It’s three in the morning, and Philip St. Ives has come to the all-night Laundromat to meet a thief. His laundry bag isn’t carrying dirty clothing—it’s stuffed with $90,000 cash. But he finds his contact, Bobby Boykins, in no state to talk. Bobby has been beaten, strangled, and stuffed behind a washing machine; Philip is inspecting the corpse when the police find him. Standing in a Laundromat with a dead body and a sack full of cash, Philip learns, is a good way to get arrested. St. Ives is a go-between—a mediator between thieves and their victims—and he came to meet Bobby for the sake of a rich man who has lost his diary. If Philip can escape the Tenth Precinct, Bobby’s killer will come for him next.
About the Author
The winner of the inaugural Gumshoe Lifetime Achievement Award, Ross Thomas (1926–1995) was a prolific author whose political thrillers drew praise for their blend of wit and suspense. Born in Oklahoma City, Thomas grew up during the Great Depression, and served in the Philippines during World War II. After the war, he worked as a foreign correspondent, public relations official, and political strategist before publishing his first novel, The Cold War Swap (1967), based on his experience working in Bonn, Germany. The novel was a hit, winning Thomas an Edgar Award for Best First Novel and establishing the characters Mac McCorkle and Mike Padillo. Thomas followed it up with three more novels about McCorkle and Padillo, the last of which was published in 1990. He wrote nearly a book a year for twenty-five years, occasionally under the pen name Oliver Bleeck, and won the Edgar Award for Best Novel with Briarpatch (1984). Thomas died of lung cancer in California in 1995, a year after publishing his final novel, Ah, Treachery!
Read an Excerpt
The Procane Chronicle
A Philip St. Ives Mystery
By Ross Thomas
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 1971 Ross E. Thomas
All rights reserved.
It was near twenty-first Street over on Ninth Avenue, one of those decaying Chelsea blocks that look as though they've been dipped in wet soot, and except for a couple of dreary bars that kept stubborn closing hours, the laundromat was the only place open.
When it had been a pet shop a few years back the laundromat's smeared plate-glass window might have served some useful purpose—such as giving the puppies a view of the street. Now it just splashed dirty yellow light all over the sidewalk's week-long collection of garbage and trash.
At five minutes until three I drove past the laundromat in the gray Ford Galaxie that I'd rented from the Avis outlet. I drove past at six miles per hour, which was slow enough to let me count twelve flat-top washers, six tall dryers, and no customers.
Although it was cold and nearly three o'clock of a Sunday morning the small blue neon sign in the laundromat's window seemed undiscouraged as it tried to beckon some business by flashing its one-word message: Neverclose.
I drove around the block and double-parked in front of the place. I wasn't worried about a ticket. At that hour in that neighborhood I would have welcomed one along with the cop that went with it.
I got out of the car and looked around, trying to see whether there was some logical spot from where the thief might be watching. There wasn't. He could have been anyplace. Across the street in a dingy, second-floor apartment would be good. Or in a parked car. If he had field glasses, he could have been on a rooftop halfway down the block.
I made sure that I had a dime for a dryer, went back to the trunk, unlocked it, took out the blue Pan-Am carry-on bag, slung it over my left shoulder, and slammed down the lid of the trunk. I again looked around carefully, taking my time, but there was still nobody in sight. I held up my left wrist and made a show of examining my watch. It was straight up three o'clock. No one could say that I wasn't prompt.
I crossed to the plate-glass window and stared into the laundromat. The dryers were on the left; the washers were on the right. There were two backless, wooden benches near the window for customers who wanted to wait, but they were vacant except for a discarded box of Bold, an empty jug of Lysol, and a darned gray sock.
When I pushed through the glass door a dingaling bell rang, probably a holdover from the pet-shop days when there had been a proprietor on the premises. It signaled no one now. When the bell stopped ringing there was no sound at all except for a faint hum that came from the three rows of fluorescent lights.
There should have been another sound and it should have come from one of the dryers as it tumbled and tossed something that the thief had promised to wrap in a blanket. I peered through the glass of the first dryer's round door, but its gray, perforated tumbling drum was empty and still. So was the drum of the second dryer and so were they all.
The bank of six dryers protruded some three feet into the room and ended less than two feet from the rear wall, creating a shielded spot that was about half the size of a hall closet. It wasn't much space, but it was plenty of room to tuck something away out of sight, especially if it were folded just so, and that's exactly what someone had taken great pains to do.
His legs had been folded and tied so that his chin rested on his knees. Ordinary brown insulation wire, the kind that is used to plug in the toaster, had been tightly knotted around his thin neck. The wire had been run beneath his bony knees so that they could be drawn up against his chest, providing a rest for his chin. The other end of the brown wire was also tied around his neck. His hands were behind him so I assumed that they, too, were tied.
I knelt down on one knee for a better look. Someone had worked him over and they had done a messy job of it. Dark bruises covered his forehead and cheeks. His nose was broken in at least one place. His lips were split and swollen. His mouth gaped open and his upper teeth were gone, although a dentist might have done that. His eyes were open, too, but nothing had been done to them. They still seemed to glisten with tears and they were still just as innocent and as blue as those of a ten-day-old kitten.
When alive those blue eyes had belonged to Bright Bobby Boykins, a dapper little man in his sixties who for more than thirty years had used their tearful innocence to work variations of the short con on the inexhaustible supply of gullible but greedy New York tourists.
I tried to remember Bobby Boykins's voice and whether it could have been the mechanically distorted one that had telephoned the instructions at 11 A.M. the previous day. If I wanted to be logical about it, that distorted telephone voice should have belonged to a thief, an expert safe man. And logically that would have eliminated Bobby Boykins because he didn't know how to peel a safe. Besides, he was too scared to have tried and too old to have learned.
I was halfway up from my kneeling position and still pondering the logic of it all when the dingaling bell sounded. I started to turn, but stopped when the voice called, "Police, fella; hold it right there!"
I held it right there, not looking left or right, not moving, trying not even to breathe. The voice sounded young and if it were young, the speaker might be inexperienced, and I wanted nothing to do with a young, inexperienced policeman.
His shoes squeaked a little as he walked toward me. "Okay," he said, "turn around toward that wall and get your hands against it. Get your feet out behind you."
I turned slowly toward the laundromat's rear wall and did just that. He was still walking toward me when he said, "Is that your gray Ford out—" He never finished the question. I thought I heard him gulp once before he whispered, "Dear sweet Jesus Christ!" which must have been how the body of Bright Bobby Boykins affected him. Or he may have said that about all dead bodies.
After a moment the young voice asked, "Is he dead?"
"Did you kill him?"
"All right, fella, just hold still." He ran his hands over me quickly, not bothering to check the small of my back or the insides of my ankles. I could have been carrying a little gun or a large knife in either place, but I didn't think I should mention it. He'd learn.
"Now straighten up and put your hands behind you," the young voice said. I put my hands behind me and he snapped the handcuffs around my wrists. It was the first time that I'd ever had handcuffs on, real ones anyhow, and I didn't like the feeling. They didn't hurt, but the indignity of it all did.
"Turn around," the voice said, so I turned around and found myself facing what must have been 190 pounds or so of strapping Irish youth who wore the white crash helmet and the black-leather boots of the New York Police Department's motor-scooter patrol.
"What's your name, mister?" the young cop asked, taking out a notebook and pencil. I told him and he wrote it down after asking me how to spell it.
"Where d'you live?"
"The Adelphi on East Forty-sixth."
"What're you doing down here?"
"I was looking for something."
"In a laundromat? At three in the morning?" The skepticism in his tone nicely matched the incredulity on his face.
"What do you do? For a living, I mean."
I had to think about that one. "I'm in the mediation business." He had a little trouble spelling mediation.
"What do you mediate?"
"Like labor disputes?"
"No, they're mostly private ones."
He had dark-brown eyes that took on a suspicious glow when they lit on the airline bag. "What've you got in the bag, laundry?"
I sighed. "No."
"Let's take a look."
The bag still hung by its strap over my left shoulder, but he couldn't take it off because of the way he had handcuffed me. He fiddled with it a moment and then told me to turn around. He unlocked the left cuff, removed the bag, and snapped the cuff back on. I turned back around and watched him carry the bag over to the top of a washer. He slid the zipper back and looked inside. His face told me that he had never seen ninety thousand dollars before. Not in cash. Few people have.
First he blushed and then he said, "Goddamn." He said it reverently. He was going to say something else, but the dingaling bell jangled as the door burst open and two men streaked in, a little crouched over, their topcoats open and napping, and their snub-nosed revolvers aimed right at me.
One of them was blond and the other one was bald and neither was much past thirty. The blond one said, "What's going on here?" Although he looked at me he was talking to the young uniformed policeman who had spun around at the sound of the dingaling bell, clawing at his still holstered revolver. He had quit clawing when he saw the two men.
"I was just gonna call it in," the young uniformed policeman said, apparently recognizing the two men.
"You were gonna call what in?" the blond man said, still pointing his revolver at me.
The young officer waved in my direction. "This one was messing around in here when I came by so I stopped and came in and caught him bending over a dead one and then I looked in his bag here and he's got a whole pisspot full of money."
The blond man held open his coat and put the revolver back in the holster that he wore on the left side of his belt. The bald man put his gun away too.
"You say there's a dead one?" the blond man said.
"You know how to call a dead one in?"
"Then do it."
The young policeman nodded and hurried for the door. The blond man waited until the dingaling bell quit ringing and then said to me, "We'll get around to you in a minute. My name's Deal. Detective Deal. That's Detective Oller. We're Homicide South. That hold you?"
I nodded. "That'll hold me."
Deal said, "Take a look in the bag, Ollie," and then moved past me toward the corner that concealed the body of Bobby Boykins. I moved back and watched as he stared at the body for several seconds. He squatted down for a better look and then used his right hand to touch Boykins's forehead, as if trying to determine whether the dead man was running a fever. Still gazing at the body, Deal called, "What's in the bag, Ollie?"
"Just like the kid said. Money. A whole pisspot full."
Deal rose and turned. "How much?"
"I haven't counted it, but it looks like it's over fifty thousand," Oller said. "Way over."
"Count it," Deal said, turning his stare on me again.
"There's ninety thousand in the bag," I said.
Deal's stare came from a pair of gray eyes that had the color and warmth of old slush. He was a little taller than I, slightly over six feet, lean, and vain enough to use something on his shock of straw-colored hair to keep it brushed just so. Probably hair spray. His face was beginning to grow some lines and none of them turned up. He had no visible scars on his face, but with that slash of a mouth, he wouldn't need any.
He kept on staring at me until Oller finished counting and announced, "It's like he said, ninety thousand."
"Take a look in the corner," Deal said. "See if you know him."
Oller left the airline bag on the washer, went behind me, and said, "They tied him up good, didn't they? Like a Christmas turkey."
"You know him?" Deal said.
"Never saw him before," Oller said and came over to help inspect me. Oller was heavier than Deal by about twenty pounds and a good bit of it was fat. The fat somehow went with his bald head. He also had a nice start on a double chin and what little hair he had left was flecked with gray. His bright black eyes danced around a lot underneath heavy brows. His nose turned up, but he kept the ends of a wide, moist mouth turned down. It was still a young face, but the kind that can turn old in a week.
"Who's he?" Oller said, nodding at me.
"I don't know," Deal said. "Maybe he's just a guy who turns on by hanging around dead bodies in laundromats at three in the morning. Maybe the ninety thousand bucks helps."
"Okay, mister," Oller said, "what's your name?"
"Philip St. Ives."
"Where do you live?"
"The Adelphi on East Forty-sixth."
"You know the dead guy?"
"I knew him. Not well."
"What's his name?"
"What'd he do?"
"I think he was retired."
"What'd he do before he retired?"
"I think he was a con man."
"What do you do?"
"I'm sort of retired, too."
"You mean you were sort of planning to retire on that ninety thousand bucks?" Deal said.
"Does it belong to you?"
"Who does it belong to?"
"What's your friend's name?"
I shook my head. "I don't think I'd better say anything else until I talk to a lawyer."
Deal nodded, almost indifferently, I thought. "Read him about his rights, Ollie." Oller fished out a small card and in a bored voice read what the Supreme Court had ruled that they were supposed to read to me. It had a somehow comforting sound.
"You're under arrest, Mr. St. Ives," Deal said.
"Suspicion of murder and grand larceny."
"It doesn't seem to worry you much," Oller said.
"It worries me."
"It would worry the shit out of me," Oller said.
"This the first time you ever been arrested?" Deal said.
"I don't think you're going to like it."
"I don't think so either," I said.CHAPTER 2
The three of them finally took me in, Deal, Oller, and the young patrolman whose name turned out to be Francis X. Frann. They let him be the arresting officer, perhaps because a murder one might look good on his record.
We didn't have far to drive, just over to the Tenth Precinct on West Twentieth. We went past the desk officer, a middle-aged sergeant who looked at me without any curiosity at all, and then Deal and Oller took me up one flight to the detective squad room where somebody else took my fingerprints.
"You can make three phone calls," Deal said, handing me a jar of jellied cleanser and some paper towels to get the ink off my fingers.
"I thought it was just one," I said.
"Three," he said. "If they're local."
"I want to call Connecticut," I said. "Darien."
"That's long distance," Deal said.
"I'll pay for it."
"Who do you want to call?" Deal said.
"Myron Greene. There's an e on the end of Greene."
Deal asked me whether I had the number, wrote it down when I told him what it was, and then said, "What's Greene, your lawyer?"
"He's a little more than that," I said.
"He's the guy who got me into this mess."
It had begun late Friday morning when the pumpkin arrived a quarter of an hour before Myron Greene did. I had already carved the top off the pumpkin and was sending the seeds and the fiber down the disposal when I heard his knock. I turned off the disposal and carried the pumpkin over to the hexagonal poker table that I'd covered with the October twenty-ninth edition of the Times. After letting Myron Greene in I asked, "What do you know about jack-o'-lanterns?"
"Everything," he said and moved over to the poker table to give the pumpkin what he must have felt was an expert appraisal.
"Well?" I said.
"God knows, it's big enough."
"The bell captain got it for me."
Myron Greene used the stem to lift off the top. He peered inside. "You did a good job of cleaning it out. How much did it cost?"
He shook his head a little sadly, much as he would have done were I to tell him that I'd decided to take a flyer on pork-belly futures. "When's the last time you bought a pumpkin?"
"It's been a while," I said.
"That's a three-dollar pumpkin. Maybe three-fifty. I could have got you one in Darien for two."
"Well, Eddie had to take a cab."
"To the pumpkin farm?"
"I didn't ask."
Myron Greene shook his head again as he shrugged out of his topcoat whose brown-and-cream checks were patterned after a hound's tooth, the Hound of the Baskervilles probably. He glanced around as if searching for some place to hang the coat or for me to remember my manners. I reached for it and saw that it could also be worn as a cape. I'd always thought of Myron Greene as one of those persons who manages to stay just behind the latest fashion and that topcoat and double-breasted brown suit and his fat, old gold tie did nothing to change my opinion.
He pulled a chair out from the table, made sure that its seat was clean, and settled into it with the air of a man who wants to talk about something that may take a while. "Draw it first," he said.
"A soft lead pencil's good."
Excerpted from The Procane Chronicle by Ross Thomas. Copyright © 1971 Ross E. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
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