The Unholy Three
I was trying to figure how to pay seven hundred and forty dollars worth of bills with three hundred and twelve dollars I had in the bank when he walked into the office. It was almost dinner time and I was hungry.
So maybe my voice was gruff. "What's your trouble, son?"
His face was thin, his eyes a deep blue and they considered me with some apprehension. He was about eleven years old. He said nothing.
"Get the wrong office?" I suggested.
He shook his head.
I tried to appear more genial. "You've been watching the private-eye shows on TV and you came in to see what a real one looks like, huh?"
He took a deep breath and shook his head again, hard. I matched his silence. I went back to evaluating which bills were most imminently disastrous. A minute of silence moved by.
Then he said, "It's my sister."
I looked up. "Oh--? Has something happened to her?"
He frowned. "Well--not yet."
"I see," I said, though I didn't. "How old is your sister?"
More hope in his glance now. "She's twenty-three. She's very pretty."
"And what's going to happen to her?"
"I don't know. But she's going with a guy, a no-good guy."
"What's your name?" I asked him.
"John, John Delavan. My sister calls me Johnny."
"Okay, Johnny, listen carefully. First of all, I generally get fifty dollars a day when I work. And second, I can't stop your sister from going with a no-good guy. And third, how do you know he is one?"
"I know all right. And about the money, I thought I could owe you. I've got a paper route. You could investigate the man, couldn't you? There's no law against that."
"If your sister asked me to, I could. What about your parents?"
His face was bleak. "There aren't any. There's just me and Eileen."
Silence for a few moments, and I asked, "Do you live in the neighborhood?"
He nodded. "In the Belvoir Apartments, over on Third. You don't want the business, is that it?"
His steady gaze met mine. "Johnny," I said softly, "I don't want to charge you fifty dollars a day for work I'm not authorized to perform. Don't you see my position?"
"I see it. Sitting, that's your position. To heck with you, Mr. Puma." He turned.
"Wait, Johnny," I said. "I'm trying to be honest with you."
He didn't turn back; he continued to walk and the door slammed behind him. The glass in the door rattled, the glass that held the lettering Joseph Puma, Investigations.
I sighed and wondered if Eileen's suitor was really a no-good guy or just a guy who didn't like the Giants.
For some reason, I took out a card and typed on it: Eileen and Johnny Delavan--Belvoir Apartments.
Then I looked at my watch, and there was still time....
In The House Of Genial Lending, Max said, "How much this time?"
"Five hundred," I told him. "She's in good shape, Max. I just put on a new set of tubeless tires."
"And she'd bring six hundred in a quick sale," he said.
"That's more than I'm asking for. Of course, if you want to make it six hundred?"
"Five," he said quickly. He sighed. "Joe, you're too bright a young man to waste your life in such a precarious profession. When are you going to get smart?"
"I'm doing better every month," I told him. "Last time I had to borrow seven hundred, remember?"
He shook his head sadly. "Bright fellow like you, it beats me.... Where's the pink slip?"
While he was getting the papers ready, I asked him, "Do you know the Delavans who live over in the Belvoir? There's an Eileen and a Johnny."
He looked thoughtful. "Eileen Delavan? There's a girl at the bank by that name. Beautiful girl. Her parents died a couple of years ago, I think, if that's the one."
"That could be the one," I said. "Do you mean the Security Bank?"
He nodded and continued to look thoughtful. "Now, let's see, I think her brother delivers my paper. About twelve, isn't he?"
"I guess you've got the family, all right." His glance was worried. "They're not in trouble, Joe?"
I chuckled. "I doubt it. Johnny doesn't like his sister's boy friend. He wanted me to investigate him."
Max didn't smile. "Who's the boy friend? Maybe I know him, too."
"I didn't ask."
Max shook his head again. "No wonder you're always borrowing money. Some detective." He held out a sheaf of papers. "Sign all three copies."
I signed all three copies and walked out a minute later with a check for five hundred dollars. I was rich again; I went over to Heinie's for some wienerschnitzel.
Somebody had left a paper on the table. I read that the President was progressing satisfactorily after his heart attack and the Russians were trying to get Poland into the Security Council. Locally, the Mayor was worried about the increase in juvenile delinquency.
The vision of Johnny Delavan came to me and I turned to the sport pages. A no-good guy.... Probably because he could dance, or used slickum on his hair. Kids were too quick to judge their elders.
Reichoff, the beat cop, came in and looked around.
I called over, "Buy you a cup of coffee, Ben."
He came over and took the chair across from me. "Still eating, huh, Joe? That's pretty good, in your business."
"I make out," I told him. "I'm lining up some big accounts right now."
"Sure you are," he said tonelessly. "I saw you come out of Max's half an hour ago."
"Do you know the Delavans?" I asked him.
"Eileen and Johnny." He nodded. "Fine people. I wish all the kids in this neighborhood were like Johnny Delavan." He paused. "They're not in any kind of trouble, are they, Joe?"
I smiled. "No, Johnny came into my office about an hour ago. He wanted me to investigate his sister's boy friend."
"And who would that be?"
I shrugged. "I didn't ask the kid."
"I'll ask him," Ben said. "I'm surprised he didn't come to me in the first place."
I stared at him. "You're kidding. You wouldn't take a kid seriously about a thing like that?"
"I'm not busy," Ben said. "I'll ask him. You never know what a question might turn up, Joe." He yawned. "Thanks for the coffee, Joe. I've got to be getting along."
He smiled and went out, two hundred and twenty pounds of municipal guardian. It has been rumored about him that he is meddlesome and nosey, but a neighborhood cop is supposed to be.
I drank another cup of coffee and went out to face my evening. At thirty-one, without a wife, an evening is something to face when I've nothing to work on.
My kitchenette apartment held no lure for me and I had seen all the movies around. One early star winked down at me.
Well, what the hell, why not? I looked up Delavan in the phone book and found the one who lived in the Belvoir Apartments.
Luckily, Johnny answered the phone.
I said, "Joe Puma, Johnny. You never did tell me the name of that fellow you want investigated."
His voice was almost a whisper. "Are you going to work on it, Mr. Puma?"
"I thought I'd give it a free neighborhood routine investigation. Is your sister home? Is that why you're speaking so quietly?"
"That's right, Mr. Puma." His voice was even lower. "The man's name is Jean Magnus and he lives at the Stratford Hotel."
"What don't you like about him, Johnny? What makes you suspicious of him?"
A feminine voice in the background said, "Who are you talking to, Johnny?"
Johnny said, "Goodbye, Mr. Puma. See you tomorrow."
The feminine voice started again before the line went dead.
Well, I knew the houseman over at the Stratford. He'd tried a spell of private work, himself. I drove over there.
Lenny Donovan, the houseman, was in the small office behind the clerk's desk. He was reading a hunting and fishing magazine.
He looked up genially. "A little cribbage, Joe? Or is this a professional call?"
"Semi-professional," I told him. "I am working free for an eleven-year-old neighborhood client."
He smiled. "Young Delavan, maybe?"
I nodded and sat down. "How did you guess?"
Lenny yawned. "The kid was hanging around here evenings, hanging around the lobby with those big eyes and ears of his wide open. I ran him out."
"His sister's going with one of your guests."
"Oh--?" Lenny looked interested. "He wouldn't tell me why he was hanging around." He pulled at one ear. "Who's the guest?"
"A man named Jean Magnus."
Lenny reached forward to thumb through a card index box. "That would be--let's see 324. Oh, yes, big Victor Mature type. Real charmer. I can't blame Johnny's sister. This boy's really got it."
"What's his line?"
"Promotion, investments, speculation. You know, Joe, a wheel."
Lenny frowned. "Aren't you getting a little nosey, Joe? This man's got one of the better suites."
"Is it all right if I go up and talk to him?"
Lenny's frown was deeper. "Because a kid doesn't like him? This isn't much of a job, but I'm happy in it. Let's get to the cribbage." He reached into a drawer and brought out a cribbage board.
I shook my head.
I stood up. "Mind if I sit in the lobby for a while?"
"I sure as hell do. You're really reaching for business, aren't you, Joe?"
"It's hard to find," I admitted. "Well, get some exercise; you look a little jowly."
"That's because I eat regular. Good night, Joe." He was chuckling as I left.
There really wasn't any reason for me to feel annoyed. I had made an ass of myself and Lenny had pointed it out. I continued to feel annoyed. I knew what Lenny was earning; 340 a month and his room. He didn't have to be so superior; I'd turned down the job.
I was going through the door to the street, immersed in my own self pity when I ran into a large hunk of man.
We both bounced and then he growled, "Why'n hell don't you look where you're going?"
The face was broad, and for a moment a flare of incomplete recognition flickered in my memory, then died.
"Sorry," I said, and tried to recapture the near-memory. "Haven't we met?"
"Head-on," he agreed, and went through the doorway.
Overhead, the star was lost. In front of me, traffic growled and smoked. All around me, the lights were beckoning to buy, drink, dance or see a movie. The Chev started with a whine, and I headed her toward the Belvoir.
In the lobby, I took the phone off the hook and pressed the buzzer for the Delavan apartment.
A feminine voice came metallically through the speaker, and I said, "Could I speak with Johnny?"
"He's at a Scout meeting. Who is this?"
"John Foster Dulles," I said, and replaced the phone.
From there, I went to the East Side Station. Buddy Loeske called Headquarters for me and they had nothing on a Jean Magnus. That ended my day; I went home.
It would have ended my involvement with the Delavan problem, except for two things that happened next day. For one thing, Johnny came to see me at noon.
"Sis is burning up," he told me. "When you phoned, I told her you were my route supervisor, but she didn't believe me. And then when you talked to her last night, she knew something fishy was going on. "
"I don't blame her for burning. How did she ever meet this Magnus?"
"He came into the bank to rent a safety deposit box and she took care of him. What did you find out, Mr. Puma?"
"Nothing. Except that you'd been hanging around the Stratford lobby. And what did you find out, doing that?"
"I found out Magnus' name isn't Jean. One of his friends called him Nick, right there in the lobby."
"Oh? Anything else?"
He shook his head, his eyes intent on mine.
"Johnny," I said patiently, "what's your real beef with this Magnus? Don't you want your sister to get married? Is that it?"
"That's not it. He's no good. He's got a big lard bucket friend looks just like a crook. I saw him a lot of times when I was watching the hotel." Johnny took a deep breath. "And then there's a little ratty guy he knows, too."
"Crooks don't look like anything special," I told him gently. "You've been seeing too many movies, Johnny."
He gave me a look of complete scorn. "Okay. So I'm a dope. I've been earning money for two years, but I'm a dope. Okay. So--long--" He turned and went out.
The second thing that happened was that my phone rang, and it was the assistant manager at the Stratford. He wanted to know if I knew where Lenny Donovan was.
I told him I didn't and asked him why he thought I would.
"The clerk told me you came to see Mr. Donovan last night. He didn't show up for work this morning and I've exhausted every other source of possible information."
"Doesn't he stay there at the hotel?"
"He does. And his clothes are in the room, all except for those he was wearing last night."
"I've no idea where he is."
"Thank you, anyway. And incidentally, Mr. Puma, in the event Mr. Donovan hasn't an adequate excuse for his absence, would you be interested in the job here?"
He should have asked me before Max lent me the five hundred. I said with simple dignity, "I'm sorry. My living costs are too great for that."
I thought I heard him chuckle when I hung up. He knew I ate at Heinie's.
So Jean is called Nick and Donovan is missing. Not really important facts, and nobody was paying me. I went out for lunch.
I was halfway through the giant-sized bowl of clam chowder when the girl came in and walked over to Heinie. And then Heinie pointed at me, and she came my way.
Red hair and fine figure and dressed in nice, if modest, clothes. Under other circumstances, a girl it would be a pleasure to meet.
But now her eyes were blazing and the fine body seemed rigid. "Joseph Puma?" she asked me.
I stood up and nodded. "At your service, M'am."
"I don't want your service. Are you also John Foster Dulles, by any chance?"
I smiled. "Occasionally. I have a lot of disguises."
"I can imagine. Any of them would be better than the one you're wearing. And what gives you the right to establish a residence in my hair?"
"I didn't know I had," I said. "Just exactly what is your complaint, M'am? And your name?"
"My name," she said evenly, "is Eileen Delavan. Last night, an officer Ben Reichoff interrogated me. He said you had told him something that needed investigating. And you were the one who talked to Johnny on the phone last night, weren't you?"
"No M'am. Are you having some kind of trouble, Miss Delavan?"
"Too much. And I'll thank you to stay out of my business. Is that clear?"
"That's clear enough. You're welcome. Believe me, Miss Delavan, you're badly confused, but I haven't the time nor the patience to quarrel publicly about it. Could you keep your voice down?"
She glared and glared and then uttered something between a snort and cough and turned and stalked out. The patrons in Heinie's were all smiling; it's a small place and her voice had unusual clarity.
I finished my clam chowder and went over to the Stratford.
Lenny was still missing, the assistant manager told me. That fact hadn't yet been reported to the police.
I asked, "Is Mr. Magnus still occupying Suite 324?"
He nodded. "What would that have to do with Mr. Donovan?"
"I'm not sure it has anything to do with that. Has Lenny been drinking at all?"
The man shook his head. "Not to my knowledge. Not enough to interfere with his duties, at any rate."
"And he left no message behind?"
"None." He paused. "What about this Mr. Magnus, Joe? Why did you ask about him?"
I shrugged. "I was talking to Lenny about him last night. There's a possibility Lenny went to see him and Magnus would then be the last man to have seen Lenny before he disappeared. But that's way out in left field. I haven't any substantial reason for thinking there's anything fishy about Mr. Magnus."
"What insubstantial reason would you have?"
"The dislike of an eleven or twelve-year-old boy, the brother of a girl Magnus is going with."
The manager looked at me queerly. Then he sighed.
"It's not quite that ridiculous," I protested.
He sighed once more. "We are certainly fortunate we didn't manage to secure your doubtful services, Fearless Fosdick. Well, drop in again, but not soon, please?"
"To hell with you," I said, and gave him my back.
Going through the lobby, I felt an urgent need for a drink. I turned right, into the bar. It was a dim and quiet bar. Two men with brief cases were on stools at the far end, quietly downing an after-lunch drink. In a corner booth, there were three men who interested me more.
One of them was the bulky man I'd bumped into going out of the lobby last night. The other was small, ratty looking. The third had a dark-haired, dark-eyed charm I could guess would appeal to some undiscerning women.
I thought their talking ebbed when I came within vision and I thought they examined me with interest. There wasn't any doubt in my mind that this was the unholy trinity Johnny had described.