Renny Jordahl’s Private Secretary
The babe was going to soak her feet and ruin her shoes if she kept running through puddles. I followed her through the rain from the Greyhound Bus Terminal.
I could go for a girl like that. She was a come-hither blonde. She was carrying a quarter-million dollars’ worth of stolen rubies. And every cop in twelve states was looking for her for murder.
I didn’t mind walking in the rain. I was wearing my old waterproof coat and GI brogues. I had to walk fast to stay behind her. But she had to stop running at the next street crossing to wait for the traffic light to change.
I came up beside her and put my arm through hers. I could feel a startled vibration electrify her.
I said politely, “Need someone to carry your bag?”
“No—thank you!” she said in the hard, icy kind of way that’s supposed to freeze a masher.
She yanked her arm away. But I had my defrost unit working. When she started across the avenue without waiting any longer, dodging traffic, I followed and took her arm again.
She turned her head to glare at me from under the dripping brim of her felt hat. She had almond-shaped jade-green eyes, cheeks sunken just enough to torment a man, and a full-lipped burgundy mouth that was at present trying to scold instead of look scared.
“Is this supposed to be a pickup?”
“Do I look like the kind of man who tries to pick up beautiful blondes?”
“Would you prefer this to be a pinch—Gertie Sale?”
“Why—?” I knew her name. She was puzzled. “Who are you?”
I had to drag her on the sidewalk as a car, turning the corner, washed past. “I’m Hod Danto,” I said. “I’m your contact man.”
“You look like you’ve made some hard contacts.”
“I’ve been bashed around—mostly by the police.”
“You rouse my sympathy.” There wasn’t a shred of sympathy in her voice.
“We’ll talk inside. My place is only a couple of blocks away. Do you mind walking?”
“I do mind. But what can I do about it?”
I’ve never bragged about my dump in the West Thirties and I’m not going to begin now. When I unlocked the door in the sunken vestibule I said, “Third floor.”
I let her go up the stairs ahead of me. I watched her legs. Her nylons were all wet around the ankles and rain-blotched at the calves, but they were still the nicest legs I’d seen in a long time.
I used the same key again to open my own door. I snapped the light on in the big single room that has a small slot of a kitchen and an even smaller slot of a bathroom.
“This is where I live.”
“And what’s your racket?” she said.
“Big agency?” She moved in and I closed the door.
“No. I’m a lone—if you’ll pardon the expression—wolf.”
She stood still. Her long blonde hair was beginning to unravel at the ends where the rain had struck it. Little drops dripped off the hem of her plastic raincoat onto my dime-thin imitation domestic rug.
She seemed to hold tighter to her handbag and suitcase.
She said, “Who thought of the idea of taking me to your place?”
“I did. I was supposed to take you to a hotel. When I saw you getting off the bus I changed my mind.”
Her eyes hit me with the impact of two stones. “So you were there! Why didn’t you give me a sign? When no one met me I got into a panic! I thought something had gone wrong!”
“Put those things down,” I said. “Take off your hat and coat. I’ll mix you something.” I flung off my own waterproof as I went into the kitchen slot. “What do you drink?”
“The kind of report that Kinsey gives you in a bottle,” she said brassily. I tried to picture her as Renny Jordahl’s private secretary, but at the moment I couldn’t.
I said from the kitchen, “I knew you were scared. You didn’t exactly show it. But I’ve seen people in my business, and I can tell.”
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I came back again with two whiskey-and-waters. By now she’d even taken off her shoes and stockings. She was the type who needed very little urging to make herself at home. Her nasturtium-shade suit was wrinkled.
But on her I could stand a mouth painted on crooked or lipstick on her teeth. She sat down, held the drink in her hand and rubbed her bare feet together to warm them by friction. “It’s good to relax. I haven’t had a moment’s peace for a week. Dodging all the time. I feel absolutely safe with you.”
“That’s my trouble with women. They feel too safe with me.”ß
She said, “Renny won’t think this is nice, your changing his plans by taking me here.”
I took one sip and put down my glass. “Who cares about Renny as long as we think it’s nice?” I was looking at her feet. She had small round toes with scarlet nails. “Let me do that.” I rubbed her feet with my hands.
“I haven’t got much to say about any of it,” said Gertie in a low voice. “I only work for Renny Jordahl.”
“You worked with him!” I mashed her toes harder than she liked and she tried to pull one foot back.
“You were going to marry him—until all this happened. Want me to go over it once lightly, dossier-fashion?”
She tilted her glass back toward her lips and swallowed. “You do a rough massage job. That’s all I know about you.”
“Renny Jordahl called me up and told me all about it. Jordahl, with the big Fifth Avenue jeweler’s front to cover up his crooked business.
“He had to phone me from a pay-booth because the cops are watching him. They even have his private wires tapped. But there are ways of getting messages through. Just like the way you communicated with him while you were on the lam. It’s tough but possible.
“Jordahl told me that he’d heard you were coming back. He couldn’t meet you, because the cops’d nab both of you as soon as you’d met. You couldn’t go directly to him because of the same obvious reason. So I was the middleman.”
“With ideas of your own,” she said.
“You think you’re in a tough fix. That Czech—what’s his name?”
“That Czech was murdered for his pigeon’s blood rubies. Jordahl—and you—were practically the only people he knew in this country. Jordahl was dickering with him for the rubies.
“After the Czech was found dead, you two were the first ones the police went for. Then you pulled a disappearing act, leaving a cute little note for the police saying you d taken the stones, shifting the whole blame onto your own frail shoulders.”
“Clearing Jordahl,” she reminded me.
“It didn’t work out exactly that way. The police’re still suspicious of him. They’re watching him, tailing him. But as long as you two are apart neither of you can do anything worthwhile with the rocks. You can’t dispose of them without Jordahl. And Jordahl can’t dispose of something he hasn’t got.”
There was an odd look in her eyes, but she didn’t say anything. I noticed that she held the glass with two hands.
I said, “Brief me on the Czech who was murdered.”
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He’s Got Something On Me
She started slowly. “What do you want to know? Jan Bardijov got out of Czechoslovakia one jump ahead of the Communist grab. He was quite a smuggler. He got out with a sack of harlequin opals.”
“Quite a smuggler,” I agreed. “Where’d the opals change into rubies?”
“In Burma. Bardijov traveled east. Because opals are rarer in Burma than rubies, Bardijov managed to meet some potentate and make a swap—to his own advantage. He came on to the United States, smuggling in a quarter of a million in the best pigeon’s blood.”
“Then he got in touch with Jordahl and Company,” I said, “expecting to make a sale. He didn’t know that it was worth his life.”
Gertie looked angry. “He asked a fantastic price. Jewelers don’t operate at a loss.”
“So you and Jordahl did business as usual. You got the rubies at a hundred percent profit. There’s a slight hitch right now, but I’m in the middle to straighten that out. Let’s start by you giving me the rubies.”
“I?” She almost dropped the glass. “I haven’t got them!”
I had my chance to do some eyebrow lifting. Then I tried to cover up my sudden display of surprise with a little sneer. “It’s no secret, honey. Jordahl said he hasn’t got them. Twelve states know about you. Why be shy with me?”
She bumped down the glass. ‘‘But I haven’t got them. I ran to clear Renny. That’s the truth, Hod. Once the cops stopped hounding him, I’d join up with him again and we’d both leave the country. He has the rubies!”
I stared at her, hard. I still had her feet in my hands, but I couldn’t feel them any more.
“I’m glad,” I said. “The one who has the rubies is the one who murdered the Czech. I want you to be clean. But don’t play me for the little badminton bird, Gertie, shuttling me between you. You’re in no spot to try it. You’re in a tougher fix than ducking the cops.”
Her eyes flashed. “What’re you talking about?”
“Jordahl is planning to cross you like an X!”
“Jordahl wants to wind up with the rubies and be in the clear. He’s going to pitch you to the cops for the murder.”
“He can’t! I’ll talk—!”
“You won’t be able to talk—not when you’re a corpse!”
She seemed to draw into herself and shrivel up until the skin of her face looked like lemon-peel. The way her whole body jerked made me hate myself for shocking her like that.
Her teeth chattered.
“You can’t mean it, Hod!” She was close to a breaking point. All her earlier indifference and toughness was a shell.
“I was told to take you to that hotel room tonight and make you hand over the rubies. Once they were in Jordahl’s hands and he knew where he could get his hands on you, you’d be finished. You’d be found dead, as if you’d killed yourself, with maybe a couple of the rubies scattered around for added—”
“Hod! You won’t help him do that to me!”
“I was being forced into it. Jordahl’d described you and the flyers they’d sent to all the police stations described you. I thought I knew what you looked like. But none of them did you justice, Gertie. When I saw you get off the bus I started making plans of my own.”
She looked at me as if I’d suddenly grown twice as tall. “Renny must have an awful lot on you to make you do this. You don’t say anything about yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said grudgingly, “he’s got something on me.”
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The Old Kick-Back
But I was keeping it to myself. I wasn’t going to tell her that Jordahl knew me because I had links of my own with the jewelry business—on the shady side. I wasn’t what the police would call an absolutely scrupulous private operator.
Several times I’d been retained by the rich Park Avenue crowd to recover vast amounts of stolen jewels. I had a good eye for pretty stones, in the first place, but what was more important I had some underworld connections. Also with insurance companies.
I could take a fair guess who’d stolen what. Then, instead of an investigator, I’d become an intermediary. Seeing all the parties concerned, I’d work out a deal to sell the jewels back to the victims again at, say, about fifteen or twenty thousand. I’d pocket a nice corner of the dough. The victims would agree to forget about the robbery. It was the old kick-back.
On the phone, Jordahl had said to me, “I know the men you covered up in those jewel robberies, Danto. What would they think about you if the police got a list of their names?”
I’d said, “The police’ll never hear about them, Jordahl. I spent six months in the clink not so long ago just for keeping my mouth shut.”
He’d said, “You’ll work this deal with me and Gertie Sale, or your mouth’ll be kept shut for a lot longer.”
So I’d met Gertie Sale. And now I was thinking of double-crossing Jordahl. The big single room was quiet. She was waiting for me to say something. I heard the rain hissing against the closed, scrim-curtained windows. It was a bad night.
I said, sounding her, “Let’s quit fencing, honey. You’ve got the rubies. I’ve got a fence. I’ll get rid of them. Then it’ll be you and me, down in Buenos Aires.”
Her lips twitched as if she were fighting to keep from laughing at me. “Are you crazy? You don’t think you could get away with something like that, do you?”
“Let’s have them, honey. Don’t be stubborn. I’ll enjoy searching you, but you won’t.”
There wasn’t laughter in her now. Her eyes were cold flames. “I haven’t got the rubies!”
I gently moved her bare feet to one side, got up. “I’m always a gentleman,” I said. “I’ll start with the luggage.” I bent down over the suitcase. She’d squirmed around, tearing open her pin-seal handbag and scrabbling a .38 automatic out of it. She poked it up. All she had to do was pull the trigger and I’d have a third eye.
I felt all my viscera start to flutter. But I don’t think I showed it a bit on the outside. I said, “You’re not going to do any shooting, honey. You’re wanted for murder. How far do you think you could run in your bare feet? Or try shoving your feet into those wet shoes while the police’re busting up the stairs. Lay that gat down, honey.”
I was close enough now to take it out of her hand. Her eyes were looking into mine and I couldn’t tell if hers were those of an angel or a devil. I reached out and took the gun out of her hand.
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What A Stupe
She closed her eyes as if ashamed at how weak she was and her arm dropped limply. I snapped back the automatic’s slide. A shiny copper-colored cartridge was bedded there in the barrel, winking brazenly up at me.
I let the slide spring back and put the automatic in my pocket. “Search,” I said. “Will you do it or do you want me to do it?”
She dragged herself out of the chair and in her bare feet showed me what a stupe I was. She spilled everything out of her suitcase—and she didn’t care how personal the things were that I saw. She dumped the handbag.
But I didn’t see any rubies. She gave me a look of long-suffering woe. The shorn lamb look. I tried to cover up my confusion by being gruff. “Unless you’ve stashed them someplace, it’s Jordahl who has them.”
“Just this once, believe a woman when she tells you something.”
“All right, honey. I’m convinced. But that doesn’t get you off the spot. We can still go Argentine way, but we’ve got to get the rubies off Jordahl first.”
She pawed her hands into her hair. “After what you’ve told me about him, I never want to see him again. All I want to do is get away.”
“I want to get away too. Only I’m not so callow as to go without that loot.”
“But what can we do, Hod? We’ll never get them away from him.”
“Isn’t it worth trying?” I said. “I know where Jordahl is tonight. If you showed up there suddenly without any warning he wouldn’t be able to do a thing to you. The cops’ll be too close to him. I won’t be far behind you. We’ll both work the rubies out of him.”
She sat down again with a tired flop. She picked up the highball glass and stared at it. The ice had melted and the liquid had been warmed by her hands. Then her blue-green eyes lifted to mine. “Do you really think we can?”
“Sure,” I said.
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What’s The Matter, Sluefoot?
Renny Jordahl was in his office on the twenty-first floor of the Harrow Tower on Fortieth Street. He was going to wait there most of the night, expecting a report from me.
Gertie and I stopped at the building entrance in the downpour. I hadn’t figured any definite approach to Jordahl. I was depending mostly on luck—and Gertie’s natural wiles.
In the lobby of black marble I could see two loafing men, the detectives keeping their vigil on Jordahl. We had to get past them first. I told Gertie to wait outside until I’d gone in and diverted their attention.
Then she’d take a quick sneak through the lobby to the rear service elevator. She’d go up in that and I’d join her as soon as possible.
I left her outside in the rain and casually pushed through the doors. The two dicks got interested in me right away. I recognized the one who elbowed away from the veined wall.
“Where’re you going?” he said. He had a pockmarked phiz and a sadistic mouth.
He knew me. I had to act in character. “Up to the eighteenth floor,” I said. “The night watchman around? I don’t see him around.”
“He’s down in the boiler room sleeping off his supper.” He peered closer at me. “Danto, ain’t it?”
“And you’re Cougar.” We didn’t sound like two old playmates.
“What do you want up for, Danto?”
“My mother works there, scrubbing floors.”
Cougar sneered. “Are you going to hold the bucket while she wrings out her mop?”
I was standing close to both of them. “I’d like to borrow a buck. Any law against it, skullbuster?”
“You’re the type guy who’d let his mother work scrubbing floors,” said Cougar nastily.
“And you’re the type guy,” I said, “whose looks’d be improved with a fat lip. I haven’t forgotten that weekend we spent, Cougar. You were the guy with the rubber hose. I felt it but it didn’t leave any marks on me.
“You were the guy who suggested that I go without water while a tap dripped in the next room. You were the guy who thought it’d be more fun if I didn’t get any sleep for forty-eight hours.”
He niggled with one side of his cruel mouth. The other guy was watchful.
Cougar said, “I’ll make up for it by putting you to sleep any time, Danto.”
“I don’t think you’re so much, sloose,” I said with studied contempt. “Nor your sidekick—Third-Degree Burns.”
The other guy straightened up. “My name’s O’Neil,” he said ominously.
The look I gave them did everything but spit on them. “Why don’t you two snouts go take a walk through the park and arrest some sparrows for trespassing on the grass?”
I could see four fists. “Why, you punk!” snarled Cougar.
“What’s the matter, sluefoot?” I said. My jaw felt as if it were bound up with piano-wire, but I forced the words out.
“You’re two to one against me. Aren’t the odds big enough for you? Want to go home to put on your cleats?”
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No Hard Feelings
Cougar hit me. I tried to ride the punch and topple over backwards toward the emergency stairway. I rolled over into the dark at the foot of the stairs. Both of them came in after me.
Cougar’s partner, O’Neil, was wearing copper-toed bulldog shoes. And he was a kicker. Every time his metal toe went into my lower side I felt my intestines come up in my throat.
I didn’t hit back too hard to injure their vanity. I didn’t want them to toss me in the tank. I let them work off their boyish energy. I kept telling myself over and over that this wasn’t much to pay for a quarter of a million bucks and Gertie Sale. It helped to ease the pain. Both of them were broken winded when they were through.
“Get up!” panted O’Neil. “Hit the stairs!”
I lay there. “What stopped you?” I groaned. “You haven’t fractured more than four ribs.”
Cougar hauled me up and I reeled sickly against the wall.
“Still want to see your old lady?” he grinned harshly. “I’ll take you up.”
“Frisk him,” said O’Neil. “Nobody goes up armed.”
Cougar went through my pockets.
“Eyetalian rod,” he observed, digging it out. He lobbed it on the cigar counter. “You can have it back when you come down.”
I didn’t dare leave the wall for fear I’d fall over. I slid along it to the first passenger elevator. Cougar came in behind me, slammed shut the gates, and almost blew a fuse monkeying with the control handle. He stopped on the eighteenth and I stumbled out.
“No hard feelings,” he said, still grinning.
“Not if it’s my turn to say that the next time we meet.”
The doors trundled shut and I crawled up the next three flights to the twenty-first.
Jordahl’s office door was closed, but unlocked. I wasn’t worried about getting things unlocked. Gertie had her keys and her knowledge of the whole outfit. No one was in the all-leather waiting room.
I dragged quietly to the door of the private office. It was closed, too. I put my ear to the panel and listened. I couldn’t hear a thing inside. There should be voices, sounds of movement. How long was I getting up here? Jordahl might have killed her already!
I turned the doorknob. It made only a cobweb of sound. I swung the door wider.
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Gertie was at the open wall-safe. She was stuffing handfuls of currency into her handbag. I looked around. Where was Jordahl? No one else was in the office. The window was wide open and the grey monk’s-cloth drapes were billowing inward on the wind and they were speckled dark with the driving rain.
She turned and saw me and smiled. “Did they hurt you very much, my poor dear?” Before I could answer she went on, “How’re we going to get out?”
“We won’t have any trouble getting out.” My breathing had a grating sound inside my chest. I guess I wasn’t kidding about the ribs. “Where’s Jordahl?”
“There wasn’t much we had to say to each other. I stunned him with this.” She picked her automatic up from a bleached oak desk. She continued to smile.
“He went out the window. I squandered two of the rubies on him to make it look as if he’d jumped.”
Her eyes blazed up. “He was going to do that to me! Have you ever seen a man who’s fallen twenty stories?”
I looked at her as if she were mad. As if both of us were mad. “You had the rubies!”
She snapped her handbag closed on the money. “I knew the safe’s combination. I cleaned it out so that we’d have enough to get to South America. After that, you can get rid of the stones, darling.”
“We’re not going,” I said. I leaned in the doorway. She’d have to go through me to get out.
There was nothing aimless in the way her automatic was pointing. “I’ve got to have you, Hod! I need you to sell the stones! Come on! They’ve found his body by now! They’ll be coming up!” Her look softened as she expressed concern. “Did one of those men kick you in the head?”
“I wanted to go with you, Gertie. That was when I thought you were clean.”
“Hod! Please! We’ve got to get out!”
“I can’t take murder,” I said.
She wasn’t a slow-thinking girl. She knew that finished it. “Get out of my way!” she said, glowering.
I lurched toward her. “You won’t shoot, Gertie. I took that gat away from you once before tonight.”
“You’re not going to take it away this time!” Her eyes were sea-blue. Like watery graves.
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Red As My Blood
I started to reach out. She pulled the trigger. A sledge-hammer hit me in the right shoulder and I spun halfway around from the impact. I didn’t feel any pain. Just the punch.
Whether she had aimed for a more vital spot and was so agitated that she spoiled it, or whether she had some perverse affection for me and was giving me a chance to live, I’ll never know.
I was back in the doorway again, trying to recover my balance.
“You won’t do any more shooting,” I gasped.
I went forward again, walking as straight as I could. As I closed the distance between us she pumped the trigger frantically at my midsection, her face twisted and ugly. No more bullets came out of the gun.
I grabbed her hand, trying to snatch the weapon away. She clung to it with furious strength and back-heeled me to the floor. Locked together, we fought like a couple of animals.
I’ve seen some rotten rough-house fighting. She used every dirty trick I ever heard of to try to cripple me. I hit back as I would at another man. I wouldn’t let go of the automatic.
By this time I could feel the bullet in my shoulder, burning as if the devil had red-hot tongs clamped in it.
Her tousled blonde hair was blinding me and in my mouth. Then she yanked back her head, listening. I heard it too. The rumble of the elevator door opening.
She leaped up and kicked me in the face with one of her high-heeled shoes. I rolled numbly half under the desk. But I had the automatic still gripped in my hand. When I lifted my head again and focused my bleary eyes on the door, Cougar was coming in.
“What’s been going on here?” he snapped.
“The blonde,” I said weakly. “You missed her. She must be running down the stairs. Twenty flights. It’s Gertie Sale.”
“If she is, she won’t get through the lobby. O’Neil’s down there and a couple of cops.” He chuckled heartlessly at me. “What happened to you? You’re almost as bad a mess as the guy we found on the sidewalk.”
I fumbled with the gun. “You can have Gertie Sale and the Czech’s rubies and be damned!”
Cougar had his own iron in his hand. “Drop that rod, Danto!”
I didn’t drop it. I snapped the magazine spring—and that took all the strength I had—and pulled out the cartridge clip. I turned the clip over and spilled it toward the carpet.
She’d had only one cartridge in the barrel of that gun. The rubies poured out of the clip like red rain.
“My compliments,” I said.
There was a fine mist spreading before my eyes. It was as red as the rubies. As red as her lips. As red as my blood.
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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