Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 5

VTHE UNDERWORLD INTRUDES.

It came completely out of the blue. Ten minutes to twelve, noon, was the time; and no doings could have been more dull and drab than mine the minute before the buzzer under my desk rattled my "personal" call. This meant my private wire, which did not run through the office switchboard and which had no published number in the telephone book; so, when my buzzer jerked, Miss Severns always left the call to me and quietly rose and vanished from my room.

She always acted as though I owned some enormous, private intrigue into which her ear must not pry, whereas the truth was that line never carried any conversation more bizarre than my mother's voice reminding me to meet Aunt Charlotte on the Lake Shore Limited; or perhaps mother wanted to be sure I had my rubbers; or else Jim Townsend might be after me for a round of golf at Indian Hill. Consequently I liked the compliment of Miss Severns's silent disappearance; but I bet she knew the truth. Anyway, now she got out and so I was there alone.

I had nothing at all on my mind; I had been just finishing a letter to Red Wing about those five carloads of Minnesota potatoes which we had found somewhat nipped by frost and I'd begun the phrasing, in my head, of a crisp, businesslike note to Baraboo, Wisconsin, about a shipment of presumably dried lima beans which must have been caught in the rain somewhere. From which you may gather that Austin Fanneal and Company are wholesalers, packers, canners and jobbers of food; a sound profitable business and socially absolutely all right in Chicago, but still it's not the most enthralling pursuit here. I must admit it had its dull spots, even for me; but I was up to my eyes in it; for, as I've mentioned, I was the only child; father was over sixty; and I knew that some day I must carry on. So there I was cheerily concentrating on the most polite yet effective phrase for telling the Baraboo commission house that their beans had got wet; and the world was to me a wan expanse of farmers dragging bean vines, Wisconsin warehouses, city grocery stores and delicatessens and flat buildings full of clamorous families shrieking for food. Then that buzz; Miss Severns on her feet and out of the office; the door shut and, as I spoke, I heard Jerry's voice:

"Steve!"

"Old fellow, hello! Where are you?"

That was a foolish question, I knew before I got it out. He disregarded it entirely.

"Put your mind on Winton Scofield, Steve. Don't let him ride home in his own car to-night; make him take a taxi."

"Why?" I cut in before taking time to think. Of course, Jerry could not tell me. It was perfectly plain from his voice that, wherever he was, he had only a few seconds in which to speak to me; and if anything was plainer, it was that his situation precluded explanations.

"Make him!" Jerry repeated quickly. "And don't let him know he's being made. Don't say a word of this to any one, whatever happens!"

And the wire at the other end went dead; but I continued to hold the receiver until central's voice briskly inquired, "Number, please?"

So I hung up and sat staring down on the pile of correspondence about potatoes and beans and canned cherries; but my world was no waste of brown bean stalks and pickley delicatessen shops; nor was my world the usual dreary array of my own social sort,—those who have big homes on the Lake Shore Drive and on Astor Street and in Winnetka and Lake Forest; who have coveys of servants, of course, and put up a parade of cars and clubs and country places and everything else that looks impressive from outside but inside is duller than Deuteronomy.

They've pretty sets of silver and gold things about, naturally; and they've a good deal of platinum, too, with diamonds and rubies and sapphires and those green stones—oh, emeralds—stuck in. They've big bank accounts and a lot of other venal environment too tiresome to give you a thrill until you hear, all of a sudden, it has unduly tempted a gentleman from a stratum quite different but yet extremely adjacent to your own and the gentleman is likely to use some exceedingly direct, not to say personal, methods of getting your environment—and you.

For that was what Jerry's call meant. Win Scofield's name had crept to the top of somebody's board in the free society of the gentlemen—and their lady friends—of the "gat" and the "soup job," the "Hunk" and the "bump off"; in that region, where Jerry had gone, Winfield Scofield's number was "up"; he had been chalked for a "croaking." And as I sat there staring and wondering why and how, suddenly I ceased to have difficulty in thinking red hair, instead of yellow, upon Christina, the riverside companion of Keeban. I "placed" her and knew her name and her association and where I had met her; for she was Winton Scofield's wife. Of course she was; that was it! What an extension of the underworld into the polite world of my own!

Of course I realized that, as Jerry had said, I was thinking like a child; for the underworld's not a compact, separate region; its territory is wherever its citizens set foot; and this may be at your office door? At the threshold of your servant's hall? On the step of your town car? Who knows? For obviously it's not a place at all but a contact, an association, a habit of conduct, an attitude toward life and, more than incidentally, toward death. Why should I be surprised that a citizeness had staked out a claim in the Scofield mansion?

I tried not to be. "Old Win Scofield!" I thought. He was sitting secure, if any one was, you'd say. But somewhere else Jerry was sitting in on fate; he'd seen Win Scofield's number come up to the top of the rack at Keeban's club; and his 'phoning me meant that an unusual job was up. For Jerry had told me he would pick and choose and not try to stop a job, unless it was a good one.

"Say not a word to any one," he'd told me; I took that to mean not to say he'd warned me. It couldn't mean that I wasn't to get information. So I took up my 'phone and called Fred, who was my particular friend in the Scofield family.

Winton, the old man, was his father; of course Christina, of the alterable hair, wasn't Fred's mother; she was his father's fourth, or fifth wife.

There was rather a lot of unpaid publicity about him when he got her; and it turned on him, rather than on her, because he'd fallen for that rejuvenation operation and, of course, he tried to have it secret.

Naturally the newspapers learned and, as a result, Win Scofield fled the town as soon as the hospital let him out. As secretly as possible—that is, with only a few friends besides newspapapermen and film news service photographers present—he'd married Shirley Fendon, a girl he'd met at a cabaret. Of course, being sixty-seven or so and she twenty-two, he took her to Paris; but recently he'd slunk back to his home city.

Now it had never occurred to me until this moment that, in the general excitement over Winton's rejuvenation, nobody asked much about Shirley. The spotlight simply wasn't swung her way.

There she was where several wives—three or four, I couldn't remember—had been before her and where, if rejuvenation really meant a return to old Win's youth, several more would stand again.

The sons—they were Kenyon and Fred, about my own age and both by the original Mrs. Winton Scofield—astutely realized this and did a little deal in self-defense. They took over the grain business, when the old man was honeymooning, retiring father on an income, leaving him no vote or interest in the firm which a wife, past or present or future, could attach.

Perhaps this had something to do with his floating back to Chicago; perhaps his present wife worked that for purposes about to become plainer.

I arranged for Fred to lunch with me and, as tactfully as possible, I brought up the subject of father.

When you've a pater who's been flattered with the spread of news print that had been lavished on Winton Scofield, he's a bit difficult to mention; but I managed to drift in a remark about him and I certainly detonated something. Fred had been storing too much inside of him concerning father and had required only the gentlest tap on the fuse to cause him to explode.

"Isn't he absolutely ludicrous!" Fred shot at me. "Age, damn it, Steve, age is no disgrace. It ought to be the noblest, most dignified stage of a man's development. What does Shakespeare say about age, 'His silver hairs will purchase good opinion!' And Byron——"

I let him rave on as it seemed to relieve him; I knew he wasn't talking to me so much as he was rehearsing father.

"—he dyed his silver hairs twenty years back; and about the time the tango came in, he began pumping his face full of paraffin. Occasionally some of it slipped down in his cheek toward his chin.—Now I suppose you've heard of his rejuvenation operation."

I thought for a while and admitted that I had. "Wasn't it a success?" I ventured.

"A howling one—with father. He's so young now he shouldn't be married, legally, not having his parents' consent. He ought to go back and start over at Andover Academy; in about four years, he'll be ready for Yale once more. Young? We're the old men, Ken and me, Steve! He's sure he's just fifteen; well, he surely acts it."

After this, I felt I could inquire, without seeming too personal, "How's he getting along with his new wife?"

Fred jumped. "Good God! He hasn't married again since yesterday morning? I saw him then and——"

"No," I said. "I meant Shirley Fendon."

"Oh, you call her new?" Fred comprehended my peculiar point of view. "He's had her going on three months now."

"There's trouble between them?" I persisted.

"Of course," said Fred, "being twenty-two, she's a little old for him, but they do bunny-dip beautifully together."

"Who was she?" I kept after Fred.

"Who? Shirley? Why, you just said her name; Shirley Fendon she was."

"Wasn't that just her cabaret name?" I inquired.

"Well," said Fred cautiously, "why go back of that? We were willing not to."

"You've met any of her friends?"

Fred shook his head. "That, at least, has been spared us."

I steered the talk around so I could ask after a while, "Your father goes down to business now?"

"You bet not! We see to that."

"Then what does he do?"

"When he manages to break away from Shirley? Well, in spite of his youth, he keeps up with some of his old friends; he likes his rubbers of bridge, you know; so every other evening or so you'll find the young chap down at the club at his old place among the unrejuvenated."

"To-night, for instance?"

"Friday; let's see," Fred considered. "Yes; he'll be there to-night; why?"

Of course I didn't tell him and I was more careful with my next remarks which finally drew out the information that, on the nights when he played bridge, Shirley, his wife—Christina, that was—herself drove down with the chauffeur to bring him home.

That made one thing clear to me, which was that the ride which Winton Scofield must not take in his car to-night was the ride he would take with his wife. I wanted to tell it all to Fred; but Jerry had warned me not to.

I was feeling quite comfortable over Jerry that day; I figured he must be all right or he'd never have 'phoned me that warning. When I returned to my office, I merely went through the motions of business while I was waiting, really, for Jerry to call me again; but he did not. So I set to working up a simple, obvious sort of scheme that any one, in my place, might resort to. Likely enough, I thought, Jerry would be satisfied with such a scheme; he would expect about that much of me.

I'd found out from Fred that his father's bridge game broke up after eleven; so at ten that night, to make my plan sure, I took my roadster up through Lincoln Park and then up Sheridan Road to the big, new home of Win Scofield.

He's had a new one for each new wife, each farther north by a mile or so than the one just before; and as I went by them (the houses not the wives, unless they happened to be in them) I checked up my count; four before Shirley Fendon's.

She'd worked old Win for a wide, low, long shack of stone with plenty of plate glass and colored decoration; stunning probably was the word for it. The expense was patent. I didn't know then that title to land and building was in Fred and Ken; they were simply letting Win live in the house on an allowance which certainly must have been liberal.

The house had one front on the lake and another on the boulevard; and at one end was a two-car garage. I parked my car below the house, went by on foot and, looking into the garage, saw both cars within.

It was easy to see, under the half-raised shades and between the curtains of the house, that the mistress of the mansion was at home.