* * * *
BRECK BARNUM went back to the sofa and eyed the whiskey decanter longingly. If anyone ever had a right to get drunk twice in one night, he decided it was himself and the night was tonight. His hand reached for the glass container, then paused. He sighed, shook his head and pulled it back.
It was not that he had any aversion to or fear of alcohol. The redhead enjoyed his liquor along with the best of them--for play. But somewhere along the line, if the knife in Mr. O'Connell's chest, the lump on his own head and the pistol barrel down which he had so recently been staring meant anything, this business, whatever it was, had passed the bounds of sport, good and clean or otherwise.
There was, of course, only one thing to do--call Lieutenant Burke and give him the entire story of the evening's happenings. And he had an idea he'd be able to handle that a lot better if he presented a reasonable facsimile of sobriety. He got up wearily and crossed to the phone in his bedroom.
Burke was not at headquarters, but he had left word of his whereabouts, and the police operator managed to get him on a three-way hookup. The detective's voice sounded tired, but lost its fatigue as Breck launched himself in an account of his most recent experiences.
"Hold it!" said Burke incisively. "I don't want this over the phone. Can you stay awake until I get over?"
"Sure," said the redhead. He glanced at his alarm clock and saw that it was after three o'clock. Sight of the time caused him to yawn prodigiously. "I guess so," he concluded doubtfully.
"Well, hang on," snapped the detective. "I'm on my way right now."
Breck looked at his clothes lying in a heap on the bed, debated the wisdom of putting them on again. But what was the use of getting dressed when the detective was coming here? He compromised by picking the garments up off the spread and folding them over a chair. Then he went back to the living room, sat down again on the sofa and lit a cigarette. He was still smoking it when Burke's knock made the front door quiver.
"Morning, Loot," he said, opening it. Then he gasped and goggled and muttered, "My God! Aunt Megruesome!" as the monstrous fat lady of the Jamaica Inn came waddling in under her sable blanket, a long, thick Havana cigar protruding from her little round lips.
"I didn't know you'd met, Miss Brewster," said T. Colman Flanders, following her in. Of middle height, his only heritage of power from his bull-like father lay in a pair of powerful shoulders and a barrel chest that looked outsize on his otherwise dapper frame. His features were cast in a delicate mold, remarkable only for an uneven pair of eyebrows that gave him a constant expression of weary cynicism. At the moment he was wearing a deep purple dinner jacket under a dark brown cashmere topcoat. Lieutenant Burke, hiding the curious gleam in his blue eyes under a mask of impassivity, appeared directly behind him.
"He didn't say Brewster," said the fat lady, planting herself firmly just inside the doorway and regarding Breck with beetle-eyed distrust. "It sounded more like gruesome to me."
"I--er?" said the redhead. He started to run a finger inside his collar, remembered barely in time that he wasn't wearing one.
"It's all right, Amy," said Flanders. "He said Brewster, I heard him. This is Breck Barnum, Amy--Miss Brewster. She's representing certain of the family's interests."
She rolled her cigar to the other corner of her mouth, the while regarding him keenly. He knew damned well she didn't think he'd said Brewster and silently damned Miss Smith for wishing that embarrassment on him. At which point the name Amy Brewster rang a bell. He closed his eyes briefly and shuddered.
Now, after being more or less invaded by two unknown women and an indeterminate number of hoods, he was playing host to an international character. Why in hell he hadn't realized her at the restaurant he couldn't figure out. He'd seen enough pictures of her. He gave her another searching look. She was little different, close up, from her middle-distance appearance, except that the shrewd intelligence gleaming in her black button eyes and the sardonic humor of her whole expression were unmistakable.
Amy Brewster was almost as famous as the late Madame Curie. If, in Boston, Lowells spoke only to Cabots, Cabots to God and so on, God spoke only to Brewsters. Those of her ancestors who had not been busily acquiring a great material fortune from selling blacks to the Southern States and opium to the Chinese had been, from various New England pulpits, vigorously denouncing the devil and all his works before quaking congregations.
Until Amy, of course. The fat woman had kicked over the traces of respectability with a vengeance. Her radicalism had not been too noticeable early in life, save in her refusal to marry such panic-stricken fortune seekers who had risked her devastating tongue to offer themselves in marriage. She had shown brilliance, graduating from Radcliffe at the age of seventeen after completing the college course in two and a half years. She had followed this up with rapidly earned degrees at Summerville, the Sorbonne and Harvard Law, become a member in good standing of the bars of Massachusetts, New York and California before reaching the maturity of twenty-five. Thereafter she had contented herself with eating, drinking, gambling and raising all-around hell with the status quo. Using her legal wizardry to represent the underdogs in labor-capital disputes, she was a confirmed believer in the redistribution of wealth. Yet she had salvaged the tottering finances of a couple of Latin American Republics, had, thanks to a shrewdness she could never avoid, increased her own fortune with every move she made. Over many a staid New England breakfast table she had been even more thunderously denounced than Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself.
Almost subconsciously Breck began to consider ways and means of using Amy's presence in the Jamaica Inn as a source of publicity for Lou Latham. But Lieutenant Burke brought him out of it as he took off his homburg.
"I was questioning Mr. Flanders and Miss Brewster when you called," he said. "Since you wanted to see me, they asked to come along and have a look at the manuscript now. Hope you don't mind."
"Not at all," said the redhead, coming out of his trance and feeling extremely unclad in his robe and slippers. "Here, sit down and have a drink. This will take a little time."
"Any gin?" the fat woman asked, plumping her three hundred-odd pounds down on the sofa, which really screamed its anguish. "Just the bottle and a glass," she went on by way of amplification. "I'm dryer than a fiddler's bitch."
Breck nodded and got the required ingredients from his kitchen. While Flanders and the detective were helping themselves from the decanter Amy casually filled a tumbler full of gin and drained it without batting an eyelash. The redhead managed not to choke, lit himself a cigarette and sat down. Lieutenant Burke sipped at his Scotch and water.
"Okay, Barnum," he said, putting down the glass on the table beside his chair. "Now what is this wild saga you tried to tell me over the phone?"
"It's wild, all right," said Breck. "You see, after I left the office, I went over to the place--the Jamaica Inn--and?"
"It'll keep," said Amy, interrupting sharply. "Where in hell is that blasted manuscript, Breck?"
Her easy use of his first name made him stop briefly, but he gathered himself together.
"That's the point," he told her. "It isn't--at least as far as I'm concerned. I was going to tell you what happened."
"Good God, man!" exclaimed T. Colman, rigid with surprise. "Do you mean to tell me?"
"I do," said the redhead. "As I was trying to say, when I got to the Inn?"
"But that's dreadful!" said Flanders. "Now, of all times, how could you?"
"Suppose you let him tell it, Flanders," said the detective quietly.
"Yeah, shut up, Colman," said Amy, giving Breck the nod to go on.
He gave it to them complete, skipping only the appearance of Amy herself. Something in her eyes when he reached that part of the story told him not to monkey with the buzz saw. Besides, as far as he knew, her appearance at the Inn had had nothing to do with the subsequent events. When he described the mysterious Miss Smith, Breck could have sworn he saw a flicker of recognition in T. Colman's eyes, a faintly satisfied quirk to the corners of his mouth. And when he got to the unknown pistol packin' mama in slacks, Lieutenant Burke turned a faint tinge of green.
"Everything happens to me!" he said. "This case isn't full enough of angles as it is--so you add a gorgeous blonde in slacks and a six-gun."
"She was wearing a sweater too," said Breck, making appropriate gestures with his hands. Amy bellowed, causing Burke and T. Colman to regard her with injured expressions.
"Everything happens to you?" she said to the detective. "It seems to me our Breck is the lad who's put in the real tough evening."
"Thanks for the kind words, Amy," said Breck. "I'd trade another lump on my pate for that damned manuscript though."
"Some of us would trade a lot more than that," said T. Colman, rising. He paused to wipe his mouth on a white handkerchief. "Incidentally, Barnum, my offer for it still stands, the moment you get it back." He added, with slightly mocking emphasis, "If, of course, you haven't been taken up by a publisher. So drop by tomorrow afternoon the way we planned, and we'll go ahead as if it hadn't been stolen. It may turn up yet."
"What in hell, if I may ask, is your interest in this unfinished manuscript of Barnum's?" Lieutenant Burke asked. T. Colman, flicking his handkerchief carefully back into his breast pocket, regarded him with an expression of arrogant amusement.
"Why," he said blandly, "it's just that I'd like very much to have it in the hands of the family, where it belongs. Can you think of a better reason, Lieutenant?"
"I can think of several," said the detective, but he didn't press the matter further, and turned to Breck instead. "By the way, Barnum, have any of your friends a key to this apartment?"
"Not to my knowledge," said Breck. He thought it over, shook his head. "I suppose the superintendent and the real estate people must have pass keys. But I only have one. I've been meaning to have some copies made, but I can't seem to remember to get around to it. Besides, if anyone had a key, why should he hit me over the head with a brick wall to get into the place? It doesn't make sense."
"What does, so far?" said Amy, relighting her Corona.
"Never mind," said the detective. "Suppose you get your key and let me look at it, anyway." Breck shrugged his shoulders, got up and dug it out of one of the side pockets of the trousers hanging over a chair in the other room. He handed it to the lieutenant, who held it under a lamp to get a strong light on it.
"Look here," he said. Peering close as Burke took a pin from his lapel, Breck saw him pry something white out of a crease in the metal, hold it in his hand. "Paraffin! Somebody fixed things to get in here without any help from you," he concluded.
"It had to be there," said Amy, setting down her glass after emptying a second tumblerful of gin. "Anything to make your case tougher, Burke. How in hell could you enjoy your persecution complex without things like that? I wouldn't want to deprive you of your only real pleasure."
"I don't need a persecution complex on this one," said Burke, glaring at the fat lady, who returned the look with a bland and irritating grin. Amy suddenly stuck her hand out at Breck.
"You're a nice massive brindle bull," she said unexpectedly. As the redhead shook hands with her, she added, "Come on, T. Colman, you old louse. Let's get the hell out of here. He's told us all he knows."
"Very well," said T. Colman, obviously disturbed by Amy's familiarity, but unable or unwilling to do anything about it. "Thanks for the drink and the story, Barnum. I'll see you tomorrow. Good night, Burke."
The redhead saw them out the door, then came back, poured himself a drink and looked at it against the light.
"If anybody needed a drink, ever, it's me," he said. "I didn't dare take another until I'd told you the story, Burke. I was afraid of getting pickled after that sock on the dome. Here's to crime."
He downed it, felt many per cent better, then eyed the detective, after sitting down on the sofa, which emitted only a mild squeak.
"How in Hades did la Brewster get into this anyway?" he asked.
"She simply moved in while I was at Flanders' place," Burke said. "Claimed she had some interest or other."
"And you let her?" said the redhead with honest astonishment.
"Let her?" exclaimed Burke. "Can you see me or anyone else stopping her? If I tried, she'd have the commissioner on my neck tomorrow. Besides," he paused thoughtfully to flick ashes from his cigarette, "you may not know it, but our Amy has been turning to crime of late. She solved a pip of a murder in Boston a few months ago that had the police up there standing on their collective ear."
"I didn't know it," said Breck. It occurred to him that the mysterious Miss Smith must have powerful connections if she could pull Amy Brewster in on her side--whatever that was. Puzzling was hardly the word for it. Aunt Megruesome--he shuddered again. The phrase was apt after a fashion, he decided, but hardly practicable.
"You get picked up by this girl--this Miss Smith," said Lieutenant Burke after a moment of scowling silence. "You bring her home. This Johnny Soranno is waiting for you in the hall, and he or one of his stooges or the girl saps you. When you come to, the script is gone. And then I find your key has been copied."
"Pretty picture, isn't it?" said Breck. He was beginning to wish fervently that he were somebody else. "I guess I wasn't cut out for a life of crime. By the way, what do you know?"
"Not much," said the detective, shifting his weight comfortably. "The whole business is a reefer dream. The first screwy angle is why nobody knocked off old O'Connell until the fourth time he came to see you. How come whoever did it knew he wasn't going to get in? It doesn't look so good for that secretary of yours--that Miss Cochrane."
"You're telling me," said Breck. "Just give me first crack at her, that's all I ask. You haven't pulled her in yet, have you?"
"Pulled her in--hell!" said the detective. "Damn it, she's taken a powder on us."
"You mean?" said the redhead, astonished at this further proof of Dorothy's duplicity. He simply couldn't picture her as a killer or even a killer's accomplice.
"I do," said Burke grimly. "She never went home from the office. We're checking the hotels, of course--but it may take a little time."
"Go easy on her when you find her," said Breck. "She's no murderer."
"I didn't say she was, did I?" countered the lieutenant. "Hell, man, what do you think we are?"
"Cops," said Breck. There was a silence, then the redhead asked, "What do you want me to do?"
"Stay healthy," said Burke. "There's too much going on. And I don't want any more murders. You may find out why you were sapped and burgled, but you'll never find out why you were knocked off--if you get yourself knocked off."
"I'll be good," said the redhead, "but I'd like to run into Johnny Soranno in a nice light alley with no one else around."
"He'd be a sucker to give you the chance," said the detective. He poured a short drink, downed it and stood up. "Well, I'm on my way, Barnum. I guess guarding you now would be the old barn door business after the horse is stolen since that script of yours took a walk. But don't forget what I said about being careful."
"I'll be good," the redhead repeated as he showed the detective out the door. He yawned, thought of bed, then discovered he wasn't sleepy. Too much had happened. He sat down on the sofa again, was just lighting a cigarette when the phone rang shrilly. Wondering what next, he sped to the bedroom to answer it.
"Breck!" said a woman's voice, a trifle husky and unsteady with fright. It was Dorothy. "Breck, I'm scared!"