The girl at the receptionist’s desk looked over at me for perhaps the tenth time. “I’m sure someone else could help you,” she said, “if—” She let her voice trail off. What she wanted, of course, was for me to tell her why I was there, but she was too well trained to come right out and ask. And, of course, I wasn’t going to volunteer anything either. I shook my head.
“I’ll wait,” I said, and went back to watching the Major and Drexler through the glassed-in top to Drexler’s office. The interview seemed to be going well. At least the Major was smiling, and Drexler for his part didn’t look unhappy. Finally they both rose, shook hands across the desk, and the Major came out alone. He was a short, barrel-chested man with a square ruddy face, full gray mustache, and close-cropped hair, and as he strode past he gave me a brief, uncurious glance. I waited until he was well clear, then turned back to the receptionist.
“All right,” I said, “now I’ll talk to your Mr. Drexler.”
She gave me a quick nervous smile, then scurried back to Drexler’s office. I couldn’t blame her; I would have scurried too if someone identifying himself as a special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation had just spent half the morning waiting for my boss.
* * *
Drexler spent a long time comparing my face with the photo on my I.D. He was a small slightly built man in his mid-60s with a pinch-featured face and thinning hair of no particular color. His suit was a wrinkled blue that would have been equally out of style any time after the 1930s.
Appearances aren’t always deceiving, of course. But this time they were. If you went by his tax returns, he was worth well over $500,000, not to mention the assets of the bank he controlled. And if you could believe the rumors, he had at least twice that much squirreled away in lockboxes and negotiable securities that the Internal Revenue Service had never heard about.
Now, finally satisfied, he passed back my card. “This is something of an honor,” he said. “Or is it? We don’t usually see much of the F.B.I. around these parts.”
I smiled. “I don’t imagine you usually see much of people like Henry T. McDonlevy either,” I said.
Drexler looked up cautiously. “What about Major McDonlevy?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said. “except that he just happens to be one of the slickest con artists operating today. I know he doesn’t look it, but three years ago he and a younger man named Tom James made over $20,000 in a phony land giveaway in Michigan. Shortly after that they took a Cincinnati banker for another $5,000 in a switch on the old faro-bank scam. Then they dropped out of sight. God knows where Tom James is, but six months ago the Major popped up again in Evansville with a fake stock offering. I’ve been on his trail ever since.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t arrested him.”
“I wish I could,” I said. “But knowing and proving are two different things. It’s a rare man who’d be willing to get up and testify that he’s been foolish and greedy and maybe a little bit dishonest as well. Not in open court anyway. That’s why I changed my tactics and decided not to wait until after the victim had been stung.”
“I see,” Drexler said. He pursed his lips and stared thoughtfully at the wall. “Well, anyway,” he said at last, “I thank you for the warning. You can rest assured I’ll be extremely cautious in any future dealings with the Major.”
I shook my head. “That’s exactly what I don’t want,” I said. “I want you to go along with him.”
Drexler raised his eyebrows and looked me full in the face. “To trap him, I suppose,” he said.
“Exactly,” I said, “and because it would be a trap you could testify to afterwards with no stigma.”
Drexler nodded slightly. “So I could,” he said, “if I chose to involve myself. On the other hand, the occasion might never arise. Ordinarily I don’t discuss bank business with third parties. In this case, however, I don’t mind telling you that Major McDonlevy is primarily interested in obtaining some land west of the city and is looking to the bank for help in financing the purchase. Whether or not we make the loan is largely dependent on the value of the security—in this case, the land itself. I know the area, and values are appreciating. So, frankly, I don’t see how the bank could lose even if he were to default.—”Of course,” he added drily, “what the Major does with the property once he’s acquired it is no concern of mine or the bank’s”
“You mean you won’t cooperate?” I said.
“I didn’t say that,” Drexler said. He made an irritable gesture with his hand. “I’m to meet McDonlevy for lunch tomorrow, then go out to inspect the property. If it develops that he does plan to bilk me in some way, well, then it will be my pleasure to see him behind bars. On the other hand”—he shrugged—“anyone else, it’s their problem. Understood?
“Perfectly,” I said.
* * *
For a traveling man there was only one place in town for lunch and that was the Elk’s Club. It was open to the public and crowded at noon, but a bill slipped to the waiter gave me a table within earshot of Drexler and the Major.
“Actually,” the Major was saying as I settled in, “I could get by with only three of the lots. However, I try to guide my life by the Good Book, and so naturally I need the surrounding lots as well.”
Drexler looked at him curiously. “I’m not sure I see the connection,” he said.
“Love thy neighbor,” the Major said. He smiled ingenuously. “I find it easier if I can insure he isn’t competitive.”
“Yes,” Drexler said, “very wise.” He looked down at his plate. “I don’t think you’ve ever said, though, just what you have in mind.”
“Haven’t I? It’s no secret, of course. Actually—” He stopped as a slight disturbance broke out nearby. A large harried-looking man had come in and was expostulating with a waiter. Moments later, followed by the now frowning waiter, the large man headed straight for the Major’s table.
“It was this one,” he said. “I know it.” The waiter tried to shush him but he was already addressing Drexler and the Major. “You gentlemen didn’t happen to find a wallet, did you? I had it here. I know I did because I paid with a credit card. But when I got back to the hotel—”
The Major leaned back in his chair and regarded the stranger evenly. “Perhaps we did find something,” he said. “If it’s yours I’m sure you won’t mind describing it.”
The stranger’s face brightened. “Of course,” he said. “It’s a wallet. I said that, though, didn’t I?” He tapped his jacket over his heart. “Breast pocket type. Brown leather.”
“L.G.A.,” the stranger said. “For Lester G. Arnold. Inside there was $51 plus credit cards.”
The Major glanced over at Drexler and nodded. “I think that’s sufficient,” he said. He took a flat wallet from his jacket and handed it over to Arnold. “It was on the chair when we came in,” he explained. “We were going to turn it over to the cashier when we left. But now, of course, you’ve saved us the trouble.”
“Saved you the trouble?” Arnold said. He laughed a short barking laugh and sat down uninvited. The waiter gave him one last frowning look, but at the Major’s nod the waiter drifted away.
“I was the one who was saved,” Arnold said. “And I don’t mean just the money either. I owe you a lot and I’m going to make it up to you.”
“That’s hardly necessary,” the Major said.
“I think it is,” Arnold said. “No, I mean it. I won’t insult you by offering you money, but—well—is either of you a betting man?”
Drexler shook his head. “No,” he said flatly.
“Well, I am,” Arnold said. “I came to town for the races, and won’t let you stop me. Part of whatever I bet this afternoon goes down for you. How about it?
Drexler looked over at the Major who shrugged. “I suppose,” the Major said, “if it would make you feel better—”
“It would,” Arnold said earnestly. “Believe me, it would.”
From where I sat it was impossible to judge Drexler’s reaction. But the Major’s was obvious. He sat back and smiled indulgently. Then, while they were exchanging introductions, I signaled the waiter I was ready to order.
* * *
Later that evening Drexler called me at my hotel, after he and the Major had returned from their inspection trip.
“I’m afraid it’s beginning to look as if you may be right,” he said.
“I thought you would feel that way,” I said, “after that little act that was put on in the restaurant this afternoon.”
“Yes,”” Drexler said. “That was an interesting coincidence. Even more interesting. Arnold called me not half an hour ago. It seems he won $100 for me today.
“You didn’t expect him to lose, did you?”
“No,” Drexler said, “I suppose not. However, Arnold has now offered me the option of taking the $100 or going with him to the track tomorrow to build it higher. Ordinarily I’d take the money, but under the circumstances it might be more interesting to go to the track and see what develops. I thought you might like to come along.”
I smiled happily. “You better believe it,” I said.
* * *
The ages were right; so Drexler introduced me as his nephew when Arnold came to pick him up the next afternoon.
“I hope you don’t mind my asking the boy along,” Drexler said.
“No, of course not,” Arnold said. He turned to me. “Is this your first time too?”
“I’m afraid so,” I said.
“Nothing to be ashamed of,” Arnold said. “Everybody has to start sometime. And if I may say so myself, you and your uncle couldn’t have picked a better teacher.”
“I’m sure of it,” I murmured.
Arnold let it pass, but the Major frowned. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?” he said.
I nodded. “Probably at the bank,” I said. “I was waiting for my uncle one day when you had business there.”
“Of course!” The frown disappeared and we all went down to Arnold’s car.
“There is one thing I ought to clear up,” Arnold said as we got in. “We aren’t going to the track itself.”
“But you said—” Drexler began
“I know what I said. I said we were going to the races. And we are. The smart way.” And he put the car in gear and started off.
It was a short ride, down through town and out to the fringes of the business district. Wholesalers predominated here an most of the buildings were closed for the weekend; but Arnold led the way to an unmarked side door, then up a short flight of steps and down a corridor to a second door, also unmarked. Inside was nothing less than an old-fashioned horse parlor complete with a wall blackboard and a cluster of desks festooned with telephones which rang incessantly.
“By George,” the Major said, “I didn’t think there were places like this anymore.”
“Just a few,” Arnold said smugly. He got us installed in chairs facing the one concession to changing times—a large TV set high up on one wall. Then he went to place his bets. When he came back, he looked even more like a proverbial cat. “All set,” he said.
“What happens now?” Drexler said.
“We wait,” Arnold said. He looked at his watch. “It shouldn’t be long. If you’d like something to eat—or drink—there’s a bar.”
Drexler shook his head. “No,” he said and folded his arms and settled back to watch the blank TV. A number of others drifted in to take places behind us and occasionally one of the desk men would come over to replace one set of numbers on the blackboard with another. Then finally the TV set switched on.
The horses were already lined up in the gate, the camera looking almost straight down at them.
“Closed circuit,” Arnold whispered. “You can’t get anything like this kind of view anywhere at the track.”
A bell rang and the horses were off and running.
“Keep your eye on number three,” Arnold said. “That’s ours.”
At the moment the horse was well back in the pack, but just before the far turn it began to move and after that there was no contest. It pulled ahead and stayed there, finishing a good three lengths ahead of its nearest competitor.
“By George!” the Major said. “We won.”
“Of course,” Arnold said calmly. He got out his copy of Racing Form. “Now in the next one,” he said, “the one to watch is number six. King’s Only.”
Some of those behind us had got up and gone over to the desks to lay fresh bets. When Arnold didn’t move, Drexler looked at him curiously. “Aren’t you betting?” he said.
“Already take care of,” Arnold said. “We’ll just keep on parlaying our winnings.”
“But suppose we lose?”
“We won’t,” Arnold said.
And they didn’t. King’s Only won in a romp. So did Raintree in the third and every other horse Arnold had picked. At the end of the seventh, though—a cliffhanger which saw a 5-to-1 outsider come galloping out of the pack at the last minute to streak across the finish line a nose ahead of the favorite—he folded his Racing Form and leaned back in his chair with an air of heavy finality.
“That’s it for me,” he said. “You two can take a fling on your own if you like, but I’m through for the day.”
The Major hesitated. By now his stake—and Drexler’s—had grown to $2500 each. Finally he shrugged. “No point in being greedy,” he said. “How about it, Drexler? Shall we call it quits too?”
Drexler nodded slowly. “I see no reason to go on,” he said. His eyes were small and thoughtful.
The trouble came as they were cashing in. One of the desk men took Drexler’s and the Major’s receipts and carefully counted out $2200 for each of them.
“You’re $300 short,” Drexler said sharply.
The desk man shrugged. “Service charge,” he said.
The Major began to sputter. “I never heard of such a thing!” he said
“House rule,” the desk man said. He picked up Arnold’s receipts, looked at them for a long moment, then rose wordlessly and went through a doorway behind him. He was gone a few minutes and when he came back he was accompanied by a stocky balding man in shirt sleeves.
“That’s the one, Mr. Gunderson,” the desk man said, pointing to Arnold.
The stocky man looked at Arnold balefully. He held the stub of a cigar in one hand and Arnold’s receipts in the other. “You won a lot of money from me these last couple of days, friend,” he said, trying hard to sound indifferent and not quite succeeding.
Gunderson shook his head. “Not at all,” he said, “if it’s on the up and up. The problem is you did it all on credit and when I checked with the guys who recommended you, he said he couldn’t vouch for you beyond a couple of hundred bucks.” He cocked his head to one side and looked at Arnold suspiciously. “You went in way over your head, friend. What would have happened if you lost?”
“I would have paid up,” Arnold said.
“Would you?” Gunderson said. “Well, suppose I gave you a chance to prove it. I don’t mind paying off a couple of small bills on spec, but when somebody nicks me for $75,000 I like to know he’s as serious about his end as I am about mine.” He turned to the desk man. “What was his last bet?”
“$15,000,” Gunderson repeated, savoring it. He turned back to Arnold. “All right,” he said, “this is what you’re going to do if you want me to pay off. Cover the bet. Show me you’ve got $15,000. In cash.”
Arnold swallowed hard. “You’ll have to give me a couple of days—” he began.
“I’ll give you nothing,” Gunderson said. “I’ll stop by your hotel after we close tonight. If you’ve got the money, fine. If not”—he stuffed the receipts into Arnold’s breast pocket—”you can use these to paper your wall.”
“You can’t do this!” Arnold protested.
“Sue me,” Gunderson said and turned on his heel to go back through the doorway through which he had come. The desk man just looked at Arnold dispassionately.
The Major was literally trembling with anger, but he held himself in until we were back in the hallway. “This is outrageous,” he sputtered. “The man’s no better than a thief.”
Arnold shrugged despondently. “Sure,” he said. “But I haven’t got any muscle and he knows it.”
“Good lord, man, you can’t just give up. Call his bluff. Show him the $15,000. It would ruin him if he welshed then.”
“I wish I could,” Arnold said. “The trouble is I don’t have the $15,000.”
Then you were betting money you didn’t have.”
“Of course,” Arnold said. “In my place you would have done the same. Because for the first time in my life I had the real straight stuff. Those races were fixed. I couldn’t lose—it was a sure thing.” He managed a wry smile. “Or so it seemed.”
The Major looked down at his hands, obviously embarrassed. “I’d help you if I could,” he said, “and you’re welcome to the $2200, of course. But, unfortunately, the bulk of my money is still tied up in the east.”
“I’d make it worth your while,” Arnold said. “You wouldn’t have to lend me the money. Just show it to Gunderson and I’ll cut you in for a full third. $25,000.”
The Major continued to study his hands. Drexler glanced over at me. I gave him the faintest of perceptible nods. “I think we can work something out,” Drexler said drily.
* * *
“I don’t suppose by any chance it could be true,” Drexler said. It was later and we were alone in Arnold’s car on our way to pick up the money, Arnold and the Major having dropped off at their request to wait at Arnold’s hotel in case Gunderson showed up early.
“You ‘don’t suppose’ right,” I said. “In the first place, horse parlors like that went out with World War Two. And even back then nobody but nobody was allowed to bet large amounts on spec until his credit had been checked out thoroughly.”
“And yet he was able to pick the winners.”
“Sure,” I said. “In the old days there would have been a man on the other side of the wall with a microphone tied into a radio. Now all you have to do is set up a TV to play back a tape of an earlier race. You’ll notice they were careful not to let us hear the start when the date and place would have been announced.”
“That simple,” Drexler murmured.
“It usually is,” I said. “People like Arnold and the Major count on greed doing most of the work for them. Their next step most likely is to inveigle you into joining Arnold for a bet that will really take Gunderson for a bundle—which, of course, will lose.”
“I see,” Drexler said. “And if I don’t play along?”
“Then we’ll have done all this for nothing.”
“Not quite,” Drexler said. “I’ll still have $2200 of their money.”
“Look again,” I said. “I think you’ll find it’s slush, funny money—counterfeit.”
Drexler smiled bleakly. “They don’t leave anything to chance, do they?”
“They try not to,” I said. “But you’ve got a couple of things going for you that put you way ahead of them. One: you know what they’re up to.”
“Me,” I said.
“Yes,” Drexler admitted. He didn’t say anything more until we reached his house. It was a large rambling structure half overgrown with ivy and surrounded by a high stone wall. All I saw of the inside was the ground-floor sitting room Drexler parked me in while he went off into the rear of the house. When we returned he was carrying a slim brown-leather attaché case.
“I imagine you’ll want to count this,” he said, “unless, of course, you’re prepared to give me a receipt on my word alone.”
“Of course,” Drexler said. He smiled faintly. “This is your plan. I’m merely going along as a good citizen. And like a good citizen I expect the government to reimburse me if anything goes wrong.”
He held out the case. I took it reluctantly. “You don’t leave much to chance yourself either, do you?” I said.
“Not a thing,” Drexler said and watched as I counted. There was $10,600 inside, just enough to bring the $4400 he and the Major had won to $15,000. I put the money back in the case and, using the case as a desk, wrote out Drexler’s receipt. He accepted it gravely.
“If you don’t mind,” he said, “I’ll just put this away in my safe and then we can be on our way.”
“Whatever you say,” I agreed. “I’ll wait for you in the car.” And I went outside, taking the attaché case with me. A few minutes later Drexler joined me, and we drove back downtown.
* * *
The Major was alone in Arnold’s room when we got to the hotel.
“Where’s Arnold?” I said.
“Downstairs. Didn’t you see him?”
The Major frowned. “Gunderson was here,” he said, “and when Arnold couldn’t produce the cash he called off all bets. Arnold went down with him, hoping they’d run into you on the way. You must have just missed each other.”
“What happens now?” Drexler said.
“I don’t know,” the Major said. “Perhaps—”
He never finished. The door opened and Arnold came in. He looked bitter—and angry. “Damn!” he said. “There you are.”
“Gunderson wouldn’t wait?” the Major said.
“Not a single damn minute,” Arnold said. “But he hasn’t seen anything yet! If he thinks he was stung today—” He broke off and looked around at the three of us. “How about it?” he said. “Are you still with me? Shall we really take him?”
Drexler regarded him calmly. “That would depend on what you have in mind,” he said.
Arnold nodded. “There’s a horse running tomorrow,” he said. “Pleasant Fancy. If you look at Racing Form you’ll see he’s lost his last five starts. Not a good record at all, but what the Form doesn’t show is that he was deliberately overmatched. It’s an old trick that owners use to run the odds up. Then they race the horse well below his class, where he’s sure to win, and bet as heavy as they can. Tomorrow the odds on Pleasant Fancy will go at least as high as 15-to-1, and the owner’s set for a killing. We’ll have to spread the bets out—maybe even hire a few stooges to place some for us to keep Gunderson from getting wise—but with $15,000 we can take him for over $200,000 easy.” He looked directly at Drexler. “What do you say?”
Drexler’s eyelids drooped slightly; then he nodded. “All right,” he said.
* * *
Later, after the details of where and when we’d meet the next day had been worked out, Drexler and I rode down together in the elevator. If I hadn’t still been holding the attaché case, I would have been rubbing my hands together gleefully.
“You don’t mind going home alone, do you?” I said.
“Why? Where are you going?”
“To see the local police,” I said, “and set up a raid on that ‘bookie joint’ now that I know it wasn’t dismantled the minute we left. Plus arrange to have our good friends upstairs picked up.” I handed him the attaché case. “We won’t be needing this anymore,” I said. “The TV setup plus your testimony should carry it from here. Especially after we pick up a tape showing Pleasant Fancy losing.”
Drexler nodded, then, true to form, opened the case to check the money inside. By then, though, we’d reached the lobby and he had time for only a quick look before the elevator door slid open. The sight of money inside was enough to reassure him, so he closed the case with a decisive snap.
“You can count it when you get home,” I suggested.
The sarcasm was lost on him. “Yes,” he said.
“And while you’re at it,” I added, “don’t forget to tear up that receipt I gave you.”
This time he did smile. “Yes,” he said again. “Of course.”
* * *
I saw him safely in a taxi, then went down to where the car was parked, tipped the boy I’d asked to watch it, and drove back to the hotel. The Major and Arnold were waiting by the rear entrance. I pulled over to let them in the car.
“Where’s the money?” Arnold said.
“In the trunk compartment,” I said. “Where it’s safe.”
“I take it then,” the Major said, leaning back comfortably, “you had no trouble making the switch.”
“None at all,” I said. “Drexler wouldn’t put up the money without a receipt, then made the mistake of leaving me alone while he put the receipt in his safe.”
“Very good,” the Major said. “Very good indeed, but now I suggest we follow the Good Book once more and shake the dust of this town. I don’t think it will remain so hospitable once our friend Mr. Drexler finds out that he’s carried home only a small fraction of the money on top of stacks of cut paper—and realizes that his favorite F.B.I. man is none other than the Tom James he was so carefully warned against.”