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Книга Farewell, My Lovely. Содержание - 38

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Cold air rushed down the ventilator. It seemed a long way to the top. After three minutes that felt like an hour I poked my head out cautiously from the hornlike opening. Canvas-sheeted boats were gray blurs near by. Low voices muttered in the dark. The beam of the searchlight circled slowly. It came from a point still higher, probably a railed platform at the top of one of the stumpy masts. There would be a lad up there with a Tommygun too, perhaps even a light Browning. Cold job, cold comfort when somebody left the loading port unbolted so nicely.

Distantly music throbbed like the phony bass of a cheap radio. Overhead a masthead light and through the higher layers of fog a few bitter stars stared down.

I climbed out of the ventilator, slipped my .38 from my shoulder clip and held it curled against my ribs, hiding it with my sleeve. I walked three silent steps and listened. Nothing happened. The muttering talk had stopped, but not on my account. I placed it now, between two lifeboats. And out of the night and the fog, as it mysteriously does, enough light gathered into one focus to shine on the dark hardness of a machine gun mounted on a high tripod and swung down over the rail. Two men stood near it, motionless, not smoking, and their voices began to mutter again, a quiet whisper that never became words.

I listened to the muttering too long. Another voice spoke clearly behind me.

“Sorry, guests are not allowed on the boat deck.”

I turned, not too quickly, and looked at his hands. They were light blurs and empty.

I stepped sideways nodding and the end of a boat hid us. The man followed me gently, his shoes soundless on the damp deck.

“I guess I’m lost,” I said.

“I guess you are.” He had a youngish voice, not chewed out of marble. “But there’s a door at the bottom of the companionway. It has a spring lock on it. It’s a good lock. There used to be an open stairway with a chain and a brass sign. We found the livelier element would step over that.”

He was talking a long time, either to be nice, or to be waiting. I didn’t know which. I said: “Somebody must have left the door open.”

The shadowed head nodded. It was lower than mine.

“You can see the spot that puts us in, though. If somebody did leave it open, the boss won’t like it a nickel. If somebody didn’t, we’d like to know how you got up here. I’m sure you get the idea.”

“It seems a simple idea. Let’s go down and talk to him about it.”

“You come with a party?”

“A very nice party.”

“You ought to have stayed with them.”

“You know how it is — you turn your head and some other guy is buying her a drink.”

He chuckled. Then he moved his chin slightly up and down.

I dropped and did a frogleap sideways and the swish of the blackjack was a long spent sigh in the quiet air. It was getting to be that every blackjack in the neighborhood swung at me automatically. The tall one swore.

I said: “Go ahead and be heroes.”

I clicked the safety catch loudly.

Sometimes even a bad scene will rock the house. The tall one stood rooted, and I could see the blackjack swinging at his wrist. The one I had been talking to thought it over without any hurry.

“This won’t buy you a thing,” he said gravely. “You’ll never get off the boat.”

“I thought of that. Then I thought how little you’d care.”

It was still a bum scene.

“You want what?” he said quietly.

“I have a loud gun,” I said. “But it doesn’t have to go off. I want to talk to Brunette.”

“He went to San Diego on business.”

“I’ll talk to his stand-in.”

“You’re quite a lad,” the nice one said. “We’ll go down. You’ll put the heater up before we go through the door.”

“I’ll put the heater up when I’m sure I’m going through door.”

He laughed lightly. “Go back to your post, Slim. I’ll look into this.”

He moved lazily in front of me and the tall one appeared to fade into the dark.

“Follow me, then.”

We moved Indian file across the deck. We went down brassbound slippery steps. At the bottom was a thick door. He opened it and looked at the lock. He smiled, nodded, held the door for me and I stepped through, pocketing the gun.

The door closed and clicked behind us. He said:

“Quiet evening, so far.”

There was a gilded arch in front of us and beyond it a gaming room, not very crowded. It looked much like any other gaming room. At the far end there was a short glass bar and some stools. In the middle a stairway going down and up this the music swelled and faded. I heard roulette wheels. A man was dealing faro to a single customer. There were not more than sixty people in the room. At the faro table there was a pile of yellowbacks that would start a bank. The player was an elderly white-haired man who looked politely attentive to the dealer, but no more.

Two quiet men in dinner jackets came through the archway sauntering, looking at nothing. That had to be expected. They strolled towards us and the short slender man with me waited for them. They were well beyond the arch before they let their hands find their side pockets, looking for cigarettes of course.

“From now on we have to have a little organization here,” the short man said. “I don’t think you’ll mind?”

“You’re Brunette,” I said suddenly.

He shrugged. “Of course.”

“You don’t look so tough,” I said.

“I hope not.”

The two men in dinner jackets edged me gently.

“In here,” Brunette said. “We can talk at ease.”

He opened the door and they took me into dock.

The room was like a cabin and not like a cabin. Two brass lamps swung in gimbels hung above a dark desk that was not wood, possibly plastic. At the end were two bunks in grained wood. The lower of them was made up and on the top one were half a dozen stacks of phonograph record books. A big combination radio-phonograph stood in the corner. There was a red leather chesterfield, a red carpet, smoking stands, a tabouret with cigarettes and a decanter and glasses, a small bar sitting cattycorners at the opposite end from the bunks.

“Sit down,” Brunette said and went around the desk. There were a lot of business-like papers on the desk, with columns of figures, done on a bookkeeping machine. He sat in a tall backed director’s chair and tilted it a little and looked me over. Then he stood up again and stripped off his overcoat and scarf and tossed them to one side. He sat down again. He picked a pen up and tickled the lobe of one ear with it. He had a cat smile, but I like cats.

He was neither young nor old, neither fat nor thin. Spending a lot of time on or near the ocean had given him a good healthy complexion. His hair was nut-brown and waved naturally and waved still more at sea. His forehead was narrow and brainy and his eyes held a delicate menace. They were yellowish in color. He had nice hands, not babied to the point of insipidity, but well-kept. His dinner clothes were midnight blue, I judged, because they looked so black. I thought his pearl was a little too large, but that might have been jealousy.

He looked at me for quite a long time before he said: “He has a gun.”

One of the velvety tough guys leaned against the middle of my spine with something that was probably not a fishing rod. Exploring hands removed the gun and looked for others.

“Anything else?” a voice asked.

Brunette shook his head. “Not now.”

One of the gunners slid my automatic across the desk. Brunette put the pen down and picked up a letter opener and pushed the gun around gently on his blotter.

“Well,” he said quietly, looking past my shoulder. “Do I have to explain what I want now?”

One of them went out quickly and shut the door. The other was so still he wasn’t there. There was a long easy silence, broken by the distant hum of voices and the deep-toned music and somewhere down below a dull almost imperceptible throbbing.

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