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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.
“Under Cover” originally appeared in the December 1925 and January 1926 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.
Some cases come directly to the office; others I go out and get—a few come by mail. This one did, but the main item had been overlooked. Good clients say what they want to say on the face of a check; this lad had wind enough but was short on figures. I leaned back in my office chair and read the note again. The spelling at least was refreshing.
Just a desire to meet me that night on the lonely road behind the golf links at Van Cortlandt—the hour, one-thirty A.M. Now, the thing itself was childish. I have as many enemies as a shad has eggs. This was one of them, trying what he thought was an original idea. The warning of great secrecy was in the note—also the promise of a liberal amount of jack. But the backwoods spoiled it—might as well have been a back room on the Avenue. I was onto the duck who wrote that note the minute I lamped it.
There was the hint too that I mightn’t have the guts to come. Now, clients in trouble don’t hire me thinking I’ll lay down on them. They need me bad—this lad blurbed that the whole thing was simple and I need have no fear of personal danger. What a poor fish he was! I started to crumple up the note and toss it in the basket—and the phone rang.
“Race Williams? This is a friend. Someone is planning to kill you tonight, Race Williams—watch your step.” There was a decided click, and the one-sided conversation was over. But the note stayed in my hand—was straightened out and read again.
Food for thought that—others knew about that note. At least one other did. For all I knew half the underworld of the city might be on. Someone was making open threats of gunning for me. The crooks that feared me would stand by and see if I made good. If I showed the white feather in one instance I’d have to knock off half the town to establish my reputation all over again. What did I do? As they say in the movies—there was a lapse of time; midnight came and went.
It was twelve-thirty when I rolled up Broadway, driving my big touring. Simply big-heartedness on my part. If some bird really wanted the opportunity to bump me off—why—of course I’d be willing to give it to him. In all fairness, however, I must admit that I figured the chances were very much against him.
You know the place—that lonely stretch of flat park far across from Broadway—the other side of the railroad tracks and beyond the links—never a better place for a little shooting.
It wasn’t one when I first passed the spot—but I flashed by, doing in the neighborhood of sixty miles an hour. I turned up the hill at the end of the road—came back on the road above—parked the car—and dropped silently down the thickly wooded hill. There was much to think of. Suppose after all the letter writer had been sincere—and the telephone call a fake! But I shook my head. A little careful study would do the trick. I’m not strong on thinking things out—besides, I find they never go according to schedule—action was what I wanted—and action was what I’d get.
Not a soul in sight—there, across the road, lay the great stretch of park—a dull moon piercing the slight mist that enveloped it. Far down toward the city, a half mile perhaps, was the still smouldering fires of the city’s garbage dump—a sore eye to that vast expanse of beautiful country—a sore smell too when the wind was right.
And he came—the distant hum of an engine—then silence as he shut the motor off and drifted the few hundred feet remaining. Just the purr of great tires softly rolling over the dirt road. The lights dimmed, to disappear entirely as the car swung around the bend, rolled slowly up and stopped within fifty feet of where I was hiding—crouched in the bushes.
Dimly I made out the single figure that stepped from the car and peered up and down the road. Would he have a friend? I expected a half dozen of them—but, no—just the one man, for he made no attempt to communicate with anyone hidden in the back seat. Five minutes more I waited—not a sound—no hum of another approaching motor—and I did my stuff. Suddenly stepped into the road and shot my flashlight full upon this duck’s pan.
I didn’t know him. Oh, I knew his breed all right—the prison pallor still stood out on his blanched cheeks—but he hadn’t done his stretch through any effort of mine. It was a map one never forgets—a “before using” sort of a phiz, if you get what I mean. The kisser was enough, but he gave himself away besides that. The half unconscious way he reached for his gun—and the stupid, foolish leer to his eyes as he caught himself and brought out a handkerchief that had done service in the family for many years. If this bird was to have a widow within the next few minutes—why, the dear old girl would owe me a vote of thanks. He was the kind of a lad you’d put out and wonder why you didn’t do it before.
“Mr. Williams, I believe.” And the way he got it off was a scream. Like amateur night up in Harlem. And when I flattered him for his powers of observation, he broke right into his story.
It was some yarn and no mistake. He should have been on the stage. There was the lost paper and the rich uncle, and the poor mother who had died bringing him up. That last crack I could believe. And he readily admitted being in jail—a false charge by the uncle, who was holding his rightful inheritance from him. Just one thing was needed to make him a millionaire—that bit of paper. And he knew where it was. Of course he couldn’t get it himself. He was wanted by the police—who would see him enter his uncle’s house. But it was easy for me, and I would receive his undying gratitude—to say nothing of a few hundred thousand bucks. He sure was liberal.
Before he got through he turned on the water works and wept all over the road. All he needed was a cup and a half dozen shoe laces. For the first time I fully appreciated the meaning of the word “unique.”
This sob-sister finished up with one burst of glory that set me thinking. Perhaps after all he wasn’t bent on bumping me off—just a decoy—and what a decoy!
“I want to talk it over wid ya—have papers to show ya. I’m tellin’ the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth—so help me Gawd.” That last was an inspiration. He must have used it many times—or listened to the court clerk get it off for his benefit.
“Why didn’t you get a lawyer?” I just had to say something or bust right out laughing. He was so sincere—so childish—in his innocent belief that I swallowed his story. And all this behind the hardest, crudest face I’d looked at in many a moon. Give him a gun and a chance to use it, and he’d probably make a creditable showing, but his gift of gab wouldn’t fool a six year old.
“I did hire a mouth-piece,” he shook his head in a comical way that was meant to be sad, “but he sold me out.” And those were the first words so far that I could actually believe—but then—I’d believe most anything of a lawyer.
“Where do you want to take me?” I asked. In a way I didn’t mind finding out just who was staging this little party. A thick outfit, no doubt—but it’s a good thing to know who your enemies are. Stupid or shrewd—it makes little difference—some of the dumbest crooks I know are the best in handling a rod or a knife.
He was all excited, was old Sob-Sister, when I showed a fatherly interest in him—even stirred up an imaginary friend who’d stake him to a thousand dollars to hand over to me as a starter. The way this gopher raised money was hot stuff. But I made him precede me to the car, and I could see that his feelings were hurt. He sure wanted to get a good look at my back for a few seconds.
“I tell ya what, Mr. Race Williams.” And there was almost a tear in his eye. “Your lack of trust in me hurts, but I guess I deserve it. I ain’t had the opportunities that should-a been comin’ to me. You see here an orphan what was wronged. So—youse sit in the back of the car. I’ll drive and youse can watch me.” Then with the first gleam of intelligence he had shown since we met, “You didn’t have a car with ya—or a friend maybe?” For the first time also an anxious note crept into his voice.
I marked my bird then—nothing less than a hired murderer. He was going to take a chance, and self preservation shot to the top.
“No—I didn’t have a car.” That was a lie. “And I didn’t bring a friend. I didn’t need to.” That was the truth and his chance to crawl out. I knew from his itching fingers that things were going to happen any minute now. Don’t ask me why. Live as close to death as I have for as many years, and you do know.
I was tired of the whole thing. This business of being dragged into the night by a common thug. As soon as we got in the car I’d stick a gun in his back and get the truth out of him. He never worked this out alone. There wasn’t any sense in that. I never saw him before—someone was paying him for the job. I nodded grimly as I started toward the back of the car, Sob-Sister just to one side of me. I’d give this baby something to cry about if he didn’t speak up like a little man. In five minutes more I’d have the name and address of the party who’d sent this jail-bird gunning for me.
Then he made his move—God! he swung like lightning. I honestly believe that if he had pulled a gun he’d have gotten me.
I threw myself flat on the step of the car—swung about, jerked out my gun and let drive. The long knife in his right hand grazed my cheek as the shot broke the stillness. He pitched forward, half on top of me, and rolled into the road. Old Sob-Sister was as flat as the distant stretch of desolate park.
There wasn’t any need to hold a post mortem. He didn’t cry out—call down vengeance upon that imaginary uncle who had wronged him. I’m onto most of the tricks known to corpses—this one was as stiff as King Tut.
A hurried search through the dead man’s pockets at first revealed nothing—and then I whistled. You’d never guess what I found—the torn corner of a thousand dollar bill. Think that one out. I did in a way, as I shoved it deep into my pocket.
As I said before, it was a lonely spot. I made it just that much lonelier—beat it through the woods—grabbed my car—and cutting back over the country road, slipped down the Bronx and into the heart of the city. Was the thing dead—the incident closed? I thought so then, but the game was just beginning. Take it from me.
If you lost a diamond ring in China you certainly wouldn’t expect to find it inside a watermelon you happened to buy in Chicago. And what’s more, you wouldn’t. In crime you never can tell what strange links make up the chain—a single, well balanced piece of work that all fits in together some place. And it does—sometimes!
The next day the incident of that case is brought suddenly back to me and then dropped entirely. What brought it back is another letter in the mail. This time the spelling is better, and there’s a good sized check to back it up. This looks like real business and gives me an invitation to call at a distant city—a big one—let us call it Rosedale, though the inhabitants would have my head for so defaming the town. The letter ended—“I would like to discuss with you a matter of the gravest importance.” There was a time-table and a note too that the writer’s car and chauffeur would meet all trains.
That was better. There was the check for one thing, and the time to look up the party, who turned out to be a well known banker in Rosedale. Dough heavy, a member of the Common Council, vice-president of the Board of Education, and that sort of stuff. His label—Charles Philip Preston—also lent the air of smug respectability to the whole outfit.
It must be about nine o’clock the following evening when I hit Rosedale. Not suspicious this time. The car is there to meet me, and a liveried chauffeur to ask the wrong people if they’re on the way to Mr. Preston’s house. Not being in a hurry I wait my turn, and sure enough he spots me. I slip him my bag and tag on his heels to the waiting car. There I take care of my own bag. I carry my tools with me.
Charles Philip Preston lives up to his name. He’s tall and thin, and lets a black cord run from his glasses to some place in the back of his frock coat. He hasn’t got sideboards, but the nearest thing to them—and it would be downright lying to call them whiskers. Too high up for whiskers—too low down for hair—take your choice. They looked like moss. But his check was too big to start off by laughing at him, so I just slip easily into a chair in the library and watch him do the slow marathon up and down the room. This lad has something on his chest—never a doubt about that—but you couldn’t exactly say that he was nervous—nor worried either. His dignity wouldn’t permit that. Sometimes he’d stick his left hand across his vest—and he’d look like the Common Council—then the hand would slip behind his back and you’d see the Board of Education slipping into the picture. Finally both hands would get into the tails of his coat some place and you wouldn’t be sure whether it was Preston the Banker or Preston the Deacon of the church. He was one pompous duck. There wasn’t any Mrs. Preston, which was probably lucky for her.
“Mr. Williams—Mr. Race Williams.” He was slightly static after so much walking, but I get him clear enough. “I was doubtful at first—very doubtful—about bringing you into this matter. Mr. Morrison insisted on it. I shook my head and waited—Mr. Morrison threatened to desert me. Then came this last letter. My life has been threatened.”
He came out with the final shot like the end of the world was here. He didn’t expect me to believe it—didn’t half believe it himself, I guess. He was so sure of himself—so wrapped up in his own importance. That anyone would have the effrontery to threaten him seemed beyond belief.
I took a slant at the letter which he handed over. He was threatened sure enough. In plain words and with no fancy thrills the writer told him his days were numbered. Within a week he would be shot down—nothing could save him.
“You have not paid the money, and you die.” It was signed with the black hand. The thing was old to me. Some kill; some just bluff—the chances were ten to one in his favor, I thought. Killing him wouldn’t produce the money. But he was shooting off his trap again.