Illustrated by Nik Morton


att Timber stopped as he opened the hotel door and looked into the dimly-lit room. There was blood everywhere.

"Dammit!" he cursed, seeing the headless body on the bed. The lamp on the table wasn't bright, but it showed enough.

Behind him, Junelee said, "What is it? I can't see through you."

"A dead man," he said, bluntly. He hadn't wanted her to come, but the blonde had insisted.

"Dead!" Junelee said, and tried to push around him. "Is it. . .is it John?" she whispered as Matt pushed her back.

"Whoever it is has lost his head," Timber told her. "No way I can tell."

"We've got to see!" she insisted. She was so close that the aroma of cheap perfume washed over Timber.

He shoved her back, thinking that her lush body felt good -- but not good enough to dissuade him.

He pulled out his cellphone.

"What are you doing?" the blonde asked.

"Calling it in," Timber said, as he punched a number.

"But -- but the money might be here!" she shrilled, beating her tiny fists on his big chest. "We've got to go in!"

"Might be money," Timber admitted, holding the phone to his ear. "Also, this might be a trap."

He heard, "Dispatch," from his phone.

"Reporting a murder," he said, "in the Milton Hotel."

"Oh? You're the second one to call," Dispatch said.

"Thought so. Is Lieutenant Donovan there?"

"He went on the call," he was told.

"Fits," Timber said. "This is Matt Timber. I'll wait here for him." He disconnected and closed the door, lifting the girl back into the hall, just in time to see the elevator door that was ten steps away as it slid open.

"We were set up," he said hurriedly to the girl. "This'll be the cops. Let me do the talking."

"But the money --"

"-- Isn't worth a murder rap," he cut in viciously. "I'll do the talking!" he finished with intensity. Junelee started sobbing.

Lt Michael Donovan, from the Fifth Precinct Homicide, strode up and stopped in from of Timber and the girl. Donovan was slim and tall, but not so tall that he didn't have to look up to meet Timber's flinty gaze. "Timber!" he said. "I shoulda known."

"We just got here, Mike," Timber said. "Opened the door, saw a headless guy on the bed, and I called it in right away."

"Oh, sure. I'm to believe that Matt Timber finds a corpse and doesn't go in to take a look?" the lieutenant said sarcastically.

"Not when I think it's a trap," Timber shot back. He held up a foot. "There's no blood on my shoes. If I'd gone inside two steps there would be."

"You coulda wiped it off."

"With what?" Timber asked. "I don't carry a hankie. As you can see, Maizie couldn't be hiding a wipe, either."

The blonde was wearing skin-tight slacks. Her sweater fit so firmly that her nipples were discernible.

"Who's the dame?" Donovan asked.

"Maizie French," Timber replied. "I was with her when she got the call that brought us here."

Looking her over with an approving eye, the lieutenant nodded. "Wasn't the first time you were with her, either." Switching his gaze to Timber, he continued, "So you put your clothes back on and came running over, right?"

"Shouldn't you be examining the scene of the crime?" Timber asked. "Make a point of noting none of my fingerprints are there." Lighting a cigarette, Timber took a deep drag.

"Those things'll kill ya, Matt," the lieutenant said drily.

"So'll a bullet, Mike, but I'm not quitting my job. Any other advice?" "Who d'ya think is in there?"

"Maizie thought it might've been her friend, John Walston," Timber said.

The lieutenant's eyebrows shot up. "John Walston?" he asked. "The guy that works at United Fidelity Bank?"

"Why?"

"They just reported they were missing half a mil, and mentioned him as a suspect."

Timber looked at the girl. "Maizie?" he asked.

She sniffed back a sob. "He works. . .at the bank. . . but," she sniffed again, "I can't believe. . .I can't believe he did that."

"Sure, sure," Donovan said. "Just a good, church-going kid. Yeah." He turned his skepticism to Timber.

"One thing, Timber. Who was it that called?"

Timber shook his head. "Wish I knew, Mike."

"But you have something to go on, right?"

Timber took a deep breath, then decided to continue. "There are only a few people who knew where I was," he said. "I'm sure they wanted me to come with Maizie. She didn't," he added, "recognize the voice."

Lt Donovan looked from Timber to the girl and back to Timber. "Who do you suspect?" he asked, taking out his notebook.

"Joe Blow, John Doe and Woody Woodpecker."

The lieutenant frowned, slapped his notebook shut and put it away. "Like that, huh? You wanna find 'em yourself and shoot 'em down in typical Matt Timber style."

Timber smiled. "I didn't say that, Mike. It's just all kinda vague and I wouldn't want you wasting time with a police investigation."

"Yeah, sure," Donovan said.

"Are you holding us, Lieutenant?" Timber asked, a hand on Maizies' arm.

Lt Donovan cocked his head. "For what?" he asked. "I know you, Matt; if you murdered somebody, you wouldn't leave any tracks. Get outta here and let me do my job." As Timber and Maizie started for the elevator, he added, "But remember; I know how to find you!"

+ + +

Timber took Maizie back to her apartment and said, "You stay here, now. I've got things to do."

"You think I'd go with you when you're after a murderer?" she asked. "I might get shot! I'll stay here." She smiled. "But don't forget me, Matt."

"How could I do that?" Timber asked, smiling, and closed the door.

+ + +

The third place Timber stopped was a bar on the east side of town, named Ruff and Reddy, after the owners. He opened the door -- and found his way blocked by a small man, not even five feet tall. "Keep out, Matt," the little man said.

Timber raised his eyebrows, then said, "Step outside with me, Tiny."

When the bar door closed behind them, Timber squatted down so he could see Tiny Ruff eye-to-eye. "Let me guess, Tiny. There's someone in your bar who wants me, right?"

"Put it this way, Matt," the little man replied. His voice was deeper than expected. "Three jerks are at a table in the back. When they mention your name, they snicker, and not in a nice way. Figger they don't like you. Reddy and me don't need no fighting in our bar."

"Then do me a favor, Tiny. Go to Reddy and ask her to tell those three she's heard the cops are coming for 'em. Have her suggest they go out the back way. Then any trouble will be outside, okay?"

"Sounds good to me," Ruff said, nodding.

"One thing, Tiny; have her hold off about five minutes, giving me a chance to get prepared."

Again, Ruff nodded then turned and re-entered the bar.

Matt Timber went to the alley that led to the bar's rear entrance. Finding the back door, Timber looked behind him and spotted several plastic garbage cans. Even though they all seemed full, he moved them out to block the way to the street. When they were all in place, he walked further down the alley until he found a dark doorway. Checking to be sure his .45 automatic was in place, he backed into the doorway.

Soon he heard the back door to the bar slam open. "I don't like this," a high-pitched voice said. "How'd the cops know we wuz here?"

A voice with a distinct Brooklyn accent said, "Hell, Bud -- how should I know 'bout that? Cops buzz, and I don' want no part of it."

"What's dis?" asked another voice. "All this crap in our way, I mean."

"Don' matter none," said Brooklyn. "We ain't gonna go that way anyway. Tha's the way the cops would come."

As the sound of footsteps neared, Timber held his breath. The three guys were softly chattering with each other as they came closer, as two of them passed, and then the third one. Timber stepped out of the doorway and slammed the butt of his pistol on the head of the last one, pulling it a little because the man was skinny and small.

"Hold it," he ordered, as the other two looked around.

"What the hell -- Timber! This was all your doing, wasn't it?"

Stepping over the downed man, Timber nodded. "I needed to talk with you. Thought this was the best way."

"Whatcha t'ink we could tell ya?" asked Brooklyn.

"Who's trying to frame me," Timber said.

"Frame ya?" Brooklyn asked. "For wot?"

"Anything!" Timber snapped. "Who do you work for?"

"Whoever pays the most," high-pitched voice replied.

"Right now!" Timber insisted; then he was hit from behind. His last conscious thought was, "Shoulda hit him harder. . . ."

+ + +

With the painful return of awareness, Timber found himself in the dark. Because there was the thrumming of an engine and bumps and jars of a rough road, and because he was bundled up tightly, knees against his chest, he decided he was in the trunk of a car. Even as he reached that decision, the car slowed and jerked to a stop. Doors opened, and footsteps approach, the sound accompanied by the jingling of keys.

"You got him?" a new voice asked.

"Damn right," Brooklyn said with satisfaction. "Pedro konked him with a brick."

"Even Matt Timber's hard skull can't take a brick," the new voice said. "Open the trunk."

Timber listened as the key rattled in the trunk's lock. He considered playing possum then decided against it and managed to sit up as the trunk lid opened. His legs were wobbly as he managed to swing them over the edge and let them dangle as he braced himself.

"Hey, he's not tied up!" the newcomer objected.

"Di'n't have no rope, John," Brooklyn said, "but we took his gun. Here, you hold it on 'im."

Even with his headache, Timber caught the 'John' and jumped to a conclusion. He looked as the man held his own gun pointed at him. "John Walston, huh? Guess you thought if you were dead, nobody'd be looking for you."

"Too smart for your own good, Timber," Walston said. Then he pointed at a door. "Get inside. I'll take you to the boss."

When they entered, Walston directed Timber to another door. "In there," he said. "Don't forget," he added, jabbing the gun barrel into Timber's back, "I've got your gun."

When Timber opened the door, there was a familiar scent that greeted him. In front of him was a desk, with a chair whose back was to him. "Hello, Junelee," he said with satisfaction. "Glad to know who I'm dealing with."

Both his captors gasped, and the chair wheeled around to reveal Junelee French, still wearing the same clothes. "How'd you know?"

"Recognized your cheap perfume," Timber said. "With half a mil, you can afford better."

"Damn right!" she said. "We had it all planned, but you wouldn't cooperate." She looked at Timber, and then at Walston. "Why aren't his hands raised?"

The detective felt the gun barrel prodding him. "Raise 'em!" John Walston ordered.

"No prob," Timber said, lifting his hands into the air. Then, looking at Junelee, he asked, "How'd you think you'd get out of the trap you set? We would've both been at the scene when the police showed up."

"Easy!" the girl said. "I was just gonna cry and say that you insisted I come along. I'd've fooled 'em, too."

"Shows you don't know Donovan," Timber said.

"Oh, I wasn't even tryin'," Junelee said. "I coulda had him bawling!" She looked behind him at Walston. "No point in keeping him, John. He was fun, but that's all. Shoot him!"

"It'll be my pleasure," John Walston said.

Timber's raised right hand moved like lightning and grabbed the gun pressed into his back. Then he slammed an elbow into Walston's jaw. He collapsed to the floor.

"Shows you don't know me, either," he said, aiming the gun at Junelee. He clicked the safety off. "Now my pistol will fire. Let's go to the Fifth Precinct."

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