The Breath of Scandal/Chapter 9


WHAT had happened was that Russell had reappeared. Not about Clearedge Street; for he was not quite bold enough to show himself there yet; but he had returned to his haunts a little farther south in the city where Cuncliffe's salesman, Nyman, had first heard of him and in the neighborhood of the particular private still with which Russell previously had established a connection. And the cause of Gregg's absence from his office, was that Gregg had been looking for him in that vicinity, for it was just the sort of place where a man who had shot some one else—and who couldn't be sure yet whether he'd be taken up for it or whether he could make big money out of it—would feel his way about for a while.

Gregg learned of the place from Nyman and had refrained from reporting his plans not only to Billy but also to Rinderfeld; for Gregg knew Rinderfeld well enough by that time to become certain that Rinderfeld, knowing what Gregg did, would have insisted upon relieving him—or at least upon reinforcing him—with a professional handler of men like Russell; and Gregg would not have that; first, because he had, himself, to do something violent and effective for Marjorie in these days; and second, he wanted to determine what, and how much of it, was to be done.

The place was one of those bright glass front and dingy clapboard-side saloons, with rattan screen and swinging doors just inside and with black, sour-smelling floor and long oak bar behind the screen and, in back, a fair-sized, liquor-and-tobacco-reeking room with six round tables and a couple of small, one-table private rooms opening off it. "Kilkerry's" was the name in raised, partly peeled gilt letters on the board over the door from which the draft beer advertisement and the formal "Ale and Porter" plate had been torn in deference to the eighteenth amendment; but everybody knew what Kilkerry's served. It was only for decency's sake that he let his name peel and his clapboards blister; when clearing four times the profit on bad whiskey and gin you ever rung up on good, only the foolish man would forget to look as though he were sunk to ruin on sarsaparillas and vichy waters.

Across those cigar-scorched, dented tabletops Russell had made his original boasts to his companions that he would get satisfaction or Hale; and the patrons of Kilkerry's, having read in the newspapers of the sudden illness of the general manager of Tri-Lake Products and Material Corporation on the same night that Russell disappeared, put two and two together, audibly and often; and openly they announced the answer.

"Sick!" puffed one Simmons, from a chair where, he said, Russell had sat when he, Simmons, occupied the seat Gregg was in. "I bet that bird took sick sudden! The —— —— ——. What's matter wi' Russell, damn fool? Doesn't he want to collect? Struck oil somewhere, has he? Maybe Uncle Bim died and he don't need no money. Not a peep in the papers, d'you see that? Hale's sick; that's all they dare tell. Say, can Georgie Russell collect?"

So Simmons expected Russell back; all the regulars at Kilkerry's expected him; for there he had boasted; there he would come to gloat when he considered it safe. At first Gregg looked in at Kilkerry's only a couple of times a day and, between visits, made a few perfunctory calls on possible prospects for refrigeration systems; occasionally he dropped into the gymnasium of an expugilist, a middleweight, who struck hard and taunted his pupils to hit harder. Gregg had boxed a little in college and when in the army; but he was not wasting time brushing up on boxing now. He wanted only the swing of a hit and to regain the knack of taking a blow.

When he became more of a regular at Kilkerry's, he noticed another stranger who was in the process of regularizing himself, also,—a heavy man, tall as Gregg and twice as thick through. He bought just a bit too freely for others, and talked not quite enough, Gregg thought; but nobody else seemed suspicious of the fellow who made himself known by the name of Hershy.

Happening not to be at Kilkerry's when Russell reported, Gregg came into the back room about seven o'clock one evening to find them all together—Simmons and seven or eight of the other regulars, Hershy, who was buying just then, and a big, black-haired, black-browed man who must be Russell. Sybil Russell had chosen physically powerful men, Gregg thought, when he looked over this man who was big as Hale and much younger and with large, strong hands showing black hair on the wrists. Hershy was handing him raw, yellow whiskey and already Russell was drunk; Simmons was spluttering drunk. Hershy was pretending to be drunk.

They had reached the stage in which they were proclaiming Russell as a great moral agent:

"You showed 'im, eh, Georgie! You put 'im in the hospital, I'll say—teach 'im to hang 'round home for a change—teach 'im the ten commandments."

Russell gestured with a great hand for a chance to speak and his voice rose alone. "Did I do right, boys?"

"Eah! Yeah! Do 'im right now, Georgie. Hold 'im up! Tell 'im you've come back to give yourself to the police for shootin' 'im; charge 'im five thousand not to—— And 'ave it on your conscience for five thousand, George? Tell 'im ten and cheap at the price! Heh! Forget the shootin'; go back of it. Sue 'im for alienation of affection—never mind when he met her—say it was whenever you want—he'll pay before he'll 'ave anybody find out why he was at the 'ospital."

Simmons pulled Gregg into the group and pounded his back and Gregg pounded other backs in the celebration over the return of Russell to clean up; his friends were for him and no one was more inseparable from him than Hershy.

Indeed, Hershy evidently wanted Russell all to himself; he bought another round of colored alcohol and Simmons ceased even to splutter; a couple of the others got sleepy and Hershy started leading Russell away. That suited Gregg well enough, especially when he found that Russell refused to let Hershy push him into the cab which Hershy had waiting. It seemed Russell had been arrested once and taken to the station in a cab; Hershy was not quick enough to abandon his original plan, and Russell became frightened and suspicious of him.

"Wha'ziz man want o' me?" Russell appealed, grabbing hold of Gregg's arm. "I ask you, have I ever done anything but right? Was I justified or not?"

Gregg did not make the mistake of trying to lead him; he merely let Russell keep his hold and walked on away from Hershy's cab, leaving Hershy nothing to do but follow when they turned down an alley in the next square beyond Kilkerry's.

It was dark there behind the buildings and nobody about; it was as good a place as could be found for settlement of differences with Hershy, representing—so Gregg was sure—Stanway and polite business blackmail, even lower in its essential than the ugly affair Russell's friends advised.

"Get along, Hershy," said Gregg. "You're not invited."

"Yeah!" agreed Russell. "Get along!"

Hershy's hand came down on Gregg's shoulder and tried to pull him from Russell. Gregg squared around and Hershy struck him on the side of the head.

Gregg's right arm went down; his knees bent; all at once he got together; his arm came up hooked; his knees straightened; and as his whole body was thrusting up, the heavy hulk of Russell's weight slipped off his left side and Gregg almost leaped as he struck Hershy's jaw and knocked Hershy's head back and dropped him in the alley.

"Ka-yo!" gurgled Russell with delight. "Ka-yo! Prop him up and hitimagain."

But Hershy was propping himself up; he was not knocked out, for he moved, feeling for a gun, maybe, Gregg thought, as he got Russell quickly past an ash barrel, up through an area, and went out on the street, with Russell lolling on him in maudlin admiration.

He had to endure the admiration as he supported the big man along. Where? Gregg had never had any too definite destination; now none of those which he had tentatively fixed on satisfied him. He wanted to take Russell far away, as the first consideration; and he had seen the result of Hershy's attempt to get him into a motor car.

The puffing and bell of a switch engine caught Gregg's ear; a headlight gleamed across the street and gates went down with warning clangor. When Gregg brought Russell to the crossing, he started down beside the tracks without positive intention at first; chiefly he was keeping Russell moving and interested. Then he observed that they were beside a string of box cars, empty probably, which were being made up into a train for return to the west. One car had the door open and, halting, Russell thrust both his hands in the straw on the floor of the car; then, exerting his strength, he sprang up and thrust himself into the car.

The fellow could have had no purpose but, perhaps, to lie down in the straw and sleep; for that was what he did. Gregg, satisfied, got into the car and sat beside him. In a few minutes came the shock and jangle which told that the engine had picked up this string of cars; the train started and, as the car passed the city street lamps, streaks of light entered the door, slowly swept over Gregg and the sleeping form of Russell and left them in the dark again. Then the train gathered speed; the clanging over crossings ceased and the streaks of light were rare and dim; the train was out of the city and, evidently a fast, through freight, would make few stops. The train crew apparently were unaware that any one was in this car; when a brakeman passed on top he never halted and no one had looked into the door.

For Gregg's purpose with Russell, he could hardly have chosen a better place; yet Gregg, as he reviewed that purpose, never doubted it so much as now. He had heard that Russell was big and strong, yet he had not expected quite all the man he had found; and Russell, when he awoke from this stupored sleep, undoubtedly would be ugly; also he would be rested while Gregg now dared not rest. He had to sit up and watch.

There were other ways to do for Russell, Gregg could not help thinking; but only one sporting one,—one way, that was, in which Gregg Mowbry could do it, or try to do it, and live with himself afterward. If he failed, probably he wouldn't live at all, so there was no use bothering about that. Though he had said nothing to any one else about what he had taken on, he had taken it on with himself; and he wasn't going to quit. So, as the night went darker and colder, he sat beside Russell and watched him. Once Gregg felt over him, found a loaded revolver—likely the one with which Russell had shot Mr. Hale, Gregg thought—and he broke it, strewed the shells beside the track and tossed the weapon down into a river. Then, thinking of Marjorie and of Billy and of Mr. Hale and Mrs. Russell and Marjorie again—Marjorie—he sat on the floor beside Russell and waited for him to wake.