Ed and Am have gotten away from the Carney life. These days, they’re working for the Starlock Detective Agency. Ed’s first case is a wealthy client trying to sound out whether an investment’s worth it. But then he finds a body with its throat cut, and hears some external howling that might just be from a werewolf.
The Bloody Moonlight
Copyright ? 1949
IT WAS ALMOST QUITTING TIME when my Uncle Am came into the back room of the Starlock agency, where we both worked. He sat down and put his feet up. He grinned at me and said, “Well, kid?”
“Yeah,” I told him, and that about covered it.
I'd been an operative for two days. The first morning I'd read the typewritten book of Instructions for Operatives. In the afternoon I'd gone out to West Madison Street to talk to a bartender whose cousin had skipped town with a car on which he'd made only two payments. He either didn't know where his cousin had gone or he wouldn't tell me. This morning, my second day, Ben Starlock had sent me out with an op who was on a tail job; I was just to go along to learn the ropes. We waited outside the office building where he worked until two-thirty and when he hadn't come out for lunch by then we phoned under a pretext and learned he'd left for the day at eleven. Either we'd missed him
or he'd gone out the back way. So we came back to the agency, the other op had got put on something else, and I was still sitting.
And now Uncle Am sat grinning at me like a shortish, fattish Cheshire cat. He said, “Well, Ed, you asked for it.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. I really had. He'd been with the agency eight months now, since we'd left the carnival, and all that time I'd been dogging him to dog Starlock into taking me on.
Ben Starlock came out of the front office and leaned against the jamb of the door, almost filling the doorway. He was an ex-cop, and looked it. He said, “Am, how'd you like to take a run down to Tremont for two or three days? A gravy run.”
Sure,” Uncle Am said. “Would the budget on it stand two men? I could take Ed along and show him a thing or two.”
Ben shook his head. “One man, three days, is what the client authorized. She put a hundred-buck ceiling on it, counting expenses. Know anything about radio, Am?” Enough to tune in a station. The kid here does. Didn't you tell me you made a set once, Ed?”
“Yeah,” I said. I didn't think it necessary to mention that it had been a crystal set, which has about the same relationship to a modern radio as a toy balloon has to a B-29.
Ben looked at me with new interest. He said, “I wonder,” and then shook his head. Nope, he'd never get out of town. Too good looking. If I sent him around to see the client, she'd keep him.”
Uncle Am said, “He's got a baseball bat he drives the women off with. He could take it along. What's the radio angle, Ben?”
“Guy down in Tremont's got a new gadget he's getting mysterious signals with. Sort of hints they might be from Mars or somewhere.”
“So what's the score?” Uncle Am asked. “What's our angle?”
“Guy in Tremont's an inventor — a little bit screwball, maybe, but not all the way. He's got a small income from stuff he's patented and sold. Now he's got something new, he thinks, and he wants some money from our client to finance some more work on it before he puts it out.
“Our client's a successful businesswoman, with a fair stack of hay. She's a distant relative of the old man, the inventor, lived with him when she was a kid, see? Now he wants five thousand bucks from her, offers her an interest in the new gadget.
“Well, she's done business with us before and she wants us to send an op down there to talk to him and ask questions about him, find out if he's on the beam and maybe got something. There's no suspicion of fraud; it's all in the family. If he's off his rocker, she'll give him some money anyway — five hundred bucks or maybe up to a grand — and write
it off for auld lang syne. On the other hand, if he's really got something, well, she could easily raise the five thousand he wants for an interest in it.”
I said, “If there's no question of fraud, I'd say it's more of a case for a radio technician, an expert, than a private detective.”
Ben Starlock said, “Sure, that's how we make our money, turning down
cases because somebody else could do it better. Also, in my opinion, the very mention of the word Mars is pretty good proof the guy's a nut and she needn't investigate further. But that's another way not to make money — to give a client the answer for free.”
Uncle Am said, “I'll take it, Ben, if you want. But why not let the kid take a crack at it? He's had a pretty dull couple of days, and besides he does know more about radio than I do.”
Starlock shrugged. He said, “Okay, why not? Listen, Ed, the important
thing about a case like this one is to write a good report, one that makes it sound like you did a lot of work. Make the client think she's getting her money's worth. And don't stick your neck out with too strong an opinion; just report what you find out and let her draw her own conclusions. Got that?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Then here's the dope. Our client is Justine Haberman, nineteen seven Lincoln Park West; we've done business with her before, so she's okay. I just talked to her on the phone. She wants whatever op is making the trip to drop out to see her this evening and get the details and instructions.
“Take the first train down to Tremont tomorrow — it's a little over
a hundred miles. Do the job in two days if you can, not over three at
the outside. You won't have to report in here tomorrow morning. And watch the expenses.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Your train fare'll be about seven bucks. In a little town like that you can get a room for not over three bucks a night, and that'll be two nights if you spend three days on the job. Get by for four bucks a day on meals and that'll make an even twenty-five bucks. Because she's an old client I gave her a rate of twenty-five a day, and if you hold expenses down we can give her three days for the hundred she wants to spend. Got money for expenses, or want to draw some?”
“I got enough,” I told him.
He said, “Okay, beat it, then. You too, Am. I won't need you any more today.” Which, I thought, was damn generous of him because it was four minutes to five, and five was quitting time.
I told Uncle Am that while we were going down in the elevator and he laughed. He said, “It all evens up, kid. Some days you work five or six hours over, some days you get off five or six minutes early. Let's eat at that place around the corner on Randolph.”
We did, and while we ate Uncle Am went into it a little bit more. He said, “You got to look at it from the agency's point of view, too, Ed. It doesn't get paid for the time you sit around on your tail in the back room, but you do. Only way Starlock can even up for that is to make money on you when you are working. And sure, it sounds like penny-pinching to tell you to hold your meals to four bucks a day —
but, honestly now, if you were buying your own meals on your own money, would you pay over that?”
“I guess not.”
“So. Look at it this way. The agency is authorized to spend a hundred bucks. Now if that's done on two days' time and fifty dollars' expenses, the agency makes about twenty bucks — figuring your salary plus share
of office overhead at fifteen a day. If you get in three days' time and twenty dollars' expenses, the agency makes thirty bucks. Wouldn't you, if you were running an agency, rather make thirty bucks on a deal than twenty?”
“You win, Uncle Am,” I said.
“Good, then we can get away from vulgar mathematics. Kid, you talked me into getting you a job at the agency and, God help you, you're a detective now. I want you to make a go of it. If you don't like it and quit, that's okay if you were good at it while you lasted.”
“I see what you mean,” I told him. “Okay, I am going to make a go of it. I'm all right; I just had a bad couple of days, that's all.”
“So we'll go home and then you go see this Haberman dame. Then come jack and—”
“You know her?”
“I've met her. Why?”
“What's she like?”
He said, “She's a woman. So you'll get along with her all right. Don't worry about that. But after you get the dope from her come on home and we'll talk it over and I'll give you some steers as to the best way to handle things in Tremont.”
We went to our room and played a game or two of cribbage and then it was time for me to put on a clean shirt and head for Lincoln Park West. I figured eight o'clock would be a safe time to get there.
I hadn't expected the address Ben Starlock had given me to be a furnished room over a saloon; I'd figured it to be an apartment building with a doorman and a switchboard, and I'd changed my shirt and shaved so they wouldn't make me use the tradesmen's entrance. It threw me a little off base by being a private home. Not a mansion, just a seven- or eight-room red-brick home set in the middle of a wide and deep lot with plenty of grass and flowers around it, and a driveway that led to a two-car garage at the back. It was a layout that would have been moderately expensive out in a suburb; within spitting distance of the Loop it must have cost plenty.
I rang the bell and a maid answered the door. She beat me to the punch. “You the gen'leman from the detective company?”
I admitted that I was and she showed me to a parlor to the right of the hall and said, “Mizz Haberman be down purty soon.”
I sat and twiddled my thumbs for a while and nothing happened so I got up to look at the phonograph and the shelves of records on the other side of the room. The phonograph was a Capehart and the albums included a little bit of every-thing from Bunny Berrigan to J.S. Bach. You could have started a record store with what was there.
I was still reading labels when I heard a throat cleared behind me and turned around. A tall, thin man stood in the doorway with a glass in his hand as though he was posing for a whiskey ad. He could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty, and he could have had anywhere between one and ten drinks — until he walked farther into the room; then you could tell it had been ten drinks.
He asked, “Want to hear some music?”
“Sure,” I said.
He put the glass down on the Capehart and almost stumbled as he stepped alongside to look at the albums. “Haydn or Khachaturian?” he asked.
Drunk as he was, he pronounced Khachaturian as easily as I could have pronounced Kern.
I said, “If you don't mind my being lowbrow, there's an album of Muggsy Spanier records I could do with, the Asch album there.”
“A kindred soul,” he said. “We shall have a piece of Asch.”
He pulled the album from the shelf without getting a good enough grip on it and it slid out of his hand, ricocheted off the comer of the Capehart and landed flat on the floor; I could hear the records crack.
He picked up his glass and took another sip. He said, “Maybe you'd rather have another drink instead?”
I told him, “Thanks, no. Maybe that's enough music, too.”
“You could run it.”
I said, “A Capehart's too complicated for me. I never drove one.”
“Sure you won't have a drink? Oh, I know. You're on duty. England expects every man to do his duty. And Justine — Have you met Justine?”
“You shall. Justine expects every man to do her duty. What time is it?”
I told him it was a quarter after eight.
He said, “I must not keep the Duchess waiting. Glad to have met you.” He went out and I heard the front door close. I never saw him again.
I put the Muggsy Spanier album back on the shelf without opening it to assess the damage, and I moved the glass he'd left on the Capehart to a glass-topped coffee table where it wouldn't leave a ring, and then I sat down and twiddled my thumbs some more.
After a while I happened to look up at the doorway again and this time a woman stood there. I don't know how long she'd been standing there watching me. I stood up and said, “Miss Haberman? I'm Ed Hunter, from the Starlock agency.”
She was tall and blond, and highly polished without looking hard. Her age might have been anywhere over twenty-one. She had eyes that were large and wide apart, like a fawn's. Don't ask me what color they were; I never notice what color people's eyes are. But her hair was the color of straw, although it was arranged more neatly than straw ever is. She had a beautiful figure, and wore a dress of some kind over it but not exactly hiding it. She asked, “Know anything about radio?”
“A little. Not much.”
“What's frequency modulation?”
I said, “It's a system of broadcasting in which the frequency of the
transmitted wave modulates according to the amplitude and pitch of what's being broadcast. Eliminates static.”
“Would you rather have a whiskey sour or a Martini?”
I said, “Isn't that a little like asking, are you still beating your wife? The Instructions for Operatives say one can't drink on duty, but how can one answer a question the way you worded it and remain unsullied? The answer is either.”
She leaned back around the doorway and said, “Whiskey sours, Elsie,” and then came on into the room. She sat down on the sofa and I sat down again, and looked at her. She was definitely worth looking at.
She asked, “Have you worked for Starlock long?”
“Not very,” I admitted. And because I didn't want to say specifically how long not-very was, I asked, “Do you have the letter from this man in Tremont in which he tells you what it is he has?”
“It's at my office, but that doesn't matter; I can tell you everything you have to know. Ready? Got a pencil?”
“I can remember it,” I said, “unless there's a lot of technical data.”
“There isn't. His name is Stephen — with a p-h — Amory. He lives about
two miles outside Tremont, Illinois, on a road that's called the Dartown Road.”
“It used to be. He gave up farming — in favor of puttering around with
his inventions — quite a few years ago and he's sold off all the farm land to his neighbors. Just has an acre or two left that the house stands on. He's a widower now — his wife was still alive when I lived with them for a while, as a child — and he lives there alone except for one man who works for him, Randolph Barnett.”
I wrote the name down, mentally. I asked, “And which end of things does this Randolph Barnett help on? The technical end, or taking care of the house and the acre or two?”
“A little of both. He's had technical training.”
“And what is the exact nature of the invention that Stephen Amory claims to have?”
She frowned at me. “Listen — What's your name?”
“Hunter. Ed Hunter.”
“Listen, Ed, you don't have to question me. Let me tell it my way; then
when I'm through, if there are any questions you want to ask, okay.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Stephen Amory is my half uncle; the half brother of my mother. My parents
died, both of them, when I was nine. I was sent to live with the Amorys and stayed with them for five years, until I was fourteen. So they were father and mother to me for that while. Then Mrs. Amory died and I came to live with other relatives in Chicago, until — Well, my career after
that hasn't anything to do with the business at hand, except that I want you to understand that — that there's no question of fraud involved. He isn't trying to—”
She broke off as the maid came in with a tray that had four whiskey sours. She gave Justine Haberman one and me one and then put the tray down on the coffee table and went out.
I looked at the other two drinks on the tray and Justine said, “Don't be stuffy. Would you rather have milk? Where were we?”
“No question of fraud involved. What has he got?”
“Bumps.” She lifted her drink and took a sip. “He's cagy about just what it is. He says, frankly, that it might turn out to be something big and then again it might be nothing at all. It has something to do with receiving, not broadcasting, and he did mention frequency modulation. And he said he'd been getting some strange signals on it, something he couldn't identify. He admitted it puzzled him; said he'd used a directional antenna — a loop aerial — on it and that the signals
seemed to come from up.”
“Such as the moon or Mars?”
She frowned at me. “Did Ben Starlock give you that idea?”
“Well,” I said, “I thought — I mean — didn't you tell him—?”
“Ben Starlock is an ass. I told him as little as possible over the phone so as not to get someone off on the wrong foot with a wrong idea. Stephen Amory is not a nut. He has a steady, if small, income from royalties on things he's invented and patented.”
“Sorry,” I said. “Maybe I've read too many science-fiction stories.
But I didn't mean to sound sarcastic. Why couldn't there be intelligent life on another planet somewhere? Why couldn't strange signals come from somewhere off the earth?”
“Because — every time he's heard them, they've come from exactly the same angle — seventy-five degrees, approximately. The earth revolves;
it doesn't stand still with relation to any other planet, or anything else. Yet the signals always come from the same point.”
I said, “All right, I'm stupid. What's the answer? I agree, then, that it couldn't be Mars or the moon.”
“Quit being stupid. Tell me the answer.”
It was a nasty question, then and there. Because, for one thing, I had a hunch that I ought to know it if I thought things out. I closed my eyes, so that looking at her wouldn't distract me, and I thought hard for a minute.
Then I opened my eyes and said, “Radio waves bounce off the Heaviside layer.
A signal sent upward on a tight directional beam from thirty or forty miles away might bounce off the Heaviside and land in Mr. Amory's lap from an angle of seventy-five degrees. Is that the answer?”
“You go to the head of the class, Ed. What are you working for Ben Starlock for?”
“Money,” I said. “Speaking of which, has your half uncle ever asked you for any before?”
“Never. Not a cent. And — well, I don't know how straight Starlock gave this part of it to you, but I do feel that I owe him something. Whatever your report turns up, I'm sending him some money — a thousand dollars,
“But he offers me an interest — a fourth interest, to be exact, for
five thousand dollars. Now that's a lot of money for me to raise.”
I said, “It would even be a lot of money for me to raise.”
“Don't ever try to be funny, Ed. You're funnier when you don't.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don't mention it. Would you mind finishing that drink so you can take
another, and hand me one while you're at it?”
I did, and she said, “All right, does that finish the business or is