case notes and assorted ramblings
from the mind of mystery writer
Elizabeth K. Wadsworth

Read Excerpt

One snowy afternoon in February, 1948, notorious bank robber Norman Beady was found strangled on the floor of a police interview room, apparently by his own lawyer.
This was strange for two reasons.  
First of all, lawyers are not in the habit of trying to kill their clients outright when their preferred MO is to bleed them dry over an extended period of time. The second reason was that Norman Beady had died three months ago during a botched escape attempt from Auburn prison, where he was doing fifteen to
twenty for robbing an armored truck at gunpoint.
It hadn’t been my case. I barely remembered Beady the man, much less any details of what the press had un-creatively dubbed the Heist of the Century. It had made headlines at the time, even nudging the war to the bottom of the front page of the Times for a few days, but after five years the once memorable case had grown dim in my mind. I certainly wasn’t thinking about Norman Beady on the night of the ninth, scant days before he was assaulted. I was standing in the shadows across from a fleabag hotel on Manhattan’s West Side, watching slush pile up in the storm drains and on the roofs of parked cars and waiting for a guy.
Get your mind out of the gutter. It’s not what you think. 
Looking back, a lot of things would have turned out differently if I hadn’t been hired to follow Richard Laurens. I would never have found myself, for instance, standing stark naked on a fire escape in a snowstorm, staring down the barrel of a Colt .45 at a drunken, half-crazed assailant. I’d be writing this from my own apartment in chilly Greenwich Village instead of the sun-drenched veranda of Papa Hemingway’s old Key West mansion, a polydactyl kitty curled in my lap and a long, cool, rum-laced drink at my elbow. I’d be—but I’m getting ahead of myself. Aren’t I?
My name is Malloy, Allison Malloy. I’m a private detective.
New York is my city, my beat. My partner is Danny Russell, and my mark Richard Laurens the dumbest of dumb bad guys. 
I’d been shadowing Richard Laurens for two days. It should have been an easy job—in fact, I suspected the guy who’d hired me of manufacturing the case just to ease me into the detective biz. Saul, an old friend of Russell’s mom and owner of a small dry cleaning joint, had recently hired Laurens, a down-and-out drifter, to do odd jobs and help out around the place. He soon found reason to distrust Laurens, who not only changed the story of his background on a near-daily basis, but took to hobbling around on crutches everywhere he went, proclaiming loudly to everyone who’d listen that he’d hurt himself on the job and bragging that he was going to take Saul to the cleaners. 
Ha ha, get it? 
Hence my first real job: follow Laurens around, see how he spent his off hours, and if possible, prove he was faking his injury. Hence my freezing my ass off on a street corner and wishing I hadn’t drunk all that coffee earlier in the afternoon.
The books and movies get it all wrong. You got your private eye, usually a guy, but sometimes a hot, sexy dame, sitting in a hotel lobby pretending to read a newspaper. Then, in about five minutes flat, in comes the mark through the revolving door, a wad of cash or a suspicious package changes hands, and then you get your patented innuendo-laden scene in the cocktail bar, or sometimes, if the ninety minutes is starting to run out, a shootout.
Movie detectives wear perfectly tailored suits and evening clothes. They don’t buy off-the-rack. They drink lots of cocktails in smoky, dimly-lit bars, they don’t get hungry, and they never, ever have to empty their bladders. I hadn’t eaten a thing since that morning, my houndstooth wool slack suit was warm but unfashionable (though ideal for concealing a shoulder holster,) and my fur-trimmed ankle boots, contrary to the manufacturer’s promises, were starting to leak. Also, I desperately needed to use the bathroom.
Note to self: next time, wear a skirt, weather be damned. And bring a Ball jar.
This should have been an open-and-shut case. I’d watched Laurens hobble from his West Side rooming house to a drugstore, a diner, various bars, and several betting agencies. He played pool, craps, and the numbers game, and bet on college basketball and the prizefights at Madison Square Garden. When he wasn’t drinking and gambling, he was on the phone arguing with his bookie or sweet-talking some dame called Betty.
After two days of this I suspected he was indeed faking his injury. Granted, I had nothing to go on but instinct, which told me he was bent as a hex key, but no actual proof. And while I’d yet to be ‘made’, it was clear Laurens suspected he was being watched. His smug smirk as he flashed his crutches at everyone told me he was putting on an act, and thought he was hot stuff. So far, I’d tried everything short of actually knocking him on his ass to try and catch him off guard. 
Now he’d changed his MO enough to call a taxi and direct the driver to this dump of a hotel. He stood shivering under the tattered awning: a slim, unremarkable figure of medium height, average in every respect. He glanced at his watch and peered anxiously down the street for someone as the driver brought a small overnight bag and set it down beside him. Money changed hands. 
The hotel itself looked like your typical buck-a-bed dive. You know the kind of place—where the sheets are changed every month whether they need it or not, the bartender is a made man, the bellhop is a pimp, and the certainty of getting laid is tempered by the very real possibility of having your throat cut in your sleep. Blankets and pillows extra, mice and roaches on the house. An apt setting for the cheap-looking, hard-used blonde who showed up in a second taxi a few minutes later. 
She wore black, of course, cut way down to here and up to there.  
In Manhattan, blondes in black are a dime a dozen, and for the most part, a carton of eggs is safer expenditure of your dough. From the way she and Laurens hugged and kissed and clung to each other I could tell she wasn’t his wife, but that wasn’t any of my business. I watched the greasy kid who was playing porter pick up their bags and usher them in through the front door.
Fingers numb, I fumbled for a pencil and small notebook, into which I made the following notation: Stanhope Hotel, 7:45 P.M., in co. of blonde female (Betty?), and followed at a discreet distance. As I crossed the street, staying well behind the couple but keeping them in my sights, I reached into my purse and felt for the compact camera I kept there.
It was a Whittaker Micro, top-of-the-line in spy gear and small enough to slide into an empty cigarette pack. At thirty bucks, it was top-of-the-price-range as well, a Christmas gift from Russell to celebrate my recent job upgrade. I suspected he’d gone without quite a few dinners to finance the thing, and was determined to make it pay for itself and relieve my lingering sense of guilt (I got him a book) as soon as possible.
So far, so good. I reached the door, gave the porter my most confidence-inspiring smile, checked to see that Laurens and Blondie were still within sight, and strode into the lobby like I owned the joint. 
I was surprised to see it had a kind of faded grandeur. The moldings bore traces of gold leaf, what remained of the dusty chandelier was real crystal, and sometime late in the previous century the cracked, smoke-stained paneling had been painted trompe l’oeil to resemble slabs of green malachite. A bunch of lowlifes of various stripes lounged around on mismatched Victorian furniture, including one individual who appeared little more than a heap of rags, fast asleep on a sofa.
I expected them to head for the cocktail bar after checking in, but instead Laurens and the dame made straight for the elevator. The desk clerk, ensconced behind a wrought-iron cage arrangement, either for his own safety or that of the patrons, waved them by with nary a glance. I decided to risk a trip to the ladies’ room, as my bladder was sending urgent messages, making it difficult to concentrate on anything else. Besides, judging from their hurry to get upstairs, my mark and his lady friend weren’t going anywhere else any time soon. Much relieved, I returned to the lobby to take a seat in one of the mismatched Victorian chairs and start on a cigarette. Give Laurens and the blonde a few minutes to get settled in, relax, let their guard down.
“Looking for some company, honey?” 
I glanced up. The speaker was a skinny guy in his thirties, cheap but flashy dresser, smoking a cigar. Great. This was all I needed. Should this guy decide to press the issue, I could lose valuable time, maybe lose Laurens altogether. 
“Not tonight, fella.”  
“You sure? You look a little lonely sittin’ there all by yourself. We can go have a few drinks, maybe have some fun.” He edged closer. A blast of whiskey breath almost made me pass out. His voice held a note of aggression behind the playful flirtation. This had the potential to get ugly fast, but it wasn’t like I’d never handled an overly friendly drunk before. Stiletto heel to the instep, swift knee to the crotch, and even the most determined would-be Romeo tends to back off and re-consider his entertainment options for the evening.
“I said not tonight, buddy. Now, beat it.” I put an edge on my voice without raising it. No point in attracting unwelcome attention, maybe getting tossed out of the joint before I could finish my job.
“Hey, hey, hey.” He took a step backward in pretend outrage, voice going up by several decibels. So much for not attracting attention. “What’s your problem, sweetheart? I ain’t good enough for ya?” A few heads swiveled in our direction, faces eager. Showtime at the Stanhope. 
Better cut short the evening’s entertainment before the first act started. Grinding out my cigarette I stood, discovering I towered over the guy by some inches. A little psychological advantage never hurt. “Come on, get lost before I have a word with the desk clerk.”
“He’s a friend of mine.” 
“Sure he is.” I pushed past him, or tried to. He did a little sidestep, blocking me, and grabbed my left wrist, nails digging into flesh painfully. I gritted my teeth and stifled a gasp of pain as he pulled me closer. Rule Number One in the urban jungle: never let the other predators sense your fear.
“What’s the matter, bitch?” His voice was loud and ugly. “Dame like you, hanging around this place, can’t afford to be choosy. Come on, gimme some sugar.”
“Yer shit outta luck tonight, Max. She don’t want you.” A voice echoed across the lobby, accompanied by a smattering of laughter. A few forms edged closer, probably placing bets on the odds of Max getting lucky tonight.
“Sure she does. She just don’t know it yet.” Max grinned up into my face, displaying an array of yellowing teeth. “I like the ones who put up a fight.” 
“Yeah? How do you like this?” In a swift motion I brought up my right knee and drove it hard into his groin.
Max doubled over, clutching himself, and I followed with a kick to the kneecap that sent him to the floor. Max collapsed onto his side in a fetal position, moaning, as the catcalls and applause from the audience increased in volume. Not waiting to take a bow or curtain call, I grabbed my handbag and raced across the lobby toward the front desk. The night clerk looked up at my arrival, putting down his movie magazine and stubbing out a cigarette. In the dusty mirror mounted on the wall behind his desk I could see a small crowd gathering around Max, assessing the damage and offering helpful advice and commentary.
“Is everything all right, Miss?” The desk clerk sounded polite but wary, having witnessed the encounter from the safety of his cage. “You didn’t hurt that boy too much, did you?”
“Nah, he’ll be fine.” 
“Maxie, he’s a good boy. Don’t mean no harm. Gets a little friendly when he’s had a few, know what I mean?” 
“He’ll be fine,” I repeated reassuringly, in case he got the idea that I was Bad For Business and decided to toss me out. “Just cooled him down a little. Everything’s kosher.” I gave him my best smile. Deep breath, moment to collect my thoughts and focus on the job. “Hey listen, buddy. That guy on crutches who came in a few minutes ago? With the blonde? Can you tell me what room they’re in, please?”
“I’m afraid I’m not allowed to give out that information, Miss.”
Smile growing more confidential, I leaned over the desk and let my coat fall open, revealing a bit of cleavage underneath. Hey, I’m not proud. I’ll use whatever tricks I’ve got, within reason.
“Look, you don’t have to tell me how it is. I know you have a job to do. But this is really important. See, we’re getting married next month. The blonde—she’s one of my bridesmaids.” I let the smile wobble. Put a bit of a quiver in my voice. A tear or a bit of a blush would’ve helped if I could manage it, but I’m not that good an actress. The guy fell for it.
“Oh, I see. That’s how it is, huh? Okay, listen, if I tell you what you want to know, promise me you won’t blab to the manager, all right? I could get in a lot of trouble, you know?”
“It’s okay. This stays between us.” I opened my purse and slid a dollar bill through the bars of the cage. It disappeared like sand into surf. The clerk’s manner grew several degrees warmer.
“They’re in room 317. Third floor.” He pulled his sign-in ledger toward him and turned it around to show me the latest entries. “See? Right there. They checked in as Mr. and Mrs. Laurens.”
I nodded. “That’s her name.”
“Well, he don’t deserve you, honey, that’s all I have to say.”
“Thanks. For all your help.” 
I gave him another smile and turned away, when his anxious voice stopped me. “Say, listen, you ain’t gonna put a bullet through the guy or anything, are you? ’Cause this is a pretty decent joint, all things considered, and we don’t need that kinda trouble.”
“Don’t worry. I’m just gonna give him a piece of my mind.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” the clerk muttered to himself. A cynical glance, a shrug, and he went back to his magazine. After checking that Max and company weren’t about to follow me, I headed for the recessed alcove that housed the elevator and stabbed the ‘up’ button. The doors ground open to reveal the operator, a boy of about sixteen. He sported a faded, stained uniform jacket over grubby trousers and high-top sneakers, an embryonic moustache, and acne. He was also packing heat, a .22 pistol shoved down the front of his pants at such an angle that in the event of a firefight he was practically guaranteed to shoot his own balls off.
“Third floor, please.”
“You got it, sweetheart.” His thick, choked voice suggested he had a bad cold, which I didn’t need, or a deviated septum, which wasn’t my problem. He threw a lever and the elevator jolted into its shuddering upward journey. I closed my eyes and enjoyed about two seconds’ peace before the kid’s voice snapped them open again. “Hey, beautiful lady.”  
Christ, not another one. I sagged against the elevator wall and returned his leering grin with a cold stare.
“How’d you like to meet a couple of lonely but very generous gentlemen?” the kid said. He wiggled his eyebrows in what he probably thought was a sensual, seductive manner. It looked like a couple of caterpillars having a conniption fit.
I really didn’t have time for this. “How’d you like a slap upside the head?”
He cocked his head and smirked, contemplating my offer. “From you, I might enjoy it.”
“Your momma know you’re a pimp, kid?”
“My momma’s dead.” You wanna make something of it? his voice asked. “I gotta make my own way.” 
“Life’s tough all over, kid.” I closed my eyes again, hoping he’d take the hint and shut the hell up already. I just wanted to get this dumb job over with and go home.
“Third floor.” His phlegmy, disgruntled voice interrupted my thoughts. I tossed him a quarter, which he sneered at and pocketed as the doors slid shut behind me. I found myself looking down a shabby, dimly lit corridor with stained floral carpeting and graffiti-covered walls. At either end of the hall, faintly glowing exit signs indicated the stairs. A single window looked down on a side street; nearby, set into the wall, a glass-fronted cabinet housed a fire hose and miniature axe.  
The hall was quiet and empty, devoid of chambermaids and wandering guests. I found 317 about two thirds of the way down on my left, opposite a small alcove that held a table, a sagging armchair, and an empty cigarette machine. I stuck my ear to the door and listened. Judging from the giggles and moans within, Laurens and Blondie hadn’t wasted any time getting down to business. 
I doubled back and took another gander around. Nobody in sight. Outside, the sleet was turning to slushy snow, muffling the sounds of traffic. Neon and streetlights reflected off the wet pavement.
With a muttered prayer that the damn thing was in good working order, I pulled the little fire axe from its moorings and Broke Glass in Case of Emergency. The sound of shattering glass was echoed moments later by the loud, high-pitched claxon of the fire alarm. Perfect. I hightailed it back down the hall and, camera at the ready, ducked into the alcove opposite 317. For several seconds, nothing happened. Then, abruptly, doors opened, and people began to spill toward the exits: singles and couples in various stages of undress, all hastily buttoning coats and pulling scarves over their heads in anticipation of the freezing damp. Chattering excitedly with one another: where’s the fire? Do you see it? I don’t smell smoke, do you? Must have started in the kitchen; no, it’s electrical; no, it’s a cigarette. Somebody smoking in bed, that’s it…
Mentally crossing my fingers for luck, I leaned against the wall and waited.
The door to room 317 opened and I saw them. The blonde had shed her dress and wore only coat and pumps; in one hand she clutched a bottle of whiskey and in the other a half-full tumbler, apparently bent on getting her money’s worth from the evening. Laurens followed, sans crutches, hopping desperately on one foot as he tried to pull a pair of trousers up over his galoshes. He bunny hopped along looking cold, bewildered, and embarrassed, though in all fairness, he did appear to favor his right leg. Click.
The brief, tiny flash caught Laurens and his companion by surprise; they glanced, startled, in my direction and I pressed the button again. Laurens scowled, his expression dark and ugly. He gave the blonde a shove, hustling her down the hall with the rest of the crowd, then turned and headed in my direction. Click.
Lucky for me, he’d forgotten about his pants, still bunched around his ankles. A couple hobbling steps, and Laurens keeled over, cursing as the tide of bodies swarmed around and over him. Nobody stopped to help him up. 
Stuffing the camera into my purse, I ran in the opposite direction, heading for the stairs that led to the side street. Time to get out of Dodge before it dawned on everybody that there was no fire and the desk clerk remembered me and started to put two and two together and get five. Three flights down, pressed on all sides by nervous, irritable, smelly bodies, then out onto the sidewalk. A blast of cold, damp air hit my lungs, a relief after the musty, mildew-y interior of the hotel.
A taxi horn blared nearby, echoed by the distant wail of sirens. I flopped into the back seat and gasped out my home address. As the driver pulled away into the night, I leaned back against the seat with a long sigh. While the evening could have gone better—no private dick likes to get ‘made’ on her first assignment, after all—I had what I needed to make Saul happy, and the prospect of a hot bath, dinner, and bed to look forward to.

                                                                      * * *

Monday, February 9, 1948
Late Evening

Somebody was in his apartment.
Danny Russell heard the guy halfway down the hall and froze, his senses on full alert, body tense with adrenaline and outrage despite fatigue and the late hour.
His right leg, weakened by an old injury, throbbed; the muscles cramped and knotted into a tight ball of pain that coursed through his body. The icy drizzle that had fallen most of the afternoon had long ago soaked through his heavy wool coat before turning to snow; he was freezing, bone-tired, and sorry for himself. Muscles ached; his body shook with fatigue, and a dull pain pulsed between his eyes. He wanted his dinner, which wafted maddeningly delicious aromas from the takeout bag from Ruby Foo’s tucked under his arm. He wanted a scalding hot bath, a drink, a good book, and his bed.
What he didn’t want was for his work to follow him home like this.
The intruder made no secret of his presence. He didn’t have to. At this hour most of the building’s other residents had retired to their suppers and beds, and they kept mostly to themselves anyway. Ted, the latest in a long line of night watchmen, was no slouch with a Louisville Slugger, but he was five floors down, his nose buried in this month’s copy of Amazing Stories. Russell would have to take care of this one by himself.
Reluctantly, he abandoned his takeout bag, now fair game for next-door neighbor Mr. Spiegelman, a retired geezer who lived alone with only an irascible, foul-mouthed parrot for company. The old guy was fond of stealing Russell’s Times and returning it wrinkled and with the crossword half-filled in; he’d likely look upon a bag of Chinese as his due. As Russell crept toward his apartment, back to the wall, he saw that the door stood slightly ajar, through which a faint line of bluish light was visible.
Feeling his heart speed up, he willed himself to slow his breathing. With his right hand he withdrew a weighted rubber blackjack from his pocket, and slid his left into a set of brass knuckles, both less-than-legal items that had saved his ass on more than one occasion. As his fist tightened on the cold metal, an abrupt spasm of pain made him wince and grit his teeth to stifle a gasp. A recent encounter with a dangerous adversary had left a bullet wound in the fleshy part of his left arm, the one he used for everything from writing to firing a gun. While not life-threatening, it was painful, and he still couldn’t lift it any higher than his chest. Anger flooded through him. 
Of all the apartments in all the buildings in New York, he had to walk into mine. If he so much as touches my comic books, I swear I’ll cripple him. And if he hurts my guitars… 
Russell’s 9mm Luger was locked safely away in a desk drawer along with some cash and other valuables, but a drawer would pose little effort to someone who’d already picked the lock to his front door. Why did I go out tonight without a gun? Stupid, stupid… If the burglar had found the Luger then the odds were already stacked against him. His best option was to take down the intruder as quickly as possible, before the guy had time to react.
He kept his hinges well-oiled and silent; the door swung open at a light touch. The apartment lay bathed in semi-darkness, the only light issuing from the flickering fluorescent ring in the little galley kitchen off to his right.
Shadows moved, and the burglar stepped into view: small, slight, balding, unremarkable. His back was toward Russell, his face in shadow as he strode purposefully toward the open door of Russell’s bedroom. A crowbar swung from his right hand. Russell saw nothing familiar in the man’s posture or deportment. He slid out of his coat and allowed the door to swing shut behind him—a tactical mistake, he realized too late, as the faint sound of the latch and the change in lighting caught the burglar’s attention. The burglar froze, head erect, body tense, and he half turned, raising the crowbar in a defensive move.   
Dammit. So much for the element of surprise. Russell threw caution away and flung his coat over the guy’s head, tackling him like a linebacker and bearing his full weight to the floor. For a brief moment he thought he’d won without a fight, and then the burglar reacted, rolling to one side and heaving Russell’s body off his own in a single smooth movement. The blackjack flew out of his hand, skittering harmlessly some feet away.
They grappled at close range, slamming into furniture and scattering books and ornaments across the carpet. Russell tried for a half-Nelson, but the burglar, unexpectedly strong for a man his size, writhed like a landed fish, striking out with his crowbar like a quarterstaff. He fought with a silent ferocity that was at once impressive and alarming. Russell had size and youth on his side, but was exhausted, injured, and freezing cold. The burglar had the twin advantages of superior strength and desperation; in his eyes shone the fanatical gleam of madness. 
With a feverish effort that sent his overtaxed muscles into a screaming spasm of agony, Russell managed to wrest the crowbar out of the man’s grip and fling it across the room. He heard it land with a loud clang on an uncarpeted section of floor. As he gasped and forced air into his lungs, a balled fist landed a solid blow to his temple, stunning him. A second to the jaw made his head hit the floor and the world go black. Russell tasted blood on his lower lip. Through a haze of pain and tears he saw the burglar snatch a plaster replica of the Maltese Falcon off a nearby bookshelf and raise it over his head to strike a killing blow.
The sudden wail of a police siren, loud and oddly close, froze the burglar in mid-attack. Despite himself, Russell felt his split lip twitch in an almost-smile.
Summoning the last of his strength, he flung himself at the burglar, wresting the statuette away and driving his knee hard into the man’s groin. He followed with an uppercut that knocked the burglar back on his ass. The burglar moaned, the first sound he’d made thus far, and coiled into a protective ball. Russell swung his fist, a careful, scientific blow designed to immobilize but not kill, and at last the burglar lay silent and still. The siren wails continued at length, to be replaced by the rise and fall of a male voice next door.
“Thank you, Mr. Spiegelman,” said Russell aloud. And he sent a silent prayer of special thanks to Mr. Spiegelman’s parrot, whose imitation of a police siren was renowned throughout the building for its volume, accuracy, and (mostly) bad timing.
Russell collapsed onto his haunches and rested his battered face in his hands. 
When he was sure he wouldn’t pass out or throw up, he stood on shaking legs and switched on the overhead lamp. The burglar lay unmoving at his feet, chest rising and falling in shallow but steady breath. A little over five feet, he had thinning hair of no particular color atop a pallid, unhealthy-looking face with a few days’ growth of chin stubble. He wore an assortment of mismatched, ill-fitting clothing; a quick search of his pockets revealed a small wad of bills but no weapons or identification. The medicinal smell of carbolic soap couldn’t quite disguise the reek of old sweat, piss, and damp earth, as of someone who’d spent a lot of time outdoors with no facilities. That and his unnatural pallor led Russell to one inevitable conclusion: escaped convict.    
A closer look at the burglar’s face yielded an abrupt shock of dreamlike memory, of near-recognition. Russell found himself trembling with sudden anxiety as well as fatigue and light-headedness. “Who are you?” he whispered. “What do you want?” 
Well, that would have to wait for later. After locking and bolting the front door, he retrieved his gun and a roll of duck tape from a drawer. He slipped the Luger into the back of his pants and set about restraining the burglar, winding lengths of tape securely around wrists and ankles and hoisting him, with some difficulty, into a chair. He lit a cigarette and went to get his takeout bag from the hall. Then he dropped coat and gloves onto the radiator to dry, cranked up the heat to ‘high’, and headed to the kitchen for a beer.  
Russell took a final drag on his cigarette and dropped it into a Ball jar half-filled with sand. He turned the beer bottle around in his hands, studying the burglar’s—no, make that the ex-con’s—face, feeling again a nagging conviction that he knew the man from somewhere. A mental review of the last few years, as he tried to recall what guys he’d helped put away, drew a blank. Still, he knew the man’s face in the same way that he half-recalled a dream upon waking. A call to the cops was in the near future, but he needed to question the guy himself first.  
A sound like a rooster crowing somewhere nearby made him jump; it was followed by a string of squeaky obscenities and what sounded very like psittacine laughter.
“Oh, for Chrissake, Mr. S., put a cloth over that damn parrot!” 
The burglar’s eyelids fluttered open at the sound. His lips moved silently. For an instant the two men locked gazes; then the burglar gave a strangled cry and leapt to his feet. Too late he realized his wrists and ankles were bound. He wobbled, flailing, and toppled over with a crash, scattering papers and library books across the carpet. He floundered like a landed fish, thrashing and yelling at the top of his lungs.
“Help! Help! Police! MURDERRRRR!” 
“Shut up, you sonofabitch!” Russell hissed desperately. “You’ll wake the whole damn block!” He glanced over his shoulder at the closed door, praying Mr. Spiegelman or his other neighbors wouldn’t hear the commotion and call the cops on him. Clapping a hand over his unwanted guest’s mouth, he said, “I mean it. Shut up or I’ll hit you harder. And then I’ll gag you. Is that what you want?” 
Cut off in mid-shout, the burglar choked and went into a spasm of coughing.
Russell wiped spittle from his hand and watched him for a moment. His first thought, that the guy was faking to catch him off guard, he quickly rejected. The burglar’s coughing appeared genuine, lasting several minutes before trailing off into gasps and wheezy, labored breathing. Afraid he might choke, Russell gripped the burglar under his armpits and heaved him upright once again, propping him against the foot of the chair. He pulled out his Luger and leveled it in the direction of his unwelcome guest’s heart.
“Hi there,” Russell greeted him with a sour smile. God damn, his head hurt. “I’m the guy you tried to rob and kill just now, and I have a gun, which means I’m in charge and you get to sit there nice and agreeable and answer all my questions. See this?”  
With his free hand he picked up the roll of duck tape and held it aloft. “Amazing stuff. Strong as steel. They used to repair tanks and submarines with it during the War. I mean, you can talk all you want about sliced bread and the atom bomb, but this—this is the greatest invention of the twentieth century.”
The burglar didn’t answer, watching Russell through watery, wary gray eyes. He was younger than Russell had first thought, mid-forties perhaps, but prison had a way of aging a man before his time.
Russell placed both gun and tape within reach on the table beside him, making sure the safety was on and the muzzle was pointing away from both of them. He sat down opposite the burglar, reached for his beer, and took a swallow. “Okay, let’s start off nice and easy, shall we?” He cleared his throat. “Hello, I’m Danny. What’s your name?”
“John Smith.” The burglar’s voice sounded amused, contemptuous; hoarse from his recent bout of coughing.
“Funny. Now, John Smith, I want you to know I haven’t called the cops yet, but I will, and then you’re gonna go back to whatever joint you broke out of, with a bunch more years tacked on for the escape act. You’ll like that, won’t you? Where’d you bust out of, anyway? Sing Sing? Attica? You don’t look like a maximum security kind of guy, but appearances can be deceiving. Can’t they?” 
“Look, Smith, or whatever your real name is, I don’t have unlimited patience here. Let’s try again. What were you doing, apart from the obvious, in my apartment?”
There was no answer. The man frowned and lowered his head to gaze at the tops of Russell’s boots. His expression was neither sullen nor ashamed, but thoughtful, as if he were weighing his options and deciding how to react.
“Were you looking for something in particular?” A shrug. “Are you after cash, valuables, something you can fence in a hurry? Who hired you?”
“Are you working alone, or with a gang?”
The burglar’s mouth curved upwards. Odd, quiet sounds issued from his lips. Russell realized that against all reason, he was laughing. Dour, ironic, humorless laughter, but laughter nonetheless. Watching, Russell decided to up the stakes a little. 
Leaning closer, he made his voice as soft and dangerous as he could manage. “Do you know who I am?”
The burglar’s laughter faded but he spoke no word. 
“Do you know what I do for a living?” 
Awareness flared and died in the man’s gray eyes to be replaced by a studiously blank expression. Russell pressed his advantage. “I can see by your face that you know exactly who I am.” Which was worrying in itself, he discovered, but there was no time to dwell on that right now.  
“Either you start talking and tell me the truth, or I’ll...” His voice faded as the man met his eyes, not with the anger and defiance he expected, but with bleak indifference. Calling his bluff. Whatever you do to me, his look said, it won’t be half as bad as what they’ve done already. So go ahead.
“Well, okay,” Russell said. “I guess you’ve figured out that I’m not really going to torture you. That isn’t me. But I want answers, and I want you out of my apartment. I’m calling my friends down at Midtown precinct, and then I’m having my dinner, ‘cause I haven’t eaten a thing all day and frankly, I’m starving. You can talk or not, it’s your call. It ain’t gonna make any difference.”
He went into the kitchen and dialed the front desk of the police station. After ten minutes explaining the situation to a tired, irritable desk sergeant, he secured the promise of a plainclothes detective, squad car and a couple of uniforms as soon as they could be spared.   
Russell’s stomach growled. He got a pair of black lacquered chopsticks from a drawer and ripped open his takeout bag, making a great show of pulling out the little white cardboard cartons, inspecting their contents, and arranging them on the coffee table just out of reach of the burglar. Pepper steak, pork fried rice, lo mein noodles, steamed shrimp dumplings, spring rolls. All his favorites, and still warm. He picked up a spring roll, swirled it in plum sauce, and took a bite, closing his eyes in ecstasy that was only partly exaggerated. 
“I like Chinese, don’t you? We could be sharing this, if you’d only be a little more forthcoming. How about it? You wanna give me the lowdown, so we can have supper together?”
Mouth watering, the burglar gazed with unconcealed longing at the array of cardboard containers. He hissed and made a sudden lunge, but his bonds held him back. Russell smiled. “Don’t even think about it.”
He twirled lo mein noodles on the ends of his chopsticks, took a long swallow of beer, and sat back in his chair, waiting for the cops to arrive.

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