An excerpt from the short story by Josh Lanyon
Maybe Tom Finney’s phone call was a blessing in disguise.
Robert was having dinner with Sheriff Dooley’s widow. Dooley had been shot and killed three months earlier, and it was a godawful Christmas for Mabel and the three little girls.
But then, with the war on and so many families missing loved ones, it was a godawful Christmas for everyone. Joey, Robert’s kid brother, had been killed in the Pacific the previous spring. The Pacific was where Robert had nearly lost his right leg the year before that. There wasn’t a family in Bolt that hadn’t been touched by the war. In fact, there probably wasn’t a family in Montana or maybe the whole of the United States that hadn’t been touched by the war.
So Robert was doing his best to bring a little holiday cheer to the proceedings. Mabel was swell. He’d been to school with her, had even thought about asking her to marry him at one time. But somehow he’d never got around to it -- whereas Clinton Dooley had. Now Dooley was dead, shot one night on a country back road by a nameless assailant, and Mabel was making a brave effort not to cry into the mashed potatoes.
When he was done failing to comfort the Dooley girls, Robert was supposed to head over to his mother’s house where his kith and kin would make their own brave effort not to notice the empty place at the table.
So, yes, in a funny way, Officer Finney’s phone call was a relief.
“Chief, I just got a call from Eugene Boswell, the assistant manager of the Safeway over on Harrison Avenue. He claims there’s some bird holed up at the Knight’s Arms waving a roscoe around and squawking about bumping off his girl friend.”
“Knight’s Arms. That’s the place on Main Street?” Robert asked. And then, suspiciously, “How would Eugene Boswell know what’s going on in the Knight’s Arms?” Finney had a fondness for practical jokes, and was known to celebrate the holidays, every holiday known to man--including some that hadn’t been thought of yet-- with a nip or two.
But Finney sounded cold sober when he replied, “Boswell was over there having dinner at his mother-in-law’s when a gal burst in followed by this Harold Braun. Braun said he had three bullets, two for the dame and one for himself. While the women were trying to reason with him, Boswell scrammed across the street to the Scandia bar and called us. He said Braun’s not fooling.”
“I’m on my way. “I’ll meet you in front of the Knight’s Arms.” Robert hung up and turned to find Mabel standing in the doorway holding his hat and coat. Her pretty face was pale. She was a tall, thin blonde with a spatter of golden freckles across an upturned nose. In the old days, she had always laughed a lot.
“Trouble?” she asked. She had been a lawman’s wife for nearly a decade.
Robert nodded. “Sounds that way. I’m sorry about dinner.”
Mabel brushed aside mention of the meal on which she had used up so many of her ration coupons and worked so hard to prepare. “Be careful, Robert.”
“Sure,” Robert said easily. “I’m not the heroic type.”
“Not you,” Mabel agreed. “Not being heroic is how you got shot in the Philippines.”
“Everybody got shot, so that doesn’t count,” Robert shrugged into his coat, took his hat, and limped toward the front door. “Anyway, it was my leg that got shot, not my Philippines. My Philippines still work fine.”
Mabel laughed shakily. “If you can come back later, do. I’ll save you a slice of mince pie.”
“I can’t promise, but if I can, I will.”
She was still standing in the doorway, famed in cozy lamplight and hugging herself against the cold, when he climbed into his car and pulled away from the curb.
* * * * *
A handful of snowflakes drifted down as Robert parked behind the Scandia. He got his pistol out of the glove box, and climbed out of the car. His leg ached in the damp winter air. But then, his leg always ached now.
The Christmas lights strung across the windows of the bar cast watery blue and red and green smears on the black, shining street as he hurried across to where Finney and O’Hara were pacing in front of the brick apartment building. There was a third man with them, young, sandy and balding, plump as a pigeon, in a dark overcoat. That would be Boswell, the grocery store assistant manager, and Robert automatically wondered why he wasn’t in the army or some other branch of the service.
“Chief, we were just about to go in,” Finney said as Robert reached them. He was in his forties, short, wiry, hair prematurely white. He always reminded Robert of a smooth-haired fox terrier. Now he was almost quivering, like a dog tugging at a leash.
O’Hara was older than Finney. He was big -- tall and broad -- with a head of curly and startlingly dark hair. He hooked a thumb back at the trio of men hovering just out of earshot, and said, “The newshounds say they heard a shot right before we arrived.”
Newshounds? Robert swore inwardly. It had taken him less than five minutes from receiving Finney’s phone call to get over to Main Street, and he had been relieved to see there wasn’t much of a crowd gathered yet. But now that he took a closer look, he saw the three men lurking a few feet away near scraggly shrubbery were not casual bystanders. One of them, a kid with a shock of white blond hair, held a camera. Robert recognized the second man as Earl Arthur from the Montana Standard. And the third man…his heart jumped at the sight of that tall, lanky figure with the untidy chestnut hair.
He hadn’t seen Jamie -- James Jameson -- since Joey’s funeral, but he’d been on Robert’s mind the past few days. Ever since Alf Davies had told him Jamie had traveled to Great Falls and tried to enlist once again. With the same results as before. 4F. Weak lungs. There were worse things. A lot worse things, as Robert would have liked to remind him, but somehow he hadn’t got around to it and now here was Jamie gazing back at him, eager and alert, hazel eyes shining like Santa had brought him a brand new bicycle that very morning.
How old was he now? Nineteen. Same age as Joey would have been.
Remembering that Jamie worked for the Bolt Daily Banner, Robert groaned inwardly.
He turned his back on Jamie and the other newshounds. Another snowflake drifted down and melted as it brushed his skin.
“He’s crazy,” Boswell was saying between chattering teeth. “He’s going to kill that woman. My wife’s still up there.”
Finney and O’Hara were only waiting for his word. Robert pulled his pistol from his belt. “Which apartment?”
“Top floor. First one on the left. I can show you.”
Robert nodded. “Good man.”
Finney sprang for the front door. The reporters moved to follow. Robert turned back to them. “Not a chance. You boys wait here.”
Jamie and the pup with the camera burst into protest. Arthur, older, harder, or just lazier waved them on. Robert ignored them all, following his men and Boswell up the slick wooden steps and through a pair of tall white doors with oval panes of etched glass.
Inside the building it was warm and smelled of a dozen cooking Christmas dinners. Delicious and comfortable scents of roasting turkey and baking pies. The halls smelling the way the world used to smell before Herr Hitler came goose-stepping along.
Bing Crosby’s voice floated from beneath one closed door. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” But a few million people would not be home for Christmas. Would not be home ever.
Boswell rushed up the staircase, feet pounding, and Robert followed. His leg twinged in painful protest. Behind him, Finney and O’Hara made enough noise for a herd of elephants as they crashed up the carpeted steps after him.
As they reached the top floor, the sound of a woman sobbing reached their ears. All else was eerily silent.
“Anne!” gasped Boswell, starting forward.
“Wait.” Robert grabbed Boswell’s arm. “Stay here.” He went past the other man, moving quietly, cautiously down the hall. The line of doors stayed closed, all but for the last. That one stood ajar, and through the opening he could hear voices. Women’s voices.
A floorboard squeaked beneath his foot. Robert paused. O’Hara breathed heavily down the back of his neck.
Robert’s heart was fast, but that was just adrenaline, readiness for action. He didn’t figure he’d ever feel real fear again. Not after the Pacific.
He could feel Boswell’s anxious impatience from down the hall, but he wasn’t going to be rushed.
When no one charged out of the apartment at them, Robert reached the half open door and pushed it wide.
He could see his reflection -- Finney and O’Hara hovering behind him -- in a long mirror hanging over a white and green flowered sofa. A string of Christmas cards hung across a doorway leading into another room. A small Christmas tree sat on three-tiered table. Its silver star was crooked.
There were four women in the room. One woman slumped in a chair while two others worked over her bloodied form. A fourth woman in a red dress sat on the sofa weeping into her hands. There was no sign of anyone else.
“Where is he?” demanded Robert, and the weeping woman looked up and screamed.
Boswell charged past Robert, nearly knocking him over in his haste. “Anne!”
“Oh, Gene!” The woman in the red dress threw herself in her husband’s arms. “Mrs. Mileur’s been shot. She was struggling with that maniac for the gun, and the gun went off. He shot her!”
“There, there, honey,” Boswell said, clasping her tight.
“You’re no doctor.” A white-haired woman, older than the others, stared at Robert.
“We’re the police.” It seemed pretty obvious to Robert, but maybe not to the woman.
She demanded, “Then where’s the doctor?”
Robert opened his mouth.
“I’m all right.” The blood-stained woman, Mrs. Mileur, suddenly sat up, startling them all. “The bullet just nicked me.”
She was about forty with brown hair and blue eyes. Blood soaked the white lacy collar of her navy blue dress, but she seemed alert enough. She was holding a makeshift bandage to the side of her neck.
The second woman attending to her was younger than the rest of them, dark-haired and very pretty. Her voice wobbled as she said, “The bullet grazed your throat, Alice. He nearly killed you.” She gulped out. “And all because of me.”
“What do you mean because of you?” Robert asked. “Who are you?”
Her blue eyes were angry--and afraid. “I’m Jean McDuffy. Alice’s sister. I was…well, I used to go with Harry. Harold Braun. He was mad at me. That’s what all this was about.”
Finney said, “Why was he mad at you?”
“Because I wouldn’t take the dirty gifts he bought with his dirty blood money!”
“You’re not to blame for anything he did.” Alice Mileur glared at Finney as though he had suggested otherwise.
“Oh, Gene, I want to go home,” Mrs. Boswell sobbed.
“Sure, honey. Sure we’ll go right away.”
“Nobody’s going anywhere,” Robert said. “There are questions that have to be answered.”
“This woman needs a doctor,” the white-haired lady informed him while at the same time Jean replied to her sister, “You warned me he was no good. I guess I thought I knew better--”
“Never mind all that now. Where’s Braun?” Robert had to raise his voice to be heard over the din of everyone talking at once. “Where did he go?”
The white-haired woman answered. “He ran downstairs. He must’ve thought he’d killed Mrs. Mileur.”
The injured woman said with reassuring vigor, “He meant to kill Jean, and no thanks to him, he didn’t. He lives in an apartment in the rear of the building. I should have thrown him out weeks ago.”
“You’re the manager of this place?”
“Does Braun live alone?”
“Yes. I’ll tell you now he’s a chicken thief and a hophead. Don’t trust him for a second.”
“It’s my fault,” Jean said again. “This is all my fault.”
“Be quiet, Jean. The only thing you’re to blame for is having lousy taste in men.”
“Nobody leave this apartment. Boswell, lock the door after us.” Robert turned back to O’Hara and Finney. “Come on. Downstairs.”
A chicken thief and a hophead. Well, it could be worse. It nearly had been. A lot worse.
He pounded back down the staircase, Finney and O’Hara in pursuit.
There was a good chance Braun had already fled the premises. In fact, if he had any brains, that’s exactly what he’d have done, but if he was hopped up on dope all bets were off. He might be sitting there waiting quietly for them to arrest him. Or he might be planning to ambush them from around the next corner.
Cautiously, Robert and his men made their way down a narrow hall. No ambush materialized.
They passed the battered door to the cellar and lined up outside Braun’s rooms.
There was no sound from within.
Robert nodded at Finney. Finney pounded the door with his fist.
“Police! Open up!”
The door did not open. There was only silence.
Robert touched the round doorknob. The door swung silently open.
“Careful, boys,” Robert whispered.
Cautiously, pistols at ready, the three men entered the apartment. The blinds were drawn and the room was in darkness.
“He’s gone,” Finney said. “He must have lit out.”
Robert felt through the gloom for a lamp.
“There’s another room here.” O’Hara’s voice floated through the blackout.
There was a squeak of hinges, the gloom wavered as a door opened, and too late Robert saw white muzzle flash and heard the blast of Braun’s revolver.
O’Hara cried out. The lamp flared on just as there was another flash and another loud bang. Robert glimpsed the nightmarish vision of Finney crashing into the wall, firing at the open bedroom door.
Robert didn’t remember turning the lamp out again, but the room fell back into blackness as he dived for the floor.
Braun was still shooting and Robert returned his fire. He could hear Finney groaning and swearing, and for one crazy, confused moment he thought he was back on Guadalcanal under fire from the Japs. He had fallen badly on his leg and it was throbbing like he’d been shot all over again, but that was the least of his problems.
Swift footsteps approached, someone was running toward Braun’s apartment, and to Robert’s horror a voice he would have known anywhere called, “Robert? Chief Garrett?”
So much for the comfortable notion he would never feel real fear again. It squeezed his heart, squeezed his lungs as he yelled, “Jamie, stay the hell out of here.”
He listened, ears straining.
Braun had stopped firing.
Had he managed to hit him in the dark? Robert didn’t think so. More likely Braun was hoping to slip into the front room and pop him. He kept his gaze trained on the slit of faded light between the dark living room and the bedroom.
Jamie hovered outside the apartment doorway. Robert knew it, could feel it in his bones, but he didn’t dare call out, didn’t dare draw Braun’s attention to Jamie. Finney was still groaning.
“O’Hara?” Robert tried.
There was no answer. That deadly stillness from the spot O’Hara had fallen was the answer.
“How bad are you hit, Tom?” Robert called.
Finney stopped moaning. He choked out, “The sonofabitch chicken thief got me in the right shoulder. And my left arm.”
“Did he get you, Rob?” Jamie asked from the other side of the front door frame. He sounded startlingly calm.
“No. I’m okay,” Robert said. “Stay out of here. Understand? Stay clear of the door. Stay back from the walls.”
A gust of cold December air blew in from the bedroom, and Robert tasted snow. “Goddamn it,” he exclaimed. “He’s gone out the back.”
He scrambled up, levering himself on the small table with the lamp, knocking both over. The glass globe smashed on the wooden floor. Robert stayed close to the wall, moving quickly around the square of the room. Keeping to the side, he threw open the bedroom door.
In the wintry light he saw O’Hara sprawled and motionless. Crimson pooled beneath him, soaking the floorboards.
“Goddamn it,” Robert said.
Brown curtains bobbed lightly on the breeze blowing through the open window next to the bed. Aside from O’Hara, the room was empty.
Robert swore again, bitterly, turned and ran past Finney who was slumped and bloody against the wall. “Hold on, Tom,” he told him.
Finney didn’t answer.
There was no sign of Jamie in the hall. That showed unexpected good sense and Robert was relieved as he limped hurriedly down the narrow passage and back to the front of the building.
Arthur from the Montana Standard was fairly dancing with excitement on the pavement in front of the house. “By God, what a story! What’s the name of this gunmen?”
“Never mind that. Where’d he go?”
“Thataway.” Arthur pointed down the street where a black sedan had all but disappeared into the now heavily falling snow. “There were two women in that car he grabbed.”
God almighty. It just kept getting worse and worse.
Robert looked around. A crowd had already gathered on the sidewalk behind them. Well, that was bound to happen. He scanned the ring of bystanders. “I need a doctor. I’ve got two men down in the apartment next to the cellar entrance and an injured woman upstairs.”
“The doctor just went up,” Arthur said.
Well, that was something anyway. Robert realized that the face he had been instinctively searching for was not amongst the growing crowd.
His heart sank still lower. He turned back to Arthur. “Where’s the kid?” he demanded.
“The red-haired kid. Works for the Bolt Daily Banner. He followed us inside. Where did he go?”
“Oh. The cub.” Arthur pointed down the street, now empty of all but snow flurries. “He and that damned pup who’s supposed to be my photographer took off after your bird.”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.