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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.
“Blind Alleys” originally appeared in the April 1927 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.
The rain-driven fog deadened the street lamps to distant, ghostly blurs. The pounding, blowing hail beat against my face and just above my coat collar, biting into the skin with the sting of sharp pine needles. As I plodded along I would turn my head and peer closely at the intervals of shop windows. A pause, and a step forward again. The street numbers would make one dizzy. I didn’t have an umbrella—I never carry one. I like to see what’s coming in all directions. It’s better to be wet above ground than dry beneath it. With me “long life and the pursuit of liberty” demand an unobstructed vision. Race Williams—Confidential Agent, would look pretty hiding behind an umbrella. “Hit the bull’s-eye and get a good cigar” sort of business. Outside I was soaked but inside I was dry—no water had touched my guns and after all my health lies mostly in the barrel of a forty-four.
It was a dismal neighborhood, this old and once respected section of the city. Little business here, except for an occasional shop or the dull, misty light from a tea room a few steps below the street. Most of the houses looked alike—gray, gaunt, faded affairs that—
And I saw her, spotted the girl as she slipped from a vestibule and ran lightly down the steps toward me. Just the dull outline of her, a lithe slip of a thing who might pose for an advertisement of “that boyish figure.” Her feet pattered over the sidewalk, scraped and stopped as her hand fell upon my arm. I half swung and looked at her—just looked, nothing more. You couldn’t see anything there—the dim whiteness of a face; two flashing things that might have been eyes. And when she spoke her words came quickly—panting, as if she had been running a great distance or was laboring under excitement—nervous excitement. She didn’t wait for a cue, but busted right into her act.
“My key—I can’t turn it in the lock. It’s dark and wet and cold—and I’m afraid to be out. It sticks.” She went right on jabbering it off, her fingers twisting up my coat and pulling at it. Occasionally sharp nails would bite through and pinch.
I didn’t speak at once. I just smiled down and waited for her to go on with the yarn. She waited a bit, for me to grab the key and rush to the door. But I didn’t—I waited, too. Then she jerked out the rest of it.
“You’ll help me, I know. My fingers are numb—perhaps.” And when I didn’t make a break. “What will I do?”
There was the question direct. The book of etiquette calls for an answer—and I gave it to her.
“Better get a locksmith,” I suggested sarcastically. “I’m sorry, but not living around here I can’t recommend a good one.”
I think she bit her lip before she answered—at least, there was a queer clicking sound.
“It’s just stiff,” she faltered. Again the hand upon my arm. “You’ll help me—just step to the door and see if you can turn the key.”
A slender arm shot out and white fingers pointed toward the darkened doorway a few steps above the street. The block was deserted, the vestibule black and quiet. What a child she must have been or what a fool she thought me to be!
“Lady—lady,” I shook a finger at her, “you’ve been reading the Farmers’ Almanac or Joe Miller’s Joke Book.”
“Then you won’t help me!” She drew back a pace. “I thought you a gentleman. And a lady—” Then a step forward again. “Please—I’m frightened here, alone. Such a small favor!”
But the joke was over. I had business to attend to. I stretched out a hand now and clutched her by the arm.
“I am doing you a favor by not sticking my head in that vestibule to have it crowned.” Leaning forward and putting my face close to hers and keeping her between me and the vestibule, I drove home a message for her to carry to the lads lurking in the darkness. For the game of the lady, the stiff lock and the unruly key was as old as the mother-in-law joke.
“If I stepped into that doorway,” and I wasn’t smiling now, “your friends wouldn’t have a chance. As for you—well, perhaps I’m wrong and you’d be very attractive in black. If my time was my own tonight and I was just on pleasure bent—why, I’d oblige you in a way that would be most surprising. One word more.” I swung her around so that she faced the doorway. “You’re a nice girl—maybe a hard-working, deserving girl. If you have a relative in that doorway, steer him off me for tonight or until you can stick some life insurance on him.”
With that I was gone, walking leisurely across the street and so slowly on my way. She stood irresolute on the sidewalk a moment, then dashed out into the street. I thought she intended going on with the farce—but she didn’t. She paused there in the middle of the roadway, then swinging quickly around and, forgetting about her key and the friends in the doorway, ran hurriedly down the center of the street, melting into the blackness.
The running feet died away; the rain beat harder than ever, and pressing my chin down on my chest I continued on my way. Another cross street and I returned to my former side of the street. The letter that I carried in my pocket gave full instructions how to enter the house from the rear. But I wanted to get a slant at the front of it first. Later, an exit might be more important than an entrance, and I wondered, too, if the little by-play of the elusive key had something to do with my mission in that neighborhood.
A number near a street lamp, and I counted off the houses. And there was the house I sought—a little grayer, a little heavier than the others, perhaps. Great oak doors stood tightly closed above the worn stone steps. A window squeaked above me, then squeaked again—this time with a thud to it. Someone had opened and closed it. I glanced up over my shoulder. Something white fluttered to the street. A man detached himself from the shadow of the house below and moved quickly and quietly along the sidewalk. He hadn’t seen me—I had taken care of that.
For the moment only I hesitated. I could have turned, stuck up the gentleman who clutched at the bit of paper that fell close to the side of the house. But that would give me away, and above all my visit was to be secret. At least those were the instructions, though already I more than suspected others knew of it.
I decided to keep on going. The letter had told me nothing—it didn’t need to. The money was enough. So I made my way around the block. A car shot past me as I reached the corner. A policeman, pounding his beat, turned and watched it. Again quiet.
Counting off the houses on the street behind, I reached my point. Not so cockey, this neighborhood. Here was the storehouse the letter spoke of. High wooden gates shut off the driveway to the street. There was no light in the building, no flash of a watchman’s torch. The place was old and little used. The alley was deserted. I jumped, grasped the top of the heavy wooden gate, and swung up. Knees bent to deaden the fall. I dropped over.
The roadway behind the gate was clear, though both sides of it were filled with litter. I ran quickly along it. The rain was harder now. At the back of the yard and close to a fence was a dilapidated shack. Beneath this shed I found some shelter from the storm. From the storm but not the rain. The roof—what there was of it—leaked like a one ring circus tent and I got most of it. As the rivulets crept under my collar and found their way down my spine, the five new one hundred dollar bills that had come in the letter didn’t look so big. I was getting down on the lad who sent me the letter, too. Why didn’t he let me drive up to the place in a taxi and walk right in? A few watchers in front wouldn’t interfere with me. Or if they did, they wouldn’t interfere with anyone else for a while. I know my rights and I’m willing to assert them. But here I was cooped up beneath a shed, and wondering if someone watched the back of that house as well as the front.
The letter writer had not thought of that; figured the back perfectly safe. Still, no matter how stupid these lads are they mostly all know there’s a back as well as a front to every house. And the boy in front, who had picked up the note that came from the window, had all the ear-marks of a private detective. That I didn’t get a good look at him doesn’t make any difference. I can tell the breed; the tilt of the head, the carriage of the shoulders and the insolent swing of the body, as he stooped to retrieve that note, left me with a strong impression that cheap, private dicks were pussy-footing it around.
Somewhere far distant in a church tower a clock struck one. My appointment called for two—yet I had my reasons for being early. I pulled my coat the tighter, stuck my head out, and getting a glimpse at the height of the fence prepared to tackle it. Even private detectives don’t go in for murder—a lad wouldn’t just shoot, and most of them are notoriously bad shots. If it was a trap, that was another thing. But life is full of chances. I’m paid to take them and—I stepped out into the storm.
Just one step and I shot back again. The thud of wood upon wood—then another thud, duller this time. I’m used to placing noises in the night, and the answer to those two thuds was simple enough. Someone was following my example and climbing the high gate. And what’s more he was making a poor job of it. His heels pounded as he hung and his feet landed too straight—no bend to the knees. But he wasn’t particular about the noise he made, for his heels pounded along the roadway—there was a muttered curse as something knocked his shin, then he reached the shed and the fence just beyond it.
I glued my eye to a crack and looked out. Nothing at first—then a shadow. I could barely see the whiteness of the fist he raised, but I distinctly heard the three knocks upon the wooden fence. A moment of silence and the meow of a cat. At least that is what it was meant to be, but this lad was no vaudeville imitator. Still, it served its purpose. A white face peered over the fence; ghostly it looked. Then it spoke.
“He’s coming by the back—your way—leastwise I get a note to that effect. And don’t forget the hour—the same.”
“Two.” The other gulped. “Who is he?”
“Don’t know. Some cheap dick, I guess. The boss didn’t wise me up.”
“Will I stick him up or crash him?” The lad behind the fence was a gentle soul.
“Crash him. He might put up a holler and we don’t want the cops in on it. It’s safe—he won’t dare peep afterward. Things are greased fine. The Kid’s scared stiff.”
A harsh laugh, in which the other joined.
“He won’t dare try to slip her out,” the lad near the shed continued. “The raid’ll go through big. I think—” a gust of wind, the rattle of the hedge, and I missed a few lines. Then—“I’ll trot around again and see you if anything new turns up.”
“Good. As soon as he drops into the alley I’ll lay it on him.” A crack as something struck the fence—a blackjack, I guess—then a double chuckle, like a couple of ten, twenty, thirty Simon Legrees, and the pair separated. The pounding feet again; the dull thud as the lad dropped from the big gate—and silence.
Lucky that I listened in. Lucky! Yes, but not for me. Certainly no man can step out of the darkness and crash me for the count. And that’s not conceit—just a simple truth. I’m alive today to prove it, and many have tried it.