I was peeking into a room full of some of the best known people in the country, and maybe the world. A few A-list movie stars stood out as the most recognizable faces, but I also spotted at least one studio head, a couple of genuine business tycoons, the mayor, the governor and few other politicos. The small group of friends Hanover Milkbone had invited to his wife's memorial service seemed like a veritable west coast Who's Who. I wondered which of these guests had been on his list of those not intended to survive the night. The mastermind himself was nowhere to be seen at the moment.
I watched the room from behind a curtain that covered an out-of-the-way access door. People stood about in small groups or sat in the sofas and chairs that were arranged around the room. On the other side of the room from where I stood was an open archway that led into a short hall. Just down that hall was the viewing room. Guests were wandering somberly between the room in front of me and that one. There, I presumed, they were comforting the bereaved widower and gazing mournfully at the closed casket, which if it wasn't empty, contained the charred remains of a woman that they had never met and would probably never have spoken to if they had.
The real Marlene Milkbone was in my automobile, with her friend Sonya Mao trying to rouse her from the mickey-induced slumber thrown on her by her hubby's sinister agents. Those agents themselves were in a room in the basement of the funeral home, bound and gagged, one unconscious. Presently unaccounted for was one specially constructed radio transmitter. The transmitter triggered a detonator that was attached to some heavy-duty explosives, which at this moment were tucked cozily under the floorboards of the viewing room. The only other unknown in the situation was Milkbone's distance from that transmitter. I was taking as given his willingness to use it.
My next move was to get to that transmitter before Milkbone could use it, or failing that, put Milkbone in a situation where he couldn't use it. A direct confrontation seemed too risky - Milkbone might have me sidelined by the cops or even his own guests while he went for the box. I doubted anybody here would take my word over his, even less so if they knew who I was. Milkbone's main security team was out of the way, but I had no way to know if he had some kind of backup in place. He obviously believed in insurance; I wouldn't have put it past him.
When the crowd had dwindled to a just few innocuous looking strangers, I stepped from behind the curtain and approached a young female mouse who was sitting by herself at the end of a sofa. "Excuse me, Miss, have you seen Mr. Milkbone lately?"
She nodded. "Yes, I just left him in the viewing room before I came in here." She spoke with a crisp accent that marked her as a native of that jolly old isle across the sea. "The poor man is absolutely distraught. He's just sitting there staring at the casket. I suppose there are some things that even great wealth cannot protect one from."
A uniformed officer entered the room. He glanced in my direction, then did a double-take. At the same moment I realized I was looking at the face of Captain Arthur Sinclair! "Captain!" I blurted out before he could speak, "there you are! I need to have a word with you in private. Excuse, us, Miss." I stepped over next to him. I could tell the old wolf was about to blurt out my name, so I grabbed him by the arm and turned him towards the curtained doorway. "Don't say anything until you see what I've got to show you, Art," I muttered in his ear. "I swear to you this is no joke." He yanked his arm away from me, but he shut his yap and nodded, an angry look still on his face. I glanced around one more time to make sure nobody else had come into the room, then led him to the curtained doorway from which I had emerged. Within a minute, we were standing under the viewing room, staring up at a twisted mass of metal canisters, wires and radio tubes.
"So the mob really does have it in for Milkbone," Sinclair said.
"Yeah, but this isn't their doing," I said. He turned to look at me. "Look, Arty, this would take a lot of explaining, and I promise to tell you the whole story someday over a cold one, but right now the important thing is that we get the people upstairs out of harm's way." I paused and looked him in the eye. "I know we've had our differences, but you've got to believe me - this bomb belongs to Milkbone, and he alone has the gadget that can blow it sky high."
The wolf gave me a dour look. "Listen, just because you put an earnest tone in your voice doesn't mean I trust you any farther than I could throw you. In fact, probably not as far. I've heard that you're mixed up with the mob these days, Spaniel. And I have no reason to suspect Hanover Milkbone has anything to do with this."
I could hardly believe my ears. Still, it wasn't totally unexpected, I knew the word had gotten out on the street about my meeting with the gangsters. "Look, Art, if I was with the mob on this one, why would I bring you down here to show you this? Besides, I don't need my good reputation to back me up on the facts of this case - I've got far more persuasive arguments. In the next room are a couple of Milkbone's cronies, one of whom will sing you a tune that'll make your ears ring. Sonya Mao will back up my story. And I've got a dead woman out in my car who I'm sure will prove to be surprisingly talkative about her own demise."
The wolf's look had gone from disapproval to confusion. "Spaniel, as usual I have no idea what you're talking about."
"Marlene Milkbone, Captain. Very much alive, and outside this building as we speak."
He narrowed his gaze and peered at me suspiciously. "What is your game, Spaniel? Whatever it is, you're playing with the wrong man."
"No game. Come outside with me and I'll prove it." He considered for a moment, then nodded, and we went back the way we came, turning right to pass the storage room and go through the coffin room. When we got outside, I went over to my car and opened the door to the back seat. There was Sonya Mao and an extremely drowsy looking but obviously living Marlene Milkbone.
"Hello, Captain," Sonya said. Marlene opened her eyes and looked at us for a moment, then closed them again and seemed to slip back into unconsciousness. Sinclair turned around and looked at me, genuine astonishment on his face.
"You see, Art?" I said to him, "I'm on the level. This whole murder case is a hoax by Milkbone to get your boys to protect him from the real mob. They're after him for the murder of one their own in a mill town of his."
The Captain looked grim. "And that explosive device..."
"Milkbone wanted you to put a little more enthusiasm into settling his score for him."
"You say he has the detonator?"
"I'm not sure. It might be in his car. All I know is neither of his guys have it."
"All right," said Sinclair, straightening up and looking around. "It's time to get to the bottom of this. Miss Mao, would you mind driving this vehicle around to the front of the building and down to the street. I'm going to have my men clear the area for the bomb squad. Spaniel, you come with me." He turned on his heel and strode off towards the front of the home. I pulled my car keys out of my pocket, tossed them to Sonya, gave her a wink, and trotted off after him.
"Arty," I called, "tell me you're not gonna just go marchin' in there and rally the troops!"
He didn't slow down or even turn aside to look at me. "Serious crimes have been committed here, and there is a major threat to the safety of some our city's most prominent citizens. I'd say immediate action is called for."
"But for all we know, Milkbone has the transmitter with him. Or he may have somebody else nearby with his finger on the button."
"He's hardly going to blow up a building while he's still inside of it. And what about all those people - his friends and associates. Besides, he has nothing to gain."
"Don't be so sure. He ain't civic-minded like you and me. He probably intended to kill some of his 'friends' in there all along. Don't forget, self-made men usually worship their creator, and expect others to sacrifice at the altar."
"I still don't think he'd kill himself over this. He may be facing some jail time..."
"Or worse," I cut in. We were approaching the front corner of the building. "There's more to this case then I've told you. It gets pretty ugly and he's in it up to his big floppy ears. Besides, a jail term may be as good as a death sentence with the mob after him. Once they find out he's in stir, his days are numbered. He's gotta know that."
The wolf had begun to slow his pace. "You might have a point," he said at last. He stopped and turned to look at me. "All right, I'll be discreet. I'll have my men clear the building quietly and we'll radio for the bomb squad and do a car-to-car search of the area looking for that transmitter."
"I'll have two of my undercover men watch him until they're sure he doesn't have the detonator, or isn't in a position to reach it. Then they'll seize him." We had walked up to the corner of the building. My car pulled up behind us on the left, then turned right and drove past us down the one-way drive. We turned and looked down the building to the main entrance, just in time to see Hanover Milkbone emerge from the funeral home. Time seemed to suddenly slow to a crawl. His head was down, looking at his shoes. As the automobile ponderously rolled towards the door, he began to slowly, slowly raise his head. I looked over at Sinclair, whose expression must have been a mirror of my own - surprise and dismay. I turned back to look at Milkbone, who was now staring straight ahead as Sonya drove the car directly in front of his face. I could see the silhouette of Marlene's head from the back window of the car - she was sitting up, slouched, but in plain view. Her golden hair became illuminated by the light coming from the entrance area. Glancing back at Milkbone, I saw his eyes go wide as he registered what he had just seen. Without a moment's hesitation, he turned and bolted back into the funeral home.
Time snapped back into it's normal pace. The Captain and I exchanged one more glance, then both broke into motion. He leapt for the front door. I turned around and bolted in the opposite direction.
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