"I look like hell—what?" He spoke fast as a man might with a drink ahead. But it was not alcohol that was loosening his tongue. "Why can't some one go up to my place and get me a decent suit of clothes? God knows I've plenty there—closets full of them."
"Time enough when th' Shurff gets here," Roll Winchell, the town marshall grunted at him. "I'm not taking any chances on you, Mr. Vandeman. You'll do me as you are."
"Stick a smoke in my face, Cummings," came next in a voice that twanged like a stretched string. "Damn these bracelets! Light it, can't you? Light it." He puffed eagerly, got to his feet and began walking up and down the room, glancing at us from time to time, raising the manacled hands grotesquely to his cigar, drawing in a breath as though to speak, then shaking his head, grinning a little and walking on. I knew the mood; the moment was coming when he must talk. The necessity to reel out the whole thing to whomever would listen was on him like a sneeze. It's always so at this stage of the game.
For all the hullabaloo in the streets, we were quiet enough here, since the lock-up at Santa Ysobel lurks demurely, as such places are apt to do, in the rear of the building whose garbage can it is. Our pacing captive could keep silent no longer. Shooting a sidelong glance at me, he broke out,
"I'm not a common crook, Boyne, even if I do come of a family of them, and my father's in Sing Sing. I put him there. They'd not have caught him without. He was an educated man—never worked anything but big stuff. At that, what was the best he could do—or any of them? Make a haul, and all they got out of it was a spell of easy money that they only had the chance to spend while they were dodging arrest. Sooner or later every one of them I knew got put away for a longer or shorter term. Growing up like that, getting my education in the public schools daytimes, and having a finish put on it nights with the gang, I decided that I was going to be, not honest, but the hundredth man—the thousandth—who can pull off a big thing and neither have to hide nor go to prison."
This was promising; a little different from the ordinary brag; I signaled inconspicuously to our stenographer to keep right on the job.
"When I was twenty-four years old, I saw my chance to shake the gang and try out my own idea," Clayte rattled it off feelinglessly. "It was a lone hand for me. My father had made a stake by a forgery; checks on the City bank. I knew where the money was hid, eight thousand and seventy nine dollars. It would just about do me. I framed the old man—I told you he was in Sing Sing now—took my working capital and came out here to the Coast. That money had to make me rich for life, respected, comfortable. I figured that my game was as safe as dummy whist."
"Yeh," said Roll Winchell, the marshal, gloomily, "them high-toned Eastern crooks always comin' out here thinkin' they'll find the Coast a soft snap."
"Two years I worked as a messenger for the San Francisco Trust Company," Clayte's voice ran right on past Winchell's interruption, "a model employee, straight as they come; then decided they were too big for me to tackle, and used their recommendation to get a clerk's job with the Van Ness Avenue concern. I was after the theft of at least a half million dollars, with a perfect alibi; and the smaller institution suited my plan. It took me four years to work up to paying teller, but I wasn't hurrying things. I was using my capital now to build that perfect alibi."
He glanced around nervously as the stenographer turned a leaf, then went on,
"I'd picked out this town for the home of the man I was going to be. It suited me, because it was on a branch line of the railway, hardly used at all by men whose business was in the city, and off the main highway of automobile travel; besides, I liked the place—I've always liked it."
"Sure flattered," came the growl as Winchell stirred in his chair.
"My bungalow and grounds cost me four thousand; at that it was a run-down place and I got it cheap. The mahogany—old family pieces that I was supposed to bring in from the East—came high. Yet maybe you'd be surprised how the idea took with me. I used to scrimp and save off my salary at the bank to buy things for the place, to keep up the right scale of living for Bronson Vandeman, traveling agent for eastern manufacturers, not at home much in Santa Ysobel yet, but a man of fine family, rich prospects, and all sorts of a good fellow, settled in the place for the rest of his days."
He turned suddenly and grinned at me.
"You swallowed it whole, Boyne, when you walked into my house last night—the old family furniture I bought in Los Angeles, the second-hand library, that family portrait, with a ring on my finger, and the same painted in on what was supposed to be my father's hand."
"Sure," I nodded amiably, "You had me fooled."
"And without a bit of crude make-up or disguise," he rubbed it in. "It was a change of manner and psychology for mine. As Edward Clayte—and that's not my name, either, any more than Vandeman—I was description-proof. I meant to be—and I was. It took—her—the girl," his face darkened and he jerked at his cigar, "to deduce that a nonentity who could get away with nearly a million dollars and leave no trail was some man!"
I raised my head with a start and stared at the man in his raincoat and lilac silk pantaloons.
"That's so," I fed it to him, "She had a name for you. She called you the wonder man."
"Did she!" a pleased smile. "Well, I'll give her right on that. I was some little wonder man. Listen," his insistent over-stimulated voice went eagerly on, "The beauty of my scheme was that up to the very last move, there was nothing criminal in my leading this double life. You see—as I got stronger and stronger here in Santa Ysobel, I bought a good machine, a speedster that could burn up the road. Many's the stag supper I've had with the boys there in my bungalow, and been back behind the wicket as Edward Clayte in the Van Ness Avenue bank on time next morning. I was in that room at the St. Dunstan about as much as a fellow's in his front hall. I walked through it to Henry J. Brundage's room at the Nugget; I stayed there more often than I did at the St. Dunstan, unless I came on here.
"I'd left marriage out. Then that night four years ago when Ina had her little run-in with old Tom Gilbert and got her engagement to Worth smashed, I saw there might be girls right in the class I was trying to break into that would be possible for a man like me. The date for our wedding was set, when Thomas Gilbert remarked to me one afternoon as we were coming off the golf links together, that he was buying a block of Van Ness Savings Bank stock. For a minute I felt like caving in his head, then and there, with the golf club I carried. What a hell of a thing to happen, right at the last this way! Ten chances to one I'd have this man to silence; but it must be done right. Not much room for murder in so full a career as mine—holding down a teller's job, running for the vice presidency of the country club, getting married in style—but every time I'd look up from behind my teller's grille, and see any one near the size of old Gilbert walk in the front door, it gave me the shivers. I'd put more than eight years of planning and hard work into this scheme, and you'll admit, Boyne, that what I had was some alibi. A wedding like that in a town of this size makes a big noise. I managed to be back and forth so much that people got the idea I was hardly out of Santa Ysobel. The Friday night before, I had a stag supper at my house, and Saturday morning if any one had called, Fong Ling would have told them I was sleeping late and couldn't be disturbed. On the forenoon of my wedding day, then, I sat as Edward Clayte in my teller's cage, the suitcase I had carried back and forth empty for so many Saturdays now loaded with currency and securities, not one of which was traceable, and whose amount I believed would run close to a million. It was within three minutes of closing time, when some one rapped on the counter at my wicket, and I looked straight up into the face of old Tom Gilbert.
"I saw a flash of doubtful recognition in his eyes, but didn't dare to avoid them while counting bills and silver to pay his check. If I had done so, he would certainly have known me. As it was, I saw that I convinced him—almost. I watched him as he went out, saw him hesitate a little at the door of Knapp's office—he wasn't quite sure enough. I knew the man. The instant he made certain, he would act.
"The old devil wasn't on terms to attend the reception at the Thornhill place, but I located him in an aisle seat, when I first came from the vestry with my best man. All through the ceremony I felt his eyes boring into my back. When I finally faced him, as Ina and I walked out, man and wife, I knew he recognized me, and almost expected him to step out and denounce me. But no—a fellow leading a double life was all he saw in it; bigamy was the worst he'd suspect me of at the moment. He didn't give Ina much, wouldn't lift a finger to defend her.
"Meantime, the manner of his taking off lay easy to my hand. I'd studied the situation through that skylight, seen Ed Hughes juggle the bolts with his magnets, and mapped the thing out. Gilbert killed there, the room found bolted, was a cinch for suicide. When the reception at the Thornhill house was over, I made an excuse of something needed for the journey, and started across to my bungalow. It was common for all of us to cross through the lawns; I hid in the shrubbery.
"There were people with Gilbert, no chance for me to do anything. I stood there and nearly went out of my hide with impatience over the delays, while he had his row with Worth, when Laura Bowman and Jim Edwards came and braced him to let up on his persecution of them. Mrs. Bowman finally left; he went with her toward the front. Now was my chance; I dodged into the study, jerked his own pistol from its holster, squeezed myself in behind the open door and waited. He came back; I let him get into the room, past me a little, and when at some sound I made, he turned, the muzzle of the gun was shoved against his chest and fired.
"I'd barely finished pressing Gilbert's fingers around the pistol butt when I heard a cry outside, jumped to the door, shut and bolted it just as my mother-in-law ran in across the lawns. I gathered that she'd been there earlier to get those three leaves out of the diary that you were so interested in, Boyne; had just read them and come back to have it out with old Tom. She hung around for five minutes, I should say, beating on the door, calling, asking if anything was wrong.
"My one big mistake in the study was that diary of 1920. It lay open on the desk where he'd been writing. It did tell of his having identified me as Clayte. I'd not expected it, and so I didn't handle it well. Time pressed. I couldn't carry it with me; I tore out the leaf, stuck the book into the drainpipe, and ran.
"And after all," he summed up, "my plans would have gone through on schedule; you never could have touched me with your clumsy, police-detective methods, if it hadn't been for the girl."
He dropped his head and stood brooding a moment, demanded another smoke, got it, shrugged off some thought with a gesture, and finished,
"I was in too deep to turn. It was her life—or mine. Things went contrary. We couldn't get her to come out to the masquerade, where it would have been easy. With those two Mandarin costumes, Fong Ling in my place, I had my time from the hour we put on the masks till midnight. Another perfect alibi. Well—it didn't work. They say you have to shoot a witch with a silver bullet. And she's more than human."
A siren's dry shriek as the Sheriff's gasoline buggy made its way through the crowded street outside. Cummings raised his brows at me, got my nod of permission, and shot his first question at the prisoner.
"Vandeman, where's the money?"
"Not within a hundred miles of here," instantly.
"You took it south with you—on your wedding trip?" Cummings would persist. But our man, so expansive a moment ago, had, as I knew he would at direct mention of his loot, turned sullen, and he started for the San Jose jail, mum as an oyster.
THE MILLION-DOLLAR SUITCASE
The Sheriff had gone with his prisoner; Cummings left; and then there came to me, in the street there before the lock-up, riding with Jim Edwards in his roadster, a Worth Gilbert I had never known. Quiet he had been before; but never considerate like this. When I rushed up to him with my triumph and congratulations, and he put them aside, it was with a curious gentleness.
"Yes, yes, Jerry; I know. Vandeman turned out to be Clayte." Then, noticing my bewilderment, "You see, Jim let it slip that Barbara's hurt. Where is she?" And Edwards leaned around to explain.
"When we came past Capehart's, and she wasn't there, I—"
"Oh, that's only a scratch," I hurried to assure the boy. "Barbara'll be all right."
"So Jim said," he agreed soberly. "I'm afraid you're both lying to me."
"All right," I climbed in beside him. "We'll go and see. She's up at your house—waiting for you."
As we headed away for the other end of town, he spoke again, half interrogatively,
"Vandeman shot her?" and when I nodded. "He's on his way to jail. I'm out. But I'm the man that's responsible for what's happened to her. Dragged her into this thing, in the first place. She hated those concentrating stunts; and I set her to do one at that woman's table. To help play my game—I risked her life."
I listened in wonder; sidelong, in the dimness, I studied the carriage of head and shoulders: no diminution of power; but a new use of it. This was not the crude boy who would knock everybody's plans to bits for a whim; Worth had found himself; and what a man!
"How does it look for recovering the money, Boyne?" Edwards questioned as we drove along.
I plunged into the hottest of that stuff Clayte-Vandeman had spilled, talked fascinatingly, as I thought, for three minutes, and paused to hear Worth say,
"Who's with Barbara at my house?"
"Mrs. Bowman," I said in despair, and quit right there.
We came into Broad Street a little above the Vandeman bungalow which lay black and silent, the lights of Worth's house showing beyond. As we turned the corner, a man jumped up from the shadow of the hedge where the Vandeman lawn joined the Gilbert place; there was a flash; the report of a gun; our watchers had flushed some one. I'd barely had time to say so to the others when there was a second sharp crack, then the whine of a ricochetting chunk of lead as it zipped from the asphalt to sing over our heads.
"Beat it!" I yelled. "Stop the car and get to cover!"
Edwards slowed. A moment Worth hung on the running board, peering in the direction of the sounds. I started to climb out after him. There came another shot from up ahead, and then a shout. As I tumbled to my feet in the dark road, Worth had started away on the jump. And I saw then, what I'd missed before, that the man who had burst from the hedge, was running zig-zag down the open roadway toward us. He was making his legs spin, and dodging from side to side as if to duck bullets. Worth headed straight for him, as though it wasn't plain that some one out of sight somewhere was making a target of the runner.
Not the kind of a scrap I care for; in a half light you can't tell friend from foe; but Worth went to it—and what was there to do but follow? I shouted and blew my whistle, hoping our men would hear, heed, and let up shooting. At the moment of my doing so, Worth closed with the man, who dropped something he was carrying, and tackled low, lunging at the boy's knees, aiming I could see to let Worth dive over and scrape up the pavement with his face.
No dodging that tackle; it caught Worth square; he even seemed to spring up for the dive; and somehow he carried his opponent with him to soften the fall. They came down together in the middle of the hard road with the shock of a railway collision; rolled over and over like dogs in a scrap, only there wasn't any growling or yelping. It was deadly quiet; not for an instant could you tell which was which, or whether the whirling, pelting tangle of arms and legs was man, beast or devil. That's why, even when I got near enough, I didn't dare plant a large, thick-soled boot in the mess.
The fight was up to Worth; nothing else for it. Capehart came rolling from the hedge where I had seen the pistols flash; Eddie Hughes, inconceivable in pink puffings, bounded after; Jim Edwards chased up from his car; but all any of us could do was to run up and down as the struggle whirled about, and grunt when the blows landed. These sounded like a pile-driver hitting a redwood butt. Out of the melee an arm would jerk, the fist at the end of it come back to land with a thud—on somebody's meat.
"Who the devil is it?" I bellowed at Capehart, as the two grappled, afoot, then down, no knowing who was on top, spinning around in a struggle where neither boots nor knees were barred.
"He sneaked out of the bungalow just now," Capehart snorted. "We'd searched the place. Didn't think there was room for a louse to be hid in it. Got by the boys. I stopped him at the hedge and drove him into the open. Now Worth's got him. That is Worth, ain't it? Fights like him."
"Yes," I said, "It's Worth." But in my own mind I wasn't sure whether Worth had the fugitive, or the fugitive had Worth. And Jim Edwards muttered anxiously, as we skipped and side-stepped along with the fight,
"That fellow may have a knife or a gun."
"Not where he can draw," I said, "or he'd have used it before now." And Capehart sung out,
"Sure. Leave 'em go. Worth'll fix him."
Edging in too close, I got a kick on the shin from a flying heel, and was dancing around on one foot nursing the other when I heard sounds of distress issue from the tangle in the road; somebody was getting breath in long, gaspy sighs that broke off in grunts when the thud of blows fell, and merged in the harsh nasal of blood violently dislodged from nose and throat. For a while they had been up, and swapping punches face to face, lightning swift. Sounds like boxing, perhaps, but there wasn't any science about it. Feint? Parry? Footwork? Not on your life! Each of these two was trying to slug the other into insensibility, working for any old kind of a knock-out.
I began to be a little nervous for fear the boy I was bringing home from jail as a peace offering to Barbara might arrive so defaced that she wouldn't recognize him, when I saw one dark form pull away, leap back, an arm shoot out like a piston-rod, and with a jar that set my own teeth on edge, connect with the other man's chin. He went down clawing the air, crumpled into a bunch of clothes at the side of the road.
"You wanted the Chink, didn't you, Bill?" This was Worth, facing Jim Edwards's torch, fumbling for his handkerchief. "I heard you, and I thought you wanted him."
"It's Fong Ling!" bawled Capehart. "Sure we wanted him—and whatever that was he was carrying. Where is it? Did he drop it?"
"Sort of think he did," Worth was dabbing off his own face with a gingerly, respectful touch. "I know he dropped some teeth back there in the road. Saw him spit 'em out. Maybe he left it with them. You might go and look."
The four of us drifted along the field of battle, Capehart's assistant having taken charge of the unconscious Chinaman, whom he was frisking for weapons. Halfway back to the hedge Bill stumbled on something, picked it up, and dropped it again with a disgusted grunt.
"Nothing but a Chinaboy's keister," he said contemptuously. "Not much to that. Why in blazes did he run so?"
"Because you were shooting him up, I'd say," Jim Edwards suggested.
"Naw. Commenced to run before we turned loose on him," Bill protested.
"Hello!" I had pounced on the unbelievable thing, and called to Edwards for his light. "Worth, here's your eight-hundred-thousand-dollar suitcase!"
"That!" he followed along, dusting himself off, trying out his joints. "Oh, yes. I left it in my closet, and it disappeared. Told you of it at the time, didn't I, Jerry?"
"You did not," I sputtered, down on my knees, working away at the catches. "You never told me anything that would be of any use to us. If this thing disappeared, I suppose Vandeman stole it to get a piece of evidence in the Clayte case out of the way."
"Likely." Worth turned, with no further interest, and started toward his own gate.
"Hi! Come back here," I yelled after him. For the lock gave at that moment; there, under the pale circle of the electric torch, lay Clayte-Vandeman's loot!
"My gosh!" mumbled Capehart. "I didn't suppose there was so much money in the known world."
Eddie Hughes, breathing hard; Jim Edwards, bending to hold the torch; Capehart, stooping, blunt hands spread on knees, goggle-eyed; my own fingers shaking as I dragged out my list and attempted to sort through the stuff—not one of us but felt the thrill of that great fortune tumbled down there in the open road in the empty night.
But Worth delayed reluctantly at the edge of the shadows, looking with impatience across his shoulder, eager to be on—to get to Barbara. Yet I wanted that suitcase to go into the house in his hand; wanted him to be able to tell his girl that she'd made him a winner in the gamble and the long chase. Roughly assured that only a few thousands had been used by Vandeman, I stuck the handles into his fist and trailed along after his quick strides. Edwards followed me. Laura Bowman opened the door to us; she stopped Edwards on the porch.
And then I saw my children meet. I hadn't meant to; but after all, what matter? They didn't know I was on earth. Creation had resolved itself, for them, into the one man, the one woman.
The suitcase thumped unregarded on the floor. She came to him with her hands out. He took them slowly, raised them to his shoulders, and her arms went round his neck.
* * * * *
Transcriber's notes Page 26, word "sowly" changed to "slowly" (Slowly he brought that) Page 26, duplicate "the" deleted (followed it with the other) Page 134, word "inconspicious" changed to "inconspicuous" (inconspicuous eye on Edwards) Page 156, word "expaining" changed to "explaining" (explaining how I'd have run) Page 172, word "Warf" changed to "Wharf" (land me at Fisherman's Wharf) Page 315, word "Los Angles" changed to "Los Angeles" (I bought in Los Angeles) Page 315, word "nonenity" changed to "nonentity" (to deduce that a nonentity)