Jim Hanvey, Detective/Helen of Troy, N. Y.
HELEN OF TROY, N. Y
THE first summer blast of a Southern springtime failed to inspire Jim Hanvey to hallelujahs. The mammoth detective lounged uncomfortably in his tiny apartment, cursing the unkind fates which had first been too liberal in their apportionment of avoirdupois and then caused him to be temporarily located in that section of the country where the intense heat makes for healthy cotton and lethargic humanity.
Southern spring is a season of constant doubt and surprise. One goes to bed innocent of sheets and arises shiveringly at three in the morning to resurrect blankets from a moth-ball depository. Overcoats are one day in order, and on the next palm-beach suits are inspected longingly. On Wednesday the fresh young leaves will struggle against the near-frost of the previous night, and on Thursday wilt before the ravages of unseasonable heat. Winter does not merge gently into summer. The thermometer fluctuates uncertainly like a woman torn between the competitive allure of two bargain counters.
Today it was hot, genuinely and unreservedly hot, and Jim's physique had never been intended to withstand heat. He slumped miserably in a wicker chair, puffing disconsolately upon a cigar and staring with fixed distaste at the weather forecast: “Clear. Continued warm.”
A profound sigh escaped from the recesses of Jim Hanvey. “O death, where is thy heat?”
Jim was capable of intense feeling, and this day that capability was working overtime. He was utterly and supremely unhappy both as to the present and in contemplation of the future. If this was April, what, then, would July be?
He scarcely heard the clangor of his telephone, and only when that instrument had sent its raucous summons dinning into his ears for the third time did he conscript sufficient energy to hoist himself from the wicker chair. His voice was not at all friendly.
“Hello!” A queer, interested expression flitted over Jim's features. Woman's voice. Hmph! “Is that Mr. Hanvey?”
“This is a friend of yours, Jim.”
“Ain’t got any friends today. Too hot.”
“I’m coming up.”
“That’s fine. Apartment 4-B. Door's unlocked. Walk right in.”
“Don’t expect me to get up. When the mercury climbs this high I stay put.”
He recrossed the room and slumped down into his chair again; but no longer did his face reflect the misery of the flesh.
His florid countenance was wrinkled speculatively. The voice of the woman had been vaguely familiar; memory probed inquisitively into the past. Jim shook his tremendous head from side to side.
“She called me Jim an' said she was a friend of mine.”
Pudgy fingers toyed idly with the hawserlike watch chain connecting his timepiece and himself.
The front door opened. Footsteps sounded from the hallway. All outward indication of interest fled from Jim's face leaving it as expressionful as the visage of a cow at milking time. Then the woman appeared in the doorway, and instantly Jim recognized her. The heartiness of his greeting was thoroughly sincere.
“Helen of Troy.” He smiled and added, “New York.”
The woman swept across the room and pressed a light kiss on the forehead of the detective.
“Dear old Jim! It's good to see you again.”
“Yeh, ain't it? Lord! I'm hot.” Jim's eyelids drooped with exasperating slowness over his fishy orbs, held shut for a moment, then opened again. “Step over yonder, Helen. Lemme give you the once-over.”
The woman obeyed, and Jim nodded approvingly.
“Million dollars—plus, Helen. That’s you.”
She was far from unattractive as she stood by the window. True, she was not of the general type which inspires the plaudits of a connoisseur; but for all practical purposes she was there seven ways from the ace. In the first place she was blond—magnificently and unyieldingly blond from the shrieking crown of gold upon her head to the tips of her long, slender, dead-white fingers. She was amply supplied with a figure which had been apportioned liberally and with an eye to ensemble rather than lissomeness. The effect was not to be denied: Floppy white panama with orchid trimmings; an elaborate street dress of white and orchid crêpe de chine; orchid stockings of chiffon, and white shoes. She pridefully submitted to his inspection and thrilled to his comment.
Said he, “Once seen, never forgotten.”
“You think I'm looking well, Jim?”
“Terrible good. Terrible.” He mopped his forehead. “How do you stand this heat?”
“We’ve lived South ever since we were married. That's six years.”
“And three months,” he amplified. “Ever since Johnny finished that last stretch. Me, I’d just as lief be in stir. Sit down. How's Johnny?”
The woman's face clouded slightly.
“It’s about him I came to see you, Jim.”
“Much obliged to Johnny.” He relighted his cigar. “What's he doin’ now? Con?”
She shook her head.
“We’ve been straight ever since we hitched up. You ought to know that, Jim.
“Ought to. Just thought maybe he was keepin’ away from my line. I’m with the Bankers’ Protective now, you know.”
“I know it; that's why I came to you.”
He stretched out.
“Spill it, Helen. I’m all ears—all ears and perspiration, I mean.”
“You’ve always been a friend of ours, Jim. You play square. You sent Johnny up once, but he didn’t hold that against you; it was all his fault for gettin’ caught. And he made a regular killin' that time, Jim—you remember they never did get the stuff. Well, when he got out we decided to get married and go straight. Of course we didn't know how we'd like it, but we did think it was worth trying—understand?”
“Sure! Novelty. Any time you didn’t like it you could turn crooked again.”
“That's it. Well, I’ve liked it, an’ so has Johnny. No dicks worryin' us, everything running smooth. It's been a real nice experience, Jim. I never would have believed there was so much fun in bein’ honest. And after a while—well, it sort of gets to be a habit. Now I’ve come to the point where I wouldn't change for anything.”
She paused. He blinked with disconcerting slowness.
She leaned forward tensely.
“Johnny's planning to pull a job!”
“Johnny's planning to pull another job. He's got a chance for a neat killing, and he's going to try it.”
Jim's head rolled sorrowfully upon his fat shoulders.
“That's too dog-goned bad! After runnin' straight this long!”
“It is too bad, Jim. That's why I've come to you.”
“I want you to keep him straight. I know I can trust you, so I’m going to slip you the whole works, and I want you to steer him off. There ain’t a bit of sense to his going crooked again. We’ve got all the money we need; but the thing looks so easy—you know how it is.”
“Uh-huh. I know. What you expect me to do?”
“The job he’s planning, Jim, is a bank job. That would bring you into it.”
Jim's lips drew into a protuberant circle and a low whistle escaped.
“Bank job, eh? His old line. That's plumb silly.”
“I’ve told him so; told him a dozen times. But he says it's a cinch. Sure thing. Bah!”—bitterly. “It’s a sure thing he wouldn’t get away with it.”
“But he thinks he can.”
“That's it. I know just how he feels, Jim. I've felt that way myself a dozen times when I’ve seen some dame out at the race track wearing a million dollars’ worth of sparklers. I’d remember how good I used to be at that sort of thing and my fingers would just naturally itch. It seemed a shame to pass it up. But”—righteously—“I’ve given temptation the go-by, Jim. I haven’t pulled a job since I got hitched up to Johnny, though I’ve had chances enough. You always have when you're running straight. Sometimes I’ve felt like I’d give everything I ad just for the sport of reducing the weight of some fat dame to the extent of a coupla carats. Well, the bug's got Johnny now. Things have played into his hands and he's rarin’ to go. I told him you was down in this part of the country, but he only laughed. ‘Reckon I can get away with this in spite of Jim Hanvey,’ he said. The poor fish! You know good and well, Jim, there ain't any crook can buck you and get away with it, is there?”
“What you tryin’ to do—vamp me?”
“Lord forbid! It would be too much trouble for the result.”
“That sounds more like my frank friend. Now please continue to go on.”
“I’m going to give you a straight steer on this job of Johnny's. I want to leave it all in your hands. You ought to be able to head him off. I know I’m foolish to be so dead set on honesty and all that sort of romantic stuff, but I can’t help it. Reckon I’ve been seeing too many movies or something.” She leaned forward tensely, giving off an aroma of heavy and expensive perfumes, her fingers glittering with an imposing array of rings. “I want to stay straight, Jim—I sure do! And I want Johnny to do likewise.”
Jim reached for a fresh cigar and settled back comfortably in his chair.
“You don't mind these, do you, Helen?”
“We-e-ll, I haven’t any right to kick when I'm asking you a favor.”
He snipped off the end of the cigar and lighted up with gusto.
“Since Johnny turned straight he's been gambling,” she explained. “No rough stuff, nor nothing like that. Of course I’m not claiming that he hasn’t rung in the works once in a while when he's hooked a particularly easy mark or that maybe he hasn’t managed to read the backs of a few cards; but that's all part of the profession. The point is he hasn’t been crooked—understand?”
“Sure! I get you.”
“Last two seasons he's been oralizing down in New Orleans—both tracks there: Fair Grounds and Jefferson Parish. Business has been pretty good, but nothing extra. New Orleans is a wise town on horses. They’re the very devil on backing the favorites and that’s awful tough on the bookies. Anyway racing has kinder got into Johnny's blood. He started off last year by buying a few cheap platers—called himself owning a stable. And finally he come into a two year-old that is a colt. Lightning Bolt is the name. Y’oughter see that angel run!
“Major Torrance clocked that baby one time in a workout and wanted him; wanted him bad. Johnny didn’t hanker to let him go. They talked price, but nothing come of it. Everybody knew the old gent was nuts on Lightning Bolt and was gonna get him sooner or later—everybody except him. And just recently Johnny found out that the major had booked passage for Europe on the Homeric, sailing out of New York day after tomorrow—Thursday. Also that Torrance's stable was bein’ shipped North for the New York season. And that's where Johnny fell.”
She paused, one white-shod foot tapping the floor. Jim sat in supine silence, apparently oblivious of her presence.
“Yes,” she continued tensely, “that's where Johnny took his tumble. He told the major he'd sell Lightning Bolt, provided the old geezer would buy all the rest of his stable—four other horses. The price for the bunch was eight thousand dollars. The deal went through. Those horses went North with the Torrance stable the other day when the season ended in New Orleans. Old man Torrance sails from New York in a couple of days. Of course you can prove up on all of this; the real point being that Johnny holds the major's check for eight thousand dollars.”
Her voice died away. Out of the silence which followed came Jim's drawling voice:
“An’ one little teeny letter added onto an eight makes an eighty.”
The luxurious blonde glanced sharply at the big man in the wicker chair, her eyes narrowing slightly.
“What made you think——”
“Two an’ two always did make four, sister.”
Her fingers interlaced nervously.
“That’s the layout, Jim. He's planning to raise that check and make a getaway——” Her voice trailed off. “And that isn’t all.”
Jim's query was a mere indication of interest rather than an effort to extract further information.
“Not all, Jim. It's this way——” She hitched her chair closer and laid one ringed hand on Jim's knee. The ponderous man seemed unmindful of it—for a moment. Then he moved away. “Just before Johnny turned straight and married me he pulled one last big job. It was regular and all that. The poor sucker they caught was hog-tied; he didn’t dare let out a yap. Johnny made a clean-up on it and with that amount added to what he had he retired with about a quarter of a million bucks.” There was conscious pride in her final declaration: “Johnny never was a piker.”
“He sure wasn’t, Helen. Great chap, Johnny.”
“That quarter of a million has been salted away in Liberty Bonds. Johnny bought 'em at about 84 and they’re pretty near par now. He's dead stuck on 'em; says when they jumped in value it was the first honest money he ever made. He never would touch 'em. Kind of superstitious. But, Jim, he's planning to dig into 'em now.”
“He’s got a chance of opening a big gambling place down near Juarez. Things like that take cash—a wad of it. So Johnny is fixing to borrow on his Liberties.”
“Yes. He's superstitious about them, like I told you, and he don’t want to sell. He figures he can borrow two hundred thousand on the things. Then he's going to raise that Torrance check from eight thousand to eighty. That'll give him, $280,000 in cash—more than enough for what he wants. He'll sink a heap of that into the business, and at the first opportunity he plans to come back, redeem his Liberties and salt 'em away again. Understand?”
Hanvey was apparently not listening. He stared moodily through the window, lower jaw drooping, the ash on his cigar perilously lengthy. Finally he turned his glassy eyes upon her.
“How c'n you look so cool when it's so durned hot?”
She bit her lip.
“Do you understand, Jim?”
“Eh?” He blinked with interminable slowness. “Oh, about Johnny an' his gamblin’ house an' the Liberty Bonds an’ all that? Sure, that's easy. Johnny's just naturally plannin’ to get wicked again, ain’t he?”
“And I don't want him to. There ain't anything in the world like being honest, Jim; I’ve found that out. It's the grandest feeling I’ve ever had. I wouldn't turn crooked again for anything in the world—unless we really needed the money. I don’t want Johnny to. He's been out of the game so long he's liable to pull a boner and lose what he's got.”
“You sure spoke a mouthful then, sister. That's a downright crude stunt Johnny is figgerin’ on pullin’. Of course, him plannin’ to beat it into Mexico, anyway——”
“I’d hate to live there. Never did like Mexican cooking—chili an’ hot tamales and all that sort of thing. And the climate——”
“Hotter’n this, ain't it?”
She didn't answer. For a few moments silence held between them, tense silence punctured only by the ticking of the cheap alarm clock on the mantel and the bellowing of a group of boys playing in the street below.
“You’ve got to help me, Jim—got to help me keep Johnny straight. He'll listen to you where he laughs at me.”
“Awful glad to do a little job like that, Helen. I’m real anxious Johnny shouldn't turn crooked again. He's got brains enough to make an honest livin’. Lemme see—when’s he plannin’ to pass this bum check?”
“Two or three days. You see, Jim, he'll borrow the two hundred thousand on his bonds—borrow it from a local banking house—Starnes & Company. When he deposits their check for that amount he'll deposit along with it Major Torrance's check for eighty thousand; and the eighty-thousand one being so much smaller than the other, they won't pay a whole lot of attention to it. Then he'll check against the total sum. Ain't that clever?”
“Awful!” He inhaled deeply. “Awful clever! A good check for two hundred thousand and a bum one for eighty, passed right through the bank. Then he checks against 'em. Johnny sure uses his head for somethin’ more than a hatrack.”
She rose and threw a light scarf across her plump shoulders.
“You promise to keep him straight, Jim? You promise?”
“Sure! Sure I promise, Helen! Dog-gone this weather!”
She made her adieus and swung down the street toward the city's largest hotel. One or two traveling men ogled her and she expanded to the pleased consciousness of the effect she was creating. It had always been thus, ever since her girlhood in Troy, New York. Blessed with voluptuous blondness, men had always flocked about her. Adulation had been all in all to her until the advent of Johnny Norton, and to him she capitulated utterly.
Johnny had been an honest and efficient wooer. They teamed up and knocked about the country until he made his final big killing. Then they married and turned straight; but the strain of the past five years had been terrific.
Helen rapped on the door of her room and Johnny opened it in person. He was a small man, slender and wiry and very much of a dandy in his lavender silk shirt, his white sport shoes and his aggressively checkered suit. He kissed her dutifully, then stepped back, twisting his near-mustache.
Three other men lounged about the room. There was Slim Bolton, a card sharper, whose practice had been largely confined to transatlantic liners; Happy Gorman, who had attained fame—and a jail sentence—by means of an astoundingly clever oil-stock Swindle; and Connie Hawes, one-time counterfeiter and generally expert flimflam artist. Their eyes were focused interestedly upon the Junoesque figure of the woman who stood with her back against the door, enjoying to the ultimate her calcium moment.
“Well,” she announced pridefully, “Jim Hanvey fell for it!”
There was a moment of tense silence.
At last, Johnny Norton pulling nervously at his mustache, voiced the question which was uppermost in the minds of all of them:
“Positive! You know how it is, boys. Jim has got only one weakness and that's his heart. It's softer than mush. He fell for that going-straight stuff like a tabby for a fresh box of catnip. Honest, it was a shame to take the money.”
“He promised to keep me straight?”
“Yeh. Reckon it was the first time poor old Jim was ever asked to do anything like that.” Her face clouded. “I sort of hate to put it over on him this way. I’m awful strong for Jim.”
“So are all of us.” It was Connie Hawes speaking. “But what could we do about it? It was a cinch we'd have trouble with Jim, so the best thing was to throw him off the track.”
Slim Bolton rose and walked to the window. He spoke without turning.
“Reckon this stuff ain’t exactly in my line,” he commented; “but I never did understand the reason for wising Jim up. I’m not saying you fellows are wrong, but it looks to me like we are running an unnecessary chance.”
Johnny Norton made no attempt to conceal his contempt for the slender one.
“If you had more than one brain in your head, Slim, they wouldn’t have barred you from the steamships. The reason Jim had to know it was this: He's chief of the detective force of the Bankers' Protective Association. Bein’ down in this part of the country, it was a dead cinch he'd be called in the minute anything irregular happened.”
“But nothing irregular——”
“Nothing irregular me eye! I borrow two hundred thousand dollars on a quarter million dollars’ worth of Liberty Bonds. The banking house sends 'em over to the bank by messenger for rediscount. You fellows bump the messenger and make a get-away with the bonds. Bond robbery from a banking house which is a member of the Bankers' Protective. Jim Hanvey is called in of course, and first thing he asks is where did they get the Liberty Bonds. And when they tell him that a gent named John Roden Norton borrowed the money he would be most likely to smell a mice; even two or three mices.”
“But when this happens——”
“Pff! You fellows are gonna lay low. And Jim already knows all about my borrowing the two hundred thou. He even knows about the Juarez proposition, and at the very moment you fellows are grabbing off the bonds I’ll be with Jim Hanvey. Get that? He not only is gonna be set easy on borrowing the coin, but he's also gonna be right with me when the fireworks are being shot. What's the result? I’ve got a clean slate with Jim. I even let him induce me not to raise Torrance's check—swell chance I’d have raisin’ that bird's paper—and so Jim will be lovin’ me real sweet and you guys will be beatin’ it to the border with them quarter million dollars in bonds. You fellers will cash 'em in somewheres——”
“How about the numbers? They ain’t registered bonds, I know, but the minute that many are stolen the banking house will notify the B. P. A. to watch out——”
Helen of Troy had been too long in the background. She didn’t like it. All her life she had been accustomed to having men stare at her and hang upon her words, and so now she took the floor again and gave explanation to Slim Bolton, who had but recently been impressed into service as the necessary fifth member of the party.
“I and Happy worked out that game,” she explained. “Happy is awful keen on stocks and bonds and things like that, so he knew that we’d have to watch out for those numbers. So what we'll do is this: Johnny, here, has already made arrangements for the loan—told the banking house just what he wants the money for—and on Thursday he's to swap the bonds and his note for the cash. He's due to be on hand at eleven o'clock in the morning, but he ain’t gonna be. He's gonna get there about half-past one, the banks in this burg closin' up at two o'clock. He'll hand over the bonds to the president of the banking house and that bird will check over the bond numbers with Johnny, Johnny having them written down formal-like on a piece of paper.
“And here's the point, Slim: The numbers that Johnny reads out will be the numbers of the bonds all right, but the numbers he reads won’t be the numbers that are written down on this slip of paper.
“Minute he does that he's gonna ask the banker to give him the check quick so he can deposit before the bank closes, with the result that the banker will accept that list and will give Johnny's slip to the bookkeeper for entering in the journal. In other words, the numbers that they’ll enter up won’t be the numbers of the bonds at all, and there won’t be any check when you get away with 'em. Chances are the banking house has already made arrangements to rediscount at one of the big banks, and they’ll be anxious to shoot the collateral right around there; so the whole thing will slip through real pretty.”
“And if it don’t?” questioned the pessimistic Slim.
She stamped her foot irritably.
“Then it’ll simply be a harder matter to dispose of the bonds. They’re in thousand-dollar denominations, and it would take time, but not be dangerous. Anyway you boys are to cash in as soon as you can, shoot the two hundred thousand back to Johnny and then Johnny redeems his bonds and hikes down there to join you. We can’t lose.”
“Us fellers do the rough work,” commented Connie Hawes. “That ain’t ever been exactly in my line.”
“I’m putting up the kale, ain't I?” queried Johnny. “That ought to count some.”
“It does. But——”
“But nothing!” snapped Helen of Troy. “The way you boys talk about flunking this thing you almost make me ashamed of being a crook.”
Meanwhile, in the very limited confines of his room, Jim Hanvey had been doing considerable thinking. He sat as Helen had left him, overflowing the old wicker chair, puffing solemnly upon the long-extinguished stump of his cigar, fat fingers fiddling with his watch chain.
Jim was interested; so interested that for a few moments he almost forgot the intense heat. He had been asked to keep a crook on the straight and narrow.
“Gee! Johnny was a good workman in his day. Funny what winnmin will do to a guy.”
He was surprised that Johnny had remained straight for this length of time. He didn’t blame the lad, of course—was sincerely glad that he had done so. Helen was a woman in a million, just such a one as Jim secretly craved for a wife. She was comfortably large and full-blooded and richly blond. “And wise. I’d hate to be married to a boneheaded dame.” He lighted his cigar stump absently. “Swell-lookin' frail like her could almost make me turn crooked. No wonder she's kept Johnny straight.”
More peculiar than that, however, Jim reflected, was the fact that Helen herself had forsaken the rose path. She had been a clever dip in her day—none superior—and a smooth worker in other lines. He recalled the Starkman blackmail scheme; they’d never been able to hang a thing on Helen for that—or Johnny either. Old Starkman's lips had been tightly sealed, and not through indifference to money.
“That bimbo didn’t love a dollar no more than he did his last pair of pants. Helen sure had him dead to rights, someway.”
Here was Helen going straight and coming to him for assistance that her husband might not step from the road of rectitude. Jim's massive head rolled heavily from side to side in wonderment.
He spent the evening at a movie, finding himself aroused to spontaneous applause at that portion of the picture which disclosed the husband returning home just in time to prevent the elopement of his wife and the chauffeur, the latter having turned out to be an old lover in disguise. There was a saccharine scene which resulted in a dramatic choice between the men, the woman designating her preference by nearly strangling her husband while that gentleman beamed happily upon the discomfited lover as he slunk miserably away, presumably to another household where, perchance, the husband might not return home thus inopportunely.
Scenes of that sort were vastly impressive to Jim. He hated bad sportsmanship, and the villain-chauffeur in this picture had been a bad sport. Crookedness Jim loved. He admired a clever crook and worshiped a good woman. There was something massively pitiful about the man as he gazed raptly upon the silver screen in the picture show; something inexpressibly sad in his demeanor, his abject loneliness. Jim himself would have been the last person in the world to realize the void in his life. Keen as he was in analysis of others, he was no master of introspection. When he emerged from the picture theater it was in the grip of a warm, sentimental glow. His simple, direct nature had been stirred to the roots. At that moment he desired nothing in life so much as to insure Helen the retention of that happiness which a few brief years of honest living had brought to her.
The following morning—Wednesday—he visited the banking house of Starnes & Company, where Johnny's loan was in the process of negotiation. He discovered that Joseph P. Starnes, the president, was handling the matter personally and that Johnny had explained frankly to Mr. Starnes the use to which the money was to be put.
“It is no concern of mine,” explained Mr. Starnes crisply, “what Mr. Norton does with that money. As a matter of fact, it has been my experience that a professional gambler is highly trustworthy. In the second place there is always the chance that his venture will prove unprofitable, in which case I shall have recourse to my collateral. It is excellent collateral, Mr. Hanvey; as good as money. This house is safe—entirely and thoroughly safe.”
“H’m! Guess you're about right, Mr. Starnes. Just wanted to know if you was wise to what this bird wanted the money for.”
“Of course I am.” Mr. Starnes’ manner was curt. He had an instinctive antipathy to this hulking representative of the Bankers' Protective Association; had more than once seriously considered suggesting to that organization that the man was mentally unfitted for the responsibility of his position.
“And if I were not it would make no difference. Liberty Bonds form security which we cannot question.”
“I ain't gonna argue about it.”
“There's nothing to argue.”
“Certainly not. Of course there ain’t. That's why I ain’t gonna argue about it.”
That evening Jim dropped in at the hotel where Johnny and Helen were registered. He telephoned to their room and was bidden to come up. His call abruptly terminated a hectic pinochle game then in progress, leaving Happy Gorman a heavy and disgruntled loser. When Jim entered the room he discovered Johnny playing solitaire and Helen seated by the window, reading a fashion magazine. A significant glance passed between the portly detective and the lavishly blond woman. Johnny rose at sight and posed for a moment with one hand gripping the card table, a slight frown showing.
Johnny was a most excellent actor. Apparently he was enormously surprised at the presence of the Gargantuan gentleman who bulked in the doorway. It was Jim who punctured the silence:
“Ain’t you glad to see me, Johnny?”
“Why shouldn't I be?”
“I’ll bite. Why?”
“If you think you’ve got anything on me——”
“Aw, g’wan, Johnny! You know durn well that I know you’ve been goin' straight since you and Helen got hitched up. Just heard you were in town an' dropped in for a social chat.”
Norton appeared relieved. He heaved an impressive sigh and motioned his visitor to a chair.
As though for the first time, Jim took notice of Helen. He held her two hands in his and stared approvingly.
“Helen of Troy! By gosh, Helen, you're prettier than ever! You've put on flesh, but you’ve been careful where you put it.”
“That's all that counts, isn’t it?”
“Yep. Some winmin are downright careless. How're you an’ Johnny gettin' along?”
“Who you doin’ for a livin’?”
“The public. Johnny's been makin' a book down in New Orleans. It's a lot of work and a heap of expense, but we’ve managed to make ends meet.”
Jim eyed the cards longingly.
“How 'bout a little three-handed game of setback?”
Chairs were drawn up. They played for a cent a point. It was midnight when Jim paid his losses—eighty-one cents—and rose to go.
“This is the life,” he commented heartily. Then his face grew serious. “Keep it up, Johnny. There's nothin’ to this crooked stuff.”
“I know that, Jim,” returned Norton fervently. “I’m off it.”
The door closed behind the detective. Assured that he had departed, Johnny crossed the room, took his wife in his arms and implanted a smacking kiss upon her willing lips.
“Hook, line and sinker!”
“It is a dirty shame to take him in that way.”
“Sure! But it's him or us, and there ain’t any use of it being us. We'll be on Easy Street when this deal is finished.”
They slept but lightly that night. The following morning early there was an executive session in Johnny's room. Slim Bolton was there, pessimistic as ever; Happy Gorman, melancholy but game; Connie Hawes, steely-eyed and emotionless.
“There's nothing to worry about,” reassured Johnny. “Everything's chicken.”
Helen of Troy whirled on the speaker.
“You can welch any time you want. It's Johnny's idea and Johnny's jack. If you ain’t game to go through with it——”
“Aw, dry up, girlie! Who said anything about welching? I just wanted you to know that we aren’t going it blind. If we didn’t need the money so bad——”
“If people didn’t need money there wouldn’t be any crooks,” she said tartly. “Now let's check over the plan.”
They put their heads together and for the next fifteen minutes their earnest voices hummed steadily; five clever—if warped—brains planning the betterment of themselves and the discomfiture of a single, lonely, unwieldy detective.
“It’s rough,” summarized Happy Gorman, “but it looks like a cinch.”
They separated. Slim Bolton went to a downtown garage, where he took out a car bought by him three days before. Slim knew more than a thing or two about automobiles, and for two days had been devoting his energies to the task of tuning this car up to the notch of perfect performance. He drove downtown and parked opposite the office building which housed the firm of Starnes & Company, bankers and brokers.
Slim took his post in the automobile at about eleven o'clock. At 11:30 he was joined by Happy Gorman, strong of arm and melancholy of face.
At 11:45 Connie Hawes appeared. He was dressed in a loose-fitting tweed suit, his coat tailored with a vent back so as to afford a maximum of action liberty. He nodded briefly to the two men in the car, then strolled around the corner and stationed himself out side a barber shop where he controlled a view of the building which held the Starnes offices. At 1:20 o'clock the figure of Johnny Norton came into view. He was walking up from the main business thoroughfare of the city and carrying a package which the men knew contained the Liberty Bonds. From the corner of his eye he took note of the fact that his three confederates were on duty. He turned into the office building and five minutes later was ushered into the private office of Joseph P. Starnes. That gentleman greeted him effusively, but it was patent, too, that Mr. Starnes was very much on guard.
“You’re late, Mr. Norton.”
“Sorry,” explained Johnny suavely. “I overslept, and I’ve been busy checking over these bonds.” He produced a knife and deftly cut the twine which bound the bulky package. “I suppose you have the note prepared.”
Starnes reached for the bonds. His sharp eyes, glittering from beneath bushy brows, inspected them closely. There wasn't a doubt of their genuineness. He counted them three times. Mr. Starnes was thoroughly reassured. His firm was on the verge of negotiating a very profitable loan. They were to receive 7 per cent interest from Johnny, rediscount the bonds at five per cent and thus make a clear 2 per cent profit, plus brokerage commission, without the embarrassment of tying up any of their cash reserve.
“Amount correct?” questioned Johnny crisply.
Johnny glanced at his watch.
“It is almost time for the bank to close, Mr. Starnes. If you'll make out my check for two hundred thousand and let me sign the note—— I want to make my deposit today.”
Starnes reached for a memorandum pad.
“I’ll have to take these numbers down.”
Johnny was frigid under the strain.
“I have a list here, Mr. Starnes. If you will just check the bonds themselves.”
Unsuspiciously Joseph P. Starnes checked the numbers on the bonds as Johnny Norton read from the list. It was considerable of a memory feat on Johnny's part, and he would not have been equal to it save for the fact that he worked with a key system. He read the numbers swiftly, each number that he read being the actual number on a bond which the banker checked off. But the numbers which Johnny called out were not the numbers which he had on his list.
The hour of two was approaching. Johnny again suggested that he desired to make his deposit that day in the First National. Starnes sounded the buzzer for his bookkeeper.
“The Norton note, please, and the check.”
They were duly produced. Starnes innocently reached for the list of bond numbers which Johnny had unostentatiously laid atop the bonds and extended the list to his bookkeeper.
“See that these are entered up, Mr. Mathews. These are the thousand-dollar Liberties which we have accepted as security for the loan to Mr. Norton here.”
The bookkeeper departed with the incorrect list of bonds. Johnny Norton was grinning inwardly. He scribbled his name on the note and accepted the Starnes check for two hundred thousand dollars. He shook hands and departed. Slim Bolton and Happy Gorman saw him swing down the street en route to the First National. At two minutes before two o'clock Johnny deposited to his credit the Starnes check. Then he returned to the hotel—and Helen.
She was exultant at his report of success, and immediately they set the stage for a new drama. From the depths of his trunk he produced several dozen blank checks of the Crescent National of New Orleans. These he placed on the writing desk beside Major Torrance's check for eight thousand dollars, which was also on the Crescent National. A half dozen pens were next laid out carefully and several bottles of ink, all approximately of the color used originally by the unsuspecting horse owner, who was at that moment a victim to mal de mer. Then, with brow furrowed, Johnny went to work. The spell of it gained upon him; he forgot for the moment that this was not seriously undertaken. His fingers, clumsy through lack of practice, labored over 8's and 0's similar to those made by the major.
“It’s a dog-goned shame,” commented Johnny, “that I ain’t really trying something like this.”
Helen gazed pridefully upon his handiwork.
“Come off that, dearie! Jim'd have you in less than no time.”
“I know, I know; but I’m awfully tempted.” He shoved his chair back from the writing desk, lighted a Turkish cigarette and walked to the window, where he posed for a moment, carelessly twirling his close clipped mustache. “Better telephone Jim, Helen. We want this thing to be an alibi.”
She called the number of Jim's hotel apartment house. The switchboard operator there answered.
“Mr. Hanvey’s apartment, please.”
There was a brief pause and then the operator's voice: “If you'll hold the telephone for a moment I'll connect you. Mr. Hanvey has just went up in the elevator.”
Helen nodded violently at her husband, signifying that Jim was at home. In the transmitter she fired a question: “How long has he been out?”
“I don’t know. I’ve just been on duty a half hour. If you wish——”
Then came a violent buzzing, a pause and a drawling, lazy voice from the other end:
“Hello! Who's this now?”
“This is Helen.”
“Oh, Jim”—she pulled out the tremolo stop—“you promised to help me keep Johnny straight—you promised!’”
“Well, I’m doin’ my best.”
“You haven’t done enough. He's working now, Jim—right now. Do you understand?”
“On that paper?”
“Sure; sure I do, Helen! I ain’t so thick I can't see the joke when one clown slaps another in the pants. What you want me to do about it?”
“Come down and stop him. He'll listen to you.”
“There ain’t many folks will.” Brief silence and then—“I’ll come. It's awful hot for walkin'——”
“Take a taxi.”
Came Jim's answer, heavy with sarcasm: “Too durned expensive for an honest detective.”
His receiver clicked on the hook. Helen flung herself across the room and into her husband's arms.
“It worked, dearie. He just came in, which means he ain’t hanging around Starnes & Company. He probably followed you when you left there, to get an idea if you were up to anything special. Saw you return to the hotel, and he went home. You've got an alibi. And now—now we'll let him save you from going crooked! Oh, honey, we’re getting away with it!”
He patted her shoulder fondly.
“You sure are a dandy wife, Helen! Great ol’ girl!”
She bustled into the dressing room.
“I’ll be on the watchout for Jim in the lobby. Remember, Johnny, if you act your part right he’ll never suspect you of being in on this deal, even if something should go wrong.”
As she arranged her hat Johnny Norton glanced across the housetops in the general direction of the downtown business district.
“Gee, I’d give something to know what happened down yonder!”
It was worth knowing, for there had been action a-plenty. All three of the waiting men had witnessed Johnny's departure from the offices of Starnes & Company, and they saw Johnny walk to the bank via the route which they knew the messenger would take. The quintet had planned this affair to a detail. They knew, for instance, that securities of unusual value held by Starnes & Company were daily taken to the First National Bank by a trustworthy messenger.
This messenger was little more than a glorified office boy despite his maturity. Too, he was a creature of habit. He daily departed the Starnes & Company suite about 2:30 o'clock, and being methodical took the shortest possible route to the First National. It was upon this habit of the messenger's that much of their scheme was based.
There were two routes between the Starnes corner and the First National, located two blocks away. The obvious one was down Elm Street one block to Main, and thence along that cheap thoroughfare to Pelham Street. The other was one block north on Ashmore and thence across on Pelham to Main. The latter route was several steps shorter, less traveled, and therefore easier. It was this second route which the Starnes messenger was in the habit of taking.
Almost identical in distance, the two routes were entirely dissimilar. Elm Street was a principal thoroughfare, something which could not be said of either Ashmore or Pelham. Those two blocks were lined with shoddy secondhand stores, groceries, markets and third-rate cafeterias.
At thirty-three minutes after two o'clock the Starnes messenger emerged from the big office building and started northward on Ashmore. He walked with a peculiar shuffling gait, and in his right hand he clutched a brown-leather satchel. The moment he appeared Slim Bolton slipped into reverse, backed his sedan into the traffic, turned into Ashmore and followed. He saw Connie Hawes detach himself from the doorway of a barber shop and fall into step behind the decrepit and unsuspecting messenger.
Slim was driving parallel to the slow-moving messenger. His car veered toward the curb. A trifle ahead of the man, Slim stopped his car and immediately slipped into second in preparation for a quick get-away. Happy Gorman, every inch the gentleman in appearance, opened the rear door of the sedan and hailed the little old man.
“Pardon me, stranger,” he said politely, “but would you mind telling me which way I go to reach the best hotel?”
The messenger paused and quite innocently moved toward the curb and the car. He recognized that this man must be a tourist. Connie Hawes closed in on him from the rear.
“The best hotel?” repeated the messenger, pleased at having been questioned. “It’s two blocks down that way, and then——”
The world went black before his eyes. Connie Hawes struck as he leaped. The messenger pitched forward into the opened door and Connie flung him out of the way as he darted by and grabbed the satchel. A spectator, rigid with terror, emitted a shriek of horror. The messenger crumpled grotesquely in the gutter—stunned.
Slim clamped down on the accelerator and sped forward. There was no traffic policeman on that little used corner. Another pedestrian shouted, but no one knew what caused his excitement. The car whirled eastward on Pelham Street, turned north at the next corner and then rounded the block and sped south ward over the viaduct. A crowd had collected about the figure of the stricken messenger, who was now struggling back to consciousness. Excitement was intense, but explanations given the belated policeman were incoherent. The officer notified headquarters that a messenger for the Starnes banking house had been hit on the head and robbed, but he had no clue as to the identity of the assailants and knew nothing of the affair save that the escape had been made in an automobile. And the three criminals, speeding across country, little appreciated the measure of their safety. They drove at reasonable speed for thirty miles. At the first little town Connie Hawes alighted, carrying the satchel. The car proceeded. Twelve miles farther south Happy Gorman left the car. Slim drove into the next town, parked his car at the curb, strolled nonchalantly into a drug store, where he consumed an ice-cream soda, and twenty minutes later boarded a New Orleans-bound train. In the Second Pullman he saw Connie Hawes and Happy Gorman, but by no slightest gesture did these men indicate an acquaintanceship with one another.
They knew that they were safe, but took no chances. Time enough for that after their trip westward from New Orleans, when they should have attained safety on the far side of the Mexican border.
Events of some importance had been occurring contemporaneously in the city from which they had so abruptly departed. Immediately on receiving the telephone call from Helen of Troy, Jim Hanvey left his diminutive apartment. The heat had become more intense; the sun baked down from a sky unmarked by clouds.
Walking, for Jim, was far from a pleasure. He rolled uncomfortably down the street, his tiny, fish like eyes blinking with interminable slowness, fat hands flapping awkwardly against his pants legs with each lumbering step. He turned in at the hotel lobby and there found Helen. She crossed eagerly toward him, futilely searching his puttylike face for any indication of suspicion.
“You understand what I wanted with you, Jim?”
“Yeh, sure I understand, Helen. But it does seem to me Johnny might've been considerate enough to pick a cooler day to go crooked on.”
“He’s working now. He's all excited, looking like he's sorry he wasted all this time going straight. He's a wizard with other folks' checks, Johnny is.”
“M’m-h’m! Clever boy. What you want me to do?”
“Go up and talk to him.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“He won’t get peeved at you for tipping me off?”
“I don’t care if he does,” she returned virtuously. “I always have believed that honesty was the best policy—when you don’t really need money.”
“Yeh—and when you get away with it.”
They entered Johnny's room without the formality of knocking.
Johnny backed against the table, jaws working in true movie-villain fashion. His hands, groping behind his back, scraped the checks into a heap in a crude attempt at concealment. Helen, too, gave evidence of the fact that the art of the actor is not yet dead—or even ill. She raised pitiful eyes to her husband's face.
“I know you’ll hate me, Johnny; but I tipped Jim off.”
He simulated great rage.
“Snitched on me, eh? Damn you——”
“Whoa, Johnny! Easy there, son! I hate to hear ladies damn-you’d when I’m around.”
Johnny turned his offended attention to the detective.
“It’s none of your business——”
“I hope not, Johnny; but it most likely would have been if Helen hadn't telephoned me.”
“I did it for your sake, Johnny,” she chimed in. “I have been very happy during the last six years, unhaunted by the fear of prison cells.”
Jim turned to her, a quizzical light in his glassy eyes.
“Who wrote them words?”
“I don’t know; but they’re just what I feel.” She threw her arms around Johnny's neck. “Please, dearie, for my sake, for the sake of our happiness, listen to Jim! We’ve been straight for so long. You couldn’t get away with no forgery job now, dearie; you're all out of practice.”
Jim waddled heavily across the room and took the batch of half-written checks from Johnny's unresisting hand.
“Lemme see how good you are now, kid. You used to be real clever.” He inspected them closely. “T'chk! T'chk! They just can't come back, Johnny. That's awful rough work. I'd have got you in no time at all. Yeh, tough luck, son; but I reckon you'd be wise to run straight from now on. You’ve lost your touch, Johnny.”
An expression of genuine sorrow crossed Johnny's face.
“On the level?”
“Surest thing you know!”
“Well”—and Johnny sighed—“I s'pose I might as well keep on like I’ve been going. Much obliged, Jim.”
Helen's hysterical squeal of delight filled the room.
“You promise, dearie—promise to keep straight for ever and ever?”
She turned her attention to Jim, clasped one of his hands between both of hers.
“I don’t know how to thank you, Jim. You've been wonderful, marvelous!”
Jim blushed boyishly.
“Gee, Helen, lay offen that stuff! When a good lookin’ dame begins sayin' sweet things to me I ain’t got no more backbone than a nickel's worth of ice cream.”
The telephone jangled.
“That's for me,” Jim announced.
“Uh-huh! I was expectin’ a call an’ I told the apartment house operator she'd find me here.”
Helen and her husband were ill at ease. In a trice they had ceased to be sorry for the ungainly detective. There was something so cumbersomely positive in his manner; such a degree of assurance.
It was Hanvey at the telephone. The two others strained their ears, but without result. And Jim's face told them no more than they could have learned by watching the lee side of a cantaloupe.
“Yeh, Jim Hanvey speaking.… Uh-huh. … You don’t say so! … When? … Clear? … You done what I suggested? … Well, that proves you ain’t the absolute ass I thought you was, Mr. Starnes.”
He clicked the receiver on the hook and turned away. He lighted a fresh cigar and jerked his head toward the telephone. “Funny thing,” he commented disinterestedly.
“Yes?” They spoke eagerly in chorus.
“Messenger left the Starnes offices a few minutes ago. Coupla roughnecks bumped him on the bean, grabbed his satchel and made a get-away.” If he discerned their mutual signs of relief he gave no indication of the fact. His voice droned on monotonously. “Old man Starnes is a stiff-necked idiot, but this time he was wise. He took my advice for once.”
“Sure! Y’see, with you dumping a quarter million dollars in unregistered Liberties with him, there was always danger that some crooks might get wise to it and try to make a haul. So I suggested to Fat-head Starnes that he stick them securities in his own vault for a while instead of sendin' 'em down to the First National as he usually does. In view of what just happened, I think I was kinder clever—real awful clever.” He paused apologetically. “You ain’t got no objections to me callin’ myself clever, have you?”
They did not answer, a premonition of disaster had robbed them of speech.
“Y’see, Helen, them naughty crooks might of got away with Johnny's Liberty Bonds. Might of, I said. But they didn't. All that was in that satchel was a few registered bonds which ain't worth duck soup s'far's negotiatin' 'em is concerned.”
Helen's face was dead white beneath her plentiful make-up.
“Johnny's Liberty Bonds are still at Starnes & Company?”
“You wouldn’t lie to me, Jim, would you?”
“Aw, Helen, you know I wouldn't! Fat men are rotten liars.”
“You suspected that the bank messenger was going to be robbed?”
“I had a sort of a hunch thataway.”
She turned dejectedly. It was Johnny Norton who launched the next question:
“How did you get wise, Jim?”
“Me? It was easy this time. A lady tipped me off; a terrible pretty blond lady.” Helen winced. “’Bout as much of a tip-off as I needed, anyway,” continued Jim softly. “Y’know, Johnny, things occur awful funny sometimes. I happened to drift into the Starnes offices just after you left, and would you believe it, the list of bond numbers that old bird had didn’t tally with the bonds at all. It was real peculiar. So I just suggested that they hold 'em there a while for the bookkeeper to enter 'em up. Y'know, a banker ought to be more careful than Starnes was. He never knows when he's li’ble to get gypped.” He turned toward the door. “Yeh, Johnny, if I was you I’d stay on the safe side of things. You've lost your touch, son—lost it complete.”
Helen of Troy stared at herand he returned her gaze with one equally miserable. Jim Hanvey posed heavily in the doorway, the fingers of his right hand fiddling with his massive watch chain. He regarded them benignly. Then he blinked with maddening slowness.
“Didn't you come to me, Helen, an’ ask me to keep Johnny from goin’ crooked?”
“Well,” drawled the big man, “I only done what you asked me, didn't I?