NEVER TRUST A DAME
HE SANDED the last speck of paint off the ladder-back and straightened up with a grunt. He was a fat man and the exertion had made him gasp for breath. He settled back in the large well-padded chair covered with black leather.
The big chair was wide and rugged, the one thing in the cellar that could hold him. Certainly the ladder-back could not. Ladder-backs such as this were made, not to be sat upon by him, but to be sold. They were made for slenderness and grace, for the grace of some very old room, blue Staffordshire in a mellow-wooded cupboard, dark sheen of pewter under candle flame, a tall clock, perhaps, to tick off time with a rest rained tick. There was such a clock, surplus of his cluttered shop upstairs, within a yard of him, yet he fell alien to it. lie supposed it was not altogether a matter of size. One’s pedigree, too. The clock had pedigree.
He heard the ringing of tin* shop doorbell and, close upon it, a high-pitched chattering. He arose and waddled to the stairway. The chattering grew shriller. He called, “Quiet, Sheba!” but it continued. He heaved his massive body upward,
paused for breath at the top of the stairs, then entered the parlor of the Hat. in the rear of the shop and switched on a light. The chattering came from a small cage on the floor, beside another leathercovered chair, twin of the one downstairs. The cage contained a monkey, a rhesus, one of those imitative little beasts beloved of organ grinders.
The antique dealer raised a finger to his lips and Sheba, entranced by the movement, quieted, raising a paw to her tiny muzzle. For a moment t hey had the conspiratorial look of two children who, in the act. of looting a pantry, hear a step outside the door.
The monkey watched him with shrewd eyes as he lumbered toward the shop entrance. She was the one tiling he would never sell. She had ridden into the shop one day on the shoulder of a merchant seaman newly arrived from India, who had said
there was something in the window, a string of beads, that was just the thing for his girl.
The antique dealer peered through a slit in the Venetian blind covering the entrance door, then turned the knob and pulled the door open. He said, “Good evening.”
THE man who entered was of medium build, X grey-eyed, his age uncertain, possessed of that faculty of being seen but not observed nor easily remembered. The two things that would have lent him color, a .38-calibre revolver and a small goldplated shield with the words “Police Captain” inscribed upon if in blue, he kept, from sight. To produce one or t he other, even when it was necessary to do so, never ceased to embarrass him. He said to the fat man, “1 think we’re in for some rain, Gerhardt.”
“Never say ‘think,’ ” Gerhardt replied. “Say ‘suspect.’ It’s more in your line.”
The captain made no reply. He followed Gerhardt into the parlor. The antique dealer motioned him to a chair beside a small cherry-wood gate-leg and the captain sal down and took off his fedora. Sheba, watching him, doffed an imaginary hat.
Gerhardt went to a liquor cabinet and produced a glass and a bottle encased in straw. He filled the
Carefully Whitey planned to be two places at once, in his cell — in the shop of a man he wanted to kill
glass and handed it to his visitor. “You will have to drink alone, Captain Donnelly. My physician has put me on a diet. No alcohol, no starches, no tobacco— one long grey string of self-denials. Bui if I don’t humor him I face an even greyer prospect. Sudden death—Lord knows where— some gutter, perhaps the floor of a subway car. There’s an advantage in dying by inches. At least one dies comfortably. Just why have you come?”
“To remind you about Whitey. He gets out on parole next Thursday.”
“I needed no reminder.”
“He has it in for you.”
“You slipped him a double cross and he’s slipping you a hullet. Take my advice and leave town.” “Take mine and change stool pigeons.”
“The guy we got it from— ”
“— Was a hophead. I am quoting you verbatim.” “Hophead or not, he heard Whitey sound off. They were cell mates during Whitey’s trial.”
“Believe me, captain, if there were one iota of truth to the story, I should have folded my tent and fled long ago. Valor was never my long suit.”
“I still say Whitey— ”
“Perhaps this will reassure you.” Gerhardt drew a letter from his coat pocket and handed it to the captain. It was written in pencil, in a cramped handwriting. It said:
Well, a couple of more weeks and I’ll be free. Free and broke. I’m going to try and go straight, as I told you, but I’ll have to leave town. Otherwise Donnelly and Company will be dogging me. You know how cops are with ex-cons.
So I’ll need dough. Could you lend me five hundred, to get me out on the Coast and give me a start? You’re the only one I have to turn to, the only friend who stuck. I know this is asking a lot, but please see what you can do. Drop me a line and let me know.
Your old pal,
P.S. Give my regards to Sheba.
When Donnelly had finished reading the letter, Gerhardt said, “Does that sound like a man nursing a grudge?”
Donnelly shrugged. “You lending him five hundred?”
Donnelly smiled bleakly. “What’s he got on you?” “Memory. We grew up together, you know. The same street, the same poverty, the same sordid boyhood. Only I saw the light and he didn’t. While I was working my way through college, he attended the Reformatory and was graduated—cum laude. I must confess, though, your concern for my welfare touches me. Deeply.”
After his visitor had gone, there was still a chore or two waiting in the cellar but Gerhardt chose to remain upstairs. The visit had left a bad taste. In his present mood the cellar would be dismal. He opened the drawer of the gate-leg and took or., a cigar box. It had been all of two weeks since he had smoked. Surely, doctor, one fall from grace in two weeks will not be fatal.
Fatal. Unpleasant word, that. A word out of police blotters, a word for newspapers, a word for Whitey. Almost savagely he bit oil the end of the cigar. He lit it and sat down and wrapped himself in a fragrant cloud.
Futile. Whitey was not to be smoked out that easily. Good Heavens, Gerhardt thought, am I developing a conscience? That would he fatal! He smiled wryly' No. This wasn’t conscience. This was fear. And not without foundation. Whitey had reason to kill him. Or had he? Come, my fat friend, get a grip on yourself, relax, breathe in the sweet forbidden fumes and recapitulate . . .
In her cage, Sheba smoked an imaginary cigar.
IT CAME back to him at first in a kind of jumble, like an old film revived, not a bad film, either. He unreeled it again and again and at last it came back properly, clear, not a thing left out. Police headquarters, five years ago, a cell and Whitey in it, Whitey’s lean and ageless face, thin fingers pushing through the ash-blond mop of hair, smile tough, eyes trying to be tough but not quite succeeding. Whitey saying:
“Donnelly’s throwing t he book at me, Gerhardt.
Robbery. Assault with intent to kill. A couple of others I don’t remember. He says I’m in for a stretch. But. he’s nuts. I’ll never go up. Not with Burke defending me.”
“Burke comes high.”
“You’re telling me? He wanted ten G’s. Said he needed half of it. to fix the jury. But I talked him down to eight.”
“And where do you propose to get the eight?”
Whitey told him where, a meadow two miles east of the city, just oil the highway; a few trees, lots of weeds and a big sign saying: “Fine Factory Site for Sale.” The sign had been saying it for years and would say it for many more. A good place for a cache. Gerhardt went there that night and dug and found the metal box and forced it open and ran his trembling fingers in those days eight, thousand dollars could give him palsy—among the cold damp wads of paper.
Gerhardt went back to Whitey, but without the money. He explained thiit the box was gone, some tramp apparently had stumbled on it. He even pictured the ashes of a tramp’s fire, broken bottles strewn about it, and rusted cans. A plausible story
convincingly told, and Whitey had believed it. At least so Gerhardt, thought, until Donnelly appeared with his first warning: “Whitey’s sore.
Says you double-crossed him. Better duck.”
But Gerhardt had reasoned: “My story was flawless. Simple and logical. It is only because Whitey is incapable of logic t hat he doubts it. Even if the story was true, he would doubt it. He is beyond logic. Sore. Sore at the world, the world outside his walls, sore at. me because 1 am part of that world. Wait. Wait until he’s cooled off. Then talk to him. Go over it, step by step. Logic. Perhaps a dash of sentiment, too. Reminiscences of boyhood, reminder of our long friendship. Pull out all the stops.”
And so Gerhardt waited, and Whitey cooled off, and in the hour they spoke, whispers through a wire screen, Whitey’s doubts tottered and fell . . .
Í^ERHARDT smiled into the swirl of blue smoke.
F There is nothing to fear, nothing. Donnelly’s an old woman. No, just a cop. And coplike he wants peace, the peace of the detective squad room, big flat feet by a brass spittoon and conversation on a low plane: what horse was scratched, what horse would win, who’d cop the pennant; no corpses to confound him. Galm yourself, captain. When 1 die, I shall die of a surfeit of Havana, not a bullet. He nodded his head over his reverie.
As he did so, Sheba in her cage mimicked him with the same movement of her head.
WHITEY raised himself on an elbow in his bunk and listened to the night sounds of Block I): snores, footsteps of (he guard, clink of the guard’s keys, Spinelli moaning. Spineili always moaned in his sleep. He was doing three to six for assaulting and robbing his father.
Whitey reached under the bunk and drew an assortment of odds and ends which he regarded with pride. They were all, so to speak, local products, not one smuggled in from “the outside.” The tightly compressed hank of clothesline came from the laundry, the spool of heavy black thread from the garment mill, the sharpened spoon from the mess hall, the big hook from the metal-shop scrap pile. He was particularly proud of the hook. It had taken him nearly three months to shape. It was covered now with a padding made of potatobag burlap held in place with strips of adhesive tape. Also under the bunk were a mound of cement and another of sand, carried to the cell in his pockets, a little at a time, from a road project. These last he left untouched.
He removed his pyjamas and dressed. He rolled up the pyjamas with one of the blankets, bunched up the pillow and arranged them so that when Olsen glanced into the cell he would think a man lay in the bunk.
He tied the hook to the rope, stuck the hank under his !>elt, put thread and spoon in his pocket, and faced the window. There were two bars, one firmly embedded, the other not. Seven years ago one of Whitey’s predecessors had sawed away a bar and escaped. A new bar had l>een cemented into place, but patient digging with the spoon had loosened it, so that a tug or two was all that was required to remove it. Two quick strides, a
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leap, and Whitey’s hands were gripping the sill. He pulled himself up onto it and looked out. Thirty feet below lay the recreation yard, the big light slowly sweeping it. Atop the yard wall was a tower containing one guard. At a point above and behind Whitey was t he central tower, three guards in it and the big light. It took the light about a minute and a half to encircle the prison. It covered everything, everything, that is, except the building wall in which Whitey’s window was situated.
Whitey worked the loose bar free, laid it on the sill beside him. He unk not ted the hank of clothesline, an-
chored the hook on the sill and unwound the line into the yard. Then he unwound the thread, looping it around the bar that remained in the window. When the spool was entirely unwound, both ends of the thread rested on the ground.
He squeezed out the window and twisted into a sitting position, like a window cleaner, upper part of his body outside, legs dangling inside. He picked the bar up from the sill and put it back in its holes.
He started down the rope. The descent was almost leisurely. There was no cell directly under him, and he was safe from the light and safe from Peters, the guard in the wall tower. Peters had been fixed. A verbal IOU.
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Whitey’s feet struck earth. He jerked at the rope and the hook came off the sill and he caught it. He coiled up the rope. Then he tied the spoon to the two thread ends hanging from the window. The spoon would keep the thread from blowing around in case a wind came up.
He waited until the yard went dark—it would stay dark fifty or so seconds, not much morethen broke into a run. When he got to t he wall, he paid out some of the rope and heaved the hook upward. Encased as it was in burlap, it made no sound when it struck the wall’s top. He pulled. But the hook had failed to catch. He tried again. It caught.
He climbed to the top, readjusted the hook and started down the other side. But the hook, with the vicious perversity of the inanimate, slipped suddenly and the rope seemed to dissolve in his hands. He plunged. He struck the ground hard, felt his right ankle twist, felt pain stab it. He rolled over and over.
He sat up and wriggled his toes and there was more pain. Sprained, he figured. He managed to get up on his left foot and slowly lowered the right until it touched the ground. The touch hurt. But he found, after a few minutes, that the injured ankle could take some of his weight, enough to let him limp, anyway.
AHEAD was the park. It looked . deserted. Distantly he saw street lights. He limped along a walk paralleling the wall until he came to a turn and a bush. He got down on his knees and felt around under the bush. The clothes Peters had promised were there: suit, shirt, tie, gloves. There was also five dollars, a dollar of it in silver. He changed his clothes— the suit, wasn’t a bad fit— and stowed uniform, hook and rope under the bush.
He emerged from the park and walked a block, pain stabbing him with each step, until he came to a knot of people gathered at a trolley stop; factory workers, judging from their dress and their lunch boxes. There was a girl among them, a brunette, small and slim. Whitey sidled closer to her and caught the odor of her, perfume and youth, faint but disturbing.
He found a seat in front, opposite the little brunette. She caught him looking at her and averted her eyes, but smiled. She’d be easy to pick up. And why not? He wasn’t a bad-looking guy, especially with the sunburn. It was as good a tan as you could pick up in Florida. You could always tell the cons who were getting out. Always hanging around the sunny side of the yard.
The trolley car rolled into the business district. He pulled the bell cord and went to the rear door and the trolley stopped and he got off. He went into a candy store and told the man behind the counter he wanted a toy cap pistol for the kid. The man showed him one for fifty cents. It was tinny, small. He said no, the kid wanted something that looked real. You know kids. The man showed him another. It looked real, all right. Felt real, too. It cost a dollar ninety-eight. He put it in his pocket and went out and boarded another trolley and at last he was back —the same old street, the antique shop, and, as usual, not a cop in sight. He had only one worry now. Gerhardt might not be in. But he had to be. A fence always was in at night. He had to be.
C'1 ERHARDT’S voice contained just JF the right amount of warmth. “Well, this is a surprise. I didn’t expect you until— ”
“Can I come in?”
“Of course, of course.” Gerhardt stepped aside and Whitey hobbled into the shop. Gerhardt said, “What’s wrong with your foot?”
“Nothin’ much. Just a twist.”
There was a silence Gerhardt found awkward. He said, “A week early, aren’t you? Or did I get my dates mixed?”
“You got your dates right.”
“I went over the wall.”
Gerhardt said after a moment, “I see. They revoked your parole.”
“No. it still stands.”
“Do you mean to tell me a man in full possession of his senses would escape”
“Suppose they don’t know I escaped?”
“Go on. You intrigue me.”
“I’ll be back in my cell before midnight, and nobody knows it but you -you and the guard I fixed. An alibi, see? Airtight.”
“Alibi for what?”
“This.” Whitey’s pocket moved upward and forward, revealing the outline of the toy gun.
GERHARDT stared at it, as if hypnotized. Suddenly he flung out a hand and caught the wall and leaned against it. The familiar roaring was in his ears now, but magnified, a thousand sea shells all going at once, the sea itself, smashing against rock. Gradually it changed, to a thud, a drumming. Whitey said something but it went unheard. For Gerhardt now only one sound existed, the drumming of his heart.
Whitey said, “What’s the matter?” “High blood pressure. My doctor warned me.” Gerhardt’s voice rose to the doctor’s elderly falsetto. “ ‘No worries, no excitement. Excitement will be the death of you.’ ”
Whitey smiled. “He’s a lousy doctor.”
“So I surmised. I presume, before you pull that trigger, you’re going to tell me what this is all about. Frankly, I’m curious.”
“It’s about eight G’s. Remember?” “Eight ? Oh. That. I thought—” “You thought 1 fell for your spiel. But 1 didn’t.”
“Tell me, Whitey, do you take me for the sort of man who would risk his life for a paltry eight thousand dollars?”
“Not now, maybe. But you would then. And you did. And this is the pay-off.”
“Not much of a pay-off, is it? I mean in terms of dollars and cents.” Whitey’s eyes narrowed. “You selling something?”
“Buying. My life. Will you make a deal?”
“You and your deals!”
“Take my word for it, Whitey, murder is spinach. But. cash on the line—” “How much?”
“You’re forgetting the interest.” “Interest on what?”
“Five years in jail.”
“Very well. Ten thousand.” Whitey’s laugh was mirthless. “Once a fence always a fence.”
“Do I look like the Treasury Department?”
“No. You look like a big fat corpse.” “Forty. And that’s my limit. Unless - ” Gerhardt smiled— “you’re willing to take a note.”
“I’ll take the forty. But make it fast. I’ve been horsing around here long enough.”
Gerhardt went over to Sheba’s cage
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and, not. without protest from its occu-
pant, pushed it aside, disclosing a wall
safe. He got down on one knee and
twirled the dial. As he did so, the
monkey above went through the same
motions in exaggerated pantomime.
; “Step on it,” Whitey said.
J fTIHERE was a click. Gerhardt X opened the circular door and thrust in his hand. At that precise moment the butt of the toy gun came swinging down on his head, with shattering force, again and again.
Whitey peeled off a glove, bent over the fat man and took hold of his wrist. No more blood pressure.
WHITEY, Gerhardt’ssuitcase in his hand, thirty-eight thousand dollars in it, two thousand more in his pockets, the two G’s he had promised Peters, hobbled to the sewer, looked up and down the street, saw no one, drew the gun from his pocket, and flipped it. He heard its splash, the muffled clink of it as it struck bottom. He rounded the corner.
His next stop, the railroad station, was only six blocks away. He took a streetcar.
The six blocks dragged by. He got off. He entered the station. He went over to the glass door of the baggage room and looked in. His luck was holding. Crowded. He entered and put the suitcase on the counter and one of the baggage clerks took it and gave him a stub. He limped out, paused to look at the clock over the information desk. Ten-forty. Plenty of time.
NOW he was in the recreation yard, a prisoner again. He said okay, on your mark, get set, go, and never mind the ankle. He ran brokenly, every stride a sledge-hammer blow against the injured foot. He reached the building wall with not a second to spare. He leaned against it, panting and watching the light and feeling no triumph in what he had just done, just ache, ache, ache.
When he had regained his breath, he jerked the spoon off the thread ends. Good thing he’d thought of the thread gag. The cell window was too small, too distant a target for the hook. He tied the rope to one thread and pulled on the other, and the rope slithered up to the window bar, slid around it it and came down to him.
Two rope ends hanging down now, the hook attached to one. He grasped them and slowly ascended, hand over hand. Perched on the sill, he hauled in the rope. He hooked the hook to the sill, dropped the line into the cell, removed the loose bar, squeezed through the aperture and lowered himself to the cell floor. He heard Olsen’s loud “Gin!” and the chef beefing. Spinelli was being quiet for a change.
He brought handfuls of sand and cement from under the bunk to the washbasin and turned the faucet on to a barely audible trickle and kneaded the mixture into lumps. He plugged the holes in the window and sank the bar into place.
Descending again, he w'hipped the hook off the sill. He coiled up the rope and threw it under the bunk.
He washed his hands, undressed, put on his pyjamas, hung up his uniform, rearranged the bunk, lay down. He tried lying flat on his back. The ankle ached. He tried lying on his side. It ached that way, too. He tried lying with the foot hanging over the bunk’s edge. N.G.
Some cold water, that might help.
He found his handkerchief and hopped to the basin and turned on the water.
He put on one cold application after
another and finally some of the ache left him. He returned to the bunk.
He fell into a doze, awakened soon after, the ache with him again. He got up and started for the basin, but his sound foot hit a wet spot and he slipped. Clutching wildly for support but getting none, he went down, all his weight on the wrong foot. He yelled.
He sat there, sick, hearing footsteps approach and not caring. A flashlight ray shot through the door bars and fell on him. Olsen said, “What’s the matter?”
“You ain’t gonna tell me your ankle svvole up that fast.”
“No. I hurt it during recreation. Right after supper.”
“No.” And to prove it, Whitey dragged himself to the bunk and pulled himself up into it.
“How did you hurt it?”
“Stepped in a hole out in the yard. It’s about time they filled those lousy holes.”
“Why didn’t you tell somebody when it happened?”
“It didn’t seem like much then. It didn't start bothering me until a little while ago.”
“I’m gonna call Doc.”
“I’m callin’ Doc.”
PRISON had not yet quite worn away Doc’s bedside manner. He fingered the foot and tapped it and said briskly, “Nasty sprain. But you'll recover. I suppose we’ll have to get someone to help you.”
“Help me what?”
“Get to the infirmary. You’ll be laid up a few weeks, you know.” Infirmary! Whitey stiffened. That meant they’d come in to clean out the cell, find the stuff under the bunk. He'd planned to get rid of it tomorrow. He said, “I’d rather stay here, Doc.” “You’re the first prisoner I ever met who wouldn’t take a month in the infirmary. Nice big bed, beautiful nurse—”
Olsen said, “He’s gettin’ out next week, Doc.”
“So he stays there a week. Some cracked ice and that swelling will be down in no time.”
“I can do without ice.”
Doc shrugged. “It’s your ankle.” He took adhesive and scissors out of his satchel and taped up the foot.
Outside the cell, he whispered to Olsen, “Odd, he didn’t want to go to the infirmary.”
Whitey grinned. Don’t fret, Doc. I’ll go to your lousy infirmary. I’ll even hold hands with your big fat nurse. But be patient. À day, that’s all. And then I’ll hold hands with her, although frankly, Doc, I’d much rather hold hands with the little brunette on the trolley car.
HE AWOKE at dawn to the tug of a hand at his shoulder and the almost tangible slam of light against his eyes. The light poured from two flashlights, close up. Olsen was holding one, and a thickset man, whom Whitey recognized as a detective, was holding the other. There was another man in the cell, Donnelly, and he was holding something, too.
A coil of rope with a hook tied to it. Whitey, fighting down panic, said, “Hello, Donnelly.”
“Murder. A cleaning woman found your pal Gerhardt with his head bashed in.”
Whitey said, “W’hat!” It sounded flat, even to him.
“Go ahead, Whitey. Act dumb.
Clam up.” Donnelly raised the coil. Caught in the sickly grey light coming in between the window bars his arm, with the circle of rope beneath it, was like a gallows. “This talks. So does wet cement, mud on your shoes, thread, the baggage stub.”
“Two G’s,” the thickset detective said. “They talk, too.”
There was a silence. Whitey sat up and held his head in his hands—it was throbbing now just like the ankle —and closed his eyes. Got to think. Got to get up a plan.
Donnelly said, “The two grand was for Peters, right?”
Whitey said tiredly, “Right.”
“Did you tell him why you were breaking out?”
“No. Just that 1 had a big deal that couldn’t wait.”
“And he was willing to trust you for the dough?”
“He was willing to do anything. Loan-shark bait. Up to his ears in debt. Who tipped you off, Donnelly?” “A dame.”
Whitey said, “I know. The little brunette on the trolley—”
Donnelly said, “A skinny brunette named Sheba.”
Whitey looked up for a second. “I don’t get it.”
Donnelly said, “When we went into Gerhardt’s parlor she was limping around in the cage. Now do you get it, Whitey? Limping. At first we thought her paw was hurt. But she stopped limping. I played a hunch and had the ambulance doctor look her over. He said the paw was okay. Then we knew. She was imitating someone —maybe the killer.”
“The little jerk,” Whitey said. “The dirty little jerk!”
Donnelly said, “We put out a teletype for a man with a limp. That’s all we had to go on—until we thought of you. You had motive. The question was whether you had opportunity. According to our records, you were getting out on the twenty-second. But sometimes records make mistakes. So 1 phoned the warden. He said you were still in stir. I remember saying to myself, well, Whitey, I guess that lets you out, when he mentioned the sprained ankle. Then things began clicking. They clicked like a steel trap.”
“I should of knocked her off,” Whitey said. “That’s what. Knocked her off. The double-crossing little jerk!” ★