Join Date: Nov 2000
The first chapter of something new. As usual, no promises about when it will be finished.
“I’ve got a package for you from Mr. Maxwell.”
I was searching the clutter on the desk in the outer office, looking for a file that I thought had been on my own desk but wasn’t. Usually there was no clutter anywhere, and files were where they were supposed to be; but when my secretary went on vacation a kind of primeval chaos always descended on the office. My back was to the door to the hallway when it opened and the low, almost girlish voice spoke. The words themselves were innocent-sounding. The way they were said was not. I turned and saw a man standing in the doorway. He was on the small side, barely five feet tall. He wore a fedora pulled low over his eye sockets, and a once-sharp pinstripe suit, showing obvious signs of wear and mending, with plenty of give around the left armpit for a shoulder holster. The small man stepped into the room and pushed the door closed with one foot while the dark, empty pits where eyes had once been stayed fixed on me. My own gaze was drawn to the large sproutella gun he held in one skeletal hand, so small and delicate it made the weapon appear enormous.
“Do I have to sign for it?” I asked a little crazily. In my racket I knew too well what sproutella rounds could do to a dead man.
“You’d better shut up, Steinauer!” the little man yipped, still in a low voice. He came closer, raising the muzzle higher. “Mr. Maxwell doesn’t like double-crossers, damn me to hell if he don’t!”
“You’re halfway there right now, pipsqueak,” I said with a laugh that might have sounded near-hysterical if I could have pulled my attention away from that gun long enough to listen to it.
“God damn you!” the little man hissed, coming closer. He jammed the muzzle of his gun into my ribs. “You’re gonna scream and scream and scream and I’ll watch you sprout and laugh myself hoarse!” If the little fellow had had a real face, it would have been screwed up into an expression of blood lust and childish pique.
I looked down at my chest where the gun was pressed tight. I felt a lot better seeing that. Sure, he couldn’t miss from that distance; but then neither could I. “The laugh’s on you, junior,” I said and brought my left up in a swipe that knocked the arm holding the rod aside, while I nailed it’s holder on the button with my right. The gunsel staggered back and I followed up with a couple of lefts to the side of his skull and then brought my right up again under his chin. His fingers went loose on the butt of the gun and I scooped it up before it fell. I made a fist around the hammer and trigger guard and struck the little man across the temple with the barrel. His knees bent in different directions as he crumpled to the floor. I stepped on one outstretched hand. Almost gently, at first, then harder. When I was sure he was really out of it, I tucked the gun into my pants waist and went into the inner office and got out a pair of handcuffs with a longer than usual chain from one of the drawers in my own desk.
Going back out to the pile of cloth and bones near the outer door, I snapped one of the bracelets on the unconscious gunman and hauled him into my secretary’s chair. I pulled his arms behind the back of the chair, threaded the chain through the slats, and cuffed the other wrist. Not exactly escape proof, but it would hold until the police arrived and pointing the gun at his head should keep the little man tame until they did. I phoned downtown and made my report and waited the twenty minutes it took for the cops to show up. After nearly ten the movement of one foot, and the slight scrape of chain against wood, told me that my sparing partner had come to and now was shamming being unconscious.
I gave the foot that had twitched a savage kick. “I know you’re awake, pipsqueak,” I said harshly.
The little man raised his head, saw his own cannon in my hand, looked me in the face and said, “You pistol-whipped me.” He sounded indignantly surprised. I laughed. “You pistol-whipped me!” he accused again, louder, as if he thought I didn’t hear the first time.
“Just one little tap,” I said. “You went down easy, kid. Just a five-and-dime punk that can dish it out but can’t take it.” I shook my head in mock disappointment.
“My head hurts,” he said sulkily. I shrugged and set a careless leer in front of my skull. “You’ll be sorry,” he pouted. “Just you wait and see. You think Mr. Maxwell wasn’t happy with you before, Steinauer? You just wait until he hears about this.”
“You wait until a judge hears about this.” I tapped the cannon’s barrel with my left forefinger. “You can get 25 to 100 just for packing one of these bouquet makers.”
The little man made an anatomically improbable suggestion. I laughed again and he glared at the floor under his feet for the next eight minutes. The floor, a natural coward, averted it’s gaze and kept silent for fear of provoking harsher treatment. Then the door to the hall opened and three cops came in. Two were uniformed patrolmen I didn’t know. The third was Lieutenant Tom Lang, a plain-clothes detective from Sprouting (the Land of the Dead’s version of a homicide department). The pop gun the Littler Caesar had been carrying made this Tom’s party.
“’lo, snoop,” Tom said, giving my prisoner a careless-seeming glance. “How’s business?”
“Swell,” I answered. “It’s getting so good I don’t even have to go out for them any more. They come to me and beg me to call you boys in so you can put ‘em away.”
“It pays to advertise,” Tom chuckled. “So who is he?”
“Search me,” I said. “He just walked in, said he had a package for me, and tickled my ribs with this.” I handed Tom the gunsel’s rod, butt first. “I didn’t have much trouble getting it away from him.” An understatement, given that I had more than a foot on the gun-toting mouse.
“He pistol-whipped me!” the little guy squeaked. Tom made like he hadn’t heard, but at a small gesture one of the uniformed cops gave the punk a sock that nearly spun his skull around on it’s pin. I might have tsk-ed in disapproval if I had had a tongue, and if I had actually disapproved.
“He also said the package came from a Mr. Maxwell,” I continued as though that little display of brutality hadn’t happened, “and he twice called me Steinauer.”
Tom scratched his jaw. “Could be Clarence Maxwell, I suppose.” He was talking about ‘Diamond’ Maxwell, a well-known gambling racketeer; that is, he was widely regarded as such even though a succession district attorneys had never gotten enough dirt on him to get an indictment.
“Possible,” I said. “But this punk isn’t the usual sort he hires. Search me if that makes it more or less likely that Diamond sent him. I’m more curious about who this Steinauer is.”
“Like you don’t know your own name,” the gunsel said in a mumbled sneer.
I held up my hand when the uniformed cop made to land another one on the little man. He lowered his fist even though want I wanted didn’t really carry much weight with him. He subsided only because Tom had backed me up with a small nod. I got on well enough with the lieutenant that what I wanted was usually oke with him. “What makes you think I’m Steinauer?” I asked the gunsel. “I’ve never seen you before and I’m willing to bet you’ve never seen me.”
“I’m not dumb,” the little fellow said, despite the evidence to the contrary. “Your office is in suite 704 in the McBride Building. This is 704.”
“Yeah,” I said, “but this is the Stockton Building. The McBride is across the street.” I went over to the door to the hall and opened it far enough so the little man could clearly see the black-edged gilt lettering painted on the glass:
The gunsel should have seen it on his way in. Now he stared blankly at the words for a second or two, then seemed to shrink even smaller as he realized his mistake. “If you’re not dumb,” I said as I closed the door again, “then I don’t know who would be.”
“Steinauer isn’t a name I’m familiar with,” Tom said, “but if there’s any connection with Clarence Maxwell the boys in Vice might know it.”
“Yeah, they might,” I said. “But whoever Steinauer is, this mug,” I jerked my thumb at the gunsel, “is keeping me from my work.” That was as close as I would ever come to telling Tom to breeze.
He nodded, getting the message and not minding it very much. “I suppose you want your cuffs back,” he said, taking a pair out of his pocket.
“Yeah,” I said, pulling out my keys and finding the right one. I took the bracelets off the little man and the cop with the steamroller fists hauled him out of the chair. Tom snapped his own cuffs on the man.
“I might want you to come downtown later, Frankie,” Tom said, “but we’ll probably get all we need out of this runt.” He pocketed the sproutella gun. “Let me know when you find out anything about this Steinauer.” He didn’t say ‘if’. He me knew better than that.
“Sure,” I said. “See you in a while, Tom.”
He nodded again. At another gesture, one of the uniformed cops opened the door and they hauled the gunsel1 out of the office. Tom followed and closed the door behind him.