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The Neon Haystack, страница 1


The Neon Haystack

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The Neon Haystack


























  Copyright © 1963 by James Michael Ullman.



  The jet banked to the left and I looked down and there it was, a splash of steel and wood and concrete rising from the plain. The day was cloudless, the air clear. Below me a million people were going about their business. And as the jet descended, gliding down like a frozen bird, the details of the mosaic below emerged—streets and highways, cars and trucks, rooftops, human beings.

  For a moment, sitting there with the low whine of the engines in my ears, I experienced fear and doubt. A man could spend a lifetime and still never search every corner of that city and its environs. The city proper alone covered more than a hundred square miles. And the suburbs fanned endlessly into the prairie.

  And then I thought: Knock it off, Kolchak. You’re a bullhead, remember? Too dumb to fear, too stupid to doubt. Only a bullhead could carry out the Master Plan. So never doubt again.

  When the jet landed, I was the first passenger off.

  His name was Max Fuller. The sign on his office door said he was a private investigator. He did not look like a private investigator. He was fat and old and bald. His nose was a shapeless purple blob. He wore a nondescript, rumpled, shiny blue suit. Gravy spots decorated his ancient, wide-flaring necktie. His eyes were rheumy. The first and second fingers of his right hand had been stained yellow by tobacco.

  As I entered, Max Fuller looked up from behind his desk and smiled benignly, like a shorn Santa Claus. He said in a startlingly deep, hoarse voice, “You must be the man from Arabia. Just clump your bags in a corner. I presume you got my reply.”

  I said, “I did.”

  I set my bags down and pulled up a chair. I flopped and lit a cigarette.

  Blandly, Max Fuller gazed at me for a moment and then said, “Confidentially, I think you’re a damn fool.”

  “Then you won’t help me?”

  “Oh, I’ll help you. If you insist. But I think you are about to engage in a colossal waste of time and money.” The detective opened his desk drawer. He extracted a cigar. Slowly he peeled the wrapping away. “Your letter from Arabia neglected to mention who gave you my name. I’m just curious. I don’t recall any Arabs among my satisfied customers.”

  I smiled. “He wasn’t an Arab. Years ago, he used to be an assistant state’s attorney in this city. Now he’s a high-ranking trouble-shooter for an international oil company.”

  “That would be Barney. What’d he tell you? That I’m the best private dick in town?”

  “No. Only that you’re probably the only completely honest private dick in town.”

  Fuller chuckled. “Good old Barney. I should warn you, though. My license has been suspended nine times and twice it was nearly revoked.” He glanced around the tiny room. The walls were cracked. One of the ceiling bulbs was out. “But as you can see, I haven’t made much money. My poverty is mute testimony to my good character. No divorce cases. No industrial spying. No wire taps, and no electronic bugs under subjects’ beds. Nevertheless, despite those restrictions, I’ve led an interesting professional life.”

  He lit his cigar. Smoke billowed about him in great clouds. “However,” he went on, “in my letter of reply to you, I wasn’t kidding. I’m too old for anything big or active any more. I’m semiretired. I just putter around with routine personnel and character investigations, nothing more. And I go home at three every afternoon for a warm bath and a nap. Doctor’s orders.”

  “Barney told me that too. But that’s all I want. Routine character investigations. I’ll tell you which characters to investigate.”

  “Your letter said you wanted my connection with you kept secret.”

  “That’s right. You’ll be my secret service. I don’t even want to see you again except in emergency. But I do need your help. Or someone like you, who knows this city, has contacts, and can collect routine background data fast.”

  “Okay. Each time you find someone you want me to investigate, print the name and identification on a plain piece of paper and mail it to me. After I make the check, I’ll mail the reports to you, in envelopes apparently containing advertising promotion junk. That’s in case someone peeks in your mailbox to spot letterheads. That way, we’ll also avoid telephones. In my business, I’ve learned to distrust them.”

  “Suppose an emergency arises?”

  “Call here first. Identify yourself as ‘Mr. Kay.’ If you don’t get an answer, dial this number.” Fuller scrawled a number on a slip of paper. He handed it to me. “Memorize that, and destroy the paper. It’s my unlisted home phone. I have the line checked for taps each month, just as I do my office line. My wife will answer. She always knows where I am, at any hour. Frankly, I think you’re over-concerned with secrecy. And I’m still unhappy about taking your fee for this job. The only reason I’m taking it is, if I don’t, someone else will, and they’d probably stick you for an even higher fee. But if you are worried about secrecy, let me give you some general advice: Always call from a public phone. Never say anything to anyone you wouldn’t want overheard except on a public phone. Preferably a public phone you’ve never used before. And never, under any circumstances, go through a switchboard.”


  I stubbed my cigarette out. I rose.

  “By the way,” Fuller said, “if there’s ever any person of importance in this town you’re not allowed to talk to, or any place you’re not allowed to enter, don’t hesitate to ask my assistance. For you, it’s part of the service. While I haven’t made much money, I have made some friends. I may be able to open doors, with a two-minute phone call, that you couldn’t batter down in a week.”

  “I’ll remember that.”

  “Where will you be?”

  “For now, the Moreland. But I’ll move soon to a place near.”

  “You plan to pursue this insanity very long?”

  “If necessary,” I said, “for a year. Or more.”

  Fuller blinked. He cleared his throat. He said, “Well, good luck. And be careful.”

  I checked in at the Moreland Hotel a little before 7 p.m.

  At first I didn’t attract much attention. A bellboy picked up my bags at the curb. I strolled through the lobby like any other new guest. It was a big lobby, tastefully furnished, as any establishment charging the Moreland’s rates should be furnished.

  My anonymous status changed when I reached the desk. I said to the clerk, “I’m Mr. Kolchak. I have a reservation. Room 703.”

  The clerk’s right hand, in the act of extending a pen, trembled slightly. For this clerk, it was an impressive show of emotion.

  He said, “Mr. Kolchak. Oh, yes. We were expecting you, sir.

  He said it loud enough for two other men behind the desk to hear. They both turned and stared.

  Ignoring them, I signed the register.

bsp; The clerk banged a bell.

  “Boy,” he said, reaching for a key, “703. For Mr. Kolchak.”

  The boy almost dropped my bags.

  I looked at the boy and asked, “Is your name Maurice Shevlin?”

  “No, sir,” the boy said. He was a cool one. He picked up the bags and held his face straight. He said, “Maurice, he left. He’s in the army now.”

  “Then you’ll do,” I said.

  We marched to the elevator. Behind the desk, more hotel employees came out to gape.

  The boy and I rode up to seven in silence. The attractive Puerto Rican girl at the controls made a great show of pretending I wasn’t there.

  When we reached 703, the boy went through all the motions. He put my bags down, turned on a couple of lights, and opened the bathroom door to prove the room was equipped with a toilet.

  I tipped him fifty cents.

  “I’d like,” I said, “a bottle of cold beer. Think you could find one?”

  “Call room service,” the boy suggested. He left in a hurry.

  I called room service. Then I removed my topcoat and hung it in the closet. I took my suit jacket off and hung that up, too. I walked to the window and peered out at a park across the street. For April, the evening was unseasonably warm. Just as it had been unseasonably cold the April night a year earlier when my brother had peered out that same window. This evening several of the park benches were occupied. The Moreland was about a mile from the main business district, in a well-to-do residential section of the city. The people in the park looked well dressed and well fed.

  I loosened my tie, rolled up my sleeves, and stepped into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face. The face of a 35-year-old bullhead. Steve Kolchak. A guy with curly black hair, a low brow, a wide nose, big lips, and a thick jaw. A guy who always needed a shave. Whose shoulders were broad, and whose arms, legs, and torso were thick. Who stood 5‘9” and weighed 185 and had played guard on the high-school football team.

  That was me. Steve Kolchak, world traveler out of Gary, Indiana, thanks to the fact he’d barely acquired a degree in construction engineering and had some knowledge of how to build bridges, dams, barracks, and airfields. The original boomer, a dumb slob with no entanglements, no dependents, no responsibilities.

  And now, without even a kid brother. Which was why I had come to this city in the first place.

  A man from room service brought the beer half an hour later. He must have walked to the brewery for it.

  I handed him a dollar bill. That covered the price of premium beer in this hotel, plus a ten-cent tip for him.

  “Thanks a million,” I said. “I sure do appreciate promptness.”

  “Yessir,” the man said. He scooted out without so much as a sneer.

  I downed about half the bottle while sprawled in a blond-wood chair. I was gazing at a cowboy slaughtering other cowboys on the room’s television set when someone rapped smartly on the door.

  I put my glass down. I sighed. This was bound to come sooner or later. The question was: In a situation like this, who would they send?

  I got up, lumbered to the door, and opened it.

  At first glance, I pegged the man who stood gazing down at me as the owner of the hotel. He dressed well enough to own the Moreland. The subdued blue sports jacket had set him back close to a hundred. The gray slacks were straight from the British Isles. The single-toned silk neckpiece represented a minimum of ten dollars. The black loafers were soft leather; the equally black hat was high-grade felt.

  But then, I reflected, the Moreland was probably owned by a syndicate of investors or by a corporation, not by one man. What’s more, this man was lean and hard. He towered five inches over me, but his weight must have been about the same as mine. His face was thin, his jaw round but strong. His unblinking gray eyes sized me up in one second with disconcerting thoroughness. His nose, straight and unmarred, hung over narrow lips that curved in an implacable smile.

  “Mr. Kolchak?”

  “That’s right.”

  “My name’s Doyle. Van Doyle. I’m a lieutenant of police.” Casually, he put a manicured hand into his breast pocket and extracted a wallet, which he flipped open.

  Sure enough. The star was unmistakably genuine.

  “May I come in?”

  “Of course.”

  I walked back to my chair and sat down. Doyle followed me partway into the room. He removed his hat. His hair was light gray. Putting his hair and his face together, I estimated his age at forty.

  I asked, “What can I do for you?”

  “I’m just inquisitive.”

  “What about?”

  “About why you want to frighten the people who work in this hotel. They don’t know anything. They just work here.”

  “I’m sorry. But I wanted to do everything my kid brother did. I think I’m entitled to do that.”

  “It would have helped,” Doyle said, “if you’d explained that in your letter asking for reservations in Room 703.”

  “I was in a hurry. And after all, what’s so terrible about my writing and asking for a reservation in the same room my brother had a year ago?”

  “I don’t deny your right to do it. I just think you could have done it differently.”

  “Are you Sergeant Morrissey’s superior?”

  Doyle sat down on the bed. His unblinking eyes never left me. “No. Morrissey works in Missing Persons. I work out of the Clay Street Precinct.”

  “The Moreland is a long way from Clay Street, isn’t it?”

  “It is. But your brother was last seen on Clay Street. That made it my job. And while Morrissey’s group has technical jurisdiction of a sort, I take a personal interest in everything that happens on Clay Street. And I follow through to the end.”

  I finished the beer. I said, “I wrote Morrissey, you know. I told him I was coming to this city as soon as my contract in Arabia expired. I told him I’d check in at the Moreland. As a matter of fact, I telephoned him last week from New York and asked if he’d learned any thing more.”

  “I haven’t talked to Morrissey in six months. But the people at this hotel called me last week and said they’d received your request for a reservation. For Room 703. They called me again this evening and said you’d turned up. Which is why I’m here. Because the police have enough trouble of their own, without a well-meaning private citizen like yourself interfering with police business.”

  I leaned over and flipped the television set off. I settled back in the chair.

  “That’s rich. ‘Police business.’ Look, man. You’ve had a year in which to learn what happened to my brother. You haven’t learned a damn thing. It’s pretty obvious now you’ve given it up as a bad deal. As far as my brother’s case is concerned, you’re through.”

  “That’s not true.”

  “Isn’t it? How many men are working full-time on the case this very minute?”

  Doyle didn’t reply.

  “That’s what I thought. Nobody. Just a couple guys now and then. And the usual routine check on the pawn shops for my brother’s stuff. Now that’s fine, Doyle. Keep it up. I’m not complaining, I couldn’t expect more. Not of your police department, nor of any police department in the world. But don’t try to pretend my brother’s case is still getting top priority.”

  The lieutenant pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket. He lit it with a twenty-dollar silver lighter.

  He bared his pearly teeth and exhaled and said in a flat, unemotional voice, “I’ve about had it with you. We did everything we could. That’s something you irate private citizens never try to understand. And the last thing we need now is a jerk big brother from Arabia barging into town, making like his brother’s ghost and scaring the daylights out of everyone in the Moreland Hotel. Won’t the newspapers have fun!”

  “I’m afraid,” I said, “I
didn’t just barge into town. I came here after considerable deliberation. And I plan to stay a long time.”

  “What for?”

  “To do what you can’t do. Find my kid brother, Ed Kolchak. Or, at least, find out what happened to him.”

  “You think we didn’t try? You’ve seen Morrissey’s reports. We talked to everyone. We put the screws on all our Clay Street informants. And came up with nothing.”

  “I don’t doubt that. But there’s not much more you can do now. You have other cases to solve. But me—I intend to work on my brother’s case full-time.”

  “What can you investigate that we didn’t? As far as any logical place to even start an investigation is concerned, your brother’s case is a classic study in futility. He’d never been in this city before. He didn’t know a soul here. He was a salesman for a structural steel company in Chicago, and he’d made an appointment by long-distance phone with the purchasing agent for a big manufacturing company. The appointment was for nine a.m. the morning of April tenth last year. Your brother arrived in this city April ninth on the six o’clock flight. He took a cab to the Moreland, where he checked into Room 703—this room. He ordered a bellboy, a lad named Maurice Shevlin, to bring him a bottle of beer. He’d eaten dinner on the plane. Apparently he spent an hour or so organizing his sales material. Then he went down to the lobby and stopped at the cigar counter. He bought an inexpensive street guide and also picked up a free entertainment guide. He inquired as to the distance to Clay Street, which is our city’s version of glitter gulch—the French Quarter, Greenwich Village, Rush Street, and skid row all in one. He left the hotel a little before nine p.m. He took a cab from the stand in front of this hotel to the intersection of Clay and Jackson. He got out and paid the driver. The driver is the last person known to have seen him. That’s all we learned, and that’s all you’ll learn. So why don’t you go back to Arabia?”

  “Because Ed’s my brother,” I said, “and the only family I have left in the world. That might not mean much to you or to most people these days, but it means a helluva lot to me. Like with the ancient Greeks, see? A matter of family honor. Or is that over your head?”

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