FICTION

Automatic Eliminator

A drama of human passions played at tropical tempo

TAYLER SUTTON August 1 1935
FICTION

Automatic Eliminator

A drama of human passions played at tropical tempo

TAYLER SUTTON August 1 1935

Automatic Eliminator

A drama of human passions played at tropical tempo

TAYLER SUTTON

ON THE cliffs of Fisherman’s Point, where the cables themselves lead out into the trackless blue Caribbean, sprawls a cable office whose low roof is swept by flamingo branches.

Paradoxically, this shelter for the instruments of communication is itself the essence of loneliness, of excommunication. Empty oil drums, lengths of rusty cable, wornout tools litter the ground around it and its power house. Weeds choke at the cliff-edge where, over a crumbling wall, one may sight the sea-licked crags far below. Scrawny papaya trees spike the landscape and drop lush-gold fruit unheeded into the thorny furze.

Through the centre of the outlying cable reservation, a lane of red dust ties the few cottages into sorry intimacy, ending at two tennis courts and a bachelors’ mess, all in need of repair. It was down this same road that Bridget Bayliss went one sultry afternoon.

Not long out from Ireland was Bridget, and looked it. The tropical sun had not yet darkened or sallowed her clear brunette beauty, and her small bathing-suited figure was vital as an Irish breeze. Against the unhappy horizon she made strange contrast.

Passing the office where her young husband was on duty, she waved a comer of the towel she carried.

“It’s so hot, Tommy. I’m for my swim now.”

He came to a window sill and leaned on it. “Have one for me, too,” he said with British stoicism, but his eyes adored her.

Drawing near, she snubbed her nose, child-fashion, against the rusty screen. “You’ve ink on your face and your hair’s mussy, and what made you wear that torn shirt again after I’d told you not?” she criticized with all the ardor of a six-months bride.

Tommy ran his hand through his blondeness and grinned. “Right, infant; charge off and find me a top hat so I’ll be in proper form to receive—and transmit.” He added: “Biddy, dear, mind the rocks down there, won’t you?”

Each time she swam he said this, and each time he said it, Bridget teased him with a “Yes, grannie!” But now, as she spoke, she saw that he stared past her, and his jaw tightened She followed his angry eyes. At the top of the cliff steps leading down to the shore, Deak Tulloch lounged as if in wait. And he wore a bathing suit.

“Tommy, dear, don’t,” she pleaded quietly. “Deak’s as much right to swim at the cable dock as I, after all.”

Her husband frowned at the ticker-tape he held. “That’s it. I can’t stick the thought of your having to accept that jungle product as an equal. It’s bad enough for us men at the office; as long as the Old Man’s away. Tulloch’s acting manager and we’ve got to take his orders. But when it comes to his trailing you about—”

“I’ve done all I can to discourage him, short of making actual trouble, Tommy.”

“I know; it’s not your fault. He’d do this sort of thing . . . Knowing that I’ve to be on duty in here and that Pete and Crow are on duty too, he feels safe to be a nuisance to you.”

“If you like, I’ll try to get Mrs. Raymond to swim.” “Scarcely, dear! After the way the women here have treated you, I’ll never ask you to stick their company at any time. Just remember they’ve cause to be jealous; you’re the loveliest thing in the world. If Tulloch annoys you. . .” “Shush, Tommy; I shan’t let him. You’re able to see me most of the time from the window, and I’m not staying in long, so don’t fret.” She blinked affectionately and turned away.

Deak Tulloch had not moved and, since he blocked her way, there was nothing to do but greet him.

“Hello, Deak. .Swimming or swum?”

I lis queer speckled eyes seemed to strip her of her suit. “Swimming. With you.”

“Go along, then,” she said. “I’ve not much time.”

' I 'HE LONG OLD stairs creaked and swayed with their descent. When the dock was reached, Bridget let out her breath. “They make me more nervous every day. They seem to cling to the cliff by sheer will power, don’t they?” Flinging his thick, powerful body to the dock, Deak bunched a towel under his head, and while she kicked off her sandals Bridget stole a look at him. The fraction of his blood that was savage was not too apparent; if it were not for his hair and curiously flecked eyeballs, his background might not have been suspected. Living all her twenty-three years in Dublin, Bridget had never seen a mongrel of the tropics until she braved the desolation of Fisherman’s Point to make a home for Tommy. She turned away her eyes with a shiver of distaste.

“Stop and have a cigarette first.”

“Thanks, not now.” She avoided his oddly indecent gaze by putting on her bathing cap. “When’s the Old Man to be back from his business trip?”

“In a day or two, thank heaven.”

“Nonsense. You like to king it.”

“Too much work.”

“Work, you say? What do you do besides swim and play tennis and drink? You drop into the office once a day perhaps, glance over a cable or two and strut out again. Absurd !”

“Bridget”—she saw his hand creep out—“I like your Irish r’s. Say ‘absur-rd’ again.” She jerked away, but too late; his hand held her ankle like a vise. “Wait. Don’t go in till I do. The barracuda and sting-rays’ll get you.”

“I’m not afraid of anything but sharp rocks.”

“Then there’s a big rock out there, all ready to snag you. Tommy,” he said, “would be wild if I let anything happen to you.” His taunting tone held an unspoken comparison of slender Tommy with himself.

“Right. Pie would. That’s why I’m off to the float where he can see me,” she said, and kicked away his hand. Then she dived into the still greenness like the flash of a blade.

Deak’s eyes grew hot and he dived after her. But, already on the float, she could look up at Tommy, and did so,waving.

“Here today. . . ” she said as Deak hoisted himself up, “and gone today!” Slanting off, she trudgeoned out into the bay.

Deak called, “Bridget!”

With a mock salute, she sank and swam back under water to the air pocket beneath the float. “The swim’s spoilt,” she told a jellyfish, “and I might as well go in.” Treading water, she became aware that Deak had swum up beside her, like a sinister sting-ray.

“You imp of Satan!” He flung up his head in the deep, barnacled shadows. “Letting me think you’d drowned!” She took hold of a beam overhead. “I fancied you’d think I was somewhere on the Cuban side by now. This trick of mine scares Tommy, but it’s quite safe.”

“Look here, Bridget”—he caught at her bathing suit— “be nice to me.”

“Amn’t I, Deak? Let go, please.”

Their voices struck hollowly on the boards above. The wash of water belled out her suit where he clung to the strap. “Let go, Deak. Tommy’ll be waiting for me.”

“And Pete and Crow—”

“Peter and Crow are Tommy’s pals and my good friends.” Suddenly angered at having explained at all, Bridget twisted down, outward and up to the float top. Deak followed.

“Nearly five.” She lay getting her breath and searching for the sun. “My watch went dead soon after we came here, so I’ve learned to tell time by the sun, if there is any.”

“The sun’s for other things,” Deak said. “Once I saw a girl—she was brown—standing on the rocks against a Haitian sunset. I went to her and took her. Want a thing— and take it. .

Not willing to appear disturbed, she sat up and thrashed the water with her feet.

“If I could tell you about that girl”—he paused, queerly intent—“or about her mother, Deng, who’s a witch-doctor in Cap Haitien, you’d see. You’d see that I’m not one to turn aside when I want a thing; not even under the threat of Deng’s death-curse. Damballa Oueddo!” His mottled eyes jerked and, in the air, he made a sign that was strange.

TI) RIDGET stood up. Tommy and Pete and Crow were right. Deak Tulloch was a little mad. “It’s going to rain,” she said.

Looking at the horizon, he answered: “More than rain.”

Her eyes questioned him.

“Didn’t Tommy, or somebody, tell you?”

“No. What?”

“Word came through from Texas of a storm that’s sweeping down. Do you understand? From Texas.”

“And what does that mean?”

“Ordinarily, storms come the other way. From the southwest they hit the islands and then the Gulf Coast. It’s not good—the wind reversing that way. No telling what we’re in for.”

Dabbling a toe in the water, Bridget noted that the bay had whitened in streaks as far out as she could see. “A hurricane, you mean? Shall we be hit?”

His mat of fuzzy hair had already dried. For an instant as the sun broke, blood-red, through the quickening grey-

green pall, he lifted his head, and his silhouette in profile stood out.

Something like stage-fright gripped her. “Why, I’ve seen this—I’ve seen all this before.”

“Yes. Cap Haitien.”

“But I’ve never. . .” She broke off, watching his eyes disappear. Only their whites showed and a sickish grin creased his cheeks. “Oh. . .” Blindly she dived.

On the dock, the rising wind made gooseflesh on her legs. She pulled off her cap and wrapped herself into the big towel until only her water-pale face and dark hair could be seen. Fighting the memory of those white eyes, she turned away. But he stopped her, there in the shelter of the cliffs, with only the restless gulls to see.

“Bridget, you’re—”

“Too cold to be anything but in a hurry,” she parried. “Good-by.”

Without warning, he caught her up, towel and all, and sank his teeth in her nape where the curls clustered. Pain, and a trickle of warmth on her neck. He set her down.

“And that’s only a beginning, Bridget.”

White-hot rage filled her. She wheeled and raced up the cliff steps without stopping. She did not look back, but as plainly as if she had, she knew he had not moved; that his grin was making his teeth glisten in the luminous darkness of the storm.

AT THE TOP, she saw Tommy beckon from the office window, and she covered the mark on her neck hastily. Her heart pounded, failed and pounded again in a hypnosis of fear.

Anxiety marked his face. “Anything wrong, dear?”

In the sheer relief of his nearness, Bridget choked back a sob. “No,” she said, “nothing. I’m just cold.”

“There’s a storm coming. I didn’t tell you before because I didn’t want to scare you. But it looks bad, infant.”

“Have you heard anything over the c-cables?”

“Only that it’s headed this way with a wind velocity of a hundred and twenty.”

“Aren’t you through soon?”

“Off in ten minutes. Trot home and have a warm shower, and by that time Pete and Crow and I’ll be there.”

“I shall, to take away this chill.”

Fifteen minutes later, to all outward appearances, she was herself again. Her hair lay back in darkly polished waves

after a session with the brush, and make-up covered her pallor. Over her dress of white linen she had donned a navy-blue blazer, and had knotted a gay kerchief about her neck where the curls clustered.

She set ice, glasses and bottles on the table of the chintzcovered porch and dropped into a wicker chaise longue. Only the trembling of her hands told of her inner state. Tell Tommy or not? The logical thing—but there was nothing logical about Deak Tulloch or what he had done. Her mind was heavy with unnamed fears, and she let them congeal rather than drag them out and examine them.

“Biddy”—it was Pete at the door—“we’re all set for a pretty stiff—

“Drink, I suppose.”

“—storm. And therefore, drink.” He came in, followed by Tommy and Crow, and draped his lankiness on the end of her chaise longue.

Bachelors both, Bill Crowell and Peter Smalling were genuinely lond of Bridget and she of them. They all foregathered each and every day, before the dinner hour, either at the Bavliss quarters or at the bachelors’ mess. The other women, none of whom had been nice to Bridget, commented jealously. After her first few attempts to gain their friendship, she, strange to the neurotic ways of tropically isolated women, had given up in misery and despair. And Tommy, with Pete and Crow, had formed a sort of protection society for her, teasing her efforts to reform the lackadaisical Jamaican maid and praising her cooking, tennis and bridge.

“Seriously, though,” Pete said, “in all the time I’ve been

here I’ve never heard of a storm coming the other way round. Have you, Tommy?”

TOMMY, pouring rum into ice-filled glasses, shook his head. “The islands are going to be hard hit somewhere, I’ll bet.”

Bridget looked her plea at the hammock where Crow’s red head was propped up by three pillows. He batted his sandy eyelashes reassuringly. “Perhaps not here, Biddy. Some less sheltered place.”

“An outpost, probably,” Pete agreed.

“Well, we can warn them all,” said Tommy. “Substations have been asked to stand by tonight, Biddy, to get notice of the wind’s velocity and direction. The lone operators out there are heroes. They may have to stay on thirty-six-hour or more duty, though their regular closing time is ten p.m.” “As the West Indian terminal,” Pete explained, “every message to and from the islands goes through Fisherman’s Point first. And besides the local cables, we do all relaying between New York and Buenos Aires.”

“You use those automatic eliminators to send out local cables, don’t you?” asked Bridget. “Those little boxes with the wheels on top that you boys always have to be feeding ticker tape into?”

“You’re learning,” said Crow tauntingly.

Bridget made a little face. "And furthermore, I understand just how they cut out the cables for the island stations and leave the trunk messages intact.”

“Go,” said Pete, “to the head of the class.”

“Here’s to them,” she continued, and raised her glass. “They have an odd fascination for me. Some time I shall

slip in when none of you are looking and take one apart. Just for the fun of it.”

“And then every substation operator in the West Indies would slip into Fisherman’s Point and take you apart. But not for the fun of it,” Tommy told her. “We’ve only two of the things as it is, and one was laid up today for repairs. So if any infant meddles with the remaining machine, somewhere out in the islands folk may wake up tomorrow and hear St. Peter say, ‘Did you ever see a hurricane hurrying?’ ”

“Take Isolde apart instead,” Crow suggested.

“You lazy spalpeens!” said Bridget. “While I slave to teach that girl civilized cooking, you just sit around and laugh. Unless you’re more polite you’ll never qualify for a managership, any of you.”

They hung their heads in pretended meekness. Then Crow said impassively; “Not as long as Deak Tulloch s around, we won’t. The Old Man always leaves him in charge.”

“Why’s that?”

“Deak’s up on that end of the routine. The Caribbean network’s like the palm of his hand to him.” Pete shrugged. “Not that it makes him any more tolerable.”

Tommy wrinkled his forehead. “How long’s he been here?”

“Eight years,” said Crow, “or nine.

“Why don’t they move him about as they do the rest of you?” Bridget asked.

“His knowledge of the layout is valuable at a terminal, for one thing,” Pete said, gazing into his highball. “Deak was bom in the hottest of hot islands, and at the time he got into the cable service the Old Man happened to be manager. Deak’s rather quick at learning, and I suppose the Old Man took him in hand.”

Bridget strove to make her voice casual. “Was he ever—in Cap Haitien?”

PETE nodded. “He was manager of the substation there for a while. Must have been about twenty-four or so, when he did that bunk.”

“What bunk?”

“Something happened in Cap Haitien— nobody knows what—and Deak disappeared

Continued on page 33

Continued from page 23—Starts on page 22

Finally the Old Man went to hunt him up, and I’ve a notion he found him in the tall grass somewhere. And after much dither with the Company, the Old Man got him sent here where he could keep an eye on him.”

“And where he’s been in solid ever since,” Crow finished. “If anybody had ever told me that I’d be taking orders from a backfrom-the-tall-grass native. .

Tommy’s temples corded. “I’ll take his orders in the office, but—”

“But!” Pete and Crow agreed.

Gloom filled the porch as thunder broke. Bridget swung to her feet and lit a lamp. “There’s steak-and-kidney pie for dinner if you two want to stav.”

“We do.”

“Then I’ll have to rush to the kitchen. It’s too quiet there. Isolde may be cooking Pogo; he hasn’t barked in ages.”

Seeing the dog under the sink and the maid at the stove, Bridget was relieved. But she shivered. Why had the talk to turn to Deak Tulloch when she had hoped to put him out of mind?

Outside, one or two large drops fell, as if the cosmos were spitting on its hands in preparation for what was to come Back on the porch, she took up her glass “Tommy, do you have duty tonight?”

“Afraid so, Biddy; but it’ll be my last night-duty. Jock gets back from leave tomorrow and the Old Man may show up, so ve’ll have a full staff again.”

“We’ve split the duty,” Pete said “Tommy’s going on at midnight to run the redblue—that’s the New York-Buenos Aires line that’s always open And he can call the substations if necessary But we think the storm will pass here about four a.m., and Crow and I are relieving him then. Crow will open up substation traffic and let them know the storm’s course while I take care of the red-blue.”

“By the way, Biddy,” Crow said, “would you sleep better if Pete and I were to park out here tonight?”

“Oh, I’m not afraid—of the storm. At any rate, I shall be up and taking coffee to Tommy at two-thirty or so.”

“She’s a sport,” Tommy said. “Every time I’ve had night-duty, she’s done it; coffee at that hour’s a godsend.”

“Curses, Crow!” Pete gnawed his nails. “We’ve been gypped. Who’s ever made us coffee on the night trick?”

“What do we pay her for? Seems we should get a gel who doesn’t two-time.”

“If you wanted me to do that for you, you and Pete should have married me.” “Well ! If it’s benefit of clargy ye wants,

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little Nell, we’ll dig up a parson. Come along,” Crow ordered.

“And no backing out,” added Pete. “We’ll take our medicine. Get the six-shooter, Tommy, and see she’s done right by.”

Half dragging her to the door, they opened it. An abrupt gust of wind forced it wide, while a sheet of rain swept tire floor. Lightning jabbed the bent tree-tops. Then everything was sucked back, and in this vacuum they stood transfixed as thunder rang on the cliffs. When the fierce wind rose once more, they flung their combined weight at the door to close it.

Tommy held up a hand. “Sorry !” he continued the comedy, “I didn’t mean to pull both triggers. You need not wed the gal. Just give her a raise.”

They bowed. “Right. A cent a game at tennis and a nickel at contract.”

“And cheap at the prise.” Pete ducked. They scattered to anchor down the canvas storm curtains, making the porch a waterproof room. An effort at gaiety sent Bridget to the radio to dial for music. “Dinner at eight,” she sang, adding: “Only it’s ready right now if you’ll tidy up. Hop along, because a pie’s best when it’s steamy.” Waiting for them, she peered out between the canvases. In the bay, restless waves drove high, and on the land the force of tire rain sent mud up in sprays. The sky had gone from green to black and the wind soughed in frenzied sorrow.

Then, as lightning lit the world, she saw Deak on his way to the mess for dinner. Head back and teeth gleaming, he seemed to glory in the storm as if he were a part of it. Even nature herself could not hold him back. She let the canvas slip into place, yet she still saw him in her mind, looming up like ai genie from a bottle. Frightened, she ran into the dining room and called to the others that the pie was getting cold.

TT WAS NEARLY three in the morning when, with a thermos, she plowed through the storm to the office. Wind beat her breath back, rain stung her eyes, and each step was a plunge into ooze. Gasping, she found the door and looked in through the glass pane.

Inside, one bulb burned overhead, touching the meters and switches and leaving rows of typewriters and silent day-cables in gloom. Just beneath its light, the lonely figure of Tommy was bent over the moving red-blue line. Seeing him so, tenderness filled her. She put a hand on the knob.

Suddenly from the shadows in the rear of the room, Deak came and spoke to Tommy. The sight of him caused all her terror to well up again, and she shrank back.

She had forgotten that he might look in during the night to see if the storm had made any line-breaks. Not wanting to come face to face with him, she went around to the back door, and quietly let herself in. Then she crept behind a file cabinet to wait for him to go.

“No,” Tommy was saying, “but word should come soon.”

“How’s the wind?”

“A hundred and thirty-five.”

Deak did not meet Tommy’s eyes, but he nodded. Both were silent while the cables ticked on steadily. Then the inker jigged, and they bent to see the line it drew.

“West-northwest, twenty-seven miles offshore.” Tommy stood up and consulted a

map. “It’s passing us up and headed for Cap liai tien. The town’ll be swept to sea ! But if I can get word through right away, people may have time to make the hills, backcountry.” He tore the cover from a typewriter and snapped on the light above it, missing Deak’s curiously joyful look and the sign he made in the air.

But Bridget saw it and, remembering, was afraid.

As Tommy put a strip of message-tape into the typewriter, Deak’s gaze slid to the automatic eliminator. He went over and leaned on it.

“I’ve been tabued by a woman in Cap Haïtien, Bayliss. A woman called Deng.”

Eyes on the keys as they punched the holes which would save the lives of many, Tommy paid no heed.

“Deng had a daughter. . . It was the Old Man who found us up in the hills. And when the girl knew I was going back to white people, she—died.”

Tommy frowned a little, but did not look up.

Deak’s words jerked out, one by one, with rising intensity. “And Deng stood on the shore of the Cap and cursed me, as I left . . . Tie has killed my girl-child, O Ogoun Badagris, by putting the sea between himself and her. Then, by the sea let him die, O Agoue, on the clay he loves again!’ ”

In a panic, Bridget saw-his eyes go white. His cheeks creased in that sickening grin while he swayed from side to side, mumbling.

“Why tell me this?” The light made purple hollows in Tommy’s lifted face.

“The spell is going to die instead,” Deak said, chuckling and twisting. “Damballa Oueddo has sent this storm to kill Deng and her curse.”

“Go home and sleep that rum off, Tulloch,” Tommy said, eyeing him distastefully. “This cable’s got to go through pronto.”

“Not—yet.” Deak threw back his head and laughed.

Tommy sprang up, ripping the tape from the typewriter, and, seeing this, Deak steadied and smoldered.

“It’s all there, Bayliss, you see. Men have been known”—he jabbed a thick finger in Tommy’s direction—“to go to sleep on night duty. No one’s going to know you didn’t . . . The Cap will be wrecked, and Deng with it.”

“Get out of here, Tulloch. I’ve had enough.”

BUT DEAK did not stir. Still leaning on the eliminator, he nodded and spoke to himself in a strange tongue.

“Move away!” Tape in hand, Tommy confronted him. “Every minute counts!” The contrast between them filled Bridget with dread. Tommy’s slenderness against Deak’s fanatical strength. Her wits blurred, and she wanted to cry out. It was theatrical, unreal—but just the same, people were going to die. She crept forward to the light.

“You’re asleep, Bayliss; asleep, d’you see?” Deak cackled, wagging his head from Tommy to the eliminator and back again. “You’re responsible when the storm wrecks the Cap. But Deng will die and I’ll be free ! And Bridget—”

Bridget stepped between them.

“Did I hear my name?” she asked, making her tone light. “Here’s your coffee, Tommy.” Like the light above them, the atmosphere was stark and intense, but Bridget ignored

it. “I had a terrible time g-getting here.” Tommy recovered himself and took a step toward her. “Biddy, you shouldn’t have come out in this wind.”

“Here!” she pleaded, fending him off with the thermos, for she knew that if he touched her she would go to pieces. “I know I was foolish to. And now I’m scared to go back. D-deak, would you take me home, please?” With a smile, she slipped her arm through his. Tommy’s eyes met hers for one long minute, and in them she saw his covert admiration.

“I must get back, so come along, Deak. You don’t mind, do you? I’m so afraid. . .” Intimately, confidingly, she drew him toward the door, while his eyes burned in fierce anticipation. The wound on her neck throbbed and sickened her, but she opened the door and they went out.

The storm had stopped suddenly, and the sky was light and strange.

“It’s not daylight, is it, Deak? It can’t be.”

“No. It’s the vortex,” he said, looking down at her. Then he picked her up and pressed his mouth savagely to her lips and eyes.

In a fog of revulsion, Bridget gritted her teeth. Then, through the hush, came a steady clatter as Tommy, in the office, sent word to Cap Haitien.

■pURY DAWNED in Deak’s face as he heard it, and for a moment his grasp relaxed. Taking advantage of it, Bridget squirmed away from him. Blindly, she turned and ran, hearing Deak’s insane roar through the storm, which was rising again. “I’ll kill you for this—both of you !”

She felt rather than heard him pounding after her. and she dropped to the ground, burrowing into the wet, scratchy furze. His body hurtled past her in the luminous dark, and the cliff-steps creaked as he plunged down them, looking for her.

Lying stiff and unmoving, she heard him roar out her name. Then there was a rending crash, which echoed through the night. And silence. Shakily she lifted her head and crept toward the edge of the cliff, while behind her, Tommy called:

“Biddy. . . Biddy!”

“H-here,” she cried, and his flashlight swept over her.

He came and took her in his arms. “Are you all right? You were a heroine, my darling, to do that ! What happened?”

“Tommy!” She lay against his shoulder and shivered. “Deak’s—gone.”

“What do you mean, Biddy? Gone where?”

She took his flashlight and snapped it on, sweeping it over the cliffside. The old wooden steps were no longer there. Nothing was left but a rusty support or two, and the storm-lashed dock below. They turned away and went slowly to the office.

As they entered, Pete and Crow came toward them, their faces worried.

“Where were you? What’s wrong?” Pete demanded. “Crow and I come to relieve you and find the office empty and a message on the floor beside the eliminator. And Biddy, child ! What are you doing here, all wet and muddy?”

Bridget snuggled against Tommy, gave them a rather feeble smile.

“I’ve been playing automatic eliminator,” she told them.