the opening of chapter four of no orchids for miss blandish, by james hadley chase

wikipedia on James Hadley Chase:

 

"Following the U.S. Great Depression (1929-1939), Prohibition, and the gangster culture during this period, and after reading James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), he decided to try his own hand as a mystery writer. He had read about the American gangster Ma Barker and her sons, and with the help of maps and a slang dictionary, he composed in six weeks No Orchids for Miss Blandish. The book achieved remarkable popularity and became one of the best-sold books of the decade. It was a stage play in London’s West End, was filmed in 1948 and in 1971 was remade by Robert Aldrich as The Grissom Gang."

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 CHAPTER FOUR

1

FENNER arrived at the foot of the dirt road leading to Johnny’s shack soon after four o’clock in the afternoon. He had driven hard and fast, and he was sharply conscious of the possibility that some of the Grisson gang could be coming after him.

Before leaving town, he had paused long enough to telephone Paula, telling her where he was going.

I think I’m on to something,” he said. “Call Brennan and tell him what’s cooking. Tell him to come to Johnny’s place fast.”

Why don’t you wait for him?” Paula asked anxiously. “Why go out there alone?”

Quit worrying,” Fenner said. “Tell Brennan,” and he hung up.

But now, as he drove his car off the road and behind a thicket, he began to think Paula’s suggestion had been a sensible one. This place was miles from anywhere: it was lonelier than a pauper’s grave.

He got out of the car, satisfied himself it couldn’t be seen from the road, then he started up the dirt road towards Johnny’s shack.

Half-way up the road, he paused to pull his gun and slide off the safety catch. He was pretty sure none of the Grisson gang had got ahead of him, but he wasn’t taking any chances.

The evening sun was hot, and Fenner, who hated walking, cursed under his breath as he left the dirt road and started along the twisting path that led directly to the shack.

Two hundred yards ahead of him, he could see the dense wood through which he was walking open out onto a clearing. He slowed, picking his way silently, his eyes and ears alert.

A blue-winged jay suddenly flew out of a tree close by with a flapping of wings that startled Fenner. He looked up, his heart skipping a beat and then he grinned.

I’m as jittery as an old maid with a man under her bed, he told himself, and moved on cautiously to the edge of the clearing. He paused behind a tree and looked at the shabby wooden shack that stood in the center of the clearing.

It looked as if Johnny was at home. The door stood open and wood smoke curled lazily from the single chimney.

Keeping his gun hand down by his side and out of sight, Fenner walked silently over the rough grass until he reached the front door. He paused just outside the shack to listen.

He could hear Johnny humming to himself. He moved forward and paused in the open doorway.

Johnny, his back turned, was bending over the stove. He was cooking bacon in a frying pan. The smell of the bacon made Fenner’s nose twitch.

Fenner looked quickly around the large dirty room. The gun rack, holding two shotguns was by the door, well away from Johnny.

He stepped into the room, covering the old man with his gun.

Hello, Johnny,” he said softly.

Johnny stiffened, then shuddered. He straightened and turned very slowly. His red, raddled face went slack with fright at the sight of Fenner. His dim, watery eyes opened wide at the sight of the gun in Fenner’s hand.

Take it easy,” Fenner said. “Remember me, Johnny?”

The old man seemed to be having trouble with his breathing.

What are you pointing that gun at me for?” he croaked.

Fenner lowered the gun.

Remember me?” he repeated.

Johnny blinked at him, frowning.

You’re the guy from the newspaper, aren’t you?”

That’s right,” Fenner said. “Sit down, Johnny, I want to talk to you.”

Johnny lowered himself onto an upturned box. He seemed glad to get the weight off his legs. He shoved the frying pan off the direct heat of the stove and then with a shaking hand, he rubbed his bristly chin while he squinted up at Fenner.

Now listen, Johnny,” Fenner said, “you could be in bad trouble. You could go to jail for a long stretch. You wouldn’t like that, would you? No booze; no nothing. You come clean with me and I’ll cover you. All I want from you is some information.”

I don’t know nothing about nothing,” Johnny said. “I don’t want you around here. I just want to be left alone.”

Riley and his mob were here about three months ago, weren’t they?” Fenner asked.

Johnny stiffened. He looked wildly around the room as if seeking a way of escape.

I don’t know nothing about Riley.”

Listen, you old fool,” Fenner said sharply, “lying won’t get you anywhere. They had the Blandish girl with them. Riley called his girl friend from here. She’s talking. So far, she has only talked to me, but if she starts talking to the cops, you’ll be in trouble. They’ll work you over, Johnny, until you do open your mouth. Now come on. Riley was here, wasn’t he?”

Johnny hesitated, then with a cunning expression in his eyes, he nodded.

Yeah, that’s right. He and Bailey and Old Sam and a girl. They didn’t stay long; not more than ten minutes. I wouldn’t have them here. They were too hot. I wasn’t taking a chance of getting in bad with the cops so I told them to keep moving. Riley called his girl, then they got back into their car and beat it. I don’t know where they went.”

But the way he told it, the way he looked convinced Fenner he was lying.

Okay, Johnny,” he said mildly. “That puts you right in the clear. Just too bad you don’t know where they went Blandish is offering a reward for information. Wouldn’t you like to lay your hands on fifteen thousand bucks?”

Johnny blinked. It was now over three months since he had buried Riley, Bailey and Old Sam, and what a job that had been! Schultz had promised him a cut of the ransom money, but he hadn’t had it. He knew the ransom had been paid. He had taken the trouble to go into town and buy a newspaper. He had been double-crossed and he felt mean and bitter about it.

Fifteen thousand bucks?” he repeated. “How do I know I would get it?”

I’d see you got it, Johnny,” Fenner said.

Better not, Johnny told himself. It was too dangerous to monkey with the Grisson gang.

He shook his head reluctantly.

I don’t know nothing,” he said.

You’re lying,” Fenner said and moved over to the old man. “Do you want me to work you over, Johnny? Like this?” He hit Johnny a backhand slap across his face: not a hard blow, but hard enough to make the old man rock and nearly fall off the box. “Come on! Spill it!” Fenner went on, raising his voice. “Where’s Riley? You can either pick up fifteen thousand bucks or take a beating! What’s it to be?”

Johnny cringed away.

I don’t know nothing,” he said desperately. “If you want to know anything ask the Grisson gang. They were right here. They fixed Riley…” He stopped, his raddled face turning grey.

The Grisson gang?” Fenner stiffened to attention. “How did they fix Riley?”

But Johnny was staring past Fenner through the open door. His expression of terror chilled Fenner’s blood.

Fenner looked over his shoulder. He saw a shadow fall across the open doorway: the shadow of a man with a Thompson gun in his hands.

Then everything seemed to happen at once.

Fenner dived to the floor, well clear of Johnny. He rolled towards a big iron tank that stood across a corner of the room: a tank in which Johnny used to store his horse feed when he owned a horse. As he jerked himself behind the tank with one swift movement, there came the violent and continuous sound of the Thompson firing.

A stream of lead ripped into Johnny’s chest. The old man was thrown over backwards. He rolled over, twitching, then his body went limp. Seconds later, Fenner was nearly deafened as slugs hammered against the side of the tank. He crouched down, his heart thumping, his breath whistling through his clenched teeth.

For three or four seconds the slugs beat against the side of the iron tank, making a noise like a giant rivet-gun at work. Then the shooting stopped. The sudden silence was nearly as violent as the gun fire had been.

Fenner wiped his sweating face with the back of his hand. He guessed the Grisson gang had arrived. He was in a hell of a jam. He knew if he attempted to look around the side of the tank, he would have his head blown off. His one hope was that Brennan would be arriving soon, but would he arrive in time?

He flattened himself in the dust and put his ear to the wooden floor. He couldn’t hear anything. He doubted if any of the gang out there would have the nerve to come in and tackle him.

Then he heard the murmur of men’s voices. There was a pause, then a man shouted, “Come on out! We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands in the air!”

Fenner grinned crookedly. Not likely, he told himself, if you want me, come and get me. He waited.

The Thompson started up again. The noise made Fenner wince. He could hear some of the slugs dropping into the tank, having cut their way through the outer side of the tank. The gun stopped firing.

Come on out, punk!” a voice bawled.

He lay motionless and silent.

He heard a man say, “Give it to me! Get down flat, both of you.”

Fenner stiffened. He knew what was coming. They were going to blast him out with a pineapple. He flattened down, protecting his head with his arms. The few seconds’ pause of silence seemed an eternity. Then he heard something drop on the floor. The bomb went off with a devastating bang. The blast lifted him and tossed him against the side of the tank.

He rolled over onto his back, choking and gasping. For a moment, everything became very clear and sharply etched. He could see the roof of the shack above him. It was sagging. As he watched, there came the sound of splintering wood, then the roof came crashing down on top of him.

Something hit him a violent blow on the side of his head. Bright lights flashed before his eyes, then he felt himself falling into a black, bottomless pit.

2

The darkness was suddenly pierced by a hot, hard light. Fenner heard himself groan as he raised his hand to shield his eyes.

You’re okay,” a distant voice said. “Come on; come on. Don’t just lie there pitying yourself.”

Fenner made the effort. He opened his eyes and shook his head. He became aware of a man bending over him. The man’s face swam into focus. He recognized Brennan, and he slowly sat up.

That’s the idea.” Brennan said. “You’re okay. What’s all the fuss about?”

Fenner nursed his head in his hands.

Who’s making a fuss?” he demanded, and then grunted as his head began to ache violently. Hands took bold of him and hoisted him to his feet. “Don’t rush me!” he went on, leaning on the arm of a policeman. “Hell! My head feels as if it has been kicked by a horse.”

No horse around here,” Brennan said cheerfully. “What happened?”

Fenner drew in a deep breath. He felt stronger now. Gently he ran his fingers through his hair and winced, but finding he hadn’t a hole in his head, he managed to grin wryly.

Seen anyone around?” he asked.

Just you and what’s left of Johnny,” Brennan said. “Who let off the pineapple?”

Johnny dead?”

Sure is—deader than a mackerel.”

Fenner turned and looked at the wrecked shack. He was feeling better every minute. With a slightly unsteady step, he moved out of the sun and sat down on an uprooted tree. He took out a pack of cigarettes and lit one while the three policemen and Brennan stood watching him impatiently.

Fenner wasn’t to be hurried. His mind was at work. He suddenly snapped his fingers and pointed to Brennan.

Know something?” he said. “We’re going to bust the Blandish snatch! Here’s what you do! Get your men to look around. They’ll be looking for ground recently dug. Hurry it up!”

What’s the idea?” Brennan demanded.

Someone’s been buried here recently. Come on, get going! You want to bust this thing, don’t you?”

Brennan gave orders and the three policemen went off in different directions. Brennan came to sit by Fenner’s side.

Who’s been buried?” he asked. “Let’s have it, dick, don’t act mysterious.”

It’s my bet Riley, Bailey and Old Sam are buried around here,” Fenner said. “I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am.”

Brennan gaped at him.

Who threw the pineapple?”

Again I wouldn’t know, but I’m willing to bet it was one of the Grisson gang.”

What would they want to do that to you for?”

Leave it lie for a moment, Brennan,” Fenner said. “One step at a time.”

Brennan scowled at him, then he lit a cigarette and stared across the clearing at the ruined shack.

You were lucky to get out of that alive,” he said. “I thought you were done for.”

That makes two of us,” Fenner said.

A small bird suddenly swooped out of a tree and hopped from twig to twig on a nearby bush. Fenner watched it without interest. He was sweating and his mouth was dry. He was thinking of the thirty thousand dollars Blandish had promised him if he cracked the case.

A sudden shout made both men turn sharply.

Sounds like someone’s found something,” Fenner said getting stiffly to his feet.

Both men walked towards the sound of shouting, forcing their way through the thick shrubs. It didn’t take them long to catch up with the other two policemen. They all entered a small clearing where the third policeman was pointing to the ground. The soil had obviously been disturbed although it had been covered with leaves and dead branches.

This is where someone starts digging,” Fenner said and sat down in the shade.

Brennan gave orders. Two of the policemen hurried off. After a while they returned with a couple of spades they had found in Johnny’s outhouse. They peeled off their tunics and began to dig.

It was hot work and they were sweating before they found what they were looking for. Suddenly they stopped digging. One of the men knelt on the grass and reached into the shallow hole. Fenner got to his feet and walked over to watch. The policeman was scraping the soil away with his band. A faint smell of death came from the hole that made Fenner grimace. Suddenly he saw a mud-matted head coming to light. He stepped back.

A dead man here, Captain,” the policeman said, looking up at Brennan.

There’ll be three,” Fenner said. “Let’s get out of here, Brennan. Let’s get back to headquarters. This is urgent now.”

Brennan told the three policemen he wouldsend out a truck and the Medical Officer. He and Fenner went down to Fenner’s car.

The writing went up on the wall when Ma Grisson took over the Paradise Club,” Fenner said as he got into the car, waving Brennan to the driving seat. “We should have guessed how she financed that deal. She bought the club with the Blandish ransom money!”

Brennan paused as he was about to start the car.

How the hell do you figure that one out?” he demanded.

It’s not so hard to figure. Ma gave out that Schulberg gave her the money. Schulberg deals in hot money. He has probably cleaned up with the ransom. Johnny told me just before he was knocked off that Grisson and his gang were with Riley at Johnny’s place. Somehow Grisson must have found out that Riley had snatched the Blandish girl. He would know the only place Riley could take her would be to Johnny’s. He and his gang went there, knocked Riley and the other two off and took the girl. Blandish paid the ransom to Grisson, thinking he was Riley. It adds up. As soon as the ransom was paid, Ma Grisson opens the Paradise Club. What a sweet setup for them! Riley gets the blame and they are sitting pretty.”

Where’s the proof?” Brennan asked. “Even if my boys do dig up Riley and the other two, it still doesn’t mean Grisson killed them. With Johnny dead, we haven’t any proof.”

Fenner nodded.

That’s right. We’ll have to find proof. Let’s not go off half-cocked on this. Know what I think?”

What do you think, superman?” Brennan asked sarcastically. He was pushing the car hard and they were roaring down the long main road.

I think the Blandish girl is in the Paradise Club,” Fenner said. As Brennan turned to stare at him, Fenner yelled, “Look where you’re driving!”

Brennan slammed on his brakes and drew up by the side of the road.

What are you getting at?”

Remember Doyle said there was a room upstairs in the club kept locked. It’s my bet she’s in there!”

We’ll soon find out,” Brennan said, starting the car again.

Will we?” Fenner said thoughtfully. “The club is like a fort. It’ll take time to bust in. By the time we do get in the girl will either be dead or removed. Blandish wants her alive. If we’re going to bring her out alive, we’ll have to handle this with kid gloves. We’ve got to use our heads, Brennan.”

Okay, so we use our heads,” Brennan said. “Where will that get us?”

I don’t know,” Fenner said and lit a cigarette. “Let me think about it.”

For the next half hour Brennan continued to drive fast while Fenner coped with his aching head and his thoughts. As Brennan slowed down before entering a small farming town, Fenner said, “Well pick up Anna Borg. She knows that Grisson and Riley met at Johnny’s. She’s our only witness. We don’t want her knocked off. Besides being our only witness, she spends a lot of time in the club. Maybe she knows the Blandish girl is there. Maybe she doesn’t know the Grisson gang wiped out Riley. If we tell her, there’s a chance she might rat on them.”

Brennan pulled up outside a drug store.

I’ll get things going,” he said.

Fenner watched him enter a phone booth. He looked at his watch. The time was a little after six p.m. They were still three hours’ driving distance from Kansas City.

He wondered if the Blandish girl really was in the club. If she was, she had been in the hands of the gang for over three months.

He grimaced.

What had happened to her during that time? He thought of Slim Grisson andhe shook his head.

Brennan came out and got into the car.

I’ve given orders for Anna Borg to be picked up. A couple of the boys will be watching the club.”

Fenner grunted.

Let’s go,” he said.

Brennan started the car and drove fast out of the town and onto the highway.

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