Deadline: Mystery Short Story

Mar 19, 2022 | 2022 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Joseph S. Walker

Deadline has never before been published.

“All we need now is a way to ditch the body,” Phil Lawton said. He was tilting so far back in his chair that he seemed to be addressing the ceiling.

“What body?” Ray Hargraves asked out of pure reflex. He was leaning against the edge of the window, looking out at the street.

“The pastry chef,” Phil said. He brought the chair back to level and rolled the page in the typewriter up a few inches, scanning through what he’d just written. “Okay, so he’s lying in wait in the judge’s apartment, only Law comes in through the fire escape and kills him. But what do we do with the body?”

“Leave it there, I suppose.”

“Ray, come on. Focus. Law’s not going to leave a body in his father’s apartment.”

“There she is,” Ray said. He straightened up and leaned a little closer to the glass. “Brother, I know what I’d do with that body.”

“What are you talking about?” Phil came over to the window.

“You missed her.” Ray punched his writing partner on the shoulder, not exactly softly, and gave a wolf whistle. “This sweet little redhead. I’ve seen her going in across the street the last couple of nights, so I was looking for her.”

“What, that cheap ginmill?” Phil shook his head and went back to the typewriter. “You don’t want to fool around with the women in places like that.”

“Don’t I? Brother, you haven’t been paying much attention.” Ray studied his reflection in the window, patting at the little patch of hair over his left ear that would never stay flat. “How do I look?”

“Like a guy who’s staying right here until we figure out what’s happening with this body.”

“The body, the body. Fine. He puts it in his car and dumps it in the nearest river.”

“Our hero? I don’t think we’re going to sell Conklin on a book where crusading detective Harvey Law goes around dumping bodies.”

“Why not? Have you seen how the new Spillane is selling?”

“You know Conklin. He won’t touch that kind of book.”

“Just so I’m straight on this. It’s okay for Law to kill this guy, but dumping the body somewhere is against a moral code.”

“Right.”

“What version of the ten commandments did you learn?”

“There’s a difference,” Phil said. “He kills the guy in self-defense.”

“After sneaking up on him from behind. A well-known and time-honored method of defending yourself.”

“I can try to explain, if you really don’t get it.”

“Let’s compromise. I’ll go tell the redhead about it and see if she can explain.”

“We got a deadline, Ray. You’re supposed to be the idea guy.”

“Fine, fine.” Ray started pacing. The idea guy. Sure. Every year he hated his twenty-six-year-old self a little more for signing that contract. “You’re saying he can’t leave the body.”

“No,” Phil said firmly. “He wouldn’t leave his father with that kind of mess, not with the DA already thinking the judge is corrupt. Remember, Law went there in the first place to get the evidence he thinks clears him. Leaving a body that needs to be explained just gets the judge in a different kind of trouble.”

“And he can’t call the cops himself and tell the truth.”

“Not when he hasn’t figured out yet which cops are in league with the smuggling ring.”

Ray rubbed his chin. “Does the pastry chef have a car?”

“I suppose so.”

“Okay, so Law finds it and leaves him there. Let some civilian call the cops the next day.”

Phil tapped his fingers on the table. “How does he know which car to put him in?”

“He gets the guy’s keys out of his pocket.”keys

“How does he get the guy to the street?”

“I assume this building has an elevator.”

“Sure, and a whole lot of other tenants. Too risky.”

Ray tugged at his unruly hair. “Christ, Phil. You remember this is fiction, right? How about this. Law wishes really, really hard, and Tinkerbell comes and makes the body fly away.”

Phil crossed his arms. “I hate when you get like this.”

“Like what? Thirsty? Desirous of feminine companionship?”

“Lazy.”

“Now I’m lazy,” Ray said, addressing the ceiling himself. “Wait a minute, why is the pastry chef trying to kill Law anyway?”

“What, now you’re saying we should undo what we have managed to get down?”

“In other words, you don’t remember either.”

Phil opened his mouth, then closed it again. He bit his lip and screwed up his face in concentration. With a groan, he turned to the stack of pages next to the typewriter and started to flip through them.

“Uh huh,” Ray said. He moved for the door. “Once you get it worked out, come find me. I’ll be across the street talking to that redhead. If I’m not there, wait a week or two and I’ll probably wander in.”

His hand was on the knob when Phil stabbed a finger triumphantly at the page he was holding. “Got it! It was the pastry chef’s sister. Law sent her away for blackmail.” He turned the page. “And she died in jail.”

Ray sagged. “Damn it. I think that’s right. Okay, so the pastry chef has a reason to kill Law, but why at the judge’s apartment?”

“That I do remember,” Phil said. “He also needs the stuffed monkey with the key to the bus locker hidden in the banana.”

Ray fell back onto the couch. “And in your mind that makes more sense than the Tinkerbell thing. You know, Phil, at one point in my life I was going to be a real writer.”

“Yeah, well, at one point in my life I was going to be a firefighting cowboy. Things change. Except for, you know, the location of the pastry chef’s body.”

“The body, the body.” Ray rubbed his temples. “Did we ever establish what floor the judge lives on?”

“Hang on.” Phil turned to the index card file and flipped through. “Tenth. It was in Death Takes a Half Day.”

“So if we suddenly make it the second, we’ll get letters.”

“Conklin will get letters. And he’ll make us answer them.”

“And I’m guessing that tossing him down the stairwell is no better in your mind than tossing him in the river.”

“Well, it’s more convenient, but it seems like it would be noisy. Plus it’s still a body found at the judge’s building, which Law is trying to avoid.”

“Well, if he can’t go down, how about up? Put the body on the roof. The pigeons can eat it.”

Phil was shaking his head before Ray was halfway done. “Don’t you remember the cover of Unrelenting Justice? The building is surrounded by taller high-rises. You’re just multiplying the number of potential witnesses.”

They sat in silence for a few minutes, staring into space.

The New Yorker,” Ray said. “The Atlantic. The Saturday Evening Post. I was gonna be in them all. I was going to get a nice cushy teaching gig at some school with green lawns and worshipful coeds. Harvard doesn’t hire people who write detective books, Phil.”

“They probably don’t hire people who think pigeons are carrion birds, either.”

“Okay, try this. Law and the judge have lunch in the first chapter, right? Before the bomb goes off at the embassy?”

“Right.”

“So we go back and add a couple of lines of dialogue where the judge mentions that the guy across the hall from him just moved out. So now in this chapter, Law remembers that, goes across the hall and picks the lock and leaves the body in there.”

Phil rocked his head back and forth, considering. “Still means a body in the judge’s building.”

“But it probably won’t be found for a couple days. Law figures by that time everything will be wrapped up.”

Phil rolled the page back into position. He put his hands on the keys. Ray leaned forward, holding his breath until Phil’s fingers started moving, gaining momentum and focus. Ray let out a relieved breath. “There you go,” he said.

“You can handle it from there, yeah? I’m just gonna use the john and then go buy a pretty lady a drink.”

Phil didn’t answer. It was one of the few things Ray still appreciated about his partner of twenty years. When he locked in on something, everything else in the world ceased to exist. He probably wouldn’t even notice Ray leaving.

He was washing his hands when the sound of the typewriter abruptly stopped. He looked at himself in the mirror. Maybe Phil was just changing pages. When the noise hadn’t resumed in thirty seconds, Ray’s eyes got cold in the reflection.

Phil was leaning way back in his chair again. “It won’t work,” he said as soon as Ray came out. “We had Marlene Harris move in across the hall in The Alabaster Murders. She’s obsessed with the judge, so she’s not going anywhere. And it’s a penthouse floor, so only two apartments.” He shook his head. “I think we need to start from scratch. Maybe the pastry chef does try to kill Law somewhere else.”

His chair wobbled a little.

Ray couldn’t help but notice the coffee table right behind him. The hard coffee table with the sharp edge.fireplace

#

The redhead was everything Ray had hoped for. She was maybe a little older than she looked from across the street, but she had the kind of body he and Phil always gave the women Law got involved with. She laughed at his jokes and accepted the drinks he bought gracefully. An hour after he got to the bar, she was leaning against him and casually mentioning that her apartment was half a block away and her roommate out of town.

Ray couldn’t really enjoy himself, though, with half his mind still across the street.

What in the hell was he going to do with the body?

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Joseph S. Walker lives in Indiana and teaches college literature and composition courses. His short fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Tough, and a number of other magazines and anthologies. He has been nominated for the Edgar Award and the Derringer Award and has won the Bill Crider Prize for Short Fiction. He also won the Al Blanchard Award in 2019 and 2021.

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