A strange tale of adventure with salary attached
FREDERICK B. WATT
DICK walked up to the door of the Splendid with the careless assurance he might have displayed in palmier days. True, a lone five-cent piece bounced disconsolately about in the one trouser pocket that still remained unholed, but his appearance was that of a man who had spent his last dollar to very good advantage. Fifty cents spent in a cheap cleaning and pressing establishment the previous day had eradicated the wrinkles in his suit that had spoken of slumber on a park bench. He had washed his shirt and collar in the twenty-five-cent doss house he had treated himself to on the same evening. The judicious use of a pair of borrowed scissors on the frayed edges of the collar had made it look almost as good as new.
Recklessly extravagant, he had blown all of fifteen cents on buns and coffee— to say nothing of a dime on cigarettes — before setting out for the Splendid. He imagined that it was a bad mistake to attend the appointment looking fresh and reasonably respectable. An unshaven face and bedraggled clothes would indicate to E. G. Brown—whoever he was— how desperately Dick was in need of employment and the benefits thereof. One of Richard Hanbury’s weaknesses, however, was a stubborn inability to play on the sympathies of anyone. He was a believer in face values.
The magnificent hotel doorman eyed him stonily. Merciless devils, doormen. They could spot frayed cuffs and cracked uppers every time, no matter how jaunty the carriage of a fellow. Within the rotunda Dick breathed again. He was still drawing attention, but it was largely feminine. The eyes that followed him had little regard for disintegrating brogans and the well-pressed ghost of once doggy suitings. They saw only the brown, almost too lean face, the keen grey eyes, and the splendid shoulders atop a whiplike body.
The ordeal of the entrance was repeated in a minor way in the elevator. When he disembarked at the eighth floor Dick fought down the impression that the suspicious-eyed operator would immediately go in search of the house detective. He walked with hurried, long strides down the corridor, rounded a corner with a sigh of relief, and found himself at the door of No. 837. Comparing the number with that on the note in his pocket, he rapped sharply.
“Who’s there?’’ a woman’s voice came through the transom.
“Major, er—’’ stammered Dick, then picked himself up. “I had an appointment at ten-thirty.”
The latch clicked and he found himself under close scrutiny. After momentary hesitation the girl said. “Come in.”
She was dressed in beautifully tailored lounging pyjamas; wore them in a manner that made them seem a perfectly proper attire for even a business appointment. Dick imagined she was somewhere in her middle thirties. Her features were clear and unlined, but he doubted if a face could develop such character at an earlier age. Her hair was black, glossy and combed straight back from her forehead, adding to the impression of keen capability and purpose. Femininity was evident in the cleanly chiselled profile, but it was subtle, elusiveand extremely attractive to a man who possessed no liking for fluffy prettiness.
Dick glanced quickly about the sitting room into which he had been admitted. It was untenanted except for the girl. “Mr. Brown out?” he demanded.
“No,” she replied, relocking the door, “you’re speaking to him.”
“Oh.” jerked Dick. His gaunt features cracked in a grin. “See here, I shan’t attempt to run away as iong as there's any prostet of getting a job. There's no need to bar the gate.”
' 1 'HERE was nothing humorous in the girl’s expression as she replied curtly :
“You’re in no position to know whether there is a need or not. Sit down.”
He sat. On the arm of the easy chair lay a newspaper open at the want ad. section. He noted his own composition ringed in pencil.
“Employment of any description urgently required by man with military experience. Will go anywhere, do anything within reason. No objection to dangerous undertaking.”
E. G. Brown offered him a cigarette and lit one herself. Dick inhaled the expensive smoke luxuriously.
“What are the limitations of ‘within reason’ in your advertisement?” asked the girl. She was almost belligerent as she leaned forward in her chair.
“Murder or out-and-out dishonesty.”
"You’d risk your life, providing that it was not in a criminal cause?" she demanded, ominously calm.
“Yes. for a price."
Again he shrugged his broad shoulders. There was a hard note in his weary chuckle.
“Three square meals and a pair of shoes with soles on, ’ he replied.
“I'm dead serious,” she said. "This isn t a joking matter. ’
“Neither is an empty stomach.“ he shot, his eyes flaring suddenly. "Do I look like a man who had called on you to be funny? Put your proposition. Risking my life wouldn't be exactly a new experience, and it's preferable to begging sandwiches at back doors.”
The girl's face was inscrutable, but he sensed that his show of spirit had not displeased her.
"Very well.” she said deliberately, “you’re hired, if you want to take the position. I’ll engage a room for you across the corridor. It will go with the job. In addition, you’ll get living expenses and two hundred dollars a month. I’ll advance you enough immediately to replenish your wardrobe. You’ll require a couple of good suits and an outfit of evening clothes. I go out a good deal at night. Your only duties will be to escort me wherever I choose to take you. It will mean being on call twenty-four hours a day.”
Dick commenced to whistle “Just a Gigolo” under his breath. A smile flickered on his employer’s lips but was gone in almost the instant in which it was formed.
“It’s scarcely as simple as that,” she said. “To the world at large you’ll be my partner.”
“In crime?” he suggested grimly.
“In what is no concern of yours.” she replied. “As long as we are in public I am ‘Gertrude’ to you. I needn’t tell you that such a state of affairs gives you no liberties in private. Have you a gun?”
Dick shook his head, his eyebrows arched in curiosity. From a desk drawer Gertrude produced a compact .38 calibre automatic.
“Take this.” she said casually. “Are you a good shot?"
“Passable,” admitted Dick, “though I’m accustomed to a heavier gun. By the way.
I’d like to remind you that there was a stipulation regarding the committing of murder.”
“I’m aware of that,” snapped the girl.
"Your business is the prevention of it.
There are several people who would be very pleased to see me out of the way.
They’ll feel the same way about you when it's breezed about that you’re in partnership with me. Keep that in mindthat you’re as liable to stop the first slug as I am if you’re caught oft your guard.”
“I see." said Dick, dropping the weapon in his right hand coat jxK’ket. "Am I supposed to start blasting if we catch one of these nice people off his guard?"
The girl shook her head definitely.
"No." she stated. “The showdown’s bound to come, but we’re going to be on the right side of the law when it does.
They can’t send a person down for shootinR in self-defense.”
“That’s what I wanted to make sure about,” he said, relief in his voice.
“Naturally I'd like to know what it’s all about, but I’ll probably make a better bodyguard if I don’t know. When do I start work?”
"Right away.” The crispness left Gertrude’s voice for a moment. “It was a queer coincidence that I should see your ad. just at this time. A common gorilla wouldn’t have suited my purposes apart from the fact that I couldn’t have put any real trust in him.” She became coldly businesslike again. “I’ve only a little more than one hundred dollars in cash here. Will that be a large enough advance for you to spruce up a bit by lunch time?"
“Added to what I already have.” said Dick gravely, playing with the nickel in his pocket. “How do you know I shan’t disappear with your hundred, though?"
“It's my business to size men up at sight." she declared seriously. "All right.
On your way. 1 lunch at one.”
TN A DAZE he passed out into the
corridor again and heard the latch snap behind him. He would have doubted his sanity had it not been for the roll of bills clutched tightly in his pocket. He seemed to walk in a dream, so much so that the supercilious eyes of the d(X>rman fell on him unnoticed as he left the Splendid.
It didn’t take him long to adjust himself to the semi-miracle, however. It seemed the most natural thing in the world that he should be sitting, smartly dinner-jacketed. opposite the girl at the Splendid supper dance that night. What seemed unreal was the fact that on the dawn of that same day he had been a bit of
battered humanity, wracked almost to the breaking point.
The last, desperate year floated into nothingness on silent wings. It had been a nasty, fleeting nightmare. Here he was with money in his pocket, decent clothes on his back, gay music in his ears, and a striking, beautifully gowned girl to gaze upon and converse with. Surely the gap of poverty and gnawing despair had been something of the imagination. Abruptly he realized that Gertrude was looking past him, her eyes wide with concern. His hand dropped quickly to the pocket of his dinner jacket and closed about the cold steel of the automatic. Reality rushed in on him in a chilling wave.
He said lowly through blandly smiling lips:
“I’m all set if anything’s likely to happen. Recognize anyone?”
“I’m not certain,” she answered, resting one arm languidly on the table but continuing to direct her veiled gaze directly past him. “They wouldn’t be fools enough to send anyone I’d be liable to recognize. When it comes, it will
arrive from the direction we’ll least suspect. We’re like hunted animals—everyone a possible enemy. Ask me to dance. Keep to the far end of the room until I give the word. I’d like to get a better view of that fellow.”
They glided smoothly down the floor. It had been a couple of years since Dick had danced, but it was something that came to him naturally. Gertrude, her sleek, black head close to his tawny one. followed with a rhythmic grace that made it difficult for him to keep his mind on the fact that somewhere in the crowd there was possibly a bullet with his number on it. Effortlessly he weaved in and out among the dancers at the far end of the room until the girl said quietly: “Looks like a false alarm. Keep awake, though. I can’t be sure.”
They danced until half past one. Dick, though constantly on his guard, couldn’t help enjoying himself. Sudden death behind him was a possibility. The unsmiling girl before him was a fact a lovely, vivid fact.
"I’d sooner take a quick bullet while dancing in her arms than starve by inches in a ditch,” he philosophized. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow—well, that remains to be seen.”
He patted the hard lump in his coat pocket.
“Unless I call, I shan’t require you until three o’clock tomorrow afternoon,” said Gertrude when he escorted her to the door of her suite. “Keep to your room, though, just in case--”
"Very good,” he answered with the clipped speech of a military man.
He wanted to tell her how much he had enjoyed the evening despite the cloud of peril that had loomed over it. It seemed the gentlemanly thing to do. Then he recalled his position; remembered that the supper had been paid for with money she had given him before they had gone to the dining room. He held his tongue as she opened the door.
“You’d better look through the suite before you leave.” she ordered tersely. “Locks aren’t infallible.”
He entered ahead of her and, his hand in his pocket, gave the sitting room, bedroom, bathroom and cupboards a swift but thorough search. He almost hoped he would encounter an intruder. It would justify his existence and the money that was being spent on him by the girl without visible return. The suite was empty, however.
As he returned to the sitting room the telephone rang. His companion lifted the receiver and said “Yes?” Then he saw a subtle rigidity creep into the softly rounded grace of her body. Her eyes lighted dangerously as she spoke into the transmitter.
“Yes. Well, what of it? Still trying to run the old bluff, eh? Yes, I agree with you that there isn’t room for both of us in the same town. You’d better get out. Yes. I’ll doubtless go there some day but not until a long time after you do.”
She hung up the receiver and regarded Dick steadily.
“They’ve spotted you,” she announced. “Fine,” he answered, with a short bark that sometimes served in place of laughter. “I’ll start to earn my wages right on the go in.”
“I believe you will,” she said gravely. As he made certain that the door of his own room was securely locked behind him. he discovered that a note had been slipped under it. It was scrawled on a piece of hotel paper and read :
“If you have any regard for your health you will leave town within a week. There isn’t room for you here.”
There was no signature. He crumpled the paper and stuck it in his pocket, with a repetition of the bark that w>as supposed to be a laugh. Drawing his gun. he subjected his room to as thorough a search as he had given the girl’s. Then he regarded the thin but immaculate gentleman who stared at him from his mirror with a tight grin.
“Better a respectable looking corpse than a live bum,” he said.
He was experiencing a tense, hunted sensation, but it was not new to him. The strain of sharp-edged danger was a relief Continued on page 1^5
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after months of being mercilessly ground down by a sense of gnawing futility. He slipped the automatic under his pillow— and slept. AN UNEVENTFUL week passed, a week ■F\ in which he lived luxuriously and played the gigolo to Gertrude Brown. When they were clear of the hotel she was outwardly charming to him. She called him Dick, displayed an interest in what little he had to say for himself, and appeared genuinely to enjoy dancing with him. She was particularly vivacious when it was apparent that admiring eyes were on them—which was often. Yet sometimes when she was smiling almost tenderly up at him and her arm about his shoulder drew him closer, her lips were saying: “Over to the other side of the floor. I’m not certain of him, but I’m taking no chances.”
They would dance close to a table she would indicate and Dick would experience the feeling of walking through a forest, with baleful, unidentified eyes glaring menacingly from the black underbrush. Nothing ever happened. That was the devil of it. Once back in Gertrude’s suite, he was regularly dismissed with scarcely a word being spoken. He would go over the rooms swiftly, receive a curt “good night" and go off duty until late the next afternoon. What the girl did when he was not with her was a mystery which she never offered to clear up. At eleven o’clock on the eighth morning the phone rang and a woman's voice said, “I’m in the rotunda. Come down as quickly as you can.” It had sounded like Gertrude, but there was no sign of her as he reached the ground floor. He entered the lounge, swept it with his eyes, and was about to make his depar-
Continued on page 16
ture when a pretty, smartly dressed young woman rose from a chair and said :
He knew he had never seen her before— he had a memory for faces—but fie answered politely :
"Won't you sit down?” she asked.
He regarded her with sudden suspicion.
"I’ve no time, I’m afraid,” he replied crisply.
"Couldn’t you spare the time to hear the details of a five-hundred-dollar a month job?” she asked.
Dick started inwardly.
"I already have a satisfactory position.” he said with a note of dismissal.
The girl’s voice became suddenly hard.
“Don’t be a fool,” she shot. “We can use you if you want to act sensibly. I’ve talked the boss into making you an offer rather than getting rid of you by more direct methods.”
“I see,” said Dick grimly. He made a slight bow. "And why your interest in me?”
"My womanly weakness,” answered the girl, half sardonically, half in earnest. "I’ve had time to notice you in the last week. Frankly, I like your looks. I don’t want to see you in a losing game. You’ve got the makings of a useful person. As a matter of fact, I’ve been getting so jealous as I’ve watched you dancing with that Brown woman that I’ve come close to forgetting what I’ve been shadowing you for.”
She turned a pair of captivating blue eyes on him. Dick, however, didn't see them for the simple reason that he had suddenly lunged toward the elevators. The girl started to follow, but he vanished in a car that speeded upward without the customary signal from the starter. It was worth a dollar tip to the operator.
DICK went down the eighth floor corridor at a sharp double, his eyes narrowed and his mouth an angry slash across his unusually pallid face/ Hand in his jxjcket, he knocked sharply on the door of No. 837. The perspiration of sudden relief broke out on his forehead as Gertrude’s “Who's there?" came to him.
"Hanbury," he replied, still lightly panting. "Everything all right?”
The door opened. Gertrude was garbed as she had been on the morning he had met her.
"Certainly, everything’s all right,” she said coldly. "1 told you I 'd call if you were wanted. It's very kind of you to make a friendly morning visit, but I thought I had made it dear that no uncalled for gallantries are required of you.”
He didn’t take the rebuff gracefully. He was still too perturbed. Instead of a respectful, “I understand,” he glared at her and grated :
"Don’t be so conceited. I came because 1 thought I might be needed. Got tricked downstairs on a phoney message. It struck me suddenly that perhaps 1 had been drawn off while some of your pleasant friends were making a call on you.”
Gertrude remained as distant, as unmoved, as though she fiad failed to comprehend the defiant anxiety in his words.
“Sit down," she ordered.
Turning fier back on him she went to the desk, concealed some papers that lay upon it. lighted a cigarette and faced him quietly.
"You’d better tell me everything that happened.” sfie suggested, lie told fier.
"You're a bigger fool than I thought you were if you could fie tricked so easily,” she said when he liad finished. "It might just as well have been a trap they were laying forme.”
"All right." he flung at her, "fire me.” Gertrude shrugged fier beautiful shoulders.
"It isn’t necessary for me to do that,” she said. "You aren't bound to my service by any contract. All you have to do is pack up and accept their five hundred a month. I don’t blame you. It’s double the pay for one-tenth of the risk.”
"Don’t talk like a rotter.” he commanded
harshly. "If I’d been interested in their proposition I wouldn’t have come galloping up here in a high sweat.”
She smiled enigmatically.
“This girl who had the sentimental interest in you, was she pretty?”
"Very,” he grunted.
“I would have thought that would have been sufficient to alter your allegiance,” murmured Gertrude, a world of guile in her voice. “Possibly, of course, you have it figured out that I will come to appreciate you—if we live that long.”
“I’ve managed to get along without women playing an integral part in my existence so far,” growled Dick belligerently.
“A great mistake. I’m afraid,” she chided. “If you’d had a gentle hand to guide you I’m sure you would never have landed at my with threadbare clothes and a willingness to put your life in pawn for a decent meal.” She slid into a chair opposite him, and drawled: “What did topple you— er, major? Drink? Gambling? I’ll vager you were a good soldier when you were behaving yourself. Really, I’ve admired your nerve.”
“I try to give value for piy wages,” he answered w'oodenlv.
“How long are you prepared to stay with me, provided I don’t discharge you for your cheek?” she demanded suddenly.
“Until I have two thousand dollars in the bank.”
She studied him closely.
“Would that pave your way back into the army?” she questioned.
"I left the army voluntarily,” he replied. “Hate to spoil the picture you’ve painted of me. but it’s true. If you must know, two thousand dollars would be* enough to give me a start again on the fruit farm I lost when the stock market cleaned me.”
Gertrude chuckled—the first sign of genuinely light-hearted humor he had ever observed in her.
"You a fruit farmer?” she exclaimed. "Major Richard Hanbury, distinguished soldier and gentleman gun toter!”
"I made a success of it once—and liked it.” he retorted. “Next time I’ll confine myself to the farm and forget about mining stocks.”
"May I visit you?”
1 íe ignored the sarcasm.
“It will always be open to you,” he said simply.
She was silent for some seconds, then said with unexpected softness.
"It will take you a long time to save two thousand dollars at the present rate. You are still free to go over to— the others.”
He rose angrily.
"I’m no turncoat.”
A hard laugli escaped her.
“You’d think tins was an honorable business," she said.
"I don’t know what it is,” he snapped, “and I don’t much care as long as it leaves me feci and clothed.”
Gertrude was her old self in an instant. "I’ll overlook today,” she said, "but don’t get caught as easily again. I won’t be wanting you until eleven tonight. We’re going to Marconti’s.”
TEN days of nerve-tingling anticipation followed. Even fiad fie been assured that nobody was wishing him ill. Dick might have thought twice about going to some of the low night clubs to which Gertmde directed him.
He could sense* the ever-tightening ring of peril in Gertrude’s conduct. There was a subtle change in the pitch of her voice; an intangible something in the touch of her arm about his shoulders as they danced.
One morning Dick received a letter bearing an overseas postmark. It left him badly perturbed. Gertrude, that night, remarked on his jumpiness; remarked on it with an almost ironical satisfaction. She flicked him with the whip of sarcasm again when, in the
early morning, they were driving back to the Splendid.
"Starting to anticipate that bullet in your back, eh?” she suggested.
“Not in my back; in yours,” he corrected her viciously. "Why don’t you quit and get out? A woman with your brains could make a go of things anywhere.”
"You’d sooner work in surroundings that didn’t feel quite so unhealthy. I take it?”
"I’m not thinking of myself.” he shot. “At least, that is—”
“Ah, I see,” she mocked. “You’ve fallen in love with me and can’t bear the thought of my being in danger?”
He met the taunt in her eyes without flinching.
"Exactly,” he said, his hands whitely clenching his knees.
She laughed mirthlessly.
“I’m disappointed in you, Richard. Nine men out of ten would have adopted the same tactics, but I rather prided myself that you were that rare tenth. Be patient, though. If you last long enough you’ll be able to earn that two thousand honestly, or, who knows, I may become so thoroughly accustomed to you that I’ll adopt you as a lover.”
“If you were a man I’d punch your jaw for that.” said Dick sullenly.
“Oh, stop your play acting,” she hit back, suddenly furious. “You know as well as I do that you’d clear out tomorrow if you weren’t still on your uppers.”
“You honestly believe that?”
She didn’t look at him as she said, “Certainly.”
“Very good, the matter’s settled,” he announced grimly. “I can’t say that I blame you.”
There was no further reference to the conversation in the next three days. When Gertrude again spoke of it they were seated at a table near the entrance of Marconti's. She had been watching the dancers glide past for several minutes, the alertness of her eyes lost in a veiled distant expression. Suddenly she said :
“I’m going to take your advice. I’m running for cover. You almost had me bluffed the other night. I lay in bed and thought of fruit farms—and peace—and you.”
“Well, you saw through the bluff, so forget it,” he answered harshly. “It’s all settled and—hello!”
HIS constantly watchful eye was on the entrance to the cabaret. In the doorway a waiter had jerked up his hands, an expression of terror on his face. Dick’s hand had gone to his pocket and drawn his automatic in the seconds it required for two masked figures to appear from behind the waiter. The light glinted on the blue barrels of revolvers held in the hands of the marauders.
Dick fired from beneath the table, thrusting himself roughly between Gertrude and the menacing weapons as he did so. One of the figures collapsed grotesquely down the steps. Fire spat from the muzzle of the other’s gun. In the space of two seconds five reports set the low-ceilinged room a-shake. Then came a weird silence as the powder fumes drifted eerily upward and stung the nostrils of the benumbed watchers. At the foot of the steps the second gunman lay limply beside his companion. Still shielding Gertrude, Dick stexxi swaying slightly, his hand clasping his left shoulder. “Oh, you’re hurt,” cried the girl.
“Only a scratch,” he said quickly. “Hurry up, slip out before the police arrive. You needn’t be mixed up in this and I've got a cast-iron case of self-defense.”
“But, Dick—” she protested.
“Get out.” he grated. “I’ll come to the hotel as soon as I can make it.”
Gertrude’s white face vanished in the milling crowd that had suddenly come to confused life.
It was almost noon the next day when Dick made good his promise. The familiar, pyjama-clad figure admitted him instantly to No. 837 at his knock. His left sleeve was hanging emptily and his arm, in a sling, bulged beneath his coat. He was in high spirits and, ignoring Gertrude’s anxious enquiries about his wound, ordered her to light a cigarette for him. Stretching himself in a chair, he declared :
“Well, we certainly got off luckily in that business. The police don’t even suspect that you are interested in it.”
“I know.” said the girl quietly, gazing out over the rooftops. “I’ve read the papers. As a matter of fact, they didn’t have anything to do with me. They were just ordinary holdup men.”
“Oh, not ordinary,” he corrected her. “They had a couple of bank jobs to their credit. Seven thousand dollars in rewards for them, all told.”
“Yes,” she assented, still looking out the window. “I read that, too. You’ll be able to buy your farm outright. When do you leave?”
“As soon as you’re through with me.” She wheeled about, her slim body rigid beneath its satin covering.
“But—but last night solved everything for you,” she cried. “You don’t have to depend on me for a living any more.”
“That’s no solution,” he answered deliberately. “I’ve been free of financial worries for four days. Came into a bit of money in the old country.”
“And you still stuck with this thankless job?” she exclaimed. “Why?”
“Don’t be silly,” he said gruffly.
Without warning, the cool, self-possessed “E. G.” Brown put a pair of shapely hands to her face in an attempt to hide the surge of color that had arisen there. Dick was on his feet in an instant. His good arm swept the slight form into an unbreakable embrace and his lips rested lightly on her forehead. With a half sob her arms went about him and her mouth hungrily sought his.
“When will you marry me?” he finally demanded in a shaken voice.
“Never.” she answered, though still clinging to him. “You’ve no idea what sort of a woman I am. I’m a liar and a cheat and a bird of prey—and it’s all your fault.”
“I’m glad,” he said fervently. “Half a mo’ and you can sit on my knee and tell me all about it.”
For various reasons it took her some little time to begin her confession.
“It was your ad. that did it,” she said finally, twisting a lock of his tawny hair about her finger. “I read it and immediately began to imagine what was in store for you, if anything—and first thing I knew I had planned everything that was going to happen to you. It had worked itself into a first rate plot. I write novels. You won’t like them” —she yanked the lock viciously—“but they make me a good deal of money.”
“But why bother about me personally?” cried Dick.
“As my hero, I wanted to study your reactions,” she explained carefully. “I wanted to capture reality; to know just how a man expecting death, constantly hunted, would behave. You were really a poor investment—didn’t emote at all well, no matter how hard I tried to put the fear of disaster in you. Instead of the cringing, pitiful figure I had intended you to be, I found only a man with whom I couldn’t help falling in love. The story took charge of me instead of my taking charge of the story.”
“How about the girl who propositioned me downstairs?” he demanded abruptly.
“My secretary,” chuckled Gertrude. “She enjoyed it immensely. She’s been working with me every morning right along. That’s why I was rather touchy on the subject of unexpected calls from you.” She sighed. “I think a fruit farm would be a lovely place for one's studio. If you’ll let me visit you, I think I’ll write the conclusion of the story there.”
“Oh, no,” said Dick, definitely, “the introduction.”