"He's. . .getting away. . .Matt," Skip managed. Blood dribbled out of his mouth as he spoke.
It was night. A ludicrously cheerful moon beamed down on the alley. Store lights were out, because it was past two in the morning and this alley led to a business district in downtown Sporta, Florida.
"I'll get him later, Skip," I promised. "You take it easy. I hear sirens. Somebody reported the gunshots. The cops'll get an ambulance."
He coughed, and his hand gripped mine with pain filled pressure. "I won't . . . make it, Skip. . . You know that."
"Just hang on," I said, fiercely. Skip was my best friend, and the one who trained me at pro wrestling and, later, bounty hunting. We made a strange pair, because I was thirty two and he was fifty. He was black, built like a stevedore, and I was white. Skip usually wore jeans and a sweatshirt, while I was more comfortable in a suit.
The sirens were getting louder -- but Skip was getting weaker. He managed his toothy white grin. "Body slam . . . him for . . . me, Matt. . . ."
"You know it, Skip," I gritted. I'd body slam the bastard with my Magnum .45! "Hang on, Skip. They're nearly here!" Even as I said it, a car with flashing lights turned down the alley, and the headlights revealed the paint flecked wood walls on each side of us -- as well as the open door where the killer had stood.
The cop car squealed to a stop and the door swung open. The guy who got out was about six feet tall with a blond crew cut -- no doubt a leftover from World War II, just as I was. It was ten years since the mass exodus from the military flooded the nation with discharged soldiers, sailors and marines. Many of us still carried our service proudly.
"Call an ambulance!" I snapped. "My partner's been shot!" Even as I said it, I heard a gurgle from Skip and looked down. Blood was coming out of his mouth. His eyes were open . . . but there was no life in them.
Tears in my eyes, I closed his lids and shook my head at the cop. "Never mind," I said softly. "It's too late. . . "
In fifteen minutes, Skip's body was removed and I was in police headquarters. The night sergeant was Al Jackson, a guy who had taken a try at pro wrestling himself, eight years ago -- as a referee.
He shook his round head and his jowls jiggled. "Damn shame. Skip was a good man." His pale blue eyes met mine. "Way back, I told you guys bounty huntin' was more dangerous than wrestling." He sighed. "Who did it?"
"Bastard who said he was giving himself up," I told him. "Asked us to meet him there." "Who? We can pick him up." When I didn't answer, he said,"Matt, you gotta let the law take over. You can't go after him on your own!"
"The hell I can't!" I snapped. "If you picked him up, it would just be my word against his." I clenched my teeth. "Probably already has an alibi."
"He killed Skip!" I cut in fiercely.
"Matt, you can't take the law into your own hands! Skip wouldn't want you jailed because you "
"You can't jail me for self defense," I growled. "When I kill him, it will be self defense, I guarantee you!"
Al gave me a long, hard look, and then said, grimly,"And it'll be in self defense, even if you have to put a gun in his hand after you kill him."
"You said that, not me." I turned and walked out, steaming.
Skip was dead and I should have stopped it! I felt the whole thing was too easy, and I tried to tell him, but Skip just shook his head and told me people get tired of running -- and Jeff Kinsaul had been running a long time.
Now he's running again, this time from me.
Kinsaul drained over fifty thou from the business that hired us. These days, that was more than five times what a really good job would pay, so there was a ten thousand bounty on him. Now, that ten thou didn't mean a dime! I was out for revenge.
A cop car pulled up alongside me. The driver pushed the passenger door open. "Lemme give you a lift, Savage." It was the young cop who was first on the scene.
I wanted to walk off my steam -- but it was a long way. I paused, then got in. When I slammed the door, he shifted gears and moved out onto the empty street. "You and Skip used to tag team, didn't you?"
"Not exactly," I said. "He was The Devil's Advocate and I later came along as Ace, his manager." I grinned wryly. "Of course, I might accidentally trip one of his opponents, or slam a chair over another wrestler's head."
It came flooding back.
Ten years ago, fresh out of World War II, I went into real estate. It was an obvious choice, since I knew all the big landholders in the county. One night I went to see a wrestling match and managed a front row seat. Even though Skip was a 'heel' -- rasslin' slang for the Bad Guy -- I liked his style. When he was thrown out of the ring and to my feet, I helped him up and said,"Body slam the bastard!"
Skip gave me his wide and white grin, got back in the ring, and body slammed him. When Skip was leaving the ring, he nodded his head for me to follow him.
Why not? I loved professional wrestling.
The long and the short of it is, I became his manager and, since Sporta was a popular spot for wrestlers, he stuck around. At first, I did real estate days and wrestling at night -- but then the wrestling money started rolling in, and I went at it full time.
A high school buddy of mine, Sonny, once said,"Matt -- he's a nigger!"
I wanted to hit him, but knew better. Instead, I gave him an innocent, open eyed look and said,"He is? Damn."
Sonny knew he had goofed. "Well, I mean. . . ."
"Maybe I'd better tell all those charities he's helped -- the Florida Sheriff's Boys Ranch, and the Shriners Hospital. And that kid -- a white one, by the way -- that was recovering from surgery at Shriners. Skip sat with him for two hours in recovery, and the doc said that had a lot to do with the kid coming out of it."
Sonny never mentioned that word again. Not where I could hear it, at least.
Two years ago, Skip and I got into bounty hunting. And now. . . .
We pulled up at the crime scene. Before I got out, I asked the cop,"Don't the Cavanaughs own this building?"
The young policeman nodded his blond head. "That and many more."
They made a fortune during the war but, from the looks of the building, they were loath to spend any of it now. The Cavanaughs weren't the only ones; during the war, the Navy was attracted to Sporta. It had been just a fishing village, but there was a large bay, protected from the Gulf of Mexico, and it offered a great place for Navy development. Thousands of military came in, first to build a base and, later, to manage it. The Navy brought in millions of dollars, the sailors spent hundreds of thousands for housing, food and entertainment. Sporta exploded with developments; landowners and businessmen became millionaires.
And, like everywhere that fortunes existed, crime flourished. That was the reason Skip decided bounty hunting was the way to go. "Guys skip bail, others embezzle and run -- and there's good money paid for their return."
He talked me into it. Now, as I got out of the car and walked down the alley, that dark spot in front of me was his blood.
My ride left me, and that was okay; I just needed a look around. I pulled out my small flashlight and went to the door, which was now locked. It showed no sign of having been jimmied, and I knew Kinsaul wasn't a lock man. Flicking off the light, I went around front. That door was locked as well. Then something caught my eye, a motion above me.
The moonlight flickered on a curtain, flapping lazily out of an open window.
Okay, Kinsaul shot Skip but I got my Magnum out and fired back. He ran. Hearing a gasp from Skip, I had looked around and saw him lying there, blood flowing freely. I didn't follow Kinsaul. Apparently he ran upstairs, then to the front. The window invited him, and he slipped out and away.
I shook my head. It was late, and I was tired -- physically and emotionally. Opting for some sleep, I went to where my car was. After already falling for one of Kinsaul's tricks, I checked the car before I got in.
Best I could tell it was okay. Turned out it was, because I got in and drove home.
Undressing, I loaded my bloody clothes into the washer, got ready for bed, put the Magnum under my pillow, took off the light straps that held a throwing knife between my shoulder blades and slipped the knife under my pillow as well. And, after what seemed like hours of reliving Skip's death, I went to sleep.
Lena Burdett looked like a good reason for me to get back into real estate. She got up from her desk at Burdett Realty, the company that handled Cavanaugh properties. She was blonde, a little under six feet tall, and -- while dressed for business -- had a Marilyn Monroe build, with a short yellow skirt that revealed legs that made my mouth water.
"May I help you, Mr. Savage?" She looked too young to have remembered me from my real estate days; perhaps she was a wrestling fan.
"The Cavanaugh property on Eleventh Street," I said. "Has anyone looked at it recently?"
"As a matter of fact," she began, eyes shifting to a board on the wall where many keys hung from nails. " Good god!" she interrupted herself. "He stole my keys!"
"Said his name was Silverberg. Must've been a fisherman." She wrinkled her pretty nose. "Dressed clean enough, but it's hard to get rid of that fish smell."
Made sense to me; a guy can hide among the fishermen easy enough around here; those boats often go out for several days at a time, and fishermen are clannish. "Nobody else had the keys, then?"
She shook her head. "If I get my hands on him. . . ."
"Probably best to keep out of it," I told her. "People disappear along those docks." Which was true but, with Skip on my mind, I went to the docks anyway.
To the first man I saw on the docks, I said,"Maybe you can help me. I'm looking for my friend, Corky." That was a nickname Jeff Kinsaul was prone to use.
The man looked me up and down. "Huh-uh," he said. "You ain't no friend of Corky's. He wouldn't know no one who dressed so slick."
I was still in my business suit, and I cursed under my breath. "If you see him," I said,"tell him his friend Matt is looking for him." The way he answered me assured me he knew Corky -- otherwise, how would he have known Corky's taste in friends? When he saw Corky, he would pass on my message. Yeah, that was alerting Kinsaul -- but it would also worry him, and that's what I wanted.
On the way back to my apartment, I decided on my altered approach. It was after noon, and my best bet would have to wait for dark. I was impatient, but knew darkness was called for. Not only for my disguise, but there was also the fact that the snapper fishing boats didn't return until around five PM.
Deciding to eat first, I stopped by the small luncheonette on the first floor of my apartment building. On the right was the counter, in front of the grill and stove, and on the left were three small tables. A few people were there, and some smiled at me. In front of the grill was Dolly, brown hair in the required hairnet. It was obvious that Dolly not only enjoyed cooking, but eating what she cooked as well. With a pudgy hand, she stirred something in a pot. Looking up at me with her usual warm smile, she recognized me and the smile faded.
"Matt," she said, nodding. "I heard about Skip. For what it's worth, I'm sorry."
Trying to be casual, I shrugged. "Skip always said we can't live forever."
"Still and all," Dolly said, as I sat on a stool. "He was a good man. --What'll you have today, Matt?"
"Not very hungry," I admitted. "How about one of your famous grilled cheese sandwiches, with a cuppa?"
"Right away!" she said, scooping some stew into a bowl and adding it to an order that Jean, the waitress, accepted. "Hey!" she added, buttering a slice of bread,"Have you heard what Grayson's doing? He bought into a franchise and is gonna open it purty soon; something named McDonald's. Ain't gonna serve nuttin' but burgers, fries and shakes!" She gave a woeful shake of her head. "Ain't gonna last long," she said, slapping the bread on the grill.
After eating and finishing my coffee, I went to my apartment and rifled through a trunk until I found what I wanted. It was expensive, and would have been even more expensive if I hadn't known the guy who made it. Corporal Jim Reynolds and I kept in touch after the war. He ended up in Hollywood of all places -- in the special effects department of some movie studio. Among other things, he developed a real skill for monster masks, using special rubber and doing it all over a web he developed and patented. It kept the mask from falling apart.
This mask wasn't a monster -- it was a baldheaded man, cauliflower ears and a bulbous nose. Skip and I used it in rasslin'. Baldy was a real rassler, partnered with a guy called The Judge. If Skip was matched against The Judge, I'd take along the mask, slip it on and peek up above the ring to make The Judge think his partner was ready to help him. When The Judge worked Skip my way, I'd reach out and trip him.
Of course, the fans would all be shouting to warn The Judge, but he always fell for it -- because that was the way the script went. When Skip won, he'd pull the mask off my head, put it on his own, and dance around the ring.
I smiled thinking about it -- a grim smile, since Skip wouldn't be dancing any more.
I stripped, put my throwing knife in a scabbard on my calf this time, put on jeans and a sweatshirt with a leather jacket over that. My .45 went into a jacket pocket. The .45 was for show as much as anything, because Kinsaul knew about it.
He didn't know about my knife.
The afternoon passed too slowly. At last, slipping the mask into the jacket pocket opposite the pocket with the gun, I got up and went to my car. It wasn't five, but I could still be asking around. Yeah, the mask might be more detectable in daylight -- but the lights at a rasslin' match were very bright, and it worked there.
Besides, I couldn't wait!
I pulled to a stop before the docks, slipped on my mask. The tricky part was, I had to use special sticky stuff on my eyelids and lips so the mask eyes and mouth would open and close properly. Did that, and continued.
No one questioned me, but I questioned a lot of them. "Hey, ya know my buddy, Corky?" It was late in the day but the light at the docks was still bright. Several gave me a second look, but I thought it was because of Baldy's appearance instead of them thinking I was wearing a mask.
Turned out several did know Corky, and the last one said, "Here comes his boat, now!" He pointed to the head of the bay, not more than a hundred feet away. A white boat with red trim was heading in.
I found out which slip the boat used, so I headed there.
When the boat slid into place, the captain, Frankie Land, was at the bow and tossed a rope around the davit. Kinsaul hopped out and onto the dock to help. Then a woman's voice said, coming up from behind me,"I want my keys, Silverberg!"
Damn! I told Lena to keep away, but she paid no attention.
Kinsaul looked over at her, glanced my way, and then back at Lena. He got back on board, motioning for her to join him, and said:"Hey, I'm sorry about that. Forgot I had 'em. Come on; the keys are in the cabin."
His glance at me hadn't seemed suspicious; why should it? Right now, I was Baldy, and besides, I wasn't that close. Maybe he was just checking to see if I was a cop. But what could I do now? Lena had gone into the cabin. On impulse, I moved forward trying to make time but not seem anxious, and said,"Hey, got any snapper for sale? I got a truck heading for Dothan tomorrow, and fresh snapper would be good."
Frankie frowned at me as I got aboard. "Got 'em already sold," he informed me. "Have a deal with a local restaurant. Scram."
Ignoring him, I walked on, past the cabin. "Hey, they won't miss a few pounds," I said.
Then I was blind. Someone had come up behind me and twisted my mask so I couldn't see. The sticky stuff stung my eyelids as it pulled away. The next instant I felt a hand pull my .45 out of my pocket, and the barrel was jabbed into my back.
Now, I knew there was supposed to be a way to escape that. I'd read that it was a mistake to press your gun against a guy, because then he would know where it was and what to do.
I didn't know any such thing. All I could think of was the damage even a near miss from a .45 could do.
My sight came back as Kinsaul yanked off the rubber version of Baldy. "Hello, Baldy/Matt Savage," he said, grinning. "Into the cabin."
This was finding a rasslin' fan the hard way! How could I have known Kinsaul had seen our production -- and then remembered?
"Interesting way to meet a fan," I muttered.
"Interesting -- and fatal," Kinsaul said, grinning as he pushed me into the boat's cramped cabin. "And y'know something else? Ain't doin' nobody no good catchin' me. I blew it all at the poker tables!"
"I don't give a damn, Kinsaul," I said. "You killed Skip. That's why I want you."
The girl Lena was lying on the floor, unconscious, with a gag in her mouth. Kinsaul -- or more likely a partner -- worked quickly on her, but he hadn't killed her.
The door of the little cabin opened and the partner came in, taking everything in with one quick look. Before he could say anything, Kinsaul said,"Take the boat back out, Frankie."
"That'll look kinda strange, Corky."
"I don't give a damn!" Kinsaul said.
Always looking for an opportunity, I said,"You know he intends to kill us."
Frankie grinned. "Kinda figgered that," he said.
"But you'll be an accessory to murder."
"Don't matter none to me," Frankie said, still grinning. "He's my brother."
Seeing my look of surprise, Frankie added,"Changed my name when I left home, way back, after killing my first kid."
His 'first'? That slaughtered my hope for sympathy. But my mind was busy, trying to find a sliver. . .and I got it.
"Mmmm!" Lena said, behind her gag. For just a split second, Kinsaul looked down. With all my strength, I grabbed him and threw him against his brother. My .45 went off, but only to rip a hole in the roof.
I dove on top of the two men. I grabbed Kinsaul's hand that held the gun and slammed it against his brother's head.
Even though it was years since I wrestled, I kept in good shape. In fact, Skip and I used to have an occasional scramble, for just that reason. Now it was paying off.
Kinsaul's brother slumped after I slapped my gun against his head. Kinsaul tried to knee me, but I was used to that trick and he just hit my hip. He cursed, but then I yanked the gun out of his hand -- not without the gun going off again, putting another hole in the small cabin. Then Kinsaul tried the knee trick again and, again, met my hip.
But this time he followed through, straightening his leg and knocking me off. I tumbled up, hitting my right shoulder against the cabin door. Hard. Pain shot down my arm, and Kinsaul, quicker than I thought possible, had my .45 again. I had to do something, throbbing right arm or not. As Kinsaul brought my gun up, I used my left hand to pull up my pants leg, snatched my knife with an objecting hand, and threw it as hard as I could.
I didn't aim. I had learned, long ago, that instinct provided me with the best aiming. Besides, he was real close since it was a small cabin.
This time, because of my hurt right arm, instinct failed.
I'd aimed for his gun hand but, as I've said, Kinsaul was quick. He flicked the gun, knocking the knife aside. And moving the gun so it wasn't pointed at my gut. I dove forward, left hand pushing the gun further away. Ignoring the pain, I slammed my right hand into his belly and followed with the weight of my body. We went down, tumbled over Lena, twisting around desperately. Kinsaul was trying to bring my .45 into play, I was struggling to regain it.
Then my left hand was on his right hand, pushing the gun away from me, pushing it toward Kinsaul. And it went off, splashing me with Kinsaul's blood.
That's for Skip, you bastard! I thought, getting to my feet.
Quickly I untied Lena, and heard a police siren. "That's speedy response," I said, finishing Lena.
"I know a sheriff's deputy," Lena said. "After what you said, I wanted some backup. Called and told him something might be going on at the docks. Guess he believed me."
My mind was on the ten thousand dollar reward. How would I use that? As a memorial of some kind to Skip, of course. A donation to the Shriners Hospital would be appropriate. Then I looked at Lena. "Think your firm has an opening for another agent?" I asked.
My days being a bounty hunter were over. . . .Weren't they?