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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.
“South Sea Steel” originally appeared in the May 1926 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.
He was little and florid and fat and fifty. This was the third time he had picked on me just after dinner. But he knew Honolulu, the Hawaiian Islands, and waxed enthusiastic over the beauties of the distant islands of the South Seas. Although you wouldn’t connect romance with his hanging jowls and bulging eyes, he got his stuff over like a real estate agent.
He wanted something, of course. He’d blow up like a Roman candle when he heard the truth. I wasn’t in Honolulu on business; simply pleasure. Had he found out who I was? Not from the register of the hotel—I didn’t sign my full name. R. Williams, Esq., was how I was traveling. Few would connect that up with Race Williams, Confidential Agent, way down here in Hawaii.
But he could talk on the beauties of those islands of the South Seas. I got to admit that I had it in my mind to visit them, but it would take time and money—and while I had plenty of time, there wasn’t the money to hire a yacht and do the thing right.
He leaned over the table, and the truth came out. The little runt had decided to do the South Seas for about the sixth time. Not in a palatial vessel, but in a little trader that beat its way from island to island. Some trip it was, but you didn’t have to do it all. There was the opportunity to meet one of the mail steamers in a couple of months and get carted back to Honolulu.
“It’s like this, Mr. Williams.” He finished with a sad look in his bulging eyes. “I’ve had business reverses—simply got to get back to Chicago. I can’t make this trip—and I don’t like to lose the money. Everything’s paid for. It’s a small schooner and a comfortable one. I’ll sell you my passage cheap. Captain Verplanck wouldn’t take anyone else. You’ll be all alone and you’ll get rest and seclusion. What do you say?”
I looked straight at him and started to say “No.” Then—why not? I was well out in the Pacific; there was nothing on my mind. Such an opportunity might not come again.
“We’ll have a look at this captain,” I finally told him, “and if I can stand him, and his ship isn’t the size of a rowboat, I’ll take this trip around your damned South Sea Islands.” That’s just the way I felt about it. I wanted a rest. This would force it on me. I’d never been to the South Seas, and I’ve always said that when I get shoved into the earth I’ll have trod every foot of it. So the little stranger and myself shot off toward the water front.
I don’t know what they call them in Honolulu; in good old New York they call them “speak-easies” or “blind tigers.” This place smelt as if the tiger was already dead as well as blind. The Captain sat alone at the far end of the little curtained room, smoking a pipe. There was an empty glass before him, but he never made a holler as the little stranger and myself sat down across from him. He just nodded when I was introduced—then he spoke, his head bent down toward the table, but his eyes raised to me. A gray-haired old mariner—nothing hard or coarse in his make-up, unless it was the thick, healthy, tanned skin.
“Mr. Williams,” he said. “You’ll be the passenger? We’ll have dirty weather this time of year.”
“Dirty weather!” The little lad near hit the ceiling. “Why, you told me different. Fine weather—glorious weather. I’ve been out before, this time of year.”
“I’ll grant you that.” And there was a slight b-u-r-r to the Captain’s voice. “But this is a different year—and I’ve been watching the sea. I don’t like it at all, but it’s business with me; there’s none could find pleasure in it.” Then, turning his big, surprised blue eyes on me, he chirped again: “You’ll be the passenger?”
“Not yet.” I tried to read what was behind that big blank face. “I want to see the ship.”
I thought I saw through the “dirty weather.” The Captain had to support, for a couple of months, a passenger. If there was no passenger—so much the better for the Captain.
But he was willing enough to show me the vessel and the room I was to occupy. I was agreeably surprised. The cabin was clean, the ship of a comfortable size and, although a sailing vessel, equipped with an auxiliary engine—or whatever they call it.
“Own the boat, Captain?” I shot the question at him.
He straightened suddenly, so that his massive head almost collided with the cabin roof.
“I do not,” he said stiffly. “It belongs to the Company.” And he announced “the Company” as if he had said “The Bank of England.”
“I’m coming with you, Captain,” I told him, when we were back again at the table.
“If you’ll excuse us—” The little stranger cut in as he dragged me to the far end of the room. He sure was anxious to settle things. So I fixed him up with the cash then and there.
“I ain’t advised it.” Captain Verplanck shook his head. “But it’s done now. If you should change your mind—but,” he pulled a pencil and pad from his pocket, “I’ll be putting your name down in the log book, shipshape-like. It’s handy to have if anything should happen to the ship.”
“R. Williams, Esq.” I smiled over at him. “We’ll be fine little playmates, you and me.”
“I ain’t much company.” His chin was drawn down on his chest like a sulky child.
“Captain—” I turned as I reached the door. “I may change my mind and not make the trip. But if I should make it, there’ll be an extra hundred dollars in it for you.”
The Captain stood there, one hand upon the table, the other clutching his large, black, discolored pipe. A hand slowly ran up over his face to brush back the matted locks. He was thinking deeply, turning over in his mind my final words. He never moved as the door closed behind him. But I saw his face slowly brightening. Then the door shut it out. It looked like Captain Verplanck was coming to the conclusion that he did want a passenger after all.
If I had cheered up the spirits of one of the party, I sure had put the dampers on the spirits of the other. My little friend suddenly realized that he had not charged me enough. He wanted that extra hundred I had promised the Captain.
“That’ll be full passage you’re paying—almost.” He ran along beside me, tugging at my sleeve. “It should be mine by rights. The Captain ain’t entitled to it, and—” Suddenly straightening and jerking at my arm, “Hold on; we’ve passed our street and we’re getting down by the docks again. Not a good place to be this time of night.”
“Don’t come then.” I kept straight on. Here was a chance to lose the little pest. But he thought more of the hundred than he did of his person, for he tagged right along, whining and complaining.
“You’ll get held up and they’ll take what you’ve got.” I tried to cheer him up. “I’ve been down here twice, and each time—”
This time it was I who broke off, and we both stopped dead. Somewhere in the darkness—where the myriads of little lights could be seen dotting the water, had come a scream. It came again now—nearer. A long drawn-out shriek of a woman in deadly fear.
The little man stood there—not a movement, not a sound—and then a hiss, like a punctured tire, as his breath returned. There was another scream, muffled now, and the patter of running feet—light feet that beat rapidly along pavement—feet that grew louder as they approached the little alley by the corner, where we stood.
More feet now; heavier, yet not so loud. Feet that seemed to gain upon the pattering little ones; feet that hit the pavement with a dull, soft sound. Not rubber. I’ve got an ear for these little details. It comes naturally to me. The pursuing feet were bare.
There was no policeman in sight; no person upon the street. Just myself and the trembling, uncertain stranger, whose hand had crept slowly forth and was clutching at my sleeve.
Just a few seconds all told—less than half a minute anyway. The woman was saving her breath—putting her all into the footwork; laying her hope, I guess, on turning our corner and reaching a main thoroughfare. In the dim light of a distant lamp I saw her first. Her hat was gone, her hair disheveled—long yellow locks that flew straight out behind her.
She was making time despite the length of her skirts. But her feet were faltering, and her asthmatic, wheezing breath reached me clearly. She saw me, too—sort of threw her arms out in a despairing, helpless, yet hopeful gesture—tried to speak, but no words came. A muffled sound only—like those queer noises of the deaf and dumb. She had put her all into those few cries. And the fear in her eyes as she staggered beneath the dim light where I stood was real.
Behind her came a giant black—not broad, but tall and powerful. His gait was springy; his movements quick and sure and seemingly without effort. And the hand that he held in the air bore a long sharp knife. One look at the blazing whites of his eyes, the protruding clearness of is teeth, and the sleek, shining muscles of that bare arm was enough. This bird was not bent on simply frightening the woman; he was not looking for loose change in the handbag that still dangled from her wrist. There was murder in his eyes, but most of all in his upraised knife.
The next instant the woman had passed; half brushed against me and pitched to the sidewalk at my feet. My little friend had regained the use of his limbs. There were more running feet now—hard leather this time; retreating feet that were already dying out in the narrow alley behind. My business associate from Chicago was on his way home.
I half stepped to one side, so as to shield the fallen woman—and I watched the giant come on. He didn’t go in much for clothes; sort of white trousers and loose blue shirt that was open at the collar—if he had a collar. You wouldn’t think I’d take in these details at a time like this. But I did. I always do. There was the purple scarf about his middle, and I marked a gold tooth third from the center in his open hanging mouth.
He was a persistent lad, if not exactly careful. I could see he wouldn’t live long. He took too many chances. That knife, now—on a helpless woman—it was hot stuff, I daresay. But on Race Williams—well, this duck had a lot to learn. I jerked out a gun, drew a bit of a bead, and waited. What a nice flat nose he had; plenty of space between the eyes, too!
He didn’t stop. His knife simply raised the higher; some words came from his panting lips. He was going to cut me down—gun and all. I raised my other hand in warning; then he was on me, lurching through the air with a low moaning sound.
I squeezed the trigger. The huge black was checked in mid-air. But he wasn’t dead. I can’t exactly explain. Perhaps a sort of admiration for his daring as he jumped to cut me down. Anyway, I didn’t put him out. I switched my gun in that final split second and laid my lead through his arm just above the elbow. The very force of it stopped him and dropped him. The moans were real now, with nothing melodramatic or awe-inspiring in them.
He wasn’t badly damaged. Shook up considerable, dazed and uncertain as he writhed upon the pavement. He had guts, though, for he still held the knife and was feebly attempting to grasp it in his hand. It was in this fellow’s head to throw the thing at me. In his head only—just a step forward, and my foot shot out, catching him on the wrist. The knife clattered across the pavement and crashed against a dilapidated fence before a silent, darkened house.
“Now, my friend—up, and march.” I leaned down and jerked him to his feet. His eyes still blazed their defiance, but his good right hand hung at his side. He wasn’t hurt badly, and I can’t say that he was frightened either.
“Nothing to bother you now, madame.” I turned and looked at the woman. Thus the “madame.” She was no flapper—not by twenty years, she wasn’t. She wasn’t coming to me, arms outstretched, a dog-like look of devotion or gratitude on her face. She was drawing back, slowly, surely—edging away from the light, to the old fence.
I bent forward and got a look at her. Yes, I had seen her before. Once, in the hotel at Frisco; and again on the boat for Honolulu. She had eyed me strangely that time on the boat—and avoided me, even keeping to her room. She remembered these meetings, too, as our eyes met. The horror was gone from her face, but there was a certain fear still in her eyes—a figurative, speculative sort of fear. As if she were weighing the possibilities of thanking me or cutting loose and legging it.
“You—you again?” It was more a spoken thought than a question. Her voice was low, unsteady perhaps, yet free from tremor. Her poise was there and the will to sustain it, but she lacked breath.
There was a distant whistle, the pounding of wood upon pavement, and a cry from a window across the street. The danger was over; the good and true citizens were taking an interest in the proceedings.
And the woman spoke again.
“Don’t—don’t have him arrested—oh—but—” She snapped off, got a look down the street, spotted the uniform beneath the light, saw the cop undecided at the corner, and turned and legged it into the alley. The lady in the case was gone. Me and my boy friend were left together.
As for me, I saw my identity disclosed; the delay while I testified against the attempted assault. After all, it was the lady’s party. If she had no objections, why should I? I was set on that South Sea Island trip. I turned and ducked, hopped a fence, heard the patter of the running feet and followed the old girl. I haven’t got much use for the police anyway.
As for the huge black, I guess he did his trick in the opposite direction. It would be easy for him to get swallowed up in the darkness.
A fence, a couple of garbage cans, and I found myself in a narrow passage between two houses. A moment later I turned into a side street, cut to the right, found the open highway and so back to the hotel. Things were not so bad for a man who was looking for rest and seclusion. I found it for a while, hanging about the hotel and looking the crowd over as they filed in and out of the ballroom. They, too, came for rest, no doubt, and worked hard to get it.
Half dozing there among the great palms in the little conservatory that led to the ballroom, I killed butt after butt as through half-closed lids I piped the crowd. And I popped up straight.
Whirling by, in the arms of a heavy, thick-set man, was my lady of the night. Quiet, dignified and serene now. The flowing hair tightly bound back from her forehead; queer, sort of—the way you see black hair in the moving pictures of Spanish women. But her hair was light and her laugh was low and musical as she swung by the doorway and was lost again in the crowd.
I watched her when she left the floor; made a point that she see me; planted myself almost directly in her path. And she took it good—never a word—just a jerk to her head and a sudden blanching of her cheeks around the rouge. That was all; she passed me by without a nod or a smile. I turned and saw her join a party at the end of the conservatory. I snapped out my watch. One hour and forty-five minutes ago I had saved this lady’s life. Now—I shrugged my shoulders, half turned toward the lobby and elevators, and changed my mind. I’d take a rise out of this dame and no mistake. With that thought in mind I slipped back into the conservatory. I had done a little business for which I received no compensation. Now—I’d take my pay out in humor.
It was the best part of an hour before the old girl was alone. Painted and fluffed up, she could have passed to a fellow with half a can on as less than thirty.