It was one-thirty in the morning. I’d left Cathy’s a little after one, and now I was sitting at the counter in the New Electric Diner, eating a ham sandwich and talking with Al, the night apron-man. The door behnd me opened and closed, and this heavy-set type walked in and took the stool to my right. “You may not believe this,” he told Al, but I’m looking for a guy named Smith.”
“If I got a choice,” Al told him, “I pass.”
“Unusual monicker,” I said.
He glanced at me. He was fortyish, ex-middleweight, slightly seedy, stocky, big-nosed and heavy browed. His suit was brown and old and a little too big for him. His tie was hand-painted and too wide. “It is that,” he agreed. “I figure that’ll help.”
“What’s this Smith’s front name?” I asked him.
“Then this is your lucky night.”
He slid off the stool. “You him?”
He started patting pockets. “A guy sent me to see you,” he said. “Said you were the only private eye in this town.” He frowned, still patting pockets. “Gave me a letter–” He finally patted his chest, and looked relieved. “Here it is,” he said, and reached in under his lapel. His eyes got a little brighter.
I gave him a dime’s worth of black coffee in the face and dove for the tile. He shot the ham sandwich and hollered, then I came back up from the floor and took the gun away from him. I may be chunky, but I can move fast when I have to.
Al was already at the pay phone, dialing Police Headquarters. I stepped back out of reach and studied the gun I was holding. It was a stubby .32 revolver, the best thing for close-up targets. Like me.
The guy who’d been packing it was wiping coffee off his face with his tie and looking annoyed.
“That’s a hell of a way to start a conversation,” I told him.
“If I’d known you were tipped–” He shrugged, disgusted.
“You did it yourself,” I said. “You forgot not to concentrate. What’s your regular line?”
“Shove it,” he told me.
“I’m not all hick,” I told him. “I learned some things in the Big War.”
Al came back down the counter. “A car’s on the way,” he said. He prodded the mess of ham sandwich and splintered plate. “You could of at least waited till you got outside,” he complained.
“I don’t see what you called the cops for,” the guy said.
That stopped me for a second, and then I said, “I thought that was kind of obvious.”
“Why? I come in here to sell you that gun, if you wanted to buy it. You spilled your coffee on me while I was holding it, and it went off, accidental. No harm done. I’ll pay for the plate.”
“There’s a gouge in the formica, Al said. He was disgusted, too.
“Okay. So I’ll pay for the plate and the gouge in the formica. And for the lousy sandwich. What do we need with cops?”
“Even under normal circumstances,” I told him, “that story of yours wouldn’t rate much more than a horse laugh. And these aren’t normal circumstances.”
“They told you who I was.”
He shrugged. “Yeah. A private nose.”
“The only private nose in town,” I told him. “The only one in Winston. Do you know why I’m the only private nose in Winston?”
He shrugged again. He couldn’t care less. “A hicksville like this,” he said. “It couldn’t support two.”
“I know everybody in town,” I told him. “The politicians and the businessmen and the cops. That’s why I’m the only private nose in town. And that’s why these aren’t normal circumstances. That’s why that story of yours won’t even rate a laugh.”
“I’ll take my chances,” he said.
“Which chances are those?”
He gave another shrug, but he didn’t say anything.
I waited until I was sure he saw exactly the position he was in. When he started chewing on his lower lip, I said, “Of course, there’s always a way out.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“All you have to do is tell me who sent you, and you can be long gone when the law gets here.”
He looked disgusted again. “I make one mistake,” he said peevishly. “That don’t make me an amateur.”
“Have it your own way.”
He chewed the lip some more, but he didn’t take my proposition. I hadn’t expected he would. I thought for a minute of giving the .32 to Al and asking the questions with my hands, but I didn’t have to. This guy would be spending a long, long night in the Winston City Jail. If I knew the local law, and I did, he’d be talking to a stenographer long before morning.
The squad car showed up a few minutes later, running without siren or flashing light. In a town this size, at one-thirty in the morning, there isn’t enough traffic to make a red light necessary. And a siren would only get nasty letters in the paper about how the police have no respect for the sleeping habits of decent citizens.
Dan Archer and Peter Wycza got out of the squad car and came into the diner, both looking rumpled in their blue uniforms and shiny badges. Al and I told our stories, the stranger repeated the joke he’d told me, and Pete said, “That’s real interesting, Mr.– What did you say your name was?”
“Smith,” he said.
“You got that wrong,” I told him. “I’m Smith.”
“John Smith,” he said.
“Okay, John Smith,” said Pete. He held out his hand. “Let’s see your wallet.”
“I left it in my other pants.”
Pete frowned. “Turn around, John Smith,” he said, and when the stranger had followed orders, Pete frisked him, coming up with nothing but a key to one of the lockers down at the Greyhound station. “You travel light, John Smith,” he said.
John Smith shrugged, “You got a better way?” he asked, with what seemed like genuine interest.
“Okay,” said Pete. “Let’s go on down to headquarters.”
Pete went out the door first, with John Smith second and Dan bringing up the rear. Pete went out, stepped to the left, and waited for Smith. For just a second, Smith was framed against the door. Then the rifle boomed from across the street, and he thunked back inside like he’d been yanked.
I hit the deck again, while Dan jumped over Smith’s body and through the doorway, ducking to the right and shouting, “Pete, did you see the flash?”
“No, dammit,” shouted Pete.
Everything stopped for a long minute, then. Al was on the floor behind the counter, I was on the floor in front of the counter, and Pete and Dan were on the sidewalk to either side of the doorway. But nothing more happened, and when Dan moved cautiously back inside, there weren’t any more shots.
Pete followed him in and shut the door. While he headed for the pay phone, Dan said to me, “What the hell is this all about, Tim?”
“You’ve got me,” I said. “I was sitting here minding my own business, when the late unlamented over there came in and pulled a gun on me.”
“You know him from somewhere?”
“Not me. He gave me to know he’d been hired.”
“He didn’t give me to know that much.”
“What’ve you been up to lately?”
“Same old thing. Graft and corruption.”
“You don’t have any ideas on this at all?”
“Not a one, Dan. I’m as surprised as you are. And a bit more worried.”
Pete came back then. “Ambulance is on the way,” he said. To me he said, “Tim, maybe you oughta go on down to headquarters in the morning and talk to Harcum. He’ll want to know what the score is.”
“So will I. Can I go now?”
“I don’t see why not. Be careful going out the door.”
I was careful. I pushed the door open, waited a second, and then jumped for the darkness beyond the light doorway. No shots. I crouched low, feeling fatter than my hundred and ninety pounds, taller than my five-foot-ten, and older than my thirty-nine years, and ran for my car, a black ’51 Ford. And still there weren’t any shots. Once in the car, I jammed the key into the ignition, hit the starter and the accelerator, and got the hell out of there. And still there weren’t any shots.
I got about halfway home before I realized that those four big empty rooms weren’t what I needed right now. What I needed was somebody to talk to, somebody to pace back and forth in front of, somebody to whom I could say, “Look, I’m still alive.” Everything had whipped by at 78 r.p.m. back at the diner, and I was just beginning to catch on to what had happened. Somebody had tried to kill me. And I was still alive.
I made a fast U-turn and headed for Cathy’s place. This was no time to be alone.