IT HAD been raining off and on since noon, and I was down in the dumps anyway. What Marge had told me when I hit Investigations, Inc. at two o’clock only riled me more.
“Sugar,” I grunted at her, “what did old man Dilweg say?”
I put down the collar of my trench coat and tried to shape my sloppy felt into looking like something besides a tired snap-brim. I lit a smoke and parked my six-foot frame on her desk edge.
When I hit the States with my atabrined mug and a duffel full of dough, I tried to buy a dog tag and make it legal for her to fix my eggs and burn my toast every morning but she wouldn’t say “Yes.” She still calls me “Mister” Starch. But it was worth twenty bucks a week just to have her around to look at. She’s got about a million bucks worth of nice things hidden under about twenty-two ounces of clothes. And that little pug nose of hers is strictly out of this world.
Right now I wasn’t thinking too much about wedding marches and her particular style of architecture.
“Mr. Starch,” she told me, “Mr. Dilweg seemed rather perturbed. He said that your services as a private detective weren’t worth two hundred dollars a week and he didn’t intend to pay the bill you sent.”
“He’s crazy,” I said. “He agreed to pay twenty-five bucks a day and expenses. Dilweg had me chasing all over the state trying to locate a guy by the name of Charles Bryce, Junior. I find Bryce doing a landscape job at Dilweg’s own house under the name of Joe Briggs. What kind of a chump does Dilweg think I am? I’ll get my two hundred bucks off him or I’ll twist his head right off the end of his backbone.”
Marge looked at me like she was worrying how long her twenty bucks a week would last.
“Mr. Dilweg was a lawyer before he got to be an oil man and a millionaire,” she reminded. “Maybe you’d better go slow.”
“Millionaires don’t scare me,” I said. “I’m full of Starch. I’ll go visit the old goat and I’ll swipe two C’s out of his wallet before the moths can bite me.”
I slammed the door behind me as I boiled out of the office.
I crossed the street in the slackening rain and stood under the awning of the First National until the two-fifteen Noble Street bus showed up. I stepped off the curb and went ankle deep in water in the gutter before I hit the bus step. I was peeved to start with, and wet socks squishing around in soggy shoes didn’t help my well-known Irish any.
If Elsberry Dilweg had been there then I’d have punched him silly. Just because he owned some oil wells and a couple million bucks he couldn’t make a sap out of me. Not for two hundred bucks, he couldn’t.
BY THE time the bus reached the outskirts of Springdale and the intersection of the outer drive with 66, the rain had stopped and the sun was trying to break through the clouds. The gutters were running full and the wide expanse of sloping lawn that led up the hill to Dilweg’s twenty-room mansion looked fresh and green.
The old goat had his castle in a square block of ground, with the back of it facing north into raw, uncultivated timberland, separated from it by a high brick wall. I walked along the sidewalk on Noble, taking a gander over the low brick wall that hemmed the front of the estate.
I was heading for the iron gate that straddled a gravel drive that led up the hill to the huge stone house when a shiny black car, with its chromium gleaming, and its spotless glass unmarked by the recent rain, pulled up at the curb ahead of me. A guy in a gray suit and a Homberg hat got out with a leather briefcase.
He was a good-looking guy with a crisp gray mustache over a good-natured mouth. He was about fifty years old and he could have posed for an ad as a successful banker. He was just about my height and weight, but he had good clothes and knew how to wear them.
He had an oval cigarette out and was flicking a pocket lighter. He was getting sparks but no flame. I handed him a paper pack of matches as I came up.
“You must have got that thing from your old maid sister for Christmas,” I said. “They never work.”
He smiled, and it was nice. “The sister or the lighter?” He lit his smoke and blew it out his aristocratic nostrils. “Thanks,” he said. “Going my way?”
We turned in at the iron gate and walked up the gravel road, wet and white in the brightening sun.
“Yeah,” I said, “I got a target for today. I’m going to lay down the law for old man Dilweg. He owes me two hundred bucks.”
He laughed and his white teeth were nice, too. “I know just what you mean.” He put out his hand, friendly. “Roberts is my name— Carson W. Roberts. Mr. Dilweg doesn’t owe me anything. In fact, he has been most generous to one of my pet projects.”
I had the guy labeled then. “I’ve heard of you. You’re director of some welfare project down in East St. Louis. Handicap Haven, Incorporated, or something like that. My name is Starch—Bill Starch. Private detective.”
“His eyes turned on me with interest, like he’d never seen a detective before in his life.
“Why on earth would Mr. Dilweg hire a detective?”
He was fishing, but I didn’t run with the bait. When I take on a client I keep my trap shut about that client’s business. I had a feeling that my profession was a shock to Roberts. I guess I just didn’t fit in with his idea of a private dick.
We didn’t say any more, and in a few moments we were standing in front of the big white door on Dilweg’s sprawling veranda. Roberts lifted the brass knocker—made like an oil well derrick—and let it drop. I could hear the sound echo in the corridor.
We turned to look down over the hill to the west, where a little knot of men was gathered under a weeping willow tree with a lot of props around it.
“Mr. Dilweg likes weeping willows,” Roberts volunteered. “He hired a landscape expert named Briggs to dig up that monster in his home town of East St. Louis and haul it forty miles to replant it here. He had to get a special permit from the State Highway Department so they could haul it here over Sixty-six. That shows he loves trees.”
I grunted. “That shows,” I said, “it’s nice to have a couple million bucks.” I was getting impatient. “Slug that knocker again, pal, or we’ll grow beards before Richard opens the door.”
He took hold of the knocker and the pressure swung the door open a little—the latch hadn’t caught. Roberts pushed it open and went inside.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s all right.”
I followed him inside and down a hall, about knee-deep in Oriental rugs.
Roberts called, “Elkins!” and then “Mrs. Franner!”
His yell wasn’t loud, but his voice was the carrying kind.
Nobody answered the call. The house was quiet.
Roberts looked at me. “Funny both Elkins and Mrs. Franner are not downstairs.” He added, in explanation, “Elkins is a kind of butler-handyman. Mrs. Franner is a sort of housekeeper.”
He walked through an arched doorway into a paneled room that was undoubtedly a study. Then he stopped. He turned back suddenly. His eyes stared wildly. His mouth gaped open. He made a lot of funny noises deep down in his throat.
I saw IT, too.
I bumped past Roberts in a hurry, and moved over the big Chinese rug, fast. I knelt in front of the desk. But there wasn’t any need for haste.
ELSBERRY DILWEG was as dead as he would ever be. His featherweight five-foot frame, in rough gray tweeds, was lying face-up on the floor. His eyes were as prominent as white buttons on black shoes. His gray hair, what there was of it, made dead ear muffs on each side of his bald head.
Both his hands were gripped in agony around the handles of a pair of long, slender paper shears buried in his heart. There wasn’t much blood; only a quiet seepage marked his vest.
Excerpt From: Carl G. Hodges. “Murder Breeds Murder – Two Novelettes.”
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