Candidate for A Coffin by T. W. Ford

Wilson Lamb cuddled his automatic to play "Mr. Death" and fingered little Louis Engel for coffin cargo. But when he pulled the trigger, Whisper, the gun-cobra from Chi, spilled out of Doom's deck....

 

Death stood on the Times Square subway platform, uptown side, waiting for a subject. Death looked at himself in the gum machine mirror, then down at his watch. It was exactly 4:12 P. M., Wednesday, December 10th. When the second hand hit the "30" mark, he would turn around and the person nearest would be It. Death wore a blue pin-stripe suit, well fitting but slightly unpressed. Death's name was Wilson Lamb.

The second hand wiped over the "20" of the smaller dial, jittered on toward the half-minute spot. Inexorable and meaningless. Just as what Wilson Lamb planned. He said "Now" with a little sucking in of breath and a thin anticipant smile and spun on his heel. He was a slim saturnine-faced man with cigaret-ash stain on a coat lapel. Undistinguished from any typical strap-hanger except perhaps by the light-hued eyes. His shoes needed a shine. He lifted the pale eyes from them and looked for the corpse to be. To the left. To the right. Then he came as near recoiling from the thing as he ever would.

It looked as if it might be a woman. Somehow he had always thought of killing a man. Something that could strike back. Not that he would get the chance. It was just the idea of the thing. But she, the woman, was descending the stairs that led up to the shuttle, bearing down toward him, less than twenty feet away. Big and billowy and red-faced, waddling along like a sow. To face a jury, charged with doing away with a hunk of human beef like that and—

He flashed a glance to the left again. Nobody near. It was a fluke of circumstance a score of people weren't buzzing all about him. He whipped his eyes back toward the woman as a local thundered in. And Luck took a hand. A stocky man dodged around from behind the woman and came rapidly down the platform, neat, crisp, briefcase under his arm.

Wilson Lamb's pale eyes flickered with amusement. He said softly, "Tag, you're it, John W. Goon." This was his corpse to be. Mr. Death had made his pick-up.

"Ex-cuse me." An express rolled in and cutting over for it, the stocky man brushed Lamb. His voice was mild, colorless. He wore a gray snap-brim hat; it was set squarely on his head, precisely level. Lamb had seen hats worn like that by show-window clothing dummies. The man entered the third car, middle door. Wilson Lamb boarded it on his heels.

His victim almost got a seat. A pimply-faced office boy elbowed him out of it and the man turned away meekly. He hooked himself onto a strap, hitched the briefcase up under his free arm, and concentrated on a segment of his folded-open newspaper. It was one of the conservative sheets, comic-less, reactionary Republican to the core. Wilson eased down the aisle, casually pushing a woman out of his way, and glanced over his victim's shoulder. The goon was studying an advertisement for a nine-piece living room suite, overstuffed, at "special reduction this week only." It was at one of the better department stores.

Amusement flickered in Wilson Lamb's pale eyes. He got the picture. A typical George Babbitt in the flesh. To the core.

At Seventy-second Street, the stocky man got a seat. When he faced the light, Lamb saw that he was turning slightly gray over the ears. He had a roundish face, a little fleshy under the chin, a soft-lipped mouth that from habit he held slightly pursed, muddy eyes. He was inclined to plumpness. Somebody had scuffed his right shoe in getting out and now he pulled up the pant leg of his dark grey suit to study it ruefully.

"Typical taxpayer," Lamb said to himself, savoring it. "Always makes his insurance payments on time.... Probably has weak arches.... Is going to buy the Five Foot book-shelf, always next week, and read it.... Would like to get up nerve enough to take that blonde steno at the office out to luncheon...." Wilson Lamb wanted to laugh out loud; it was as good as having a duck flutter down smack in front of your blind.

Past 86th, the Express roared. Lamb's victim had turned his paper, halved back the last page. Automatic pencil poised, he was scanning the crossword puzzle intently. As they lolled through 91st, he bared his teeth in a satisfied smile and rapidly filled in four vertical blanks, then filled out the lower right-hand corner. Lamb saw that his four upper front teeth were a neatly fitted denture. He wondered how they'd look after a bullet had gone through them.

The victim got off at 96th, carefully straightening his muffler inside his black overcoat. He went downstairs, crossed beneath the local platform to the west side, mounted to street level. He had a cigaret in his mouth but waited until he was outside the subway entrance before he put a match to it. Lamb lit one too. He picked up an evening paper from the newsstand—it might come in handy if he got to close quarters with the dope and wanted to mask his face. The newsdealer was looking the other way as he made change so Lamb plucked back his nickel.

The victim started to cross 96th Street, heading north. A traffic officer's whistle shrilled. Broadway was spattered with the ruby red of traffic lights. Vehicles moved crosstown. Dutifully Lamb's goon turned and retraced his steps to the curb, holding his four-square hat carefully. A little trick with skimpy skirts whipped about plump calves crossed on over. Watching her, Lamb's victim shook his head.

Lamb could hear him saying: "Tsk! Tsk! Foolish to take chances like that." Imagine him saying it, anyway.

Lamb kept at a cautious distance as they moved several blocks up Broadway. Walking briskly, the victim turned into a side street. There was something smug about the way he picked up his heels, swung his briefcase.

"Little man who has had a busy day with a job well done," Lamb paraphrased it sarcastically. He pushed his battered felt hat further back on his head in a gesture of disgust. His cheap unbuttoned raglan-style coat fluttered in the wind off the Hudson. Abruptly, the man ahead halted, wheeled.

Lamb calmly turned and opened the rear door of a parked sedan whose driver was at the wheel. Put a foot in. Down the block, his victim headed into a distinctly second-rate apartment hotel. Lamb said to the sedan driver, "I thought this was a hearse" and went down the block.

His victim was getting his mail at the desk when Lamb entered the shabby lobby. Lamb got on the elevator after him. The victim said "nine," immersed in his paper again, studying that living room suite. He had his key ready in his hand, terra cotta-hued tab swinging loose. "914" was lettered on it in black.

"Ten, Bud," Lamb told the operator.

On the tenth floor, he moved quickly down the frayed carpet of a corridor and found the service stairs. Back on the ninth, even when he was yards from the door of 914, he caught the odor of cooking. Rich and greasy. He got his ear against the door.

"Spare-ribs and sauerkraut, huh, Ede?" the victim was calling out inside. Lamb could visualize him putting his coat on a hanger, carefully folding a scarf over it.

From the rear of the apartment came Ede's voice, reedy and with a bit of a whine. Lamb could visualize her too, a dyed blonde who devoured film fan magazines and thought the girdle was the world's greatest invention. "Uh-huh. How'd things go downtown today, Lou?"

Through the thin door, Lamb heard him clear his throat, mutter, "Oh, so-so."

But Ede wasn't to be put off. "Lou, did you tell the boss you had to have a raise, that the job is worth more?"

Lou started to mumble something. Ede's voice, penetrating the door easily, rose to a querulous pitch. "Lou, you're too easygoing! You ain't got the sense to stand up for your rights. You're an expert in your line and you know it. There's never any kick-back or complaint on a job you do."

"I know, I know, Ede but—" Wilson Lamb's victim got in.

"You're entitled to more money, Lou! You've never bungled a job yet. I need a new coat. And you said you wanted to put the kid in a private school after the first of the year. How're we gonna do it if you don't—"

Lou said, "Look, Ede! Something came up today and the boss had to leave in a hurry—right in the middle of a conference. I just had time to grab my briefcase myself. Let's get to work on those spare-ribs."

They moved toward the rear of the apartment and Lamb out in the hall could hear no more. He was chuckling as he walked away, loose mouth curled in a sneer. Back on the tenth floor, he boarded the elevator again. Again it was empty except for the operator, a tow-headed kid with a Racing Form tucked in a side pocket.

"Funny thing," Lamb mentioned casually, "I could've sworn I knew that man who rode up with me. Stocky chap. Got off at the ninth. But I can't seem to recall his name."

"Mr. Engel, yuh mean?"

"Engel ... Engel ... Lou Engel? Is he an accountant?"

"Yeah, Louis Engel's the name. But he ain't no accountant. Comes from Chicago. I heard him tell the manager he was an efficiency expert."

Lamb stopped rattling the coins in his pocket suggestively, kept them there, and strolled toward the main entrance. Behind him, a lobby lounger moved over to the elevator boy, jerking his chin in Wilson Lamb's direction as he asked a question.

At the corner, Lamb stopped in and bought a drink. Thin face creased in a smile of self-satisfaction, he glanced at the paper he had bought. Below the latest war communiques was a small column-head about a threatened gang war in the numbers racket. "Police Raid Joe 'The Flasher' Abadirro's Headquarters," it said. Lamb's eyes picked up flashes of it. "... when plainclothes squad walked into luxurious apartment ... mid-town West Side hotel ... several henchmen taken into custody on technical charges ... Abadirro reported out of town ... police acting on tip killers imported from Chicago ... showdown anticipated on who will boss numbers racket in metropolitan area...."

Lamb turned the paper over and winked at himself in the concave mirror of the semi-circle of bar. That was unimportant claptrap to somebody like him. That kind of tripe was for the little Joe Dopes who got their thrills vicariously. There was going to be nothing vicarious about what he was going to do. He was going to rub out Louis Engel. Blast him. Louis the Goon, as he had already christened him in his mind. He had put the finger on him.

"Louis the Goon is going to die," Wilson Lamb said softly. He liked the sound of it.

He wasn't crazy. Long ago he had assured himself of that. It was just that his mind operated on a different, a higher, plane than the norm. He was not one of the little pieces of protoplasm running along with the herd. He was above them. Looking down on them. Studying them. His perspective ranged somewhat further than the end of his nose, the latest double-feature at the neighborhood movie house, and spare-ribs.

That last made him laugh out loud. He picked up his change and headed back for the subway and his two-room apartment in the Village. His gun, a .45 automatic, was there. He would be needing it soon. Louis the Goon practically demanded, invited, the use of a .45 automatic on him.

"Efficiency engineer," Lamb said to himself once.

The guy was the perfect subject. Ripe for murder. The more Lamb thought of it, the more he was convinced he couldn't have dreamed up a better stooge. Engel was a model—for homicide. He himself might die for it.

But that was unimportant. The killing of Louis the Goon was the only thing that counted. The results, materially speaking, meant nothing. This slaying was to be an exposition of the ego. Without other cause. Emotionless. With no hope of gain, financial or otherwise. No female involved. Nothing. Just a killing, a plain open and shut case of homicide for no earthly reason imaginable to the police. It would be amusing to watch those flatfoots sitting around trying to sift a motive out of the thing. Baby, they'd sweat their so-and-so's off trying to cook up a reason for this one.

It was so simple to Lamb himself. Inevitable. A logical step in a sequence. The final step, perhaps. Louis the Goon Engel was a mere walk-on in the piece, a spear-carrier doomed to death. Little better than a papier mache dummy set up to be a target for the custard pie. Only, in this case, the custard pie was to be a cupro steel-nosed bullet.

To Lamb, it boiled down to an ultimate expression of the psyche. The final test of one's ability to project the personal ego over all else in the material world. Because the ego was the alpha and omega of all living the moment one got above the level of animal existence, the mere feeding of the face and satisfaction of the other instinctive physical hungers. As Braunitsch had put it so succinctly, "Even the lowest worm can procreate itself—unfortunately."

Then, of course, there was Nietsche and his superman. And some of Freud. And that treatise of Van de Water, the Belgian, on the sublimation of the sub-conscious by the negation of the self-censor. And the papers of Braulinski of the old University of Warsaw on the fear trauma which he termed a birthmark of civilization. Lamb had gone into them all, deeply. All of them dealing with the ego. The ego and its development and complete consummation. And the killing of Louis the Goon Engel was going to be the consummation of Wilson Lamb's experiments in the total exemplification of that ego.

It was no brash idea, no hare-brained impulse concocted in one's cups, perhaps. Analytically, objectively, he had thought out the whole thing. The axis of life was the psyche. Its two poles were birth and death. And, as Braunitsch had stated, the former was a function, often accidental, of which the lowest animal order was capable. A mono-cell, the amoeba, was able to reproduce itself by the simple stratagem of sub-division. But death—when it became a deliberate action, administered without emotion or hope of material gain—was one step removed from the godhead. Perhaps less than one step. But the step that would raise one above all the little fumbling, blind-spawning, life hugging bipeds who infested the scene.

In short, birth was fortuitous, a product of circumstance plus proximity, its get a biological accident. But death—the taking of life—was a selective process, intentionally executed, the result a foreseen conclusion. In so doing, the taking of life, you broke the greatest law of humanity and so became above it. You unfettered the ego with a single ineradicable stroke. In taking a life, one tasted the essence of living. He tried to remember who had said that. De Maupassant had put it better but Lamb could not quite recall the quotation....

He was still trying to remember it as he lounged down the block from Engel's apartment hotel at 8:10 the next morning. There was a bone-chilling breeze off the Drive that made Lamb belt his coat tighter about him. When, at 9:35, Louis the Goon Engel had not made an appearance, Lamb went down to the corner drugstore and had a cup of coffee. He could not see the entrance of the hotel through the window. But he commanded a clear view of the street and anybody coming up it toward the subway. And if he ever saw one, his corpse-to-be was a methodical little piece of humanity. He would come and go to the subway by the same route.

Wilson Lamb was correct as he had never doubted. But it was 11:07 by his wrist watch before Engel emerged. The gray hat just as squarely set on his head as before, without a glance around, Engel came out of the hotel and turned his steps dutifully in the direction of the subway. Lamb was strolling on the other side of the street at the moment. On sight of him, he turned up the front stairs of a brownstone. But a few seconds later, his long legs were carrying him rapidly toward Broadway. By hustling, he got to the other side of it, entered the subway on the uptown side, crossed underneath and was waiting in the by-pass when Engel came along. Engel trotted up to the downtown express platform. When the next train pulled out, Lamb was in the vestibule, half a car-length away from him.

Taking the trouble to keep at a distance, to make himself inconspicuous, seemed almost wasted effort. Louis the Goon went along, looking neither to right nor left, docilely intent on minding his own business.

"Efficiency expert," Lamb said to himself. "Bet he's a cracker-jack at cutting down on the overhead."

It was like playing a game of cat-and-mouse with him, Wilson Lamb, the cat. Only in this instance, the mouse seemed as good as blind.

Lamb could have given it to him any time, a slug in the back that would terminate his little life the way you would step on a cockroach. On second thought, he would not give it to him in the back. It would be the front so he could see the stricken stupid look of surprise. He'd probably try to get his foolish little briefcase in front of him like a shield. Lamb could just see it. Hear his squeal of futile protest, too.

Yes, he could give it to him whenever he chose. Just walk up to him and squeeze the trigger and savor omnipotence for a moment. Very simple. At his leisure. But Wilson Lamb wasn't going to do it that way. That would have been like a blind stab, in the dark, meaningless, impersonal. Like taking a hack at a piece of meat. Or tossing a bomb into a crowd. Instead, he wanted to know something about his specimen before he exterminated him. Understand his background. Get a fair picture of the little sphere of the life from which he was all unknowingly about to depart.

Lamb didn't figure it to take long in the case of Louis the Goon. What Engel was was pretty patent. A typical little taxpayer, careful to keep his nose clean, asking only to be permitted to tread his narrow path unmolested. Undoubtedly the type who got sick to his stomach at the sight of blood even though it might be no more than a nose-bleed.

At 42nd Street, Louis the Goon got off and trundled over to the shuttle. He passed through the Grand Central Station, stopping off to buy a package of Camels en route. The cigar store had a counter display of a bargain buy of razor blades combined with some unknown brand of shaving cream. Engel hovered over it like a bargain-hunting housewife. The clerk put on his spiel. Engel bought, got stuck for a bottle of after-shave lotion too.

Lamb saw it all from over by the counter of the baggage-checking room. "'A penny saved is a penny earned,'" he paraphrased for him.

They cut through the Graybar Building to come out on Lexington. Engel proceeded north a few blocks, turned into one of the commercial hotels noted for its name band. Halfway across the lobby, a tall swarthy man with one of those deadpan faces rose to greet him. They shook hands.

"You're right on the dot," the tall man said.

Engel's pursed mouth lengthened in a flattered smile. "I always make it a point to be punctual," Lamb dawdling in the background, overheard him say.

Then they headed for the elevator bank. The tall one shot two glances backward as they did so Lamb couldn't make it too obvious. When he rounded the corner of the ell where the elevators were, they were gone. Lamb went back into the main lobby and ensconced himself behind a morning paper. Midway down the page was more about the threatened strife in the numbers racket. It didn't interest Lamb in the slightest.

Engel probably had gone upstairs to try and peddle one of his efficiency schemes to some big shot. The guy he'd met in the lobby was a go-between, doubtlessly. Lamb wondered whether Louis the Goon would get up the nerve to hit his boss for that raise today, as Ede had demanded.

Lamb almost lost him. Half an hour later. Louis the Goon came down and scooted out the side entrance in a hurry. When Lamb got out there, his man was already in a cab, shooting away. There was something wrong about the conservative, penny-saving Engel taking a taxi. Wilson Lamb did not realize it at the time.

They went westward across town. Over near Sixth, Lamb's driver lost the other cab. Lamb was cursing when he spotted Engel on the sidewalk, coming back across town. That was strange because he could have sworn Engel's cab had not stopped. Must have gotten it mixed up with another. Out, he threaded his way recklessly through a welter of vehicles and picked up the tail as his man entered an office building.

It was fairly crowded in that foyer and it was simple to step onto the elevator right at Louis the Goon Engel's back, then wheel behind him out of sight as he turned. Engel called "Fourteen" and got out there, briefcase tightly clutched up under his arm, its flap unbuckled.

"Going in to high-pressure somebody on a sale," Lamb figured.

Another passenger had called fifteenth, the next floor. Lamb got out there, found the built-in fire escape, and got down to fourteen. This was a little foolish, he realized. There was no way of finding what office Louis the Goon had visited. Still, he might see him when he came out. Maybe he had gone to see the boss about that raise Ede was demanding. Maybe he'd come out bouncing on his tail-feathers. It was fun following and watching Louis the Goon. Like watching an ant on a sidewalk flagstone puttering about its puny business, knowing you were going to stamp out its life when it so pleased you.

Lamb was just lighting a cigaret, gazing down the hallway of the fourteenth floor, when the muffled report came up the staircase. It didn't seem possible, a gun seemed so out of place in such surroundings.... Then there were two more shots, a scream intermixed. The shattering of plate glass. Lamb was down the stairs and pulling open the firedoor onto the floor below. Immediately he sniffed the acrid fumes of gunpowder.

He was looking out onto an ell of that floor. Onto a tableau of violence. There was just a single office suite on that ell, directly opposite him. On one of its double doors was lettered "Continental Exhibition Corp." The frosted glass of the other door was almost completely broken out, leaving a jagged-fringed aperture through which to view the scene within.

Wilson Lamb flattered himself on being pretty cool headed under all circumstances. But he blinked three times rapidly now. Inside the Continental Exhibition Corporation one man was slumped over a desk, an automatic half-gripped in his inert hand. He was very dead. Half his head was shot off. Another man was sprawled on the gray broadloom of the reception room, a brownish puddle beneath his side. He wasn't going to be going any place in a hurry, either.

Even as Lamb stared at the carnage, a third figure appeared, wobbling drunkenly from an inner office. He came stooped over, holding his side. Crimson-speckled froth at his lips. He got to the shattered glass panel and moved the lips at Wilson Lamb.

"Tell 'em—the police—it was—was Whisper Ross from—from Chi—" He coughed twice on the "Chicago," then caved in on himself and went flat in the hallway.

Lamb saw an ashen-face bespectacled man peering around the corner of an ell. From further back, through an open doorway, a girl's voice was shrieking for the police over the phone. Lamb remembered the fact that he had a gun on his person. It might be extremely embarrassing if the police picked him up for questioning. Ducking back through the firedoor, he ran quickly up to the sixteenth floor, up past the fifteenth. Nothing had been heard up there yet. He caught a down car and got out just as the first prowl car came sirening its way into the side street curb.

Afterward, outside the police cordon thrown around the building, somebody jostled against him, peered under his hat brim. Later, Lamb recalled the bluish scar crescent on his left cheek.

"Hey, aren't you Reynolds of the Dispatch, pal?"

"Nope," Lamb said.

"You're a reporter with one of the local sheets, aren't you?" the other persisted. "I know I've seen you around before."

"You must have been wearing your other glasses, Bud," Lamb said and turned away.

Maybe it was the effect of seeing the handiwork of that other unknown killer. For the police had nabbed nobody yet in that mid-town mid-day shooting. Anyway, Lamb had the itch to strike. It was like a thirst building in a guy. You've seen somebody else dip into a tall cool one and after a while you feel like you got to have one yourself. Those three dead men on the thirteenth floor of that office building had acted like an aphrodisiac on Wilson Lamb. He wanted to get him his corpse. But soon.

He knew it when he picked up his victim again. It was almost 4 P.M., shreds of snow drifting down through New York's early darkness. He was hanging around by the cab stand above 96th on the west side of Broadway, waiting hopefully. He had got so that he felt a little lonely when he didn't have Louis the Goon right handy. He felt on familiar terms with the guy. Of course, Louis the Goon didn't know him. And when he introduced himself, Louis was going to get one hell of a big surprise. Like a kick in the teeth only a lot more permanent.

One of the hackies turned up his radio. A news commentator was on. He came to the topic of the mid-town shooting. Three dead, gunned in the office of the Continental Exhibition Corporation. Lamb edged over nearer. The Continental outfit, the announcer said, was the business front of one Big John Girra, well known local racketeer. Girra was a powerful figure in the metropolitan pin-ball game syndicate and had a piece of the number policy racket too.

"Police, promising an arrest within twenty-four hours, claim the triple killing a step in the fight for control of the numbers game business in this city. They are still seeking the missing Joe The Flasher Abadirro, also reputed to have boasted he would take over the numbers game. Two of the slain men have been identified as close associates of Big John Girra. A building employee stated earlier today that Girra left the premises less than five minutes before the killing. A prominent police official who refused to be quoted asserted the killer was a Chicago torpedo imported for the job, a killer who would not be recognized by members of the New York mobs. 'We are closing in on him at this very instant,' the official concluded."

The news broadcaster went on to another item of the day's reports. Lamb turned around. And there was Louis the Goon Engel, not four feet away. En route home from the subway, he had paused to listen to the report too. He stood now with a calculating look, almost as if he were checking the verity of the report. Lamb wanted to laugh in his face.

"If you'd seen those three carcasses leaking blood all over the place, you'd probably have swooned in your britches, my little dope," Lamb addressed him mentally. And the funny part was that the little dope had been so close to it. Just a floor away, in fact.

As he followed him on uptown, down his side-street, Lamb had a curious sense of elation. He was in on the ground-floor of Death, Inc. Even before voting at a stock-holders' meeting himself. For he knew who had triggered those three today, who the Chi torpedo the cops wanted was. One Whisper Ross. Of course, he might have tipped off the police say, by a phone call. But he wasn't going to.

"We killers must stick together." The thought tickled his sense of humor.

They were almost at Louis the Goon's roost when Lamb saw how he was going to do it. A boy with a carton of groceries almost ran down Louis, then ducked down into the delivery entrance of the apartment-hotel. And Wilson Lamb had his cue.

Some ten minutes later, after due investigation, he knew how he was going to put Louis the Goon on the spot. And how he was going to get away with it, get clear afterward. The taking of life was the important thing, the major premise. Whether he was caught or not had never seemed important before. But after reviewing the handiwork of Whisper Ross—who had ambled off unimpeded—Lamb saw no reason why he should not do the same. It would be the nth degree in the epitomization of the ego to kill and get away with it.

The building's delivery entrance was a perfect avenue of escape. Actually it did not enter the hotel at first. Down a few steps and then it ran rearward between the side of the building and the retaining wall next door, an open-topped alleyway. The delivery doorway was in the rear. A few feet further on was the backyard laid out in a garden with a waterless age-browned concrete fountain in the center. A low concrete wall separated it from the property that backed onto it. And there was the payoff.

Ambling casually through in the darkness, Lamb had discovered that the property in the rear, facing on the next street downtown, was several feet lower. It would be simple to drop over the wall to its paved courtyard. And from that ran a concrete passage beside the apartment house out to the street one block below.

Emerging on it, Lamb lit a cigaret and went back around the block to Engel's place. He appraised it like a surveyor. First off, it was one of those second-rate places that boasted no doorman. Across the street were those brownstones for a nice dim background. The nearest street lamp was down about ten feet from the entrance of Engel's place. Engel would come walking along primly, right into its light. A man crossing the street from the brownstones, a little behind Engel, calling out, "Hey, Mr. Engel," and—

It was a very nice set-up. The property line of the building where Engel lived was set back several feet further than that of the old-fashioned private homes between it and Broadway. They would serve as a screen for his movements from one direction when he hit into that delivery alleyway after fixing Louis the Goon's wagon once and for all, Lamb realized. It was almost ridiculously simple.

Why he could almost have chalked an "X" right there and then on the sidewalk where little Louis would lie down and forget it all. Wilson Lamb hummed as he headed up toward Broadway and decided to have dinner. He had a swell appetite. He was humming snatches from something. Minor key, descending scale. It went "Come to Papa, come to Papa, come to Papa." He didn't know whether it was from a song or a crap game. Anyway, the dice were sure loaded against a certain party he knew.

Down the block, a taxi that had been parked with meter ticking across from Engel's apartment-hotel drew away slowly.

He went to the movies with Louis the Goon that evening. Louis didn't know anything about it and Lamb bought his own ticket. That too had been extremely simple. After dinner, he had phoned Engel. When Louis himself answered, Lamb had asked for Toots. Louis said they had no Toots there and Lamb said he was very sorry, that he must have got the wrong number. And Louis said that was all right, no harm done. And Lamb said he was sorry he had disturbed him and Louis said to think nothing of it, no trouble at all. And Lamb said a four-letter word after he had hung up and laughed out loud in the phone booth.

Then he hung around and saw Louis come out after dinner. Ede was with him this time. Ede was the type after which some department store advertising-department diplomat had coined the term "stylish stout." Ede toddled and she was pretty hefty. If there was a family argument, Lamb would have laid two to one she would have come home in front by a t.k.o. before the fifth round.

They went into the movies on the north-west corner of 96th. The closest Lamb could get was some three rows back. He was disappointed because he could not watch Engel's face. It was a double feature. Pampas Nights was one of those alleged South American musicals whipped up by a couple of submorons with the intent purpose of sabotaging the Good Neighbor policy. The other picture was some ghoulish thing about a mad surgeon, described in the script as an "ego-maniac," who had a pleasant pastime of revivifying electrocuted felons. That one gave Lamb a pain in the pants too. He had really made a study of ego-maniacs.

He got out in the foyer right behind the Engels. He heard Ede say she thought the one about that "nutty doc" was so thrilling. Louis the Goon did not agree. He liked those musicals.

"They take my mind off business," he said.

Lamb left them and went in and had a drink. He had two drinks. Now that everything was settled, he felt no impatience. It was all lined up right down to the final curtain. Louis' final curtain. Lamb had already decided he would give it to him as he came plodding his smug little way home some evening. Any evening. Maybe tomorrow evening. Now that the details were ironed out, it was fun to leave the closing date open. He could play the fly-on-the-wall in Louis the Goon's life as long as he wanted. And when he got bored with Louis's act—bop! he would deliver his compact little package to Louis....

He started to get bored fast the next day. He rode downtown with Louis and they went over to that same East side hotel and Louis went upstairs. He was gone a long time. Lamb said to himself, "That dope goes around in a rut and I'll get in one too just following him and then I will get sore." Eventually Louis the Goon came back down into the lobby. The tall, swarthy man he had met there the day before was with him.

"Well, I guess there'll be nothing doing today," Louis the Goon said.

"Nope, nothing," the other said.

They parted. Louis went down to the telephones, used one after consulting a little black book. When he came out, he bought a white carnation for his button-hole in the florist shop, then treated himself to three twenty-five-center Perfectos.

"Something builds," Lamb told himself. Outside, when Louis the Goon got a taxi, there was something positively cocky about him. Lamb was humming his "Come to Papa" again as he took another and trailed him eastward this time. Louis got out at a Third Avenue bar and grill and went in. Lamb gave him five minutes and strayed in himself. There was no Louis. Not at first, anyway. Lamb could feel his pulse beat faster.

Then he spotted the dim backroom with the booths. And he went through it to the Men's Room. And there was Louis the Goon—his little clay pigeon—in one of the booths with a doll. She was red-haired by courtesy of the local beauty parlor, cuddling up in a flashy little leopard fur number. She looked like a dance-hall hostess from one of those joints where everything goes so long as you keep time to the music.

As Lamb passed, she was saying, "Now, Daddy—" That almost unbuttoned Lamb. Daddy! On his way back, he noticed there were two others in the backroom, a couple of men gnawing on pretzels over beers.

He stepped back into the bar just in time. Three men had entered. They headed straight for the rear. One of them shouldered Wilson Lamb from his path as if he did not see him. The second one pulled out a cannon and poked it at the bartender and told him to keep his britches on. Then the other two were in the rear and letting go with their cannon.

Slammed over against the bar, Lamb had a split-second glimpse of it. For a moment, it almost seemed as if the damn fools were out after Engel. One shot smashed the table lamp in the booth where he sat. Then the two beer drinkers back in there were around and swapping it out with cannon of their own with the newcomers.

Lamb got out of there fast. He got across the street. He saw two men dash out of a side entrance and into a dark sedan that roared away. He did not see Louis the Goon get out. Then the howling prowl cars converged on the scene. And there was an ambulance. It took one guy away. Another guy, it didn't. Lamb worked his way up into the throng and got a glimpse of the other guy getting stiff on the backroom floor. Everybody else was lined up in the bar for questioning. Engel was not among them. So Lamb knew he must have gotten away all right.

"This is some more of that numbers racket war," a gray-haired sergeant said. And then Lamb began to taste something like panic even as the first neon signs began to smear the wintry shadows. He got afraid he might lose his little clay pigeon. Louis the Goon seemed to have a blind genius for getting on the scene when some blood-letting was due. He felt a certain possessiveness toward Louis. Louis belonged to him. And he wasn't going to have him chopped down by any piece of stray lead. Lamb had a bullet ear-marked for Louis.

He said, "I've been wasting time." He got on the shuttle and over to the West side and up to 96th and across the street from where Louis lived. Well, where Louis used to live, anyway. He was there just twenty minutes—it was 4:43 by his wristwatch—when Louis the Goon came down from the corner. He couldn't make out his face at first but he knew him by that square-set hat. Lamb eased away from the stairs of the brownstone, humming "Come to Papa, come to Papa, come to Papa...." This was it.

The ultimate in the demonstration or the ego.... He told himself that as he moved over the scabrous snow of the street.... The zenith in the projection of the psyche.... Louis the Goon had his briefcase clutched up under one arm instead of swinging.... The final triumph over the fear trauma.... Louis was abreast of him, then passing by. Wilson Lamb brought the automatic out from under his coat. He called, "Mr. Engel—" And Louis the Goon turned and Lamb held it, wanting him to get a good look at the heater, wanting to get a good look at him as he saw it.

Engel had the briefcase open, unbuckled. He was bringing something out of it swiftly, jerkily. It was a heater too. That wasn't in the script. Louis the Goon was stepping out of role. But Lamb knew he had him anyway and started to squeeze. He would squeeze three times on that trigger and—

Somebody else squeezed first. It was the man running from that parked car down the street. Lamb got it in the side and then a red-hot finger was probing down into his guts. A man stepped from the vestibule of one of those brownstones and he squeezed and Wilson Lamb couldn't feel the side of his head any more. Knew he would never feel it again. He was down on one hand and one knee and his gun was gone. Some place in the black haze seething around him. Like a hurt animal, half crawling, knowing only the base instinct of self preservation, he tried for that delivery alleyway.

Somebody else had figured that was a good spot too. It was the man with the bluish cheek scar who had accosted him after the triple-killing in that office building. He squeezed. And Lamb took that one square on the chest. In a vague way, as the sidewalk slid up at him, he was aware of that car back-firing away like hell.

The man with the blue scar was standing over him, throwing words to Louis the Goon in a quick, harsh whisper. "This is the one, Whisper. He come in here with you Wednesday. He was on the spot when you give it to them boys in Girra's office, yesterday. Today, he was in that bar when they tried to get you. The Flasher said to stick close to you—an' him."

"Girra's finger man, eh?" called back Engel softly.

"Yeah, Whisper." The blue-scarred man ran. In a moment, a car roared off down the block toward West End Avenue.

Lying there on the sidewalk, blasted for keeps, his wagon fixed, Wilson Lamb tried to put it together. Things moved very slowly for him. Whisper. Whisper Ross, Chi torpedo. Then he had it. Whisper Ross was Louis the Goon Engel. Hired killer of Joe The Flasher Abadirro. The guy he, Wilson Lamb, had fingered for an exposition of his ego.

Down the sidewalk, little Mr. Louis Engel, alias Whisper Ross, stood looking at the body and going "Tsk! Tsk!" through pursed lips. Wilson Lamb's ego died a horrible death seventeen seconds before he did.