The Ambulance Made Two Trips

by Murray Leinster

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If you should set a thief to catch a thief, what does it take to stop a racketeer...?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald found a package before his door that morning, along with the milk. He took it inside and opened it. It was a remarkably fine meerschaum pipe, such as the sergeant had longed irrationally to own for many years. There was no message with it, nor any card. He swore bitterly.

On his way to Headquarters he stopped in at the orphanage where he usually left such gifts. On other occasions he had left Scotch, a fly-rod, sets of very expensive dry-flies, and dozens of pairs of silk socks. The female head of the orphanage accepted the gift with gratitude.

“I don’t suppose,” said Fitzgerald morbidly, “that any of your kids will smoke this pipe, but I want to be rid of it and for somebody to know.” He paused. “Are you gettin’ many other gifts on this order, from other cops? Like you used to?”

The head of the orphanage admitted that the total had dropped off. Fitzgerald went on his way, brooding. He’d been getting anonymous gifts like this ever since Big Jake Connors moved into town with bright ideas. Big Jake denied that he was the generous party. He expressed complete ignorance. But Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald knew better. The gifts were having their effect upon the Force. There was a police lieutenant whose wife had received a mink stole out of thin air and didn’t speak to her husband for ten days when he gave it to the Community Drive. He wouldn’t do a thing like that again! There was another sergeant--not Fitzgerald--who’d found a set of four new white-walls tires on his doorstep, and was ostracized by his teen-age offspring when he turned them into the police Lost and Found. Fitzgerald gave his gifts to an orphanage, with a fine disregard of their inappropriateness. But he gloomily suspected that a great many of his friends were weakening. The presents weren’t bribes. Big Jake not only didn’t ask acknowledgments of them, he denied that he was the giver. But inevitably the recipients of bounty with the morning milk felt less indignation about what Big Jake was doing and wasn’t getting caught at.

At Headquarters, Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald found a memo. A memo was routine, but the contents of this one were remarkable. He scowled at it. He made phone calls, checking up on the more unlikely parts of it. Then he went to make the regular investigation.

When he reached his destination he found it an unpretentious frame building with a sign outside: “Elite Cleaners and Dyers.” There were no plate-glass windows. There was nothing show-off about it. It was just a medium-sized, modestly up-to-date establishment to which lesser tailoring shops would send work for wholesale treatment. From some place in the back, puffs of steam shot out at irregular intervals. Somebody worked a steampresser on garments of one sort or another. There was a rumbling hum, as of an oversized washing-machine in operation. All seemed tranquil.

The detective went in the door. Inside there was that peculiar, professional-cleaning-fluid smell, which is not as alarming as gasoline or carbon tetrachloride, but nevertheless discourages the idea of striking a match. In the outer office a man wrote placidly on one blue-paper strip after another. He had an air of pleasant self-confidence. He glanced up briefly, nodded, wrote on three more blue-paper strips, and then gathered them all up and put them in a particular place. He turned to Fitzgerald.


Fitzgerald showed his shield. The man behind the counter nodded again.

“My name’s Fitzgerald,” grunted the detective. “The boss?”

“Me,” said the man behind the counter. He was cordial. “My name’s Brink. You’ve got something to talk to me about?”

“That’s the idea,” said Fitzgerald. “A coupla questions.”

Brink jerked a thumb toward a door.

“Come in the other office. Chairs there, and we can sit down. What’s the trouble? A complaint of some kind?”

He ushered Fitzgerald in before him. The detective found himself scowling. He’d have felt better with a different kind of man to ask questions of. This Brink looked untroubled and confident. It didn’t fit the situation. The inner office looked equally matter-of-fact. No ... There was the shelf with the usual books of reference on textiles and such items as a cleaner-and-dyer might need to have on hand. But there were some others: “Basic Principles of Psi“, “Modern Psychokinetic Theories.” There was a small, mostly-plastic machine on another shelf. It had no obvious function. It looked as if it had some unguessable but rarely-used purpose. There was dust on it.

“What’s the complaint?” repeated Brink. “Hm-m-m. A cigar?”

“No,” said Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald. “I’ll light my pipe.” He did, extracting tobacco and a pipe that was by no means a meerschaum from his pocket. He puffed and said: “A guy who works for you caught himself on fire this mornin’. It happened on a bus. Very peculiar. The guy’s name was Jacaro.”

Brink did not look surprised.

“What happened?”

“It’s kind of a strange thing,” said Fitzgerald. “Accordin’ to the report he’s ridin’ this bus, readin’ his paper, when all of a sudden he yells an’ jumps up. His pants are on fire. He gets ‘em off fast and chucks them out the bus window. He’s blistered some but not serious, and he clams up--but good--when the ambulance doc puts salve on him. He won’t say a word about what happened or how. They hadda call a ambulance because he couldn’t go huntin’ a doc with no pants on.”

“But he’s not burned badly?” asked Brink.

“No. Blisters, yes. Scared, yes. And mad as hell. But he’ll get along. It’s too bad. We’ve pinched him three times on suspicion of arson, but we couldn’t make it stick. Something ought to happen to make that guy stop playin’ with matches--only this wasn’t matches.”

“I’m glad he’s only a little bit scorched,” said Brink. He considered. “Did he say anything about his eyelids twitching this morning? I don’t suppose he would.”

The detective stared.

“He didn’t. Say aren’t you curious about how he came to catch on fire? Or what his pants smelled of that burned so urgent? Or where he expected burnin’ to start instead of his pants?”

Brink thought it over. Then he shook his head.

“No. I don’t think I’m curious.”

The detective looked at him long and hard.

“O.K.,” he said dourly. “But there’s something else. Day before yesterday there was a car accident opposite here. Remember?”

“I wasn’t here at the time,” said Brink.

“There’s a car rolling along the street outside,” said the detective. “There’s some hoods in it--guys who do dirty work for Big Jake Connors. I can’t prove a thing, but it looks like they had ideas about this place. About thirty yards up the street a sawed-off shotgun goes off. Very peculiar. It sends a load of buckshot through a side window of your place.”

Brink said with an air of surprise: “Oh! That must have been what broke the window!”

“Yeah,” said Fitzgerald. “But the interesting thing is that the flash of the shotgun burned all the hair off the head of the guy that was doin’ the drivin’. It didn’t scratch him, just scorched his hair off. It scared him silly.”

Brink grinned faintly, but he said pleasantly: “Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.”

“He jams down the accelerator and rams a telephone pole,” pursued Fitzgerald. “There’s four hoods in that car, remember, and every one of ‘em’s got a police record you could paper a house with. And they’ve got four sawed-off shotguns and a tommy-gun in the back seat. They’re all laid out cold when the cops arrive.”

“I was wondering about the window,” said Brink, pensively.

“It puzzles you, eh?” demanded the detective ironically. “Could you’ve figured it out that they were goin’ to shoot up your plant to scare the people who work for you so they’ll quit? Did you make a guess they intended to drive you outta business like they did the guy that had this place before you?”

“That’s an interesting theory,” said Brink encouragingly.

Detective Fitzgerald nodded.

“There’s one thing more,” he said formidably. “You got a delivery truck. You keep it in a garage back yonder. Yesterday you sent it to a garage for inspection of brakes an’ lights an’ such.”

“Yes,” said Brink. “I did. It’s not back yet. They were busy. They’ll call me when it’s ready.”

Fitzgerald snorted.

“They’ll call you when the bomb squad gets through checkin’ it! When the guys at the garage lifted the hood they started runnin’. Then they hollered copper. There was a bomb in there!”

Brink seemed to try to look surprised. He only looked interested.

“Two sticks of dynamite,” the detective told him grimly, “wired up to go off when your driver turned on the ignition. He did but it didn’t. But we got a police force in this town! We know there’s racketeerin’ bein’ practiced. We know there’s crooked stuff goin’ on. We even got mighty good ideas who’s doin’ it. But we ain’t been able to get anything on anybody. Not yet. Nobody’s been willin’ to talk, so far. But you--”

The telephone rang stridently. Brink looked at the instrument and shrugged. He answered.

“Hello ... No, Mr. Jacaro isn’t in today. He didn’t come to work. On the way downtown his pants caught on fire--”

Fitzgerald guessed that the voice at the other end of the line said “What?“ in, an explosive manner.

Brink said matter-of-factly: “I said his pants caught on fire. It was probably something he was bringing here to burn the plant down with--a fire bomb. I don’t think he’s to blame that it went off early. He probably started out with the worst possible intentions, but something happened...” He listened and said: “But he didn’t chicken! He couldn’t come to work and plant a fire bomb to set fire to the place! ... I know it must be upsetting to have things like that automobile accident and my truck not blowing up and now Jacaro’s pants instead of my business going up in flames. But I told you--”

He stopped and listened. Once he grinned.

“Wait!” he said after a moment. He covered the transmitter and turned to Fitzgerald. “What hospital is Jacaro in?”

Fitzgerald said sourly: “He wasn’t burned bad. Just blistered. They lent him some pants and he went home cussing.”

“Thanks,” said Brink. He uncovered the transmitter. “He went home,” he told the instrument. “You can ask him about it. In a way I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. I’m quite sure his eyelids twitched when he started out. I think the men who drove the car the other day had twitching eyelids, too. You should ask--”

The detective heard muted noises, as it a man shouted into a transmitter somewhere.

Brink said briskly: “No, I don’t see any reason to change my mind ... No ... I know it was luck, if you want to put it that way, but ... No. I wouldn’t advise that! Please take my advice about when your eyelid twitches--”

Fitzgerald heard the crash of the receiver hung up at some distant place. Brink rubbed his ear. He turned back.

“Hm-m-m,” he said. “Your pipe’s gone out.”

It was. Sergeant Fitzgerald puffed ineffectually. Brink reached out his finger and tapped the bowl of the detective’s pipe. Instantly fragrant smoke filled the detective’s mouth. He sputtered.

“Now ... where were we?” asked Brink.

“Who was that?” demanded Fitzgerald ferociously. “That was Big Jake Connors!”

“You may be right.” Brink told him. “He’s never exactly given me his name. He just calls up every so often and talks nonsense.”

“What sort of nonsense?”

“He wants to be a partner in this business,” said Brink without emotion. “He’s been saying that things will happen to it otherwise. I don’t believe it. Anyhow nothing’s happened so far.”

Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald tried at one and the same time to roar and to swallow. He accomplished neither. He put his finger in the bowl of his pipe. He jerked it out, scorched.

“Look!” he said almost hoarsely, “I was tellin’ you when the phone rang! We got a police force here in town! This’s what we’ve been tryin’ to get! You come along with me to Headquarters an’ swear to a complaint--”

Brink said interestedly: “Why?”

“That guy Big Jake Connors!” raged the detective. “That’s why! Tryin’ to threaten you into givin’ him a share in your business! Tryin’ to burn it down or blow it up when you won’t! He was just a small-town crook, once. He went to the big town an’ came back with ideas. He’s usin’ ‘em!”

Brink looked at him expectantly.

“He started a beer business,” said the detective bitterly. “Simultaneous other beer dealers started havin’ trouble. Empty kegs smashed. Trucks broke down. Drivers in fights. They hadda go outta business!”

“What did the cops do?” asked Brink.

“They listened to their wives!” snarled Fitzgerald. “They begun to find little grabbag packages in the mail an’ with the milk. Fancy perfume. Tricky stockin’s. Fancy underwear they shoulda been ashamed for anybody to know they had it on underneath. The cops weren’t bribed, but their wives liked openin’ the door of a mornin’ an’ findin’ charmin’ little surprises.”

“Ah,” said Brink.

“Then there were juke boxes,” went on the detective. “He went in that business--an’ trouble started. People’d drive up to a beer joint, go in, get in a scuffle an’--bingo! The juke box smashed. Always the juke box. Always a out-of-town customer. Half the juke boxes in town weren’t workin’, on an average. But the ones that were workin’ were always Big Jake’s. Presently he had the juke-box business to himself.”

Brink nodded, somehow appreciatively.

“Then it was cabs,” said Fitzgerald. “A lot of cops felt bad about that. But their wives wouldn’t be happy if anything happened to dear Mr. Big Jake who denied that he gave anybody anything, so it was all right to use that lovely perfume ... Cabs got holes in their radiators. They got sand in their oil systems. They had blowouts an’ leaks in brake-fluid lines. Cops’ wives were afraid Big Jake would get caught. But he didn’t. He started insurin’ cabs against that kinda accident. Now every cab-driver pays protection-money for what they call insurance--or else. An’ cops’ wives get up early, bright-eyed, to see what Santa Claus left with the milk.”

“You seem,” said Brink with a grin, “to hint that this Big Jake is ... well ... dishonest.”

“Dishonest!” Fitzgerald’s face was purplish, from many memories of wrongs. “There was a guy named Burdock who owned this business before you. Y’know what happened to him?”

“Yes,” said Brink. “He’s my brother-in-law. Connors or somebody insisted on having a share of the business and threatened dreadful things if he didn’t. He didn’t. So acid got spilled on clothes. Machinery got smashed. Once a whole delivery-truck load of clothes disappeared and my brother-in-law had to pay for any number of suits and dresses. It got him down. He’s recovering from the nervous strain now, and my sister ... eh, asked me to help out. So I offered to take over. He warned me I’d have the same trouble.”

“And you’ve got it!” fumed the detective. “But anyhow you’ll make a complaint. We’ll get out some warrants, and we’ll have somethin’ to go on--”

“But nothing’s happened to complain about,” said Brink, quite reasonably. “One broken window’s not worth a fuss.”

“But somethin’s goin’ to happen!” insisted the detective. “That guy Big Jake is poison! He’s takin’ over the whole town, bit by bit! You’ve been lucky so far, but your luck could run out--”

Brink shook his head.

“No-o-o,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’m grateful to you, Mr. Fitzgerald, but I have a special kind of luck. I won’t tell you about it because you wouldn’t believe but--but I can give you some of it. If you don’t mind, I will.”

He went to the slightly dusty, partly-plastic machine. On its shelf were some parts of metal, and some of transparent plastic, and some grayish, granular substance it was hard to identify. There was an elaborate diagram of something like an electronic circuit inside, but it might have been a molecular diagram from organic chemistry. Brink made an adjustment and pressed firmly on a special part of the machine, which did not yield at all. Then he took a slip of plastic out of a slot in the bottom.

“You can call this a good-luck charm,” he said pleasantly, “or a talisman. Actually it’s a psionic unit. One like it works very well, for me. Anyhow there’s no harm in it. Just one thing. If your eyelids start to twitch, you’ll be headed for danger or trouble or something unpleasant. So if they do twitch, stop and be very, very careful. Please!”

He handed the bit of plastic to Fitzgerald, who took it without conscious volition.

Then Brink said briskly: “If there isn’t anything else--”

“You won’t swear out a warrant against Big Jake?” demanded Fitzgerald bitterly.

“I haven’t any reason to,” said Brink amiably. “I’m doing all right. He hasn’t harmed me. I don’t think he will.”

“O.K.!” said the detective bitterly. “Have it your way! But he’s got it in for you an’ he’s goin’ to keep tryin’ until he gets you! An’ whether you like it or not, you’re goin’ to have some police protection as soon as I can set it up.”

He stamped out of the cleaning-and-drying plant. Automatically, he put the bit of plastic in his pocket. He didn’t know why. He got into his car and drove downtown. As he drove, he looked suspiciously at his pipe. He fumed. As he fumed, he swore. He did not like mysteries. But there was no mystery about his dislike for Big Jake Connors. He turned aside from the direct route to Headquarters to indulge it. He drove to a hospital where four out-of-town hoods had been carried two days before. He marched inside and up to a second-floor corridor door with a uniformed policeman seated outside it.

“Hm-m-m. Donnelly,” he growled. “How about those guys?”

“Not so good,” said the patrolman. “They’re gettin’ better.”

“They would,” growled Fitzgerald.

“A lawyer’s been to see ‘em twice,” said the patrolman. “He’s comin’ back after lunch.”

“He would,” grunted the detective.

“They want out,” said the cop.

“I’m not surprised,” said Detective Sergeant Fitzgerald.

He went into the sick room. There were four patients in it, none of them looking exactly like gentle invalids. There were two broken noses of long-ago dates, three cauliflower ears, and one scar of a kind that is not the result of playing lawn tennis. Two were visibly bandaged, and the others adhesive-taped. All of them looked at Fitzgerald without cordiality.

“Well, well, well!” he said. “You fellas still here!” There was silence. “In union there is strength,” said Fitzgerald. “As long as you stay in one room everybody’s sure the others haven’t started rattin’. Right?”

One of the four snarled silently at him.

“It was just a accident,” pursued the detective. “You four guys are ridin’ along peaceable, merrily takin’ the air, when quite inadvertently one of you almost blows the head off of another, and he’s so astonished at there bein’ a gun in the car that he wrecks it. And when they get you guys in the hospital there ain’t one of you knows anything about four sawed-off shotguns and a tommy gun in the car with you. Strange! Strange! Strange!”

Four faces regarded him with impassive dislike. The bandaged ones were prettier than the ones that weren’t.

“That tommy gun business,” explained Fitzgerald, “is a federal affair. It’s against Fed law to carry ‘em around loaded. And your friend Big Jake hasn’t been leavin’ presents on the White House steps. Y’know, you guys could be in trouble!”

Three pairs of eyes and an odd one--the other was hidden under a bandage--stared at him stonily.

“Y’see,” explained Fitzgerald again, “Big Jake’s slipped up. He hasn’t realized it yet. Its my little secret. A week ago I thought he had me licked. But somethin’ happened, and today I felt like I had to come around and congratulate you fellas. You got a break! You’re gonna have free board and lodging for years to come! I wanted to be the first to tell you!”

He beamed at them and went out. Outside, his expression changed. He said bitterly to the cop at the door: “I bet they beat this rap!”

He went downstairs and out of the hospital. He started around the building to his car.

His eyelid twitched. It twitched again. It began to quiver and flutter continuously. Fitzgerald stopped short to rub the offending eye.

There was a crash. A heavy glass water-pitcher hit the cement walk immediately before him. It broke into a million pieces. He glared up. The pitcher would have hit him if it hadn’t been for a twitching eyelid that had brought him to a stop. The window of the room he’d just left was open, but there was no way to prove that a patient had gotten out of bed to heave the pitcher. And it had broken into too many pieces to offer fingerprint evidence.

“Hah!” said Fitzgerald morosely. “They’re plenty confident!”

He went to Headquarters. There were more memos for his attention. One was just in. A cab had crossed a sidewalk and crashed into a plate-glass window. Its hydraulic brakes had failed. The trouble was a clean saw-cut in a pressure-line. Fitzgerald went to find out about it. The cab driver bitterly refused to answer any questions. He wouldn’t even admit that he was not insured by Big Jake against such accidents. Fitzgerald stormed. The owner-driver firmly--and gloomily--refused to answer a question about whether he’d been threatened if he didn’t pay protection money.

Fitzgerald raged, on the sidewalk beside the cab in the act of being extracted from the plate-glass window. An open-mouthed bystander listened admiringly to his language. Then the detective’s eyelid twitched. It twitched again, violently. Something made him look up. An employee of the plate-glass company--there were rumors that Big Jake was interesting himself in plate-glass insurance besides cabs--wrenched loose a certain spot. Fitzgerald grabbed the bystander and leaped. There was a musical crash behind him. A tall section of the shattered glass fell exactly where he had been standing. It could have been pure accident. On the other hand--

He couldn’t prove anything, but he had a queer feeling as he left the scene of the crash. Back in his own car he felt chilly. Driving away, presently, he felt his eyelid tentatively. He wasn’t a nervous man. Ordinarily his eyelids didn’t twitch.

He went to investigate a second memo. It was a restaurant, and he edged the police car gingerly into a lane beside the building. In the rear, the odor of spilled beer filled the air. It would have been attractive but for an admixture of gasoline fumes and the fact that it was mud. Mud whose moisture-content is spilled beer has a peculiar smell all its own.

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