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Race Williams had run across criminals before, and a few shots to the head always took care of such threats. But how can Race deal with four separate rogues at once? And what of their ultimate leader, The Hidden Hand? Story #19 in the Race Williams series.Carroll John Daly (1889–1958) was the creator of the first hard-boiled private eye story, predating Dashiell Hammett's first Continental Op story by several months. Daly's classic character, Race Williams, was one of the most popular fiction characters of the pulps, and the direct inspiration for Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer.
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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 Hidden Hand” originally appeared in the June–October, 1928 issues 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.
To simply say that business was dull would be the height of optimism. To say that my bank account was low would be to agree with my bank balance. To say that all the crooks in the city had ceased work would not be the truth. But to say that those unfortunate people who now fell victims of earlier indiscretions did not come to me for help would be wholly the truth. Business was dull.
“Private Detective” best describes me to the ignorant and those who have not had use for such animals. The words themselves are not so bad but I don’t like the music that most detective agencies set those words to. There are honest private detectives, of course—but there are honest politicians, too. Get the point? Something like hen’s teeth—very scarce, indeed. But I just don’t like the label. Race Williams—Private Investigator is smeared in big, gold, unashamed letters all over my office door. The “Private Detective” appears on my license only. Nice distinctions are not drawn by civil bodies.
People—especially the police—don’t understand me. And what we don’t understand we don’t appreciate. The police look upon me as being so close to the criminal that you can’t tell the difference. Oh, I’ve got my pride like the rest of us. I’d like to be famous, but I guess, after all, I’m only notorious. Every cop in the great city has my reputation hammered into him as a gun and a killer.
No use to go into detail on that point. I carry a gun—two of them, for that matter. As to being a killer, well—I’m not a target, if you get what I mean. I’ve killed in my time, and I daresay I’ll kill again. There—let the critics of my methods paste that in their hats.
Now, with business dull and a strong dislike for private detective agencies, I was thinking seriously of accepting a position from one of these very agencies. It was an open and shut affair that had been offered me the night before by Gregory Ford, a well-known operator. He just spilt his story and named his figure as he stood in the doorway.
“It’s a dull season,” he said. “A cold winter and your chance to go South. The State’s paying me well, time won’t hang heavy on your hands—and if we can pin these crimes on McCleary, I’ll give you a handsome piece of change.” And when I would have refused, just on general principles, he held up his hand. “And that isn’t all of it, Race Williams—not by half, it isn’t. This will turn out the biggest grab in the country. The feared name of McCleary is built on blood and murder—but mark my words: He’ll turn out to be a pawn in the game. If we can make him holler, buy him, or knock a squeal out of him—we’ll lay our hands on the biggest brain that ever backed a crime ring. Organized crime used to be for fiction—but since bootleggers came into the game it’s nothing but big business; the business of robbery and murder. Liquor running is simply petty larceny to some of the things those boys in Florida are pulling off.” The hand he waved in the air turned into a fist now. “If we catch the big gun behind McCleary, I’ll cut you in for ten per cent of the melon, and there’ll be a hundred a day in it for you while we’re warming up.”
I just shook my head. I don’t like to work with private detectives. I always play a lone hand.
“Times aren’t so good for you, Race.” He jerked his slouch hat down over his eyes like a stage detective. “The police in the city are beginning to watch your stunts. Take a few months off—give them a chance to forget you. I’ll tell you—if it’s you that knocks McCleary off his spot I’ll add in one grand as a bonus.” Gregory Ford swung on his heels, called once over his shoulder—“If you change your mind give me a ring in the morning. I’m sailing in the afternoon on the Cherry to Miami.”
And that’s the thing I had on my chest as I walked through the lobby of the hotel and entered the dining-room for lunch. I could think better on a full stomach, and I have yet to see the day when I couldn’t stick my hand in my pocket and wrap my fingers around a hundred or two.
I sat with my back to the wall. Put it down to fear of drafts, if you like, but it’s the best medicine I know of as a preserver of health—at least, my health. There are too many boys who’d be glad to put a bullet in my back.
It was just my pride that kept me from working with a private agency. And Gregory Ford—well—he wasn’t the worst of them.
I looked suddenly up over my coffee and saw the man crossing the dining-room. Somehow, I got the impression that he didn’t belong. The neat fitting blue suit and the flashy tie didn’t help him any. It’s part of my business to study faces, and I marked this boy for a lad who had a date with the undertaker. The pasty yellow of his sunken cheeks stood out vividly on each side of the hollows which held the dead eyes. The walk, too—his knees had a give to them as if he walked a tight rope. But he acted quickly enough as he jerked sideways and flopped into the seat across the table from me.
I smiled over at him. Here was a client. Here would be a case that would keep me from feeling bad about turning down Gregory Ford’s offer. And the man spoke.
“You’ll keep both your hands on the table.” He fairly gasped the words. “If you move a finger I’ll shoot—there’s a gun covering you from beneath the table. I care nothing for my own life.”
His eyes burned across at me now. The left hand, that he laid upon the table, trembled and the fingers twitched spasmodically. My left hand slid further back beneath the napkin it held. My right hand clutched at the fork. I had sized up this bird as a client—and now he turned out to be the heavy villain in the piece.
I had not seen the gun as he slid into the seat. Now, I put my feet close together and raised my knees noiselessly beneath the table, protecting my body from the lead if the fingers of his right hand closed upon the trigger. It was ten to one that he wouldn’t miss. He wouldn’t kill me though. It don’t take me very long to reach, draw and shoot. But he certainly would cripple me for some time. This wasn’t any bluff of a cheap gunman. The set, dry lips and sunken cheeks told the story. He had entered that dining-room and dropped into the seat opposite me for one purpose. To kill me. The flickering lips and trembling fingers upon the table were of excitement, not fear. This was a dangerous man.
But he wanted to talk—and now his quivering lips found it hard to form the words. The game was new to him. Yet, instinctively, I knew that he was determined to see it through nevertheless. So I ran in a little conversation of my own. Time was the thing! This wouldn’t be the first lad who’d talked himself out of digging my grave.
“You want to talk to me—to be sure I’d listen. That’s the reason for the gun—isn’t it?” I’d help him talk. And get time to figure out the best way of disarming this emaciated, disease-racked boy.
“Yes, I want to—to talk.” He coughed, a rattling sort of cough that shook his whole body. My eyes narrowed. If he did that again I could reach out and— But I dismissed that thought.
“I am a dying man.” Upper teeth bit into a lower lip. “A few months at the best. I have a wife—a child. Will I die and see them starve?”
I moved my right hand slightly toward the edge of the table. Those burning eyes detected the movement.
“If you do that again,” and his voice was strangely calm, “I’ll fire.” My hand remained motionless. The youth nodded. “That I can possibly escape has never entered my mind—but I should like to talk to you a moment. Many men would sacrifice their bodies for those they love,” and his eyes glowed while he spoke—but always they were on me, “but few would sacrifice their souls. I have been offered money to kill you—much money—that they, my wife and child, will have. God forgive me, but—”
It was an interesting moment. I half braced myself for the shot that would come. And I was strongly tempted to go for my own gun to make sure he would get only one shot. But that he would shoot was not certain yet—wouldn’t be certain until I heard the roar of his gun. And the flickering lips told me the reason he waited. Murder was new to him. He wanted to talk up his waning courage—wanted to excuse to himself his deed of violence. Nice pleasant party! But once I moved my hand he’d press the trigger. Slowly my hand hidden beneath the napkin closed into a fist.
“Call it murder if you will,” the youth leaned across the table, “but you’ve killed in your day. There’ll be money for them—for them.”
“If the money is contingent on your killing me—why—you’re out of luck.” My voice was calm—calm enough anyway to startle the youth, for he raised his eyes slightly to mine. “Your shot beneath the table will at best strike my legs—and before you can get in a second one—but you must understand that. You don’t expect me to sit peacefully here while you empty your gun into me, do you?”
He smiled rather sadly.
“I think not,” he said slowly. “I understand guns. The shock of the first shot will give me time to lift my gun above the table for a second. But enough, Race Williams. It’s murder. I know that. I can’t help it. I—” His voice was getting louder as his eyes narrowed. A sort of reckless courage and the false feeling that he was sacrificing himself to help others were driving him on.
Would I lurch forward across the table and take a chance—or would I try the half-formed scheme that had been in my mind ever since he first sat down? And I decided on the latter. This lad was weak—very weak, both mentally and physically. Action generally comes before diplomacy with me, but this time—well—I smiled across at the youth—I’d try diplomacy.
“You haven’t long to live,” I said. “To wound me will evidently do you no good. You have heard that Race Williams hasn’t any heart. Tonight you will learn differently. I am going to let you go—to die with your wife and child—if you hand me that gun you’ve got under the table. Quick—you fool!” I snapped out the words now. “Did you think for a minute you could play any such game with me? Why, I’ve had you covered since the very second you entered the dining-room.”
His head jerked erect. His burning eyes sought mine in wonder and alarm.
“Look down at my left hand—at the napkin.” And there was a cold steadiness in my voice that sent the blood to his pasty cheeks and put the fire in his eyes. “There’s a gun beneath that napkin. And it’s pointed straight at you.”
His lashes flicked and his eyes dropped. Beneath the napkin he saw—or thought he saw—the nose of a gun pointing toward his pounding heart.
I didn’t give him a chance to digest my threat. I came slowly to my feet, leaned forward and stuck my free hand across the table and down beneath the edge of it. It was a touchy moment—there was a thrill to it. For this kind of a menace is more dangerous than the real killer of the underworld. You can’t tell what’ll run through such a diseased brain. My words were still cold and crisp as I kept my eyes on him.
“You say you don’t care if you die,” I cut in when he would have spoken. “Just keep hold of that gun of yours a minute longer and I’ll oblige you.” There was a quick intake of breath, a convulsive jerk to a scrawny neck, and a nickel-plated revolver slipped quickly from my right hand to my coat pocket.
“Now you keep your hands on the table.” I put hard eyes on his bewildered wandering ones while I talked to him like a Dutch uncle. “If you want to spend the few days you’ve got left with that family you’d sacrifice your soul for, and not in a damp, rotten cell—tell me the name of the man who sent you to knock me over.”
When he didn’t talk I dropped back into my seat and laid it on thick. The room was pretty well deserted. My waiter had been removing dishes in a distant corner, and the jerk of that gun from beneath the table to my pocket had been no more than a movement. If I get a gun out fast, I park it fast, too.
“A fine husband and father you are,” I sneered. “I don’t know how much your child would come in for—but it would take a pretty penny to pay the price of being pointed out as the child of a murderer. Better take this chance to spend your declining days robbing poor boxes. Build up a reputation your family will be proud of. Come—you tell me who sent you here or do I call in a harnessed bull? It’s your show, you know.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He gasped out the words as his head sort of fell forward on the table, and I raised my hand for the waiter. The youth braced up a bit after a drink and stared wonderingly as the waiter left the table. Then his eyes widened as he saw me crumple up the empty napkin and toss it onto the table. He made no objections either when I helped him from the dining-room and placed him in one of the big chairs in the lounge room. He was muttering, dazed and uncertain. I stood looking down at him.
“Well, my fine killer,” I said slowly, “which is it?” And I jerked a thumb toward a convenient cop who had parked his broad back against the window.
“I can’t tell. I’ve sworn an oath. I can’t.”
“All right.” It didn’t take much force to jerk him to his feet. “I’ll hunt up that wife and child of yours and tell them what a nice ‘poppa’ they’ve got.”
If I had expected results from that I got more than I hoped for. He went limp in my grasp, and not to attract attention I had to push him back into the seat. He couldn’t talk at first—a thick, dry tongue ran over drier lips. And I was through. There was no real danger from this youth. I couldn’t browbeat and bully him. No doubt he had been picked up by some cheap gang and given a few dollars in cash and a few thousand in promises.
“All right, kid.” I tried the other side of him. “You have a new suit and a pocketful of money. They gave you something anyway.”
“Nothing—nothing. I’d get it later,” he said brokenly. “I was a fool—money of blood for my wife and boy—but they won’t know. And now—to end it all in jail—in jail. If you’d only shot—only killed me! There would be the insurance—double for death by accident.” And he was coughing and beginning to draw the attention of the clerk at the distant desk.
“Jail-bird?” I asked him.
“No—no. Army.” And he let it go at that.
There are some things we can’t explain. I won’t make excuses. Put it down to weakness. But I ducked a hand into my pocket, fished out a half dozen yellow-boys and shoved them into his bony hand. Then I turned toward the door.
Somehow he came to his feet and overtook me, the money still clutched in his hand.
“I don’t know. I can’t help you. Don’t go South. Don’t leave the city. Your life is in danger.”
“It always is,” I encouraged him. And then the significance of his “don’t go South” struck me, and remembering my talk with Gregory Ford I gripped the youth by the shoulder. “Who sent you, Kid?” I shook him gently. “It’s not your game. Play it with the right people. Tell me the truth and you’ll earn real money—clean money—for the wife and boy. Money they won’t be ashamed to touch.”
“I can’t. I’m afraid,” he gulped. “But you—watch for the Gas Man—especially at night. Silently he does his work. There, I shouldn’t—”
“But who sent you, Kid?” I kept my eyes straight on him. “There’s the wife and—”
I stopped and stared into that face. The sickly white was turning to a ghastly, pasty yellow—the sunken eyes seemed to slip forward, even bulge in their sockets, and his breath came in great gasps. The next instant he had pitched himself forward and was in my arms—his hands clutching at my shoulders, tearing at my coat, his nails biting into my flesh. There was fear and terror, even horror in his face. He screamed—shrill, piercing, like a hysterical woman. And I saw that his eyes were not on me, but past me—fastened on something behind me—someone behind me.
I swung quickly as the clerk ran from behind the desk and the elevator starter darted across the lobby. A woman screeched, a man called hoarsely, and a bell rang sharply. And as I spun around with the youth in my arms he opened his mouth and barely whispered a name.
“McCleary—” he said—and again, “McCleary.”
And that was all. There was a shot, the spurt of orange-blue flame from between two curtains less than ten feet away, and a convulsive upward jerk to the man in my arms. A single moan, the flicker of blood from a lip that hung low—and I knew I held a dead man.
Things happened quickly after that. The lobby, which had been deserted, was alive with people; uniformed boys who ran about, hysterical women who got in one another’s way, and the constant ringing of bells and the calling of the clerk who had gone back to his place behind the desk. And I—well—I stopped half-way to the curtains and let my gun slip back into my pocket. A harnessed bull stood in the lobby—the same one whom I had threatened the boy with. The assassin of the youth had escaped long ago, I thought, for others were coming through those parted curtains now—people who formed in little frightened groups and looked at the boy in the chair.
As for me, I must think of myself. I knew the cop and he knew me. I had not moved from the room. I didn’t give the officer a chance to frame the words his accusing eyes warned me of. I spoke first.
“You’ll frisk me, Beagan.” I nodded. “This man sought me out for some purpose and was shot before he could explain. You’ll see that my guns are fully loaded—and you know that I have a license to carry hardware.”
It wasn’t the time for sentiment. The boy was better off dead. I shrugged my shoulders as Beagan went over me. In case of accident there would be double insurance for the widow. After all, the youth’s family had gotten the breaks. I mentioned the matter of looking after the insurance to the doctor who rose and pronounced the man dead. Funny, how solemn the doctor was. As for me, I knew the lad had been kicked over at the first jump. I’ve lived too close to death not to know the feel of it.
And I knew something else. McCleary wanted me killed. Why? Just one reason, and a flattering one. He somehow knew that Gregory Ford had spoken to me, and he thought that I had jumped at the chance to run him down. And what’s more, he knew I didn’t go into a game just for the money; that I kept going until I got my man. Now, had he fired the shot that killed the youth? Had he meant it for me? Was it to get me out of the way or to silence the would-be killer? It didn’t matter. Much as I disliked private detective agencies it would be better for me to be paid to hunt down this feared McCleary than to simply go after him under the head of pleasure. It’s business with me. I’m no amateur.
It was well along in the afternoon when I reached my office. There was no reason why I should get into trouble through that shooting. I’d gone along to the police station with Officer Beagan and given my version of the killing to the district attorney. Just the simple statement that I had met the youth at lunch; that he was in trouble, as all my clients are; that he had not told me anything, but was about to when he got shot. I know my stuff. I had wasted some time, but I didn’t want the thing to pop up later. That I hadn’t mentioned McCleary’s name was not through any desire to protect that gentleman. But he had enough of a reputation in Florida without my advertising him in New York.
Besides, McCleary didn’t know that I knew he sent the youth. He had either shot to silence the boy or to put me out of the running. He could only guess that the youth was about to open up. And he had shot in sudden impulse. He hadn’t planned to do me in himself in the first place. It was only when his tool failed that he took a chance himself. But it didn’t matter. There were two sides to the game now. McCleary wanted to get me—and I wanted to get McCleary.
So I sat in the office nodding to myself as I decided to go into it. Perhaps Gregory Ford had not sailed yet. My hand was already on the telephone, the telephone number on my lips—when I set back the receiver and leaned slightly forward on my desk. The door knob of my inner private office was turning slowly. My hand slipped to my pocket. I smiled grimly. Was McCleary a fool? The catch snapped and the door opened. I half raised my head, and lowered it quickly. I had a visitor.
There he stood, framed in the doorway. Big and slightly stooped, he looked at me through heavy rimmed glasses which were parked to his vest by a thick black ribbon. Brown eyes looked vacantly at me out of a round blank face. Then he smiled. I stiffened slightly. I had thought I had a client. Now, it seemed as if I were about to be approached for the starving heathen in Africa. Benevolence just shone like the rising sun from his kindly, good-natured face. All but his eyes did their stuff, and they remained blank and inexpressive. Brown, I said. I didn’t know exactly then; perhaps they were brown—a reddish-brown or even a grayish-brown. Damn it all—their very vacancy held me; their vacancy and lack of definite color—though they had a color.
His age—thirty-five, forty-five, or even fifty. You’ve seen the kind I mean—nothing definite in the age line.
“Mr. Williams—Mr. Race Williams.” He coughed once and ran a thick hand with peculiar, long, delicate fingers across his generous mouth. Then he stepped into the room, laid his cane against the wall, and closed the door tightly behind him.
“It is with considerable pleasure,” he spoke as he removed light yellow gloves, “that I meet you—you who stand without a peer in the tracking of the criminal.” And he stressed the word ‘criminal,’ his thick lips closing tightly and the brown eyes—or whatever the devil color they were—taking on a distinctly reddish tinge. “It is indeed a pleasure. I must grip your hand—I must indeed grip your hand, Mr. Williams.”
And he did. I looked up at him as he pump-handled me. If we can believe that each man’s life is stamped upon his face, then here was a lad who had spent his days helping old ladies across the street and opening tins of sardines to feed starving kittens.
“You are a busy man, Mr. Williams,” he went on, not dropping my hand but placing it carefully back upon the long flat desk, as if he expected to have need of it again. “And I am—or have been—a man of leisure; a man whose time hung heavy on his hands, until— But life and hours and minutes—all time—is reckoned in dollars and cents. I am about to take some of your time. Here,” he ran a hand inside his tightly buttoned coat, brought out a huge wallet and extracting from it three packages of new, crisp bills, laid them upon the desk, “I would interest you from the beginning, Mr. Williams. May I sit down?”
And he could. The bills still bore the bank labels, and if he had not slipped out a century note or two the three piles totaled twenty-five hundred dollars. Almost sadly I looked at the money. Pride—conceit—just the boyish itch to get even? Call it what you will, but my fingers closed tightly. Come what might, I was going to take a crack at McCleary. No lad could send out to have me killed and expect me to—
And I looked again at my benevolent visitor. As those generous lips slipped over strong white teeth I, too, fell into their mood, and smiled. Perhaps it was his personality; the contagiousness of that beaming face. Or perhaps again it was simply the three stacks of bills. But the point is—I smiled. Decidedly, I was interested. I had fleeting visions of that money taking wings and flying away. I wondered if after all McCleary couldn’t wait. But, no—I knew he couldn’t.
I wondered, too, what had brought such a man as this to my office. There was nothing of the fear and horror that is generally found in the faces of my clients. The heavy-rimmed glasses were now beating a tattoo on the fat palm, held tightly in those peculiar, long slender fingers that looked so out of place on the fat hand.
“Your courage, Mr. Williams,” the man was talking low and soft, with almost a musical note in his voice, “and your integrity are undisputed, and your reputation as a relentless, fearless hunter of men is even grudgingly admitted by the police. I am here to try all three of those virtues and pay well for them.”
“You are in trouble?” I asked. And the surprise in my voice was real.
“Only the pricking conscience of one who has reaped but has not sown. I have ventured into charity, to find that I have spent a fortune in unworthy causes. I have built only temples to Mammon when I would have built temples to God. I have tried to be constructive—to build up. And now, Mr. Williams, after years of fruitless effort in constructive work, I have decided to be destructive to tear down; not to encourage good, but to destroy evil—that good may rise of its own accord. I— Do you follow me?”
I looked at the bills and nodded. Then, growing bored at the leisurely way he ambled along with his story, I tried to jar him up a bit.
“What’s on your chest?” I asked.
He didn’t turn red; his eyebrows didn’t rise in displeased surprise. His mouth simply widened—and he laughed, low and soft, like his voice. But his eyes remained the same—searching, yet vacant and unexpressive; childish—wondering, too.
“How quaint—how decidedly characteristic!” His round smiling face puffed. “But it was as I expected—and what I would have, Mr. Williams. Have you heard of the McCleary gang, of Florida—of McCleary?”
I jerked erect in my seat. Old Man Benevolence had scored first blood. And I thought of Gregory Ford—the dead youth in my arms—and the flash of orange-blue flame from between the curtains.
“I interest you, I see.” And the lips flicked back and the white teeth flashed; and the eyes—well—they were just eyes, nothing more.
“Go on,” I said. “You were speaking of McCleary.”
And my visitor was talking, leaning over the desk—a crispness to his words, a new life to his quickly moving lips—but the same deadness to those eyes.
“It is perhaps a strange story. When I failed at charity, I spent much time about the prisons trying to help the criminal, to study him—to get at the peculiar mental twist in man that makes for bad instead of good. And my study left me with the firm belief that criminals are made—not born. Not the product of environment, as many would have us believe but the product of a stronger, a more determined character than their own. The unfortunate, the weak, and the bitter are dragged into the net of crime by shrewd grasping men—who plan, and profit on those they inveigle. They— Mr. Williams, do you believe in organized crime?”
“Decidedly!” I nodded quickly. And I thought of Gregory Ford and his words of the day before. “Go on—what of McCleary?”
But he raised his hand.
“You must let me proceed slowly and in my own way. We shall get to the point quickly enough. A rotten apple destroys many good apples—an evil man many good men. That is a page from the book of life. To my mind, McCleary is an evil genius. I would destroy him. I was about to give all the evidence I had gathered about him to the authorities—about him and a few others. Then I learned a startling fact. McCleary, Stinnes, Beekman, and the giant Swede, Olaf Sankin—all big criminals—all desperate, clever men, were but tools in the hands of one man; a genius, a devil, a shrewd calculating murderer who controls the great criminal organization that numbers hundreds—that terrorizes Florida and now stretches forth its fingers of blood to the great city of New York itself. You understand me?”
And I didn’t—exactly. Here was this somber, black figure; this soft-spoken, almost effeminate voice uttering the names of criminals—two at least of whom were known throughout the country.
McCleary I had heard of often. Beekman for years had been a suspected fence who ran a chain of pawnshops in New York. Stinnes? His name was whispered among the underworld fraternity. And Olaf Sankin, the giant Swede, I had always taken as more or less of a myth. Any deed of violence which required great physical strength was laid at his door; most unsolved crimes of exceptional brutality were attributed to this giant of the underworld. I never fully believed in him. But McCleary—I believed in him all right!
“Where—” I smacked my lips as I tried vainly to read something in those vacant eyes. “Where do you fit into the picture, Mr.—?”
“Howard Quincy Travers.” He tossed a card onto the desk. “Where do I fit into the picture? Let us say—just one who would help others. Just one who would defeat the purpose of these vultures who prey upon society. I have learned much in my innocent way; taken by all as a rather eccentric man who, as a philanthropist, has taken the fancy to study the life of the underworld; the world of fact—not fiction. And they do not suspect. I would break up this one great organization. I would slowly, carefully, and unsuspectedly take off these minor leaders one by one until I reached the head of organized crime.”
“And me—?” I tapped the desk.
“You must act as my agent. I have selected you above the many well-known detectives of the great city—for your courage; for your daring; for the fact that you work alone; for the fact that no matter what—what misfortune overtook you, you would not divulge my connection. For the fact also, Mr. Williams, that you carry a gun—and are not afraid to use it.”
“Ah—” I thought half aloud. “You would hire me then to kill these men—is that it?”
“Heaven forbid.” His eyes closed, hiding any expression that was in them—if there was any expression. “I would order you expressly not to shoot, if I did not know that such an order might—indeed would, mean your death. It is the right of the State to take a life—not the right of an individual. But I would have you track each man down, and make each man pay his price to society—unless—
“Unless what?” I leaned forward.
“Unless he will divulge to me the name of the leader—that man who is the directing genius that in time will form a trust; a crime-trust that will rival in its wealth and power the great industrial institutions of our country.”
Again I asked:
“And where do you fit into the picture?”
“Let us say, Mr. Williams, that I have spent my time and my money, and now perhaps risk my life—that the world may profit. Let us say that I am a man who has reaped, and now would sow. And if you are not satisfied with that—” he watched my face carefully; just a steady glare in those—those—well—brown, red, yellow eyes, “let you think that perhaps I had a daughter—that after all it is just the bitterness of my soul. But let me think what I wish; that I have nothing but the interest of my fellow man at heart.” His lips set rather tightly—rather sadly, too, I thought. When he spoke again his voice shook slightly.
“I am not capable of doing this thing alone, Mr. Williams. I have enough evidence now to convict McCleary. I even have my suspicions who the ring leader is. But they are only suspicions. McCleary knows—he must tell, or face the electric chair. There are four chances. We must try McCleary first—not because he is the weakest, but because he is perhaps the most selfish. He—”
“Just what am I to do?” I wanted to get to the point.
“You must get McCleary alone. You must get him helpless. You must make him a prisoner. And then you must send for me. I shall confront him with such evidence that will convince him that his only hope is to talk—to tell me the name of the leader. Then I will give him time to leave the country.”
“And—” I spread my hands apart, “McCleary is a desperate man, and desperate men sometimes—well—if one of us must die I would prefer it to be McCleary.”
He hesitated a long moment.
“I would prefer it so, too, Mr. Williams. That is the reason I have come to you. Let us hope for life, but let us not fear death.” He half bowed his head.
There was nothing of hate in his countenance; nothing of hardness in that smooth, soft, clean-shaven face. Yet, there was a twist to his lips—a determination or a bitterness or a secret sorrow. And I sort of cuddled to that half-hinted “daughter” business of his—though I put it down to some other attachment. But he was still talking.
“You must let me plan—and you act. I have money to pay you well. I have information that will guide you. This is not an idea formed in a few hours or a few weeks. I have thought—and now has come the time to act, to strike; carefully, but surely and relentlessly.”
There was more, but why let him ramble on? His story was not built from imagination. He might have illusions—but not Gregory Ford. And with the thought of Gregory Ford came the thought that I had wanted to be in the game—that I wanted to get McCleary—and that, after all, our paths might be fated to cross in death. And if it was so to be, why not be paid for it?
“What am I to be paid for this work?” I asked finally, as I looked down at the three stacks of bills. “I am sorry, Mr. Travers, that I haven’t got the good of the community at heart as you have—nor,” I added significantly, “have I a daughter—or did I have a—”
“That,” he said suddenly, “is for your thoughts alone if you wish to entertain such a thought. There is only the condition that, come what may, you do not mention my name; that, if you meet me any place you do not recognize me—unless I speak to you first. Let us say then—this twenty-five hundred to see you started—and all expenses, without regard to the amount. And,” he stroked his chin a moment, “will you suggest a fee as each individual case is attended to?”
“Say—five thousand.” I hazarded the amount. “And the completion of each case consists of—the man a prisoner for you to talk to—or—” I watched him closely.
“Dead.” He bowed his head. “I don’t like the word. But all that live must die. We may condemn the body, Mr. Williams, but we can pray for the soul.” His head came erect, his chin set a bit squarely, and his lips tightened but his eyes remained the same. “You either do not appreciate the danger of your task or you do not flatter my generosity. Let us say, five thousand for the first case, and double that for each succeeding one, until the single one who directs murder and robbery and defamation for his own greed faces justice—or his God. When that time comes—when the leader stands at the bar of justice, or judgment, you may name your own figure. I am a wealthy man.”
“That’s a dangerous offer, Mr. Travers.” I smiled.
“But, no.” He shook his head. “If you take my all it will not matter. For I shall have no use for money then.” And there was a sincerity in his voice, even if there was a smile on his lips. Oh, the thing was deeper than just a desire to help his fellow man. I was sure of that. Perhaps not a hatred, perhaps not a bitterness; yet, I felt that here was an angel of mercy, rather, an angel of vengeance. Certainly, he struck for a good purpose; and certainly, too, that purpose was not entirely an altruistic one.
Our hands clasped and I got a peculiar sensation from that shake. It was strange, hardly explainable. But his hand seemed moist and cold, while his fingers were dry and warm. Something like holding fish in a paper that had split suddenly at the bottom.
There were instructions to be given me. There was a description of McCleary, which Old Benevolence Travers did well.
“You figure it almost a coincidence—my coming here today, Mr. Williams,” he ran on. “But I feared you might take an offer from this Gregory Ford, through the State of Florida. It’s open gossip that they have hired him and wanted you. It mightn’t be a bad idea to help him at times. He’ll think you’re working independently, for the State. I’ll see to that. It would establish your position, then, with this McCleary and the shadowy hand that guides him—also make my position safer and less subject to suspicion.
“So,” he glanced at his watch, “you will take, this evening, a train to Jacksonville—and there board the steamship Cherry for Miami.”
“But Gregory Ford is on that ship.”
“Quite so.” He nodded emphatically. “And there is also another on that ship—Jack McCleary.”
He smiled once, with his lips alone—turned quickly and was gone.
The southbound steamship Cherry had only a gentle roll to it. Not enough to be uncomfortable, but just enough to give the passengers a slight list to starboard as they paced the deck. Gregory Ford winked at me, pulled down his vest and scowled as he passed. All eloquent pantomime. The wink, that he recognized the reason for presence; the scowl, that he resented my working the game through someone else and the jerk to his vest, that he’d come out on top anyway. He thought, as later events showed, that I had joined in with the officials of the State of Florida for a better price than he could offer.
Then I went to pacing the deck. Not so much for exercise as to give exercise to the one who was following me. For someone was getting my smoke. Crudely perhaps, yet insistently, footsteps beat in with mine. When I went to the rail and leaned over, the footsteps also went to the rail. When I looked along the rail, the owner of the footsteps looked out over the ocean. I got a laugh out of that—death had not been hammering on my trail.
There was nothing of death in the face I spotted beneath the deck light. Everything of life—despite the shadows under the eyes; dark shadows that set off her beauty rather than detracted from it. My shadow was a “she” and a rather beautiful “she” at that. Just a slip of a girl, no bigger than a pint of prohibition whiskey and not half so strong or so deadly—and I looked down at her hand and wondered about the deadly part.
The green handbag that she clutched tightly was oddly in contrast with the low cut of her red evening gown, the dainty slippers, and the suggestion of bare shoulders beneath her wrap. She had a carriage and a form that— But we won’t drag in the sex interest. This was entirely a business trip.
I looked along the deck. She was alone. There was no dark hallway behind her, no darkened portholes for a lad to lean out of and practice shooting. The girl looked suddenly toward me. We sized each other up for a minute. There was no pretense now. I waited until she smiled—then I did my stuff. I slid along the rail toward her. The first word in a conflict is almost as good as the first blow in a prize fight.
“What’s on your chest, sister?” I chirped. And my hand shot out and rested on her bag.
She drew up—slightly indignant, I thought.
Then she laughed.
“It’s better so.” Her shoulders shook. “I’d like to speak with you a minute.” Her head turned from side to side. She hesitated a long moment before she spoke again.
“You’re looking for McCleary, Race Williams. I would like to talk to you about him.”
And you got to admit that knocked out the sex appeal. I nodded. She bit her lip, opened her mouth, and closed it. A man came slowly down the deck. A cigar flashed for a moment in the darkness, then popped into the light. It was Gregory Ford. The girl paled slightly and spoke quickly.
“Follow me to my cabin. I have something to tell you. She half ducked her head into her coat, and seeing that Gregory Ford was upon us she turned suddenly and slipped along the deck. I paced a few steps behind her. We turned into a companionway. Once I looked back over my shoulder—Gregory Ford’s cigar was puffing like a furnace. But he didn’t follow us. He stroked his chin and jerked at his cap. By the time he thought it over, we’d be gone.
The girl moved quickly but occasionally glanced back. There was a nervous indecision to her lips; a frightened, animal-like fear to her eyes and a hesitancy to her whole body each time she paused to see if I followed. Then she jarred forward again. She wouldn’t give me a chance to question her. In a way, then, she must have been glad that Gregory Ford interrupted our little tête-à-tête. Such an interruption might have been planned, to a certain extent anyway, with the girl expecting someone to walk along the deck.
I followed her down the companionway—a sharp turn to the right—and a blind alley. McCleary was on the ship. Was I being led into a trap? But I only shrugged my shoulders. If the girl led me to McCleary I would be satisfied.
She paused finally—before the door at the end of the corridor—pushed it gently open and motioned for me to enter.
“Inside,” she whispered, in a high-pitched voice. “I want to talk to you.” And when I hesitated, “It’ll be worth your while, I promise you—and I promise you that nothing will happen to you.”
“All right, sister.” I smiled. “Ladies first.”
She hesitated only the fraction of a second, then stepped into the cabin.
“Now the light, little one,” I suggested. Almost at once she flashed it on. I could see the entire room, except for that portion of it that was behind the door. And I saw that there were no curtains—not a place for a man to hide, but behind that open door.
To say that the idea of a trap never entered my head would be ridiculous. For an assassin to park himself behind a door to crash his victim, is the leading requisite of the gentleman thug, in the underworld’s Book of Etiquette. It was crude, of course—hardly what one would associate with a criminal such as McCleary. But then, it’s just as bad to overestimate your man as to underestimate him.
“Hurry—come inside.” The girl called softly as I still hesitated.
I placed a hand on the door and found that it was back as far as it could go, so there was no chance to bang a foot against it and knock over any anxious lad behind it. But the girl wanted me in that room for some purpose—and I wanted to know what that purpose was. And she wanted me to hurry. But I don’t think she expected me to move quite as fast as I did.
I just jumped into that room. But I’ll give the man credit for being quick. The heavy door swished through the air, brushing my sleeve—then it crashed closed and the lock clicked. I stood staring into the mouth of a heavy nickel-plated revolver. The man behind the door was on the job—when the door missed me, he was ready.
“You’re cornered now, Race Williams—ya dirty rat.” He cursed. “One move, one shout—and I’ll drill ya, if the whole crew are on me for it.” And that last crack was comforting. He didn’t intend to shoot unless I got mussy.
I smiled pleasantly at him.
“I’m so susceptible to the feminine charm,” I told him. “However, my friend, if you’ll just lower your eyes a bit you’ll see that my artillery is tickling your stomach.”
He lowered his eyes quickly, and to add emphasis to his vision I playfully thrust the gun tighter against his bread-basket. Of course I had the gun in my hand when I made the leap.
I got a good look at his face now. There was no doubt that the man was McCleary. But Old Benevolence Travers’ description didn’t do him justice. He wasn’t exactly what you’d call a handsome lad, but his build and his carriage were good. His lips were broad and thick, his nose flat, and his eyes narrow. There was little doubt of McCleary’s breed; as he wiped the back of his hand across his mouth I got his number. Just a killer—an underworld type that had risen above his fellows by his own physical ability. Not just brute strength perhaps, but the brute courage and the brute conscience and thoughts. A cruel, ruthless type that would sweep aside those who stood in his way.
I thought, too, that Old Benevolence Travers was right. Here was a lad who’d squeal—not through fear, but through greed.
“Well—” I said, “do you drop that gun or do we find out what you had for lunch?” I dug my gun the deeper into his feed-bag.
But McCleary was not to be taken off his guard.
“I have only ta press my trigger.” He jerked his head forward so that his thick lips were close to my face. “And then—”
“Double or quits.” I shrugged. “At best you’ll be an awful mess.”
Maybe it was a ticklish moment, but really not much cause for alarm. I sized up McCleary as one who stuck to the old proverb, “It’s better to give than to receive.” He’d think some before he’d press that trigger and bury a bit of lead in my head. No—decidedly, McCleary was one who wouldn’t hesitate to put a bullet in a man’s back—but to face a man; well—I didn’t think there was much danger.
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