- Author: Murray Leinster
Read book online «The Ambulance Made Two Trips by Murray Leinster (i wanna iguana read aloud .TXT) 📕». Author - Murray Leinster
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Astounding Science Fiction April 1960. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
If you should set a thief to catch a thief, what does it take to stop a racketeer...?
Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald found a package before his door that morning, along with the milk. He took it inside and opened it. It was a remarkably fine meerschaum pipe, such as the sergeant had longed irrationally to own for many years. There was no message with it, nor any card. He swore bitterly.
On his way to Headquarters he stopped in at the orphanage where he usually left such gifts. On other occasions he had left Scotch, a fly-rod, sets of very expensive dry-flies, and dozens of pairs of silk socks. The female head of the orphanage accepted the gift with gratitude.
"I don't suppose," said Fitzgerald morbidly, "that any of your kids will smoke this pipe, but I want to be rid of it and for somebody to know." He paused. "Are you gettin' many other gifts on this order, from other cops? Like you used to?"
The head of the orphanage admitted that the total had dropped off. Fitzgerald went on his way, brooding. He'd been getting anonymous gifts like this ever since Big Jake Connors moved into town with bright ideas. Big Jake denied that he was the generous party. He expressed complete ignorance. But Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald knew better. The gifts were having their effect upon the Force. There was a police lieutenant whose wife had received a mink stole out of thin air and didn't speak to her husband for ten days when he gave it to the Community Drive. He wouldn't do a thing like that again! There was another sergeant—not Fitzgerald—who'd found a set of four new white-walls tires on his doorstep, and was ostracized by his teen-age offspring when he turned them into the police Lost and Found. Fitzgerald gave his gifts to an orphanage, with a fine disregard of their inappropriateness. But he gloomily suspected that a great many of his friends were weakening. The presents weren't bribes. Big Jake not only didn't ask acknowledgments of them, he denied that he was the giver. But inevitably the recipients of bounty with the morning milk felt less indignation about what Big Jake was doing and wasn't getting caught at.
At Headquarters, Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald found a memo. A memo was routine, but the contents of this one were remarkable. He scowled at it. He made phone calls, checking up on the more unlikely parts of it. Then he went to make the regular investigation.
When he reached his destination he found it an unpretentious frame building with a sign outside: "Elite Cleaners and Dyers." There were no plate-glass windows. There was nothing show-off about it. It was just a medium-sized, modestly up-to-date establishment to which lesser tailoring shops would send work for wholesale treatment. From some place in the back, puffs of steam shot out at irregular intervals. Somebody worked a steampresser on garments of one sort or another. There was a rumbling hum, as of an oversized washing-machine in operation. All seemed tranquil.
The detective went in the door. Inside there was that peculiar, professional-cleaning-fluid smell, which is not as alarming as gasoline or carbon tetrachloride, but nevertheless discourages the idea of striking a match. In the outer office a man wrote placidly on one blue-paper strip after another. He had an air of pleasant self-confidence. He glanced up briefly, nodded, wrote on three more blue-paper strips, and then gathered them all up and put them in a particular place. He turned to Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald showed his shield. The man behind the counter nodded again.
"My name's Fitzgerald," grunted the detective. "The boss?"
"Me," said the man behind the counter. He was cordial. "My name's Brink. You've got something to talk to me about?"
"That's the idea," said Fitzgerald. "A coupla questions."
Brink jerked a thumb toward a door.
"Come in the other office. Chairs there, and we can sit down. What's the trouble? A complaint of some kind?"
He ushered Fitzgerald in before him. The detective found himself scowling. He'd have felt better with a different kind of man to ask questions of. This Brink looked untroubled and confident. It didn't fit the situation. The inner office looked equally matter-of-fact. No.... There was the shelf with the usual books of reference on textiles and such items as a cleaner-and-dyer might need to have on hand. But there were some others: "Basic Principles of Psi", "Modern Psychokinetic Theories." There was a small, mostly-plastic machine on another shelf. It had no obvious function. It looked as if it had some unguessable but rarely-used purpose. There was dust on it.
"What's the complaint?" repeated Brink. "Hm-m-m. A cigar?"
"No," said Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald. "I'll light my pipe." He did, extracting tobacco and a pipe that was by no means a meerschaum from his pocket. He puffed and said: "A guy who works for you caught himself on fire this mornin'. It happened on a bus. Very peculiar. The guy's name was Jacaro."
Brink did not look surprised.
"It's kind of a strange thing," said Fitzgerald. "Accordin' to the report he's ridin' this bus, readin' his paper, when all of a sudden he yells an' jumps up. His pants are on fire. He gets 'em off fast and chucks them out the bus window. He's blistered some but not serious, and he clams up—but good—when the ambulance doc puts salve on him. He won't say a word about what happened or how. They hadda call a ambulance because he couldn't go huntin' a doc with no pants on."
"But he's not burned badly?" asked Brink.
"No. Blisters, yes. Scared, yes. And mad as hell. But he'll get along. It's too bad. We've pinched him three times on suspicion of arson, but we couldn't make it stick. Something ought to happen to make that guy stop playin' with matches—only this wasn't matches."
"I'm glad he's only a little bit scorched," said Brink. He considered. "Did he say anything about his eyelids twitching this morning? I don't suppose he would."
The detective stared.
"He didn't. Say aren't you curious about how he came to catch on fire? Or what his pants smelled of that burned so urgent? Or where he expected burnin' to start instead of his pants?"
Brink thought it over. Then he shook his head.
"No. I don't think I'm curious."
The detective looked at him long and hard.
"O.K.," he said dourly. "But there's something else. Day before yesterday there was a car accident opposite here. Remember?"
"I wasn't here at the time," said Brink.
"There's a car rolling along the street outside," said the detective. "There's some hoods in it—guys who do dirty work for Big Jake Connors. I can't prove a thing, but it looks like they had ideas about this place. About thirty yards up the street a sawed-off shotgun goes off. Very peculiar. It sends a load of buckshot through a side window of your place."
Brink said with an air of surprise: "Oh! That must have been what broke the window!"
"Yeah," said Fitzgerald. "But the interesting thing is that the flash of the shotgun burned all the hair off the head of the guy that was doin' the drivin'. It didn't scratch him, just scorched his hair off. It scared him silly."
Brink grinned faintly, but he said pleasantly: "Tsk. Tsk. Tsk."
"He jams down the accelerator and rams a telephone pole," pursued Fitzgerald. "There's four hoods in that car, remember, and every one of 'em's got a police record you could paper a house with. And they've got four sawed-off shotguns and a tommy-gun in the back seat. They're all laid out cold when the cops arrive."
"I was wondering about the window," said Brink, pensively.
"It puzzles you, eh?" demanded the detective ironically. "Could you've figured it out that they were goin' to shoot up your plant to scare the people who work for you so they'll quit? Did you make a guess they intended to drive you outta business like they did the guy that had this place before you?"
"That's an interesting theory," said Brink encouragingly.
Detective Fitzgerald nodded.
"There's one thing more," he said formidably. "You got a delivery truck. You keep it in a garage back yonder. Yesterday you sent it to a garage for inspection of brakes an' lights an' such."
"Yes," said Brink. "I did. It's not back yet. They were busy. They'll call me when it's ready."
"They'll call you when the bomb squad gets through checkin' it! When the guys at the garage lifted the hood they started runnin'. Then they hollered copper. There was a bomb in there!"
Brink seemed to try to look surprised. He only looked interested.
"Two sticks of dynamite," the detective told him grimly, "wired up to go off when your driver turned on the ignition. He did but it didn't. But we got a police force in this town! We know there's racketeerin' bein' practiced. We know there's crooked stuff goin' on. We even got mighty good ideas who's doin' it. But we ain't been able to get anything on anybody. Not yet. Nobody's been willin' to talk, so far. But you—"
The telephone rang stridently. Brink looked at the instrument and shrugged. He answered.
"Hello.... No, Mr. Jacaro isn't in today. He didn't come to work. On the way downtown his pants caught on fire—"
Fitzgerald guessed that the voice at the other end of the line said "What?" in, an explosive manner.
Brink said matter-of-factly: "I said his pants caught on fire. It was probably something he was bringing here to burn the plant down with—a fire bomb. I don't think he's to blame that it went off early. He probably started out with the worst possible intentions, but something happened...." He listened and said: "But he didn't chicken! He couldn't come to work and plant a fire bomb to set fire to the place!... I know it must be upsetting to have things like that automobile accident and my truck not blowing up and now Jacaro's pants instead of my business going up in flames. But I told you—"
He stopped and listened. Once he grinned.
"Wait!" he said after a moment. He covered the transmitter and turned to Fitzgerald. "What hospital is Jacaro in?"
Fitzgerald said sourly: "He wasn't burned bad. Just blistered. They lent him some pants and he went home cussing."
"Thanks," said Brink. He uncovered the transmitter. "He went home," he told the instrument. "You can ask him about it. In a way I'm sure it wasn't his fault. I'm quite sure his eyelids twitched when he started out. I think the men who drove the car the other day had twitching eyelids, too. You should ask—"
The detective heard muted noises, as it a man shouted into a transmitter somewhere.
Brink said briskly: "No, I don't see any reason to change my mind.... No.... I know it was luck, if you want to put it that way, but.... No. I wouldn't advise that! Please take my advice about when your eyelid twitches—"
Fitzgerald heard the crash of the receiver hung up at some distant place. Brink rubbed his ear. He turned back.
"Hm-m-m," he said. "Your pipe's gone out."
It was. Sergeant Fitzgerald puffed ineffectually. Brink reached out his finger and tapped the bowl of the detective's pipe. Instantly fragrant smoke filled the detective's mouth. He sputtered.
"Now.... where were we?" asked Brink.
"Who was that?" demanded Fitzgerald ferociously. "That was Big Jake Connors!"
"You may be right." Brink told him. "He's never exactly given me his name. He just calls up every so often and talks nonsense."
"What sort of nonsense?"
"He wants to be a partner in this business," said Brink without emotion. "He's been saying that things will happen to it otherwise. I don't believe it. Anyhow nothing's happened so far."
Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald tried at one and the same time to roar and to swallow. He accomplished neither. He put his finger in the bowl of his pipe. He jerked it out, scorched.
"Look!" he said almost hoarsely, "I was tellin' you when the phone rang! We got a police force here in town! This's what we've been tryin' to get! You come along with me to Headquarters an' swear to a complaint—"
Brink said interestedly: "Why?"
"That guy Big Jake Connors!" raged the detective. "That's why! Tryin' to threaten you into givin' him a share in your business! Tryin' to burn it down or blow it up when you won't! He was just a small-town crook, once. He went to the big town an' came back with ideas. He's usin' 'em!"
Brink looked at