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Carroll John Daly
© 2017 Steeger Properties, LLC. Published by arrangement with Steeger Properties, LLC, agent for the Estate of Carroll John Daly.
“Alias Buttercup” originally appeared in the October 1925 issue of Black Mask magazine.
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Race Williams” is a trademark of the Estate of Carroll John Daly. “Black Mask” is a trademark of Steeger Properties, LLC, and registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Most times cases of mine end with death—I just sort of drift in with the type of gentlemen who must have “finis” written after their names to properly settle matters. But this time my story opens with a death. Mexican Joe Geary, or Gerhia, had been given the works. From the newspaper accounts of the affair he was dead. At first the police thought he had jumped or toppled from the twenty-second story window of a skyscraper. One thing all agreed upon—Joe had fallen heavy for the sidewalks of New York and got himself all smeared up in the midst of Broadway traffic.
I’m not a hard-hearted man, but in a way there was a chuckle in every line. The killing of Mexican Joe wouldn’t net me a brass penny and yet I had finally decided to push him over. It wasn’t so much his threats to kill me as it was the bad grammar of his letters—the thing was getting on my nerves. Joe hadn’t missed much of life—he was just a day or two ahead of his schedule, that was all.
After the police had cleaned him up and put him together and got the coroner working on him, the truth came out—he had been shot—there was a little bullet hole smack in the back of his neck—a twenty-two it was. Just enough to give him a sore throat under ordinary conditions, but evidently Joe had been leaning out of the window studying nature. He got an eyeful and no mistake. There wasn’t much evidence—just a screaming rat in the air—then a broken, miserable carcass on the sidewalks.
I’m not a hearse chaser—not me, but I did run down and follow that little procession out to Brooklyn. Joe was a Mex but passed as a wop and the funeral was a loud affair. There was a band and things were pulled off in great style. But I didn’t go for the entertainment—I just wanted to be sure that it was Joe. When I do a thing myself I know it’s done well, but in this case—well, I didn’t have a whole lot of confidence in a person who would drop Joe off with a twenty-two. I’d of weighted him down with heavier lead before he took that nose dive.
Of course I didn’t get a slant at the body—no one did—I guess he wasn’t a pretty sight. He had been identified as Mexican Joe mostly on the things found in his pockets. Everyone seemed sure it was Joe, even to the dicks who shoved about and mixed with the crowd in that stupid belief that morbid curiosity and some irresistible force will bring the murderer back to the funeral of his victim.
But there was a half-hearted search only from the very beginning. Any way you look at it, the lad who got Joe—or the lass, for a girl had been seen leaving that floor of the building shortly after the dip of death—deserved a vote of thanks from the police department of the city. Joe was a sore eye and a bad tooth and a dozen other things.
There was no way to find out for sure that Joe was dead. But everybody else seemed satisfied, so why should I kick?
I was recognized of course by half a dozen dicks, but Inspector Crowley was there to call them off from dogging me. He knew my stuff—when I pulled a trick I didn’t have to hold any post mortems. It wasn’t the dicks I was interested in—nor the crowd either, at first. Just a curious, indifferent mob trotting along for excitement, and with perhaps the chance to pick a pocket or two. And then a lad stands out above the crowd—far back in the shadows of the trees I spot him—a big handsome man—a bit loud for such an occasion. Like a prize contest: “What’s wrong with this picture” sort of business. He didn’t belong—and yet he was there. His clothes alone didn’t label him as money; back on the main road, just beyond the cemetery fence, was a powerful motor with a liveried chauffeur.
Was he visiting another grave and just turned his head in curiosity? I didn’t think so. His eyes were riveted on those about the gunman’s grave, and another thing that made me eye him more closely—he had a way of spotting every dick with unfailing accuracy. I knew—I read his eyes as he spotted them—read too the hard, searching look as he sized up the others. Nothing of fear in his face, you understand—but there was a certain relief there. He was looking for someone that he didn’t find—someone he didn’t want to find. Food for thought that. What would bring a man like that to the funeral of a common gunman?
It was hot and then cool—a gentle breeze slipping through the trees, then a sudden burst of wind—the blotting out of the sun like a huge hat had been placed over it—threatening clouds and a distant roar of thunder. No warning, you understand—just a gorgeous summer afternoon turned into night.
There were hurried glances toward the threatening sky—and the Longfellow stuff was pulled: like Arabs they stole away. The cops, too, just melted out with them—faces they hadn’t seen in years had no doubt bobbed up at the funeral—acquaintances that many a bull would want to renew. As for me—I stuck it out till the last shovelful of dirt was pitched. Was it Mexican Joe that was dead? I couldn’t be sure of that—but someone had been put away for keeps. Just the grave diggers and me left. Then I too turned and started down the narrow path to the west gate.
I’ve been lost in the Underworld of unfamiliar cities—stranded and bewildered on the edge of the great Sahara, but this was the first time I’d slipped up on my bearings in a city of the dead. Why, in five minutes I was swallowed up in the blackness of a moonless night. Just the dull, dim outlines of great and small stones and the swaying dullness of ghost-like trees. Nothing alarming—I’m not superstitious. I’ve read of dead men coming back, but none of mine had ever turned the trick.
The whirling of wind—a flash of lightning—a figure or two dashing bewilderingly in and out among the dead—a great blackness and the deafening roar of thunder. Majestic—awe inspiring? Maybe. I give Nature credit for pointing its finger at the puny conceit of man—and I admired the beauty of the storm. Everything was jake until the rain came—Man! It just opened up and poured. Another glare of light—a huge tomb—a half sheltered stone doorway with an iron gate and a bronze plate—and I was out of the rain.
There was a big marble urn to one side, which made a fair seat, if you were careful about not slipping into it. I made myself comfortable, pulled a butt, and eyed the storm. No use to buck against it—I didn’t know my way anyhow. Patience is a great thing. I had nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in. It was a good place to admire Nature and I did nothing else but.
You couldn’t see more than the length of your arm before you except when the lightning did its stuff—good generous flashes too—if it wasn’t for the pouring rain I could have made my way along in the dazzling, cutting flashes. But I’m no duck, so I sat it out. And the thunder—you’d think it was rolling right down the paths—pounding against the tombstones and the vaults—jarring along like great iron balls that—
Ping! In the midst of the lightning—a ping that was distinctly audible and clearly defined from the peal of thunder that followed. I didn’t have to figure the thing out. Someone had fired a gun—I’d know and recognize even a twenty-two—yep, if it was fired in a boiler factory. My ears are trained for—
And if there was any doubt the second shot dispelled it and brought me off that oversized flower pot with a jump. Clear—like a bell—the thud of a bullet rang out on the heavy bronze just between my swinging legs. Good enough! The bronze pot was my fort.
I was half behind it, crouched low, gun drawn, when the next flash of lightning came. It was a long one too—a vivid cut of fire, streaking from east to west and lighting clearly a towering monument fifty feet ahead of me and slightly to my left. A figure—bent low, slipping across the grass to a narrow obelisk affair with a crippled angel on top of it. I raised my gun and smiled—the man who had fired at me was a poor shot, over anxious or made nervous by the fury of the storm. The figure almost reached the obelisk as my finger tightened—hesitated a fraction of a second, and—I dropped my gun.
The protracted length of that last flash had saved a man’s life. Another figure swept across my vision—and then a third—all madly seeking shelter—like frightened rabbits they were. Any one or none of them might have fired that shot. I wasn’t any advance agent for a cemetery. I suddenly realized that perhaps hundreds were lost among the dead. But I ran toward my man—the first I had selected. The lightning died—a great and distant crash of thunder—the scream of a frightened woman—and the chase was over. A woman in black, with two white faced children clinging to her skirt, had jumped suddenly in my path and grabbed me by the arm. The thing was done—I had become a Don Quixote—fighting imaginary battles to save my hysterical woman from the spectres that seemed to rise about her. That was that.
The rain stopped, like someone had turned off the spigot—the clouds quickly disappeared, and in a little while the sun came out. The widow at my side gave up all idea of getting married again so soon and drifted off with the children, with a murmur in her voice that might have been thanks but sounded like her gum had gotten stuck.
Things opened up now—every road was plain and easy to find. I slipped out the gate and made the subway that would take me back to the city. It was a nice day—much cooler—and I didn’t have a care or worry in the world. Someone had shot at me, to be sure—but then, what of that? A slight disappointment that I didn’t get the opportunity to return the fire—I’d of shown that lad a bit of gun-play that would have surprised his relatives.
As I rattled along under the damp and humming river I got thinking of the stranger with the swell front and expensive car, who had stood well back from the grave. And here’s where the coincidence of the movies slips into real life. We call it getting the breaks—I was heading straight for a good case—the melodrama of life that is filled with action—gripping, thrilling, real and imperative action—because the element of uncertainty has not been eliminated by a conscientious and careful theatrical director.
There is no reason in the world why I should drop off the subway and saunter through Greenwich Village. There’s nothing of life there—as for my slipping into a tea room to watch imaginary artists decorate their vests—well, I don’t often do it but this time I did. Impulse or hunger—or just the cleverly arranged window of a dusky tea room. But in I went for tea and toast—flopped before a dirty window and got a laugh at the situation. Suppose a gunman found me there! What a place for a bit of lead!
It was one of these places where you can eat your head off for a half dollar and then go away hungry, if you get what I mean. And nothing happened—nothing would ever happen there.
When I got up to go I saw him. The same big chesty bird who had stood by the trees out at the cemetery. He was just a weak sister after all, I thought, for he was smiling and chatting with the waitress and patting her hand. That was the coincidence, though I never thought of it at the time. The lad looked up—sort of adjusted his gold eye glasses. He looked as calm and as self-possessed as a pig on ice. Then his great blue eyes drifted into the dirty mirror—reflected across the room—and lit full upon my face.
Man! If you had slapped that bird in the mouth with a rotten tomato he wouldn’t have been more surprised. Those gold rimmed cheaters did tricks on that Roman nose that would have been worth five hundred a week in vaudeville—and the boyish redness of those well fed cheeks snapped out like an electric light as his mouth drooped. Someone had given that boy a shock and since he was looking straight at me—well, use your own judgment. Like a sudden glance of a movie actor it was—just a second—and again was that same debonair, smiling gentleman.
I dismissed the thing with a shrug of my shoulders as I turned into the hall and stood at the top of the five stone steps which led to the street. He was a man with money, of course, married probably—took me for a divorce runner maybe. There was nothing in it for me—yet I stood there—lighted a butt and puffed away as I surveyed the promised land of Washington Square, that has disillusioned so many budding artists and literary geniuses of the “home town.”
A minute passed—two—three, and still I stayed upon the steps. A footfall behind me—a hand upon my shoulder, and I looked full into the good natured Irish face of the big “drawing room set.” When he spoke it was my turn to start—but not with shock. This lad drawled in a broad English accent.
“Can you tell me where to get the Fifth Avenue bus?” And his accent was real too—nothing stagy about it.
I eyed him a moment. There was nothing in his face now—just a good natured tolerance—a beaming kindliness toward his fellow man. Forty, we’ll call him, with a younger and yet an older look. Outside, he was the eager boyish man who is enjoying life for the first time—but behind all that there was hardness. An actor? Maybe, though I could not place him. And he was asking me about the buses that could plainly be seen at the other end of the square.
I did the polite and gave him the dope on the buses.
“One saves much money in giving the buses preference over the taxis?” And there was a question in his voice—a question that he did not mean to be there. But to me he asked as plain as if he had spoken the words—asked if I had seen him there by the grave—seen too his great expensive motor.
“One saves money too by giving his feet preference over the buses,” I shot back at him—and I watched his face while he decided whether to smile or not. But the voice with the smile won and it was there when he spoke again, for his teeth stood out like the headstones in the flashes of the storm.