Murder Can Be Fun
This page copyright ? 2004 Blackmask Online.
THERE ARE FEW STREETS in America down which a man wearing a mask can walk without attracting undue attention. Broadway, Manhattan, is one of those streets; Broadway has carried sophistication to the point of naivete.
The man in the mask had stepped out of a car parked just around the corner from. Broadway, on a street in the upper Fifties. Many people must have seen him leave the car, but it didn't matter. Even if the police, afterward, had traced him back to that car, it still wouldn't have mattered. It was a stolen car, and one whose theft would not be reported for several hours to come.
His bright red costume would not have been noticed at all in December. Now, under a sweltering August sun, it drew casually curious glances from some of the people he passed. A few went so far as to turn their
heads after him and to wonder slightly why there wasn't an advertising placard on his back. Surely he must be advertising or selling something. No one in his right mind would wear a hot flannel Santa Clans suit in August unless he was advertising or selling something.
But even if the man in the Santa Claus suit and mask wasn't in his right mind, that didn't 'matter to the casually curious. They knew it was a gag of some sort, and only suckers get curious about things that don't concern them. Pretty soon he'd turn into a doorway and start spieling—and
then it would turn out that he was selling Santa Claus soap, a quarter a bar, guaranteed to wash the skins off potatoes so you wouldn't need a knife to peel them.
But the man in the Santa suit didn't stop to spiel or to peel. He kept on walking, not rapidly, but with the businesslike stride of a man who knows where he is going.
As a disguise, it was perfect. The scarlet suit and the plump-cheeked, cheery false face gave the lie to his actual height and build so successfully that he would not have needed a pillow tied to his midriff to have induced many to swear that he was short and fat. Afterward, the police would locate a dozen or so of the thousands of people who had passed him, and their reports would be conflicting to the point of absurdity. To the orthodox among them, he'd been fat and dumpy. To a few, the agnostics, he was tall and would have been skinny except for the pillow. Or had it been a pillow?
Height: short or tall. Build: fat or thin. Color of eyes: not known. Distinguishing features: Are you kidding?
That was the sum total of description, then, that the police obtained, and they did not find it helpful to them. They did, however, trace his route from the upper Fifties to the lower Fifties. And, after the murder, back again to the upper Fifties. But we get ahead of ourselves.
The man in the Santa suit went into a building in the lower Fifties. An elevator whisked him to the third floor, and he walked along the corridor to an office and opened a door marked simply ARTHUR D. DINEEN.
There was a railing across the room just inside the door. Beyond the railing a stenographer sat at a typing desk. She looked up as the Santa suit entered, and her eyes widened a little.
“I have an appointment with Mr. Dineen,” said the voice behind the mask.
“You—uh—” The eyes of the stenographer whisked from the clock on the wall to the memo pad on her desk and then to the smiling, apple-cheeked mask. She said, “Your name, please?” with the smug air of one who is not to be taken in.
“Johan Smith,” said the man in the red suit. “Mr. Dineen is expecting me at ten-fifteen.”
Yes, that was the name on the memo pad, and he couldn't have read it from where he stood outside the railing. The girl at the desk said, “Yes, Mr. Smith. You may go in.”
He walked through the gate in the railing and toward the door marked private leading to the inner office.
The girl's eyes followed him speculatively. A screwball? Well, it wasn't her worry if he was. The boss himself had made the appointment. She remembered now that it had been made by telephone the previous afternoon. An actor, of course, but why would he wear a costume to the interview unless he was a screwball?
The man in the red suit didn't look back. He walked through the door and closed it after him, quietly.
The man seated at the desk in the inner office looked up. He saw the costume and said, “What in hell—?”
At the tone of his voice, there was a growl from the far corner of the room. A big Doberman pinscher who had been curled up in the shaft of sunlight from the open window was now on his feet. There was an ominous buzz saw in his chest.
The eyes that looked out through the holes in the false face flickered from the growling dog back to the gray-haired man at the desk. The voice from within the mask said, “If you don't want that pooch killed, tell
him—” He didn't waste words finishing the sentence; the pistol now in his hands was more eloquent than speech—it was silently eloquent, one
might say, for there was a silencer on the pistol.
His eyes narrowing as he took in the fact of the silenced revolver, the man behind the desk kept his hands carefully quiet on the blotter pad. He asked, “What do you want?”
“I don't want trouble,” said the man in the Santa suit. “So first order that dog to lie down. I didn't know he'd be—” He stopped talking with
the suddenness of one who realizes he is saying something he shouldn't.
The Doberman had taken two stiff-legged steps forward, and the buzz saw was louder. At rest, he had been sleekly beautiful; now he was savagely, threateningly beautiful. His eyes were intent; the short hairs on his neck, around the heavy collar with the gold-plated studs, stood menacingly erect.
His legs bent under him, like springs, even as the man at the desk turned his head. He said “Rex!”—but. too late. Or perhaps the dog misinterpreted the order. He sprang.
There was a muffled explosion—about as loud as a cap pistol —as the
man in the red suit pulled the trigger of the gun. He stepped aside as the body of the dog completed its arc through the air and thudded to the thickly carpeted floor of the office, twitched once, and lay still.
The man at the desk had leaped to his feet, his face twisted with anger. He said “Damn you” and snatched at the only heavy object on the desk top, an exquisitely made silver inkstand, and jerked it back over his shoulder to hurl it at the man in the red suit. Also, he opened his mouth to yell for help.
But the second muffled shot of the silenced gun stopped both the throw and the yell. The gray-haired man fell forward across the desk, and there was a small hole in his forehead, just above the left eye. The silver inkstand was the center of a spreading black pool on the carpet beside the swivel chair.
With cool deliberation, the man in the Santa Claus suit pocketed the pistol he had fired twice. He said, rather loudly in case any sounds had been heard in the office outside, “Yes, Mr. Dineen, I quite appreciate that. But—” And he kept on talking while he walked around the desk and picked up the fallen inkstand.
He held it upside down a moment while the last drops of ink ran out, then snapped the lid down over the well, and wrapped it carefully in a cloth before he put it into his pocket.
Then, leisurely, he walked to the door and held it slightly ajar. He said, “Good-bye then, Mr. Dineen. Sorry you couldn't see the proposition
my way but—well, maybe some other network will give the idea a break.”
He slid his hands into the white cotton gloves which he had worn up to the moment he had entered the inner office, and on his way out he let his gloved hands rub the doorknobs on both sides of the door to obliterate any prints he might have left there.
He strode through the outer office, past the stenographer, without speaking, walking with the injured dignity of a man whose pet idea has just been stepped on.
Disdaining the elevator, he walked down two flights of stairs and out into the Broadway crowd. A child saw him and said, “Mama! Look, isn't that—?” and was shushed into silence.
His departure from the scene of the murder drew no more—and no
less—attention than had his arrival.
* * *
The newspaper story of what the press called the Santa Claus Murder was interesting reading to the public in general. But no one else found it as damnably interesting as did Bill Tracy when he bought a late afternoon paper and read it in his two-room kitchenette apartment before he went out to dinner.
He read it twice rapidly and a third time very slowly, as though weighing each word and seeking a meaning hidden behind it. Finally he put down the paper and stared for a while at the chaste pattern of the wallpaper. After a while he said a word which should not be repeated here, then picked up the paper and read the story again.
It was still there and it hadn't changed a bit.
It came to Tracy then that the only logical thing to do was to go out and get drunk. Not mildly inebriated, as he often was, but good and stinkingly drunk. Disgustingly drunk.
Not merely because he knew Arthur Dineen, the murdered man, nor yet because he knew Rex, the almost-murdered Doberman, who had been creased by a bullet grooving his skull, but who would recover. Tracy had rather liked Dineen, and he had greatly liked Rex, even though he had seen the dog but a few times and he'd seen Mr. Dineen almost daily for six or seven months.
No, the urge to get pie-eyed stemmed not from the fact of his acquaintance with the victims of the crime, but from the fact, the utterly incredible fact, that he, Bill Tracy, had planned the murder.
It simply didn't make sense.
Neither, of course, did getting drunk because of it make sense. Therefore, to Tracy, the two seemed to go together quite logically.
You'd have liked Tracy, despite the strange directions into which his logic led him from time to time. You'd have liked him best when he was mildly drunk.
Sober, you'd have found him a bit cynical. But you couldn't blame him much for that; writing soap operas for the radio would make a saint cynical, and Tracy wasn't a saint. He might have told you, had you asked him, that he was a fallen newspaperman.
He might have told you, too, that there ought to be a law against soap operas like Millie's Millions, which he wrote. If only there was a law against them, radio stations wouldn't be able to put them on the air, and then they wouldn't hire intelligent people like Bill Tracy to write them, see? So then he could go back to being a reporter.
Couldn't he go back anyway? Well, yes—and no. The capitalistic system
has its own compulsions. Writing Millie's Millions paid him almost three times what he'd be making as a legman on a newspaper and it take a lot of will power to turn down; that much difference in salary.
Four hundred a week, every week, was just too much money to turn down, even after he'd found out what soap operas really were. But at any time of day or night he'd gladly tell you what soap operas really were:
“A milestone in radio, see? And when you turn over a stone what do you find under it? Well, it's like that with soap operas. The sponsors turned over a stone that had never been turned over before and under it they found a section of the population ' that had never read or listened to anything before because nothing lousy enough for them to listen to had ever been broadcast.
“But they bought things, like soaps and cosmetics. So now they have radio programs slanted at them. And the programs? Endless plays in which impossible, goody-goody characters, if you can call them characters,
suffer and suffer and suffer. God, how they suffer!
“To write a soap-opera script, you lie awake nights trying to figure out what fate can do to your heroine next when she's already suffered from earthquakes and unrequited love and blackmail, been captured by gangsters and spies and tried for murder, and had just about everything except ants in her pants, which is the one thing she really needs. But on the radio she can't have them.
-You—I mean I—got to get her into some new jam every time before I quite get her out of the last one, and it goes on forever. Sometimes I'd like to collect a delegation of the dumb women who listen to Millie while they mess up their housekeeping and I'd like to—”
Well, that was one of the milder versions of what Tracy would like to do to his fans, but even so I can't print it. Occasionally he would think up strange and new things that would have done credit to Torquemada. But of course Tracy didn't really mean them.
Down underneath, the guy had a sneaking fondness for Millie (if not for her fans), and maybe that was why the suffering she had to go through in every script made him bitter, and made him take the bitterness out on the listeners who demanded the suffering.
In moments of fairness, he would admit that the formula the soap operas used was the basic formula of all great literature. The only difference, really, between Millie's Millions and, say, the Odyssey of Homer was that Ulysses suffered for a limited time only, whereas Millie went on forever, because her public demanded that she should. She couldn't get married happily and settle down, nor yet could she die and get her troubles over with. That, of course, is the real reason why a radio serial must become a bane to the discriminating ear; instead of being a story with a beginning and an end, it goes on and on until it becomes a palpable and palpitating absurdity.
But back to Tracy. After he'd looked at the wall long enough, he went to the phone and called Dineen's office number.
Elsie's voice answered.
“This is Tracy,” he told her, “and I've just read the papers. Is there
anything I can do?”
She sounded very tired. “I—I guess not, Mr. Tracy. Mr. Wilkins is in
charge here now. Want to talk to him?”
“Not particularly. But—yeah, put him on; I'll get it over with. Wait, first tell me something. I caught an early afternoon paper and just got around to reading it now. Anything come up in the few hours since then? I mean, have the police found the killer, or anything?”
“No, Mr. Tracy, nothing new. Just a second; I'll switch you to Mr. Wilkins.”
A moment later the precise little voice of Mr. Wilkins was on the line. “Yes?” it said.
“This is Bill Tracy, Mr. Wilkins. We've met, but I don't know whether you remember me or—You do? Good. I just called to see if there was anything I could do.”
“I'm glad you called, Mr. Tracy. The programs must go on, of course, and I'm trying to pick up the threads and—ah—carry on. Let me see, you
write Millie continuity. How many scripts ahead are you?”
“Three,” said Tracy, glad that for once he was ahead of the game. “That is, three besides the customary five that are required. The contract calls for me to stay a week ahead, but I turned in a batch yesterday that put me better than that. Crawford's got them. So I don't owe anything for three days.”
“Fine. Ah—do you know Dineen's family?”
“Not intimately,” said Tracy. “I've met them once or twice.”
“Then you won't want to send flowers on your own, of course. The studio employees are going to chip in on a floral piece. Shall I put you down, for, say, two dollars?”
“Sure. Make it five if that isn't out of line. I'll be in at the studio tomorrow.”
He put the receiver back on the hook and found he was sweating a little. He wondered what Wilkins would have said if he, Tracy, had told him, “Listen, Mr. Wilkins, there's something I ought to tell you. I planned that murder.”
That would be the end of Millie, if he told Wilkins that. Well, not
the end of Millie, really. But someone else besides Tracy would be guiding her life.
Tracy went into the kitchenette and poured himself a drink from the bottle in the cabinet, and then filled the glass with fizz-water from the bottle in the refrigerator. Those two bottles, incidentally, were the sole stock of the kitchenette besides a box of moldy crackers he hadn't got around to throwing out yet. To date, Tracy had never cooked himself a meal in the kitchenette of his apartment. He hadn't the least intention of ever doing so. He sipped the drink slowly for a while, and then downed the second half of it at a gulp. He refilled the glass and this time took it to the living room and sat down in the tilted-back Morris chair.
It was a coincidence, of course, he told himself.
But it was a hell of a coincidence. Should he go to the police with it? If he did, they'd either call him a nut of the first water, or they'd suspect him of trying to pull a fast one. Maybe they'd think it was a publicity gag. Maybe they'd even think he'd murdered Dineen himself and was trying to divert suspicion by appearing to court it.
Had he any reason to have killed Dineen? Ummm, no, except that the man was his boss.
Not too good a motive. Means? Well, he didn't own either a Santa Clans suit or a silenced pistol, but it's a bit difficult to prove that you don't own something. The actual murderer would have, by now, got rid of those little items.
Opportunity? The murder had been a little after ten o'clock this morning. He'd been in bed then, pounding his ear. Alone. He hadn't got up till noon and hadn't gone out for breakfast until one. A lousy alibi that story would make.
Carefully, hour by hour, he went over the things he had done since seven o'clock yesterday evening. He'd written at his desk from then until eight-thirty. At eight-thirty he'd gone downstairs for a drink. He'd had a quick one at Joe's and then he'd gone on a few blocks farther north and he'd run into a couple of fellows from the studio and they'd drunk and talked a while in that fancy little bar that opened off the alley—the Oasis, it called itself—and they'd shaken dice for drinks
and he'd gotten home at one-thirty, read a while, and then turned in. And slept till noon.
But dammit, he hadn't been drunk. A little cheerful maybe, but not drunk enough to have done or said anything then that he wouldn't remember now. Matter of fact, even when he was really drunk, he never did or said anything he couldn't remember afterward. He might make an ass of himself, but he'd always remember every detail of the process. Not a comforting faculty, sometimes, but nice to know in this particular instance.
He hadn't mentioned the script to a soul; be was sure of that. He'd stake his life on it.
He went into the bathroom and switched on the light over the medicine cabinet and looked at his reflection in the glass. He looked normal enough. He didn't look as though he was beginning to strip gears. He didn't look a day over his thirty-seven years either, although he knew that sooner or later he'd have to cut down on the drinking or he'd begin to show it. But here and now, as of this August morning, he didn't look like a crack-pot.
He switched off the light and went out to the telephone again. He'd go nuts if he didn't talk it over with someone.
But who? Harry Burke was out of town. Less than a week ago he'd gone north for a two weeks' vacation, so he'd still be there. Lee Stenger was on the wagon. How about Dick Kreburn? Dick was one of his newer friends, but he was a good listener and a good chess player, and maybe he could think out an answer for this if anybody could.
He rang Dick's number on the phone and stood there holding the receiver and hoping Dick would answer. A quiet guy, Dick Kreburn, but one who said something when he did talk. He played the part of Reginald Mereton in Millie's Millions, and Tracy had written in that part especially to get Dick a job. He'd written it so closely to Dick's capabilities that landing the job for him had been a cinch, even though what experience Dick had had was on the stage rather than before a mike.
But there wasn't any answer and he put the receiver back on the hook. Come to think of it, Dick was probably still on his way home from the studio; he'd been in today's script.
Tracy put on his coat and hat to go out, then remembered he hadn't finished his drink and went back to take care of that. But before he reached the drink there was a knock on the door. Tracy opened it and