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Authors: Erle Stanley Gardner

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High Praise for ‘TOP of the HEAP’!

“An ingenious story.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“One of the best in the series... An illegal casino, bogus mines, former strippers and dead bodies abound... You can only love a book where everyone gets exactly what they deserve in triplicate.”

—Karen Ellington, The Mystery Read

“A fine elaborate business of stock manipulation and (to fit in with the current worries of us all) income tax deception.”

—Anthony Boucher, The New York Times

“It’s a neatly knotted puzzle and Donald unties it very neatly, too.”

—New York Herald Tribune Book Review

“A fast-paced, action-packed story.”

—Springfield Republican

Rave Reviews for Erle Stanley GARDNER!

“The best selling author of the century... a master storyteller.”

—The New York Times

“Gardner is humorous, astute, curious, inventive — who can top him? No one has yet.”

—Los Angeles Times

“A fast and fiery tough tale... very very slick.”

—Kirkus Reviews

“Erle Stanley Gardner is probably the most widely read of all... authors... His success... undoubtedly lies in the real-life quality of his characters and their problems... “

—The Atlantic

“A clean, economical writer of peerless ingenuity.”

—The New York Times

“One of the best selling writers of all time, and certainly one of the best-selling mystery authors ever.”

—Thrilling Detective

“Zing, zest and zow are the Gardner hallmark. He will keep you reading at a gallop until The End.”

—Dorothy B. Hughes,

Mystery Writers of America Grandmaster

The blonde nervously took a cigarette case from a black bag and tapped the cigarette on the side of the polished silver. I snapped a match into flame, and she leaned forward for the light. I could see the long curling eyelashes, the mischievous glint of saucy hazel eyes, as she looked me over.

“Thank you,” she said.

Abruptly the floor manager glided up to the table. His smile was reassuring. “I have been asked,” he said, “to invite you to step into the office, Miss Marvin, and the boss would like to see Mr. Lam, too.”

The floor manager escorted us deferentially to a big door marked Private. He didn’t come in. The door clicked shut behind us. I turned to look. There was no knob on the door.

Channing shook hands with both of us. “How are you, Lam?” he said.

“Fine,” I told him.

I didn’t see Channing give the signal, but abruptly the door from the outer office opened and a man in a tuxedo stood quietly on the threshold.

“Mr. Lam,” Channing said, “had a card when he entered the place. He doesn’t wish to produce that card. I’d like very much to look at it.”

The newcomer reached forward and grabbed my wrist. I tried to jerk the arm free. I might as well have tried to pull against a steel cable.

Swift, efficient fingers did things to the wrist. The other hand hit against my elbow. My arm doubled around, flew up against my back, the wrist doubled into a grip that pulled the tendons until it was all I could do to keep from screaming.

“The card,” Channing said...

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THE CUTIEby Donald E. Westlake

HOUSE DICKby E. Howard Hunt

CASINO MOONby Peter Blauner

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PASSPORT TO PERILby Robert B. Parker

STOP THIS MAN!by Peter Rabe

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THE CORPSE WORE PASTIESby Jonny Porkpie

TOPof theHEAP

byErle Stanley Gardner

WRITING UNDER THE NAME ‘A. A. FAIR’

A HARD CASE CRIME BOOK

(HCC-003)

First Hard Case Crime edition: October 2004

Published by

Titan BooksA division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd144 Southwark StreetLondonSE1 0UP

in collaboration with Winterfall LLC

Copyright © 1952 by William Morrow & Company, Inc.

Copyright renewed 1980 by Jean Bethell Gardner

Cover art copyright © 2004 by Bill Nelson

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher, except where permitted by law.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Print edition ISBN 978-0-85768-316-8E-book ISBN 978-0-85768-381-6

Design direction by Max Phillipswww.maxphillips.net

The name “Hard Case Crime” and the Hard Case Crime logo are trademarks of Winterfall LLC. Hard Case Crime Books are selected and edited by Charles Ardai.

Visit us on the web atwww.HardCaseCrime.com

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter One

I was in the outer office, standing by the files, doing some research on a blackmailer, when he came in, all six feet of him.

He wore a plaid coat, carefully tailored, pleated slacks, and two-tone sport shoes. He was built like a secondhand soda straw, and I heard him say he wanted to see the senior partner. He said it with the air of a man who always demands the best, and then settles for what he can get.

The receptionist glanced at me hopefully, but I was deadpan. Bertha Cool was the “senior” partner.

“Theseniorpartner?” she asked, still keeping an eye on me.

“That’s right. I believe it is B. Cool,” he announced, glancing toward the names painted on the frosted glass of the doorway to the reception room.

She nodded and plugged in to B. Cool’s phone. “The name?” she asked.

He drew himself up importantly, whipped an alligatorskin card case from his pocket, took out a card, and presented it to her with a flourish.

She puzzled over it for a moment as though having difficulty getting it interpreted. “Mr. Billings?”

“Mr. John Carver Billings the—”

Bertha Cool answered the phone just then, and the girl said, “A Mr. Billings. A Mr. John Carver Billings to see you.”

“The Second,” he interposed, tapping the card. “Can’t you read? The Second!”

“Oh, yes,” she said, “the Second.”

That evidently threw Bertha Cool for a loss. Apparently she wanted an explanation.

“The Second,” the girl repeated into the phone. “It’s on his card that way, and that’s the way he says it. His name isJohn Carver Billings, and then there are two straight lines after the Billings.”

The man frowned impatiently. “Send my card in,” he ordered.

The receptionist automatically ran her thumbnail over the engraving on the card and said, “Yes, Mrs. Cool,” into the telephone.

Then she hung up and said to Billings, “Mrs. Cool will see you now. You may go right in.”

“Mrs.Cool?” the man said.

“Yes.”

“That’s B. Cool?”

“Yes. B. for Bertha.”

He hesitated perceptibly, then straightened his plaid sport coat and walked in.

The receptionist waited until the door had closed, then looked up at me and said, “He wants a man.”

“No,” I told her, “he wants theseniorpartner.”

“When he asks for you what shall I tell him?”

I said, “You underestimate Bertha. She’ll find out how much dough he has, and if it’s a sizable chunk she’ll ask me in for a conference. If it isn’t a big wad and John Carver Billings the Second intimates he thinks a woman isn’t as good a detective as a man, you’ll see Mr. John Carver Billings the Second thrown out of here on his ear.”

She looked very demure. “You’re so careful with your anatomical distinctions, Mr. Lam,” she said without smiling.

I went back to my office.

In about ten minutes the phone rang.

Elsie Brand, my secretary, answered, then glanced up and said, “Mrs. Cool wants to know if you can come into her office for a conference.”

“Sure,” I said, and gave the receptionist a wink as I walked past and opened the door of Bertha’s private office.

One look at the expression on Bertha’s face and I knew everything was fine. Bertha’s little, greedy eyes were glittering. Her lips were all smiles. “Donald,” she said, “this is John Carver Billings.”

“The Second,” he amended.

“The Second,” she echoed. “And this is Mr. Donald Lam, my partner.”

We shook hands.

I knew from experience that it took cold, hard cash to get Bertha to assume that ingratiating manner and that cooing, kittenish voice.

“Mr. Billings,” she said, “has a problem. He feels that perhaps a man should work on that problem, that it might—”

“Be more conducive of results,” John Carver Billings the Second finished.

“Exactly,” Bertha agreed with a cash-inspired alacrity of good humor.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

Bertha’s chair squeaked as she moved her hundred and sixty-five pounds around so as to pick up the newspaper clipping on the far corner of her desk. She handed it to me without a word.

I read:

KNIGHT DAY’S COLUMN — DAY AND NIGHT

BLOND BEAUTY DISAPPEARS. FRIENDSFEAR FOUL PLAY. POLICE SKEPTICAL.

Maurine Auburn, the blond beauty who was with “Gabby” Garvanza at the time he was shot, has mysteriously disappeared. “Friends” have asked police to make an investigation.

The police, however, who feel that the young woman was considerably less than co-operative during theirinvestigation into the shooting of the mobster, are inclined to feel that Miss Auburn, who kept her own counsel so successfully a few nights ago, is about business of her own. So far as police are concerned, her failure to pick up milk bottles from the doorstep of her swank little bungalow in Laurel Canyon is a matter of official indifference. In fact, officers pointed out quite plainly that Miss Auburn resented having police “stick their noses” into her private life a few days ago, and the police intend to respect her desire for privacy whenever possible.

The story as given to police by “friends” is that three days ago Maurine Auburn, who was the life of the party at a well-known nitery, became peeved at her escort and walked out.

Nor did she walk out alone.

Her departure was prefaced by a few dances with a new acquaintance whom she had met for the first time at the night club. The fact that she left the place with this newfound friend, rather than with members of her own party, is a circumstance which police consider to be without especial significance. Friends of the young woman, however, regard it as a matter of the greatest importance. Detectives are frank to state they do not consider this occurrence unique in the life of the mysterious young woman who was so singularly unobservant when Gabby Garvanza was on the receiving end of two leaden slugs.

When milk bottles began to pile up on Miss Auburn’s doorstep, the peeved and jilted escort, whose name is being withheld by the police, felt that something should be done. He went to the police — perhaps for the first time in his life. Prior to that time, as one of the officers expressed it, the police had gone to him.

In the meantime, Garvanza, who has so far recoveredthat he has been definitely pronounced out of danger, continues to occupy a private room at a local hospital and, despite his convalescence, continues to employ three special nurses.

After coming out of an anesthetic at the hospital following the operation which resulted in removing two bullets from his body, Gabby Garvanza listened patiently to police inquiries, then, by way of helpful cooperation, said, “I reckon somebody who had it in for me must have taken a coupla shots at me.”

Police consider this a masterly understatement of fact and point out that as an aid to investigative work it is somewhat less than a valuable contribution. There was a distinct feeling at headquarters that both Gabby Garvanza and Miss Auburn could have been much more helpful.

I dropped the clipping back on Bertha’s desk and looked at John Carver Billings the Second.

“Honestly,” he said, “I never knew who she was.”

“You’re the pickup?” I asked.

He nodded.

“And Maurine left the nitery with you?”

“It really wasn’t a night club. This was late in the afternoon, a cocktail rendezvous, food and dancing.”

I said to Bertha, “Wemightnot want to handle this one.”

Bertha’s greedy eyes flashed at me. Her jeweled hand surreptitiously strayed toward the cash drawer. “Mr. Billings has paid us a retainer,” she said.

“And I offer a five-hundred-dollar bonus,” Billings went on.

“I was coming to that,” Bertha interposed.

“A bonus for what?” I asked.

“If you can find the girls I was with afterward.”

“After what?”

“After the Auburn girl left me.”

“That same night?”

“Of course.”

“You seem to have covered a lot of territory,” I said.

“It was this way,” Bertha explained. “Mr. Billings was to have been joined for cocktails by a young woman. This young woman stood him up. He had been attracted to Maurine Auburn, and, when he caught her eye, asked her to dance. One of the men who was with her told Billings to go roll his hoop. Miss Auburn told the guyhedidn’t own her, and he said he knew that; he was watching the premises for the man who did.

“It looked like the party might get rough so Billings, here, went back to his own table.

“A few minutes later Maurine Auburn came over to his table and said, ‘Well, you asked for a dance, didn’t you?’

“So they danced, and, as our client says, they clicked. He was nervous because her escorts looked like tough mugs. He suggested she shake them and have dinner with him. She told him about another place she liked. They went there. As far as Billings knows she’s still powdering her nose.”

“What did you do?” I asked Billings.

“I stuck around, feeling like a sap. Then I noticed two girls by themselves. I made a play for one of them and got the eye. We danced for a while. By that time I realized, of course, Maurine had stood me up. I wanted one of these girls to ditch the other one so we could go places. No dice. They were together and they were going to stay together. I moved over to their table, bought them a couple of drinks, danced with them, had dinner, paid the check, and took them to an auto court.”

“Then what?”

“I stayed all night.”

“Where?”

“In this motor court.”

“Withbothof them?”

“They were in bedrooms. I was on a couch in the front room.”

“Platonic?”

“We’d all had quite a bit to drink.”

“Then what?”

“About ten-thirty in the morning we had tomato juice. The girls cooked up a breakfast. They weren’t feeling too good and I was feeling like hell. I got away from there, went to my own motel, took a shower, and went down to a barbershop, got shaved and massaged and — Well, from there on I can account for my time.”

“Every minute of it?”

“Every minute of it.”

“Where was the motor court?”

“Out on Sepulveda.”

Bertha said, “You see, Donald, these were a couple of San Francisco babes on an auto tour. Mr. Billings thinks they knew each other pretty well, that they may have been relatives, or may have been working together in an office somewhere. Apparently they’d planned an auto tour of the country on their vacation. They wanted to see a Hollywood night spot and see if they could get a glimpse of a movie star. When Mr. Billings offered to dance with them they were willing to play along but they were playing the cards close to their chest and wouldn’t let the party split up.

“Mr. Billings offered to drive them in his car but they said they were going to drive their own car. He — Well, he didn’t want to say good night too soon.”

Billings looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “One of these babes had gone for me, and I’d gone for her,” he said. “I thought I might get rid of the chaperon if I taggedalong. I didn’t. I’d had a little more to drink than I thought. When we got out to the motor court I proposed a nightcap and — Well, either they loaded it on me or I’d already had too much. The next thing I knew I was all alone and then it was daylight and I had a beautiful hangover.”

“How were the girls the next morning?”

“Sweet and cordial.”

“Affectionate?”

“Don’t be silly. They weren’t in the mood any more than I was. We’d all of us been seeing the town.”

“And what do you want?”

“I want to find those two girls.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Bertha said, “he’s uneasy now that it seems Maurine Auburn has disappeared.”

“Why beat about the bush?” Billings said. “She’s Gabby’s moll. She knows who pumped the lead into him. She didn’t tell the police but she knows. Suppose someone should think that she told me?”

“Any particular reason why she should tell you?” I asked.

“Or,” he said hastily, “suppose something’s happened to her? Suppose the milk bottles keep on piling up on her porch?”

“Did Maurine Auburn give you her name?”

“No. She just told me I could call her ‘Morrie.’ It was when I saw her picture in the paper that I knew what I’d been up against.

“The guys with her must have been mobsters. Think of me barging up and asking for a dance!”

“Do that sort of thing often?” I asked.

“Certainly not. I’d been drinking, and I’d been stood up.”

“And then you went out and picked up these two babes?”

“That’s right, only they made it remarkably easy for me.They were on the prowl themselves — just a couple of janes on a vacation looking for a little adventure.”

“What names did they give you?” I asked.

“Just their first names, Sylvia and Millie.”

“Who was the one that you fell for?”

“Sylvia, the little brunette.”

“What did the other one look like?”

“A redhead who had a possessive complex as far as Sylvia was concerned. She knew all the answers and didn’t want me asking questions. She built a barbed wire fence around Sylvia and kept her inside of it. She may have loaded my drink with something besides liquor. I don’t know. Anyway, she produced the bottle for a nightcap and I went out like a light.”

“They consented to let you take them home?”

“Yes. As a matter of fact, they hadn’t checked in anywhere yet. They wanted a motor court.”

“You went in their car?”

“That’s right.”

“Did they register when you got to this motor court?”

“No. They asked me to register. That was the nicest way of asking me to pay the bill. In a motor court you pay in advance.”

“Were you driving their car?”

“No. Sylvia was driving the car. I was sitting in the front seat next to Millie.”

“Millie was in the middle?”

“Yes.”

“And you told Sylvia where to drive?”

“Yes. She wanted to know where to get a good motor court. I told her I’d try and get one for her.”

“And you picked this court out on Sepulveda?”

“We passed up a couple that had a sign ‘No Vacancy’ but this one had a vacancy sign.”

“You went in there?”

“Yes, we drove in.”

“Who went to the office?”

“I did.”

“And you registered?”

“Yes.”

“How did you register?”

“I can’t remember the name I thought of.”

“Why didn’t you use your own name?”

He looked at me scornfully and said, “You’re a hell of a detective. Would you have used your name under the circumstances?”

“When it came to putting down the make and license number of the automobile what did you do?”

“There,” he said with a burst of feeling, “is where I made the mistake. Instead of going out and getting the license number of their automobile I just made up one out of my head.”

“And the person who was running the motor court didn’t go out to check it?”

“Of course not. If you look reasonably respectable they never go out to check the license number. Sometimes they just check the make of the automobile and that’s all.”

“What make of car was it?”

“A Ford.”

“And you registered it as a Ford?”

“Yes. Why all the third degree? If you don’t want the case give me back my retainer and I’ll be on my way.”

Bertha Cool’s eyes glittered. “Don’t be silly. My partner is simply trying to get the facts of the case so we can help you.”

“It sounds to me as though he’s cross-examining me.”

“He doesn’t mean anything by it,” Bertha said. “Donald will locate these girls for you. He’s good.”

“He’d better be,” Billings said sullenly.

“Is there anything else,” I asked, “that you can tell us that will help?”

“Not a thing.”

“The address of the motor court?”

“I gave it to Mrs. Cool.”

“What was the number of your cabin at the court?”

“I can’t remember the number, but it was the one on the right at the far corner. I think it was Number Five.”

I said, “Okay. We’ll see what we can do.”

Billings said, “Remember that if you find these women there’s to be a five-hundred-dollar bonus.”

I said, “That bonus business doesn’t conform to the rules of ethics that are laid down for the operation of a private detective agency.”

“Why not?” Billings asked.

“It makes it too much like operating on a contingency fee. They don’t like it.”

“Who doesn’t like it?”

“The people who issue the licenses.”

“All right,” he said to Bertha, “you find the girls and I’ll donate five hundred dollars to your favorite charity.”

“Are you nuts?” Bertha asked.

“What do you mean?”

“My favorite charity,” Bertha told him, “isme.”

“Your partner says contingency fees are out.”

Bertha snorted.

“Well, no one’s going to tell anyone about it,” Billings said, “unlessyouget loquacious.”

“It’s okay by me,” Bertha said.

I said, “I’d prefer to have it on a basis that—”

“You haven’t found the girls yet,” Billings interrupted. “Now get this straight. I want an alibi for that night. The only way I can get it is to find these girls. I want affidavits. I’ve made my proposition. I’ve given you all of the informationthat I have. I’m not accustomed to having my word questioned.”

He glared at me, arose stiffly, and walked out.

Bertha looked at me angrily. “You damn near upset the applecart.”

“Provided there is any applecart.”

She tapped the cash drawer. “There’s three hundred dollars in there. That makes it an applecart.”

I said, “Then we’d better start looking for the rotten apples.”

“There aren’t any.”

I said, “His story stinks.”

“What do you mean?”

I said, “Two girls drive down from San Francisco, they want to look over Hollywood, and see if they can find a movie star dining out somewhere.”

“So what? That’s exactly what two womenwoulddo under the circumstances.”

I said, “They’d driven down from San Francisco. The first thing they’d do would be to take a bath, unpack their suitcases, hook up a portable iron, run it over their clothes, freshen up with make-up, andthengo looking for movie stars. The idea that they’d have driven all the way down from San Francisco and—”

“You don’t know that they made it all in one day.”

“All right, suppose they made it in two days. The idea that they’d have driven from San Luis Obispo or Bakersfield, or any other place, parked their car, and gone directly to a night club without stopping to make themselves as attractive as possible, stinks.”

Bertha blinked her eyes over that one. “Perhaps they did all that but lied to Billings because they didn’t want him to know where they were staying.”

I said, “Their suitcases must have been in the car,according to Billings’s statement.”

Bertha sat there in her squeaking swivel chair, her fingers drumming nervously on the top of the desk, making the light scintillate from the diamonds with which she had loaded her fingers. “For the love of Pete,” she said, “get out and get on the job. What the hell do you think this partnership is, anyway? A debating society or a detective agency?”

“I was simply pointing out the obvious.”

“Well, don’t point it out to me,” Bertha yelled. “Go find those two women. The five-hundred-bucks bonus is the obvious in this case as far as I’m concerned!”

“Did you,” I asked, “get a description?”

She tore a sheet of paper from a pad on her desk and literally threw it at me. “There are all the facts,” she said. “My God, why did I ever get a partner like you? Some son of a bitch with money comes in and you start antagonizing him. And a five-hundred-dollar bonus, too.”

I said, “I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you to ask him who John Carver Billings the First might have been?”

Bertha screamed, “What the hell do I care who he is, just so John Carver Billings the Second has money? Three hundred dollars in cold, hard cash. No check, mind you. Cash.”

I moved over to the bookcase, picked out aWho’s Whoand started running through theB’s.

Bertha narrowed blazing eyes at me for a moment, then moved to look over my shoulder. I could feel her hot, angry breath on my neck.

There was no John Carver Billings.

I reached forWho’s Who in California.Bertha beat me to it, jerked the book out of the bookcase, and said, “SupposeIdo the brain work for a while and you get out and case that motor court?”

“Okay,” I told her, starting for the door, “only don’t strain the equipment to a point of irreparable damage.”

I thought for a moment she was going to throw the book.

She didn’t.

Chapter Two

Elsie Brand, my secretary, looked up from her typing.

“A new case?”

I nodded.

“How’s Bertha?”

“Her same old irascible, greedy, profane self. How would you like to act the part of a falling woman?”

“A fallen woman?”

“I said afallingwoman.”

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