On a day when the February sun is indiscriminately painting all shades, from cherry red to tobacco-spit brown, on the shapes draped across our beaches . . .
On a morning when the tanned young things are striding down the beach foam line with a hip-roll strut, and a broker from Chicago cackles, points, and nudges a banker from Seattle with his elbow, finally daring a meek whistle when the tanned young things are well out of earshot . . .
On a morning when you are at last positive that nothing has ever happened to you and now, at the advanced age of thirty-three, it is pretty evident that nothing ever will . . .
On a sun-split morning when the recumbent forms seem to crackle and spit under the yellow fist of the sun and you sit on the edge of your bed and scratch the sole of one bare foot with the toes of the other and belch without pleasure and rub your grainy eyes with your knuckles . . .
It picks that morning to happen.
Incorrect. It picks that morning for it to be discovered that it indeed happened the night before.
I sat there.
I woke up at ten. By then it was three hours old. At seven, precisely, one Frances Audrey, colored, let herself into the large second-floor waterfront apartment rented by one Elizabeth Stegman of Boston, Massachusetts. The apartment was in something uncleverly called the Tide Winds on North Florence Beach, just outside Florence City, Florida.
Frances was all right until she peered around the edge of the open door into Miss Stegman’s bedroom. . . .
I showered, dressed, and was out of my room--politely called an “efficiency apartment”--by ten-twenty. I was five steps down from my locked door when I heard my phone ring. I shrugged it off. The mood had been on me now, gathering force, for a year. You know the kind of mood. It slugged you on rainy days when you were a kid. Maybe you ran to Mother moaning, “I hate all my toys and myself too.” Nobody could possibly be calling me that I had the faintest interest in talking to.
I breakfasted on coffee and walked the six slow blocks to the office. The Waggoner Block. Third floor. Airconditioned. Security Theft and Accident Insurance Company, Inc. A. Myers--District Manager.
You go in the door into a sort of pigpen effect, three chairs for waiting with a fence around them, a swinging gate in the fence. At the right of the fence is the reception desk. Wilma Booton, a thin, sallow, rough-skinned blonde, handles the reception desk, the pocket-size switchboard, and the reports to the home office in Hartford with hyperthyroid efficiency. She looks, from throat to ankles, remarkably like a plucked turkey neck. Dead ahead, through the gate, is the office of A. Myers. To the left of his is my smaller, simpler layout, with the printing on the door saying, “Clifford C. Bartells--Adjustments.” To the far right is the salesman’s bull pen, adjoining the office of Andrew Hope Maybree, District Sales Manager.
Wilma Booton gave a loud sniff that distended one nostril. “You took your time getting in this morning.”
I put both hands on her desk and leaned forward until my chin was above the space bar on her typewriter.
“At three this morning, Wilma, beloved, I was in Tampa getting a signature on a waiver.”
Myers, a bloated waxy-white little man who, sitting or standing, seems to be working out some intricate steps in a dance routine, appeared in his office doorway and said, “Stop making faces, Cliff. Come in, come in. Quick.”
That was when I began to smell it in the air.
I glanced over at Kathy. Her eyes were wide and excited. I followed Myers into his office and shut the door behind me. He stood, tap dancing, at the window, his back to me. “Sit down, Cliff. Sit down.”
I sat, tapped a cigarette on the arm of the chair, and lit it.
He spun around and pointed a finger at me. A finger like an uncooked enchilada. “You,” he said, “are on the spot!”
“What have I been doing? Signing my own waivers?”
“Elizabeth Stegman is dead!”
“Well, fancy that! You know, Arthur, that is the last thing I thought you’d say. I can’t get over it! And who is Liz?”
He went around his desk and sat down heartily. His feet kept tapping. “Who is Liz? Who is Liz?”
“Sorry. You’re taking too long. Next contestant, please.”
“For the love of God, Bartells, shut up!”
“When we adjusters get a union I won’t have to take that sort of guff, boss.”
“Forgive me. Forgive me. I’m excited. I’m sweating. Last night she was killed. Or maybe early this morning. The maid found her. I’ve been on the long-distance phone ever since, almost. She brought every piece of jewelry down with her. It’s all gone. Every piece.”
I was beginning to see the shape of things to come. “And we insured it, I suppose.”
No Moslem ever put more feeling into reading the Koran.
I took a deep and thoughtful drag on the cigarette. “And that, Arthur, is supposed to put me on the spot?”
At that moment his phone rang and he picked it up, hunched over it, his toes going tappety-tap under the desk. It gave me time to think of being on the spot before. Just a few years ago . . .
Florence City had grown amazingly fast while I was off to the wars. When I came back to my job on the Florence City police force, I found that with the growth had come a smear of big-city dirt. Inevitable, they said. You’ve got to play ball with one group of criminals, one syndicate, they said. That’s the way to keep the city clean, they said. Treat ’em right and they’ll do their mischief out of town.
That was the way everything congealed in one instant in time to put me on the big spot. I went down that January morning in 1947 after ten motor-court robberies and found the kid there. They had been beating him for a long time without ever marking him. The kid looked and moved like an old man. They’d got a confession out of him for the whole ten robberies. I talked to him in the cell, on a hunch, and I found out to my own satisfaction that the kid hadn’t done a single one of them. So on the day they had it all set to put him away for five years I found out that it was one of the local boys who had got a little frisky and had paid off a percentage to the Chief to have the vagrant set up like a clay duck.
So I went to court and blew it wide open and three days later I was a patrolman, on foot. The only cop on foot in the whole city.
When you’re a lieutenant, you get a gold badge in Florence City. Very fancy. Just enough blue enamel. Not too much. And then they took it away from me. But a funny thing happened. When they took it, it wasn’t gold any longer. Just brass. The fact that they could take it away on a deal like that changed the metallic composition.
Once, as a kid on the bum, I was stuck in a county can in the coal-mine area of southern Illinois. They had their own language in that jail. Anything you got by guile--extra cigarettes, more food, a pint bottle--was called a cupcake. You could lose a cupcake the same way.
So when they took it away from me, it wasn’t even a badge any more. Just another cupcake. Something I chiseled and then got chiseled out of. A brass cupcake. Something of no importance. No importance at all. Yet I cried into my pillow like a fool kid that night.
I resigned, of course, because that was what they expected. The process tagged me once and for all as a square cop--a Christer who couldn’t be made.
It would have been easy to leave, and so I stayed. Security Theft and Accident decided that the cop background would make me a good adjuster. I handled cases for them and for other outfits not represented locally, on a fee basis. And it turned out that I was a natural middleman for the return of stolen property. I got a three-thousand bonus on one case by buying back forty thousand worth of emeralds for seventeen. On another case I made a five-thousand bonus by a cheap recovery of the merchandise on a policy that had a sixty-seven-thousand face value.
But slowly and surely I was going sour. I drank too much. I developed a wise line of chatter. Sure. I was Cliff Bartells, whose only stock in trade was an honesty that had backfired. And lately I realized that honesty for its own sake was beginning to lose its flavor. And that scared me.
Myers slapped the phone back into the cradle. He stared at me, almost absently. “What we’ve got to figure on, Cliff, is that whoever did it stayed right in town. I can’t see any reason why they should run. You’ve got to get your lines out fast and find out if we can make a deal. I don’t want that stuff fenced. I don’t want it run out of the country.”
“You make it sound simple.”
“You’ve done it before.”
“Let me ask one question. Do you think this will be kept out of the papers?”
“Are you crazy?”
“O.K. The lifeblood of this town is tourist dollars. Sure, the money from the groves adds up to something, but without dollars from Mr. Smith from points north, a lot of people go broke. I know what the pressure is on the force right now. All over the country people will read about the Stegman woman getting killed here by thieves. That isn’t going to make anybody rush down this way, you know. Every civic organization, every businessman is going to be right on the back of the Commissioner’s neck, and they won’t let up until the front pages of every paper that carried the death carries an account of the arrest and conviction of the man or men who did it.”
“I’m not so sure I follow you, Cliff.”
“It’s simple. Nobody will make a deal with me. Nobody will take that chance. The police will check every move I make. If I should be lucky and buy back the stones, they’ll lock me up and they’ll trample me until I tell who I made the deal with. If I don’t talk, I’ll stay in there until I come out tripping on my long white beard. And don’t think Commissioner Guilfarr wouldn’t enjoy it. He got real tired of me a few years back, you might remember.”
“O.K., suppose you make the purchase and then talk.”
“If I do, it’s the last purchase I ever make. You know that. From then on my value on recoveries is nil. Word gets around fast these days. Nobody would ever deal with me again.”
“They didn’t make trouble the other two times, Cliff.”
“Because nobody got killed and the thefts didn’t get anything except local coverage, and not much of that. Deal me out of this one, Arthur.”
“You can’t do this to me!” he yelped.
“I want no part of it.”
He scrubbed his forehead with his knuckles. “Cliff, kindly go into your office and wait while I make another call.”
I went into my own office. Andrew Hope Maybree followed me in. He is tall with crisp chestnut hair, eyeglass lenses that always look highly polished, large yellow squirrel teeth in front and a fixed rule about always wearing a necktie even in the drugged heat of Florence City summer.
He seems to get a delicious sense of sin out of knowing me and being able to talk to me. I am a glamorous character to Andrew Maybree. An ex-cop. One who deals with the criminal element. He is so eager about it that I often find myself talking like something out of Hammett when he’s around.
“Something big, hey, Cliff?”
“Murder for profit. The commonest kind.”
“Will they get ’em? Will they?”
“Depends. If it was an amateur job, they probably will. If it was a pro job, they probably won’t.”
“Which was it, Cliff?”
“I’ll tell you that after I find out how the woman died.”
Kathy appeared in the doorway. “He wants you now.”
Again I sat down across the desk from Arthur. His feet tapped away on the asphalt tile floor. “I have . . . uh . . . explained your position to the home office, Cliff. And we . . . uh . . . see eye to eye on what to do about it. The home office is worried because none of the stones are really distinctive. They can all be pried out of the settings and fenced quite safely. They agree that I can’t order you to go ahead and try to make a recovery. You’d be well within your rights to refuse. And they can see that the amount we pay would have to be generous before the people who did this thing will want to deal with you. So they’re transferring three hundred thousand to our account here. That’s the top you can offer them. If you can swing it successfully, the company will give you a bonus of . . . uh . . . thirty thousand.”
I met his glance. His eyes wavered and slid away. Old Myers, trying to save money for the company. It’s hard for him to buy a nickel pack of gum without trying to get it for four cents.
“Call them back,” I said. “Tell them it has to be fifty.”
“That’s a large amount,” he complained.
“So is a seven-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar loss. And it’s obvious that the stones are worth more than the face value of the policy, or they wouldn’t go as high as three hundred.”
“All right,” he said. “Forty thousand.” I shook my head. “Forty-five?” I smiled at him. “Fifty, fifty, fifty,” he said, irritated. “Fifty thousand dollars. They are thieves and murderers. You’re a bandit.”
“Payable ten a year for five years. And I want it in writing and I want your signature on it and I want Kathy to notarize it.”
“All right, all right!” he snapped. He leaned back and the swivel chair creaked. For a moment his restless feet were stilled.
“Send Kathy in and I’ll dictate the agreement.”
Fifteen minutes later I heard the busy clack of Kathy’s typewriter stop, heard the quick tap, tap, tap of her heels as she came into my office. She came around behind the desk and laid the unsigned agreement in duplicate in front of me. “See if it’s O.K. before I take it in for signature, huh?”
Excerpted from The Brass Cupcake by John D. MacDonald. Copyright © 2014 by John D. MacDonald. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.