The STRANGE ADVENTURE of the NILE-GREEN ROADSTER
I HOPE you slept well, sir,” said Benson, as I sat down to my breakfast of iced Casaba and eggs O’Brien, a long month later. “Like a top, thank you,” I was able to announce to that anxious-eyed old retainer of mine. “That sounds like old times, sir,” ventured Benson, caressing his own knuckle-joints very much as though he were shaking hands with himself. “It feels like old times,” I briskly acknowledged. “And this morning, Benson, I’d like you to clear out rny study and get that clutter of Shang and Ming bronzes off my writing-desk.” “Very good, sir.”
“And order up a ream or two of that Wistaria Bond I used to use. For I feel like work again, Benson, and that’s a feeling which I don’t think we ought to neglect.”
“Quite so, sir,” acquiesced Benson, with an approving wag of the head which he made small effort to conceal.
It was the truth that I had spoken to Benson. The drought seemed to have ended. The old psychasthenic inertia had slipped away. Life, for some unaccountable reason or other, still again seemed wonderful to me, touched with some undefined promise of high adventure, crowned once more with the fugitive wine-glow of romance. Gramercy Square, from my front windows, looked like something that Maxfield Parrish might have drawn. A milk-wagon, just beyond the corner, made me suddenly think of Phaeton and his coursers of the stellar trails. I felt an itching to get back to my desk, to shake out the wings of creation. I wanted to write once more. It would never again be about those impossible Alaskan demigods of the earlier days, but about real men and women, about the people I had met and known and struggled into an understanding of. Life, I began to feel, was
EDITOR’S Note.—This is the final story of the series by Mr. Stringer. It will be remembered that, at the outset, the kero ran over and presumably killed a man uJhile speeding in his automobile. This placed him in the power of his chauffeur and led to his estrangement from Mary Lockwood with whom he was in love. In the present instalment the tangled skeins are unraveled in an unexpected way.
a game, a great game, a game well worth watching, doubly well worth trying to interpret.
So when I settled down that day I wrote feverishly and I wrote joyously. I wrote until m y fingers WT e r e cramped and my head was empty. I surrendered to a blithe logorrhea that left me contentedly limp and lax and in need of an hour or two of open air.
So I sallied forth, humming as I went. It was a sparkling afternoon of earliest Spring and as I paced the quiet streets I turned pleasantly over in that half-torpid brain of mine certain ideas as to the value of dramatic surprise, together with a carefully-registered selfcaution as to the author’s over-use of the long arm of Coincidence.
Coincidences, I told myself, were things which popped up altogether too often on the printed page, and occurred altogether too seldom in actual life. It was a lazy man’s way of reaching his end, that trick of riding the bumpers of Invention, of swinging and dangling from the over-wrenched arm-socket of Coincidence. It was good enough for the glib and delusive coggery of the moving-pictures, but-
A ND then I stopped short. 1 stopped short, con^ ^ fronted by one of those calamitous street accidents only too common in any of our twentieth-century cities where speed and greed have come to weigh life so lightly.
I scarcely know which I noticed first, the spick-andspan clover-leaf roadster sparkling in its coat cf Nilegreen enamel, or the girl who seemed to step directly in its path as it went humming along the smooth and polished asphalt. But by one of those miraculouslyrapid calculations of which the human mind is quite often capable I realized that this same softly-humming car was predestined to come more or less violently into contact with that frail and seemingly hesitating figure.
My first impulse was to turn away, to avoid a spectacle which instinct told me would be horrible. For still again I felt the beak of cowardice spearing my vitals. I had the odynephobiac’s dread of blood. It unmanned me; it sickened my soul. And I would at. least have covered my face with my hands, to blot out the scene, had I not suddenly remembered that other and strangely similar occasion when a car came into violent collision with a human body. And it had been my car. On that occasion, I only too well knew, I had proved unpardonably vacillating and craven. I had run away from the horror I should have faced like a man. And
I had paid for my cowardice, paid for it at the incredi bl y extortionate price of my self-respect and my peac of mind.
So this time I compelled myself to face the music I steeled myself to stand by, even as the moving cai struck the hesitating body and threw it to the pave ment. My heart jumped up into my throat, like i baü-vaive, and I shouted aloud, in mortal terror, for ] could see where the skirted body trailed in under th running-gear of the Nile-green roadster, dragging along the pavement as the two white hands clung frantically to the green-painted spring-leaves. Bui I didn’t run away. Instead of running away, in fact I did exactly the opposite. I swung out to the side ol the failen girl, who stiffened in my arms as I pickec her up. Then I spread my overcoat out along the curb and placed the inert body on top of it, for in my firsl unreasoning panic I assumed that the woman was dead I could see salvia streaked with blood drooling from her parted lips. It was horrible. And I had just made sure that she was still alive, that she was still breathing, when I became conscious of the fact that a second man, who had run along beside the car shaking his fist up at its driver, was standing close beside me. He was an elderly man, a venerable-looking man, a man w-ith silvery hair and a meek and threadbare aspect. He was wringing his hands and moaning in his misery as he stared down at the girl stretched out on my overcoat.
“They’ve killed her!” he cried aloud. “O God. they’ve killed her!”
“Do you know this girl?” I demanded, as I did my best to loosen the throat of her shirt-waist.
“Yes— yes ! She’s my Babbie. She’s my niece. She’s all I have,” was his reply. “But they’ve killed her! They’ve killed her!”
“Acting that way won’t help things!” I told him, almost angrily. Then I looked up, still angrily, to see what had become of the Nile-green car. It had drawn in close beside the curb, not sixty feet away-. I could see a woman stepping down from the driving-seat. All I noticed, at first, was that her face seemed very white, and that as she turned and moved towards us her left hand was pressed tight, against her breast. It struck me, even in that moment of tension, as an indescribably dramatic gesture.
THEN the long arm of that goddess known as CoinA cider.ce swung up and smote me full in the face, as solidly as a blacksmith’s hammer smites an anvil. For the woman I saw walking white-faced yet determined towards where I knelt at the curb-side was Mary Lockwood herself.
I stood up and faced her in the cruel clarity of the slanting afternoon sunlight. For only a moment, I noticed, her stricken eyes rested on the figure of the woman lying along the curb-edge. Then they rose to my face. In those eyes, as she stared at me, I could read the question, the awful question, which her lips left unmuttered. Yet it was not fear; it was not cowardice, that I saw written on that tragically colorless brow. It was more a dumb protest against injustice without bounds, a passionate and unarticulated pleading for some delivering sentence which she knew could not be given to her.
“No, she’s not dead,” I said in answer to that unspoken question. “She may not even be seriously hurt. But”-
I stared down at the tell-tale saliva streaked with blood. But the silvery-haired old man at my side put an end to any such efforts at prevarication.
“She’s killed,” he excitedly proclaimed.
“She’s no such thing,” I just as excitedly retorted.
“But you saw what they did to her?” he demanded, clutching at my shoulder. “You saw it. They ran her down, like a dog. They’ve ruined her; they’ve broken her body, for life!”
I could see Mary Lockwood’s hand go out, as though in search for support. She was breathing almost as quickly, by this time, as the reviving girl on the curbedge.
“Shut up,” I curtly commanded the old man as he started in once more on his declamations, for the custernary city crowd was already beginning to cluster about us. “It isn’t talk we want now. We must get this girl where she can be taken care of.”
It was then that Mary Lockwood spoke for the first time. Her voice was tremulous, but the gloved hand that hung at her side was no longer shaking.
“Couldn’t I take her home?” she asked me. “To my home?” I was busy pushing back the crowd.
“No,” I told her, “a hospital’s best. I’ll put her in your car there. Then you run her over to the Roosevelt. That’s even better than waiting for an ambulance.”
I stooped over the injured girl again and felt her pulse. It struck me as an amazingly strong and steadypulse for anyone in such a predicament. And her respiration, I noticed, was very close to normal. I examined each side of her face, and inspected her lips and even her tongue-tip, to see if some cut or abrasion there couldn’t account for that disturbing streak of blood. But I could find neither cut nor bruise, and by this time the old man was again making himself heard.
“You’ll take her to no pest-house,” he was excitedlyproclaiming. “She’ll come home with me—what’s left of her. She must come home with me!”
Mary Lockwood stared at him with her tragic and still slightly bewildered eyes.
“Very well,” she quietly announced. “I’ll take her home. I’ll take you both home.”
And at this the old man seemed immensely relieved.
“Where is it you want to go?” I rather impatientlydemanded of him. For I’d decided to get them away from there, for Mary’s sake, before the inevitable patrolman or reporter happened along.
“On the other side of Brooklyn,” explained the bereft one, with a vague hand-wave towards the East.
I had to push back the crowd again, before I was able to gather the limp form up from its asphalted restingplace.
“And what’s your name?” I demanded as the old man came shuffling along beside us on our way to the waiting car.
“Crotty,” he announced. “Zachary Crotty.”
IT wasn’t until I’d placed the injured girl in the softly-upholstered car-seat that that name of “Crotty,” sent like a torpedo across the open spaces of distraction, exploded against the hull-plates of memory.
Crotty! The very name of Crotty took my thoughts suddenly winging back to y7et another street-accident, an accident in which I myself had figured so actively and so unfortunately. For Crotty was the name of the man. I remembered, who had confirmed my chauffeur Latreille’s verdict as to the victim of that neverto-be-forgotten Hallowe’en affair. Crotty was the individual who had brought word to Latreille that we had really killed a man. And Crotty was not a remarkably common name. Ar.d now, oddlyr enough, he was figuring in another accident of almost the same nature.
Something prompted me to reach in and feel the hand of the still comatose girl. That hand, I noticed, was warm to the touch. Then I turned and inspected the venerable-looking old man who was now weeping volubly into a large cotton handkerchief.
“You’ll have to give us your street and number,” I told him, as a mask to cover that continued inspection of mine.
He did so, between sobs. And as he did so I failed to detect any trace of actual tears on his face. What was more, I felt sure that the eye periodically concealed by the noisily-flourished handkerchief was a chronically roving eye, an unstable eye, an eye that seemed averse to meeting your own honestlyinquiring glance.
That discovery, or perhaps I ought to say that suspicion, caused me to turn to Mary, who was already in her place in the driving-seat.
“Wouldn’t it be better if I went with you?” I asked her, stung to the heart bythe mute suffering which I could only too plainly see on her milk-white face.
“No,” she told me as she motioned for the girl’s uncle to climb into the car. “This is something I’ve got to do myself.”
“And it’s something that’ll have to be paid for, and well paid for,” declaimed our silvery-haired old friend as he stowed away his cotton handkerchief and took ap his slightly triumphant position in that Nile-green -oadster.
It was not so much this statement, I think, as the rushed and hopeless look in Mary Lockwood’s eyes hat prompted me to leap in across the car-door and neet the gaze of those eyes as they stared so unsecngly down at me.
“I wish you’d let me go with you,” I begged, putting ly pride in my pocket.
“What good would that do?” she demanded, with a touch of bitterness in her voice. Her foot, I could see, was alreadypressing down on the starter-knob.
“I might be able to help you,” I rather inadequatelyventured. Even as I spoke, however, I caught sight of the blue-clad figure of a patrolman pushing his way through the crowd along the curb. I imagine that Mary also caught sight of that figure, for a shadowpassed across her face and the pulse of the engine increased to a drone.
“I can’t wait,” she said in a sort of guilty7 gasp. “This girl needs help. And she needs it quickly.”
T TNCONSCIOUSLY my eyes fell to the other ^ girl sitting back so limply in the padded seat. She was, clearly, coming round again. But as she drifted past myline of vision with the movement of the car I made a trivial and yet a slightly7 perplexing discovery7.
I noticed that the relaxed hand posed so impassivelyalong the door-top bore a distinct yellow stain between the tips of the first and second fingers. That yellow stain, I knew, was customarily brought about by the use of cigarettes. It was a mark peculiar to the habitual smoker. Yet the meek and drab-colored figure that I had lifted into that car-seat could scarcely be accepted as a consumer of “coffin-nails.” It left a wrinkle which the iron of Reason found hard to eradicate.
It left me squinting after that departing roadster, in fact, with something more than perplexity nibbling at myheart. I was oppressed by a feeling of undefined conspiracies weaving themselves about the tragiceyed girl in the Nile-green car. And a sudden ache to follow after that girl, to stand between her and certain activities which she could never comprehend, took possession of me.
Anysuch pursuit, however, was not as easy as it promised. For I first had to explain to that inquiring patrolman that the accident had been a trivial one, that I hadn’t even bothered about taking the licensenumber of the car, and that I could be found at my home in Gramercy Square in case any further information might be deemed necessary-. Then, once clear of the neighborhood, I hesitated between two possible courses. One was to get in touch with Mary’s father over the phone, with John Lockwood. The other was to hurry7 down to Police Headquarters and talk things over with my good friend Lieutenant Belton. But either movement, I remembered, would have stood distasteful to Mary herself. It meant publicity, and publicity was the one thing to be avoided. So I solved the problem by taking an altogether different tackI did what deep down in my heart I had been wanting to do all along. I hailed a passing taxi-cab, hopped in, and made straight for that hinterland district of Brooklyn where Crotty had described his home as standing.
I didn’t drive directly to that home, but dismissed
my driver at a nearby corner and approached the house
on foot. There was no longer any Nile-green car in sight. And the house itself, I noticed, w-as a distinctly unattractive-looking one, a shabby7 one, even a sordid one. I stood in the shadow of the side-entrance to one of those gilt-lettered corner-saloons which loom like aromatic cases out of man’s most dismal Saharas, studying that altogether repellent house-front. And as I stood there making careful note of the minutest characteristics a figure came brisklydow-n its broken
What made me catch my breath, however, was the fact that the figure was that of a man, and the man was Latreille, my ex-chauffeur. And still again, I remembered, the long arm of Coincidence was reaching out and plucking me by the sleeve.
But I didn’t linger there to meditate over this abstraction, for I noticed that Latreille, sauntering along the opposite side of the street, had signalled to two other men leisurely approaching my caravansery from the nearbycorner. One of these, I saw, was the old man known as Crotty. And it was obvious that within two minutes’ time they would converge somewhere disagreeably close to the spot where I stood.
SO I backed discreetly and quietly in through the sideentrance of that manv-odored beer-parlor. There I encountered an Hibernian bartender with an empty tray and an exceptionally evil eye. I detained him, however, with a fraternal hand on his sleeve.
“Sister,” I hurriedly explained, “I’ve got a date with a rib here. Can you put me under cover?”
It w-as patois, I felt sure, which would reach his understanding. But it wasn’t until he beheld the fivespot which I’d slipped up on his tray that the look of world-weary cynicism vanished from his face.
“Sure ” he said as he promptly and impassively pocketed the bill. Then without a word or the blink of an eve he pushed in past a room crowded with round tables on iron pedestals, took the key out of a door opening in the rear wall, thrust it into my fingers, and off-handedly motioned me inside. . . .
I stepped in through that door and closed and locked ;t Then I inspected my quarters. They were eloquent enou-h of sordid and ugly adventure. They smelt of sour liquor and stale cigar smoke, with a vague over' tone of orris and patchouli. On one side of the room was an imitation Turkish couch on the other an‘Unfcdy wash-stand and a charred-edged card-table. Half-way between these there was a “speak-easy, a small sliding wall-panel through which liquid
served without any undue interruption to the privacy cf those partaking of the same. This speak-easy, I noticed as I slid it back the merest trifle, opened on the “beer parlor,” at the immediate rear of the barroom Rself, the “parlor” where the thirsty guest might sit at - tViP little round tables and consume his suds nÎÂÏwÂ at his leisure. And the who . Ôïacè impressed me as the sort of a thing that still made civilization a mockery and suburban recreation a wper
LVI^as^/n'fact,'still peering through my little speak1 vl tVin ’ wall when I became conscious of the e°Sy S 1 three figures that came sidling into that
emptyroom with the little round tables, I could see them distinctly. There was the silvery-haired old Crotty; there was Latreille; and there was a rather unkempt and furtive-eyed individual who very promptly and unmistakablyimpressed me as a drug-addict. And repugnant as eavesdropping was to me, I couldn’t help leaning close to my speak-easy crevice and listening to that worthy trio as they seated themselves within six feet of where I stood, Latreille and old Crotty with their backs to me, the untidy individual whom they addressed as The Doc sitting facing the wall that shielded me.
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“Swell kipping!” contentedly murmured one of that trio, out of their momentary silence.
AND at that I promptly pricked up my ears, for I knew that ‘swell kipping’ in the vernacular of the underworld stood for easy harvesting.
“What’ll it be, boys?” interrupted a voice which I recognized as the bartender’s.
“Bourbon,” barked Latreille.
“A slug o’ square-face, Mickey,” companionably announced the old gentleman known as Crotty.
“Deep beer,” sighed he who was designated as The Doc. Then came the sound of a match being struck, the scrape of a chair-leg, and the clump of a fist on the table-top, followed by a quietly contented laugh.
“It’s a pipe!” announced a solemnly exultant voice. And I knew the speaker to be my distinguished ex-chauffeur. “It’s sure one grand little cinch!”
“Nothing’s a cinch until you get the goods in your jeans,” contended Crotty, with the not unnatural scepticism of age.
“But didn’t she hand her hundred and ten over to The Doc, just to cover running-expenses? Aint that worth rememberin’? And ain’t she got the fear o’ Gawd thrown into her? And aint she cornin’ back to-night wit’ that wine-jelly and old Port and her own check-book?” This allocution was followed by an appreciative silence.
“But it’s old Lockwood who’s gotta come across,” that individual known as The Doc. finally reminded his confreres.
This brought a snort of contempt from Latreille.
“I tell you again old Lockwood ’ll fight you to the drop of the hat. The girl’s your meat. She’s your mark. You’ve got her! And if you’ve only got the brains to milk her right she’s good for forty thousand. She’s weakened already. She’s on the skids. And she’s got a pile of her own to pull from!”
“Forty thousand?” echoed the other, with a smack of the lips.
“That’s thirteen thousand apiece,” amended Latreille, largely, “with one over for Car-Step Sadie.”
“Cut out that name,” commanded Crotty.
“Well, Babbie then, if that suits you better. And it’s a landslide for her!” “Aint she earned it?” demanded her silvery-haired old guardian.
“Strikes me as being pretty good pay for gettin’ bunted over with a play-car and not even a shin-bruise.”
“Well, aint her trainin’ worth something, in this work?”
“Sure it is—but how ’n hell did she get that blood streakin’ across her face so nice ar.d life-like?”
The silvery-haired old gentleman chuckled as he put down his glass of square-face.
“That’s sure our Babbie’s one little grand-stand play. You see. she keeps the pulp exposed in one o’ her back teeth. Then a little suck with her tongue over it makes it bleed, on a halfminute notice. That’s how she worked the hemorrhage-game with old Bron-
chial Bill all last winter, before the beak sent him up the River.”
I STOOD there, leaning against the soiled shelf across which must have passed so much of the liquid that cheers depressed humanity. But ;never before, I feel sure, did anything quite so cheering come through that sordid little speak-easy. I was no longer afraid of that malignant-looking trio, so contentedly exulting over their ill-gotten victory.
“Well, it’s a cinch,” went on the droning voice, “if The Doc ’ll only cut out the dope for a couple o’ days and your Babbie doesn’t get to buckin’ over the footboard !”
“It aint Babbie I’m worryin’ over.” explained old Crotty. “That girl ’ll do what’s expected of her. She’s got to. I’ve wised her up on that. What’s worryin’ me more is that cuff-shooter who butted in over there on the Island.” Still again I could hear Latreille's little snort of open contempt.
“Well, you can put that 'bug out of your head,” quietly averred my exchauffeur. “You seem to ’ve forgotten that guy, Zachy. That’s the boob we unloaded the Senator’s town car on. And that’s the Hindoo I framed, away back on Hallowe’en night. You remember that, don’t you?”
I leaned closer, with my heart pounding under my midriff and singing in my ears. But old Crotty didn’t seem to remember.
“On Hallowe’en night?” he ruminated aloud.
“Why, the stiff I asked you to stand ready to give the glad word to, if he happened round for any habeas-coi-pus song and dance!” prompted the somewhat impatient voice of Latreille. “Don’t you mind, back on last Hallowe’en, how the big Hill boys stuffed that suit of old clothes with straw and rags and then stuck it up in the street? And how we hit that dummy, and how I made the chiuícen-hearted pen-wiper think that he’d killed a man and coyoted off the scene?”
I don’t know what old Crotty’s reply to those questions were. I wasn’t interested in his reply. It wasn’t even rage that swept through me as I stood listening to those only too-enraging words.
The first thing that I felt was a sense of relief, a vague yet vast consciousness of deliverance, like a sleepy lifer with a governor’s pardon being waved in his face. I was no longer afraid for Mary. I was no longer afraid of life, afraid of myself, afraid of my fellows. My slate was clean. And above all, I was in no way any longer afraid of Latreille. I was the chicken-hearted pen-wiper—and I hated him for that word—who had been “framed.” I was the over-timorous victim of their sweetscented conspiracies. I was the boob who had been made to shuffle and suffer and sweat. But that time was over and done with, forever. And the great wave of relief that swept through me surged back again, this time crested with anger, and then still again towered and broke in a misty rush of pity for Mary Lockwood. I thought of her as something soft and feathered in the triple coils of those three reptilious conspirators as something clean and timid and fragile, being slowly slathered over by the fangs which were to fasten themselves upon her innocence, which were to feed upon her goodness of heart. And I decided that she would never have to go through what I had been compelled to go through.
I DIDN’T wait for more. There was, in fact, nothing; more to wait for, so .far as I and my world were concerned. I had found out all I wanted to find out. Yet I had to stand there for a full minute, coercing myself to calmness. Then I tip-toed across the room to a second door which stood in the rear wall, unlocked it, and stepped out into the narrow and none too well-lighted hallway. This led to a wash-room which in turn opened on another narrow passageway. And from this I was able to circle back into the bar-room itself.
I didn’t tarry to make any explanations to the worthy called Mickey, or to advertise my exit to his even worthier friends. I slipped quietly and quickly out of that unclean street-corner fester-spot, veered off across the street where the early Spring twilight was already settling down, and went straight to the house which I knew to be Crotty’s.
I didn’t even wait to ring. I tried the door, found it unlocked, and stepped inside. There, no sign of life confronted me, But that didn’t for a moment deter my explorations. I quietly investigated the ground floor, found it as unprepossessing as its proprietor, and proceeded noiselessly up the narrow stairway for an examination of the upper regions.
It wasn’t until I reached the head of the stairs that I came to a stop. For there I could hear the muffled but unmistakable sound of somebody moving about. It took me several minutes to determine the source of these movements. But once I had made sure of my ground I advanced to the door at the back of the half-darkened ball and swung it open.
On the far side of the room into which I stood staring I saw a girl in house-slippers and a faded rose-coloi'ed peignoir thrown over a none too clean night-dress of soiled linen. In one hand she held a lighted cigarette. With the other hand she was stirring something in a small graniteware stew'-pan over a gas-heater. Her hair was down and her shoulders were bare. But all her attention seemed concentrated on that savory stew, which she sniffed at hungrily, almost childishly, between puffs on her cigarette. Then she fell to stirring her pot again, with obvious satisfaction.
I had the door shut behind me, in fact, before she so much as surmised that anyone else was*in the room with her. And when she looked up and saw me there her eyes slowly widened and she slowly and deliberately put her spoon down on the soiled dresser-top beside her. It wasn’t exactly fear that I saw creep into her face. It was more the craft of the long-harried and casehardened fugitive.
“Bab.” I said, addressing her in the language which I imagined would most forcibly appeal to her. “I don’t want to butt in on your slough. But times precious and I’m going to talk plain.” “Shoot!” she said after a moment of hesitation followed by another moment of silent appraisal.
“The cops are rounding up The Doc and old Crotty for claim-faking. They’re also coming here, Bab, to gather up a girl called Car-Step Sadie for dummy-chucking under the car of that Lockwood woman and bleeding her for
one hundred and ten bones, and”--
“Those bulls ’ve got nuttin’ on me!” broke out the disturbingly dishabille figure in soiled linen, as she stood staring at me with a sort of mouse-like hostility in her crafty young eyes.
“But they’re bringing a police-surgeon along with ’em,” I went glibly on, “for they claim, Bab, you’ve got a hollow tooth you can start bleeding any time you need to stall on that internal-injury stuff. And they’ve dug up a couple of cases that aren’t going to sound any too good over in the District Attorney’s office. Now, I’m not here to give advice. This is merely a rumble. And you can do what you like about it. But if you’re wise, you’ll slide while the sliding is good.”
She stood once more silently studying me.
“What’s all this to yuh, anyway?” she suddenly demanded.
“It’s so little, my dear,” I airily acknowledged, “that you can do exactly as you like about it. But”-
“Where’s The Doc?” was her next quick question. “Where’s Crotty?”
“They’ve ducked,” I asserted, amazed at my own newly-discovered facility in fictioneering.
“Who said they’d ducked?”
“Do you know Mickey’s, over there on the corner?” I ventured.
She nodded as she darted across the room and threw aside the faded peignoir. The movement made my thoughts flash back to another and earlier scene, to the scene wherein one Vinnie Brunelle had played the leading role.
“Latreille,” I explained to the girl across the room, “dropped in at Mickey’s and tipped Crotty and The Doc off, not more than a quarter of an hour ago.”
“And they rabbited off wit’out throwin’ me a sign?” she indignantly de. manded.
“They did,” I prevaricated.
She suddenly stopped, swinging about and viewing me with open suspicion.
“Where’d yuh ever know that Latreille guy?” she demanded.
“Latreille worked with me for months,” I declared, speaking with more truth, in fact, than I had intended.
“Then me for the tall timber!” announced that hagd-faced little adventuress as she began to scramble into her clothes.
“Don’t you want me to get you a taxi?” I inquired, backing discreetly away until 1 stood in the open door.
“Taxi nuttin’!” she retorted through the shower of soiled lingerie that cascaded about her writhing white shoulders. “What d’yuh take me for, anyway? A ostrich? When I get under cover, I go there me own way, and not wit’ all Brooklyn bawlin’ me out!”
And she went her own way. She went, indeed, much more expeditiously than I had anticipated, for in five minutes' time she was dressed and booted and hatted and scurrying off through the now darkened streets. Which trail she took and what cover she sought didn’t in the least interest me, once I had made sure of the fact she was faring in an opposite direction to Mickey’s thirst-appeasing caravansery. But she went. She shook the dust of that house off her febrile young heels; and that was the one thing I had desired of her. For that night, I knew, still held a problem or two for me which would be trying enough without the presence of the redoubtable Lady Babbie and her sanguinary bicuspid.
Yet once she was clear of that house, Ï decided to follow her example. This, however, was not so easy as it had promised to be. For I had scarcely reached the foot of the stairway when I heard the sound of voices outside the street-door. And I promptly recognized them as Crotty’s and Latreille’s.
rrHAT discovery sent me groping 7 hurriedly backward into the darkened hallway. By the time the door opened I had felt my way to a second flight of steps which obviously led to the basement. I could hear the voice of the man known as The Doc, for the three men were now advancing, and advancing none too quietly, into their musty-aired harborage. But my own flight down those basement stairs was quiet enough, for I realized now the expediency of slipping away and putting in a call for help.
It was only after a good ileal of groping about, however, that I was able to reach the door opening on the basementarea. directly under the street-steps. A huge brass key, fortunately, stood in place there. So as I passed out I took the trouble to relock that door after me and pocket the key.
In five minutes 1 had found a sidestreet grocery store with a sufficiently sequestered telephone. And by means of this telephone I promptly called up Headquarters and asked for Lieutenant Belton.
He listened to what I had to say with much more interest than I had anticipated.
“Kempton,” he called back over the wire, “I believe you’ve stumbled across something big.”
“Then supposing you stumble over here after it,” was my prompt suggestion. But Belton wasn’t to be stampeded into the over-hasty action of the amateur.
“If that isn’t the bunch Headquarters has been -wanting to interview for the last three months, I miss my one best bet. But in this business, Kempton, you’ve got to know. So I’ll slip over to the Bureau and look up mugs and records. If that faint-spiller is Bab Nadeau, alias Car-Step Sadie, there’s no doubt about your man being Crotty.
“She is ‘Car-Step Sadie’,” I told him.
“Then we’ll be out there with bells on,” he calmly announced.
“But what do you expect me to do in the meantime?” I somewhat peevishly demanded.
“Just keep ’em guessing,” he tranquilly retorted, “keep ’em guessing until we amble over there and take ’em off your hands!”
That was easy enough to say, I remembered as I made my way back to Crotty’s broken-faced abode, but the problem cf holding that unsavory trio in subjection didn’t impress me as an over-trivial one. Yet I went back with a new fortitude stiffening my backbone, for I knew that whatever might happen that night, I now had the law on my side.
That casual little flicker of confidence, however, was not destined to sustain me for long. A new complication suddenly confronted me. For as I guardedly approached the house from which I’d sent Bab Nadeau scampering off into the night I noticed a Nile-green car already drawn up close beside the curb. And this car, I further noticed, was empty.
SO it was with a perceptibly-quickened pulse that I sidled down into the unclean area, unearthed my brass key, and let myself silently into the unlighted basement. Then I just as quietly piloted my way in through the darkness, found the stairway, and ascended to the ground floor.
The moment I reached the hallway I could hear the sound of voices, through a door on my left. I could hear Mary Lockwood’s voice, and then the throatytones of that opianic old impostor known as The Doc.
. . . “No doubt of the fact at ail, my dear young lady. The spine has been injured, very seriously injured. Whether or not it will result in paralysis I can’t tell until I consult with my colleague, Dr. Emmanuel Paschali. But we must count on the poor girl being helpless for life, Crotty, helpless for life!”
This was followed by a momentor two of silence. Aryl I could imagine what that moment or two was costing Mary Lockwood.
“But I want to see the girl,” she said in a somewhat desperate voice. “I must see her.”
“All in good time, my dear, all in good time,” temporized her bland old torturer. This was followed by a lower mumble of voices from which I could glean nothing intelligible. But those three conspirators must have consulted together, for after a moment of silence I caught the sound of steps crossing the floor.
“He’ll just slip up and make sure the patient can be seen,” I heard the suave old rascal intone. And I had merely time to edge back and dodge about the basement stair-head as the room-door was flung open and Latreille stepped out in the hall. The door closed again as he vanished above-stairs.
When he returned, he didn’t step back into the room, but waited outside and knocked on the closed door. This brought old Crotty,out in answer to the summons. Just what passed between that worthy trio, immured in their whispering consultation in that half-lighted hallway, failed to reach my ears. But this in no way disturbed me, for I knew well enough that Latreille had at least passed on to them the alarming news that their much needed patient was no longer under that roof. And what was more, I knew that this discovery would serve to bring things to a somewhat speedier climaxvVhan we had all anticipated. There was a sort of covert de-
cisiveness about their movements, in fact, as they stepped back into the room and swung the door shut behind them. So I crept closer, listening intently. But it was only patches and shreds of their talk that I could overhear. I caught enough, however, to know they were protesting that their patient was too weak to be interviewed. I could hear Crotty feelingly exclaim that it wasn’t kind words which could help his poor child now, but only something much more substantial, and much more mundane.
“Yes, it’s only money that can talk in a case like this,” pointedly concurred The Doc, clearly spurred on to a more open boldness of advance. And there were further parleyings and arguments and lugubrious enumerations of possibilities from the man of medicine. I knew well enough what they were doing. They were conjointly and cunningly brow-beating and intimidating that solitary girl who, even while she must have gathered some inkling of their worldliness, comprehended nothing of the wider plot they were weaving about her. And Î further knew that they were winning their point, for I could hear her stifled little gasp of final surrender.
“Very well,” her strained voice said. “I’ll give you the check.”
THIS pregnant sentence was followed by an equally pregnant silence. Then came a series of small noises, amongst which I could distinguish the scrape of a chair-leg and steps crossing the floor. And I surmised that Mary was seating herself at a desk or table, to make out and sign the precious little slip of paper which they were so unctuously conspiring for. So it was at this precise moment that I decided to interfere.
I opened the door, as quietly as I could, and stepped into the room.
It was Latreille who first saw me. The other two men were too intently watching the girl at the desk. They were still watching her as she slowly rose from her chair, with a blue-tinted oblong of paper between her fingers. And at the same moment that Mary Lockwood stood up Latreille did the same. He rose slowly, with his eyes fixed on my face, backing just as slowly away as he continued to stare at me. But that retreat, I very quickly realized, wasn’t prompted by any sense of fear.
“Mary,” I called out sharply to the girl who still stood staring down at the slip of blue paper.
She looked up as she heard that call, peering at me with half incredulous and slightly startled eyes. I don’t know whether she was glad or sorry to see me there. Perhaps it was both. But she neither moved nor spoke.
“Mary.” I cried out to her, “don’t give that up!”
I moved towards her, but she in turn moved away from me until she stood close beside the ever watchful Latreille.
“This is something which you don’t understand,” she said, much more calmly than I had expected.
“But I do,” I hotly contended.
“It’s something which you can’t possibly understand,” she repeated in tones which threw a gulf yawning between us.
“But it’s you who don’t,” I still tried to tell her. “These three here are claimfakers; nothing but criminals. They’re bleeding you! They’re blackmailing you ! ”
A brief but portentous silence fell on that room as the bewildered girl looked from one face to the other. But it lasted only a moment. The tableau was suddenly "broken by a movement from Latreille. And it was a quick and catlike movement With one sweep of the hard he reached out and snatched the oblong of blue paper from Mary Lockwood's fingers. And as I beheld that movement a little alarm-gong somewhere up at the peak of my brain went off with a clang. Some remote caveman ancestor of mine stirred in his grave. I saw red.
With one unreasoned and unreasoning spring I reached Latreille, crying out to the girl as I went: “Get out of
this house! Get out—quick!”
That was all I said. It was all I had a chance to say, for Latreille was suddenly taking up all my attention. That, suave brigand, instead of retreating, caught and held the slip of paper between his teeth and squared for combat. And combat was what he got.
VJIfE struck and countered and clenched ’ * and went to the floor together, still striking blindly at each other’s faces as we threshed and rolled about there. We sent a chair spinning, and a table went over like a nine-pin. We wheezed and gasped and clumped against the baseboard and flopped again out into open space. Yet I tore that slip of paper from between Latreille’s teeth, and macerated it between my own, as we continued to pound and thump and writhe about the dusty floor. And I think I would have worsted Latreille, if I’d been given half a chance, for into that onslaught of mine went the pent-up fury of many weeks and months of self-corroding hate. But that worthy known as The Doc deemed it wise to take a hand in the struggle. His interference assumed the form of a blow with a chairback, a blow which must have stunned me for a moment or two, for when I was able to think clearly again Latreille had me pinned down, with one knee on my chest and old Crotty stationed at the door with a Colt revolver in his hand. The next moment Latreille forced my wnrists down in front of me, jerked a handkerchief from my pocket, and with it tied my crossed hands close together. Then he turned and curtly motioned to Crotty.
“Here,” he commanded. “Bring that gun and guard this pin-head ! If he tries anything, let him have it, and have it good!”
Slowly and deliberately Latreille rose to his feet. He paused for a moment to wipe the blood and dust from his face. Then he turned to Mary Lockwood, who stood with her back against the wall and her tightly clenched fists pressed close to her side. She was very white, white to the lips. But it wasn’t fear that held her there. It was a sort of colorless heat of indignation, a fusing of rage and watchfulness which she seemed at a loss to express in either word or action.
“Now you,” barked out Latreille, motioning her to the desk, “make good on that paper. And do it quick!”
Mary surveyed him, silently, studiously, deliberately. He was, apparently, something startlingly new in her career, something which she seemed unable to fathom. But he’d by no means intimidated her. For, instead of answering him, she spoke to me.
“Parley,” she called out, watching her enemy as she spoke. “Parley, what do you want me to do?”
I remembered Lieutenant Belton and his message. I remembered my own helplessness, and the character of the men confronting us. And I remembered that time was a factor in Mary’s favor and mine.
“Do what he tells you,” I called up to her. And I knew that she had stepped slowly across to the desk again. Yet what she did there I failed to understand, for my attention was once more centered on the old scoundrel covering me with the Colt revolver and repeatedly and blasphemously threatening to plug me through the heart if I so much as made one finger-move to get off that floor. So I lay there studying him. I studied his posture. I studied the position of his weapon. I studied my own length of limb. I studied the furniture overturned about the room. And then I once more studied old Crotty.
THEN I laughed aloud. As I did so I suddenly twisted my head and stared towards the door.
“Smash it in, SamV' I shouted
exultantly, and with all the strength of my lungs.
It startled them all, as I had intended it should. But it also did something else which I had expected it to do. It caused Crotty to glance quickly over his shoulder towards the door in question. And at the precise moment that he essayed this movement I ventured one of my own.
I brought my outstretched leg up, in one quick and vicious kick. I brought my boot-sole in one stinging blow against the stock of the firearm and the fingers clustered about it. And the result was practically what I had anticipated. It sent the revolver cascading
lip into the air, like a circus-tumbler doing a double-twister over an elephant’s back. There was the bark of an exploding cartridge as it went. But I bad both timed and placed its fall, and before either one of that startled couple could make a move I had given a quick twist and i’oll along the dusty floor and caught up the fallen weapon in my own pinioned risrht hand. Another quick wrench and twist freed my bound wrists, and before even a second shout of warning could escape from any of them I was on my feet with the revolver balanced in my right hond and fire in my eye.
“Back up, every one o’ you,” I commanded. For I was hot now, hot as a hornet. And if one of that worthy trio had ventured a move not in harmony with my orders I am morally certain that I should have sent a bullet through him. They too must have been equally assured of mv determination, for side by side they backed away, with their hands slightly above their heads, like praying Brahmins, until the wall itself stopped their retreat.
“Stand closer.” I told them. And they shuffled and side-stepped shoulder to shoulder, ludicrously, like the rawest of rookies on their first day of drill. As I stood contemplating them, with disgust on my face, I was interrupted by the voice of Mary.
“Parley,” she demanded in a voice throaty with excitement yet not untouched with some strange exultation which I couldn’t take time to analyze, “what shall I do this time?”
I couldn’t turn and face her, for I still had to keep that unsavory trio under inspection.
“I want you to go down to your car,”
I told her over my shoulder, “and get in it, and then go straight home. And then”-
“That’s absurd,” she interrupted.
“I want you to do it.”
“But I don’t intend to,” she said, ignoring my masterfulness.
“I’ve been too cowardly about this already. It’s been quite bad enough, without leaving you here like that. So be good enough to tell me what I can do.” .
I LIKED her for that, and I was on the point of telling her so, when down below I heard the quick stamp and clump of feet. And I felt in my bones that it must be Belton and his men. Then I remembered Mary and her question.
“I’ll tell you what you can do,” I cried, pointing towards Latreille. “You can ask this man what it was I ran down in my car last Hallowe’en.”
She was moving forward, with a face quite without fear by this time. But her brow clouded, at that speech of mine, and she came to a sudden stop.
“I don’t need to ask him,” she slowly acknowledged.
“Because I know already.”
“He told you?” I demanded, with a vicious and quite involuntary jab of my barrel-end into one of Latreille’s intercostal spaces.
“Not directly,” replied the evertruthful Mary. “But it was through him that 1 found out. I know now it was through him.”
“I thought so,” I snorted. “And through him you’re now going to find out that he was a liar and a slanderer. So be good enough to explain to her, Latreille, that it was a straw-stuffed dummy we ran down, a street-crowd’s scarecrow, and nothing else!”
Latreille didn’t answer me. He merely stood there with studious and half-closed eyes, a serpent-like squint of venom on his colorless face. It was, in fact, old Crotty who broke the silence.
“We’ll do our talkin,’ young fellow', when the right time comes. And when we do, you’re goin’ to pay for an outrage like this, for an unprovoked assault on decent citizens!”
“Well, the time’s come right now,” I promptly announced, for I had caught the sound of Belton’s quick step on the stairs. And the next moment the door swung open and that stalwart officer stood staring intently, yet cautiously about the corner of the jamb. He stood there squinting in, in fact, for several seconds, calmly inspecting each face and factor of the situation. It wasn’t until he stepped in through the door, however, that I noticed the ugly-looking service revolver in his own right hand.
“That’s the bunch we want, all right,” proclaimed the officer of law and order, as he turned back to the still open door. “Come up, boys, and take ’em down,” he called cheerfully and companionably out through the darkness.
A/fARY, at the answering tumult of AÍ those quick-thumping feet, crept a little closer to my side. Alarm, I suppose, had at last seeped through and crumbled the last of her Lockwood pride. The flash of waiting firearms, the strange faces, the still stranger experiences of that night, seemed to have brought about some final and unlooked for subjugation of hef spirit. At lease, so I thought.
“Couldn’t you take me away, Parley?” she asked, a little weakly and also a little wistfully. Yet there was something about the very tone of hex voice which sent a thrill through my tired body. And that thrill gave me boldness enough to reach out a proprietary arm and let the weight of her body rest against it.
“You won’t want us, will you, Beiton?” I demanded. And that longlegged young officer stared about at us, abstractedly, for a moment or two, before replying. When he turned away, he did so to hide what seemed to be a slowly widening smile.
“These are the folks I want,” he retorted, with a hand-wave towards his three prisoners. And without wasting further breath, or time, on them, I helped Mary out and down to the Nilegreen roadster.
“No; let me,” she said, as she noticed my movement to mount to the driver’s seat. But she was silent for several minutes, as we threaded our way out through the silent and shadowy streets.
“Parley,” she said at last, and with a gulp, “you must think I’m an—an awful coward.”
“I was the coward,” I proclaimed out of my sudden misery of mind. For
there were certain things which would be terribly hard to forget.
“You?” she cried. “After what I’ve just seen ? After what you’ve saved me from? Oh, how you must despise me!”
“No,” I said with a gulp of my own. “That’s not the word.”
“It’s not,” she absently agreed.
“It’s not,” I repeated, “for I love you!”
She made no response to that foolish and untimely declaration. Ail her attention, in fact, seemed directed towards her driving.
“But I was so cowardly in that ocher thing,” she persisted, out of this second silence. “Judging without understanding, condemning something I was only too ready to do myself!”
“And it made yon hate me?”
“No—no. I hate myself!” And her gesture was one of protest, passionate protest.
“But you must have hated me.”
“Parley,” she said, speaking quite low and leaning a little closer to the wheel as she spoke, as though all her thoughts were on the shadowy road ahead of her, “I never hated you— never! I couldn’t even make myself.”
“Why?” I asked, scarcely knowing I had spoken.
“Because I’ve always loved you,” she said in a whisper, big with bravery. And I heard a silvery little bell begin to ring in my heart, like a bird in an orchard, heralding spring.
“Stop the car!” I suddenly commanded, once the real, the glorious meaning of those six words of Mary’s had sunk through to that strange core of things we call our soul.
“What for?” demanded Mary, mechanically releasing the clutch and throwing the brake-pedal down. She sat staring, startled, into my face, as we came to a stop. “What for?” she repeated.
“Because we must never run anything down again," I solemnly informed her.
“But I don’t see,” she began, “why—”
“It’s because I’m going to kiss you, my beloved,” I said, as I reached OIH for her. “And something tells me, Mary, that it’s going to be a terrirdy long one!”