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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.
“The Face Behind the Mask” originally appeared in the February 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.
It was a night to be indoors; the wind howled and screeched through the trees without, and the storm-driven rain beat in great gusts across the roof of my little cabin at the foot of the hills. It isn’t a place for business, I’ll admit—too far from the city and too lonely for that, but I use it often in the summer and early fall, for the fishing at the lake is the best in the county. Besides, a two hours’ drive does the trick and puts me back in the rush and the tumult of things.
But this time I was there upon the urgent request of a mysterious telephone message—the soft, trembling voice of a cultured woman. There was fear behind it too, and a touch of hysteria—the anxious plea to see me alone and far from prying eyes. Strange, that? Not exactly, most of my clients come to me in fear—few, until the dread of some unknown menace has eaten into their very souls and driven them to me in desperation.
It was a professional call, so I straightened things up a bit in that long, one-roomed cabin—a touch of business here and there to inspire confidence. Over the blazing logs of the fire, I hung my sign. Its gilt letters stood out grotesquely in the flickering, dancing fire. It reads just a bit different now:
That strikes me better, and gets away from the hint that I’m nothing more than a private dick. Them birds and me have nothing in common and that ain’t maybe.
Perhaps the most crying need that put me in my unique position as halfway house between the cops and the crooks is the astounding number of blackmail cases that take place in our big city. There are in the city today men holding responsible positions—politicians, university professors, eminent doctors, distinguished lawyers, and even the clergy themselves periodically paying out hush money to the scum of both sexes. Indiscretions of youth, a thoughtless act, a foolish letter written in the passion of the moment—and even some falsely defamed. But one and all of these poor, deluded fools dread publicity, fear the glaring spotlight of notoriety. Once they begin to pay, it’s good-night; like eternity, the blackmailer goes on and on forever, or until his helpless dupe is sucked dry. Occasionally, a victim goes half mad with the mental agony of the thing and murders his persecutor, but most times it’s a bullet in his own head or a ten-story leap in the silent hours of the night.
The cowardly blackmailer being legally, if not morally, within the law, is an evil that can’t be stamped out. The victim fears to face the music and go straight to the police—the police and the newspapers work too closely for that. As for the private detectives—well, they know a good thing when they see it, and most of them are not above “shaking down” a helpless client.
One thing more. It’s not a half bad game, from my point of view. Nothing to worry about if it comes to gun-play with rats like that. I don’t think that I ever sent the soul of a blackmailer crashing the gates of hell with the slightest prick to my conscience. And that’s that.
It’s a snug little cabin, with my windows so located that I can sit by the fire without a lad sticking a gun in and blowing me over the hurdles. Not that my little retreat is generally known, but there are a few of the Avenue boys with short terms and long memories who might feel inclined for a little lonely gun-play.
A couple of times I go to the door and look out into the loneliness of the storm-swept darkness. There, thirty feet from my door, the lantern waves and flashes in the wind. The beacon light for someone in trouble, if you are sentimentally inclined. As for me—well, I need the jack and it’s figures that run through my mind as I look up and down the desolate stretch of road. Not a sound—not a light. I shrug my shoulders and slip back to the fire. After all, it’s not my party.
It’s after nine when I jump from my seat. Clearly through the wind and the rain has come the distant screech of an automobile siren. That’s the signal. I step to the door and fling it open. It don’t give me a thrill—just a little curious to meet the client who made such mysterious arrangements to talk with me. There’s a sudden lull in the wind—come the soft purr of a motor—the grinding of brakes and crunching of heavy wheels in thick mud—then silence.
There is nothing to see in the darkness; then a shadowy figure slips by the lantern and darts swiftly through the rain toward me. Without a peep, I step back and close the door behind her. Light, graceful, quick of motion, she glides in and stands panting, her back against the door.
“Bolt it,” she whispers hoarsely. “Every minute I’m watched—I can’t even call my soul my own.”
Hysterical, a broken down, nervous wreck? No, not her—just a frightened whisp of a woman—but through the hoarseness of her voice comes the ring of refinement; that indefinable tone of breeding that money can’t buy.
I slipped home the bolt and motioned her to the fire. She stood irresolute a moment, eyeing me from under the long peaked cap which hid the upper part of her face, leaving me with the hazy impression of a well set, determined little chin below two tightly closed, quivering lips. Then in sudden impulse she threw off her long automobile coat and turned to the fire. She wore gray knickers and a belted sport coat. A moment she faced the fire, her hands extended, her shoulders rising and falling with her rapid breathing; then she swung about.
“Race Williams—Mr. Williams, of course?”
Her voice was more steady—her breathing more natural.
“Of course,” I nodded. “Sit down, please—you came alone?”
Her manner was all interest now—a nervous, restless eagerness as she played with her fingers.
I dropped into the chair beside her, and tried to ease things up while I got a little information for myself.
“How did you happen to hear of me—want me to help you?”
I always like to get to the bottom of these things.
I knew that her eyes were watching me from under her cap—studying me—appraising me, perhaps. Good, that! It’s surprising how those who have tripped up along the straight and narrow somewhere, look for detriments in others. But if she could read anything in my map, she was welcome to it. In my game, my face is always playing poker.
“That,” she said slowly, “was very strange. My trouble—I thought was my own, but here—look.”
She dived into her jacket pocket and produced a thin white card. My eyes narrowed as I looked at the single line of typewriting:
“Race Williams can help you.”
Then came my office address and telephone number. I whistled softly. Story book detectives might find the typewriter and the lad who turned the trick, but not me. Too many typewriters and not enough time. Someone, I had no doubt, was in on the know.
“I don’t know how to begin,” she started—then stopped—again her eyes studied me from under the cap.
“You might begin by taking your cap off,” I told her, none too politely.
I was tired of this scrutiny. Besides, I wanted to see how much of the truth she would tell me. I’m not strong for this “Little Bo Beep” business.
I could see the color flush up, and expected an outburst, but none came. For a moment her hand hesitated on the peak of her cap, then with a defiant little tug she jerked it off. I half started.
Many women have come into my life, but here was a real knockout. Class was stamped in every contour of her finely cut features. She might have been over twenty-five, but she didn’t look it, for the dark shadows beneath her eyes were not those of age but the mental agony of sleepless nights. She tried to smile, too, but it only left hollows about her mouth and further accentuated the rouged whiteness of her delicate cheeks. But most of all I’m business, and through her extraordinary beauty I saw the figures on a certified check.
“I won’t begin by hiding anything from you.” She started suddenly and a little defiantly. “Not even the shame of my face. I’m at the end of my resources. Frankly, I come to you as a last hope. You are all that stands between me and—God—I doubt that I have the courage left even for that.”
She clutched her two hands together; half arose; then sat down again. A strong woman for all her emotions. I could almost see her pull herself together, and when she spoke again her voice was steady.
“After all, it is business with you,” she half looked up at the sign above the fire, “and I still have money—though it’s going fast.”
“It’s blackmail then.” I nodded.
This time she was on her feet with a startled little cry.
“You know then—you know.”
And all the fright had come back into her eyes.
I could have told her that it always is blackmail when money’s going fast, but after all it’s business; and after her last crack that she still had money, I let explanations slip by the board.