- About the Book
- About the Author
- Title Page
- Copyright Page
- PARTY FROM DETROIT
- SOUTH WIND
- PARK AVENUE: A STORY OF JERRY TRACY
- BEYOND ALL LIGHT
- BALL AND CHAIN
- HELP WANTED
- HE ASKED FOR IT
- SOMEBODY STOLE MY PAL
- KEEP ON ASKING
- MURDERER’S GUEST
- BEHIND THE COLUMN
- TICKETED FOR DEATH
- FIVE SPOT
- BODY SNATCHER
- STORM SIGNAL
- MURDER MAZE
- LITTLE GUY
- MANHATTAN WHIRLIGIG
- MURDER IS NEWS
- NO MORE LIMERICKS
- MAKE IT MURDER
- BEHIND THE BLACK MASK / STATION K-I-L-L
- GUIDE TO MURDER
- MY CANDLE BURNS
- Looking for more suspense?
- Begin Reading
About the Book
Manhattan’s sharpest gossip columnist tangles with brawlers, triggermen, and dames.
The most important people in the world come to Broadway - to eat in restaurants, dance in nightclubs, and die in rain-slicked back alleys. Whatever the big names are doing, Jerry Tracy hears about it - and tells the world in his infamous Daily Planet column. As quick with his typewriter as he is with a .45, Tracy can break a nose as easily as he breaks a news story. But beneath his hard exterior, this columnist has a kind heart, and a sense of justice that will make him do crazy things for a woman in trouble, or a friend with a murder rap hanging over his head.
Featuring every Jerry Tracy story ever published in Black Mask, this collection is an invaluable compendium of one of early noir’s most original heroes. Written in machine gun prose that would make Damon Runyon proud, these stories describe a man whose words are tough - and whose fists are even tougher.
This collection also features an introduction from Boris Dralyuk.
About the Author
Theodore A. Tinsley (1894-1979) was a prolific noir writer who wrote for all of the prominent pulp magazines, including Black Mask, Munsey’s, All Detective and Action. His best-known creations are Carrie Cashin, a private eye who become pulp fiction’s most popular female character, and Jerry Tracy, a gossip reporter with a nose for sniffing out murders.
Jerry Tracy, Celebrity Reporter
Theodore A. Tinsley
Introduction: Theodore A. Tinsley (1894–1979)
Ted Tinsley was a superman of the pulps who never shed his Clark Kent–like attire. He was the most ordinary looking of fellows and he neither cared nor did anything about it. In fact, he seems to have taken a certain pride in putting the lie to the romantic image of “Author” writ large. He knew that image well, as he demonstrates in a hilarious piece for the May 1934 issue of Writer’s Digest titled “But Mister … You Don’t Look Like an Author.” When he prods a “dazzlingly beautiful girl, a graduate of Bryn Mawr—oh, all right!—she’s a suetty blonde, quite bosomy in black satin and she really works in Gimbel’s basement,” about an author’s proper mien, the lady responds:
“I—I dunno … I always kinda thought … Well, somehow, kinda flashy and handsome in a dissolute way. Gray at the temples, sorta. Puffy eyes, kinda deep an’ full of—uh—glamour. The kinda eyes that makes a goil feel like a frightened little boid watchin’ a soipent … A tweed suit all rumpled an’ baggy and—uh—interestin’. And—oh yeah—smoking a pipe … Kinda fatherly an’ awful sympathetic; but bold eyes like I said—make a goil breathe deep an’ feel that she might hafta—”
Needless to say, by this point Tinsley’s lost her. Our man, as the editor’s note to the article tells us, “looks like an investment banker. Put him behind J. P. Morgan’s desk, and all the moneyed widows and orphans in the country would just naturally flock to him.” No one would suspect a J. P. Morgan banker of writing riproaring yarns for Black Mask Magazine and countless other pulps; Tinsley, a veteran of the Great War, liked to defy expectations and to fly under the radar.
In fact, the prim-and-proper banker look—the cleanly parted hair, the neat moustache—was a kind of front. Some of Tinsley’s most memorable series characters also defy expectations, and employ similar fronts. As he wrote in a letter to Will Murray in the late 1970s, his characters “were what Ezra Pound called ‘Personae,’ actually Masks.” For starters, there was that obvious master of disguise, the Shadow; Tinsley wrote twenty-seven Shadow tales, beginning with 1936’s “Partners of Peril,” the first one not penned by series creator Walter B. Gibson.
But Tinsley’s own characters don subtler camouflage. The war-hardened gangbuster Major John Tattersall Lacy, who took on Manhattan’s wiliest racketeers in various pulps from 1932 to 1939, “was clean-shaven except for a trim, sandy mustache that imperfectly concealed a scar that curved like a small white crescent from his upper lip past his nostril.”
His pioneering female hardboiled detective, Carrie Cashin, who debuted in the November 1937 issue of Crime Busters, uses another kind of front: She knows full well that her clients aren’t likely to trust a “frail” with rough cases, so she partners up with a big lug named Aleck Burton and forms the Cash and Carry Detective Agency. She puts Aleck in the front office and has him play boss, for appearance’s sake.
And then there’s Jerry Tracy, who is as unlikely a crime solver as a J. P. Morgan banker is an author. Tracy is a gossip columnist (read Walter Winchell) on the staff of the New York Daily Planet (read Daily Mirror), who has a heart that’s unusually marshmallowy for his profession. Outwardly cynical, he’s a man of ideals. Physically unimposing, he packs a mean punch and can handle a Remington pistol as skillfully as he can a Remington typewriter. Like Clark Kent, a later employee of the Daily Planet, and like Tinsley himself, Tracy is a man hiding in plain sight.
* * *
Ted Tinsley and Jerry Tracy entered the Black Mask stable in October 1932 with a story titled “Party from Detroit.” Although he was a born New Yorker, Tinsley’s dour and somewhat milksoppy appearance had fooled a few colleagues into thinking that the fellow knew nothing of the Big Apple’s nightlife—or of its underbelly. In his rather fanciful memoir, The Pulp Jungle (1967), Frank Gruber wrote, “I don’t believe Ted Tinsley was ever inside a nightclub himself. He was an extremely conservative man, a plodding hard-working writer, not given to frivolous things.” The trouble was that, as Tinsley asserted in a letter to Murray, “I had small association with [Gruber], knew little of his professional or social life—and vice-versa—his knowledge of me amounted to considerably less than zero.” Gruber had simply fallen for the disguise.
Even a brief dip into the Tracy stories demonstrates that—even if Tinsley wasn’t a nightly visitor to the 21 Club—he sure knew the scene. No one but Damon Runyon himself had trapped the lightning of Broadway’s glitter and grit in the bottle of finely honed, punchy prose as well as Tinsley in the Tracy tales:
The flippant greeting was Jerry’s cynical trade-mark along every roaring alley that radiated from the Main Stem. Jerry was the Main Stem. Once a day he dished up his hot column of copyrighted chat for the Planet, consisting of leers, winks, a sprinkle of dirt, a bit of phoney mystery stuff such as: “What prominent chip-shot will be found in a vacant lot next Thursday, according to torpedo wireless? Somebody Stole My Gal is a swell tune—on the radio.… ”
“Lo, Bum!” indeed. But Jerry’s no bum, and nowhere near as low as the man who inspired his character—Walter Winchell. Unlike Winchell, Tracy is a “queer mixture of public executioner and good-time Charley [who] withheld a dozen dirty items for every one he printed.” The real Winchell was a lot closer to the slyly nefarious J. J. Hunsecker of Sweet Smell of Success (1957), penned by Clifford Odets and brought to reptilian life by Burt Lancaster.
No, as much as he’d like to claim otherwise, Jerry has a heart of gold. He and his trusty palooka, Butch, would go to the ends of the earth—OK, as far as Penn Station—to help a dame or a kid out of a jam, or to spare an old Southern coot’s feelings, as he does in Tinsley’s second Black Mask offering, “South Wind” (November 1932). When Major Geo’ge Fenn—a down-at-the-heels patriarch from Thunder Run, No’th Ca’lina—calls on Jerry to find his long-lost granddaughter, Alice Anne Fenn, the columnist quickly recognizes the innocent girl in the high school graduation picture as “Lola Carfax,” a nasty little actress on the make. With the help of Butch and Veronica Mulligan—a jaded but supremely ethical Vassar grad on the Planet’s staff—Jerry teaches “Lola” a lesson and makes a hero out of Alice Fenn in order to let the Major down gently. He sends him packing for Thunder Run with a tidy sum from the Alice Fenn “estate.” When Veronica confronts Jerry about shelling out his own money for the Major, our man replies in his typical half-sweet, half-cynical, and exuberantly colorful manner:
“I went to the proper window for it. Carfax. I pumped her for every nickel she had.”
“Are you lying, you —— ?”
“Stop snuffling and show sense. Do I dig for ten grand of hard-earned Tracy jack because some old bozo comes drifting in to put the bee on me? Grow up, baby; you’re living in a big town.”
Jerry toes the line between hard and soft with perfect balance, while Veronica takes the plunge to the downy side. It turns out she’s had enough of the “big town” and is headed down south with the major:
“Jerry. … Hey, hardboiled … ” Her eyes were soft. “Any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run. I’d be awful glad to see you. … Anytime …’”
But Jerry has work to do—twenty-three more stories’ worth, to be exact. It’s no wonder that these snappy, goodhearted tales appealed to Joseph T. “Cap” Shaw, the great Black Mask editor who brought Tinsley aboard and included “South Wind” in his Hard-Boiled Omnibus (1946).
It’s also no wonder that Jerry Tracy attracted Hollywood’s attention. Three of these highly cinematic Black Mask stories served as bases for successful B pictures: “Five Spot” (November 1935) was filmed as Panic on the Air (1936); “Body Snatcher” (February 1936) was adapted as Alibi for Murder (1936); and “Manhattan Whirligig” (April 1937) became Manhattan Shakedown (1937). A fourth film, Murder Is News (1937), was apparently based on a Tracy story written directly for the screen.
What sets the Tracy tales apart from most other Black Mask series is Tinsley’s brilliantly evocative depiction of the “Main Stem” and the sprawling metropolis around it, and the color and liveliness of his prose. The stories are rich with excitement, local color, and the author’s wit, by turns sharp and gentle. Jerry Tracy has stood the test of time, and is a refreshing hero for our era, which is beset with its own unscrupulous Winchells and conniving celebrity fakes.
* * *
Theodore Adrian Tinsley was born on October 27, 1894, in Manhattan, to Francis B. Tinsley, a coal yard owner who had emigrated from England, and his wife, Gertrude. The family was a large one, with Ted being the first of six children. The Tinsleys made their home in a spacious private brownstone at 159 East 116th Street, which belonged to Gertrude’s parents, Theodore A. and Alice M. Theban. Both Theodore and Alice Theban were native New Yorkers born in 1839, he to a French mother and German father, and she to an English father and Irish mother.
This well-heeled family made a double contribution to the pulps. Ted’s younger brother, Francis Xavier Theban Tinsley (1899–1965)—known as Frank—would become an important illustrator and cover artist. The brothers had something else in common: They both served their country in the final year of the Great War. Ted Tinsley registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, at the age of twenty-two, and is described in the report as a tall young man of medium build with black hair and brown eyes. He joined the Second Anti-aircraft Machine Gun Battery in Meuse-Argonne, France.
Back in the States, Ted tried to put his excellent education to good use. In 1916, shortly before he was drafted, he had graduated with an AB in English from the City College of New York. He worked for a while as a teacher and (you guessed it) insurance salesman, while his brother, Frank, who’d served as a draftsman in the War Department’s design section, struck out as a freelance artist, eventually finding more-or-less-steady employ as an illustrator for Fiction House’s Action Stories. As Will Murray reports in his introduction to The Crimes of The Scarlet Ace: The Complete Stories of Major Lacy & Amusement, Inc. (Altus Press, 2012), this is how Ted got his own start in the trade, selling his first story “Cross Words at the Circle K,” “a Western inspired by the crossword craze then sweeping the nation,” to the fledgling pulp in 1925. Writing late in life in a letter to Murray, Tinsley peered into his “cloudy 1940 crystal ball” and described his career choice as follows: “I was a Liberal Arts graduate of CCNY, with a background of Latin, Greek and English literature … I found writing fiction to be easy and profitable for me.”
In the 1930s, Tinsley married an Alabaman named Mary Ethel White, who was then an editor of Breezy Stories. Mary Tinsley became her husband’s constant companion and supporter.
Tinsley’s career in the pulps spanned just under two decades, ending in the lean years of WWII, when paper could no longer be spared for the likes of John Lacy and Jerry Tracy. In 1945, Tinsley headed to Washington, DC, following in the footsteps of his eccentric friend, the pulpster Norvell Page. He first took a post in the writers’ division of the Office of War Information. As he wrote to Murray, Page and he knocked out “government public relations stuff (tactfully called ‘Information’ by the bureaucrats).” The war soon ended, and so did his stint writing “Information”—or, as Tinsley put it, “then came the Bomb and bang! went the OWI.” He stayed in DC and took a post at the Veterans Administration, where he wrote speeches for Gen. Omar N. Bradley; radio material for UFO regulars Bob Hope and Bing Crosby; and “a million or so ‘routine’ messages of condolence, praise, congratulations, special events and the like for the White House (in connection with the VA) from FDR down, to A.D. 1960.” That was the year he retired. In his introduction to The Crimes of The Scarlet Ace, Murray quotes the VA’s citation commemorating Tinsley’s departure:
For his writing genius, for his good nature, for his sound judgment, for his constant willingness, for his refreshing wit, for his dependability, for his other attributes that have endeared him to us over the past 15 years. There is only one Theodore Adrian Tinsley and we shall miss him.
Mary Ethel was a native of Auburn, Alabama, and after Tinsley’s retirement, the couple moved to her hometown. It wasn’t New York, and not quite Thunder Run, No’th Ca’lina, but it suited the couple just fine. Ted Tinsley died of lung cancer on March 3, 1979, at the age of eighty-four. Writing to Murray in 1979, Mary Tinsley left a powerful and moving portrait of her husband in his final agonizing year, when cobalt treatments had left him weak and helpless: “How he has remained so cheerful and considerate is almost hard to understand except that he is a man of great faith, is widely, widely read and has a truly philosophical mind.”
Ted Tinsley’s daughter, Dr. Adrian Tinsley, had by that time built a career that surely made her father proud. In 1969, she filed a dissertation on the plays of Eugene O’Neill at Cornell University, taught and served as an administrator at a number of institutions and, in 1989, was named the first woman president of Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts. Times had changed and, unlike Carrie Cashin, she needed no Aleck Burton for a front.
* * *
Goulart, Ron. The Dime Detectives. New York, NY: Mysterious Press, 1988.
Gruber, Frank. The Pulp Jungle. Los Angeles, CA: Sherbourne Press, 1967.
Murray, Will. “Introduction.” In The Crimes of The Scarlet Ace: The Complete Stories of Major Lacy & Amusement, Inc., by Theodore A. Tinsley. Boston, MA: Altus Press, 2012.
Murray, Will. “Theodore Tinsley—Maxwell Grant’s Shadow.” In The Duende History of The Shadow Magazine, edited by Will Murray, et al. Greenwood, MA: Odyssey Publications, Inc., 1980.
Tinsley, Theodore A. “But Mister … You Don’t Look Like an Author.” Writer’s Digest (May 1934).
PARTY FROM DETROIT
JERRY TRACY OPENED A groundglass door and stepped into the dingy little Broadway office maintained for him by the Planet, New York’s goofiest Tab. A hard-faced man in a derby hat sat tilted back in a swivel-chair, his big feet crossed comfortably on a battered roll-top desk. The soles of his shoes looked like twin billboards. He had the massive head and muscle-bound shoulders of a palooka heavyweight. At sight of Jerry he grinned like a St. Bernard dog and lowered his feet to the floor.
“Hawzit, Mr. Tracy?”
“ ’Lo, Bum!”
The flippant greeting was Jerry’s cynical trade-mark along every roaring alley that radiated from the Main Stem Jerry was the Main Stem. Once a day he dished up his hot column of copyrighted chat for the Planet, consisting of leers, winks, a sprinkle of dirt, a bit of phoney mystery stuff such as: “What prominent chip-shot will be found in a vacant lot next Thursday, according to torpedo wireless? Somebody Stole My Gal is a swell tune—on the radio. … ”
In the course of his night and day rambles Jerry Tracy met everyone in New York sooner or later, from the Mayor to the scrub-ladies at the Palace; and his invariable gay salute to rich and poor, male and female, publicity-seeking crooks and publicity-seeking churchmen, was always the same. Hello, Bum! A queer mixture of public executioner and good time Charlie, Tracy usually withheld a dozen dirty items for every one he printed. A sucker at heart, he told himself ruefully. Brokendown actors wore his suits and overcoats. Occasionally he larded his column with a phoney scandal paragraph about some poor, tired kid in a honkytonk for no other reason except that her thin whine for the favor excited his compassion, and the dirt-clipping might help her to a better job.
Jerry removed his gray snap-brim and slipped out of the trick overcoat.
“Any fire-bells?” he asked carelessly.
“Okey, Butch. Gimme a light.”
He lit the fag, blew a gray funnel of smoke and went into his private hide away. A bare, messy little place. Desk, two wooden chairs and a dusty couch. A “World Almanac” and a phone directory. In a corner, a dictating machine set on a contraption like a tea-wagon, with rubber wheels and a lower shelf piled with cylindrical records. The columnist pulled a notebook out of his pocket and flipped the pages rapidly. His patent leather toe jerked the machine closer to his desk. There was a partly used record in place; and he snapped the playback switch and listened to his own nasal voice retailing bits for the next Monday column:
“Hello, Bums. … Leap year makes the calendar long, but the depresh keeps everything else short. … One of Jack Curley’s wrestlers has a headache and, boys and girls, that’s news. … The medicine at the Silk Sandal is as smooth as a Scotch panhandler on Park Avenue. … ”
He grinned. He owned a piece of the Silk Sandal and all Broadway knew it, but the puff would pull ’em in hopefully just the same. The thundering herd! Better call up Marty and tell him to cut down on dance space. He ran through the familiar gossip and dictated a fresh item:
“Peggy Maloney—the Broadway Nightingale to you—is choo-chooing West to renovate. … The new papa will be a prominent architect. … An architect ought to appreciate Peggy. … ”
He thought, cynically: “She handed me that last gag herself, the cheap little tramp!”
The phone rang and he reached negligently for the receiver.
“ ’Lo? Oh, hello, Pat. … How’s the Commish? Yeah, in and out—mostly out. Believe it or not, I’m busy. How’s tricks?” He grinned. “I told your noble predecessor he was crazy when he threw out the spittoons from headquarters. You can’t turn a cop-house into a furniture department without turning dicks into ducks—if you get what I mean. … What’s new?”
His face assumed a deadpan expression as he listened to the Commissioner’s low metallic voice. He said, once: “Don’t be silly.” And again: “You’re not kidding me, are you, Pat? Sure thing. I’ll hop over to Zogbaum’s office. I breeze in there a dozen times a day—which is more than I can say for the little gray home in Centre Street. Right!”
He shrugged into the trick overcoat, grabbed his hat and stepped into the outer office.
“Going for a walk, Butch. Stick around.”
“Okey, Mr. Tracy. Any message?”
“Sure. Keep away from single women with husbands.”
He went downstairs and took a cab a few blocks south and east to a shabby building on a side street just off Sixth Avenue. Most of the floor space was occupied by Footlight Topics, the greatest amusement publication in the world. Footlight Topics was bible and prayer-book to a host of professional readers, from star prima donnas and millionaire comedians right down the line to five-a-day acrobats and roller-skate acts. Morrie Zogbaum was the founder and editor. His office was on the fifth floor. The tabloid columnist barged in without knocking.
Jerry noted with a grin that there were three hot numbers—a brunette and two blondes—waiting on Zoggie’s hard bench for a chance to get the great man’s nod. The bench was always warm. Zoggie’s nod carried weight with producers; he had no use for salami and he never recommended a snide performer.
The dapper little hook-nosed man who guarded Zoggie’s inner portal smiled fulsomely. “Hawzit, Mr. Tracy?”
“ ’Lo, Bum. Zoggie in?”
The brunette on the bench said hopefully in a fluted, baby voice: “Oh, hello, Mr. Tracy!”
“ ’Lo, kids.” He glanced at them. That olive-tinted brunette—had he seen her before somewhere? Maybe. Couldn’t place her. Broadway was full of little twists on the make who had once said hello to Jerry Tracy.
He stepped into the inner office. The spindly little publisher glanced up, jerked his thumb backward over his shoulder and said dryly: “Inside. Don’t try to kid her. She’s on the level.”
The little inner room was Zogbaum’s out whenever he chose to scram discreetly. It opened on a rear corridor that ran in L-fashion to a back stairway. As Tracy shut the door he thought cheerfully: “Two-line gag for the column. What good’s a front without an exit? The bigger the front, the slicker the exit!”
A massive be-spectacled man sat silent and alone on an overstuffed chair, staring intently at the pattern of the rug.
“Hello, Pat,” said the columnist. “Take off the cheaters. You wouldn’t fool me, would you?”
Pat Donovan was a big man with iron-gray hair and shoulders like a bull. He removed the dark glasses without a smile. His habitually deep voice was low and metallic Jerry liked this tall Mick who had risen from pavement pounding to the main desk in Centre Street without any crooked cadging or political tap-dancing.
“I’m worried,” Donovan growled morosely.
“Good sign. The last guy never worried.”
The tall man shrugged. He was not in a jovial mood.
“You know every grifter along the axle, Jerry. Who’s the biggest chiseler of them all?”
“Which mosquito sucks the most blood? That’s easy. Solly Weinzer.”
“Listen! Did Weinzer ever use a short length of pipe? Did he ever stick a gat in anyone’s vest?” Donovan growled.
The columnist’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t be sil. Weinzer’s a business man. Show him a rod and he’d turn as blue as a mandril. … Worried about this new guy?”
“What new guy?” the big man barked.
“Oh, I hear things. From Chi, they tell me.”
“From Detroit,” Donovan corrected. “That’s all I know. Just rumors. The telegraph’s a joke. The stools don’t click. We can always put the finger on Weinzer if we need him—but this fella! He’s the party, I’m dead certain, that plucked the vaudeville crowd opposite the Fillmore Hotel last week and shot Izzy Turkel through the neck with a soft-nose. My Broadway Squad is going to miss Izzy. He was a damned valuable little Hebe. … That’s not for the column, Jerry.”
“So what?” Tracy smiled vacantly. “You asking me to stool, Mister?”
“Stop clowning. What do you know about Detroit?”
“Detroit?” He chuckled. “Not a thing. I’m just a Broadway heel. My beat’s between Third and Eighth. When I go as far north as Harlem I wear snowshoes and carry blubber. Detroit’s just a place where Ford works. Never heard of it. … And I don’t stool, even for you, oldtimer.”
“Nobody asked you to stool. Just the usual, Jerry. Pass the word along to your army of stooges and get ’em to lay an ear to the ground. All I want’s a lead.”
“I seem to see headlines,” Tracy murmured. “ ‘Detroit Killer Slain by Rival Gang. Body Found in Bronx Vacant Lot.’ ”
Donovan shrugged. “You’re old enough to vote. What else can we do?”
“I’m not arguing,” Jerry stated calmly. “I’ll see what I can do. You’re a good Irishman and a square cop, Pat. … I tell Hizzoner that once a week regular, just to watch him squirm.”
The big man got to his feet, unlocked the rear door and stuck his head out. Immediately he drew it in again, closing the door softly.
“I knew I was tailed here,” he snapped. “There’s a dame down the corridor. What the hell’s that mean?”
The Planet man jumped to the knob and looked out. The rear corridor was empty. He walked down the hall to the tarn to make sure.
“I saw her,” the Commissioner insisted.
“Doll, eh? What’d she look like:”
“Black hair. One of them funny tight hats. Hat was gray. Gray coat, cheap yeller fur—looked like imitation fox.”
“X-Ray speaking,” said Jerry lightly.
His mind jerked to the gray-clad brunette doll he had seen in Zozbaum’s front office. Again she tickled his memory. Somebody had pointed her out casually to him a couple of weeks before—was it in Harlem? He couldn’t be sure. … Pinky Schwartz’s thick murmur flowed suddenly in his mind: ‘Lamp that dame in the corner, Jerry. She usta play around wit’ a high-yaller band-leader; now she’s gunnin’ for somebuddy else. The boy friend musta saved all his heat for the trombone. … ’ Hold on, though! That wasn’t Harlem; wasn’t that the broad down in East 53rd, with the absinthe and the orchid bouquet?” The fogged picture refused to focus.
He said: “Scram, Pat. She mooched, whoever she was.”
“Help me on that Detroit angle and I won’t forget it, son,” said Donovan slowly.
“Uh-huh.” His hand closed briefly on the other man’s shoulder with a faint pressure. “Ankle along.”
He turned the key in the door. “A grand old guy,” he thought grimly. “One straight spine in Crookedtown! I’ll lay a small bet the dark babe has pulled her freight from Zoggie’s hard bench. One went away an’ then there were two. … ”
He smiled as he entered the outer waiting-room.
“What happened to the girl-friend, kids?”
“Oh, her?” The blonde on the left sniffed with malice. “You mean that Spanish broad? Somebody went by the door jingling two quarters and a dime and she scrammed.”
The blonde on the right smiled sweetly.
“Don’t be a mug, Claire. We wouldn’t kid you for the woild, Mr. Tracy. The girl-friend went into that booth over there, right after you come in. She made a quick call and lammed.”
“Thanks. I’ll be seein’ you somewhere, kids.”
The sugary one plucked at his departing sleeve. Her eyes looked suddenly haggard and hopeful. She fumbled for words; he knew what she wanted.
He said, with a humorous inflection that was tinged with something more than mock anger: “Big-hearted Jerry! Always a sucker. Tell you what I’ll do, babes. You and Claire be in the Silk Sandal about 2:30 a.m. tomorrow. Put on a short sketch. Yank hair with the girl-friend and sing a few high notes. Write down your names and your last show on a hunk of paper and leave it at the door with Marty. I’ll give you three lines in the column. Slip an original gag into the act and I’ll make it a paragraph. S’long. … ”
He breezed out, leaving a soft twin cooing behind him like the tinkle of bells.
On the sidewalk he paused for a moment and glanced about. The afternoon was waning fast. There was no sign of the jane who had made the phone call and the quick sneak. Was there a tie-up between her and the party from Detroit? For all of his wisecracks to the Commissioner, Jerry’s scouts hadn’t tabbed a single reliable muscle item.
He decided to drift over to Barney’s. Barney was his favorite speake. Everybody went there sooner or later; he’d pile in and say “hawzit” to the Dutchman.
Barney rubbed his pink pate and nodded glumly. He was in one of his pessimistic moods. He rang up “no sale” and mixed an old-fashioned. The Planet man sipped the drink with slow pleasure and listened to his own idle queries and Barney’s morose grunts. He eyed the cash register and grinned faintly. “No sale” on Detroit either! He mooched out and stood staring idly into the dusk from the top step of the speakeasy stoop.
There was a Paragon taxi at the curb and a girl was emerging from it with taut, angry lips. She stood on the sidewalk and the hackman lounged sidewise to face her. He had alert eyes in a stolid, dirty face.
He said gruffly: “Argue wit’ the meter, sister. I can’t add.”
Her face flushed. “I can add up five blocks—and it doesn’t come to sixty cents, either!”
He unlatched his door and stepped down. He gestured briefly with a cupped, dirty palm.
“Sez you. Come across, you cheap little floozie! I got no time to stand here arguin’.”
Tracy watched without much interest. Squabbles over gyp meters were a dime a dozen so far as he was concerned. He reached for a butt.
The cabby was crowding the girl against the side of the hack, his palm urgent.
She said shrilly: “I’m not gonna pay a cent more than—”
He grinned as he leaned closer. Deliberately he began cuffing her, shoving her coolly around.
Tracy, to his own blank amazement, found his patent-leather feet descending the speakeasy stoop, crossing the sidewalk. He thought, swiftly: “I’m nuts! What’s wrong with me?” As his fist swung he threw the weight of his body behind it. His knuckles tingled. A couple of pedestrians stopped to watch. The taxi driver got to his feet slowly, rubbing his numb jaw.
“Just for that,” panted the white knight of journalism, “you don’t get a damn’ cent!”
“Who says so?”
“I said so!” There was a pleasant glow in his right fist. “Beat it!”
A big man in vivid pink shirtsleeves came out of the Dutchman’s and walked across to the curb.
“Whassamatter, Jerry? Gyp?”
“Yeah. One of these fast clock boys.”
The taxi driver’s eyes shifted from the pink sleeves to the lumpy face. He began to mumble as he backed towards the door of his cab. The lumpy jaw jerked coldly. “Amscray!”
With a muttered oath the hackman clicked up his pirate flag. The cab rolled.
“Thanks, Mike,” said Tracy.
“Aw, hell!” Mike shrugged and gave the girl a lidded once-over.
“He hurt you, kid?” Jerry asked her. “Come on in and have a drink.”
“I’d—I’d rather go home. Sorry I hadda bother you this way.”
“Don’t be silly. Where do you live? I’ll grab a cab.”
She murmured an address. The diplomatic Mike said dryly: “I’ll be seein’ yuh, Jerry,” swung his big shoulder and went up the speake’s stoop.
The girl’s long cloth coat was wrinkled but not exactly shabby. She had the thin, flowerlike face and full-curved figure so often seen in casting offices. A red-head. Good make-up. Not too prosperous.
The columnist thumbed a 15 and 5, climbed in beside her and gave the wop the address.
The cab crawled through the West Fifties and pulled up in front of a cheap theatrical boarding-house. Tracy paid off the wop and went in with her. Up three flights. Turkey-red carpet with rubber treads. She unlocked a door and smiled hesitatingly.
“Come in for a minute? I can’t give you a drink. It’s all gone.”
“Off the stuff, eh?”
“Not that. I’m busted; or I’d have paid that yegg and saved you a lotta trouble. I—I wanta thank you.”
He walked in after her and shut the door. He was mildly curious.
She was, she told him, a hoofer—a good one, too. Jerry appraised her as she removed the wrinkled coat and tossed her hat on the dresser. Swell figure and a sweet mug, The poor little rat looked hungry. Maybe he could do something for her. His glance swept the room. Pretty bare. An empty bottle, beside a glass, on a small table, bore mute evidence to her statement on drinks.
“Where you from, Alma?”
Tracy’s heart jumped oddly. Detroit! His mind hopped to Zoggie’s office and the big Mick Police Commissioner in the back room. The brunette in the corridor and the quick phone call—plenty of time to plant the cab and this little redney—a phoney!—the act was phoney!
He rose and reached for his hat.
“Wait a minute,” the girl begged. “Don’t go yet. You’re Mr. Tracy, ain’t you?”
“Right now I am. A minute ago I was John J. Dope, One side, baby.”
She paced him to the door. There was panic in her voice: “Swell hoofer—honest to Gawd, Mister Tracy—don’t know the ropes in this burg—need a job—gimme a break—I can dance. … ”
She kicked the thin grass-rug flying. With her eyes fastened desperately on his she went into a swift tap routine on the bare boards. Looka this—an’ this! The silken legs flashed like pistons in the froth of her raised skirt. No music; she didn’t need any. Those shabby strap-pumps of hers were drums and cymbals and hot, moaning brass. They slapped, whispered, raced, crawled. Into Jerry’s mind popped a swift close-up of Sam Spellman. Sam could use a spot like this in the second act of the new show. Spot, hell! The kid was good—a four-alarm riot.
The connoisseur in him overshadowed his suspicious hunch.
He watched with approval as she worked up to the bang climax. A pause. Then four slow tops like the tired sneer of a sax—’At’s all. …
“Am I lousy?” she panted.
Her eyes hadn’t moved from his. Her hands hung stiffly at her thighs, still twisted in the folds of her hoisted skirt.
Aboard creaked faintly in the hallway outside and Tracy glanced at the door. It opened; two men stood in the gap blocking his exit. The rear man closed the door and leaned against it. He had a silenced gat in his stubby hand. They both had ’em. The man in front said: “Okey, sister,” and walking up to the girl, gave her a swift palm-shove into the corner.
The Planet’s playboy stood stock-still.
He had never seen either of the pair before. Out-of-town gorillas. Couple of time-table heat-men. A big guy with flat ears and a snag tooth; a medium guy with a spongy nose and pale, whitish eyes.
He said grimly: “So what?”
The yegg with the white eyes laughed.
“Why, you lousy stool—you know damn’ well what! The big-time gossip man—wise guy Jerry Tracy—rattin’ for the cops!”
“You’ve been seeing movies, sonny. I’ll have to cut down on your allowance.”
They all laughed together.
“Hand it to him in the belly, Sid,” said the man at the door.
“Wait a second!” Tracy protested. There were beads of sweat on his forehead. He caught a glimpse of the girl’s white face in the corner. “This thing sounds screwy. You boys sure you’re in the right church?”
“He’s killin’ me wit’ those comic gags o’ his,” said the flat-eared man. “Let him have it, Sid, for —— sake.”
The barrel of the gun lifted. The motion brought a sharp gasp from the girl.
“Gawd, you’re gonna kill him—I wasn’t told that—they said he was gonna get a good goin’ over—just a beatin’. … ”
Tracy twisted his head. He said, thinly: “Thanks!”
She came forward a step at a time, her hands clenched.
“That dago lied to me—you’re gonna kill him. … ”
“No foolin’? Git back, sister!”
He shoved out his left palm, but she dodged suddenly, sprang inside his arm, clawing fiercely. Her nails tore his face. She caught at the gun and bent it upward. Her face stared under an armpit at Tracy. She shrilled at him: “Scram!”
She was hanging on desperately; the panting thug shook her like a rat but he couldn’t tear loose.
He snarled at his partner: “What the hell yuh laughin’ at? Let her have it!”
His partner was grinning as he stepped closer. For the moment he seemed to have forgotten the crouched newspaperman.
Jerry’s hand swept behind him, caught up the empty bottle. He jumped.
The gunman’s hand swerved a fraction too late. Tracy caught him side-wise and off balance. The bottle landed with all of Jerry’s strength at the back of the flat ear. He tripped over the fallen body, dropped the neck of the bottle and came to one knee with a clutched pistol in his shaking hand.
The man struggling with the girl gave a shrill yelp of dismay and tore himself free, hurling her backward so that she struck the wall with a thump. As he whirled, Tracy’s finger fired the silenced gun blindly. Scarcely a sound. The thug’s body shivered. He said, faintly: “Hey!” and went over backward on the edge of the mattress. It bounced him sidewise to the floor and he rolled on his face.
The knockout victim was trying dazedly to get up, one palm flat on the floor, the other groping weakly like a flopping fish. Tracy ran over and clubbed downward at the skull with the barrel till the threshing stopped.
He picked up the girl and set her in a chair. She was chalk-white, her clenched hand crammed into her open mouth.
“Don’t squawk, kid!” Tracy begged. “We’re sitting pretty.”
He was shaking like a leaf himself. There was a faint smoke-haze in the room and a smell like smoldering rags. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the gun he still held. He tossed it on the bed and tiptoeing over to the door, opened it a crack and wiped both knobs. Then he shut it softly and went back to the girl.
He slipped an arm around her, Stroked her red hair, patted the clenched hand. They rocked back and forth together like two scared kids. He drew the hand downward from her mouth.
“Looks like you’re on my side, honey.”
She buried her face in his coat and began to cry. He dabbed awkwardly at the wet eyes with his handkerchief.
“I swear to Gawd, Mr. Tracy—”
“I know. It’s okey. … Who hired the act?”
“A—big slick-haired greaseball. He said he—he come from Detroit and we got chummy, talkin’ about places an’ people we knew out there. That cab was a plant. I got a phone call. … I was dead hungry—haven’t had a square for a week—eatin’ fifteen cents a day in Coffee Pots—an’ he promised faithful there wouldn’t be no—”
“Sure, sure. … You don’t know his name?”
“Remember him if you saw him, eh?”
“I—I think so.”
Tracy glanced at the slumped figures on the floor. Assurance flooded back into him like a warm wave.
“This ain’t your room, is it?”
“I thought so. Let’s breeze.”
“Bunk! Shove on a little make-up, sweet. You’re all right.”
She clung tightly to his arm as they crept down the dark, creaky stairs. A yellow light burned in the entry. He grinned at her in the cracked mirror of the ancient hatrack until her frozen reflection melted in a wispy smile. From the basement stairs came a warm gush of fried onions and the mellow tootling of a soprano sax running the scales. Jerry shut the door softly behind them.
It was quite dark outside. His mind was racing at top speed. This tough party from Detroit—this greaseball chiseler—if he was like all the rest of the small-timers he’d be on the prod tonight in some flashy ankle-joint, smirking like John Napoleon, looking the Big Town over. All these guys were alike—hot trombones and giggle-water and a great big smile for the ladies!
He glanced at the girl and said abruptly: “Listen—you’re hungry, kid, and so am I. We’ll put on the feed-bag in a nice quiet place off the stem. I know a dozen. … ” The voice hardened. “After that we’ll go places. Whaddye say? Got an evening rag?”
She nodded tremulously.
They walked west and he flagged a cab. The restaurant he picked was a dingy place under the clatter of the 9th Avenue L. No music, no celebs; a pot-bellied chef named Andre, who lived upstairs with a wife and nine kids, and whose meat sauces and gravies were almost unique on the island of Manhattan.
Tracy ordered for both of them, and excusing himself politely, went to a glassed phone booth in the rear where he could easily watch her. He called up his man Butch.
When he returned to the table the girl was eating ravenously. He grinned sympathetically and touched her arm. “Slow down, babe; we’ve got an evening ahead of us.”
Butch arrived before they were finished. He brought a suitcase with him.
Jerry answered the girl’s eyes. “My valet. Leave the bag here. That’ll be all for tonight. Beat it!”
Butch blinked calmly, gave the columnist’s guest a stolid once-over and walked out.
“Trip?” said the girl. She glanced at the bag and there was a shadow in her eyes.
“Work clothes.” He paid the check. “Take another puff on that butt and we’ll roll. … You haven’t told me where you live.”
The room was a small one. A battered wardrobe trunk stood in one corner; there was a shallow closet, two cane-seated chairs and a scarred oak dresser. Beyond the bed, a half-opened door showed a peep of dark, tiny bathroom.
Tracy put his suitcase on one of the chairs.
“Maybe, hell. You’re all tuned up like a fiddle. We’ve got lots of time, so for Pete’s sake, be sensible.” He glanced at the bathroom. “Turn on the tap in there. Toss in a big soap-cake. Make it hot and steamy. Close your eyes and soak.”
She didn’t say anything. He picked up a copy of Variety from the cluttered dresser, dragged a chair towards the light and began studiously to read. He heard her, after a while, moving about in the bathroom. The gurgling splatter of water sounded and the door closed. Jerry grinned as he heard the curt snick of the lock.
He scrutinized his face in the mirror, fingering his chin. Smooth enough! He pulled down the shade, heaved the suitcase to the bed and opened it. The efficient Butch had packed thoroughly. His employer stripped and changed. When he had finished, the gleam of his shirt front was irreproachable, his silk lapels faultless, the set of his bow tie smoothly trig. He was studying the principal exports of Yucatan in a torn almanac when the bathroom bolt clicked.
She held the robe folded about her. The shabbiness of the thing made a curiously effective sheath for the draped mold of her slim dancer’s body. She flushed suddenly and he stopped staring.
“Climbed into my overalls while I was waiting. Feel better?”
She moved over to the open wardrobe trunk and hesitated.
“What’s the matter?”
“Oh, I don’t know—I’ve only that one damn’ rag. … ”
“Break it out. Let’s have a look at it, girl-friend.”
She held the thing against her body. Not so good, Jerry thought. Effective as hell, though. Like the dressing robe, its very dry-cleaned shabbiness was an effective contrast with her red hair and the cream of her throat.
“Swell,” he announced. “Stop frowning and crawl into it.”
The bathroom bolt didn’t click this time. Tracy rummaged through his opened suitcase. He uncorked a bottle of rye, filled a silver flask and pouched it on his hip. When the girl finally reappeared she looked at him smilelessly, steadily.
“Shoot,” he said.
“Just exactly what are we doing tonight?”
“I told you once, sweetheart. We’re going to cover an assorted bunch of ankle joints from the Village to Harlem. We’re looking for a certain party from Detroit. You’re going to point him out for future reference—or are you?”
“And after that?”
“After that we’ll shrug happily and let a big honest Mick with iron-gray hair and square-toed shoes take care of him.”
“Then you’re a police stool?”
“What of it?”
Her eyes fell before his. “I don’t know,” she admitted.
“You don’t know,” he repeated coolly. “I do. There’s the difference. Listen. I’ll probably shake hands and say hawzit! to about fifty assorted mugs tonight—some of ’em killers, all of ’em grifters and wrong guys. Not one of ’em belongs outside of a jail-house, but they’re all pals of mine and the Commissioner—up to a certain point. They tell me things and I tell them things. … Oh, hell, what’s the use of talking—you point out the guy and leave the code of ethics to me. … Here!”
He held out her fur-trimmed coat and she slipped her arms into the sleeves. He donned his own coat and reached for the snap-brim gray hat.
They stood by the railing in the Club Timbuctoo in darkest Harlem and Tracy glanced moodily at his watch. Quarter past two. No dice—it had been that way all evening.
The girl’s glance moved quickly over the crowded floor, among the tables, into every dim corner. It was hard to see dearly; the air was thick with cigarette smoke and heavy with the odor of perspiration and cheap gin. Drowsy couples moved like corpses in a slow, sticky rhythm. On a raised platform a semi-circle of sweating bandsmen rocked in unison, eyes closed, black skulls gleaming. The music was raw jungle.
Tracy looked at the girl. She shook her head slightly.
“I don’t see him.”
They walked towards Lenox Avenue.
“Tired, kid?” he asked.
“Me, too; my pups are numb. Tell you what we’ll do. There’s a couple of joints we really ought to cover before we quit. If we can’t spot him then we’ll call it a night.” He grimaced.
He whistled a cab to the curb and helped her in. As they sped southward he slipped his arm about her and her head drooped drowsily. He glanced down at her. Poor kid! She must be nearly dead! He hadn’t tabbed her wrong at all. He liked the way she kept her mouth shut and her eyes busy. And he wasn’t forgetting those strap-pumps of hers, either! He’d get her a hot spot in that second act of Spellman’s new revue—or tear off both of Sammy’s ears!
He lit a cigarette.
“About this next dive,” he said tonelessly. “Club Humpty-Dumpty—it’s a tough puddle. Tip me the wink quick if he’s there. If he isn’t, we’ll move right out”
Her head turned on his shoulder.
“He’s a snake, Jerry,” she warned. “Be careful.”
He laughed. “What have we got cops for?”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said jestingly, but her eyes remained grave.
“Not many do,” he told her. “Why do you s’pose there’s a half dozen big shots in this town that nobody bothers? Graft? Don’t be nuts. There isn’t enough dough in Manhattan to square that fella in the Commissioner’s office. The big shot operators are business men. When they bump a mug—and they’ve bumped plenty—the ordinary citizens of this burg are getting a break, sister. Sounds screwy, but it’s true. Innocent bystanders don’t get killed as often as you’d think. I’m not kidding. … ”
The Club Humpty-Dumpty was a weathered brick structure in the middle of a short block.
A slot opened in the heavy door and a shadowy face peered.
“ ’Lo, Bum! Open up!” said the newspaperman.
The face split into a sour grin. “ ’Lo, yourself.”
They stepped into a dim hallway. From behind a long wooden partition wall came the steady bleat of tinny jazz.
“Jist a few.”
“Keep your wraps on,” Jerry told the girl.
They walked down the passage towards an open doorway framed in draped black velvet, tied back in dusty folds. The girl’s hand vised on Tracy’s arm.
“The guy in the middle,” she breathed into his inclined ear.
There were three of them at a table across the tiny dance-floor. The man in the middle sat directly facing the entry. A swift flicker crossed his face as he saw the girl and Tracy. The corner of his mouth jerked inaudibly to his nearest companion. His face was unfamiliar; he looked like a Spick—sleek and dark. Black hair, jet eyes, pale olive cheeks. There was a stiff poise to his head and neck, a lidless quality in his stare that made Jerry think of a snake regarding a robin.
The newspaperman was in a tough spot and he knew it. He didn’t dare walk out, so he walked in. His feet felt like lead. He waved the waiter aside and stepped behind the girl, pushing her chair in as she sat down. As he bent over her he breathed: “Sit tight. If they go for me, scram!”
He needed a drink badly but he didn’t dare to reach for his hip-flask. A thin, hatchet-faced woman at the next table peered owlishly at him; the man with her was moodily intent on a pair of sugar-cube dice that he kept rolling monotonously across the tablecloth with a neat flick of his hairy wrist. Jerry didn’t know him; he couldn’t see anyone that he knew. The dance-floor was empty but the music blared horribly without a pause. It hurt his head to listen but he prayed silently for it to go on and on. He had a queer certainty that the moment it stopped, the man with the jet eyes was going to rise and stroll across. He was settling his check now, carelessly peeling a bill from a thick roll that he hardly looked at.
His eyes suddenly lifted past Tracy towards the velvet-draped entry.
A hubbub was going on in the hallway. A noisy crowd came spilling in—a half dozen couples, girls and men—skylarking, playing drunk, bumping against tables and waiters with cold-sober hilarity. A girl squealed out shrilly: “I smell rye! Gimme, gimme, gimme!” and the waiter jerked his tray backward as one of his glasses crashed to the floor. He wriggled away with a feeble grin; no flying wedge appeared to rush these hard-faced jokesters to the sidewalk.
Tracy saw a red moon of a face in a kind of foggy blur. He could hardly breathe. He smiled wanly and waved a small, stiff salute.
“ ’Lo, Dan,” he quavered.
The big fellow crowed with elephantine delight. “Look who’s here! Hello, yuh little bum! I’ll buy yuh a drink—whaddye think of that!”
“Just a second,” Jerry whispered to the red-headed girl.
He squeezed her cold hand and got up and walked over. Danny Murtha’s eyes narrowed soberly.
“Whassamatter, kid? You look sick.”
The columnist’s voice raced. “Listen, Dan. I’m on the spot. They got the finger on me. Those three guys—easy—don’t look.”
“No kiddin’?” Danny’s whine was flat, barely audible. “Them guinzos, you mean?”
Tracy whispered urgently.
“Dee-troit?” said Danny. “I’ll be darned! The free little guinzos from Dee-troit. … So that’s them!” He shrugged and the smiling eyes blinked sleepily. “Okey, Jerry. Thanks for the tip. … Gitcha doll and scram!”
The Planet man’s back crawled as he laid a five-dollar bill on his table. He helped the white-faced girl twitch her arms into her coat sleeves. As they walked towards the draped exit the three Detroiters rose without haste. The black-haired chiseler crossed the dance-floor to head them off. He bumped into Danny Murtha. Danny’s hand was in his pocket; he rocked on his toes and shoved slightly with his stomach.
“What’s th’ rush, monkey?”
The dark man backed up a step, his eyes cold with venom. His two companions moved quietly forward until they stood on either side of him. Other men came slouching in on either side of Danny. The trio saw that they were blocked off from the doorway by a small semi-circle of hard faces.
A voice called: “Hey! What’s goin’ on here?” and the jazz orchestra stopped suddenly.
Murtha glared sidewise at the frozen piano player.
“Well lousy, what’rye stoppin’ for? Go ahead an’ play!”
He crouched as he saw a sudden motion of the trio in front of him.
Tracy heard the roar of the shots as he shoved the girl helter-skelter to the sidewalk. Her feet dragged. She was like lead on his arm. She cried stridently: “Lemme go home! Lemme go home!” There was a night-hawk cab at the curb; they flung themselves into it and the chauffeur gagged a frightened oath and stepped on his starter. The cab rolled.
As it sped east a moon-faced man came leisurely out of the Humpty-Dumpty and helped his girl-friend into an automobile across the street. The rest of his party scattered in twos and threes and walked west. No flurry at all. …
“Lemme go home!” the girl in Tracy’s cab kept moaning to herself.
He shook her grimly. He felt as funny as hell. He wanted to choke her and kiss her—beat her into pulp, bury his scared face in the red mop of her hair. Poor little dead-game kid, with paper-thin soles and a pair of million-dollar dancing dogs—Hal LeRoy in step-ins—a smash hit for Spellman’s lousy second act!
“Listen, dope!” he said, with an odd snarl in his voice. “The war’s over. Snap out of it or I’ll whang you in the ear! I’ll be around for you tomorrow, understand? And for —— sake, stop sniveling! Sing a prayer to those sweet pups of yours, baby; they’re gonna tap you right out of the Coffee Pot circuit. If you’ve got a loose dime, bet on it.”
He left her staring frozenly at him in the dingy hotel lobby and rolled away in the cab. He was dead tired and his brain felt as thin as a razor blade.
He stopped in front of a dark theatre building in the middle of a side street. There was an alley alongside of it and he walked through to a doorway and rang the bell—two longs, two shorts. He went aloft in a tiny self-service elevator.
There were three men upstairs playing cut-throat poker.
“Thought I’d catch you guys before you quit,” he told the white-haired man with the large nose.
“You look lousy,” Spellman grinned. “What’s new?”
“Plenty! I’ve got a plug for that second-act hole you’ve been crying about. Laugh that off, Sammy.”
Spellman laid down his cards with a throaty grunt.
“Oh, yeah? He better be good, sweetheart.”
“Guess again. This he is a she.”
“I’ll do you a favor,” the producer shrugged. “I’ll look her over some time.”
“Play cards!” somebody growled.
Spellman picked up his pasteboards with inattentive fingers.
“What’s the kid’s name?” he asked.
The Planet’s playboy grinned foolishly. What in the hell was her name? He didn’t know; he didn’t care. A silly tune was jingling in his brain. “Redhead, red-head; gingerbread-head. … ”
“Big secret,” he grinned. “I’ll tell you in plenty of time for the billboards!”
BUTCH’S BIG FEET always shuffled when he was worried or puzzled. As he led the old man into the private Broadway cubby of the Planet’s famous columnist, he squirmed his huge shoulders sidewise and his soles dragged like twin ashcans.
He shot a brief glance at Jerry Tracy and resumed his fore and aft scrutiny of the visitor.
In the canny experience of Butch old guys like this worked the novelty grift between Longacre Square and the lobby of the Republic Theatre. They were hired by the Minsky Brothers or maybe Luckyfield cigarettes. Every few yards on their strolling they pressed a button and an electric sign lit up on their shirt-front, or maybe on the seat of their pants. They all wore crummy Prince Alberts like this in the daytime and changed to dress suits with shiny shirt-fronts after dark; and they all sported that white, goatlike whisker under the lower lip. Must be a rule of the union, Butch figured.
Butch waited stolidly to get the office from Jerry—either a discreet scram for himself or a swift bum’s rush for the old bird.
“Mistuh Je’y Tracy?”
A soft, blurry voice. Southern. The columnist looked at the straight back, the mild eyes. Sixty, he guessed. His gaze dropped to the veined back of the hand resting on the knobbed cane. It was puckered and fragile looking, spotted on the skin with faint brown marks like overgrown freckles. Jerry changed his guess. Seventy, at least.
He answered the formal query with a brisk: “Check. What’s the complaint?”
The old man sat down.
“Why, no complaint, I reckon. It’s merely that I’ve been info’med, suh, that you’re in a position by virtue of yo’ knowledge of theatrical matters and Bro’dway, to render me a kindly service—”
Uh, uh! Here comes the bee, Jerry thought He could almost hear it buzz. In a moment it would alight painlessly on his wallet and fly away with a buck. Well, maybe two, damn it! The old fella looked pretty tired; the hand that mopped his face was trembly …
“I’ve come to see you about my granddaughter, Mist’ Tracy. I tho’t—I’ve been reliably info’med—that you could probably help me find her.”
Tracy’s eyes narrowed. Might be the McCoy; might be a build-up. Too hot to speculate. The dead pan of his bodyguard wasn’t much help.
“Outside, Butch,” he suggested curtly.
The old man was fingering the edge of an inner pocket. “I’ve got a photograph—”
“Just a minute, Colonel.”
“Major, suh,” he corrected courteously. “Major Geo’ge Fenn.”
“Okey by me … What makes you think I find women? Somebody tell you I was a private op? And who gave you the address? Been over to the Planet office?”
“Yes, suh. I forgot—I saw a gentleman named Hennessey, I believe, and he gave me this yere note.”
“Let’s have a look, Maje,” said the columnist grimly. Dave Hennessey was getting to be pretty much of a lousy nuisance lately! Him and his nose for news! Jerry would put a cover on his can the next time he saw him!
He ripped open the envelope and read the thing with a scowl.
“The attached prise package has been getting under our feet and walking around presses looking for you. He refuses to spill the plot except to Mistuh Tracy, suh. Maybe there’s a gag in the guy. If there isn’t, toss him to Butch. D.H.”
Jerry crumpled the message disgustedly and flipped it into the waste-basket.
“That makes everything as clear as the depression,” he grinned. “Who sent you over to the Planet in the first place?”
“The clerk at the hotel. Mr. Collins. A ve’y nice man. Most helpful an’ courteous. When I explained to him that Alice Anne was in the theatrical profession he said that—”
“I know. He said Jerry Tracy, just like that. He’s not Snitch Collins, by any chance, of the dear old San Pueblo?”
“That’s right. That’s where I’m stoppin’. I like it first-rate, suh. Ve’y quiet. No noise. The cab driver recommended it.”
His wrinkled eyes smiled.
“New Yo’k is a real homey town. As nice an’ friendly folk as you’d find in the hull of No’th Ca’lina.”
Tracy nodded absently. Friendly, all right … The friendly hackman, cruising around Penn Station in a gyp-wagon, hauling fresh meat to the San Pueblo, pulling down his commission. The friendly Snitch Collins, steering the old guy to the Planet on the off chance that his joint might horn in on some publicity for a change. The friendly Hennessey, his Irish nose alert for a cheap hot-weather gag for his lip-reading customers … Just a great big friendly town!
And quiet! You couldn’t find a quieter spot than the San Pueblo Hotel if you started at the Aquarium and walked all the way to Gun Hill Road. The San Pueblo specialized in dense silence. The hard-pan dicks who dropped in for an occasional chat with the guests and the management, did all the loud talking. A month back they had carried out a small blonde exhibit from a room on the fifth floor. The Tabs made an awful noise. “Dance Hostess Slain by Fiend!” But the San Pueblo merely said: “Tsk, tsk!” got a pencil and a Racing Form and stretched out in its underwear to study the Pimlico results with the shades discreetly pulled.
Tracy said, in a flat murmur: “Yeah, it’s pretty quiet … The granddaughter’s in show bizness, you say—her name’s Alice Anne Fenn and you say she’s been up here—”
“Fo’ years, suh. But I haven’t had any letters since—”
“Let’s see the photograph.”
He studied it with a scowl. The picture was about as helpful as ear-muffs in August. A faded three-quarter pose of a girl about sixteen in a fluffy white dress, with a white ribbon, on her hair and a rolled diploma in her left hand.
“Her graduation picture,” said the old man proudly. “First in her class. Smart as a buggy whip.”
“What’s her stage name? Never told you, eh?”
“No, suh. I always wrote to Alice Anne at general delivery. She wasn’t much hand at answerin’ letters and for the last two years—”
Damn’ right, he knew! An actress, eh? that meant she might be anything. A waitress in Quids, a salesgirl in Gimbels basement. Or she might be demonstrating corn-razors or opening day-beds in a store window. Pounding the sidewalks of Sixth Avenue or doing a strip act in a cheap burlesque show. Hell—for all he knew she might have a coupla kids and be living in the Bronx, married to a shoe-clerk. Try to find a stage-struck kid from the South in this burg! New York was lousy with Southern gentlewomen trying to get their monickers up in the lights.
He picked up a sheet of paper, folded it, tore a semi-circle out of the crease. He opened the paper and laid it flat on the photograph with the girl’s face in the hole.
He studied it, looked away with eyes closed, studied it again. There was something vaguely familiar about that isolated head in the center of the white sheet. Add a few years, subtract the schoolgirl simper … Hmm … Lower-lip pout, round face and movie chin; moonlight and honey-suckle in the slow drawl of that famous second act exit …
Behind his own closed eyelids jigsaw letters joined hands and formed a name. Lola Carfax, by ——! Lola …
When he opened his eyes his face was wooden.
“Can’t place her at all, Major,” he said. “Some more dirt, please.”
“Suh?” The old man looked puzzled.
“Details. Dope. Information.”
Major George Fenn wiped his moist face and began tremulously to recollect. Jerry sucked a pencil end and listened.
Alice Anne was the only kin—his only granddaughter—all he had left—he was gettin’ old, powerful lonesome. Smart little tyke; she used to play with his watch-chain an’ call him Marse Geo’ge. The Fenns came from Thunder Run, in No’th Ca’lina. Not much of a place, but pretty, suh … Saggin’ fences an’ houn’ dawgs blinkin’ lazy, with their paws couched in the red dust o’ the road. Thunder Run warn’t much of a crick but it certainly did thunder, by Judas Priest! when the stars made everythin’ else quiet an’ the spray kep’ brashin’ an’ gurgling in the dark over them flat stones. An’ the hills—blue, suh!—with hawks driftin’ like dots an’ fat white clouds that never moved …
“So Alice Anne packed up and left,” Tracy reminded him.
That was correct. She went No’th. Grandpap couldn’t hold her, not after she married that damn’ Jeff Tayloe. Only seventeen, she was. Headstrong as a colt.
Jerry stopped sucking the pencil abruptly. So La Carfax was married! Well, well—and also, hum, hum!
Jeff Tayloe was a scamp, it seemed. A damn’ cawn-pone hill-billy with white teeth an’ a big laughin’ voice—an’ she ma’ied him. Three months later Jeff was in jail and Alice Anne smiled calculatin’ an’ far-away, packed up and went North. Plenty o’ spunk. She wrote letters for a while, then they stopped coming. Never told him her new name—he always wrote to Alice Anne Fenn at general delivery, and after a while his letters came back with big carmine rubber-stamp marks all over them.
“How long since she left, did you say?” Tracy murmured.
“Four years this Fall.”
Humm … Lola Carfax—seventeen and four—check! Three years since Hymie Feldman picked her out of thin air and gave her the juicy lead in “Southern Charm.” A natural! Couldn’t act worth a plugged dime, but her drawl—oh, man! And her luscious innocence in the second act—oh, ma-a-a-an! And her wise, case-hardened persistence in the part after the smash-hit closed. Little Lola knew instinctively what the vise critics didn’t—that Southern Charm was a golden racket in a big evil-minded burg, if you played the role on Park Avenue and met the right people and your voice was as soft and velvety as pollen on a bee’s thigh … A luscious peach from the Southland with a small, rotten pit tucked snugly away in the fruit. Jerry knew the outlines; Patsy would know a hell of a lot more!
He said, absently, “Beg pardon?”
“—my declinin’ years,” the old man was saving in a slow, stately murmur. “The last prop of my house. If you could only find her—”
“I thought you said she had a brother,” Tracy lied in an odd voice.
The old man hadn’t said anything of the kind, yet he nodded.
“Did I mention him? Her brother, Henry Fenn, made the supreme sacrifice in France, suh. She’s all I have left.”
“Check,” said an odd, gasping voice in Jerry’s brain. “No brother to guide her. Then who whelped Buell Carfax? And—holy sweet hominy!—can it be that young Massa Buell has white teeth and a big, laughing voice? Also, how tight are Southern jails, I wonder?”
He was burning with a desire to get to Patsy and soak up her slants on the subject. Patsy could spear a fish like Lola Carfax with a dozen well-chosen words.
He got to his feet, smiled, held out his hand.
“Tell you what, Major. You’ve got me interested. I don’t recognize the photograph but I’ll keep it, if you don’t mind. You wait for developments at the San Pueblo—I’ll have Butch ride you over in a cab. It may take a little time to trace Alice Anne—”
“I was hopin’ you might find her for me in the next fo’ty-eight hours,” Major Fenn said faintly. “Circumstances at Thunder Run make it impe’ative, I’m afraid—”
Busted. The old fella had his fare probably and a small, carefully counted roll …
“We’ll do the best we can, Maje,” said Tracy cheerfully.
He stepped into the outer office and leaned over Butch’s cauliflower ear.
“Take this guy over to the San Pueblo. After you’ve parked him, go up to Snitch Collins at the desk and tell him I said to keep his hooks off the major. Tell him if he doesn’t I’ll send someone over there that’ll take him by the ears and smash every—chair in the lobby with his heels! Tell him that from me.”
Butch made a slow spittle-noise with his lips. He pulled his unfailing joke, a high-pitched falsetto: “Is that a promise?”
He went out with the major and Tracy walked to the window and stared across at the dirty façade of the Times Building.
He put on his hat after a while and went out.
Typewriters were clicking busily in the Planet’s big news room. Hennessey looked up from the city desk as Tracy breezed by.
“Hi, Jerry! Get any belly laffs outa the old gempmum?”
“Shut up, you ape, or I’ll raise a high hat on your skull!” Tracy grinned. “Patsy around?”
“Where d’yuh get that Patsy stuff? Lay off! I happen to know she don’t like it.”
“Brrr! You happen to know? You wouldn’t know if your collar was unbuttoned, Dave. See you later when you got money.”
He turned a corner, went down a corridor and stepped into the third cubby on the left.
“H’lo, Bum.” She sat back. “Lousier an’ lousier. This place makes me sick. I could be fired right now for what I think I’ve been toying with the quaint notion of expunging myself from the payroll”
“So what? And if same occurs?”
“I could try newspaper work for a change.”
“Ouch! That hurt!” He looked at her with alert eyes.
“No kiddin’, Jerry,” she said gravely.
She was tall and slim, almost loose-jointed. Nice face, dark hair and eyes, small mouth. She dished up society news and could write with a cruel, jewel-like hardness when the need arose. It seldom did. Her customers rode in the Bronx Express and liked prose poems about Piping Rock. She could turn that stuff out in her sleep. She and Jerry were the twin stars that made the circulation manager of the Planet sing in his bathtub. Doris Waverly’s Chat, syndicated …
She bad been born in a beery flat on Tenth Avenue. Kicked loose, saved up, pulled a grim A.B. out of Vassar—talked nice to strangers and tough to friends. Her real name was Veronica Mulligan. Tracy called her Patsy and she liked it. Hennessey, the city editor, tried it once and she curled him like Cellophane with a brief, pungent description of his type, straight out of the Elizabethan drama.
“Ever hear of Lola Carfax, of the ole Southern Carfaxes?” Tracy asked her.
“Ah reckon Mistuh Beauregard. … Why ask me? You’ve got the rat assignment, Jerry.”
“Come, come, child! Poppa wants the dirt.”
“Want it brief?”
“I’ll say it slowly. She’s a wise, crooked, honey-drawlin’, little—”
“I getcha. B as in bird-dog.”
“And not the Poppa, either. … ” She grinned. “Why the sudden interest?”
“Her grand-pappy’s in town. The real name, if you’d like to know, is Alice Anne Fenn. Take a long look and say yes or no.”
She studied the photograph.
“It’s Lola, all right. That’s one dame that can make the hackles rise on me. She and her pretty brother!”
“What’s he like, this brother? Wait—don’t talk! Has he got nice strong, white teeth and a big laughing voice?”
“That’s Buell. Add the professional drawl and the phoney courtly manner and he’s yours.”
The columnist’s smile cut a little crease in his face.
“What makes you think I want him? Listen, Patsy! She married him when he was Jeff Tayloe, when she was shy and seventeen, in the dear old deep Southland.”
“Tell me some more,” Patsy said slowly. Her dark eyes were like agate.
He told her a lot. When he had finished she nodded.
“I’ve often wondered about Buell Carfax,” she admitted. “He’s only been on the scene for a year or so. Her graft is no mystery but I never could figure brother Buell. They’re smooth workers. Right now I’d say they’re both definitely in the inner sanctum. I’ve only heard one ‘no’ since Lola gave Park Avenue the office. It came from old Miss Lizzie Marvin of Sutton Place. Somebody said: ‘Dear little Lola! Such a sweet child!’ And the ancient virgin from Sutton Place smiled her wise old smile. ‘The little girl in white? Ah, yes. … She fairly stink-ks of Southern charm!’ I had all I could do to keep from hugging the old warhorse!”
Jerry lit a cigarette, leaned over the desk and blew smoke against his trick Panama.
“Scene changes. What about this Doctor Altman? Profile, please.”
Her lips curled.
“There’s a suspicious nose in the profile, but the good doctor is Church of England. Edgar Louis Altman. He gets around. Surgeon, polo, squash—maybe Lola Carfax.”
“There’s always a big maybe about matrimony—did I tell you the girl was smart? She’s been in the money for months, but like old Robert E. Lee, she wont surrender without a ceremony. If I were you I’d bet on matrimony. Altman has sunk enough dough already to make a wedding look like good economy. He’s chasing her hard, Jerry.”
“I’ll make a note of that,” he grinned. “The little girl is chased!”
She said irritably: “Stay sober. How about Buell Carfax? The big brother with the nice teeth.”
“You asking me, Patsy? A nice boy like Jeff Tayloe gets out of a North Carolina jail, sees something in a rotogravure, reads something else in the social chatter, picks a few pockets and comes North. What a lovely reunion that must have been! I’d say the split was 50-50, but we know Lola is smart so maybe he’s only cutting a straight 10 per cent. Even at that, he could play ball—it’s a life job, Patsy, and a handsome brother with a smooth line is worth 10 per cent of anyone’s dough.”
Her face clouded. “And the old grand-pappy’s in town? He sounds nice. It’s nice to find someone that’s McCoy once in a while. … Where’s he parked?”
Jerry chuckled. “You’d never guess. San Pueblo. Nice and quiet, he says.”
“Holy cats! Well—what are you going to do?”
“None of your damn’ business.”
“I’d like to talk to the old fella.”
“You’d better like it,” he said. “You’ve been talking to too many phonies lately. It spoils your temper. Go on over and pump him. It’s a tonic. Tell him I’ve got a lead. If you have time you might drop in on the Carfax suite and smell the air. … What would you like to do tonight?”
“You wouldn’t understand, you heel.”
“The hell I wouldn’t! I’ll shoot an arrow, just to show you. Let’s go yokel for the evening.”
“Are you kidding?”
He pulled on his Panama, snapped the trick brim, waited.
“A corned-beef dinner,” said Doris Waverly, Inc. “With cabbage, or you can go to hell! A ride on the Staten Island Ferry. We’ll sit on the top and you’ll keep your mouth shut and hold my hand. Did anyone ever tell you you talk too much?”
He leaned over and kissed her on the tip of her sharp nose.
“You simple-minded ape,” he said, and went out the door, grinning.
She’s got the summertime heebies, he decided mentally. The poor kid looked seedy, tired. He’d siphon a coupla drinks into her tonight and try to wisecrack her out of the gloom.
But Patsy wasn’t to be blarneyed. She was glum over the corned-beef, sour on the boat ride. She borrowed his butts and stared morosely at the lights of St. George. The boat thudded monotonously; the vibration added their feet.
“How’d you enjoy Lola and the boy friend?” he inquired.
“Dead fish,” she snapped. “Must be a few more in the Harbor tonight. Get dat sweet whiff! Do you s’pose it’s true that Indians used to paddle around this lousy burg in clean water before the smell era?”
“Don’t go Noble Redman,” he grinned. “Friend of mine went to Taos once. According to him, the Injun kids learn to smell long before they learn to eat.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised. … I saw a clean show today, Jerry.”
“You’re telling me! How’d you like the old fella?”
He watched the slow smile come and go.
“Ni-i-ce. An old-fashioned road show crammed full of hoke. … I don’t think it was good for me. Made me think of Dennis Aloysius.”
“Do I know Dennis?”
“Why should you?” she said, sweetly. “He was the respected sire. The ancestor. Tenth Avenue. Waterfront whiskey. Beer by the scuttle for a chaser.”
Her cigarette end glowed jaggedly, once, twice, and then went over the rail in a long arc.
“You’re swell company,” said the columnist feebly.
They stood outside the gaunt cavern of the South Ferry Terminus and a hackman threw open his door invitingly.
Tracy said: “You need a coupla highballs, cheerful!”
“No.” She hesitated. “But if you knew where we could get a tall glass of good old-fashioned beer—”
Tracy grinned. “With pretzels.”
“And some Roquefort and crackers—and a slice of Bermuda onion.”
Jerry turned to the chauffeur.
“Okey, Rocco. Click us uptown till you hit Third Avenue. I’ll tell you where to stop.”
They downed a couple of tall ones, found out they were hungry, and fixed that too. They walked over to Fifth.
On the downtown bus the girl said, suddenly: “What are you going to do about Anne and the last of the Fenns?”
“Have I got to tell you that again? None of your damn business.”
“You always were a consistent rat!” she said with cold rage.
Tracy chuckled without rancor.
“Here’s the schedule. Go over to see Massa Geo’ge Fenn tomorrow morning. Tell him that Old Sleuth Tracy knows all and that the search has been successful. Take him over to the Consolidated Ticket Offices and if they roll Pullmans as far as Thunder Run, say Pullman as though you meant it.”
“Any other little jobs?”
“Sure. Check him out of the San Pueblo. See that Snitch Collins behaves himself on room extras. Then I’ll let you bring the major over to me. I’ll be in the Times Square hideout. Any questions? Dismissed!”
He pressed the stop buzzer.
She wrenched around to look at him. Her voice was a whisper, a mere thread.
“You lousy heel, if you do anything or say anything to hurt that old man, I swear to I’ll—”
“My corner. I get off here,” said the columnist.
He tipped his hat, swayed down to the rear of the bus and swung off. He called up from the sidewalk: “So long, Babe.”
She leaned over the rail and gave him a furious farewell—a loud and rather fruity bird.
“Ding, ding,” went the bell. The grinning conductor leaned way out to stare. He hung like a swaying chimpanzee for the next five blocks.
Mr. Beull Carfax was tall, handsome, with cold eyes and a small ashblond mustache. He bowed briefly to Tracy and shot a quick flicker at the stolid Butch. Tracy had forgotten to mention Butch over the wire.
“I hardly think, Mister Tracy,” said the courtly brother of Lola, “that Mis’ Carfax would care to be interviewed. Any news of plans, social engagements and so fo’th is, of co’se, sent to yo’ readers regularly by Mis’ Carfax’s secretary.”
Tracy said: “This is different.”
“If there is anything that I personally might—”
Tracy said, again: “This is different.”
The cold eyes focused on him. After a moment they blinked.
“Very well. This way, please.”
Nobody said anything to Butch. He trailed after Tracy. Lola Carfax was standing on the far side of the room, examining a small hunting print on the wall. She didn’t turn around.
Buell said, in his stately drawl: “Lola, honey, here’s that newspaperman.”
She paid no attention. Tracy walked swiftly across. His smile was as thin as a hacksaw blade. He stood and looked at her back for a moment. He caught her eye reflected in the glass of the picture frame.
He said, deliberately: “Turn around, you cheap little grifter!”
She whirled. Her beauty was like the flash of a blinding ray. Tense, wordless, carved in ice. Her red lips were parted slightly, she seemed scarcely to breathe. Her eyes had the cold, hard glaze of a cat’s.
Across the room, Buell Carfax gave a thick bellow of rage.
“Why, dam’ yo’ filthy Yankee—”
As he sprang forward his hand came away from his vest pocket. The light glinted on the muzzle of a tiny derringer. Butch’s hand thrust out with the speed of a striking snake. His hairy fingers closed around the slender wrist and bent arm and weapon upward.
There was a muffled report; a short, straining tussle; Carfax squealed shrilly as his pinioned arm snapped.
Butch’s left hand caught the slumping man by the throat and pinned him upright against the wall. He held him there almost casually. His attention was on the little derringer in his own right palm. Butch had never seen a toy like that before. He stared at it with the absorbed curiosity of a monkey.
Tracy smiled into the lovely eyes of Lola. She was lifeless, stiff, except for the candle-flame in her eyes. There was something eerie and horrible in the intensity of her fright. Her voice was barely audible.
“Is this a hold-up?”
“You’re damn’ right”
“What are you after?”
“Everything you got.”
They were like conspirators whispering together in a dark cave.
“You can’t get away with this. You must be insane. You’re a madman.”
He said to her: “No, I’m not—Mrs. Jeff Tayloe.”
The flame he was watching was quenched for an instant and then blazed up brighter than before.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Oh yes you do, baby.”
There was no humanity in Tracy, either. Two lumps of ice whispering together.
He paused a moment.
“Thunder Run,” he said. “It’s in North Carolina. No comment?”
She watched him with that horrible immobility.
“Just an old-fashioned story about an old-fashioned gal. Once upon a time there was a gal. Pretty name. Alice Anne Fenn. Lots of brains but no judgment. She was always a sucker for white teeth and a big bass voice. So she married a lousy hill-billy home from the wars, name of Jeff Tayloe—and Jeff carved a yaller gal in a particularly nasty way and went to jail—and little Alice Anne saw the Big Town beckoning, packed her cotton underwear and scrammed North.”
Tracy grinned like a wolf. Butch had pocketed the derringer. His left hand still pinned the boy friend against the wall. He was listening to the bedtime story with a puzzled interest.
“Only trouble was Jeff Tayloe was smart, too,” the columnist resumed. “He wangled a pardon after a while and saw a photo and read the papers. He had pretty sharp eyes. It all worked out swell after the first dirty argument. Then they got down to business. Jeff got a break; Alice Anne got a well-built husband that she had kinda missed; Lola Carfax got a brother and a protector. Background means a lot on Park Avenue. Brother Buell was well worth the percentage he held out for.”
His voice sounded friendly, quite cheerful.
“A swell arrangement for all hands except the fish. But the fish has dough, so who cares? This fish even thinks about marrying, believe it or not. Good old Doctor Edgar Looie Altman. Let’s see; he lives at the Mayflower, doesn’t he?”
The movie chin trembled. The little-girl eyes were grown up now and haggard. A bead of sweat gathered in the hollow under the red pout of her lower lip.
“Blackmail,” she whispered stonily.
“You tellin’ me?”
“You can’t prove it. He’ll throw you out on your face.”
Tracy said, mildly: “I forgot to tell you. Grandpa’s in town. Major Geo’ge Fenn. As innocent as a child—proud of his race and his lineage—as simple and honest as they come. I thought I’d take him over to see the Doctor.”
Her throat made an ugly rattling sound.
“Damn your soul, if I had a knife I’d rip your belly—”
Slow tears welled from her eyes. He waited.
“How much?” she said, finally.
“I told you once. Everything you got.
“Five thousand, cash.”
Tracy laughed at her.
“Put on your hat, lousy. Go get your bankbook. We’re gonna take a walk and close an account.”
“It’s all I’ve got in the world. You’ll strip me.”
“That’s a good start. You’ll get along. … Keep an eye on the boy friend, Butch. Well be back. Look this joint over.”
Butch nodded and his big forehead creased with a self-conscious and intelligent frown. “Sure, sure.” Buell Carfax’s face was a dull purple. He was out on his feet. His broken arm hung limply.
She looked at him with a cold loathing as she went out. Tracy held open the door ceremoniously. He had a brief case with him. He had brought it along because he preferred cash.
When they returned Butch was sitting alone in an armchair, smoking a cigar. The top of his breast pocket looked like a pipe organ of Havana Specials. He nodded towards an inner room.
“On the bed in there, Mr. Tracy. I hadda slough him. How’d yuh make out?”
“Fair. Did you go over the joint?”
“Yop. Small change. … Got a baby roll outa his hip pocket Coupla saw bucks in the bureau, wrapped up in a silk pantie.”
He grinned, got up and took the heavy brief-case.
Lola Carfax watched them go. A faint moaning reached her ears from the inner room. She stood rigid, listening to the monotonous sound for a long time. A haggard face swam back at her from the small antique mirror on the wall.
She screeched at it suddenly. Sprang at the mirror and wrenched it down. Whirled, flung it viciously with both hands. Then she stood there shaking, looking dully at the jagged fragments.
Patsy brought Major Fenn into Tracy’s little Times Square office with a slow, solicitous smile for the old man and a quick, stabbing scowl at the bland columnist. There was not much of Doris Waverly about her—and a whole lot of Veronica Mulligan. She looked worried, vaguely suspicious.
Tracy sprang up and gave the old man his chair. He hooked another one closer with his toe and Patsy snapped shortly: “Thanks,” and sat down.
Tracy fiddled with a pencil and laid it down again.
“I, er … I promised Id try to find your granddaughter, Major. It’s been quite a search. I, er … I’ve been successful.”
“You’ve found Alice Anne?”
“I’ve found out about her,” Tracy said evenly.
“Where is she? Have you her address?”
The Planet’s playboy hesitated.
“Do you want the truth? You’d like to know the truth, even if it—hurt?”
The shaggy eyebrows twitched. The pink face went gradually gray.
“I reckon the plain truth will suit me, suh.”
The girl at his side made a sudden hopeless gesture.
“Listen, Jerry! You didn’t find her. You’re lying. You made a mistake.”
His shaking voice became even again.
“I found her under her stage name. The identification is proved. The photograph of Alice Anne and the facts you gave me were conclusive evidence. … Did you ever hear of the Arcadia Theatre?”
No. George Fenn hadn’t heard. Neither had Veronica Mulligan, from the look on her face.
Jerry told them about it. It stood on Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, opposite the Park. The pride of New York—the old Arcadia Theatre. It housed nothing but the best, the finest, the cream. Alice Anne was its greatest star—its last glorious star.
The girl was staring at Tracy with amazement.
“A little over a year ago,” Jerry said, “Alice Anne played her greatest role. In the middle of the second act there was a blinding flash backstage, a sheet of flame shot out from the proscenium. … There’s a new hotel where the grand old playhouse stood. The theatre was totally destroyed.”
The columnist’s forehead was glistening with sweat.
“Alice Anne Fenn was standing in the wings in costume, waiting for her cue, when the flames came. She refused to leave the theatre; shook off the hands of rescuers. She knew there were two chorus girls, hemmed in by flame in a blind corridor on the dressing-room level. Alice Anne gave up her life in a vain effort to save those two girls.”
He added, tonelessly: “When the ruins were searched she was not—found.”
Patsy’s palm rested suddenly on the back of the major’s veined hand. Her eyes were hard and bright, enigmatic.
“Thank you, suh,” George Fenn managed to articulate. He drew in a deep breath. “I certainly want to—to thank you for your—efforts—”
“Why, that’s all right. … There—there were a few legal matters connected with your granddaughter’s estate. I took the liberty of acting as your agent, signing for you. The trust officials were quite sympathetic, friendly.”
He touched the fat brief-case awkwardly.
“The estate, of course, goes to you. I thought you’d like it in cash. It’s here—a little over ten thousand dollars.”
The columnist shifted slightly in his chair to avoid the angry challenge in Patsy’s eyes. The old man wasn’t listening at all; the talk of money was a meaningless buzzing on his ear-drums.
He said, gently: “She could do no other, being Fenn. She was suckled on gallantry, suh. … She used to twist my watch chain with her little fat fingers, call me Massa Geo’ge. … My dead son’s child. … ”
“You’ve got his ticket bought?” Tracy whispered to Patsy.
He pressed a buzzer with a fierce, fumbling jab.
“All right, Butch. Take care of the brief-case. Go over to Penn Station with him. See him aboard.”
The major got slowly to his feet. He turned at the door and Patsy turned with him. Her arm braced his.
“I want to thank you,” said the major, “for yo’ kindly help. New York’s been mighty fine to me. Nothin’ but friendliness in the two days I’ve been here. I’d feel it remiss not to thank you, not to let you know my deep gratitude.” He patted the hand his arm. “You too, Mis’ Waverly.”
They passed outside and the columnist heard Patsy’s strained voice. “Wait a minute, Butch. Just a second.”
She came back and closed the door.
“Listen, Rockefeller! I’m in on this. Your damn’ dough’s no better than mine! I’ve got a half interest in the racket or I’ll swing on your lip right now!”
He grinned at her in startled wonder.
“——! you’re as pretty as a picture, Kid. … Don’t be silly. It’s not my dough.”
“I went to the proper window for it. Carfax. I pumped her for every nickel she had.”
“Are you lying, you —— ?”
“Stop snuffling and show sense. Do I dig for ten grand of hard-earned Tracy jack because some old bozo comes drifting in to put the bee on me? Grow up, baby; you’re living in a big town.”
“It stinks,” she shrilled suddenly.
“Who said it didn’t? So does Thunder Run. So does every other damn’ burg. You’re still soft, baby; get back in the water and boil some more.”
She stared at him with brimming eyes that jeered at him.
“Tell your friend Hennessey to run a want-ad in the Planet.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m through with this lousy town. I’m going where I can breathe clean air.”
She fumbled in her handbag, threw an envelope on the desk in front of him. Jerry could see Pullman tickets—two seats—to Thunder Run.
She looked at him defiantly. “What the hell do you think of that!”
She swept the tickets into her purse and the door slammed.
A moment later it opened slowly.
“Jerry. … Hey, hardboiled … ” Her eyes were soft. “Any time you get sick of this crooked game, come on down to Thunder Run. I’d be awful glad to see you. … Anytime. … ”
The door swung with a small click.
Tracy leaned back in his chair, cupped the back of his skull with his clasped hands. After a while he grimaced wanly.
“I’m not so tough,” he thought. “I gotta be careful or they’ll have me pitchin’ hay in Wichita—or wherever the hell you pitch hay!”
He dragged a notebook out of his pocket and flipped open the pages to a recent entry. He got up and went over to the dictaphone.
He shrugged and spoke nasally into the flexible tube of the instrument:
“Harvey Smith, feed and grain impresario, and his wife, the former Claire La Tour, are ffft-ffft. … Mrs. Smith has left for Reno to establish legal residence. … It’s a girl. … ”
PARK AVENUE ITEM
THERE WERE TWO or three angles to that phone call from McNulty that made Jerry Tracy decide to roil up Park Avenue and have a look at the place. Jerry had a high regard for the old man’s judgment; and the flat, singsong voice on the wire sounded quite positive: “Me think velly much on level okey. Boss. Where hell you stay all night?”
McNulty was Tracy’s butler, major-domo, conscience and guide. An enormously fat and unsmiling Cantonese Chinaman, he ran the domestic affairs of Libel’s End—which was Tracy’s penthouse—with a wise and stolid tyranny. His ancestral name was Mei-Now-Lee, or something of the sort—so Jerry called him McNulty and so did everybody else. He had, it seemed, been trying to locate Tracy since two o’clock that morning.
“Make tlenty calls,” he complained. “Hab bleakfast. Make tlenty-four. Where hell you go? You dlunk?”
Jerry grinned. He was, he told the Chinaman, stone sober. He had been out to an impromptu brawl with Hart Schaffher and the Four Marx Brothers. Just dropped into Frank’s place for a tonic. … His smile hardened.
“Did Johnny Vega make the call himself?” he asked. “Or did some friend of his pass the tip along?”
“Me think Johnny Vega. Not sure, Boss. Sound quick, sound velly unhappy.”
“Okey, McNulty,” the Planet’s columnist grunted. “I don’t have to tell you to keep your mouth shut.”
He stepped out of the speake’s soundproof booth, nodded to the tall man polishing glassware and started for the door.
“Gotta go home and prove I’m sober,” he chuckled.
“That Chink’s a darb,” said the tall man morosely. “S’long.”
On the way uptown in the cab Jerry glanced again at the address and apartment number he had scribbled in his notebook.
There were two or three angles. … In the first place, Jerry had never wholly subscribed to the town’s theory that Johnny Vega was the guy that had slipped the heat to Kane. It was a mug’s trick any way you looked at it—a hop-head stunt to drill a first grade Dee like Marty Kane who, everybody knew, was a sob’d, plainclothes veteran with six kids and a million friends. Yet the circumstantial evidence and the whispers all pointed to Vega, and then Johnny had taken that quick, panicky dive out of sight.
The Department gave Kane an inspector’s funeral and for six weeks now there had been a steady editorial yelp from the anti-administration sheets to nail down the coattails of the vanished Johnny Vega. Up to now the harassed commissioner had been unable to oblige—and here was a phone call, apparently from Johnny himself, telling a Chinaman named McNulty in a scared voice that he hadn’t killed Kane, that he had found out who had, and would Jerry Tracy for God’s sake come around, grab the confidential info and slip it to the commish for a quick pinch?
Jerry frowned as his cab swung north on Park Avenue. The yarn dicked. Vega was a wrong guy, a grifter; but he wasn’t a crazy hood, a cop killer. Not in Jerry’s album anyway. The phone call proved that he still had his head on right, that he trusted the columnist. And why in hell shouldn’t he? They had always played ball together until the murder of Kane gummed the works. The withdrawal of tie dark-eyed little Vega from circulation irked the Planet man. It was no coincidence that for the past six weeks the column hadn’t tabbed a single muscle item that was worth printing.
Jerry dropped the cab and walked up the east side of Park Avenue for two blocks with a grimly sour feeling that Detective Marty Kane hadn’t helped anybody a nickel’s worth by sticking his big, honest belly in line with a hot slug.
The apartment building was typical of the neighborhood—eighteen stories, square as a drygoods box, built to turn in a profit on every last foot of rentable space. With a shallow entry, a canopy and a lazy admiral. Only there wasn’t any admiral. No taxi-stand outside, either. Funny. … The doors were shut tight—they were locked.
Tracy eyed the pushbell at the side of the door-frame. He had just made up his mind, for no reason at all, not to push it when a voice said mildly: “Lookin’ for somebody?”
A big bluecoat was grinning at him from the sidewalk; a spruce, good-looking young cop. The smiling eyes glanced with approval at the columnist’s tricky light overcoat and made a shrewd and wrong deduction.
“You won’t find her here, Bud. She’s pro’ly at the Canopus. Next corner, across on the other side. They moved all the tenants over to the Canopus Hotel two months ago. Didn’t she tip you off? The place here is closed up tight. Nobody around but a caretaker.”
Tracy blinked. He said, slowly: “What’s the idea? Small-pox?”
“Depresh,” said the patrolman, and amplified with a bored air.
“No new leases, d’ye see? Owners tryin’ to keep up the old rent scale. Only a dozen lease-holders in the whole buildin’. So what does the wise big shot in the realty comp’ny do? Moves the tenants over to furnished suites in the Canopus Hotel—signs an agreement to pay all expenses—fires all help except the guy in the basement—locks up the whole place, so help me. … It’s cheaper, d’ye see, to carry the handful o’ tenants in a hotel than it would be to keep the joint goin’ with heat an’ hot water an’ elevators an’ doormen an’ all the rest of it. Both sides save money.”
Two months ago, the cop said. … The columnist’s eyes gleamed at the thought. You could put six weeks into two months very nicely; and it was just about six weeks since they lowered big Marty Kane to rest in Calvary. A guy in the basement, according to the cop. And, if you believed in telephone messages, a guy maybe in apartment 12-B. Not a bad idea if you were under the hatches and your name was Johnny Vega.
Tracy didn’t bother calling at the Hotel Canopus. Instead, he turned the corner and took a slow, leisurely stroll around the block. The cop was well up the Avenue now, his broad back a dwindling spot of blue. Jerry halted casually at the service entrance and tried the grilled gate. It wasn’t locked. He closed it behind him, went down a long sloping ramp through a whitewashed tunnel, descended steps to a sheer-walled courtyard, walked into the basement.
A dim, quiet labyrinth. A few yellow bulbs burning. Through an open door he could see the tubs and dryers of the laundry. His nose crinkled at the faint smell of heat—a funny smell. A turn round a corner showed him the service elevator with its door open and a light burning. He stared at it speculatively and lit a cigarette. As he exhaled expensive smoke he heard the scrape of hurrying feet and a voice growled: “What the hell d’yuh want?”
A little fellow. Looked like a Swede. Brown dungarees and a big wrench in his right hand. Johnny Vega’s lookout, probably. Scared as hell, too! The wrench was trembling visibly in his fist.
The Swede took in Jerry’s sartorial splendor with a quick gulp, and added placatingly out of the corner of his mouth: “Was yuh lookin’ for somebody Mister?”
Tracy studied him silently. He knew this guy—he’d place him in a minute. … His mind clicked suddenly. He didn’t know him—it wasn’t the face that was familiar, but the signs. The hunched shoulders, the cocked head, the pasty phiz, the words clipped out endwise. This mug was an ex-con; he’d been in stir somewhere. Under the stress of his queer panic he was broadcasting The Prisoner’s Song like a brass band. …
“I’m a friend of Johnny Vegans,” Tracy said.
The little Swede gulped nervously. “Dunno who yuh mean, Mister. They ain’t no one livin’ in the house now. The whole place is closed up.”
Tracy shook his head, smiled blandly.
“Booshwah. … I said I’m a friend of Johnny Vega’s. That means I’m not a dick, a nose, a stool or a screw. Just a friend—get me?—a pal.”
“Never heard of him, Mister, an’ that’s Gawd’s truth.”
“That’s funny. He called me up from this building last night and asked me to come over and see him. How do you figure that?”
The Swede’s quick shrug was like a gooseflesh shudder.
“Okey. I gotta be careful, y’unnerstan’. The guy’s on the lam and it you’re a pal of his, you know why.” He paused a moment and licked his lips. “Johnny ain’t here. He breezed last night.”
“Where’d he go?”
“Don’t be silly, Mister. Would he tell me?”
“What time’d he pull out?”
“ ’Bout midnight.” The Swede studied the expressionless face of his visitor. “Maybe ha’ past twelve. I didn’t notice exactly.”
Damn’ right you didn’t notice, was Tracy’s thought According to McNulty, Vega’s call came through a little after two a.m. The Swede was a punk liar and a lousy guesser.
Tracy said aloud: “Okey. Maybe he’ll gimme a ring from his new dive. If he’s got sense, he will.”
“Sure. He’ll pro’ly do that. That’s what he’ll pro’ly do.”
They both nodded sagely at this ideal solution and Jerry dropped his cigarette and crushed it under his sole. As he turned away his palm rested for an instant on the whitewashed firebrick wall beside him. The firebrick was quite warm—hot, in fact. The smell of heat was quite perceptible. He sniffed a couple of times.
“Pretty early for steam,” Tracy said mildly.
“Yeah. Just a touch o’ pressure to keep out chill an’ damp. These big buildin’s are like tombstones when they’re empty. They git pretty chilly.”
To prove it he wiped his moist forehead. Jerry said: “I wouldn’t know about those things,” grinned, waved a polite gesture and walked out through the basement
The Swede stood watching him from the concrete arch outside the laundry door, with the Stillson hanging loosely a his thin, bony hand. Tracy turned out of sight into the long paved courtyard and went up the steps to the sidewalk ramp. There were eighteen steps. He climbed twelve of them and marked time for the remaining six. Then he turned around on his rubber heels and stood there, a thin grimace on his lips. He was going to have a look at apartment 12-B, no kiddin’. He was quite sure about that. If the Swede’s head showed in the courtyard he’d walk down again and ask him something. Take a chance on the wobbly wrench. He wasn’t a hell of a lot impressed with the caretaker’s toughness.
The Swede didn’t show. After a while Tracy descended gingerly, rubber-heeled it across the courtyard, removed his hat and took a cautious one-eyed peek. The nervous caretaker was gone. There was a faint clanging going on in the sub-cellar below. Jerry listened for a few seconds and grinned. Just a mug from Scandinavia! He slid into the open service elevator and closed the catch with a mild click.
He rode up to the twelfth floor. 12-B was at the end of the service hall, close to the big fire-door that led to the tenants’ hall and the main elevator. The columnist opened the metal door, looked through and closed it again. The main elevator was probably locked and dark. Johnny Vega would be more apt to use the service shaft. He had become damned leery of Mr. Johnny Vega in the last ten minutes. What was it all about anyway? For no reason at all his belly was contracting nervously. He hated to press the buzzer on 12-B.
After a brief hesitation, instead he rapped boldly—three times. Nothing happened and he rapped again. After a while he heard the slap of approaching footsteps—sounded like bare feet.
A nasal voice, a woman’s voice with a nervous saw-edge to it, cried petulantly: “That you, Nick?”
Tracy gargled unintelligibly.
“—— sake!” the voice shrilled fiercely. “ ’S a wonder you wouldn’t use your key, you dumb—”
The door opened partly and he saw the staring, bloodless face of a woman under a green rubber bathing-cap. Instantly he put his foot in the door.
Jerry knew his little piece by heart now. He watched her curiously as he recited it. “I’m a friend of Johnny Vega’s.”
Her pale face went paler and she stared at him. After a moment she smiled at him mechanically and allowed him to push the door a bit farther. “You had me scared, brother, jammin’ in like that. … I thought for a minute you was a flattie.”
He laughed. “Since when do dicks wear coats like this? Believe it or not, it came from London—and I don’t mean London, Ohio.”
She laughed, too; not a good laugh. “You say you’re a pal of Johnny’s?”
Tracy nodded. “Johnny and me are just like that.”
She said: “You’re too late, brother. The kid ain’t here. We was tipped that the place was gettin’ hot and he breezed. How’d yuh know he was here?”
“He called up my dump three days ago. Needed half a grand. I was out of town and just got the message. He been gone long?”
“Coupla days. Musta raised the jack somewhere else. Thanks just the same. If you wanta slip me the dough—I’m his babe.”
She was his babe—and he left two days ago—he must have come back and left all over again according to the Swede in the cellar. What the hell were they all lying about?
Tracy looked keenly at her eyes, the nervous hands, the pale lips with the sagging flesh-lines at their corners.
He said, coolly: “Nix. This is Johnny’s dough. I’ll hold it for him. I’m not staking his babe to a trip through Switzerland.”
She grinned at that. Her right fingertips jerked suddenly to her left forearm with a slow rotary movement of which she was entirely unconscious.
She said, sneeringly: “You’re a pretty wise jasper, at that. Only I don’t sleigh-ride. Morph’s my dish, dearie.”
This whole thing was screwy, Jerry decided suddenly. Screwy as hell. The jane was alone and trying hard to bounce him away with a bluff. Well, he didn’t bounce. … He’d give this joint the once-over.
The girl backed away as he pushed through the door.
His narrowed eyes flicked from the woman to the room, back to the woman. Her face was like soft putty. She was quite obviously in a state of near nudity except for the silk negligée and the green rubber cap. She had no slippers on her bare feet. Every shade in the room was drawn. A kerosene lamp burned smokily on a side table. The whole place reeked with it.
“Didn’t get you out of the bathtub, did I?” he said idly.
The glassy eyes focused sharply. She drew in an audible breath. The fear that had ebbed for a moment came spilling up through her eyeballs. Like a wave on the beach, Jerry thought.
She grimaced and took a step towards him.
“Be a nice boy. Scram, like a good fella.”
He didn’t move from her push. Just stood there. “Why?” he asked her.
“Because—well—I ain’t exactly wearin’ overcoat an’ hip-boots—an’ if Johnny came back for somethin’ an’ seen us together—he’s a jealous bimbo—”
Tracy laughed, a chuckle of amusement.
“You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t getcha.” He heard her teeth grind.
“Sure you do. You thought I was Nick. That’s why you opened up.”
“He’s—he’s the guy downstairs.” Her voice blurred. “The Swede in the basement. He’s coverin’ us. I thought it was him with a letter from Johnny. Jeeze, you’re suspicious, honey.”
Nick—that Swede in the basement? Not on your tintype, thought Jerry; but he only said: “Aw, no. … Mind if I take a look around?”
He thought she was going to faint. He hoped she would. But she didn’t.
He could barely hear the flat whisper: “I guess I can’t stop you.”
“You’re damn’ right you can’t. … What’s that door? A closet? No, you show me. … ”
Closet, empty. He followed her. Passage way, pantry, kitchen. About face and back again; bathroom. Three bedrooms; more closets. As he followed the soft slap-slap of her feet on the floor he felt the skin prickling on the back of his neck. It was exactly like the childish game of “search.” “You’re warm; now you’re getting cold; warm again; warmer … ”
In that third bedroom he had strongly me feeling that the game was getting damn’ hot. The top drawer of the dresser was half open. Slippers and a par of stockings on the floor and a drew, a girdle and a crumple of underthings in a heap on the chair next to the dresser. The woman in the negligée stood near the chair, staring at him with about as much animation as a drugged dummy. He crossed the room, opened a closet door, gave it a lightning scrutiny. A few dresses and hats; not many. Nothing else.
When he turned he was sure that the woman hadn’t moved. Just a drugged dummy next to the chair with the soiled clothing. Yet he saw at once that her right hand was in the pocket of her robe; and the top drawer of the dresser that had been half open, had slid miraculously a third farther out.
Tracy didn’t say anything, and after a moment she seemed to come awake. He followed her out of the room with ice in his knee-caps and practically no belly at all. He kept pretty close behind her.
There was one more room at the end of the passage.
She muttered dully: “Maid’s room. Don’t wanta see that, do yuh?”
“Might as well.”
The room was bare. No furniture at all—and still another door. With a ground-glass panel.
“Maids bathroom,” said the thick, sleepy voice.
She padded submissively ahead of him, turned partly as though to beckon him. He saw her feet spread a little and brace themselves. He swung at her, and as the gun came out of her pocket his fist connected. It was like kicking a cat—no sound from her at all. Her paralyzed fingers scrabbled on the floor, trying vainly to raise the gun. He kicked the thing loose, scooped it up.
He sprang to the bathroom door and wrenched it open. His hand stayed on the knob. For a long eternity of seconds the watch on his wrist went tick, tick, tick. … Then he stepped back from the threshold and gently closed the door. The blood had drained from his face, leaving it a curious mottled white; his cheeks and jaws looked suddenly dirty and unshaven. He stared at the semi-conscious woman on the floor and muttered: “Nice girl. … Just a nice girl. … ”
The private phone in the front room was dead, as he had feared. Probably a single trunkline open on the deserted switchboard in the main hall downstairs. He caught the girl under the armpits and walked her like a wobbly sack to the room where her clothes were, where she had palmed the gun. He dumped her on the bed and tied her ankles and wrists with ripped lengths from the pillow-case, anchored her hands and feet to the bars.
She squirmed a little; her breath was like a drowsy gust of hate in his face.
He crammed a gag in her mouth and stood there thinking hard. There was that damned Swede in the cellar. Had he really foxed the mope? He’d have to get downstairs in a hurry and buzz Harry Wilkie—Marty Kane had been Harry’s partner—Harry was the logical man to look in the bathroom and switch his red bloodhound beak from Johnny Vega to a guy named Nick. Meanwhile the Swede hadda stay dumb and this half-naked jane hadda stay put. …
With a grin Jerry remembered the incinerator hopper in the service hall outside. He cleaned out her clothes closet, picked up the junk from the chair. It made a double armful.
The elevator outside was just where he had left it. The incinerator hopper was set in the wall on the right of the corridor. He flipped it open—and knew with a sick certainty what the Swede was up to. Tiny sparks danced, there was a hot, tinny smell. The Swede was in this thing up to his eyes! Johnny Vega obviously wasn’t going to stay very long in the bathtub—and by the same token a guy named Nick certainly had unfinished business in apartment 12-B.
The Planet’s columnist shoved the girl’s clothes down the warm flue, left the door of the apartment wide open and went down in the elevator.
He got out on the street floor, tiptoed through to the public hall and sat down at the deserted switchboard. The place was like a silent tomb; a single light burned wanly and the only sound he could hear was the dim, bee-like humming of the motor traffic on the avenue outside.
He got headquarters, gave his name and asked for Wilkie, listened feverishly to a bit of kidding from his friend on the desk, was switched finally to the 98th precinct house. More kidding, and—
“That you, Jerry? Wilkie talkin’. ’Smatter, kid?”
“Listen! Write it down fast!” He gave the address. “Kane case. Keep your mouth shut. Hop over quick if you want the lad that cut down Marty Kane.”
He heard a faint gasp. “You got Johnny Vega there? Is this a gag?”
Tracy swallowed fiercely. “Get over here, you louse. No squad car. Take a cab. I’ll let you in the front door. How soon?”
“Make it ten, Harry, for —— sake.”
He was sweating as he sat back. His face was yellow under the light. He wiped off his forehead with a tremulous hand. Back in the dimness of the service hall a shadow retraced noiseless steps towards the elevator. The Swede’s face was puckered in a frozen, nearsighted glare. Ten minutes—he had heard that! He hesitated at the elevator, changed his mind, sped up the boxed stairs without a sound. …
The street door darkened with Wilkie’s bulk and Jerry sprang up and let Kane’s partner in. He was a big man with a pouty lip, a barrel chest and thin legs. He uncovered a dull-blue gat without haste.
He said, in a low voice: “What’s the lay?”
Jerry nudged him round the corner to the elevator and they rode up. The apartment door was still open. Wilkie looked puzzled at that. He went in first. There was no one on the bed. The knotted slips had been hurriedly slashed with a knife. The detective took one look and his bull voice roared:
“—— sake! Yuh let Vega scram?”
“No. He’s here.”
“Maid’s bathroom. Down the hall there.”
“Bathroom? Say, what is this—a comic strip act?”
“Take a look, Harry,” said the columnist in a weak voice.
Wilkie wrenched open the door, rocked slightly upward on his toes, said very briefly: “——!” He came back to Jerry, his pouty lips working with a snarled undertone.
“Who done it? Who was here? Gimme the dope.”
Tracy talked fast. He gave him a swift outline. “She can’t be far away. She’s half naked! Just that robe of hers. Bare feet. I shoved her clothes down the incinerator.”
Wilkie grinned nastily. “What of it? You’d git far away, wouldn’t yuh, with a thing like that in the bathtub? Jeeze, wotta girl-friend! The Swede musta been wise—heard yuh come back maybe, or got a flash of you phonin’. … If you think they’re still in the buildin’, you’re nuts. Gimme a quick description of them two. I’m gonna hop down to the switchboard for a secon’ and have a fast look in the basement, too. Stay here.”
“Don’t mention the bathtub or Nick,” Tracy begged. “He’s coming back—he’s got to! He doesn’t know the thing’s busted. If he sees a flock of P.D. cars outside—”
“Don’t worry any,” said Marty Kane’s partner grimly. “Jist a routine alarm for a wench and a Swede. The rest is my party. I’ll take a chance on a police trial for withholdin’ information.”
He was gone in a flash. When he showed again he said harshly, “You say this guy Nick has a key to the joint?”
“Yeah. She bawled me out for not using it when I rapped.”
“Okey.” Wilkie shut the door and turned the lock knob. “We’ll jist stick around.” His chuckle held no mirth. “Entertainment committee.”
“I can’t figure her on the street in that outfit she’s wearing,” Tracy muttered.
“Can’tcha? What’s the matter with the Swede flaggin’ a cab from that dam’ service alley, carryin’ his sick sister out, takin’ her to his wife’s mother—or anybody else he can think of? He’s had over ten minutes to stir his hump while you were sweatin’ downstairs at the switchboard. You shoulda taken that wrench off him and nicked his skull in the first place. … Huh! Let’s glom this dive!”
They found a fresh ugly stain on one of the mattresses after they had ripped off the clean bed-clothes and turned the mattress over.
“Vega got his payoff right here,” said Wilkie sourly. “He ain’t improved any since he got it. I s’pose I oughta apologize to th’ corpse if your slant is right.”
His big body teetered about the room without sound on his thin legs like an overbalanced cat. There was nothing much to play with except the irregular brown stain on the mattress. Johnny Vega’s clothes and the soiled sheets had probably gone down the incinerator. The two men flopped the mattress over and re-made the bed.
They tiptoed back to the maid’s room and Wilkie fixed the door slightly ajar. The bathroom was still open and, with a faint grimace, Tracy went over and closed it without looking in.
Wilkie’s low murmur hummed in his ear.
“A swell layout, hey? The girl and Nick and the janitor in cahoots. Vega’s been the fall-guy from the start—right from the time poor Marty Kane got the heat. It’s all a guess—the girl mighta had an apartment in this hive and tipped Nick the news when the tenants were moved over to the Canopus. Nick braced Vega an’ it pro’ly sounded like heaven to a mug with a general police alarm on his tail. Wotta dump … Phones dead, shades drawn, oil lamps—an’ the Swede for a lookout man. He’s the guy that pro’ly spilled the beans. I noticed his phone’s working; plugged in with the switchboard trunk-line. If Vega sneaked down at two a.m. this morning to make a call, an’ the Swede listened in, it would be just too bad for Johnny, hey?”
“It’s a fair guess, I s’pose.”
“Sure it’s a guess. It’s all guess. The finger was out for Johnny and he was panicky as hell—he should be! I’d of plugged him on sight!—so Nick played the good, er, Samarian an’ got him under the hatches, figgerin’ that while the cops hunted Johnny they wouldn’t be apt to hunt Nick. It’d work swell unless Vega happened to git wise to who bumped poor Marty Kane. … Looks like he got wise some time yestiddy.”
Wilkie’s pouty lips closed. He stood tensely, quietly for a moment, listening, his eyes on the crack of the door. After a while he grinned and relaxed. His grin lingered at Tracy’s whispered question.
“I’m still guessin’,” he admitted. “But I gotta hunch I’m ringin’ the cane. How could it happen? Well, they’re both dopies, see?—Nick and his gal—an’ six weeks is a long time. Yuh git careless. And don’t forget yuh feel like a king in Babelong when yuh got a skinful o’ high-power. Yuh might begin to drop woids—maybe boast what a hell of a clever fella you are. Yuh might—holy Jeeze!”
A flush mottled his heavy face. He took out his handkerchief and mopped it off.
“That might be it, for —— sake! If the murderin’ louse had that in his pocket an’ Vega got a flash of it—sure, he’d have it! Why didn’t I think—only a dopie’d take it in the first place. He’d like to play with it an’ laff long an’ satisfied, an’ think what a coupla cheap two-dollar punks Napoleon an’ Caesar was. … By ——!”
“What do you mean?” Tracy whispered uneasily.
“Never mind what,” Harry Wilkie husked. “I’m prayin’ the fella shows, that’s all. I gotta notion I’m gonna roll him an’ scrape out his pockets. I gotta notion—”
His hard fingers bit suddenly into the columnist’s forearm. The metallic sound was faint but unmistakable. A key was fiddling in the lock of the service door of the apartment.
It opened and shut again with a slam. Wilkie’s gun looked big, even in his big hand. Both men held their breaths and watched through the crack. The murderer was tall, bony, built like a lath. He was grinning a mile a minute, talking to himself. His eyes glittered in the semi-darkness, a fixed glitter of satisfaction.
“Hey, Myrtle! Hey, Kid! Where are yuh, yuh li’l ——?”
He meandered around, always laughing softly.
“Where are yuh, Myrt? I gotta deck for you. … Huh! Gone out for a hop sandwich—couldn’t wait for Poppa’s groceries. Awright, Baby—I’m happy. Hell with you. … ”
He came noisily down the darkened hall and Tracy’s mouth was wide open. Wilkie’s fingers had uncurled from the columnist’s forearm. It was just as though the big homicide dick wasn’t there at all.
The visitor disappeared into one of the bedrooms and they heard a chair creak. In a minute a shoe thumped on the floor. The second one clattered. Jerry stood frozenly, wondering with a kind of insane calm, why dropped shoes usually roll topside on the sole nine times out of ten. Wilkie was still fast asleep with his eyes open.
The man came out of the bedroom presently—stark naked—and padded down the hall with a soft slip-slap. He went into the kitchen.
Wilkie’s drowsy eyes gleamed. He couldn’t resist a brief threadlike whisper: “Remember the roomin’-house case in Brooklyn? Same thing all over. No stained clothes.”
Goose flesh crawled up Tracy’s neck.
The man Nick came out of the kitchen. He had a big knife in his hand. He walked down the hall, swung open the door to the maid’s room. It screened the two hunters in the corner. The murderer took four steps towards the bathroom and then Wilkie’s arm slammed the door.
Nick whirled, screeched once, and lunged at them with a downward sweep of his knife.
Wilkie didn’t say anything. He grouped four holes well above the navel. Then he opened the door, walked out and went into the bedroom.
He riffled through the pile of clothing with a face like stone. He held up his palm for Jerry to look. A flat shiny thing with a coat of arms on it and a number.
Wilkie swayed up on his big brogans. He was blinking rapidly. He said, suddenly: “Kane was a good man—one square dick. … ”
He whirled with a strangled oath and went clamping into the maid’s room where the body lay. When he came lack Jerry didn’t make any comment.
“Let’s get the hell downstairs,” said Wilkie. “I gotta put in a call.”
The deserted switchboard was buzzing monotonously as they got out of the elevator.
Wilkie grinned at that “I gave ’em the number just in case. Wonder if they’ve nabbed them two. … Hello? Yeah; right here.”
He talked a while and then listened.
“Right Sweat ’em some more and see if I care. Listen, Eddie—hold everything—I got Johnny Vega. Dead, yeah. An’ a mug name o’ Nick, ditto. Found Marty’s shield on him. … Okey; send over the works. You aught flash the bozo on this beat; there’ll be a mob outside, pretty soon.”
He hung up with a small, finicky gesture.
“They tripped Swedie an’ the gal. Add one for the flatfoot boys. He seen she carryin’ act goin’ into a dump on East a Hunnerd an’ Tenth right after he got the G.A. … Yuh look lousy, Jerry. You crazy to be in on this?”
“Okey. You don’t need to show. Take your runout while you got the chance. How do yuh feel?”
“Not so good.”
Wilkie’s laugh rumbled. “None of you newspaper guys can take it. You make me think of a joke I heard once—remember it? The one where the doctor says to the patient: ‘Trouble with you is you got a weak stummick!’ Scram Jerry; you’re a good guy.”
He unlocked the door and Jerry went out into the afternoon air. He thumbed a rolling cab and relaxed on the cushioned seat.
“Up Fifth,” he told the hacker.
At Seventy-odd he got out and went into the Park. The little lake was alive with kids’ boats.
He thought, “——! I never want to see a grifter or a cop again!”
A voice said: “Nice day, sor, ain’t it?”
A paunchy old flatfoot was grinning at him, reaching down with a lazy grunt to untwine a kid in soiled shorts who was trying to climb his uniformed leg. A bloated old Mick cop with a cheerfully creased phiz, a comfortable belly, comfortably flat feet. He whacked the kid softly on the tail with his gloved palm.
“Git off wid ye, ye monkey!”
Tracy looked at him queerly. “What’s a good way to lose a grouch, Officer?”
“Well, sor,” he grinned amiably and considered, “I wouldn’t call that a poser by army means. I’d have a dhrink or two, maybe—shtep out wid the old woman, telephone aroun’ teill I found a party goin’ on wid a real good accordeon player—”
“Thanks. Have a cigar.”
Tracy hurried out the Park entrance and hooked another cab with a brisk gesture. “Down to Fifty-ninth and then west.”
He’d have a Chinaman named McNulty shake him up a couple of extra specials. He’d crawl into a stiff shirt and have dinner out. With whom? Somebody decent—somebody with a clean line of charter. A red-head. … Stella—that crazy little bimbo with million-dollar dogs and a laugh like a tall drink with bubbles. One swell Broadway child and as straight as a string.
He watched the cars scud by, going north.
A nice dinner—pick up a gang somewhere—drag ’em over to the penthouse. Organize a kazoo orchestra and let Stella tap for ’em—oh, man! Get Abrams and Manny Field to put on the great Rival Stooge act. Hold on, for —— sake—Schnozzle himself was in town. …
He leaned forward with a blurred smile and slid back the glass panel in the front.
“Step on it, mug!” he told the hacker. “Papa’s on the prod!”
Beyond All Light
What the world doesn’t see, it doesn’t believe. A blind man judges without sight and believes he is always right.
A DRIPPING, slate-colored afternoon—brrrr! The slow squishy, filthy cold downpour was one of those icy, skin prickling drizzles, scarcely more than a smoky mist but it was falling steadily and freezing underfoot. The sidewalk as a paste of frosty slush.
The beggar at the curb said no word at all as Tracy went by. He stood patiently aloof, as quiet as a stone. Tracy was sloshing along in the very devil of a hurry, but he paused instinctively as he caught a sidelong glimpse if the man’s extended cup and his wide, sightless eyes. There were two wet pennies in the cup and the fingers that held it were blue with cold. Jerry fumbled a moment, dropped in a quarter with a brisk plink! and walked on.
The beggar’s left hand moved upward from his side with a lightning dart, probed deftly for the quarter, slipped it into his pocket. He said in a rasping singsong: “Thank you, sir!”
Tracy was already two or three paces away when he heard the growled acknowledgement of his gift. He stopped short, hesitated, turned, came slowly back again. His mouth was twitching faintly with the mirthless grin of Broadway—a trick done mostly with the lips and teeth, compounded equally of cold amusement and colder wisdom, with a grim dash of “sez you!”
He said to the man: “I like to know things. I’m funny that way. That was a pretty good quarter I slipped you. … Just how really blind are yuh, Bud?”
“Blind?” said the beggar. “You’re a wise guy with a quarter and you’d like to know how blind am I, Bud?” He laughed harshly for an instant. “Blind?” he said again. He seemed to derive a kind of tortured pleasure from the repetition. He played with the word, terrier-like. “As blind as a bright red fire-plug. As blind as the side of a whitewashed barn. A velvet mole with whiskers and a tin cup … Is that a quarter’s worth, Mister?”
He stared at Tracy through the freezing mist and people went skittering past the two of them, heads down, elbows shoving; a swirl of damp ghosts in a slippery, endless maze. The beggar’s wide-open eyes were milky and unwinking; they looked unpleasantly like chinaware. His short-clipped beard was a scraggly, fuzzy brown. Water trickled down his forehead from the sodden brim of him hat. The upturned collar of his cheap overcoat was beaded with twinkling drops.
He shivered suddenly and the two pennies in his cup clipped together in a faint scuffle.
“You said ‘thank you, sir’,” Tracy said. “I wondered how you knew it was a man and not a woman.”
“Thought maybe I was peeking?”
“I just wondered,” Tracy said nasally.
The man’s jeering laugh was so low it was barely audible.
“Very simple, Watson. The night has a thousand eyes—surely you remember that. You walk like a man; longer steps, fainter clicks. You smell of tobacco and soup. You didn’t open and close a handbag when you took out your quarter … And women always give pennies—never less than two or more than four—and that’s all, Watson. Put your whistle away.”
“I’ll be damned!” said the newspaper columnist. “A nice, smooth lecture. Where did you go to school, Mac?” His eyes narrowed. “You smell ’em and you hear ’em. Is that it?”
“Mostly smell,” said the harsh whisper. “Close your eyes some time and try it. You’ll drop about half your friends. In the dark thieves stink and so do liars … Move on brother; you’re discouraging charity.”
“Okey, Central,” Tracy said coolly. “Put me through for another call.”
He fished leisurely in his pocket and dropped another coin in the cup. The beggar’s finger swiftly filched it and stowed it away.
“How long have you been on this grift?” Tracy asked him.
“Not as long as you, brother. You’re sitting pretty.”
That made Tracy laugh. “How do you know?”
“For one thing, you’re too free and easy with your quarters. For another, you stink of highballs and silk underwear. You belong on this street; you’ve got the damned Broadway whine in your voice. Laugh now and tell me I’m guessing. You’re one of the boys and you’ve got plenty of easy cash and you don’t work very hard.”
“Let’s have some more professor,” Jerry said. “Bring your lecture right up to date. What do I work at?”
The blind man shivered suddenly. “—— I’m cold!” His teeth chattered.
Jerry reached out and took hold of the wet sleeve. “Let’s move over to a doorway. I’m still interested. A buck says you can’t tell me what I work at.”
You’re a persistent louse, aren’t you?” the beggar sneered.
He allowed Tracy to guide him across the slushy sidewalk. He walked with short, shuffling steps, his crook-handled cane swinging loosely from the bend of his arm.
“You’re offering me a buck if I call the turn on your racket?”
The man chuckled. “That eliminates one guess. You’re not a card and dice man or you’d have made it a straight bet—made me risk a buck of my own.”
He closed his dead eyes with a muttered oath.
“Let me concentrate … One of the boys. Broadway native. An actor, maybe … Or a newspaper man?”
“You’re asking me?” Tracy clipped pertly. He was watching the man with narrowed, incredulous eyes.
“Shut up! I’m thinking. I think I’m going to say newspaper … You don’t smell like an actor. You have the vaudeville whine all right, but you talk tight like a mouse-trap. And you’re more interested in me than you. That doesn’t sound like an actor … You heard me say ‘sir’ and wondered at my choice of sex. An actor might wonder but he’d let it go at that. A newspaperman would stop and ask questions. They’re curious lice … Well?”
His eyes opened wide again with their level, disconcerting stare.
“Is that the final guess?” Tracy asked him.
“That’s the final guess.”
Tracy folded a dollar bill lengthwise and slipped it between the stiffly extended fingers.
“Satisfied?” said the harsh voice.
“You’re a liar,” the blind man sneered. “You’re still wondering about me and my smooth line. You’ve had your money’s worth; now you’d like to stay a while and hear the customary story of how I first came to lose my virtue.”
“How did you?”
“Not on Broadway.”
“Where are you from?”
“Kentucky,” He laughed with a horrible jocularity. “I was born in Mammoth Cave. Catch wise, Mister? Just an underground fish.”
Tracy shuddered. “You’re cold-blooded, all right.”
“Just blind, Mister,” the voice grated.
“What’s your name?”
“None of your damn’ business … Wait, I’ll be fair; after all, you paid cash on the nail … You called me professor. All right, my name is Jefferson Brick. I used to be a professor of chemistry in a Protestant Episcopal university. I lost my eyesight in a laboratory explosion. I left home because I didn’t care to be a burden on my beautiful young wife. Besides, I knew she was secretly in love with the professor of history, who was a man of independent wealth and very handsome in a sinister way. So I took a tin cup from the pantry and stole away in the night … Try that on your city editor. It’s not true, of course. But it wouldn’t be a bad bet for the movies.”
His bearded lips twitched haggardly.
“And in number two yarn,” Tracy suggested with a grin, “you’re probably Sergeant Amos J. Sparrowcock in a shell-hole on the Ourq with bullets whining overhead—”
The columnist ducked his head back with a distant grunt. The blind man had lashed out wildly with a clenched fist that caught the newspaperman flush on the mouth. They scuffled clumsily together in the dark doorway and Tracy caught at the arms and held them tight.
He panted: “What’s the idea of that, you mug?”
The man stopped struggling suddenly and Jerry let go of his arms.
“You son of a ——!” the beggar whispered softly. He bent down and felt with his hands for his fallen cane. Tracy let him alone. The beggar turned unerringly and took a swift tapping step towards the sidewalk where icy rain blew and pedestrians slopped through the gray slush.
Tracy blocked him off. “Listen a minute, will yuh?”
“Let me alone! Let me go or I’ll smash you with the cane!”
“Oh, no, you won’t. Who do you think you are—Gyp the Blood?”
His captive gave a short despairing cry. His blank eyes seemed to bulge from his head. The columnist’s own eyes were gleaming. He could use this fella—this blind monkey with the wise ears and the accurate nose. Jerry always played hunches—and he had a hunch right in front of him cornered tight in a wet doorway.
It’d be worth a little dough to get a hard-boiled nose-and-ear verdict on Daisy. That babe had Tracy worried. He wasn’t sure about her. Ad he had to be sure! If she was on the level and he broke her story in the column—good ——! what a story! And verification all over every sheet in the town in three days. —! he’d slay Manhattan with the hottest news prophecy since Croker left for Ireland.
But if Daisy was a double-crossing little liar … The thought made him sweat. If little Daisy happened to be a patient, dewy-eyed Judas, working in cahoots with Tom Hoyt of the Sphere. … They’d laugh Tracy off the earth and the Daily Planet would be caught belly deep in libel …
“Let me go!” the blind man snarled.
“Will you shut up a minute? Look. … I’m making you a proposition.”
“All you have to do is listen to someone while she’s talking—a woman, see? In my office, not two blocks away. Twenty-five bucks for you. In advance. Right now and in your mitt.”
“Jeeze, I’ll smack you in a minute! Listen, all I want is a verdict on this dame. Is she crooked or straight? Is she a louse or the best friend I’ve got? She has something to peddle, with no proof except her unsupported word. Twenty-five bucks—two tens and a five—and all you do is listen and say yes or no when she’s done. She’s as smart as hell, blind man!”
There was a pause.
“What’s your own personal opinion?” said the other man sullenly.
“I don’t know. I’ve been checking and re-checking and snooping—and I’m still absolutely—”
“Blind?” said the beggar in his razor-thin murmur.
The fellow’s bitter self-torture made Jerry’s fists clench with a helpless, impotent anger.
“—— you sure love to pick a the scab, don’t you?
“As long as I can bleed, I’ll know I’m still alive. That’s horrible, isn’t it? … Now go ahead and tell me all about Helen Keller. Nice ladies with a candy peppermint smell press my hand on an average of twice a week and tell me all about her.”
“She was born blind, wasn’t she?”
“What of it?”
“I wasn’t,” said the dusty murmur.
There was a silence. Tracy took a deep breath. “Will it make you feel any better if I bust out crying?” he said brutally. “Let’s go back to business. I don’t think you’re a bum and I do think you got brain. Wanta sell out for twenty-five bucks?”
“Two tens and a five, you said.”
“You might slip me singles. I couldn’t tell.”
“That’s your problem,” Tracy said. “Sniff hard and tell me whether I’m an insect or an angel.”
“You’re a louse, all right … Which one is the five?”
Tracy laid the bill in his palm. He folded it and stowed it away. He put the two tens in another pocket.
His blank eyes rolled vacantly towards the newspaperman.
“Better tell me what it’s all about, hadn’t you?”
“Not in a wet doorway, sonny. Grab hold of my arm … And for —— sake, throw that tin cup down the sewer and I’ll buy you a new one.”
They stepped out from the doorway’s shelter and plodded southward through the slippery slush. Of the two, the blind man had the surer footing.
Butch—the faithful Butch of the cauliflower ears and the oversize feet—was lolling in the outer office of Tracy’s Time Square hideout. He pinched out his butt and stretched massively, yawning like a hippo. He stared at Tracy’s brown-bearded companion without much change in his leaden eyes.
“Any phone calls?” Tracy asked him.
“Nothin’ fancy. Just chopped meat. There was a drunk in a speako that Hennessey thought maybe might—”
“Hell with him. I got a frill coming here pretty soon. You know her. She’ll breeze right by you when she comes in. Let her breeze.”
“Okey, Boss.” He rolled his big head lazily toward the columnist’s sodden companion.
“Who’s the pencil merchant?”
Tracy ignored the query and grinned. “Let’s have a quick tintype of Butch,” he suggested.
The blind man’s lip curled. “Quarts of blood,” he said thickly. “Offal. A prehistoric brain.”
“Oh, yeah?” Butch gagged helplessly for an oath and then gave up the struggle. “Is zat so?” He growled. “Yuh don’t tell me!”
Tracy led the blind man into his private cubby and closed the door. He took off his companion’s hat and overcoat and hung them up on a hook in the corner. He swept a phone book to the floor and swept the empty chair close to his desk. He prodded the back of the man’s knees with the chair edge and the blind man sat down.
The columnist felt suddenly diffident, uncomfortable.
“Have a cigarette? Or is that—er—”
“It is. Don’t worry; I’m used to it. People don’t smoke much in the dark. Inhaling helps, but not much … You don’t believe me, do you?”
Tracy looked incredulous. “I don’t get you on that. I’ve done it myself plenty.”
“Try it without your optic nerve sometime, my friend. Or just close your eyes so you can’t see the red glow when you draw. It’s not quite—satisfactory.” He said the word purringly. With a brief wrench of a smile. “I’d rather you didn’t light up until the girl I’m going to listen to has gone. And please don’t offer her a smoke. I’d like an unblurred impression. What’s her name?”
“Daisy Crandall. I’ll give you the scenario right now.”
The Planet’s columnist leaned forward.
“I’ve known her for six months. She works on another paper—the Sphere. Tom Hoyt’s sheet. I wouldn’t trust Tom for a drink of water. There’s no query on him—he’s the town’s dirtiest so-and-so. We’ll talk about Daisy who works on his paper. A sweet kid, or I’m cock-eyed. I like her plenty and she me. For six months she’s been giving me news tips, good ones—selling out Tom Hoyt, if you like, but giving ’em to me, not selling ’em. For six months, see? Not a kick-back or a libel suit, and I’m taking her word on every item she hands me.”
The blind man’s eyes were closed. He made no comment. Tracy reached for his cigarettes, swore faintly, and shoved the case back in his pocket.
“She’s dug me up a scandal tip. I’ve got it in the desk here right now. Smoking under hatches. Hot as hell. The story is due to break in three days—Daisy’s unsupported word for that—and when it breaks old man MacMadden will be sorry he ever canned his Gazette of departed memory … You gotta get the picture clearly—I’m talking about a ripe news prediction—my column breaks the tape three days ahead of the gun, get me? Hell, I’ll read you the working squib!”
He unlocked a drawer in his steel desk, took out a sheet of paper on which was typed a long single-spaced paragraph. He read the thing aloud:
What a lovely little dancer of Park Avenue, the Lido and the more expensive musical comedy stages is about to cross the Equator and go native, by request? What middle-aged husband is about to go into the public laundry business? Blame it all on the vogue for sun-tan, folks. But in this case they do say, so they do, that the sun-tan came straight from Harlem. The little lady’s male parent turns out to be as chocolate as a Hershey bar. The husband’s lawyers—and what lawyers!—have Uncle Tom dotted and signed and under key somewhere between here and Cincinnati. The dancer still thinks he’s safely hidden in West 137th Street. The egg will be cracked in three days. Phooey! See you in the courtroom. Or do you go for our more colorful dirt?
He put the thing back in the drawer. “That’s a rough outline of the tip. The question is—”
The blind man nodded and said slowly: “What a filthy dung-fly you are! What a slimy roach! And sweet little Daisy? Where does she fit in?”
Jerry smiled wanly.
“Why get nasty? She’s newspaper. So am I. If you pinch either of us we’ll turn black and blue. We’re human sweetheart.”
“True enough,” the beggar said. “Add me too. We’re all members of the—damned human race aren’t we?”
He relaxed after a moment and the thin hand unclenched in his lap.
“Just what are you afraid of? Don’t you trust the girl?”
“Listen,” Tracy said nervously. “There’s Tom Hoyt to consider; the owner of the Sphere, the guy she works for. He’s as wise as a family of foxes, and if he got a chance he’d like to burn my and the Planet to death with matches—one at a time. Six months would be a half minute to that guy if he thought he could frame me. He knows I’m a sucker for women. It’d be a slow, careful build-up.”
“Verify the tip yourself.”
“What do you think I’ve been doing lately? Layin’ dead drunk in a cellar somewhere? No sale on that angle. Or should I crash the dancer’s penthouse with a big lead pencil, tip my hat, and ask her if she’s a dinge?”
“What’s your friend Daisy say?”
“She says it’s absolutely the McCoy. She’s seen the documents—won’t tell me how or where. She says the divorce suit will be filed in three days.”
“But you don’t trust her.”
Jerry snarled irritably. “Don’t keep saying that! I do! Look—do you see what’ll happen if I print the squib and there’s no suit filed—just a plant? I’m no guinzo peanut vendor. I’m Jerry Tracy. There’s lots of people would commute in from China to see me fired out like a monkey and plastered for criminal libel. I can understand where this damned Gloria—never mind her name—but I can understand just how she’d help the plant along so she could go into a courtroom with a battery of lawyers headed by Moe Steeger, and bare her back and flanks and weep for the sound cameras. She’d love it—provided she’s lily-white and Daisy’s a liar.”
“Why not wait three days and see?”
“Because I want to print that squib!” Tracy said fiercely. “It’s my business to predict the blow-off!”
The man with the maimed eyes laughed at him with a grim and quiet mockery.
“And you tell all this,” he murmured, “to a blind bum with a tin cup. You don’t trust Daisy and you want me to listen to her. I’m to make the great decision because I’m blind and can smell thieves and hear them lie … Well, I’ve smelt plenty. You’ll get your money’s worth; I have a wide gutter practice … I don’t see yet why you’ve honored me with your confidence. I might double-cross you and tap-tap my way to your pal Tom Hoyt if I think the girl is telling the truth.”
“Stop clowning or you’ll have me in stitches.” Tracy told him morosely. “No matter what happens you’ll go with Butch to a nice quiet place and stay there three days at my expense. How’s that, professor? Incidentally, you’re not kidding me a nickel’s worth. You usta be a professor, didn’t you? I’ve got that yarn of your tabbed. Too slick to be all fiction. Coupla fact nuggets in the story, hey? And I’m not forgetting you pasted me in the jaw when I mentioned bullets—or was it shrapnel?”
He watched the man’s knuckles whiten as the thin hand closed into a fist. They were staring at each other when they heard Butch’s ponderous feet scrape suddenly in the outer room. The unseen bodyguard’s voice roared a playful announcement. “Hello, Babe! Lookin’ for somebody?”
There was a pause. The blind man was still staring at Tracy. Then he said with grinding effort: “Why not ask the faithful Butch about—my personal—history? He might be psychic.”
The door opened and a girl came in.
She said, smilingly: “Hello, Jerry m’lad.”
The blind man sat forward in his chair. He was bent over a little, with his eyes closed tightly. Daisy gave him a quick puzzled glanced. She looked interrogatively at Jerry.
She was small, birdlike, rather pretty. Gray eyes and a wide mouth. A pert hat at a frivolous angle. Her heavy coat was damp, her loose galoshes shiny with moisture.
“Got your call, m’lad,” Daisy said. “Anything new?” She looked at the man in the chair while Jerry took her coat.
“He’s a friend of mine,” Tracy said. He grimaced slightly. “Mr. Peter Mole.”
“Not a bedtime-story man! What is this, a gag rehearsal?”
She swished forward with a smile.
“Wake up, brother. I’m being introduced.”
He opened his eyes and looked at her. She stopped dead, with a quick indrawn breath.
“Oh! I—I beg your pardon … I didn’t—I’m sorry.”
Tracy came forward with a dusty chair. “Sit down, kid.”
She said to him jerkily, without anger: “That was a lousy piece of humor, Jerry.”
Her voice was low and husky; a curious flat contralto as though she had a frog in her throat. It imparted a flavor of metallic cynicism to her speech. She spoke in jerky phrases like spurts from a faucet.
Tracy said to her: “I’m still worried about that dirt special, Babe. There’s one or two angles about it—Listen!”
“What good’s listening? You’re at bat, boy friend. It’s up to you to hit the ball or strike out.”
“I know, but—”
“Don’t print the item if you’re worried.”
“Oh, for —— sake!” he growled. “I know it’s my play. I got my share of guts. But honey, when you hop flat-footed into print with octoroon news—”
She interrupted him instantly. Swung around and glared at him. Her jerky voice was hard with a suppressed fury.
“I see, sez the blind man. Meaning me. You’ve spilled him the outline, haven’t you? That’s why he’s here. How lovely! Who is he?”
The man with the closed eyes sat impassively. Neither Daisy nor the columnist paid any more attention to him than if he were a suit of armor standing in a corner.
Tracy said: “He’s a friend of mine.”
“Thanks. I heard that before. I’m trying to see where he fits in and I can’t. You’ve spilled the tip to him, that’s all I know. Who is this bum? Oh, Jerry lad, are you going crazy in the head to spill out a confidential think like—”
“I’m not crazy,” Jerry snapped. “He’ll be under Butch’s palm for the next three days. Forget it.”
“Forget nothing,” the girl cried in husky undertone. “Why is he here at all? There’s something screwy about the whole thing. My —— sweetheart, are you crossing me up?”
Tracy replied unevenly: “Don’t be silly.”
They were both silent. Daisy’s eyes were bright scalpels, cutting, slashing through flesh and tissue to get at Tracy’s remote mind.
After a while Daisy said: “Get my coat for me, please.” She stood up. Her voice rasped viciously. “Will you—get—my—coat?”
Tracy got up, too. He looked at the brown-bearded sleeper. The columnist was trembling. “What do you say, mug? What’s the answer? Come out of your trance!”
The eyelids lifted.
“You want a definite answer?”
“I want a yes or no. Shoot!”
“Give her her coat,” the blind man sneered. “You’re lucky to get rid of her. She’s crooked. Crooked as hell.”
Tracy was over him suddenly, whispering at him out of contorted lips.
“Are you sure? How do you know?”
“That’s none of your damned affair. You wanted my verdict. You got it.”
The girl was wrestling blindly with the sleeves of her coat. She shoved Jerry away and got it on by herself. There were tears of rage in her eyes but her voice remained steady.
“I gather that the prediction won’t appear in your column, Jerry.”
For answer he opened a drawer of his steel desk, took out a sheet of paper, scratched a matched and watched the flame transfer itself. He held the sheet till it burned thumb and finger; then he allowed the corer to drop writing into the metal waste-basket.
They looked at each other like ghosts.
The girl nodded dully. “Thanks for the buggy ride. It was nice to know you, Jerry. I wish you had decided yourself, though. I—I hate a yellow ba—”
Her hand was on the door-knob. She pulled herself together visibly and laughed a little. Tracy was staring woodenly out the window. Her voice went hard.
“Dumb Daisy, the girl that can take it. A sucker for a left hook. Punch drunk for six months and never knew it. Cherrio, m’lad!”
She went away fast.
Tracy turned around from the window. He said harshly: “Butch! Git in here!”
“Take this guy over to my place. Throw his clothes in the sink and see what you can find for him. You and he are mustard plasters for the next three days, see? Just like that!” He held up two parallel fingers jerkily. “I’ll phone McNulty that you’re coming.”
He snow-shoed across the floor to his desk. Sat down heavily. Unhooked the receiver with a fumbling hand.
Late in the afternoon on the third day of the blind man’s captivity Jerry Tracy came home from the office in his usual fast cab, but the speed was all in the wheels of the machine. He wasn’t in any hurry himself. He paid off the hackman with maddening deliberateness. He slouched into the building, said “Hawzit?” and rode a city block vertically.
He didn’t bother ringing for the Chinaman. Instead he played aimlessly among his keys and unlocked the door himself. The Chinaman heard his slow step in the foyer and met him with a glare of indignation for the obvious breach of the employer’s code.
Tracy smiled wanly at the old fellow. “Okey, McNulty. Butch here?”
He walked down the hall. Butch came out of a doorway, said: “Hawzit, Boss?” and stepped out of the way.
The columnist paced slowly towards a leather chair in a corner of the room. His right hand closed up and lifted backward a little.”
“I oughta smash that —— damned skull of yours,” he said thickly. “D’yuh ever look at the papers?”
“You know how it is with me,” the guest said acidly.
“Yeah … I know … Well, I’ll read ’em for yuh!”
He wrenched a sticky tabloid out of his pocket. He read the first headline: “Brands Society Dancer Negress!” He read again: “Husband Alleges Color Taint; Sues to Nullify Fraud Marriage!” He read some more and then tossed the paper fluttering and sailing.
“Does that sound like a sure enough news item,” he snarled.
The man in the chair uttered a shrill, incredulous sound and started gropingly to rise. Tracy shoved him down again.
“How do you explain it, wise guy? Smell it and hear it. Chew it and feel it and taste it—it’s still a news item! You can tell a horse’s leg from a pig’s whistle through a twelve-inch plank, can’t you? That girl was straight—clean level straight … Damn you and your nose.”
“Impossible,” he whispered. “I couldn’t be wrong.”
“Oh, no? Well you were wrong plenty! And Daisy was right. The kid was honest. Square. She had the goods—and the proof of it is splattered on the front page of every sheet in town … And I was sucker enough to go for your mud-gutter mind-act.”
“Impossible!” the man with the brown beard was mumbling. “It couldn’t be. I was too certain … ” He groped out and rose swaying to his feet. “Get her here! I must know. Call her up! Drag her here! Tell her I’ve got to—”
“You’ve got to!” Don’t you see what it means? I can’t be wrong—don’t you see I can’t be wrong? If I was wrong—God help me if I was wrong—” He was babbling.
“I turned my back deliberately on home and friends. I though that those who loved me were liars out of pity for me, Sorrow for a useless hulk, pity for a helpless burden! I could hear lies in their words of affection. So I fled deliberately to the gutter—and I lived in the gutter for twelve years —— help me!—because no man ever dies who jeers at every breath of air he draws.
His gaunt body quivered.
“And now you tell me that the girl, Daisy, is decent. How can that be? If Daisy’s decent, then I’m crooked! Have I always been wrong—stewing in a make-believe hell for twelve long years? Have I been imagining lies and filth where none existed? Was I a self-deluded fool when I fled in black despair from my own home?”
“You’re rotten, all right,” Tracy spat. “You’ve got crooked ear-drums. Pretty damn’ easy to smell filth when the stench is in your own nostrils, brother!”
The blind man whimpered. Beat at Tracy with his two fists.
“Get her! Will you get her? If you don’t, I’ll smash out through the window! I’ll crawl on hands and knees till I find her and get the truth. Can’t you see what it means to me?”
“To hell with you. Who cares about you?”
The beggar tried to wrestle him aside. Jerry caught at him and hurled him back into the chair.
Tracy’s face felt stiff. As though his lips were frozen. Hard to frame words. He stood there, breathing heavily, his fingers still clenched. He laughed suddenly.
“Okey,” he said. “I’ll call her up. I got it coming to me.”
He turned on his heel and went out of the room.
When he came back he sat down heavily. He saw Butch peering with dumb bewilderment from a doorway and he hurled an ashtray at the lumpy face. Butch receded without a sound.
The clock went tick, tick, for a long time—like the steady tap of a pick on rock—and suddenly a bell was ringing faintly, the Chinaman McNulty said gravely: “Lady say hully up, go way, shut up!”—and Daisy was standing small and white-faced in the room’s doorway.
She broke the silence with a flat, expressionless murmur. “Hello, Jerry, m’lad.”
She came forward a step and the blind man rose. He stumbled mistakenly away from her, peering horribly, till she said: “Well?” and then he turned.
He said in a cringing whisper: “Will you answer me truly, as God is your judge?”
“What do you want?”
She looked at his face.
“I’m sorry for you, my friend. You were wrong.”
He swayed on his feet and his hands went out and she stood quite still. His thin questing fingers brushed her forehead, explored cheek and mouth, slid tremulously along the smooth line of her jaw. She allowed it, her eyes averted from his. She was like ice.
He said thickly: “Will you please—Tracy—leave me here—have a moment alone with—this girl?”
Tracy hesitated, went out. He bounded back when he heard Daisy’s muffled scream. She looked daunted, weak; there were tears in her eyes.
She cried: “Jerry, please—Tell him it’s all right. Talk to him, Jerry … This poor devil’s in hell.”
“Hell?” the blind man croaked. “Twelve years of it. And wrong—blind wrong. Doubly blind. In a hell of my own filthy making.”
They heard him whimpering with terror like a frightened child.
“Lost … Blind … Beyond all light … ”
The girl said to him, tremulously: “That’s not true, is it, when you’ve come out, when you’ve come back?”
“Out?” he whispered bleakly. “Back?”
“You’ve been lost in the dark. You know it now. Could you know it if you were still lost?”
“Sit down,” Jerry said to him. He touched him with a chair. The man obeyed like an automaton.
“You don’t belong on Broadway with a tin cup. Where do you belong?”
No answer to that.
“Can’t blame you for not trusting lice,” Tracy said deliberately.
He jerked: “Don’t—for —— sake!”
The girl’s hand touched him. “There are two of us. You’re only one. And we’re trying to help.”
“It wasn’t shrapnel,” Tracy said. “Was it?”
“No … Not shrapnel. Nor on the Ourq. I was gas … In a gulley. Beyond the dynamited bridge-head at Dun.”
“And was there a Protestant Episcopal university, or was that—”
“That’s true. I’m a poor hand at fiction, as you thought. Only there wasn’t any professor; he was an instructor. And his branch wasn’t chemistry; he taught a less exact—” He shuddered painfully. “They re-offered him his place—afterwards—but he didn’t want their charity, pity … ”
“Who said it was pity?” Tracy interrupted. “You came back with the same brain, didn’t you? You have a voice. Were your eyes so necessary? What branch did you teach?”
“Literature.” He began to laugh at the thought of literature. Gaspingly. “Lyric p-poetry! Shelley’s Ode to a Skylark—after dark!” his laughter shook.
“Quit it, or I’ll slap you in the jaw! Wife?”
“No. A mother and—and a sister—please! Let me alone, will you?”
“And you sneaked like a rat. Ran away.”
“Do you think,” he cried fiercely, “I’d lie on their doorstep? A bag of soiled laundry? A burden?”
The girl spoke suddenly. Her metallic voice was low, fiercer than his.
“What makes you think, damn’ fool, that you’d be a burden to a sister who happened to love you?”
The blind man said brokenly: “Stop! Stop! I want to think. I want to sit quietly—you’ve torn me open, bleeding … ”
“Easy, old man,” the columnist murmured. He turned to the girl and jerked his head towards the doorway.
The wondering Butch saw them cross the corridor together and go into another room. Tracy walked to the sideboard and poured himself a drink. Daisy was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief. Tracy looked at her for a moment in the mirror.
He said to her, jerkily: “You came around when I asked you, kid—and that’s the puzzle to me.”
“Maybe it isn’t. I dunno. I feel dopey.”
“I feel,” Daisy said quaveringly, “as though I’d been blown through a vacuum cleaner,” She tried to smile. “I guess, between us, we’d make a fair Boy Scout—good deed a day … How’d it ever start, Jerry?”
“I dunno.” His smile matched hers. “Funny, isn’t it? I’m supposed to be a newspapermen. But if some mug was to hand me a bass-drum, I could feel like the Salvation Army.”
He leaned a little and slapped her lightly on both cheeks, shook her a bit by the shoulders and slapped her again. She seemed to now what he meant.
He stepped away from her, grinning stiffly at nothing.
“Butch!” he howled. “Butch! Git in here, mug!”
Butch said in a relieved voice: “Coming, Boss.”
“Fold your arms,” Jerry told him.
He did, and the columnist swung hard and cracked him in the jaw. Butch backed away with a pained yelp.
“Easy, Boss! What’s de big idea? You nuts, or somethin’?”
“I gotta get hard in a hurry or I won’t be worth a dime to anybody. Just getting tough, that’s all. See what I mean?”
Butch rubbed his jaw slowly and digested the idea. His massive brow darkened. His mind groped visibly for a satisfactory oath. For twenty seconds he struggled for the bon mot.
“Is zat so?” he said at last. “Yuh don’t tell me!”
BALL AND CHAIN
JERRY TRACY, wisecracking columnist for the daily Planet, crossed one knee over the other and made little swinging circles in the air with his patent-leather toe. He eyed his faithful bodyguard, Butch, with a kind of sour impatience.
“I’m beginning to think there’s a depression,” he grumbled.
Butch didn’t say anything. His lumpy jaws continued their slow mastication of what had once been spearmint gum.
“People don’t eat any more,” Tracy growled. “And when they don’t eat there’s no garbage. And when there’s no garbage—where do I come in? Stop that damned chewing, sweetheart; Papa’s talking to you!”
Butch’s gum made a sticky crackle. He said: “Huh?”
“What’s a good way to pad an empty column?”
Butch’s forehead wrinkled with concentration. He hiccoughed faintly.
“How’s this, Boss?