The loft was hot and stuffy. Fresh air trailed in through the door I had opened. An unlikely shaped piece of metal, festooned with rods and planes, erupted from the floor. Sprawled against the base was the creator. In a cramped position, his face lay in a small dried pool of saliva and blood. Even as I started forward I knew he was dead.
Our friendship started in a completely backward manner. Most of my early cases were finding runaway teens in the hip/beat/what-ever district. I thought I'd seen most types of people who had lost, or misplaced, another people. Here he was, all of twenty-five years old. Decked out in the Ivy League haircut, blue serge suit, and a spit. . . er. . . that is, highly shined black oxfords. (He wouldn't think of spiting.) Madison Avenue's image of Madison Avenue.
"Sir, I want you to locate my father and bring him home."
Johnson Hobbs, Jr. said the pseudo-engraved business card he placed on my desk. Usually the situation is reversed. Johnson Hobbs, Sr., should have been standing in my small office on Bradly Street, asking that I find a young "freak" named after him. (His word, hear it too often.) Find him before he regressed below feral level, or got busted and ruined the old man's rep.
This time I had an executive dropout on my hands.
Hobbs, Jr. was a really thorough guy. He calmly gave me five assorted pictures. One in a swim suit. The rest business pictures in uniform (a dark suit). A resume that read like a starry-eyed job seeker's. And finally, two letters post marked from the Bradly area post office. He also gave the impression that he was really more worried that his associates would find out about his father's doings than if daddy was all right.
The hunt was easy. One of Senior's letters mentioned sculpture. After four art supply houses I found he was sculpting metal with a welding torch. The next morning I located him through his gas tank supplier.
He looked quite a bit like Hobbs Jr. except for the neat Vandyke beard, a friendly smile, and an unstuffed shift. After finding that I wasn't an art buyer or critic, he talked with me. We talked through lunch and almost into dinner. He had a good income from his old company's stock. His wife was dead. His daughter married in another state. And Jr., was Jr. He also liked to talk politics, art, drama, and people. And life in general. He coughed a lot. Asthma, he said.
The next day I told Hobbs, Jr. that Hobbs, Sr., liked where he was. Liked what he was doing. And if Jr. didn't like it, tough. I also collected a nice stiff fee.
I didn't see Junior after that. I did see Senior, often. The weird hat rack in my office came from Johnson Jason's studio. Jason had been his middle name.
After checking his pulse, I headed down the treacherous stairs to the nearest phone. Doc Smith dashed down the block when I called. I had been right, but Smith said he needed the run anyway.
I called the local cop shop. Sgt. Jawarski sent over the routine team because it was sudden death.
Murry Balfore is not one of the more popular local landlords. But he does live in the building he rents. I heard his lead tread on the stairs right after the police arrived.
He swore, "I hope he died natural."
He glared at me. "Cause if he didn't, they'll seal up this place until the second coming. You're a badge, Dare. You should know."
I will not repeat what I said in reply.
"Hell, at least he won't burn the building down, now."
"Burn it down?" echoed Wilson, one of he cops.
"Sure," growled Balfore. "Look at all this welding gear and scorched stuff. He just made the fire safety inspection. He was slicker than most of the guys I get here. Got his lease rigged so I couldn't get rid of him if he passed. But I tried, he was always starting fires in here. Liked to paint the stuff then start welding over again. Smoke and flame all over.
"One time he chased me out of here with a blazing torch when I come up to gripe. Almost busted my neck on the stairs. He got those big fire extinguishers when I threatened to haul him into court. Kept up even when he had those coughing fits. Bet that killed him."
"The M.E. says he coughed himself to death, Jack," said Jawarski. "Asthma with complications."
"Who did the post?"
"Swanson," said my phone amplifier. "Came back pretty fast, though."
"Yeah, Swanson tends to believe the preliminary reports," I said.
"You know something we don't?" His voice was cooler.
"No, sarge, but my leg is itching some," I replied.
"When you itch, I worry. Can we help scratch?"
"I don't know. Who was his family doc?"
"I'll find out. Bye, Jack".
I was square filing most of the days mail when Junior showed up. I think he still had the same suit on. Or its identical twin. He wore a black arm band.
He spoke slowly. "The police say you found my father's .. my father. You tried to help him. I am grateful."
I looked at him a minute. "Have all the arrangements been made?"
"Yes," he said. "I claim him, I mean the bo. . . this evening. The funeral will be Monday at Billing's Home on 6th street at 2 p.m."
Suddenly he blurted, "Why did he have to die now. We were just getting back together. After all that time. Ever since I got out of the Army we hardly spoke."
"When did that happen," I said. "He never mentioned anything about it."
"About a month and a half ago. I went to his . . .uh. . . .studio. It was a business matter, a stock option he didn't know about. We started talking. I went back again a couple of weeks later and he came to see me once.
"He was thinking of getting married again. Did you know?"
"I know Gloria. I thought he might consider it." I replied.
As he started to leave I got up and went to the hat rack. I pulled my cane from its special hook and said, "Your father made this?"
"Really? I never knew he made anything useful."
My leg itched so hard I wanted to stamp my foot. It seems to itch only at trouble. Maybe it's trying to make up for the time it slipped into the punji pit in 'Nam. I tapped my shoe with the cane a couple of times. It didn't help. Then I turned my slightly limping steps toward Senior's loft.
Officer Kilgrave was guarding the door at the top of the loft stairs. An oddly shaped blotch in the dust of one stair showed he'd been sitting until he heard me.
"Fine duty, Dare," he said with a crooked smile.
"Yeah," I returned. "When are they going to drop the watch?"
He indicated his transceiver. "Jawarski called a while back. Said probably noon. The kin want to collect his stuff."
We walked to the bottom of the stairs. There is no landing at the loft.
"Call in," I said. "See if they'll let me inside."
He looked at me sharply "Your foot itch?"
I nodded. He called.
Five minutes later I left with small bottle. Sam Meadows, the crustiest pill roller in town did a quick job on the contents while I walked next door.
Next door is the Upheaval, our towns answer to the L.A. Free Press. Gloria Miller is their art critic and a roving reporter. We talked. When I left I knew a reporter or two were going to follow. I was busil1y fixing myself a hot fudge sundae when old Sam finished. He chased me to the customer's side of the soda fountain and produced a paper.
"Wrote it up formal," he said. "You were right."
I paid him. As I walked out he called, "I got lots of foot powder."
The precinct was my next stop. I was in a hurry so I grabbed a cab. (A minor miracle in that area.) I handed Meadows' report, the rest of my sample and two minutes of talk to Jawarski. He called Capt. Snyder at Homicide. Smith and Davis, homicide's dynamic duo showed up so fast they must have flown.
Smith talked to me. Davis talked to the phone. (Three calls, including one to the Records Center in St. Louis.) Jawarski ran off with my bottle. We conferred and concurred just before noon. We dined in the car on the way to the loft.
We slipped in a back door. Kilgrave blocked the glass of the stair's street door while we hurried to the loft. Once up stairs we took another sample for the record. Then we found places to hide. I took a closet near the door. Smith stepped into the bath. Davis ducked behind the screen around the living area. We didn't wait long.
Kilgrave was good. Deserved an award. We heard him rambling on as they climbed the stairs.
". . .to be off duty. You see, since he hadn't seen doctor in a year, we had to make sure. But it was just routine. Doctor's report proved that. Should have let me off this morning but. . . Here's the key sir. Do you need any help with the stuff."
A curt negative and Johnson Hobbs, Jr, stood inside. He shut the door and listened. as Kilgrave's steps descended. I heard his radio faintly tell him he could return to the station.
Through a crack in the door panel, an unknowing courtesy of Murry Balfore, I watched him cross toward the living screen. He stopped. My hunch was vindicated as he picked up one of the large fire extinguishers and lugged the thing over to the utility sink next to my closet.
He popped the pressure release and opened it He used his hand to measure the level of the liquid. The stuff vanished down the drain. Water replaced it. He went for the other unit.
As he hauled it towards the sink I said, "Looks heavy." He froze. "Especially," I continued, "for a white collar man." I stepped into the room. He stood holding the extinguisher for a pretty long moment. Then he spoke, predictably.
"What in the devil are you doing here?"
"Just paying my respects to a friend. . . and his murderer."
"Murderer! My father died naturally. Get out at once, or I will call the police."
Solid Brass, I thought. "Sure call 'em. They might even take me in for trespass but I'll see they take you for murder.
"The Army taught me a few things about chemical weapons, too. You probably told dear old dad you wanted to help him. He needed fire extinguishers. His good little reconciling son offered to get them. Special ones to cut down on smoke and stuff. They were special after you replaced the liquid. Right?"
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Still predictable.
"Wrong. Carbon-tetrachloride is bad enough but your father was spraying it on hot metal and in a stuffy room at that. That makes Phosgene gas, as if you didn't know. It made his lungs get worse after each small fire. The British call it 'dry land drowning,' remember?"
"Your fooling around cost me a friend. How much would you pay for a lost friend. I found out your father's worth jumped a lot lately. How much?"
"All right, all right I'll pay." There was a crafty gleam in his eyes. "What put you on to me? And how did you get past that officer?"
He was very edgy.
"I got in through the skylight," I said, pointing upward. "I never believed your 'We made up.' speech. You're too stuffed a shirt. Senior would have told me or Gloria about your visits if he thought they were more than just business. That and the increase in stock values you wouldn't get if he remarried.
"Senior told me once how awestruck and fascinated you were when you studied chemical warfare in the Army. You learned a lot of ways to kill a man."
He started playing with the extinguisher. The hose dangled loose. I decided he was going to try to spray my face. His face took on a defeated look.
"You've got me, Dare. How much do you want? My father sure knew the wrong people in this neighborhood. First, he fell for that cheap money hungry woman. Now the local Lew Archer turns in a blackmailer."
"Wrong on both counts, you nine-to-five punk. Senior never told anyone how well off he was, even Gloria. I told her this morning. About me, you couldn't pay me enough, for the pleasure of setting you up. GENTLEMEN!"
Smith and Davis popped out, badges and guns in hand. "Police officers. You're under arrest."
He threw the extinguisher at me.
I dived toward the door. The unit flew over me to crash into the sink. The cops were yelling as he reached the door. I kicked forward just as he yanked open the door. I rammed my cane between his legs. The thumping subsided about the time I finished picking myself up.
Smith came over. "Why'd you do that, Jack? You knew Kilgrave was waiting down there."
"Hobbs Senior was my friend. So is Gloria Miller. They would have been married tomorrow."