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The Lucky Stiff
by Craig Rice

Category: Mystery/Crime
Description: "Anna Marie St. Claire died in the electric chair at one minute after midnight this morning, with smile on her lips ? " Brooding over his gin in Joe the Angel's City Hall Bar, John J. Malone read those headlines, and the story of how, half an hour too late, a dying gangster's confession had proved Anna Marie innocent. She had been too beautiful to die. Malone knew if he had defended her she wouldn't have had to die. Suddenly he turned white. For there, floating through the swinging doors, came a lovely apparition, curves outlined by a chic gray suit--Anna Marie, dressed just as she had been the day her gangster lover was bumped off. Malone muttered a prayer and fled. Anna Marie followed him ? So begins a giddy Craig Rice manhunt, combining mirth, mixed drinks, murder, and that talented trio, John J. Malone and Helene and Jake Justus. BIO: Craig Rice (pseudonym of Georgiana Ann Craig; 1908--1957) was an American author of mystery novels and short stories, sometimes described as "the Dorothy Parker of detective fiction." She was the first mystery writer to appear on the cover of Time Magazine, on January 28, 1946. Gritty but humorous, Rice's stories uniquely combine the hardboiled detective tradition with no-holds-barred, screwball comedy. Most of her output features a memorable trio of protagonists: Jake Justus, a handsome but none too bright press agent with his heart in the right place; Helene Brand, a rich heiress and hard-drinking party animal par excellence (to become Mrs. Justus in the later novels); and John Joseph Malone, a hard-drinking, small-time lawyer (though both his cryptic conversation and sartorial habits are more reminiscent of such official or private gumshoes as Lieutenant Columbo). -- via: Wikipedia
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks,
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010

eBookeBook

1 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [331 KB]
Words: 73499
Reading time: 209-293 min.


CHAPTER ONE

It was strange that Anna Marie should be able to sleep at all. Stranger still, perhaps, that she should dream.

When the prison chaplain went away, he whispered, "Try to sleep a little, my child." Anna Marie smiled wryly and said, "I'll have plenty of sleep, after twelve tonight."

But, surprisingly, she did sleep, falling back on the bunk in her cell. Perhaps it was because she'd been wide awake now for two nights running, through all those last-minute and hopeless attempts to obtain a stay of execution, a reprieve, a pardon. Now, with all hope gone, she did sleep, and she dreamed.

It was a dream she'd had before during these weeks in the prison, a dream with ever-changing variations, but always covering those last few minutes she would spend before they strapped her in the electric chair. This time it was laid in a beautiful room, lavishly furnished, with a thick, warm-colored rug, and big, soft chairs. She was there, waiting for the moment of her execution, and so were two or three other unfortunates--she was never able to remember their faces after she woke. They had nothing to do with her and were there to expiate their own crimes.

She was dressed in a brilliantly printed chiffon afternoon dress, with a full skirt and long full sleeves. It was as though she had just walked out from the fitting room in a dress shop, one side seam of the dress was caught with fitters' pins. Aunt Bess was in the room, and during one interval of the dream she told Aunt Bess she could have the chiffon dress, after it was over. Aunt Bess had been properly appreciative but uncertain as to when and where she could wear it in Grove Junction, Wisconsin. Anna Marie had had to give a little sales talk about the dress, and point out how easily it could be fitted and made longer.

Then she'd told Aunt Bess not to mourn after her execution, because she'd be able to see Uncle Will now, and she'd be sure to give him Aunt Bess's love.

There had been a curious moment in the dream when all the prisoners had shed the coins from their pockets and thrown them on the floor. Anna Marie couldn't quite understand it, even in the dream, but she'd taken the sapphire bracelet Carl Black had given her off her wrist and let it fall to the rug. Then Uncle Will had come into the room, though Uncle Will had died two years before, and she'd asked him to promise that after she was dead, he'd get the coral necklace Roy James had given her long ago and put it around her neck, because she wanted it buried with her.

There seemed to be a shift in focus in the dream at this point, and suddenly all of the condemned ones were sitting in a semicircle on a thick Oriental rug, and a person who might have been a judge came and sat behind a big, carved mahogany desk and began to talk to them. That was when Anna Marie leaped to her feet and said, "You must know that I'm innocent! Can't you tell by looking at me? I've never killed anyone--"

That was when her own voice wakened her, as it always had in other dreams. For a few minutes she lay there, her eyes closed, her body cold with sweat. Then the warmth began to come slowly back into her veins.

"What a nightmare!" Anna Marie whispered to herself. "I thought I was going to the electric chair--"

Suddenly she sat bolt upright on the edge of the bunk, staring wildly at the barred door. Because it was true. She was going to the electric chair, a little less than three hours from now.

Over and over, in the past weeks, she'd told herself that it was impossible. An innocent person couldn't be arrested for murder, and tried, and convicted, and finally executed. But it had happened to her.

She'd been unworried and confident during the trial, almost gay. It was an absurd situation, and she'd laugh about it later, at parties. The jury's verdict had been a shock, but the sentence had seemed like a mere formality. They could never make it stick.

And then there had been one step after another, conferences with her lawyer, studying of the evidence, motions, appeals, all the rest. Little by little she'd become frightened. She was caught in a trap, after all. Then the fear had become stark terror, so that she'd sat for hours on her hard bunk, silent and motionless, so that the Times reporter had written, "Anna Marie St. Clair, convicted murderess of Big Joe Childers, seemed like a woman carved out of stone--"

At last there had been hopelessness. And dreams.

Anna Marie St. Clair, convicted of murder, sat up, stretched, and reached for the powder compact they'd allowed her to keep. Stupid thing, powdering her nose and fixing her hair to keep a date like this one. But the move was instinctive. She looked for a moment in the mirror at her smooth, warm-colored face, her gray-blue eyes that an admirer had once called "smoky," her full, dark red mouth, and her tawny hair. How was she going to look, after midnight? She wished she had enough time for one more shampoo and wave at Bettina's.

She stretched again, looking critically at her rounded legs and smooth, pale arms. Anna Marie had known since she was fourteen that she had a beautiful body, and she became even more aware of it now. Suddenly she thought that it was a pity, really, she had that date with the electric chair. The beautiful body still was capable of giving--and having--a lot of fun.

There were footsteps on the stone floor of the corridor.

Anna Marie's beautiful body stiffened. It couldn't be time. She couldn't have slept more than a minute or two. But the feet were slowing as they approached her cell. Could the chaplain's watch have been wrong? Impossible. There had to be those few hours left. It mustn't, it couldn't, it mustn't be right now.

There was the rattle of a key, and the cell door was opening. Anna Marie stood up. Remember what you swore, she told herself fiercely. A good front, right up to the last. A final statement, one that she'd rehearsed a thousand times in her mind. "I know I am innocent. Someday you will find out the truth." Someday they would find out the truth. But a lot of good that was going to do her, by that time.

One final wisecrack, just before they strapped her down. Something that would make Winchell's column.

The cell door opened, and one of the two guards who had come for her signaled for her to come out. She wondered about the chaplain while her numb feet managed those few steps out into the corridor. Maybe he was scheduled to join the procession later.

Nobody spoke. One of the guards took her arm, almost respectfully. She was conscious, as she walked, of the curious, silent interest in her from the other cells along the corridor. It seemed to be something from another world.

One of the guards swung open the immense metal door at the end of the cell block. Anna Marie stumbled through it, suddenly faint and nauseated. Remember now, she whispered, remember. A good front. Yet the cold sweat was beginning to bubble out on her face. In another moment, she knew, she was going to be sick, deathly sick.

"Hold her up, Luke," one of the guards said.

A strong hand caught her and kept her on her feet. Another hand grasped her other arm. Somehow her feet kept on moving, right, left, right, left, one step, then two steps, then a third, and a fourth--

There was another door, and another corridor, and an open courtyard, and still another door. Anna Marie walked, the guards supporting her by each arm, until the last door was opened, and she was shoved into a drab, brightly lighted room.

It was the warden's office.

Anna Marie St. Clair stood for a moment, half braced against the door, numb and trembling. The warden was there, at his desk, smiling at her, and so was Jesse Conway, her lawyer. Then Jesse Conway rose to greet her, hands outstretched, wreathed in smiles.

"Congratulations, my dear," he said. He caught his breath and said quickly, "It came just in time, didn't it?"

There was about two-thirds of a second before Anna Marie understood what he meant. Then she could feel the blood and the breath rushing back into her. And at last she managed to speak.

"Now, by God," she said, between tight lips, "now I am going to be sick." The warden's office whirled around and grew dark. She felt hands reach out to catch her. And then there was only darkness.

She could hear a soft throbbing, distant, but growing nearer, and voices so far away that she couldn't make out what was being said. It was a long while before she realized that she was on the couch in the warden's office, that the warden was holding a drink of raw rye whisky to her lips, that her eyes were open, and Jesse Conway was speaking to her.

"Everything's all right now," he was saying. "It's all right, my dear." Then he was looking up and talking to the warden. "Naturally, it's been a shock to the poor child. Good news can be sometimes. And after all this torture--"

The warden said indignantly, "This here jail is one of the best run jails in the United States."

"That wasn't what I was referring to," Jesse Conway said smoothly.

Anna Marie sat up and realized that she was, actually, alive. "What is it?" she whispered. "What happened?" The sound didn't seem to be coming from her own lips. "Did they find out that I didn't kill him?"

"Yes," Jesse Conway said. "Yes, they found out. You're free."

It was the warden who lighted a cigarette and put it between her trembling fingers. Then Jesse Conway told her.

The man who actually had killed Big Joe Childers had been shot during a little dispute over territory, something having to do with the numbers game. Believing himself at the point of death, he'd made a full confession, and that confession had been checked, rechecked, double and triple checked, and proved true. Anna Marie was completely exonerated. It had all happened during that little interval of time while she'd been sleeping, after the chaplain had left her.

There were, of course, a certain number of legal formalities to attend to, but at least Anna Marie would not be led to the electric chair at twelve o'clock.

"You're a very lucky little girl," Jesse Conway said in his most mellifluous voice.

Anna Marie St. Clair, farm girl from Wisconsin, photographers' model, chorus girl, night-club hostess, and mistress of several curiously important political figures, sat like a stone. Jesse Conway moved an eyebrow at the warden.

"We'll just move you over to my house," the warden said heartily. "Mrs. Garrity will get a room all ready for you. You'll he an honored guest, believe me."

Anna Marie said just one word. An unprintable one.

Warden Garrity gave a helpless and imploring look at Jesse Conway, who promptly took Anna Marie's ice-cold hands in his warm, moist ones, and said, "Now, my dear, we know this has been a bad time, but--"

This time Anna Marie said three words.

Warden Garrity's eyebrows signaled to Jesse Conway, "We're going to have trouble with her." Jesse Conway's shoulders signaled back, "Leave it to me."

"My dear little girl," Jesse Conway said, wiping the sweat from his forehead, "don't you realize what this means? You'll be able to leave here in a few days--"

"I'm leaving tonight," Anna Marie said. "At midnight. Remember?"

The two men looked at each other. Anna Marie laughed. It wasn't a pleasant laugh.

"How many people know about this," Anna Marie said, "except we three?" her eyes flamed at them. "Answer me!"

Jesse Conway stalled long enough to light a cigar. "Not many. Not the great big world, if that's what you mean. It hasn't been given to the papers yet. Why? Why do you care, Anna Marie?"

She smiled at him. "I care plenty." She rose and began walking gracefully up and down the long, narrow room, catlike. "How many people, Jesse Conway, know that you came here tonight? How many know that this Garrity bastard must have been informed?"

There was a small silence. Jesse Conway laid down his cigar and looked questioningly at the warden.

"Well--" Garrity said.

Anna Marie laughed nastily. "Were you informed, Mr. Garrity?"

"Naturally," Garrity assured her, "only, you see--" He gulped, trapped. "Oh, hell."

"Only," Anna Marie said, "you had to get the straight dope before you were sure. Otherwise you'd have let me go to the chair."

Jesse Conway laid a hand on her shoulder. "Come, come, my dear. You're--well--overwrought. Take a sedative and get a good night's sleep. Everything is going to seem very different in the morning."

She spat at him, "I've been telling myself that for days now."

"Now, Anna Marie." The warden sighed and rose to his feet. "We have a lovely guest room in my house. You'll be very comfortable there. And in a few days you can leave, and--"

"I'm leaving tonight," Anna Marie repeated.

They stared at her. She stood, leaning against a gray-green filing case, a cigarette held loosely between her slender fingers, her eyes cold, not even angry.

"I'm leaving sometime after midnight tonight," she said. "In a coffin. Remember?" Her glance raked the frightened men. Then she smiled.

"I was promised that there wouldn't be an audience when I sat in the hot seat," she began, slowly and deliberately. "No more than the necessary number of legal witnesses. You can fix it so they can be bribed. Fix the whole thing any way you like, so it's convincing. And then tell your reporters that Anna Marie St. Clair died in the electric chair at one minute after midnight, or whatever the hell time it would be."

Garrity said, "What!"

"If you don't," Anna Marie went on, paying no attention to him, "there's going to be the damnedest suit for false arrest this state ever saw. And a lot of names are going to get dragged into the papers, in a very nasty way. Including you, and the D.A., and a lot of other people." She dropped her cigarette on the floor and stepped on it. "Don't tell me you can't work it, because you can."

"It's impossible," Warden Garrity said weakly.

"Oh, no it isn't," Anna Marie said. "Not if you want to hang on to your job. Fix it up. Bribe your witnesses. Turn on the juice in an empty chair. Tell the reporters I died happy. Hell, you can even load a coffin with concrete and hold a swell funeral if you want to be fancy. And meanwhile, Jesse here will take me back to town."

The warden and Jesse Conway looked at each other for a long moment. The warden shrugged his shoulders helplessly.

"She's got us," he said, his voice flat. He turned to Anna Marie, appeal in his eyes. "Look, sister. What do you want to do it for? You can't tell me that you just want"--his lip curled--"to bring a criminal to justice."

"Hell, no," Anna Marie said. "I don't mess with other people's business, just mine. But somebody's going to pay for what happened to me."

"Look here, Anna Marie," Jesse Conway said. "After all, you didn't die."

"You think not?" Anna Marie St. Clair said. "I died twenty-four times a day, for seven weeks."

She stretched herself to her full height, with an instinctive gesture, as though she were lifting a fur over her shoulder. Even in her drab prison clothes she was lovely, and dangerous.

Jesse Conway asked, "What are you going to do?"

She smiled at him. "Me? I'm dead. So what am I going to do? Guess. I'm going to haunt houses."


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