I took the first line from : Murder for Money by John D. MacDonald
Long ago he had given up trying to estimate what he would find in any house merely by looking at the outside of it. He would rather wait and be surprised. He took small things, nothing too showy. Valuable stuff that the owners kept in their cupboards but whose absence they would not notice right away.
However, the aspect of this house on the outskirts of town was simply too somber to ignore. He stopped and stared.
"Newkirk," said Carter in a whisper. "Let's go."
The corporal took a purposeful breath. He followed his friend, looking for a good spot to break in. They crouched behind the hedges to study the situation.
"According to the blueprints, that must be the living room." Carter pointed at the French doors on the right.
"And the library has to be across the hallway in that direction," Newkirk said. "We have to cross one to get into the other." He took his lock picks and got closer. "Look at that, solid gold locks!"
"That General Herz looks like a well established man." Carter caressed the engravings on the door. "Don't you feel tempted?"
Newkirk stopped what he was doing to stare at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Oh, well, you know. You, thief," Carter whispered.
"First of all, it's been ages since I broke into a house like this. Second of all, Colonel Hogan would kill me if I take anything else than the ruddy black book." He finished opening the door. "The house is supposed to be empty tonight, but just in case, let's try to be as quiet as mice."
"Surely, you've never been in a room with a mouse." Carter shook his head and grabbed his backpack.
They entered the living room. Carter would have liked to have more time to admire the collections of china, and the small gallery of paintings. He pointed his flashlight at the wall. "Must be all originals."
"Two out of five." Newkirk grinned. "That poor old man must be very naive. I bet he payed a fortune without even noticing the difference." He shrugged. "The forgery is remarkable, though."
"You're quite a connoisseur, my friend."
Newkirk's blood froze in his veins. That voice had not come from Carter. The sergeant was right behind him, holding the little flashlight in his shaky hand.
"Tell me you're doing one of your famous impersonations," Carter whispered.
Newkirk took Carter's hand and directed the light towards the opposite wall. Sitting by the fireplace, was a man. His serene stare matched his relaxed pose. He raised a cup of brandy and smiled.
"Greetings, I bid you welcome to my house."
Carter put his hand on his pistol but did not draw. Newkirk kept the light in front of them to shield their faces.
"Is this your house?" Carter said. "We were told that it would be empty."
"You were told?"
"We thought," Newkirk clarified. "Me and him. Everybody should be out for the weekend, shouldn't they?"
"Evidently, not all of them." The man stood up. "Aren't you going to aim at me with your pistols? You have pistols, don't you? Don't tell me that you're like those little thieves that only go for the nicknacks and forget about the more important things."
"No weapons. You've got us right there, gov'nor. Our mistake finding you at home." Newkirk pushed Carter to the door. "We'll just see ourselves out, sorry for the inconvenience."
The man produced a small pistol from the pocket of his robe and smiled. "You're not serious. You just broke into my house, dressed in black, with who knows what intentions. Do you actually think that I would let you go just like that?"
"One could try," Carter shrugged and raised his hands before the man told them to do so.
Newkirk was too busy thinking of how to get out of there to scold his partner's excessive congeniality. The problem was serious but not unmanageable. With some work, they would be out of that house in no time.
"And what do you have in mind, Herr-?" Newkirk politely asked.
"Herz, General Helmut Herz." The man smiled widely. "This is my house."
"You said that already," Newkirk nodded.
"Please, empty your pockets on the coffee table and take a seat."
"You don't look like a general," said Carter.
"Glad you noticed. I get a lot of that from my own colleagues."
Carter and Newkirk walked to the sofa. They were not nervous anymore but there was still the question of how they were getting out of the problem. Newkirk hesitated to let go of his gun just like that.
"Are you going to call the police now?" Carter put his flashlight and pistol on the table.
Newkirk's eyes widened at Carter's question. But thinking it over, maybe the police could provide a better way out. "Certainly, it's getting late and-"
"Gentlemen, please. We have plenty of time now that you're here." The man smiled. "What were you looking for in my house, exactly?"
Carter and Newkirk exchanged glances. They nodded. "Nothing in particular," Carter shrugged. "You know, regular thieves."
"Amateur, actually," Newkirk said.
The man did not look angry at all. In fact, he seemed to be planning something in silence. There was a strange aura around him. One could have said that he was hiding a secret. But that only blended perfectly with the atmosphere of the house.
"But you know the business, I imagine."
"Basics, yeah." Newkirk did not see the point of lying about that. "Door locks, cupboards and-"
Carter touched Newkirk's arm. He felt uneasy. It was already bad enough that they had been caught as thieves. If they wanted to get out of there alive, they should stay far away from that safe box.
"I-I don't know what you mean," Newkirk shook his head innocently.
"Oh, don't play games with me. I know exactly what you are looking for; and it is in that safe box."
"Really? And what would it be, sir?" Carter felt genuine curiosity.
The man smiled and tilted his head. "Let's make a deal. You open that safe for me and we'll share its contents."
Newkirk looked at this man and frowned. "Open it for you? Aren't you the owner?"
"I am," said the man without changing his expression. "And I also have a terrible memory. I've forgotten the combination altogether. I just need you to open it for me." He leaned forward. "Of all nights, you came on this one. Somehow, Providence has put you here to help me."
"And what if we help you? Would you still call the police on us?" Carter narrowed his eyes warily.
"I'll say we can make a deal." The man stood up. "One more thing, how handy are you two with an ax?"
"What?" Carter frowned.
"Never mind. Gentleman, are you with me?"
Newkirk sighed. Opening the safe box was up to him. If he refused, who knows what this man would be capable of. Besides, there was a great chance to seize the book they had come looking for, if he played along. "All right, General Herz, lead the way, please."
The man opened the library door and let them enter first. The place was dark. There was a strange odor that made Carter wrinkle his nose. "Moisture must be wreaking havoc on your books, General," he said.
"How thoughtful of you to be concerned about my library. I'm certainly doing my best to get rid of every nuisance."
"Nice chat, but I'd rather finish with this job, if you don't mind." Newkirk pushed Carter to keep him away from the pistol. "Where is the box?"
"Right in front of you, just a couple of steps in that direction." The man pointed at the opposite wall.
Newkirk was in front of Carter. He took a few steps and stumbled on something. He did not fall but had to find his balance when Carter bumped against him. "Watch it, there's something on the floor." Newkirk turned to the man. "We need light here."
They could not see the man's wide smile as he reached for the switch. Carter and Newkirk were still getting used to the sudden glare when their eyes fell on the thing on the floor.
"Good Lord!" said Carter.
"Please, don't say bloody," Carter's voice struggled to come out. The shock had left him breathless.
In front of them there was a body. It was covered with a blanket that must have been white at some point, although now it was all stained red.
"W-where is the head?" Carter asked in a whisper.
Newkirk looked around and went extremely pale. "Under the desk," he gasped covering his face with his hands.
Carter shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with two fingers. "I think I'm going to get sick."
Newkirk nodded. "We'll take turns..." He breathed as deeply as he could before facing the man with the gun. "W-What's- going on- here!"
"Oh, please. It's just a body. Haven't you ever seen one before?"
"What? No! Not a headless one, no!" Carter turned as the man stepped out of the room and began to close the door behind him. "Hey! Where are you going?"
"Just open that safe box or I'll make sure you don't see the light of day, my friends!" The man laughed. "I'll be right back."
"Where do you think he's going?" Carter shook his head. "Boy, I'd rather be facing Hochstetter and the entire Gestapo." He went back to Newkirk. "Are you all right?"
"I think me heart skipped a beat, but I'm fine." He wiped the sweat off his forehead with his hand. "Let's open this ruddy rubbish and see if we can fly out of here."
Carter came closer and sat down on the floor. He stared at the blanket. His fear was slowly subsiding. "Who do you think this was, Newkirk?"
"I don't know... General Herz, maybe?" He concentrated on the claps and clicks of the box, although his thoughts were on the body behind him.
"That guy is crazy, isn't he?"
"I hope so. Otherwise, it would be awfully uncomfortable sharing the house with a cold blooded killer." He opened the door. "Done."
"Look at all that money. No wonder he was still around." Carter shook his head. "What do you think he would've done if we hadn't come tonight?"
"Blow the house, tear the box apart." Newkirk found the book and handed it to Carter. "Hide it, he might not know about this."
Carter put it in his backpack. "Now what?"
The library door opened almost at the same time that Carter finished his question. The man had returned with a suitcase and a small ax. Newkirk's jaw dropped.
"No way! No ruddy chance in hell!" He stood up.
It took Carter a little more time to connect the dots. "Oh, geez! You're not serious!"
The man paced around with the ax on his shoulder. He smiled. "Gentlemen, we're facing a very uncomfortable situation here. The library is not a good place to keep a body. I was about to remove him myself, but it's too much work. As you see, I started but not with much success." He showed them the ax. "Nice little thing, but I'd never recommend trying to cut through bones with a dull ax."
"No kidding," Carter mumbled. "B-But you don't expect us to jump to do the job just like that?"
"Certainly not. We can negotiate. I have money now," he said, pointing at the box with the ax.
"Oh, sure. You pay us and then shoot us on our way out." Newkirk crossed his arms over his chest. "I don't think I could negotiate with you anyway."
"Dear friends, are we reaching the part of my speech where I have to threaten you to do as I say?" He came closer and held the ax out to Newkirk. "Take it and make sure this gentleman fits inside the suitcase." He took his pistol and aimed at Carter. "Or, what's the word? Oh, yes, he gets it."
Newkirk stared at Carter and nodded. He took the ax and sighed. "Oroit, then. We'll do as you say."
The man sat in an armchair with his gun aiming at Carter. The sergeant was leaning against the fireplace trying not to faint. The idea of watching Newkirk cut a poor man's body into pieces was too gruesome to handle. But he knew he had to be there for his friend, no matter what.
Newkirk looked at the man with the gun. He did not look crazy, although his actions screamed it everywhere. He smirked. "Tell me, do you usually get into houses and chop people around?"
The man chuckled. "What a funny question. Do I look like a serial killer to you?"
"Well, no, but you can't judge a book by its cover, can you?"
"You're the wise man, eh?" The man aimed at Carter and turned to Newkirk. "Start working, I want this to be done before dawn."
Newkirk took a deep breath, crouched in front of the body and made as if to lift the blanket. He stopped and looked at the man. "So, what's your story? Did he start it?"
The man did not resent his inquiry. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged. "We had our differences."
"Was he your father?" Carter intervened too.
"No, my master... I was his, what's the word? Butler." The man looked at the body. "I served that bastard for over twenty-five years. No complaints, no nothing. I did everything he asked me to..."
"I see," Newkirk nodded. "I know a lot of his kind. They ask and ask, and you give and give. All for rubbish."
The man lowered his eyes as he thought about this. "I served him well. I did things for him beyond my duty. I thought that all my efforts would be rewarded." He chuckled. "I should've known that in the end I was no more than the help. I was fired."
"Fired, that's mean," Carter said.
"Yes, unbelievable, I know." The man leaned forward, pointing with his gun as though to stress his words. "I had the notification two weeks ago. And why did he fire me? Because of this girl he met at the Hofbrauhaus!"
"A bird?" Newkirk shook his head. "It's always a bird." He pretended to be preparing the ax but stopped again. "So, he got a girl and kicked you out of the house. Did he pay you at least?"
"Not a pfennig!" The man grinned. "But I got even... I had this planned for days. Everything perfectly planned."
"Except for the chopping," Carter said.
"I forgot that the gardener had used that ax a couple of days ago." He shrugged. "I was sharpening it when I heard you come in tonight."
Newkirk raised his eyebrows. He turned to Carter. "I told you you'd been too noisy. We were lucky no one else in the neighborhood heard us." He grabbed the backpack casually and stood up.
"Me noisy?" Carter understood the hint and acted accordingly. "You're the one carrying all those picks up and down like a rattle toy!"
Both men started to quarrel, moving forward until they met in the center of the room. At one point, Newkirk pushed Carter towards the door. The sergeant opened it and turned.
The man was on his feet with his gun ready to open fire. Newkirk put his body between Carter and their host. He tossed the backpack at his friend and yelled. "Run, Carter. Get out of here!"
The sergeant did not hesitate. He rushed to the main door. Shots were fired but he did not turn around until he was on the street.
Newkirk dodged but the last shot grazed his temple. He felt the heat of the bullet and the blood trickling down his cheek. He got dizzy and for a moment, he thought he would faint. But he did not. He was still on his feet. He staggered his way out into the hallway. The main door was too far away. He remembered the blueprints and ran towards the stairs to the second floor.
"Oh, come on," the man complained. "Stay in one place, this chase is ridiculous!"
Newkirk heard the voice as an echo. He knew that if he stopped moving, his body would shut down. He would be the next on the chopping list. He could feel his own breathing and the heartbeat pounding on his throat. The blood was slowly blurring his sight. He needed time out.
Carter ran down the street, his brain working at high speed for the next step. He stopped and looked around. There was not a soul, except for the patrols controlling the curfew. He knew that if they saw him, they would shoot him or take him into custody. Either way, Newkirk would be lost. He had to come up with a good plan.
Meanwhile, Newkirk had reached the master bedroom and locked himself in. He ran to the bathroom, stumbling on the furniture, and locked that door too. He looked at himself in the mirror. His face was a mess. It was a flesh wound, although the dripping blood was disturbing. "Keep yourself awake... Keep yourself awake," he repeated while washing his face as thoroughly as he could.
His head spun around and he could not keep his eyes focused. His breathing was heavy in his chest and his pulse accelerated with the sound of steps coming down the hallway. He peeped through the bathroom door and saw the man coming into the room with the ax in one hand and the pistol in the other.
"Come out, my friend. Let's not prolong your suffering more than necessary." The man came to the bathroom. "I know you're in there and this is the only exit. Let me in and get over it once and for all."
"I hate rushing things, you know?" Newkirk gasped. "I'm terribly slow by nature. Why don't you go away and give me a head start. It's just fair, don't you think?"
The blade of the ax cut through the wood once and Newkirk fell down on the floor. Two or three more blows like that and there would be no more door.
Carter hid behind the hedges; he looked into his backpack and took out three small bottles with wicks in then. He reached in his pocket for matches. There were only three. He shook his head. "You should quit smoking, Newkirk." He lit one of the bottles and tossed it right in front of the house. He yelled.
"Hilfe! Feuer!"Help! Fire!
He kept shouting until he heard a whistle and sirens. He ran towards the house, looking desperately for Newkirk. He found a trail of blood and followed it upstairs.
The man had reduced half of the bathroom door to splinters. Carter came from behind and tossed another smoke bomb in the middle of the room. The man turned but the acrid smoke hurt his eyes. Carter took advantage of the confusion to rush into the bathroom and pull Newkirk to his feet. Without much time to assess his condition, he helped him run out of the room and down the stairs. By then, the man had found his way out too and was after them.
Carter turned to the living room and they went out through the same doors they had come in. He left Newkirk in a safe place in the garden, and he went back to toss his last bomb into the hallway.
Two men from the fire brigade and a policeman were already at the front door ringing the bell. Since no one answered, they proceeded to break down the door. They found the man with the ax coming through the hallway. Carter came back to sit with Newkirk. "They are entering the library now. It's over for that guy."
Newkirk shook his head and blinked. "It was almost over for me too." He coughed.
"Are you ready to go back to camp?" Carter cleared his throat and coughed too.
"More than ready. Let's get out of this ruddy haunted house." He clapped Carter's shoulder. "Thank you, mate. I suppose this one counts for another routine mission, doesn't it?"
"That's a creepy story, with a predictable ending, though." Carter pulled Newkirk to his feet.
"Predictable?" Newkirk asked as they walked slowly down the street..
"Yeah, the butler did it."