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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 Snarl of the Beast” originally appeared in the June–September, 1927 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.
It’s the point of view in life that counts. For an ordinary man to get a bullet through his hat as he walked home at night would be something to talk about for years. Now, with me, just the price of a new hat—nothing more. The only surprise would be for the lad who fired the gun. He and his relatives would come in for a slow ride, with a shovelful of dirt at the end of it. I can take a joke, of course, but my sense of humor isn’t fully enough developed along those lines. I have brains, I suppose. We all have. But a sharp eye, a quick draw, and a steady trigger finger drove me into the game. Also you might add to that an aptitude for getting out of trouble almost as quickly as I get into it.
Under the laws I’m labeled on the books and licensed as a private detective. Not that I’m proud of that license but I need it, and I’ve had considerable trouble hanging onto it. My position is not exactly a healthy one. The police don’t like me. The crooks don’t like me. I’m just a halfway house between the law and crime; sort of working both ends against the middle. Right and wrong are not written on the statutes for me, nor do I find my code of morals in the essays of longwinded professors. My ethics are my own. I’m not saying they’re good and I’m not admitting they’re bad, and what’s more I’m not interested in the opinions of others on that subject. When the time comes for some quick-drawing gunman to jump me over the hurdles I’ll ride to the Pearly Gates on my own ticket. It won’t be a pass written on the back of another man’s thoughts. I stand on my own legs and I’ll shoot it out with any gun in the city—any time, any place. Thirty-fourth Street and Broadway, in the five o’clock rush hour, isn’t barred either. Race Williams—Private Investigator—tells the whole story. Right! Let’s go.
It’s dark and the street lamps on the dirty little street of the lower East Side do no more than throw a dull shadow about a small splash of light. I’m not looking for trouble but that don’t mean that I’m not expecting it. I always am. I get as many death threats as a movie star gets mash notes. The rats of the underworld are my natural enemies, and there I am in the very heart of the criminal hangout. So I play close to the curb and throw a swagger into my walk. Outward confidence always registers with the unsavory gentlemen of the night.
There are few people pounding the pavements; some loitering in ill-smelling doorways beneath the street level. Nothing suspicious about any of them; that is, a personal suspicion—yet I know that someone is getting my smoke. Someone is playing the lamb to my little Mary. Nothing tangible, you understand, and no way to explain it. Just instinct warns me that I am followed. It may be the police or a crook with a guilty conscience, or just one of the boys who recognizes me and stalks along in the hope of settling a private vengeance by a bit of murder. Then another figure, running along the sidewalk across the street, beating his hands against the cold, is swallowed up in the darkness.
I shrug my shoulders and plod on. I’m well known in that section of the city; a lad won’t chance a shot unless he’s so close he can’t miss. And the man following me knows that he’ll get only one shot. While he holds his distance there is no complaint. When he gets too close I’ll have to lead him down a back alley and kiss him good-night. Nothing alarming. It’s an old story to me.
As I move nearer to the East River and a distant clock drones one, the lurking shadows of human forms disappear from the street. It’s not the hour so much as the bitter cold. Somewhere below the level of the street the tin-pan notes of a piano drift faintly into the night. A man curses and a window slams. Far distant an ash can clatters on stone and the almost human screech of a cat pierces, shrilling through the zero night.
Then silence, but for the soft tramp of my rubber heels and the hardly audible echo of heels behind me. I don’t have to turn to know that my shadow has quickened his pace and now takes two steps to my one; fast, short strides of a heavy body that swings from side to side. Things were getting interesting. I slipped off my thick gloves and wound my fingers about the heavy forty-four in my coat pocket. Then I shot a glance back over my shoulder and caught the dull outline of the swinging figure who was unconsciously hurrying toward a yawning grave. Big, almost massive hunched shoulders, brown cap, and hands sunk in the pockets of a great coat that was wrapped tightly about his body.
And that was all I saw of him. I turned back sharply again, for other feet sounded upon stone steps, then pounded over the pavement toward me. Just a derelict of the night he appeared, shuffling toward me—his right hand outstretched, his left hanging by his side with the palm toward me. He carried no weapon, there was no threat in his approach and his manner was cringing, his body stooped, his voice with a whine in it.
“Two bits for a flop, Mister.” The voice was low and shook slightly. He didn’t like the part he was playing. And I didn’t blame him. The temptation to lift my gun and smack him one was strong but I didn’t. It wasn’t a big heart or a sensitive conscience that made me hesitate. Just common sense and the hope of a long life. So I resisted temptation, put business before pleasure and saved this bird a ride in an ambulance.
I never had a doubt; wasn’t fooled for a moment by the eager hand, the whining voice and the sunken hungry eyes. His hunger wasn’t of the stomach. This was the slouching, running figure that had passed down the street at the last corner, and ducking across had waited my approach in a convenient alleyway. Well planned perhaps. It probably had worked hundreds of times before. But this time they were going to come a cropper. You couldn’t pocket Race Williams between two enemies like that; leastwise, you couldn’t and get away with it. The thing was too simple. The panhandler was to hold my attention while my shadow was to spring me from behind. Believe me, I threw a monkey wrench into the works. I gave these birds a surprise.
The shabby lad’s hand was hardly out before the man behind changed his jerky walk to a run. But if he acted quickly, I was just a bit ahead of him. My left hand shot out and clutched the extended arm before me. My right pulled a rod, and before my whining friend was sure just what had happened I was behind him, my gun playing a tattoo up and down his spine as he stood silently trembling between me and my rushing shadow.
There was a curse as the big boy who had been shadowing me hurled himself forward—skidded to a stop before he crashed into his friend and stood still; a shadowy, mountainous mass in the darkness. But the hand that he still held in the air was clearly visible—so was the short section of iron pipe that white, knotted fist held.
“Easy does it.” I tried to peer over the shabby man’s shoulder and get a look at the face beneath the brown cap. It was an ugly, evil map—what I could see of it. Gleaming, shining animal-like eyes; thick lips above heavy jowls, that were lost in the collar of the great coat which was buttoned tightly about his neck. But his arm was the thing. He had a reach on him like a gorilla. The lead pipe was high enough in the air, but that arm was slightly bent. It was the other that I noted—imagination, I thought at first. Just a trick of the darkness, as I made out the whiteness of thick twitching fingers reaching to the man’s knees.
But it wasn’t imagination; for as I watched, those fingers closed into a fist—a fist that slowly began to rise and stretch out beside the man whose back I tickled with my gun. Uncanny, it was there in the darkness. You couldn’t really distinguish the arm that led from the hand to the shoulder; that was lost in the background of the dark coat. Just a knotted fist seemed to be floating through the air; slowly, but surely and steadily, toward me. The raised hand too was sweeping down by inches.
Uncanny certainly—odd that a human being should have such a reach. But there was nothing to fear really. An embarrassing time perhaps, if I had to explain the shooting to the police. I’ve explained so often that it’s getting monotonous to me—to the law too, for that matter. Judges were looking at me with suspicion. Never anything to hang on me, you understand. But one learned jurist had told me grimly that if I made it a steady practice to appear before him to explain any more little shootings in the night he’d give me a stretch on the principle of the thing. That he would was certain enough. That he could was another matter. But besides the annoyance, there was the expense of a high class lawyer. Good mouth-pieces may be worth the money all right—and earn it too—but they put an awful dig in the bank account just the same. And at present my balance at the bank was about as low as the mercury in the thermometer. But back to that hand!
“Young man,” I shoved my gun deeper into the generous back before me, “advise your friend that if he isn’t more careful of those itching fingers of his I’ll lay a row of lead buttons up and down your spine. Come speak up!” Those hands were still doing their stuff—one of them out by the derelict’s shoulder as the head of the awkward, waving creature shoved slightly forward and his feet shuffled on the sidewalk.
“Lay off that stuff.” The shabby man shot the words toward his companion. Was it a command or a request? I couldn’t tell at first. The hand stopped for a moment; hung so by the other’s shoulder. Then the fingers opened slightly and it came on again; the huge carcass moving slightly so that it was partly protected from me by the lad between us.
“Back, you!” The panhandler jerked out the words. And there was no doubt of their meaning. Neither a request nor a command, but a plea in his voice—and then again. “You fool—stop it—drop those hands. Drop them—I say.” And this time the whine in his voice was real. But there was more than just reality—fear, horror were all in his screech; his words echoing down the street. He had lost his head altogether. Now he appealed to me.
“Don’t shoot me,” he cried, his words trembling and rattling in his throat. “I can’t stop him—I can’t stop him. Look at his eyes.”
And I did. They were shining like an animal’s; like a cat’s—clearly the green stood out in them. For the first time in my life I got a shudder. It was almost as if I could see things behind those eyes, as if I looked down into a reeking mass of rottenness. No way to describe it. I shuddered, yes—with revulsion, not fear. I’m not made to fear a man. It just don’t come natural to me, I guess. But more than the eyes I watched the hand, the heavy shoulders, the protruding head—the sudden outward thrust of a great chin.
I swung my gun up and over the shoulder of the whiner.
“Listen, big boy,” and there was no question nor pleading in my voice, “if you don’t control that laudable desire to fasten your hands on my neck and won’t listen to the kindly, fatherly advice of your dirty friend—and don’t think anything of your life—why—” and I cut my speech, for the man was swinging slowly from side to side—crouching slightly and getting ready to hurl that huge body forward.
“One more move and I’ll plug the two of you,” I said sharply—and I meant it.
“He don’t understand—don’t care,” the other man bellowed. “Lead won’t stop him—when he’s like that, nothing can stop him. Run for it, Race Williams—run.” And this time his shout was fit to wake the dead.
There may be men with charmed lives; men that lead won’t stop, but I have yet to meet them. The dirty lad may have been right, but if I were a betting man I’d lay pretty good odds that at the first bark of my gun a useless mass of flesh would lie on the sidewalk. It was his party, not mine. As for running—well, the bullet-proof man who can pump lead into my dust isn’t born yet.
The giant didn’t stop; didn’t fade back as I poked my rod forward, and what’s more he didn’t care much for his friend’s life. He bent low, protecting his own body—shot his raised hand down, grasped his friend with it and thrust that other hand out toward my neck. I could have given ground and avoided it but I didn’t. When I jump, I jump forward, not backward. I raised the muzzle of my gun slightly and pressed the trigger. A bullet tore up that flapping coat sleeve. Only a scratch it would give him, but it was the warning of certain and sudden death to follow.
His body may have been bullet-proof. I didn’t know about that. But his arm certainly wasn’t, and his brain was susceptible to pain. For the moment I thought he wasn’t a man at all. There was a grunt, an animal-like snarl, and an ear-splitting agonized screech of rage.
We just stood so—the three of us. The dirty lad, uncertain—his hands half raised in the air. The Terror was bent double, nursing his injured arm and giving queer groans and snarls. And I—I just swung my gun from one to the other, waiting. The show was on—would they continue with the play or ring down the curtain? As for me—I just wanted a good look at that evil face that was buried in great arms. Would I get that look? I thought not. This was New York, and gunshots were no novelty—they were expected and— We all three came erect.
A whistle cut the silence—a low sharp note from far down the block. But it sounded like a great ship’s blast to the three of us. Somewhere above us a window shot up and a voice called hoarsely. There was another and another—an answering whistle—running feet—the pounding of clubs, and the play broke up.
I let Dirty-Boy go first. He sort of dashed out into the middle of the street, saw a door open at the top of a few steps before him, and came back again. He called to his friend; cursed when the man just stood there, his head raised as if he sniffed the air. And I was off—down the block—close to the light near the corner when the wagon swung around. There was no clang of bells to warn me, no toot of a screeching siren—just the sudden chug of a motor, the grinding of brakes, and a cry for me to halt.
And I did. Was the game up? I had a good story to tell. I didn’t like it of course—this being dragged in by the cops; but most of all my appointment in the night. I couldn’t keep that now, and I always make a point of keeping my engagements.
And the game wasn’t up. A door opened close beside me; a figure looked out—the frightened, white face of a disturbed householder. They would all be disturbed in that neighborhood, I guess. There was hardly a house you couldn’t search and grab yourself off evidence of one kind or another. If there wasn’t something criminal involved—why, you could find a still, or at least a few bottles of liquor.
It wasn’t exactly the open door that decided me, nor it wasn’t the man who looked up that made me hesitate. My friend of the snarl; the lad with the supposedly bullet-proof body had run after me, willing to finish out our little misunderstanding. Mad with pain and rage, he came pounding over the sidewalk. His breath hissed like escaping steam; the moan on his lips was like the snarl of a wounded beast.
He brought up sharply too when the police ducked around the corner, and now he skidded slightly; made the turn; lit straight for the doorway and the figure who stood paralyzed with fear in the dim light.
The man in the doorway recovered slightly, but too late. The door that he frantically tried to close was crashed in upon him. He was knocked to the floor, and the hurtling giant tramped over his body. As for me, I had a little more respect for the honest and curious citizen. I jumped his prostrate form. For I too suddenly decided to seek liberty in flight. There would be a pretty story if I were caught. I was only doing my duty in pursuing the man who had held me up and threatened my life.
The cops were on the job; fearless men followed us into the narrow hall; feet beat close to mine, and mine beat close on the running man ahead. He knew his way, I thought; at least, those pounding feet never hesitated.
There was a cry from the pursuing police, a warning to halt, and a shot; then an answering one from the man ahead as he turned and fired. Nice little place I had picked; the spitting streaks of orange blue flame seemed to meet right beside me. If the boys kept this up I’d be lucky if I only stopped a bullet coming one way. I ducked low as I ran now, hugging close to the wall.
There was the crash of glass, the splintering of wood, the dimness of a winter sky and the towering dirty tops of blurred tenements—and I crashed out into the night. Crashed, was right. The broken, twisted door tripped me and I landed flat up against the railing of the frail back steps that led to the stone yard below. The railing groaned, cracked, then swayed slightly as I clutched for support an “upright.” It held as the railing itself gave from the force of another body. The pursuing policeman had done as I had done; dashed blindly over the door, caught his foot and shot forward.
But he was not as fortunate as I. For he pitched headlong to the stones several feet below. I could hear the thud of his body and hear too the dull, unmistakable ring as his head struck the hard stone. Feet pounded against wood there across the court. I didn’t see the figure of the giant, but I knew that he sought the fence behind and freedom in the block beyond.
As for me! In a dazed way I struggled to my feet, slightly shaken up—too much so to pursue my foe. Yet I must—for in that lay safety. My head cleared, the blood rushed from it back into my body, and stepping over the débris on the little stoop I stopped dead and shot my hands into the air. Fool! I might have known. More than one policeman had followed us.
A bright light struck upon my face—there was a gruff order to throw up my hands, and behind the flash I caught the reflection of the brass buttons of a New York cop. Bad men to fool with—them. I didn’t need to see the gun, for I felt it digging into my chest. My hands just shot above my head before the gruff order to throw up my hands was given. Then his voice—and this time I knew the man; and what was more, he knew me.
“Race Williams.” I could feel rather than see the lips curl, and I knew too that his body stretched forward and that his flash for a second lit upon the crumpled heap of his brother officer below.
“You’ll pay for this.” I knew that his lips curled.
Sergeant Rafferty was not one of my friends. But there was real feeling and not just vengeance in his voice as he continued. “I’ve always known that you ran contrary to the law. But I never could prove it. Tonight—” The flash trembled as it swayed from me to the man on the stones below. “You’ll have trouble explaining that, and—”
I heard the shot, perhaps even felt the purr of the bullet but of that one can never be certain. Another sound too that might just as well have been imagination. I thought that I heard a laugh; a gurgling, distant sort of a laugh, that seemed to have a growl in it—like an animal—like the snarl of a beast. Sergeant Rafferty broke off suddenly in his speech. His lips smacked, followed by a queer sound deep down in his chest. The light slipped from his fingers, and striking my foot rolled to the stoop. Then he slumped, crumpled up and slid slowly down upon the broken glass and the twisted wood.
I never liked the sergeant, but he went out as a man should. The gun was still clutched in lifeless, useless fingers. Even in death he didn’t drop that gun. Death? Yes, he was dead all right. His head lay close to the flash and the rays shone full upon his face. But it was his eyes that told the story, more so than the trickle of red from beneath the collar of his uniform. Unseeing, glassy orbs looked unblinkingly into the glare.
I didn’t lose my head, and it wasn’t the stirring of the man on the pavement below that decided me, nor the hoarse calling voices in the yard next door. In the fraction of a second I weighed the possibility of flight and the wisdom of staying to face the music. Sergeant Rafferty was known as my enemy. Sergeant Rafferty was dead. What would be the caliber of the bullet found in his head? A forty-four? Maybe! There would be but one bullet missing from my gun and the man who carried that bullet had disappeared into the night. Oh, I know that there are experts who can tell from just what make and caliber of gun a bullet has been fired. But experts are known to favor the prosecution, and scientific statements of denial also are known to lull jurors into deep slumber. The police and I don’t fit in together. I didn’t wish a trial; a man’s freedom often hangs on his past record, and my past was a beaut and no mistake.
Strange, you think, that I should figure all this out in the “panic” of finding a dead police officer at my feet. But there wasn’t any panic. There never is with me at such a time. A man needs a clear head then. No one had seen my face—that is, no one but the dead police officer, and no one else was likely to if I played the game now. It was simply a question of finding the hole in the police lines before they discovered their dead brother and spread a net that even an alley cat couldn’t get through. This was a question of minutes—perhaps seconds, if you figure closely.
People were shouting; lights were bobbing up—a few fear-crazed foreigners ventured from their rooms. There was enough running around to confuse anyone. It was like a meeting of the League of Nations. Questions were shouted in one tongue to be answered in another. Half a dozen languages filled the air like a cheap radio set. Heavy feet trod on old boards. A deep Irish voice called a command. Another answered with a curse as his knees crashed a banister.
There was only one way of escape—to follow the gigantic figure who had killed the cop. If his passage was blocked he might clear a way for me, but it was hardly possible that the street behind was already covered by the police.
With me the thought is the act. Crouching low, I ducked down those back steps and shot across the stone yard in the rear, toward the wooden fence. A woman screamed; a window crashed up; a voice called—and looking over my shoulder I saw the burly figure of a policeman framed in a lighted window of the second story. One hand was placed on the sill, the other clutched an automatic. His white face stretched out as he tried to pierce the darkness.
There was the crash of wood as another reached the back stoop—a cry of horror that turned almost at once to one of rage. Rafferty had been found! The message snapped quickly from him on the porch to him in the window. Distant voices echoed the cry within the building.
The white hand left the sill, a dart of light flashed through the darkness and splashed upon the wooden fence before me. There was a thud of heavy feet and I knew that the giant’s head had just dropped from the fence where he had crouched, watching the play—watching me perhaps. A desperate man that. He had waited to get me if the police failed. Even after murdering the sergeant, he still sought my life. A paid murderer or one who sought private vengeance? But it didn’t matter then—I had other things to think about.
The darting flashlight shot frantically about the little court; swept over my face on to the fence—hesitated and came back again. I was smack in the light.
I heard the man in the window call; saw his gun raise too—and I fired. I didn’t try to hit him. I’m not a murderer. But my shot was close enough to let him know that a man in a lighted window, bent on gunplay, doesn’t hold an enviable position. The glass smashed above him, fell upon his head and came tumbling down into the court. He fired once—wildly, I guess, for his head ducked back from the window and I did not hear the bullet strike; simply the crack of his gun—nothing more. Then his head disappeared from the window and the light went out.
Five seconds—perhaps ten—before that flash would go into play again. That would be enough, I thought—at least, I hoped. There was the fence just before me, dark and foreboding, with the dull outline of the top of it stretching along the blackness like the horizon across the distant ocean. A bad moment then. I’d need two hands for that fence. In the time it would take to jump, grasp the fence and swing over I would be at the mercy of the police behind and the killer ahead, if he waited in the rear yard of the house on the next block. Get the idea! When I made my leap I’d have to pocket my gun. I’m strong, husky, agile, and all that—but I’m no circus performer and I’d need both hands to hop that fence. Oh, I’ve heard of guns being temporarily parked between the teeth and I’m not denying that there may be men who can do it, even outside the motion pictures. But for me—I just pocketed that gun, reached the fence, made the leap, grasped the top and swung up on it.
Just the fraction of a second I hung there, but that fraction of a second was too much. The police had played the game well—well or cautiously, I don’t know which. At least, they didn’t dash blindly into the yard after me. They got to work with their flashes. The one flash was back at the window now and another shot from the rear porch where Rafferty lay dead. Luck! Yes, they had it, for both flashes seemed to light on me at the same time. They just made one mistake—overcautious that they get the right man. People were screaming and running about now; a shrieking woman dashed into the yard and the police hesitated. And that was my cue.
Then they fired; three shots came almost as one—funny how they all made up their minds together. Two of the shots hit the fence. One seemed to nick the top of it where I had been the split second before—the other tore through the thick boards and pinged against the house. But I—I was dashing across the yard beyond; into the little alleyway toward the next street.
There were running feet ahead of me, I thought—heavy feet, yet feet that struck lightly on the pavement. Hard to explain, that? Perhaps. But it struck me as if the man ahead had removed his shoes, and now the weight of his great body was softened by the even tread of stockinged feet. He panted too, I thought, and once I caught the hiss of his breath—a whining, snarling sort of hiss. Then silence, as I passed through the alley and reached the next block.
The street was deserted. No lumbering form ran up or down it. Not a sound on that block, but behind me came the sharp blast of a whistle and the distant shrill notes of voices. I breathed easier. There is no forest more impenetrable, no place as easy for man to hide in, as the teeming tenements of New York’s East Side. I was safe!
It would be too much to hope for a cruising taxi in that neighborhood, even at that time of night. So I only gave a glance for one. And I didn’t walk easily down the block, like an honest citizen. Not me—I know the ropes too well; the police methods too, for that matter. There would be a call sent in and a dozen men on that block in another minute or two. They’d comb that neighborhood with a fine tooth comb. About the other lad I didn’t know, but that they wouldn’t find me there was certain.
I loped easily across the street, entered the alleyway opposite, and keeping in the shadows passed to the back of another tenement, through the yard behind and so on to the next block. This process I repeated for three more blocks. Unnecessary so much caution, you think. Perhaps. But then, I’m a cautious man. Since I had fled the scene of Sergeant Rafferty’s murder I’d have a lot of explaining to do, and I much preferred that another than I explained that little bit of killing. Gigantic figures that waylay people on the street and kill policemen in mistake for you, are not the sort of bedtime stories that are swallowed by the police. Lord knows they’re gullible enough, without trying to feed them that sort of stuff.
Through the last alley, dodging the last ash can, I came out upon the open street and walked leisurely down it toward the East River. I wasn’t over four blocks from my destination—a disreputable neighborhood down by the docks. The letter in my pocket was explicit enough—there was the street and number, and also a description of the house—though that description might fit half a dozen of the shabby holes along the water front.
As I walked along I gave considerable thought to that letter. Was it a trap? Had the attack on me followed quickly upon the letter? Had they been laying for me on the deserted block? But hardly that. The panhandler or the giant could not have guessed I’d come that way, a good half dozen blocks above my destination. No—I had been followed. The boy that tried to shake me down for a “flop” had crossed the street and ducking back waited for me.
Many wanted my life but most of them have taken it out in feeble, half-hearted attempts at ambush. This time things were different. I shrugged my shoulders, broke open my gun, ejected the two empty shells and slipped in fresh bullets. I’d clean her up when I got home. It looked like it was going to be open season for Race Williams. All the yeggs who made threats against my life must have passed New Year’s resolutions to finish the job at once.
I dismissed the idea that the letter writer had attempted to trap me—that I was now booked to enter a darkened hallway and be shot down. The letter wasn’t clever enough for that—and besides, there wasn’t a penny sent in it. My enemies have single track brains. Race Williams was hard-boiled, out for the almighty dollar—it would never enter their heads that I’d hunt up a case in that neighborhood without first getting the feel of a few century notes. I didn’t think I would myself, for that matter. But business was dull. We do strange things—and there I was.
When a thing is done it’s done. So I dismissed the incident from my mind. It wasn’t the first time my life had been attempted and I’m not stupid enough to think it will be the last. It was simply in the course of business. I was a bit more cautious about being followed, that was all. And I took my time too—sauntered along. If I should happen to be questioned I wouldn’t gasp out my answers. After a chase like that, a breathless man would be a suspected man.
My business is like the weather. It clears up if you wait long enough. It’s surprising what a lot of trouble there is in the world, and it’s generally people with money who have the time to find the pitfalls of life and drop into them. It’s up to me to get the rope and haul them out. And tonight I carried a letter—a queer, terse sort of note; but to me there was an air of reality—sincerity—in it. I slipped the letter from my pocket again and peered at it under the street lamp. I knew the address all right—but a harness bull had suddenly popped around the corner and confronted me, less than fifty feet away.
I could have ducked him I suppose, but I’d done enough of that for one night and Race Williams is often asked to explain his presence in such a neighborhood. The cops get used to spotting me, and now—well, he might have recognized me even at that distance and I didn’t want to be raked in later and questioned on the murder of Sergeant Rafferty. Besides, as I looked behind me a motorcycle cop with a boy friend in a side car was slowly slipping up the street. Also the boy in the side car was sporting a machine gun. I just caught the flash of it, but I knew those things and know that they are only trusted in the hands of men who know how to use them. I leaned against the pole and waited.
The motorcycle reached me first, stopped across the street and waited, the man in the side car leaning far out and staring at me with bull dog ferocity. He did it good too. I leaned against the pole beneath the light, pocketed my letter and lit a cigarette.
There’s a false impression among the police that an innocent citizen won’t notice such an attitude of belligerency, while a crook or a man with a guilty conscience will quake beneath such scrutiny. Of course it works backwards nine times out of ten. The innocent citizen gets nervous and blows up, while the well-trained crook expects it and is prepared for it. And that’s often the reason the innocent bystander gets hauled in so much.
In law every man is considered innocent until he is proven guilty, but in fact every man is looked on as guilty until he is proven innocent. And you take that as gospel from one who knows. I’m not quoting from books; I get all my knowledge from life, and when you get a lesson out of life it sticks.
The harness bull on the sidewalk didn’t quicken his pace. I was being given time to think. Orders must have gone out quickly to question every one even ten blocks away—perhaps the whole lower city. I puffed my butt and waited. It was old stuff for me. Would this cop know me, and if he did would it hurt or help me? If I proved a stranger to him would he drag me in for the desk sergeant to have a look at? The commissioner was getting mighty particular lately with gun fights a nightly affair in most any section of the city, and the killing of a policeman no longer a national event.
I was deeply interested in my cigarette when the heavy hand fell upon my shoulder and a gruff voice snapped in my ear.
“I’ll have a look at that letter you were reading—now!”
“Do you know any more jokes?” I shot the words at him without looking up, but before he could figure out an answer I swung and faced him beneath the light.
“Race Williams,” he gasped. Then as the surprised upward curve of his mouth cut quickly down to hard straight lines, “But that’ll do you no good. There’s been mur—” He cut the word short, bit his lip a second, decided he’d better not say too much, and continued: “Shots and you go together like ham and eggs. I think you’d better have a talk with the sergeant.”
“Had a lot of talks lately.” I shook his hand from my shoulder. It was funny how he didn’t ask to look at the letter again. He knew I knew my rights. “Of course it’s up to you to do your duty. You know my business. I’m privately working with the law at present. You know I have good friends at Headquarters. Perhaps, after all, you might have to do the explaining.” I sort of nodded over at the motorcycle cops. “Now, Delaney, I have business tonight. Young blood—a bad woman and worse whiskey. I won’t add that he’s a relative of anyone in political circles; but his father’s got the money to hire me for a job like that and his father must have good friends. Better think it over. Haven’t you heard anything lately?”
And he had. So had I, for that matter. The whispered talk of the infatuation of a certain young man for an uncertain young lady. Besides, that man’s father was rather well connected—too well connected for Delaney’s piece of mind. That I hadn’t been approached in the case and wouldn’t be apt to touch it with a ten-foot pole if I had been approached didn’t matter to me—and wasn’t known to Delaney.
It was just a lie of course, but it might very easily have been the truth as far as Delaney was concerned. All the police read my character wrong. Not one of them would believe that I’d turn down a case there was money in, and that I didn’t make a business of rescuing the perverted sons of wealth, whose scandalous and sometimes criminal escapades are looked upon as just the acts of big good natured boys having their fling at life.
Delaney was falling—slipping anyway. I saw the nod he gave to the motorcycle lad, who moved slowly away. So I pushed my advantage and added a touch of color to the story.
“It’s a thing that won’t stand for delay, or the newspapers will grab it. If that’s the case I’ll know where to lay the blame. Perhaps you can slip that blame along to the desk sergeant. He’ll be willing to shoulder it, and no doubt thank you for it.” I finished sarcastically.
“You have a tongue on you.” Delaney shook his head and smiled. “I’m not one to have anything against your methods of business, Race Williams. I envy you your conscience at times and wish we of the force were allowed a little more loose shooting. There’d be more money in the pension fund then and less widows and fewer orphans.” His lips were rather grim and I knew that he was thinking of Rafferty and the wife and children left behind. Delaney had no doubt picked up his information over a police box.
“They can’t always hang it on you,” he went on, “and they ain’t never convicted you when they did get the evidence, but I dare say you’ve done for many a man who needed a killing. But—” wide blue eyes rested on me as a pudgy finger dug into my chest, “if you’re lying to me and have had a hand in what went on tonight we’ll know where to find you. I can’t keep an eye on you tonight, even if I was so minded, but I’ll get word of our meeting to Inspector Coglin, uptown.”
With that final shot Delaney was gone. Inspector Coglin was down on me. Jealousy that I had so often succeeded where he had failed, or perhaps a real honest belief that I was more of a criminal than a detective—it didn’t make any difference. He had sworn to get me—was laying for my scalp. But every time he had dragged me in for questioning I got my story over to the newspapers, which gave me considerable free advertising and gave Inspector Coglin a bit of the old raspberry. He’d let me alone lately. Vented his spleen on me by making faces and uttering threats. But I still followed my regular routine of business. When I wanted a man I stuck a gun in each pocket and went after him.
Delaney passed from view. The motorcycle cop, with his side-kick, had long since disappeared; the street was deserted, but I backed into a nearby doorway and waited a few minutes. My letter writer was particular that I be not followed. He even saw his death if his whereabouts were known. The letter I ran over again in my mind. The wording was simple enough.
“If you will visit me tonight—one-thirty—at (and here was the address) you can render me a great service, which will pay you a great price. The knowledge of certain others of your visit or my whereabouts means my death. I have heard of you. I need you. I can’t come to you. My God! Take a chance and come. Third floor, back hall, last door—right.
There’s the music, write your own words. The last line told the whole story. Sincerity there? Maybe. Perhaps just a fear—even a hopeless sort of horror. Nearly every week some false case was offered to me. Mostly cheap tricks, where the enclosed check turned out to be no good when I tried to get it certified at the bank, before paying a visit to some lonely country spot. It was funny how these city killers went in for lonely spots in the country. And always the message was to come alone and secretly in the night. Still, most people who have business for me do not have the kind of business that can be shouted from the house tops. Blackmail, a great deal of it. Follies of youth demanding retribution in respectable and wealthy middle age. The skeletons in the closets of “the best people” rattle loudest. Now, I was searching for a client in the worst and cheapest section of the city. This smacked of one who feared the law.
I beat my hands across my chest a few times and started on my way. Another block up and a turn to the left, and I spotted my building. A searching glance up and down the street and I stepped inside, pushed open the door, breathed in a few of the smells, then shut out the winter night. But I didn’t shut out the chill—a damp chill that was worse than the bitterness of the cold without.
A dull flickering gas light burned in the rear of the dirty hallway. I leaned against a rocky banister and waited. Nothing special on my mind, but if the thing was a frame-up, a lad from across the street might drop over, plant himself in the hall and blow me out, coming down. No, I didn’t suspect a trap but I was prepared for one just the same. It’s not the expected in life that means death, but the unexpected.
Ten minutes were enough. I pulled out my flash, shot a splash of light down the hallway, then up the stairs. Lots of dirt but not enough for a man to hide under. The smells I couldn’t see—but I didn’t need to. I mounted the first flight of stairs. They creaked. I played the side of them. They creaked louder. I hugged the walls and the old boards still gave up their dead. Not so bad, you understand, but the slightest sound, if you fear a lurking enemy, is magnified to the pounding of a hammer.
The first flight—again my light. More dirt, but still emptiness. The second floor was safely reached and still without trouble, but I didn’t get careless. Some guns like to play the ground, others feel safer at jumping roofs. The third floor took me longer to reach—real slow going there, and my gun was shoved into my hand. I’d listen most every step for sounds above or below. And the creaks were hard to place—you’d step on a board that would moan like a child—then another that would squeak like a mouse, and a third perhaps that would creak like a rusty hinge. Seven or eight such flights would get on a man’s nerves. I was glad when I reached the top landing—I did my final stuff with the flash held well out to my side. Killers have a way of aiming at lights. I do it myself when dealing with the ordinary crook; and the novice always holds the flash straight before him. The wise man swings it far and wide and high or low. For my part, I always hold the light in my right hand and far to that side. The thinking gunman figures you’ll play the gun in the right hand and the light in the left. Therefore he directs his fire to the wrong side of the light. That isn’t just mathematical figuring or psychology. It’s fact. I’m still alive, to prove it.