly coincidence. Only a couple nights later the same thing happened all over. A man named Edward Traver left your bed and turned up dead within the hour. This time it was what appeared to be a single-vehicle car wreck. But you knew better, even before the phone call from Mardix came just as it had the first time. You tried to threaten him with the cops, but he called your bluff because he knew the last thing a girl in your position wanted was a police investigation coming down around her. What you did instead was to contact Judge Hugh Farrow, one of your regular customers of some years’ standing. You told him you had some nut harassing you without bothering to tell him that the nut had already killed two men. The judge agreed to help you by calling on the services of an ex-con who owed him some favors, an aging strongarm specialist named Max Cobb. Cobb was to track down Mardix and rough him up enough to scare him off you. But things didn’t go according to that plan at all. This time there was no attempt to make it look like an accident. Max Cobb was found in an alley yesterday morning with his throat slit from ear to ear.”
Myra Caine closed her eyes and exhaled a ragged breath. I went on. “You had no choice but to tell the judge the whole story then. I’ll bet he gave you a royal chewing out, but now he was no more anxious to go to the cops now than you were. Because of his involvement in hiring Cobb, he was in it up to his ears. So he got in touch with me. Gave me the rundown as he knew it and set up this meeting with you.”
“He filled you in very thoroughly,” the Caine woman observed. “He must trust you a great deal.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Too bad you didn’t have some of that trust when you decided to turn to him for help. You should have leveled with him right off the bat.”
“You don’t like me very much, do you?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know you well enough to like or dislike you. But I do have a high regard for Hugh Farrow. He’s a decent man. I’d hate to see his career and reputation go down the tubes because of some…
“Because of some what? Tart? Tramp? Whore? Go ahead and say it, if it will make you feel better. I’ve been called a lot worse by a lot better than you.”
“Look, I don’t have to like you to do my job. You ought to be able to relate to that.”
Bright red color flared high on each cheek, and suddenly those lovely almond eyes were leaking tears.
She started to get to her feet, but I put out a hand to stop her. “Hey,” I said. “Come on, no need for that.”
She settled back down after a minute and began digging for a handkerchief. I stabbed out my cigarette and gave myself a mental kick in the pants. I’m no good at handling bawling females, especially when I’m the one who triggered the tears.
“Look,” I said, “you’ve got enough troubles without me pointing an accusing finger and spouting off at the mouth. I don’t usually do things like that. I’m sorry, all right?”
She was busy with the hanky and made no reply. I left her sniffling and honking, got up and walked to the bar to get our drinks refilled. When I returned, she seemed to have regained her composure.
Without looking at me she said, “I don’t make a habit of wearing my emotions on my sleeve and I never ever cry in front of anyone.”
“So we’re even,” I said. “We both acted out of character. Now we can get on with the business at hand.”
Her gaze lifted. “Then you’ll do it? You’ll help me?”
“I’d pretty much decided that when I agreed to meet with you.”
“You’re doing it because of Hugh, right?”
“At least you’re honest.”
“Then let me be honest about something else, too. I’ll do everything I can to nail Mardix and keep you and the judge out of it. But you have to understand it may not be possible to do both. I won’t jeopardize my P.1. license or any more lives just to keep you two in the clear. Stopping Mardix is priority one. If I can’t see any other way, I’ll have to bring the cops in on it.”
She studied the contents of her glass for a long moment, then nodded and said, “All right, I accept that. You have my leave to do whatever you feel is necessary.”
A light rain was falling by the time we emerged from the out-of-the-way little bar. It had taken the better part of an hour to hash over the remaining details of the case. I’d scribbled notes and sipped good bourbon, and all the while her perfume and the nearness of her had been working on me. When it comes right down to it, beautiful women are a dime a dozen. But in addition to her great looks, this one had the most stunningly powerful aura of sexuality I’d ever encountered. Before I knew it, it had penetrated my shell of animosity and was stirring yearnings in my gut that were hard to ignore. I could almost understand why a man would pay five hundred dollars for a night of her favors.
Meeting Myra Caine at a public establishment—rather .than at my office or her apartment—had been my idea. It had been evident from what the judge told me that Mardix had her under some sort of surveillance, and I wasn’t about to make it that easy for him to spot me and possibly mark me as his next target. This way I’d been able to stake out the bar ahead of time and make sure no one was following her.
The next move seemed obvious enough: I planned on taking advantage of the fact that Mardix, for whatever reason, had relaxed his vigil. I had to do some fast talking to dissuade Myra from returning to her place, but I won out in the end by reminding her of what she’d said about going along with whatever I felt was necessary.
The ride to the St. George Hotel was made in sullen silence on her part. I parked near the side entrance and hustled her in through the worsening rain. The St. George was on Seventh Street, not far from my Broadway office. I chose it for that reason, and also because I knew the house dick there, a crusty old retired cop named Bill Grissom. The place had seen better days and was undoubtedly a far cry from what a five-hundred-dollar-a-night call girl was used to, but it was dean and relatively free of riffraff, and a fifty in Grissom’s palm got me a promise he’d keep an eye on my brand-new client until I returned.
Back outside, the March rain was being kicked into stinging sheets by a cold, gusting wind. As I threaded my old Mustang through the tail end of the lunch-hour traffic, I had to flip on the defogger as well as the wipers to keep the windshield clear enough to prevent my crawling into some¬body’s trunk.
Hugh Farrow was waiting for me in the study of his sprawling North Park home. Bottin, his chauffeur/man¬servant for as many years as anyone could remember, showed me in.
“Had lunch yet?” the judge wanted to know.
I shook my head. “As a matter of fact, no.”
“Bottin, how about a tray of sandwiches and some cold beer?”
The tall, painfully thin manservant gave an almost imper¬ceptible nod, spun on his heel, and glided from the room.
In sharp contrast to his faithful employee, the judge was built considerably thicker and closer to the ground. He moved with the bulky grace of a former athlete who wasn’t exactly winning his battle of the bulge but hadn’t thrown in the towel yet, either. I look in the mirror a time or two each day and see another guy, twenty years younger and a little taller, you could describe pretty much the same way.
The question was abrupt, almost demanding. It irritated me.
“Well what?” I said.
“Did you meet with her?”
“Yeah, I met with her.”
“And I agreed to look into the mess. To try and help her. And you. You damn fool.”
His facial muscles pulled tight, and his eyes narrowed for an instant. Then the quick anger was past, and his mouth curved in a rueful smile. “Yeah, I guess I am at that. No fool like an old fool, right?”
“No fool like a guy who makes a chump out of himself over a dame.”
“Ah, there’s where you’re wrong, Joe. You’re still a relatively young man, still have some of the fire and cockiness of youth left in you. When you’re a little older, then you’ll know, too. There is nothing—absolutely nothing on this earth, my Mend—better to make a fool of yourself over than a woman.”
“Christ,” I growled. “Are you drunk?”
“Drunk? Naw, I’ve got the flu, that’s all. Why else would I not be at the courthouse performing my judicial duties? Home sick with the flu, that’s me. The fact that I can’t quite bring myself to put on those grand old robes and pretend to dispense wisdom and justice while there’s a killer running loose—a killer I fed a victim to—hasn’t a goddamn thing to do with it!”
He was standing near a massive fireplace. Suddenly he pivoted and smacked his right fist against the flat stone face of the hearth. The sound of the impact made me wince.
Bottin entered at that moment, carrying a tray of sandwiches stacked around a silver bucket of ice in which a half dozen bottles of Michelob were nestled. If he’d seen or heard the punch, he made no indication.
“Your food and drink, sir,” he said calmly.
Hugh Farrow stood facing the hearth with his fist still pressed against the gunmetal gray stone. Without turning, he said, “That’ll be all for now, Bottin. Thanks.”
When Bottin had withdrawn, I sat down before the tray of eats and twisted open a bottle of Michelob. I drained a third of it, then tried one of the sandwiches. Smoked turkey. Delicious. Over my shoulder I said, “If you need help pulling your fist out of that stone, you’ll have to wait until I’m finished here.”
After a minute or so, the judge came over and sat down across from me. The knuckles of his right hand were scraped and bleeding. We both pretended not to notice.
Halfway through our second bottles of beer, he was ready to talk about it.
“You’ve met her,” he said. “Unless you’re made of wood, you certainly felt the impact she can have on a man. What can I say? She’s been a great comfort to me over the past few years, ever since Margaret passed away. Even some before that, to be perfectly frank about it. I was almost grateful for the chance to do something for her in return.” He paused, watching the carbon bubbles rise behind the dark glass of one of the bottles. When he spoke again, it was in a slightly quieter, huskier voice. “Even if I’d known the truth about Mardix when she first came to me, I think I still would have been willing to do what I did.”
I let that lie there.
“Tell me about Max Cobb,” I said.
He shrugged. “What’s to tell? You knew him.”
“Knew of him,” I corrected.
“He was a strongarm artist, a legbreaker from way back. No spring chicken anymore, middle fifties but still rough as a cob, just like his name. That was his boast, and he could back it up. He would have been damned hard to take, Joe. That makes this Mardix a very dangerous character.”
“What do you know about him? Anything?”
“Zip so fat A man of mystery. I ran some checks that yielded nothing, and I’ve got some more going now. I know people in all the right places and I know how to pull their strings, but it takes time to get it done with discretion. As soon as I turn up anything, I’ll let you know.”
“That leaves me with only one possible lead on him.”
“Myra only saw new customers on recommendation. Who do you think originally recommended Earl Mardix?”
“I give. Who?”
“Albert Renman, his first victim.”
“Yeah. Or is it more than that? At any rate, wives tend to know their husband’s friends, right? I’m going to pay Renman’s widow a visit this afternoon. Maybe she can point me toward Mardix.”
We talked until the beer and sandwiches were polished off. I told him about stashing Myra at the St. George. I also gave him my spiel about going to the cops if I had to.
When I stood to leave, I said, “One more thing.”
“What you said before about those grand old judicial robes? They’ll still fit if you give them half a chance. One mistake shouldn’t cancel out a lifetime of making the right moves. You’re a judge, not God. You’re human, just like the rest of us. Give yourself the same break you’d give any first¬time offender.”
Roberta Renman turned out to be a frail-looking woman of about forty with stringy blonde hair and nervous, birdlike movements. To give her her due, she was probably pretty enough under normal circumstances, but right now she was going through the worst period of widowhood, the hollow, empty time that hits a couple weeks after the funeral, when the relatives and friends have quit dropping by and all that’s left is the sense of loss.
I fed her a line about working for some big security outfit and checking out the employment application of one Earl Mardix.
“His previous job record looks good,” I explained. “But my company places a good deal of importance on character references. Unfortunately, this Mardix seems to be a bit of a loner, and one of the few personal references he provided was your late husband. I really hate to bother you at a time like this, but I thought you might also be acquainted with Mr. Mardix and could help me out.”
“Mardix. . . Mardix. . .“ She tried the name out loud a couple times to jog her memory~
“First name Earl,” I said, then offered the description Myra had provided me with. “About thirty medium height and build, straw-colored hair worn on the longish side.”
She frowned over it a minute or so more and then gave an apologetic little smile. “I’m sorry, but Albert met so darn many people at the auto dealership . . . I couldn’t begin to remember them all.”
I thanked her for her time and went back out into the rain. My mood was as gray as the overcast sky.
I returned to the city, remembering to swing by my bank and deposit Myra Caine’s retainer check, then decided it was time to pay a visit to my office. I hadn’t bothered to check in that morning, so I had to wade through a pile of mail (eighty percent bills, twenty percent circulars, zero percent anything important) that had been shoved through the mail slot. I wadded the whole works into a ball and slam-dunked it into the wastebasket on the way by. Eat your heart out, Darryl Dawkins.
While a pot of day-old coffee was reheating, I punched the playback on the phone answering machine. Some little old lady wanted me to find her pet parakeet that had flown out the window of her tenth-floor apartment; a horseplayer I knew wanted to borrow some money to bet on a “sure thing”; and a lavender-voiced individual named Floyd wanted me to find his dear friend Marcus and convince him that all was forgiven and he should come home. I mentally took care of all three requests in the same manner as the day’s mail.
The coffee was just this side of unbearable, but I managed to down a couple cups as I went over my notes on the Caine case and wrapped up the loose ends on a few other matters. It was dusk by the time I finished.
Before leaving the office, I took care of one more piece of business. The well-oiled old .45 came out of its resting place in the desk drawer and the shoulder rig came off its hook in the closet and, together, they ended up on my person. The .22 magnum derringer I wear clipped inside the rim of my right boot is adequate for emergencies and everyday walk-around business, but when I recognize in advance that a situation could turn hairy—like this one—then it’s time to strap on the heavy artillery.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK...