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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 Red Peril” originally appeared in the June 1924 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 stood at the door, the shadow of his head enlarged and clearly outlined as he bent forward. People don’t just turn the knob at my office and walk in; they knock and wait. I ain’t bent on inviting some crook to fling open the door and fill me with lead. The cops and the crooks are blowing in all the time, trying to get a line on me. But the dicks have nothing on me, and the “guns” know I have a quick draw. But they both realize I ain’t a real detective, which I take as complimentary.
I open the door and lamp the bird in the hallway. He’s a long drawn-out affair of about forty, and evil’s stamped all over his face, like the map of Hades—not a redeeming feature from the long-hooked nose to the depth of his sunken green eyes, which look out of slits, and sure do some looking.
I give him a friendly nod; show him to my inner room; and eye him as I drop into the chair behind my desk. He stands, his right arm held rigidly in a sling, with great wads of thick bandage wrapped round and round his hand. I keep my eyes on his hand and play a waiting game. I always let the other fellow lead.
His lips twist up at the corners; and when he speaks he shoots the words through the side of his mouth—a habit of jail-birds. But he didn’t need no ticket to tell me he was a tough rooster. The flashy clothes and the new kid gloves wouldn’t work. His pan is a whole rogue’s gallery in itself. My right hand dropped below the desk as he attempted to smile as he opened up.
“You’re Williams—Race Williams—and you do most anything—well, a bit of anything in the way of business. Right?”
His lips slip further back, baring fang-like teeth.
“Most anything for money,” I nodded placidly. “I’m not coy about it. Now, what’s on your chest?”
I was almost certain nothing good would come from this bird, and I had important business on—right then.
He don’t say nothing for about three minutes—just stands and looks down at me, his coarse face getting harder and harder, and his green eyes growing more cold and calculating.
“I haven’t any money with me.” He leans forward, almost hissing his words. “But this check is good,” and he opens up his left hand and tosses a folded blue slip onto the desk. “You’ve been paid more money, I daresay, for handling some difficult piece of business. This check is for turning down a case. Give a look and nod ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I’m not looking for any thanks.”
I flip the check open and look at it. A thousand berries! I whistle softly.
“What’s the lay?”
I look up.
“Yes or no?”
“But how can I tell what to turn down and what to take? I can’t just go out of business for one grand,” I tell him.
His slit-like eyes neither widen nor contract, but there’s a flash in them just the same—like a rattle, if you know what I mean.
“There’ll be a girl around here, thinking she lost some diamonds—just thinking it. That thousand’s for you to give her the air.”
And his upper lip ripples up and down, which is meant for a smile, I guess.
“Too late.” I shake my head as I flip the check across to him. “I’ve already taken the case.”
And his eyes open now. Just flash up and down again; but in that second I look into them. Just the one glance is enough. I’ve studied character, and here is a man to fear—not for me, you understand, for I don’t fear nothing. Conceit, perhaps, but gospel just the same.
“You couldn’t have taken it. There hasn’t been time.” And his cruel, sneering lips come close down to my face. “If I pay well for compliance, I strike hard for defiance.”
“As speak the poets.”
I shake a finger in his face. I don’t like threats. This lad is playing for a fall.
He half straightens up and takes out his watch and lays it on the desk before him.
“You’ve got a minute,” he snaps closed them thick lips of his. “Look at my face and see if I am a man to fool with, or one who wastes time with idle threats. I tell you, you drop this case or you die—soon.”
I lean back in my chair and give him the up and down. And I tell you there isn’t any humor in my voice; I’m all business. There ain’t a man living that can walk into my office and bulldoze me. If his eye is hard, mine is harder; if his voice carries conviction, mine doubles it.
“You pick up that watch and get out.” I ain’t bluffing and he knows it. “I’ll give you five minutes to take that ugly face of yours away from this desk, if you want to use it in the future to frighten policemen with. Five minutes!”
I pound my hand down on the desk.
“Then I’ll stretch you so cold they can skate on your chest.”
He straightens up, but his eyes still rest on mine. I can’t see nothing behind them tightening eyebrows, but I’m watching his hand—the bandaged one.
He don’t move—just stands and looks at me, then he glances down at the watch.
“My threat is not for future retribution,” he says slowly, just like I hadn’t even spoken. “You have a minute to decide, and live—fifty seconds now.”
Though his eyes seem set on the watch, I get the feeling that they’re watching me too.
I shrug my shoulders. I ain’t really set on gun-play so early in the game. But if this bird, for all his hard looks and his twisted way of using his kisser, expects to walk in and handle me as he would a child—oh, well, life is full of surprises!
Then he almost makes me laugh. He’s all for the atmosphere and the dramatic. Regular ten, twenty, thirty stuff. He’s got that look which says, “Watch me—I’m good.” Darned if he don’t start to count off the sixty seconds! Yep, after telling me that there’s death at the end of it.
He counts slowly and deliberately; and as he reaches thirty he swings his body so that it’s sideways to me and his busted arm is resting on the desk. It’s a great game at that when you take it all in all, and I have no doubt that he’s worked it hundreds of times and never pulled a bone. Even I can feel the lure of it when he hits thirty-five; and when he reaches forty, I positively get a thrill. Then I get a-thinking that he might not go the full sixty, and I decide not to chance it. It may all be bluff, but then—
At fifty my right hand shoots up from below the desk. There’s just the one movement. My gun’s spitting lead when he sees it. He don’t have no chance. Just the one report, and I get him right through the heavy bandages. And I’m right; he screams with pain as a heavy automatic drops from the thick folds and falls to the floor. It must have got his fingers too, for the whiteness of the bandage quickly became a vivid red.
“It’s an old game,” I tell him, as I pick up his gun and watch him dance around, doubled up with pain. “I daresay it was a friend of yours who used it to kill a president, but you’ll have to learn something different.”
In pain this lad shows up his real nature. The language that he uses sure has variety, and his threats sound like he has been reading the Arabian Nights. But he don’t get far. I’m not overfastidious about language, but I’ve got a reason for shutting him up.
In one minute he’s quiet and respectable. I’ve just shoved my gun against his ribs and given him an earful.
“I wasn’t sure that you were packing a gun,” I tell him. “If I had-a been, I’d of slipped some lead right in the center of that ugly pan of yours. And in case this will help you any—here’s news. I never would-a taken that case—the diamond one. I thought it bunk till you tried to buy me off. Now, git, for I ain’t got a whole lot of patience.”
And I make that old hammer slip up and down in a playful way I have. He sees it wobbling too, for the next minute he is gone, snarling like a whipped cur.
I locked the door carefully behind him, and went whistling back to my office. There was no danger of anyone outside hearing the report of that shot. It was lunch time, for one thing, and the building practically deserted; besides, I had my rooms far in the back and the walls heavily papered, with thick wads of cotton behind it, like the old-time houses.
And the girl’s there—just standing by the open closet door, trembling like a leaf. It was tough on the kid, to be sure, but then what could I do? It would be overdoing the gentlemanly act to chance a dose of lead. I daresay that long, lanky crook had another grudge against me anyway.
For the first time, I got a good look at her, as I helped her to an easy chair. She was hardly more than a child, and not one of these new woman type—self-reliant and worldly wise. She was a slim, delicate little wisp of a thing, all pink and white and fluffy. No powder, no paint, and just now as white as milk. It seemed mighty hard that she was the one picked by fate to drop into the game that was going to be played. What chance would she have against such lads as the one I had just run out? But now—well, she had me working with her and I daresay things would take a turn for the better.