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On the Case: Joe Tiller, P.I.

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Days after tragedy struck the Purdue football team, West Lafayette remain vigilant in the search for individuals responsible for hsopitalizing receiver Selwyn Lyman with a stab wound in the chest. With teammates mum on their whereabouts, however, Tiller has begun his own brand of detective work in the case...

Joe Tiller, P.I. in "To Pass and Pass Not"

It was a dark night on campus. Quiet. A little too quiet, if you ask me.

But nobody did - hell, the opinion of a two-bit football coach around here ain't worth two clips of chin music these days - so I was just jake to be going over some old film, some flickering bit of light from the glory days. Nights like these are made for bumpy gums and a nibble or four, but here I was, just patting my alderman like I really have the bees. Drew Brees...they just don't build 'em like that anymore, I was thinking, and that offense, I don't draw 'em up like that anymore, either, if I'm being straight. Oh, we had the bulge then, I thought. I was doing a lot of thinking. Nights like these, a guy in a basement dive in Indiana starts to thinking about Pasadena and cigarette girls, little things with deams, and the night gets that much darker.

I got up to buy another drink when she walked in. Some kind of dish. A dark sister with darker eyes, chivs made to peterman their way right into this palooka's poor ticker. Not that it takes more than a yegg, anyway, but silk when the tomato's five-foot-two, about 170 pounds, in her late twenties, with rust-colored hair. Pink tank top, dark-colored jeans. Skates around plenty, yeah, but some pair of getaway sticks.

"I never had you ranked as the nostalgic sort, Joe," she said.

"The Associated Press never has us ranked at all, doll," I said. "Not since we pulled the Dutch act in the Minnesota flophouse in '05. But you didn't give me the buzz to reminisce."

"Are't you even going to offer me a snort?" My new Jane smiled the hinkiest smile this lug's ever peeked. I was dizzy already with this dame, but nothing's duck soup when they come in like we used to drink out of the same bottle and you're grabbing air before you can blink. Best with a chippy to keep clammed or get buncoed quick.

"What's the grift, Sally? Spill."

"Nostalgic and impatient," she snorted. "Well, I got no kick, personally, but I thought you might be interested they just filled Lymon with daylight. Dry-gulched at Nick's and shivved in the chest."

Her words hit me like a slug. "Lymon got the Harlem sunset?"

"The Panama midnight."

"The Waco honeymoon?"

"Practically," she said. "They just roughed him -"

I didn't wait for the philly to give me the lay to take the run out. If she had me ribbed up as a rube for a sting she'd picked the sweet spot. Lymon is a right guy, and there aren't many right guys left in this dirty town. I'd just as soon leave my office lousy with crooked betties as leave a right guy in the lurch...

Joe Tiller, dick, scours the seedy facts for the Chinese angle.
- - -

If there's any gee I can count to be on the square, it's Lymon's chum Greg Orton. He was a sap, a little bit of a nance, I thought, but he knew the rumble and he'd sing if you turned the screws. Lucky for me, I had the wrench.

Orton shared a joint with Lymon on out on El Prado, by the old railroad tracks, where pugs in the day would paste these roundheel rubes in the pan and go climb right up their thumbs with the hick's kale. I parked across the street from Orton's scatter. No lights. I rested the hog for a second and sat, and it was like I was gowed-up, thinking of Lymon plugged and leaking sauce. I knew Nick, when his place was hitting on all eight, when a right guy could go right over the edge with rams for a half and flop back at his joint and never worry about having to get gashouse. The racket flopped, though, flopped like everything else, and now it's just another gin mill for rats and mice and guns to get lit and drop some dame a Mickey Finn and any mug in glad rags is marked for a puffing so the torpedoes can pick up their roscoe at the hawkshop. Like every place. Nothing stays the same.

I was about to hotfoot to the hospital like some desperate lunger when I heard a clunk inside the house and saw a light pop on for a second. I peeked a silhouette at the window. It was Orton. The light was only on for two beats, but I knew he was home. I got out of the car.

Orton only opened the door for me a quarter of the way, but even in the dark I got a good slant of the nasty goog on his left eye. He didn't have that at practice Thursday, when I told him, when I told the entire team, to cheese it, that anybody I catch out on the roof, off the track, flimflammin' on a school night has to answer to me. All that's out there is muggles and nose-candy and clip joints and bims and hypes and bindle stiffs. Trust me, I wanted to say, I know.

"Some shiner," I told him.

"Yeah, these stairs, you know...they're...tricky," he stammered, looking down.

Stairs? That ducat don't scan. It's a one-story scatter. I pushed the door in and forced my way into the room.

"What do you know about what happened to Lymon?," I demanded. Anyone who tried this with the last guy I knew named 'Orton' would just as soon wind up a stiff on the floor with a pill in his pocket while Kyle kicked the gong around before the meat wagon pulled up with the wooden kimono. But guys like this Orton, Greg, they repond best to a bruno. "I know youse were at Nick's tonight," I told him.

"You can't prove nothin'."

I grabbed him by the collie and stuck one of my flippers into my coat, pressed it up against his ribs like it was a rod. I wasn't packing, but I have plenty of swift and what he didn't know couldn't hurt him couldn't hurt me. "This is all the proof I need right here," I growled. "Don't be a bunny."

Orton's peepers drifted like big spinning saucers. "He...I don't know! I know from nothing! He was stil there and we took it on the heel and toe when they made everybody take the bounce," he said. "That's the crop, I swear it, coach!"

We? I tossed him onto the floor and kept my mitt hid. I expected a sympathetic stool, but since Orton was turning out to be a wrong number, he might be wearing iron himself. I was still trying to tell if he was snowed up and it was better to be heeled. "Who was with you? What happened to your puss?"

He started to protest but I gave 'im the Tiller Stare and he relaxed and hung his head. "I'll spill," he said. "But maybe a quick smell from the barrell first?"

I've never tossed any back with a player who was still in school, still underage at that, but I do have to have respect for a man who'd ask for a shot when he thinks a rod is pointed at his heart for the first time. "Okay," I relented, still pointing my finger at him. "Scotch. And don't try anything screwy."

I hit a light switch and watched Orton pull out a pair of glasses to buy a pair of scotches, and he returned with one and handed the other to me. I motioned with my phony roscoe for him to move to the couch. "Have a seat."

He sat and stared at his drink, rolling it around in both hands and then took a puny gulp like it was a vat of eel juice, sat back and started to sing.

"Thing is, I'm down on my uppers. Two grand in juice to this shylock. Lymon says he can help, says we're meeting some hombre, some high pillow at Nick's. He didn't say what, just that we could pick up some rhinos and he needed another pair of paws, savvy? I know from nothing," he said. "And this hood comes in hopped up, like, jingle-brained, wearin' cheaters and he and Lymon are crabbing about a vig and a Chinese squeeze with a clean sneak."

"What about a dame?" I ask, thinking back to the office, hoping there still was an office. "Was there a dame?"

"Nah," Orton said, swallowing hard. "Tough's got goons packing at the next table, though, I just, I'm thinking, `I gotta dangle,' but Torri...he...Torri -"

Orton's stops and starts coughing, puts his hands to his pipes, gasps and throws a joe over onto the table. Out cold. Nevada gas in the hooch. I start to toss my skee into the little puddle that was Orton's when I catch wind of a door slamming somewhere in the back of the house. I hoof it into a bedroom just in time to peep a pair of headlights peeling out in a cloud of dust. I didn't see any bus when I pulled up; the plant must have bent one of the neighbor's. Whoever it was, they weren't keen to Orton's peaching.

But who was the plant? I knew I was getting closer, but they'd already tried to blip off Lymon and Orton and now I was behind the eight ball. Who would have the curse on me? Other than the obvious, of course. What kind of mazuma was ribbed up here? Were my guys just sap poison? I needed some answers, and Orton had given me an idea where to go: the safety they call Torri Williams...