(First of Seven Parts)
WHEN I took Millie out to dinner, the fact that Dex Gorey and his band were going to open at the Imperial Theatre that evening didn’t mean a thing to me. I had seen announcements of the event in the newspapers, of course: I might have noticed the name of Dex Gorey on certain billboards. But that was all.
Certainly my mind was far from swing music as I inspected the menu at the Little Norway. I was glum, and even the imminent prospect of food could not woo me from grave thoughts on a financial situation that was, to say the least, delicate. I was looking at that menu only by virtue of an advance against salary.
A half-hour ago Millie had swashed the dust cover over her typewriter, put her shorthand notebook away in the top drawer of her desk, and challenged me.
“Well, Ritzy,” she said, “do we go to this Swedish place you promised me, or is it to be Hither Green?”
As an office serf Millie has definite deficiencies. Her touch system is almost as haphazard as my own and her spelling is worse, but she has lots of allure, and it seems to increase in proportion to her hunger.
One glance at her and I could see she was famished. She had the soulful, yearning beauty of an unfed gazelle—if you can imagine a gazelle with blue eyes. I reflected that it was unwise to make definite engagements with the staff, but the reflection came too late. I couldn’t let her down. I felt sorry for her. I didn’t even have the heart to correct her assumption that Little Norway was a Swedish place.
If I hesitated at all, it was only because of harsh circumstance. On account of some miscalculation about the four-thirty race at Kempton Park, my resources represented a toss-up between a half-pint of bitter and a sandwich at a milk bar, so there was nothing for it but to borrow a quid from the Chief.
What worried me now, as Erik hovered at my elbow, was that the Chief himself was getting short, and in a few weeks there mightn’t be any salary to draw against. I remembered the rather anxious look in his sombre eyes and the scowl of uncertainty he had been wearing for some days.
Things were not going well with the Joel Saber Enquiry Agency. When I’d first come over from the States to work for Joel things had been really moving. Now we hadn’t had a case on the books since early spring, and it looked as if ex-inspector Saber would at last have to write up some reminiscences of his Scotland Yard days to keep the bailiffs away from the front street-door.
Not that I have any abiding faith in memoirs as bailiff-scarers, but I knew where I might get a modest advance against royalties. Joel, however, has very high standards. When he was recently offered a divorce job, he declined it without thanks. He said he would rather close up his office than undertake investigations of that sort. How he would react to the suggestion of a literary venture, I couldn’t say. Myself, I looked upon it as a shade better than a divorce practice. I mean to say it might make us suspect, but we wouldn’t be completely déclassé.
Joel had tried to give me hope along with the pound note. He had insisted that something was bound to happen soon. I had heard it before. I didn't believe it. Not being clairvoyant, I had no inkling that Dex Gorey and his Rhumbadors would soon be swinging a sleuth job in our direction. Joel looked so tired, I tried to persuade him to go to his club or something so that he would get the situation off his mind. Fortunately he didn’t take my advice. He stayed at the office, reading the evening papers, and so he was on the spot when the great Quentin T. Brill telephoned for help.
Millie was casting an eye over the wine card and I was just warning her that the exchequer wouldn't run to anything over five bob, when it suddenly looked to me as if Banquo’s ghost had come to the feast. I mean to say, there was Ike Miller standing before me, his ancient fedora crushed in his knotted right hand, and more beer stains than ever on his wrinkled vest.
IKE IS a general roustabout and top-class shadow-man who is always ready for a bit of piecework when Joel gives the word. Now he had the rushed, hair-streaming-in-the-wind look of an urgent messenger. Actually Ike hasn’t any hair to stream in the wind. He’s as bald as a bandicoot, but you know what I mean. As soon as I saw him, I realized there was something doing. So did Millie.
She said: “My goodness! Three months you promise to take me to dinner, and now somebody has to go and get murdered.”
Ike said: “I been combing all the chop suey parlors for you, Ritzy. From Wardour Street to the Strand, from New Compton Street to Piccadilly, I been combing ’em, Ritzy. I got enough spicy garlic smells. I feel like I’m east of Suez. Mr. Saber didn’t tell me you were eating Nordic. How long you been off the noodles?”
"Since I came into an unexpected fortune,” I told him. “What’s the trouble?”
“Mr. Saber sent a message to me to find you. I been all over Soho.”
I said: “Skip it, and spill the news. Has Joel got a job?”
Ike replied: “I don't know about that, Ritzy. All I know is you’re to get in a taxi and rush to the Imperial Theatre. You got to ask for Mr. Saber at the stage door.”
I tipped the bulk of my change into Millie’s lap. I said: “That’ll see you through, lovely, if you give the almond cake a miss.”
“What should I do?” she demanded. "Go back to the office?”
“Go home,” I ordered her. “Maybe Joel will want you early in the morning.”
Ike followed me to the street. “I better come along with you,” he said. "Perhaps Mr. Saber can get me a pass for the pit. There’s a new turn opening tonight, straight from New York.”
Climbing into a taxi, I asked casually what the turn might be, and he told me about the Rhumbadors and their leader. For the first time the name of Dex Gorey was pronounced in my hearing, but I passed it over. It didn't make any impression. I was thinking that somebody must have had her jewels stolen, and dewy morn would see me on a routine round of the pawnshops.
I was wrong.
Ike babbled: “He travels with a couple of specialty acts.”
“Who does?” I enquired.
“Why, this swing merchant. Mean to say you never heard of Dex Gorey?”
“What am I supposed to register?”
Ike clicked his tongue pityingly. “Ever hear of Louis Armstrong or Benny Goodman?”
I said: "I haven’t been to county cricket for years. Do they play for Yorkshire?”
Ike made a sound as if he were expiring. I repented. I don’t like to trample on a man’s feelings, and I could see that Ike’s ran deep when it came to swing music. He probably kept a secret gramophone at Tooting Bec and held clandestine jam sessions behind sealed windows.
Just by way of reparation I said: “You mean to say Dex Gorey is right among the top-drawer boys?”
Ike countered: “Where you been living, Ritzy? Don’t you know anything about music?”
“Only Gregorian Chant and early Palestrina,” I admitted.
“Maybe you never heard tell of Telka Rayne?”
"You’ve got me, pal.”
“Why, she’s opening tonight with Dex. She’s his star warbler. He carries a dance team, too, and he’s got a trumpet blower that...”
I didn’t pay any more attention. The taxi swung around a corner and we were deposited in front of the brightly lighted entrance lobby of the Imperial Theatre.
THE IMPERIAL had gone through as many vicissitudes as its present lessee, Mr. Brill. If not exactly historic, it certainly rates among the hoary monuments of Thespis. It has, in its time, housed everything from Shakespeare to Frank Capra, from pantomime to grand opera, from ballet to vaudeville, and just now it was giving a roof to Quentin T. Brill’s Varieties, on the conventional basis of two shows a night.
Mr. Brill, like the Imperial, had tried everything, or almost everything. What I knew about him was vague, but I was soon to discover quite a lot. Like yours truly, an American by birth, he had begun life as a ticket-taker in a circus. Later he had been obscurely connected with a travelling collection of slot machines that depicted high jinks in the gay Nineties. He passed on to an aggregation of horrors in wax, including authentic portraits of the crowned heads of Europe.
Perhaps his association with the crowned heads of Europe turned his thoughts across the Atlantic. He won a lot of money in a poker game, voyaged to London, and staged a successful farce. For a few years he never looked back. He climbed higher and higher. Nickelodeons and waxworks were forgotten. Then came his first spectacular crash with “Henry V.” Here was one crowned head that betrayed him. He was left with a reputation for lavishness, and little else.
But all that was long ago. Quentin T. Brill’s history was a succession of ups and downs. What he lost on Shakespeare he made up on vaudeville; what he squandered on Ibsen he recovered on musical comedy. Nothing could keep him down. He was a showman, a born servant of the public. He knew little about what he was doing, but some instinct guided him to success when he most needed it, although that success would surely lead him to another blunder of ignorance and misplaced assurance.
Lately his devotion to vaudeville had been fairly constant. Maybe he was growing less rash as he grew older. He had acquired some interests in America. He had, in fact, been active in America for some years. Then he secured the old Imperial Theatre with the object of showing London his ideas of vaudeville.
His ideas were very similar to what London had become accustomed to. There was little originality in his program-making. But the Imperial Varieties were drawing good audiences. Nothing succeeds like the familiar, especially in variety.
When Ike Miller and I stepped from our taxi, the first show of the night was on. It must have been in progress for an hour. I looked at my watch. Yes, an hour.
The bills on view said: Twice Nightly: six twenty-five, and nine. A couple of boards, leaning against the Doric columns of the lobby, said: Standing Room Only. Several uniformed attendants were visible and there were a lot of would-be patrons in a box-office line-up, trying to buy seats for the nine o’clock house.
Ike paused to examine a display case of professional photographs. I glanced at them myself, but impatiently. There were a couple of trick cyclists who didn’t intrigue me. There was a tall lanky figure who looked like Buffalo Bill. He wore a couple of six-shooters and a cord-fringed leather jacket. The photograph was signed: “Cordially yours, Sureshot Sam.” He didn’t raise any reciprocal cordiality in me.
“Here,” Ike cried. “Here’s Dex Gorey.”
I dropped my eyes to the centrepiece. I wasn’t curious. I saw a slick-looking Apollo in college-cut clothes. He had an amiable smile and was-generally not unattractive. His glossy hair and suave lines suggested a Greek ancestry—or it may have been Latin-American.
Alongside him was a picture of a big-eyed blonde labelled Telka Rayne. Another portrait was described as Elmer Cruipe, but I didn’t examine it.
Ike said: “That’s the fellow I was telling you about, Elmer Cruipe, the trumpet blower.”
He pronounced it Creep, though myself I might have called it Croop. Ike knew.
“Listen,” I said, “if you want to see pictures. I’ll take you to the National Portrait Gallery some free day. They’re larger and funnier.”
I turned from the garish front of the house and led the way down a narrow gloomy lane at the side. At the far end, under a dim electric bulb in a wire guard, was a plain opening in a plain brick wall.
My previous encounters with stage-doorkeepers had informed me that they are a discouraging class, but this one was different. As soon as I mentioned Joel Saber, he asked me if I was Mr. Tyler, and when I said yes, he called loudly to someone called ’Erbert.
A diminutive but highly excited boy in buttons shot into view as though driven by springs. His pop-eyes were popping out of his head, and they were as shiny as his polished buttons. He had one of those permanently open mouths with two teeth.
“ ’Ere. ’Erbert,” the stage-doorkeeper commanded him. “Take these two gennelmun along to Mr. Gorey’s dressing room.”
I jumped when I heard the name, but I didn’t jettison at once the missing-jewels theory. Perhaps the pet warbler was staging a fake robbery for publicity purposes—or maybe Mr. Cruipe had lost his favorite clickless valve trumpet.
Suspicion sat heavily on my mind as Ike and I followed the boy along a dingy corridor.
I heard the strains of distance-muted music. It sounded like trick-cycling music to me. Anyway, it was the sort of stuff a trick cyclist might have composed. It came to an end. There was a burst of muffled applause. Then the orchestra struck up a rousing march, and I gathered that the moment had arrived when the audience must rush the bars for a quick one or go thirsty throughout the second half of the show.
A couple of lads and a girl in tights appeared in the corridor ahead of us, but quickly vanished. A worried-looking stage hand came toward us, turned suddenly, and bolted back as if we’d come to collect an installment on the wind machine.
There were a lot of doors, brown-painted. I imagine even a prison gallery might look more homelike and inviting. The boy, ’Erbert, halted. “This way, please,” he said tremulously, then opened one of the doors.
The dressing room behind that door assailed me with a dazing blaze of light, and followed up the first bang with a wallop of confusion. It was a large room full of people and I didn’t see how Ike and I were going to get inside.
There may have been some organization in the assemblage prior to our arrival, but now order was dissolved in chaos, and everybody was talking and shuffling about like a women’s club trying to shake the hand of a famous pianist.
Not that those present looked anything like a women’s club. They were too mixed for one thing, and too strangely clad, or unclad, for another. And the room was just as full of an excited, chittering kind of noise as it was of people. A subdued kind of noise in a tense kind of atmosphere. You got the feeling that somebody was likely to let go with a scream any minute.
Having brought us to the threshold, our guide vanished. Apparently he thought it was up to us to figure out how we were going to get in. I looked to Ike for help, but he wasn’t in a figuring mood. He said: “Maybe I better wait outside, Ritzy. You call me if the Chief wants me.”
Right in front of me were a couple of show girls with very bare backs, and very nice backs they were, too. I pressed forward and craned up on tiptoe to peer over a gleaming shoulder, and as the crowd shifted a bit I caught a glimpse of Joel’s massive head lifted above the rest.
Then a voice boomed above the chitter-chatter. “Clear the room, please! Will you be good enough, please?”
And a husky mezzo just inside the door said: “My gosh, it’s seven-thirty. I got to get dressed.”
Judging by her present garb she was right.
“Please, girls!” the booming voice pleaded. “Don’t you realize it's the interval?”
Then the corridor was vibrating with activity and the crowd in the room began to break and melt away. The two show girls were the first to move, compelled by pressure from within. The husky mezzo followed, and almost bit my ear in her haste. She had red hair.
“Sorry,” she said.
“Don’t apologize,” I begged gallantly.
“My fault entirely,” she insisted.
“All right,” I agreed, trying to brush the powder off my jacket. “Have it your own way.”
“Well!” she exclaimed. “There’s no need to be rude about it, is there?”
A tide from the dressing room swept her away. The tide was composed mostly of slicked-up boys who looked like toreros in summer suitings. They wore boiled shirts and blue cummerbunds and their crash jackets suggested something between a regimental mess and a sleeved bolero. They had blue-piped shoulder straps and blue braid around their cuffs. Rhumbadors, I thought in a flash of inspiration. I sought Ike with my eyes, but he was missing, borne away or submerged.
“Ballet, please!” someone shouted. “Ballet on stage, please!”
I saw an opportunity to get inside the dressing room. The exodus had been drastic. There were only about six people left in the place. One of them was Joel. Another was the man with the booming voice.
He boomed at me, “What do you want? Are you a reporter? I won’t see any newspapermen.”
Joel introduced me. “This is my assistant, Mr. Tyler. I told you I'd sent for him, Mr. Brill.”
Quentin T. Brill, the showman himself!
He was a big man, almost as big as Joel. He had little eyes in a fat face. He had a lot of gleaming curly hair of a suspicious blue-black appearance. He was renowned for his amiable smile, but he wasn’t smiling now. He looked worried.
I TOOK a glance at the rest of the company. In a corner beyond Mr. Brill was a pudgy fellow, rather on the short side. Maybe I saw him first because he looked so grotesque in his Rhumbador costume. He had a round face with heavily marked, high arching eyebrows, and a heavy, thick-lipped mouth under a small flat nose. His body was round too. Round and fat. His shoulders seemed straining at the seams of his bolero. He might have been merely comical, but there was something hard and tough about his face, and something saturnine.
Next I saw a young person, and knew instinctively that I would want to see her again. She was standing near the pudgy man and she was gazing at him in an appealing sort of way, as if she looked to him for wisdom. She had a lovely head of chestnut hair and her eyes were large and brown in a pert, very charming face.
Quentin T. Brill crossed in front of me and closed the door with a crash.
I wheeled, and thus came finally to the two centre figures of the little tableau. One was the great Dex Gorey himself. The other was a tall, breath-taking blonde.
Dex Gorey was slumped down in an overstuffed armchair. His pointed chin was snuggling on his shirt front and generally he looked sunk, though his face had the fixed color of make-up. The long fingers of his pale hands were gripping the arms of his chair. Previously they must have been plowing distractedly through his well-oiled hair, for that hair was certainly ruffled.
The blonde was standing beside him, gazing down at him. She was immaculately groomed in silk and silver. The pale gold of her hair and the silver on her frock looked good. She had pale sea-blue eyes, very large and very beautiful. She had a kind and gentle face, and there was compassion in her eyes.
There was a pause of dead silence, as if everybody was waiting for something to happen. Then Quentin T. Brill spoke again. He said: “Leave him alone, Telka! We’ll get him on his feet.”
Telka Rayne didn’t look at the big man. She kept on gazing at Dex. In the flesh, she wasn’t anything like her picture out front.
I turned to Joel. I asked: “What’s been going on here?”
He waved his hand toward the mirror over the dressing table at the end of the room. It was a large triple mirror with each wing set at a different angle. In the chromium frame of the centrepiece a lot of telegrams and cables had been set. Good-luck messages from across the Atlantic; messages inseparable from a theatrical debut. But someone nearer at hand had sent another sort of message. The centre mirror had a round hole in it, and it took only one glance to show me that a bullet had made that hole.
I looked at the chair that had been flung back from the dressing table. Mentally I placed that chair in position; mentally I sat upon it in front of the make-up mirror; mentally I heard a bullet zip past my left ear.
Fingering the lobe of my left ear, I whistled.
Dex Gorey spoke in a whisper. He said: “Don’t leave me, honey! Don’t leave me!”
Telka didn’t change the compassionate expression on her face, but she stooped over him and fastened her claws on his shoulders and shook him. She spoke to him in a hard, angry voice.
She said: “Snap out of it, you sap! You’ve got to go on in a few minutes!”
Then she straightened herself and stalked out of the room. As she opened the door I heard a distant orchestral whisper. I thought it was something by Ponchielli, but I didn’t hear much of it because she slammed the door after her.
Dex Gorey slumped lower in the chair.
“Telka,” he pleaded. "Telka.”
But there wasn’t any Telka to hear him.
“Nice girl!” I murmured.
Q. T. Brill peered at his watch.
“You’ve just ten minutes, Dex,” he announced.
The pudgy man made a clicking noise with his teeth. The chestnut-headed kid had a lipstick in her hand and was peering at her face in a compact.
I looked again at the mirror; at the hole made by the bullet. A queer pattern of small cracks radiated from the perforation.
TEN MINUTES to go, and maybe a few more minutes of grace before the drop scene was hauled up to disclose Dex Gorey and his Rhumbadors to the excited jitterbugs who had come to the Imperial to welcome him. But it looked as if it would take an hour to raise the devastated Dex from his armchair, and perhaps even then it would require an ambulance crew.
I was getting interested. All I knew so far was that someone had taken a crack at the make-up mirror with a pistol or something. It was merely surmise on my part that Dex had been sitting in front of that mirror, applying the powder puff to his colorful countenance. But it was odds-on that my surmise was accurate. I thought: “It’s no joke having a bullet fired at you.’’ But after all, the bullet hadn’t hit him.
Mr. Brill began to boom. “For heaven’s sake pull yourself together, Dex! That crowd out there will tear the house down if you don’t go on.”
Then the pudgy lad and the chestnut kid tried a line of persuasion, and they weren’t in good humor any more than Telka Rayne had been. I noticed now that the kid was attired as a Spanish señorita—or maybe an Argentine señorita. She had the daintiest pair of shining pumps and a fetching brace of ankles.
While the argument was going on, I got in a word, sotto voce, with Joel.
I said: “Is there any money in it?”
He answered: “Do you have to be so mercenary? Think of the cause of art.”
I asked: “What are we? A couple of show-savers?”
“Hold on a minute,” he bade me. “The case may be hotter than it looks. Brill phoned me just after you left. He said there’d been some shooting. I put Ike on your trail before I knew anything. I thought I might need you.”
“That reminds me,” I said. “Ike’s somewhere in the theatre, if he’s still alive.”
“We don’t want him. He can go home.”
“Don’t be hasty,” I begged. “He’s another expense item on the bill. Brill isn’t going to pay us with passes—or is he?”
Joel said: “It would take a lot of passes.”
I felt heartened. I began to display an interest in the surrounding scenery again.
I asked: “Who’s the girl?”
Joel said: “Perhaps you’d better go home with Ike. Her name’s Clarissa Dene.”
“It’s a nice name,” I admitted, “but not good enough. Is the fat lad her uncle?”
“He’s one of the musicians.”
“What do you mean, one of the musicians?”
“He plays the trumpet or cornet—or something.”
Clarissa called him Elmer. I had been trying to remember Ike’s babbling gossip, and suddenly it came back to me. The fellow must be Elmer Cruipe, the trumpet blower! But just now he wasn’t thinking of sweet music—or hot. He was bending over Dex Gorey, and his dark face, with high brow defined by the scalloped lines of his close-cropped receding hair, had a strangely devilish expression, as if he were deploring the poor aim exhibited in the recent spot of shooting.
I was going to ask Joel about the bullet, but Clarissa stopped me by detaching herself from the group around Gorey and fixing her eyes on me with a mute appeal for sympathy.
She got a ready response and recognized it. Maybe she also recognized that she could appeal to my intelligence. She shrugged her pretty shoulders and cocked up a firmly pencilled eyebrow. She said, in effect, that Dex Gorey was yellow. She said in words that were nicely colored by a rather entrancing southern drawl: “What can you do with a guy like that?”
“Tell me,” I answered. “Just tell me, and I’ll do it.”
NO DOUBT I was a bit fervid on such a short acquaintance, but discretion with me is always an afterthought. Miss Dene rather glared at me. She said: “Aren’t you one of the detectives?”
I said: “Don’t be silly, lady. I’m a country squire. I’m merely helping Joel Saber during a visit. Any time you lose a maiden aunt or mislay your knitting...”
“That’ll be plenty,” she snapped in on me. “I’m not in the mood.”
Brill was booming in the background. Joel pulled the dressing table away from the wall and began to examine the bullet hole in the plaster and brickwork. The slug was somewhere in the wall, but he didn’t seem inclined to chase it. He was just getting the level of the course it had taken.
Clarissa flopped down in an armchair close to me.
I spoke to her in a different tone. I said: “You look all in, kid. Is there anything I can get you?”
She shook her head.
Brill’s voice became more sharply articulate. He was definitely angry.
“Look here, Dex,” he shouted. “The show’s got to go on. If you’re not going to lead your confounded band, I’ll find someone who will. You’re not touched; you’re not hurt. You’re under contract to me, and you’re being paid enough, believe me! My name means something to the public, if yours doesn’t, and you’re not going to make a mess of any bill of mine. Now get up and get your coat on, and get out there and conduct.”
Dex Gorey lifted up an agonized face. I felt sorry for him.
“You don’t know what you’re asking, Q.T.,” he said. “It isn’t safe, I tell you. It isn’t safe.”
“Nonsense! We’ve searched the theatre from cellar to flies, and there’s no stranger in the place. How this masked man of yours got away, lord knows, but he’s gone all right, and you’re safe. You’ll be as safe out there on the stage as you would be in a bank vault. No one’s going to shoot you in full view of the audience.”
Gorey gave a shudder. “Do you think I’m afraid for myself?” he asked.
“Yes,” Q. T. snapped bluntly.
“It’s not true,” moaned Gorey. “It’s my wife I’m thinking of. It’s Telka I’m afraid for. I don’t care for myself. If he gets me, he gets me. But I don’t want anything to happen to her.”
Clarissa was watching him intently. So was Elmer Cruipe. So were we all. Elmer had a sardonic lift to one comer of his mouth. Clarissa stirred in her chair. You could feel the conflict like something palpable. Elmer and Clarissa were on Brill’s side, against Gorey. They implied that he had no business losing his nerve. He was letting them down.
Joel came away from the wall and took a couple of steps toward Gorey.
“What makes you think your wife is in danger?” he demanded.
“Because I know who the man is who fired at me.”
It seemed that the confession was wrung from him by some inward torture.
“You know the man!” Brill’s voice was shrill with indignation. “What do you mean by hiding this from us? You said all along you didn’t know anything!”
“Wait a minute, Mr. Brill,” Joel put in quietly.
“We haven’t got any minutes to wait,” yelped the maddened Brill. “Dex’s got to get out there and do his job.”
Joel looked like a traffic cop, holding his hand up.
“Who is the man, Mr. Gorey?” he asked.
Gorey twisted about and dropped his head again. He said: “I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong. No, I’m not. I’m sure. Dead sure.” Hesitation was overcome, reluctance conquered. “He’s been hounding us ever since Telka left him; trying blackmail and one thing and another.”
“He means the man she was married to before she joined up with our outfit,” explained Elmer Cruipe gruffly. “She divorced him.”
Joel didn’t seem to hear the informative Elmer. He was focusing on Dex. He enquired: “Why did you say you couldn’t identify the man? How is it you can identify him if he was masked? He was masked, or am I mistaken?”
“Yes, he was masked.” Gorey put a little strength into the affirmation. “It was just as I told you. He had a handkerchief tied around his face, under his eyes.”
“And he was wearing a cap pulled down? Isn’t that what you told us?”
“Then how can you be sure of his identity?”
“I saw his eyes in the mirror, the moment before he fired the shot. I saw his eyes plainly when he opened the door and pointed the revolver at me!”
Joel complained mildly. He was in one of his moods of stubborn patience. “Why didn’t you tell me this when I first questioned you?”
“Because I didn’t want you to know. I didn’t want anyone to know. I wished to save Telka. It’s natural, isn’t it, when you’re in love with your wife? She’s suffered enough from that man hounding us and making threats against us. I didn’t want to make things worse for her by shouting the story from the rooftops. Maybe I was wrong. I guess I was. I see that now. I should have told you everything, but all I could think of was Telka. She’s the only thing that matters to me; the only thing that counts in my life.”
It seemed to me that he was going to break down right there, he was getting himself so worked up, but all he did was take a breath and sigh. Then he went on at a slightly higher pitch.
“I tell you I don’t care what happens to me. All I want is to protect Telka from that madman. He knows he can't get at her while I’m alive. That’s why he tried to kill me tonight, to put me out of the way. You can see, can’t you, how it is with me and Telka? I’ve built everything around her. She’s been my inspiration and my guiding star. I owe everything to her, and I live only for her. I’d give my life to save her a minute’s trouble.”
IT WAS painful. It was very painful. Any second I expected him to start talking about June night and roses. You could almost hear the whine of Hawaiian guitars and the swish of a wire brush on a drum. One hopeless cliché after another was spilled out upon the perfumed air. You know the smell of grease paint, don’t you? Rather appropriate. One part of my mind was humming that familiar lilt of some years ago.
“You are my lucky star,
I saw you from afar.... ”
Contemplating poor Dex, I thought: This is what comes of swing music with vocal refrains. Life gets to be just one long torch song. Or maybe he was born that way. It certainly looks as if he's got some Latin blood in him, and in a crisis it goes to his head. He doesn’t know what he’s saying. He’s just a knot of emotion expressing itself in ready-made formulas.
I looked at Joel and Brill and they, too, seemed pretty embarrassed. There was something about Dex Gorey that got their fur up. But Mr. Cruipe wasn’t disturbed. A kind of Levantine gloom had settled on him, and he seemed lost in dark atavistic broodings, meditating, perhaps, the correct method of triple-tonguing on a ram’s horn.
From my perch beside her, I glanced down to see how Clarissa was taking it. The way she was sitting I just got the dazing glow of her chestnut hair in my eyes and I had to do a list to starboard to get around that luminous cloud of glory. All I could see was a frown on her face.
Joel said: “Please, Mr. Gorey, let me have a description of this man you say fired the shot. To begin with, what is his name? Where does he come from?”
Brill interposed, and Brill by now was nearing frenzy.
“There’s no time for these details, Mr. Saber,” he said. “You’ll have to leave your questions till later. We’ve got to get the band on the stage somehow.”
A knock on the door hammered home his anxiety. A fellow who might have been the stage manager entered, and with him came a youngish-looking lad in Rhumbador costume with a clarinet in one hand.
The stage manager—I was instinctively sure of his office—had the outward calm that hides a seething interior. He reminded me of a news editor with a double murder on his hands three minutes before going to press. More than anything else his unhurried words gave me a sense of time ticking off the precious seconds at prodigal speed.
He announced: “Benno Perelli will be finished in less than a minute. Is the band going on?”
The Rhumbador said: “The boys are all ready, Dex. Are you feeling okay?”
Brill barked at the stage manager. There wasn’t a trace of boom in him any more.
“Have Benno work a few more tricks,” he barked. “Tell him to hold ’em for another two minutes. I’ll get this fixed.”
The stage manager didn’t wait for more, and Brill didn’t wait to see him go. The big man swung around on Elmer Cruipe.
“Listen, Cruipe,” he commanded. “You know the stuff backward. You can go out there and give the boys the beat with your trumpet.”
Elmer wasn’t surprised. He just had to make sure. “You mean you wish me to lead ’em?” he enquired.
“You can, can’t you?”
“Easy as pie,” Elmer admitted. “I could conduct a symphony if you wanted me, but that’s not the point. Dex is half the show. I’m only the other half. Besides, I got to concentrate on my trumpet. It wouldn’t be fair to the public.”
“Fair or not, you’re going to lead that band. I’ll step out and make an announcement. I’ll explain that Dex has been taken ill.”
Dex got on his feet, and the native hue of resolution forced nervous dread from his face. Now that the zero hour was here, he wasn’t going to shrink.
He said: “Have you gone crazy, Brill? There’s no one can lead the Rhumbadors but me. I made that band, and they play under me or they don’t play at all.”
“Right!” Brill didn’t abate his violence. “Do they play under you tonight?”
“Yes. If you’re sure it’s safe, I’ll go on.”
“Safe! Of course it’s safe! The man who fired at you won’t get backstage again. You’ll be watched all the time, anyway. No one will come near you. We’ll have Mr. Saber on one side of the stage and his assistant on the other. If the fellow’s still in the theatre, he won’t dare show himself. Anyway, he’s not here. I’m sure of it.”
“He came once. He could come again.”
“You know the instructions I gave about the stage door. Old Alec Cook won’t let anyone pass.”
Joel pushed the dressing table back against the wall, just as it had been before he moved it.
Gorey said: “What about the door near the proscenium on the O.P. side?”
“It’s locked and bolted,” Brill answered. “There’s a stage hand guarding it. It can’t be opened from the house.”
“Right! Get out of this and let me dress!” He ordered the young Rhumbador to return to the stage. Then he snapped at Cruipe and Clarissa. “See that everything is right, Elmer. Why the devil are you still here, Clarry? Get ready for your turn, and for heaven’s sake have that partner of yours on his toes.”
HE WAS brisk and certain, now that he had come to a decision. Cruipe moved off without haste, hitching up a shoulder in a final comment, and Clarissa started for her dressing room, probably to take a last look at her make-up. Joel and I followed through the doorway, leaving Brill to help Dex on with his dress coat and hand him his white gloves.
In the corridor Ike was waiting. He looked a trifle crushed, but definitely triumphant.
He said: “I been wondering what happened to you, Ritzy. Hello, Chief. I hear there’s been a bit of shooting, but no damage. Is there anything I can do?”
“Not now,” Joel growled. “I don’t think I’ll want you.”
“In that case. I’ll dodge around front and hear the band. A good pal slipped me a pass for standing room.”
“All right,” Joel nodded. “Get along. And keep your eyes open.”
Ike stared. “You mean while I’m in the audience. You think this fellow who fired the shot—”
“I don’t think anything,” Joel answered, cutting in. “Gorey’s nervous, that’s all. Everybody’s nervous. Just keep your eyes skinned while the band’s playing. You’d better hurry. There isn’t much time.”
Ike started toward the stage door. Joel led me toward the stage. He knew his way about.
I was suddenly suspicious. “Listen, Chief,” I said, “maybe we’d better get out of this while we can. The whole thing smells phony.”
“What do you mean, phony?” he enquired patiently.
“Do you want to get mixed up in a cheap publicity stunt?” I asked. “Don’t tell me we need the money. I know it better than you. If the job’s not straight, it might be bad for us, and I’ve got a hunch it’s a fake.”
“Story value,” I answered. “Would-be Assassin Pulls Trigger on Famous Band Leader. Audience Waits to Welcome Dex Gorey, Unaware of Drama Behind Scenes.”
“Yes, it would make a good story,” Joel said. “That’s why Brill sent for me, so it wouldn’t get in the papers. That’s why he wants the investigation in complete secrecy, so that there won’t be any scandal about Gorey in his theatre.”
“Brill may be on the level,” I admitted, “but how do we know Gorey hasn’t got a press agent? It’s just the sort of thing one of those crazy nuts would try to pull off. Think what a swell headline it would get on the other side of the Atlantic.”
“You ought to have been a press agent yourself, Ritzy,” Joel complained. “You have that kind of imagination.”
“All right,” I came back at him. “Call me names if you must, but tell me this. Did anyone else see this fellow with the masked face?”
“Not so far as we’ve discovered.”
“And I suppose you questioned everybody?”
“Possibly. We'll have to check up, of course.”
“So,” I scoffed, “this fellow comes along the corridor with a handkerchief over his face and a gun in his hand, and nobody sees him. The only witness is Gorey, and maybe Gorey’s a good actor.”
“What do you mean by that?” Joel demanded.
“All that emotional stuff about his devotion to Telka Rayne. I’ll bet they’re a swell couple of lovebirds when they’re in their own backyard.”
“More imagination. Ritzy! How often do I have to warn you? Look for the facts; stifle your fancy. Gorey’s the type to get emotional. You might be a bit overstrung yourself if someone took a shot at your head.”
Before I could argue any more, Brill appeared. I wasn’t sure of myself anyway.
Brill said: “I’ve been looking for you. Dex is okay now. He’s coming along right away. Now, Mr. Saber, I want you to stand with me on the prompt side. Mr Tyson will stay on this side. I’ll show you, Mr. Tyson.”
“The name’s Tyler,” I murmured, “but don’t think I’m sensitive.”
We had come to the great space of the stage. We stood in a gloomy canyon, walled on one side by whitewashed brickwork and on the other by the flats of a built-up scenic set. When you tipped your head back and looked up, it seemed an awful long way to the grid of the flies, farther than heaven. There were piles of dusty flats leaning against the wall, shadowy in the half-light that flowed out into the wings from the stage proper. The atmosphere was compounded of numerous smells—canvas and paint and size and pinewood and old dust and some sweetish disinfectant. The disinfectant, it seemed, was the medium for the mixture of all the smells.
Now the orchestra in the pit sounded clearly, but it wasn’t playing very loudly. The idea seemed to be to provide a tripping obbligato to a lot of rhythmic thuds that were proceeding from in front of a drop scene. I got an angle view of a slot of light on the front side of the drop scene, and a step or two forward enabled me to see what was going on. A lithe Italian article in a Wimbledon rig was doing amazing things with tennis balls.
Q. T. Brill didn’t give me a chance for more than a glimpse. He led the way behind the drop scene, and here the bulk of the stage was set for the big turn of the show, and the Rhumbadors were all in position, awaiting their leader.
There was a little halation of light from beyond the drop, but it wasn’t enough to dispel the effect of a gloomy dusk. The waiting band was grouped in a dull and lifeless sort of palm and banana grove, with a flat dark sea and something that looked like a rocky headland for background?
The men seemed nervous, fussing about with their instruments, testing strings, trying pistons, running up and down the keys of clarinets and saxophones. Only our old pal Elmer Cruipe seemed unmoved by the occasion. He sat stiffly on his chair, showing about as much emotion as a cigar-store Indian.
Brill was alternately glancing at his watch and peering back the way we had come. He looked so sick, you’d have thought he had stage fright.
There was a flutter of applause from the house, then more bouncing of balls. Someone way back and high in the auditorium whistled, and there was a faint sound of laughter—peculiar laughter. The pervading sense of anxiety began to grip me. Perelli, the juggler, was stretching his act too tenuously. The audience, all impatient for Dex Gorey, had had enough of tennis balls. Soon Signor Perelli would be getting the bird real proper. I could imagine the beads of sweat on the poor fellow’s brow. I didn’t have to imagine them on Brill’s.
A moment later he swore again.
Then he gave a yelp of relief as the all-important Dex came striding onto the unlit scene, immaculate in white tie and tails, with the silk-sheathed Telka Rayne trailing behind him.
“All right, Dex?” Brill asked in a whisper.
A nod of the head.
Telka sped across the stage to the prompt side.
Brill fixed me with a quick look and waved to the other side.
“Over there, Mr. Twyford,” he commanded. “Find a place where you can see.” Then to Joel: “Come with me, Mr. Saber.”
I FOUND a place where I could see, on what is technically known as the opposite prompt side. Someone must have already given the juggler the signal to finish, for just as I took my first peep around the edge of the drop scene, I saw him start furiously into the climax of his act. Now the balls bounced at a dizzy rate and there was such a whirlwind of action that the audience were lifted from boredom. At any rate, they applauded generously at the end. Perelli rushed forward to bow once. He wasn’t allowed another curtain. The orchestra terminated a long-drawn chord.
Blackout! A moment of silence!
Descending drop curtains swished together and the orchestra crashed into sound and fury. A few bars of preamble, and there emerged the lively theme tune of Dex Gorey and his Rhumbadors—a dashing number of the two-step type with a fetching Spanish lilt to it.
There were lights on behind the curtain, but only enough to give a ghostly glow to the stage. The band wasn’t playing yet; only the orchestra out front. But the Rhumbadors were tensely ready, reeds to lips, fingers on keys, bows poised, drumsticks itching to be off. And Dex waiting, with baton poised.
On came the lights, and the dull palm grove blossomed and glowed under the vitalizing bombardment from amber and steel-blue batteries. Dex cast an anxious glance first to one side, then to the other, as if he wanted to make sure that Joel and I were on guard. Then he became taut again, listening.
Out front the orchestra was playing a refrain, almost pianissimo. They reached the end of it, and at last Dex’s baton fell. The Rhumbadors came in fortissimo on the repetition of the refrain. I wondered when the curtain was going to go up. Then a thunderous storm of applause told me that it had gone up. The jitterbugs had cut loose. They were giving Dex Gorey’s band an ovation. Gramophone records and preliminary publicity had keyed them up for the big moment and they were positively feverish.
All through that second refrain you couldn't hear the band. You knew it was playing only because of the motions. Dex turned to acknowledge the welcome with a smile. He had to turn again and again, but all the time he kept on giving the band the beat, and finally the audience decided to hear a few phrases.
Tune after tune the Rhumbadors reeled off, and there was no waiting for applause. Nevertheless the audience insisted on asserting itself, carrying on the expression of its enthusiasm beyond the brief pauses allowed between the items, and breaking in on a number whenever a bit of heated swing or some wild flight of fancy by a soloist moved them to fresh ecstasy.
It was a pretty trying display for those who had come to listen and not merely to applaud. It must have been pretty trying for some of the bandsmen, too, until the madness abated a trifle. But Dex Gorey didn't seem to mind. Perhaps he took this sort of crazy hero-worship as his due.
He was a good musician in his class. Certainly he was a good showman; too good a showman to pull any cheap prima-donna tricks. He had style, he had poise. He didn’t swank or clown. He had no dramatic gestures, no windmill extravagances. He left an impression of quiet ease, of full control, and, whenever a soloist had a moment or two, Dex would step right out of the spotlight.
There was no doubt about it, he had a good band. More than a few of the Rhumbadors were exceptional. If they had been nervous at the start, upset by the backstage prelude to their debut, they soon got over it in the excitement of the performance, and when it came to giving, they gave everything they had.
Dex had some excellent tunes, and the orchestrations were sometimes brilliant. The introductory number was followed by a rhumba. Next a popular song brought a crooner to the microphone. After this the swing experts were given all the rubato they wanted. And then came Telka Rayne.
I HAD observed her standing close to Joel and Brill in the wing opposite me. She had been as motionless as a piece of rock, her big, beautiful blue eyes fixed on Dex, watching his every movement. When the time came for her number, she waited for a signal from him.
Her entrance was effective. She had long been associated with Dex Gorey, and perhaps the swing-crazed audience was wild to demonstrate its appreciation of this fact. But her dazing beauty must have drawn her more tribute. She was all smiling radiance, all sweetness and light, a vision of loveliness in silver and white and pale gold.
Maybe for a moment or two she held everybody in a spell. Then she began to sing, and for a lot of people the spell must have been smashed at once. She had a pretty crude voice, raucous, and she sang a dismal song of determined love; sang it with all the verve and passion of a flooring joist in a storage warehouse.
“He’s no Duke, he’s no Earl,
He’s just working on the railroad.
He’s my man, I’m his gurl,
And he’s working on the railroad.
I wouldn’t give him up
For all the millionaires.
I’d gather share with him,
His worries and cares...”
Judging by the jewels she wore, he must have had a pretty good job, but I couldn’t find out just what it was. Maybe he dabbled in the stock market on the side.
The thing had me bothered for a while. Then I became aware of a presence at my side, and when I looked to see what it was, I pushed the problem to the back of my mind. Vaguely I was conscious of a frail young lad hovering behind the presence. He was got up as a gaucho in fiesta raiment, but as a character actor he lacked conviction. That fellow would never throw a bull; not even the pensive Ferdinand. For me, however, he was merely tiresome background. I concentrated on the very vital señorita, and her brown eyes were so close to me I got in a state of quiver. Nevertheless I clung resolutely to the fact that Joel and I were on a job.
She said, low-voiced: “Hello! Still enjoying your country squire holiday?”
“Listen,” I begged. “I don’t suppose you saw this masked man with the pistol?”
“I was upstairs in my dressing room,” she answered. “I always miss all the fun.”
“Do you really think he could have been Miss Rayne’s ex-husband?”
“Why ask me? You’re the detective. Forget it, anyway. I’ve got to go on and dance.”
It didn’t look to me as if she’d ever get the chance. Telka was still holding the stage.
I enquired: “How long does this fellow go on working on the railroad?”
Clarissa said: “Cheer up! She’ll soon be through.”
“I was thinking of the audience,” I asserted.
“I used to have humanitarian feelings, too,” Clarissa confessed. “They didn’t get me anywhere.”
The gaucho lad hovered nearer and finally broke in on us.
He asked: “Am I all right, do you think?”
I could have told him, but the question wasn’t addressed to me.
Clarissa fixed the chin strap of his tango hat.
She said: “Why do you want to slam so much rouge on your cheeks?”
“Well, I have to look right, haven’t I?” he complained.
“You have to look like a sunburned son of the pampas, and you don’t.”
“Please don’t be unkind, Clarry,” he pleaded. “You’ll have me all upset, and I won’t be able to dance.”
“Whoever told you you could dance?” she enquired.
“Really, Clarry, you’re unfair. If you’re going to go on like this, I shall have to speak to Telka. She appreciates me, at any rate, and she won’t tolerate such injustice to me. In the presence of this gentleman, too !”
“Sorry,” Clarissa said. “I didn’t realize you hadn’t been introduced. Anyway, he isn’t a gentleman. He’s a squire. Meet Mr. Tyler. Mr. Tyler, Ray Madison.”
Maybe I had been a bit too pessimistic about that railroad guy. All songs must end, and Telka brought hers to a finish just as Mr. Madison enquired how I did.
For the first time since the curtain had gone up on the Rhumbadors, the applause was tepid. I had the feeling that Telka was saved from being an obvious flop only by the determination of the undiscriminating fanatics to cheer anything and everything associated with Dex Gorey.
Telka moved off with stately grace, came back to take a bow, and moved off again with more stately grace, although the band had plunged into a wild Moussorgskyan orgy. I thought it might be the prelude to a jazz treatment of the haunting of Boris Godounov. but it was resolved in a rapturous ditty called “Julia, Julia.”
I WATCHED Telka, rather curious about her. As soon as she was off the stage she dropped her stately grace, grabbed a handful of silk skirt and beat it. I was curious because she had taken more shape and color in my mind. The color wasn’t a pleasant shade. I had seen her turn like a fishwife on Dex. I had heard her bawling her song, but young Mr. Gaucho Madison had supplied a more revealing note, almost a complete build-up.
“I shall have to speak to Telka. She won’t tolerate injustice to me.”
Telka and Madison.
Peering across the stage. I saw her flitting past the slots in the scenery. I watched her when she emerged on our side from behind the backdrop, and she was still going strong, speeding toward the door that led to the dressing rooms.
Clarissa said: “She’s got a full change to make for the finale.”
Madison murmured an excuse and darted after her.
Clarissa called loudly, trying to cut through the fortissimo of the band. “Come back, you fool! There isn’t time!”
My mind was jigging to the tune.
The girl said: “We’re on next, that nitwit and me.”
Telka was a flitting white figure, vanishing through the doorway.
Ray Madison sped after her in full chase.
“So that’s how it is?” I murmured, with a mildly questioning inflection.
Clarissa said: “I don't know. It’s a mystery to me.”
“Little man’s gone to tell tales, eh? I figure the Rhumbadors’ billing is a bit cockeyed.”
“What do you mean by that?”
I answered: “It isn’t Dex Corey’s band. It’s Telka Rayne’s. She owns everything. Ain’t it the truth?”
Clarissa said: “Hush your mouth. I want to listen to Elmer.”
The Cruipe had stepped into the spotlight and was blowing his trumpet at the gods. At first he was just the same old Elmer, stolid and saturnine, announcing with perfect intonation the interrogatory theme.
Won’t you let me school ya,
School ya in the art of loving me?”
Then he began to “give,” as they say in the circles of the elect, and presently he was beyond the gallery, through the roof, and riding among the stars.
That fat and battered piston-pusher had the stuff all right. His trumpet sang, squawked, howled, yelled and let out shrieks that threatened to go scooping up into regions of pitch beyond the capacity of the human ear. Before he got through one refrain I thought he’d have the jitterbugs rioting in the aisles, jittering to that jittery tune. Half-fearful I took a peep at the audience, but they were glued to their seats, paralyzed, stunned.
Elmer swung his trumpet, and there was a stuttering sequence of new sounds, halting and plunging forward with a crazy rubato effect against the strict rhythm of the band. The baritone sax took up the tune and Elmer began to blow arabesques with all sorts of maddening twists and turns. He rocked on his short legs as he played, and, in the intense light of the white spot, I could see sweat on his grease-painted brow. Some fantastic devil had taken possession of him, yet you were left with the sense that the real Elmer was unmoved, imperturbable, intent on his own gloomy thoughts and giving no heed to the filigree of sound spun by his trumpet.
A pause, a drum-crash, and Elmer was off alone, weaving a cadenza more amazing than anything I had ever heard. It wasn’t my idea of music, but it held me. I was just as paralyzed as the rest of them. One part of me wanted to protest against the idiocy of the whole business; another part had to admit the superlative skill of the lunatic imp that was blowing the trumpet. I felt uncomfortable, uneasy. I got the notion that here was an approach to chaos; that if Elmer blew a certain note chaos would be achieved. I had almost reached the conviction that he had the power to blow the note, when the cadenza came to an end. The band was playing again. The formal coda of the fantasy was here. Elmer was standing impassive, with trumpet lowered. He raised it to his lips again, and played sweetly, with a sobbing plea, a final repetition of the refrain:
Won’t you let me school ya—
School ya in the art of loving me?
Don’t let your poor head fool ya.
Your heart has got to learn its A B C.”
At my elbow Gaucho Madison said: “Telka’s acting awfully strange. She's in a very queer mood.”
I hadn’t noticed his return. Neither had Clarissa.
Clarissa said carelessly: “Maybe you'd be in a queer mood if someone had tried to put a bullet through your husband.”
The house was positively shaking with applause for Elmer. The gallery was shouting and whistling, the pit was yelling for more. I imagined that even the grand circle was howling “Encore!” But Elmer was just bobbing his head unconcernedly. Dex stood with baton raised, waiting for his sensational trumpeter to get back to his seat.
Ray Madison said: “All the same, there’s no occasion for her to snap my head off. I’m terribly upset, Clarry. I’m sure I’ll never get through the dance tonight. I’ve a feeling I’m going to falter.”
“One falter from you, you lug,” snapped Clarissa, “and there’ll be some better shooting around here. Get hold of me, and try to look as if you had some enthusiasm.”
THE HOUSE was still roaring for more trumpet. Once again the white spotlight focused on Elmer. Once again Elmer bobbed his black head. Then, in the first down-beat of Dex’s baton there was transformation in the lighting, and to the measures of a rhumba Clarissa and her unwilling partner moved away from me, out into an amber glare that mimicked Cuban noon.
The señorita was a graceful and lovely thing, dancing with a flowing ease that gave an exquisite effect of simplicity to all her steps and gestures. And she had been unfair to her gaucho. There was something effeminate in his movements, something almost feline and stealthy, but the boy could dance. He was cold, unfeeling, impersonal, yet he had a sense of form and he followed the music with flawless rhythm.
And at last there was music. The rhumba had a folklike strength and sincerity. It was no factory piece for the guitars of Tin-Pan Alley. The Rhumbadors knew it and were moved by their knowledge, and they became something better than a mere swing band.
Elmer, for many bars, had nothing to blow. He sat motionless, and there was something that looked like a sneer on his face, but he watched Clarissa intently and his eyes were worshipful, and anxious.
The rhumba ended in a storm of applause, and Elmer was blowing again. Hot, tearing notes of some wild transitional fragment blew the sun down; the palm trees were rosy in the afterglow and purple shadows were laid upon the stage. Then the audience was still, as the gaucho and the señorita moved again, this time to the blithe lilt of something native by De Falla. Rescored, but still De Falla.
I thought then that Clarissa was the loveliest thing I had seen in many a day, and I was still thinking that, when the audience exploded a re-gathered enthusiasm. She came twinkling toward me, unpinning her gay shawl. One whirling movement, and she tossed the shawl over my shoulder.
“Hold it,” she said. “I’ll need it again. How’m I doing?”
“Listen, gal,” I said, but that was as far as I got. She whirled away from me, in white bodice and flaring skirt. She was wildly happy, forgetful of everything but the moment. And her obvious forgetfulness reminded me that I was here on a job of work, supposedly on guard, watching for the sniper who might creep up at any minute and try another shot at Dex Gorey.
I told myself it was a lot of bunk. The fellow who splintered that mirror wasn’t taking any more chances. Dex Gorey himself didn’t believe it. He had got over it. If he had any fear left, he wasn’t showing it. Or was he?
Quickly I looked toward where he should have been, and he wasn’t there.
It was deep blue night among the palms and a lonely piano was playing in the night—playing the Tango by Albeniz. Clarissa and her partner were dancing in the silver light of a wide moonbeam.
As the moonbeam shifted, following them, a little of its radiance flowed over into the wings opposite, and I saw Dex Gorey standing there, mopping his brow gingerly with a handkerchief. He was standing close to Joel and Brill, and he was safe there if he was safe anywhere.
I watched the tango.
Then I became aware, just as before, of a presence at my side, only this time the denouement wasn’t nearly so nice. I mean to say. instead of a charmer, there was a man with a whopping great Colt revolver in his hand, and in that fevered moment it looked to me as if he had a bad case of trigger-itch.
Maybe you think I’ve got nerves of steel and can take a thing like that in my stride. If that’s your idea, you can forget it. The way I jumped, I must have been in danger of bumping my head against the roof of the theatre.
On the descent I got a better view of the fellow with the howitzer. I thought: “My gosh, it’s the old man of the mountains himself, or I’m little Nell.”
He had a screwed-up wizened face and small eyes that peered out from under beetling cliffs with tufts of white wool on them. He had a long goatee. He had a mane of hair that fell back over his head like a silvery cataract and broke in a foam of white curls that would have caused the most ambitious coiffeur to throw up the sponge, to say nothing of the setting lotion. And he was no mere one-gun piker. In addition to the siege-piece he was handling, he had another parked in a left-hand holster.
I thought: “He’ll drill Gorey and Joel and Brill full of holes if I don’t dust him off with one smack.”
Actually I had snapped into the correct stance, with the old left at the ready. I was gathering my strength to make the smack a sound one, right on the button behind the goatee. Then I remembered the autographed picture I had seen in front of the theatre. Yours cordially, Sureshot Sam.
I SHIVERED when I thought how narrowly I had escaped making a fool of myself. Another fraction of a second and I would have dropped that poor old nonagenarian in his tracks, and he was so frail and shaky looking, I might have killed him. I shivered again.
Pathetic, that he should have come to this. One of the stalwart pioneers of the past, a man who had driven his covered wagon and shot his bison on the wing, a good old scout who had taken the trail with Daniel Boone and wandered the wildwood with Kit Carson, brought down to two-a-day vaudeville. Sic transit, I thought...
I said: “Howdy, pardner! You all sure ’nough am totin’ a tidy bit of armament.”
He blinked at me. He said: “You’re not mixing me up with a black-face patter act, are you?”
There was something sharp and unpleasant in the way he came back at me, but I just put it down to the natural peevishness of age. He slammed his shooting-iron into a vacant holster, produced its mate from the other side of his belt, and began to look it over as if he had never seen it before.
Just to be affable, I tried another gambit. “You’re mighty particular about your guns,” I murmured.
“ ’Strewth!” he exclaimed. “You’d be, if you had to do what I’ve got to do with ’em. One show a night is bad enough. When you have to do a repeat, it’s the very devil.” He got a bit more human. “Life isn’t worth living when you can’t have a drink till you’ve finished for the day. I’ve got to coddle my nerves so much, I might as well be in a monastery. But if I once let myself go... ”
I had forgotten about the second show. The first show wasn’t yet over, but here was Sureshot Sam waiting for the new session to start, fussing with his guns, anxious about his nerve, taut as a professional billiard player. An old man. Why, he was doddering, prowling restlessly in the wings, shuffling, with shoulders slumped. A young girl came up to him, painted and dressed as an Indian squaw, in buckskin and beads. She wore an eagle’s feather in her raven wig, and she looked definitely comely. I thought: Maybe he shoots a cigarette out of her mouth. He gives her two quid a week, and she pays for her own insurance, and one of these days he’ll go on a tear again and miss the cigarette...
Night had leaped to amber noon again, and Dex Gorey’s band was playing another rhumba, louder and more dramatic than the first one. Clarissa seized the shawl from my hands, whirled it around her, and danced into the arms of Ray Madison.
I watched the twinkling movement of her gleaming Cuban heels.
The dance turn came to a furious climax. The dancers took their bow, and Clarissa was near me again. Ray Madison strode off without a word. The band was quelling the applause with the next number. Clarissa was breathless and happy.
I said: “Beautiful, you dance like nothing on earth.”
The band was swinging high again, with a clarinet doing reedy gymnastics. I enquired how much more there was going to be, and learned that the finale was next.
Clarissa drew her shawl closely about her. She listened to the clarinet and seemed to like it. I didn’t pay much attention.
I said: “Do you ever eat?”
She answered: “Don’t be silly! With a figure like mine, I can’t afford to.”
I said: “All my life I’ve been looking for a girl like you. Let’s go out to dinner tomorrow night.”
She looked me over. “I mean it,” she said, “I don’t eat before dancing.”
“Maybe you could manage to nibble a bit of lunch?” I suggested. “I know a place where they do chow mein American style.”
“Call me in the morning,” she said. "I'm at the Oriental.”
I felt happy. I let her listen to the clarinet. Maybe I fell a-musing, because I didn’t hear any more until the applause signalled the end of the item. Then, before I knew it, I was engulfed in a consternation that agitated everybody in the wings and spread to the band on the stage.
Clarissa said, more to herself than to me: “Where’s Telka? She ought to be here. She’ll miss her cue if she’s not careful ”
Dex had his stick raised, ready to start the finale. He turned his head to look in our direction, but he didn’t see us.
I asked: “Is he looking for his wife?”
“She ought to be here,” Clarissa repeated. “Ready for her entrance. She’s always up to tricks, but you’d think, on a first night...”
Dex knew all about her tricks, of course.
Clarissa added: “She has to be on for the first refrain. Maybe...”
She ended in indecision, peering toward the door from the dressing rooms.
Dex couldn’t wait any longer. The pause was already perceptible. He gave a shrug, turned his face to the band, and started them off with a flick of his stick.
There was an introduction of about eight bars—a few snappy chords in a familiar progression, a high note from the tenor saxophone, a brief cadenza, and the first tune of a medley of old familiars was bouncing sweetly along—“A Melody from the Skies.”
Clarissa said: “Wait a minute! I’ll see...”
She had been watching the doorway, and now she darted toward it. A figure came running from the corridor in frantic haste.
It wasn’t Telka Rayne. It was a middle-aged woman in plain black clothes. As soon as I saw her I divined that she must be Telka’s dresser. She stumbled in her agitation, and Clarissa had to leap forward to save her from falling. I dashed over to find out what was the trouble.
“Miss Rayne,” the dresser panted, “She’s ill. She’s very ill. She can’t go on.”
The show-woman in Clarissa flared angrily, “Why did you wait till now?”
“It happened all of a sudden. Like lightning.” The dresser paused for breath. “It was awful, miss. It was awful. I did what I could. We must get a doctor at once.”
Joel and Brill were there then, and others had come hurrying, the stage manager and some of the scene shifters. They were crowding in around us. The woman was repeating her story. She was shaking with fright, with the agony of some horror.
Brill started on a lumbering sprint for Telka’s room. Joel called to me to watch Gorey, then ran in Brill’s wake. I had the fear that the whole business, whatever it was, might be a deliberate diversion: that Gorey was in danger. Somehow the thought of Sureshot Sam exploded in my mind, but I couldn’t see him anywhere.
Clarissa sped back to the wings, and I followed her.
Dex Gorey turned his head toward us. He was obviously conscious of trouble. Clarissa signalled to him, signalled in some sign language that Telka wasn’t coming.
I thought for a moment that Dex was going to lose his presence of mind and let everything flop with a crash, but he didn’t. Some all-powerful sixth sense held him together—stage sense. That, at any rate, was the explanation that came to me.
There was a stir among the band. The feeling of panic had been transmitted to them as if by some psychic wave, a tide of agitated thought.
They all knew that Telka wasn’t coming. She wouldn’t sing the refrain, and the moment for her entrance was no more than two bars away.
Elmer Cruipe half rose in his chair and he was fingering the pistons of his trumpet. Then Dex gave a sign to his crooner. The crooner was also a banjoist. He put down his instrument in haste and strode to the microphone. He was singing before he reached it.
Dex was staring at Clarissa in the wings. Now he looked as if he were going to lose control, pass out. He wasn’t giving the band the beat any longer. It wasn’t necessary. They were following the crooner. Dex made an effort and walked casually off on the prompt side as if this was according to plan. And Elmer took his place, also as if it had been planned.
I saw Dex start running as soon as he was hidden from the audience. I didn’t wait to see any more of the stage doings. I knew that Elmer would bring the curtain down all right. I turned back toward the little group around the dresser, and Clarissa was with me. Dex came tearing around from behind the backdrop.
“What’s the matter?” he demanded hoarsely. “Where’s Telka? What’s happened to her?” He grasped the dresser’s arm when she tried to evade him. “What’s been going on?”
“I don’t know.” She was in a worse state of fright. “It came so sudden. Like lightning.” A pause and a shuddering sigh. “I think she’s dead,” the woman added.
Clarissa stifled a scream before it could get under way. Dex looked as if he were stunned. He was a piece of contorted stone for six long seconds. Then he moved swiftly toward the exit door.
The crooner was singing:
“Love is everywhere,
Its music fills the air,
All nature seems to hum
A melody from the skies.”
To be Continued