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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.
“Conceited, Maybe” originally appeared in the April 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.
I could see his head—the enlarged outline of it—bobbing up and down as he studied the gilt lettering on my door. What he expected was hidden there, I don’t know. I’m not ashamed of my name—“Race Williams, Confidential Agent” stood out all over the glass like a sore thumb. Then he pushed open the door and sort of oozed in—just room enough to admit his slender body.
There was a fairy-like glide to his motion as he slid across the outer room and stood there, a wonderful picture, framed in my doorway. Class, this lad, and no mistake. The complete man—all of him; the tight-fitting check suit, the suede spats, and the black derby that he carried across his chest like it was a toy balloon. And the ebony walking stick—at least it was black—standing out as the elegant yellow gloves fondled its goose-like neck.
There he stood—a whole bed-room set.
So he posed, looking me over. The kind of a man that men forget—his mustache was a scream. There may be funnier ones in the movies, but I have yet to see them. Yep, his whole attitude was, “Look me over, boy; I’m a Wow!” I did—his tie stood forth like a cathedral, and shrieked for recognition. “Beautiful but Dumb” was changing its sex. Then he opened his sweet young lips, and I get my first shock. More attention I give this bird. He ain’t selling life insurance—not him—besides, I’m not considered a good risk.
“Mr. Williams—Mr. Race Williams—I wish to engage you on a rather delicate case—it may take you to the Coast—but I will pay—I am Mr. Reverity Paterson Coe.”
A laugh there, the dragging first two names with the dead flat finish.
Oh, he wasn’t exactly on my visiting list, but I had read his name. He’d been getting married for the last six months; done a sort of waiting-at-the-church business—trying to revise the old song, like.
But I just eyed him, and nodded as he daintily pulled at his gloves. It was up to him to shoot the works, and that he did. He went over the old story that had crowded out minor murders for the last few weeks, in the news. Nothing much new to me, but I let him shoot along—the way he lisped the words out of the side of his mouth was a study and—well—I like to study people; I can read ’em like a book. The girl was a well-known actress, lately retired—while Reverity Paterson Coe had completed his career when he rowed on his college crew ten years back. He had money, and them simple words explain his whole life.
So he drawled on:
“Twice now—Miss Travers—Gladys has disappointed me. Even to the church door—with the guests waiting; that is, the first time. The second—well, it was to be a private wedding. But neither time did she put in an appearance. Most embarrassing, but—love is above these pains of ridicule. I want to know the truth.”
“You better ask her,” I snapped up at him. “I don’t take no divorce or matrimonial cases. I fight with guns, not with rolling pins.”
“I have asked her.” His voice changed and he spoke more rapidly, with less effort, too. “She tells me she’s sick—but—oh, I know differently—something sinister is behind it all—something that I more than suspect. I want you to go to California with—I—”
He stopped dead—I half turned—looked through my partly open door and saw that a girl had entered my outer office. A woman, perhaps—a woman who knew how to dress—nothing flashy, you understand—not like this tailor’s dummy who stood before me. I turned back to the stuffed lizard. His face gave me the truth—he didn’t have to speak. There was a fear in his eyes, a sudden blanching to his cheeks.
I half whispered the words, and caught his nod in return. Then I walked to the door, stuck my head out, and told her I’d see her in a few minutes. There was a chance here to pick up some quick and easy jack—not in my line, perhaps—but then, easy money is always in my line.
I closed the door and turned to Airy Fairy Lillian. Believe me, I can read character like a book—but this bird puzzled me. And the girl—an actress, with a past that kept climbing up and biting her on the ear just as the wedding bells were about to ring. Blackmail? Probably! Maybe she was stringing him along to work him loose from some change. Then again—I looked closely at him. No—he was nervous all right—no doubt about that. The sight of the girl had thrown him into a panic. I could see the indecision rushing across his face—searching eyes, beating forehead, and the fine, even teeth biting into his lower lip.
“Snap out of it,” I told him. “This ain’t a wake. After all, I may learn something—here, slip behind that curtain. We’ll let the lady open up with the sad news.”
And I take him by the arm and lead him to my listening-in closet—just a bit of a space behind a long strip of burlap curtain. If I had to hunt up her past and feed it to him—and prove it, why—well, here was a chance to let him get it first-hand—the girl would probably let a load off her chest. Not good ethics, this listening-in business—but good common sense; besides—well, I ain’t nobody’s fool and I had done considerable thinking. Conceited—maybe; but I can read print—even when it’s written across someone’s map.
He slipped behind the curtain, after giving one wild look at the door. I watched the curtain shake a bit—cautioned him once and turned toward the door. The show was on—the curtain was going up on the first act—the sex interest was waiting to be led in.
I swung open the door and got a real slant at youth and beauty—made up—yes, slightly, and the smile of greeting on her lips was a thing of the stage and not of life. There were lines beneath the eyes—hidden, perhaps, but noticeable just the same. This girl was young in years—but old in experience. She had seen life, and not all the cream puff side of it either. Straight and as slender as an arrow, she stepped across the threshold and into my private room. Her eyes were brown, her little nose tilted slightly—not a hat rack tilt, you understand—nor a pug nose either; an individual little—but what’s the use? I was looking a good woman straight between the eyes, and I knew it. I half glanced toward the curtain. Was I putting over some dirt? Think what you like—mine was a deep game.
She didn’t play on words—she knew the value of them. And she didn’t go in for flattery—she knew the uselessness of that as soon as she looked at me. Her brown eyes were straight and honest—met mine squarely; and behind their sparkle I caught that distant glance of dread—a fear that all her will power could not drown.
“I am Gladys Travers,” she told me, “and I understand that you don’t take divorce cases. This, in a way, is one. I only ask that you listen to me. You must know that I am engaged to Mr. Reverity Coe. Before our marriage I shall tell him the truth—when I can with safety to him. Until then—he would only insist—and I can’t marry him.” For a moment, she gave way to her feelings—her tiny hands shot to her face—her great brown eyes opened wide. “Good God—I am a married woman. The wife of the greatest scoundrel unhung.”
Dramatic, that! Yes, you can’t get away from it—but I felt that if she was play-acting, it was unconscious. After that one outburst, she shot out the story in quick time. Afraid I’d call her and throw the case, I guess.
“I come from good people—my father had money and position. I ran away and married. He never forgave me. I was never happy. My husband—he was a blackmailer and a thief—often he beat me. I thought he had died—was sure he had died. I struggled from the chorus to the lead—shook off the past—met Reverity, and became engaged. The time for the marriage was set—on the morning of the wedding came a note—from my husband. I did not believe but hesitated—the past was creeping in—some of my husband’s associates wished to blackmail me, I thought. Panic-stricken, I left town—spent two days out of the city—reasoned things out and returned. I would tell Reverity—his love was above everything. I would pay these people nothing—I would face the past squarely. I had done nothing wrong—left my brute of a husband as soon as I learned the truth.
“On the second occasion—my husband showed up—spoke to me on the street—”
“Forbade this marriage,” I encouraged her, as she paused.
The clothes-horse behind the curtain sure was getting one earful.
“No—not that. He insisted upon it—wanted me to go through with it. I could pay him a certain sum each month—and each summer— Oh, the baseness of it. I refused and—” she suddenly hung her head and burst into tears.
“His name,” I said.
She raised her head, wiped her eyes, and gulped; then she opened her month to speak.
Like chain lightning I swung, drew, and fired.
The burlap curtain sagged, groaned, and was pulled from its fastening. The man and curtain fell together into the room. The drawn revolver in the man’s hand exploded as he crashed to the floor—spat harmlessly through my desk and into the thickly padded wall. I couldn’t help a slight grin—some shooting, that—the tiny black hole in his forehead was turning to a dull red. His body just seemed to curl till it was all bent up, like a Sixth Avenue steak. Dead? Man! he was as good as embalmed right then. I’ve been too long in the game not to recognize the click of a revolver when I hear it. And I had heard his, and no mistake.
“Is that your—the man you’re engaged to?”
I straightened the lad out, so that she’d get a good look—also I wanted to see her emotions. And she took it fairly well—her hand half over her eyes, she looked through her fingers.
“Why—no—not—that’s not—my fiancé. I don’t know who he is.” She turned away her head, then suddenly swung about again. “Now you may understand—see the desperate situation.”
There was a ring of defiance in her voice—almost a challenge to take the case. And me—hell—I should have been hired before I bumped over that lad. I get two hundred and fifty extra for every killing, and now—the prettiest bit of shooting you’d want to lay your eyes on and not a nickel in it!
“He would have killed me,” the girl went on, as I led her into the outer office. Corpses have a dulling effect on women as a rule.
“I don’t think so,” I told her. “You knew this husband of yours. I didn’t—they didn’t want me to. Had planned, by impersonating Mr. Coe, to get me out of this part of the country—heard somehow that you were coming to see me. That dead lad played his game well—but there was one thing against him. His voice was good and his words well chosen, but he talked through the side of his mouth—a prison trick, that—besides, when I shoved him behind that curtain he started to pull off his gloves. Nervousness, perhaps, but I thought different. Oh—I wasn’t sure of him till he clicked the gun—then—”
I snapped my fingers. Real post mortems are nearly as bad as post mortems in card games.
“You’ll help me?”
I heard her voice coming up to me, felt her fingers pulling at the lapels of my coat. I looked down for a minute—deep into those great pools. She was beautiful, indeed; and—well—she said that she had money.
“If what you tell me is the truth, I’ll help you,” I said simply.
Then, to break the tension of those great pleading eyes, I quoted her prices.
She talked some after that. Her husband’s name was Jerome Ormond, which didn’t sound so desperate. The advisability of telling her fiancé little or much, she left to me. She kept repeating over and over how desperate her husband was and my danger of being killed, and kept holding up the dead clam in the next room as proof of this. This husband of hers was so tough that he’d steal police uniforms.