Hardboiled PI

Thornton Smiles Significantly

by David Morrison

Black Mask | Dec. 1921 | Vol. 4, No. 3

The woman tried to put one over on Thornton and catch him in a compromising situation, but can Thornton outwit the con and turn the blackmail game back on her?

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

A Lady To See You

There is a — lady outside who wishes to see you. There is a man with her."

"What's the name?" Thornton asked, visibly annoyed at the untimely intrusion.

"She would give no name. She said you would not know her. She seems very anxious to see you."

Thornton reflected a few moments. It was rather early for callers, and he had been about to dictate his morning mail. He resented the visit, but, for some reason he could not fathom, he felt a slight curiosity as to the identity of his callers. He turned suddenly to his secretary.

"Show them in, Miss Armstrong, please."

As the pair entered, Thornton's curiosity was increased.

The woman was about thirty years of age and strikingly attractive. She was expensively gowned and bore all the earmarks of wealth, but her companion was rather shabbily dressed and impressed one as a servant of the woman. The woman entered first, the man following behind her slowly, almost timidly. Thornton noticed that he clutched in his hand a large, square, box-like affair covered with black cloth.

"Mr. Thornton?" the woman gushed, advancing with a friendliness that was almost brazen.

Thornton arose, wonderingly. "I'm afraid you have the advantage of –"

"I am Miss Bender — Miss Ruth Bender," the caller beamed. "I'm sorry if I've chosen a busy moment to intrude, but I'm sure you will pardon me when the nature of my visit is made known."

Thornton motioned his visitor to a seat, and, as she drew up a chair, looked up questioningly at her companion. She seemed to have forgotten the man, and she now turned toward him in sudden remembrance.

"Just take a chair, Mr. Parker," she said, making no move to introduce her companion, who was standing some few feet away, gazing stupidly about the room and shifting from one foot to the other. He made no effort to put down the cloth-covered object he was holding.

At the sound of the woman's voice, the man turned dully, found a chair and sat down, making no move to draw the chair closer, evidently not considering himself a party to the conference. He held the black box on his lap and seemed to handle it with extraordinary care.

The woman turned to Thornton.

"I suppose you're wondering at the reason for my call," she began.

Thornton smiled, non-committally.

"It's something of the greatest importance," the stranger continued, "so I chose a time when I thought we would be least likely to be interrupted. It's of a very confidential nature. We will not be disturbed?"

Thornton found himself wondering just what it was about the woman that he did not like, but she had now aroused his curiosity and he determined to give her an audience. He rang for his secretary.

"Will you see that I am not disturbed for the next ten minutes," he said to Miss Armstrong, when she entered.

The girl nodded assent and withdrew.

When the door had closed, the woman turned to Thornton, rather mysteriously.

"Mr. Thornton, as a live-wire business man, I believe you're interested in any legitimate proposition promising unusually large financial rewards?" she began.

Thornton breathed a sigh of relief, tinged with disappointment. The woman's manner and method of approach had whetted his curiosity and expectations, but he now prepared to listen to the usual harangue of the expert stock salesman.

"I'll warn you beforehand," he interrupted, "I'm not interested in stocks of any nature."

The woman smiled knowingly. "I haven't come to sell you any stock, Mr. Thornton. The proposition I have in mind is something bigger, better, surer. The rewards are — well, tremendous!"

She leaned forward suddenly, with an air of utmost confidence. Her voice was almost a whisper, and she glanced occasionally at the man who had accompanied her and who was busy fixing the mysterious box in a comfortable position on his lap.

"Mr. Thornton," the woman said, in a low voice, "that man there has a device that is destined to earn tremendous rewards for its owners!"

Thornton glanced at the box on the man's lap with renewed interest.

"What is it?" he asked.

"That I cannot divulge at this time. If you are interested. I'll have him explain in detail. It is his own invention, and naturally he is very jealous of his secret. He will let no one into the secret unless there is a probability of their being interested."

"Like all inventors," she went on, "he is in need of financial assistance. If he should show his device to you now, you would grasp the secret immediately. Our proposition is this, it will require a considerable amount of capital to float this thing properly, but when you once learn the secret, you will readily agree that it is the surest investment a man could possibly make. The question is not whether it is a sure or risky investment — there is no doubt of its feasibility — but a question solely of finances. It will take considerable money, and we do not wish to take up your time or our own unless you are readily able to handle a proposition of this size."

"That would, of course, depend entirely upon my own opinion of its merit," Thornton replied, mystified and curious to learn the nature of the device.

"Certainly, Mr. Thornton!" the woman returned. "We could hardly expect anyone to interest themselves in something they have no confidence in. But it is not a question of confidence — the moment you learn the secret, you'll agree with us that the potential rewards in it are tremendous! Now, granting that you are interested, would you be able to finance a proposition requiring a considerable sum of money? Could you lay your hands on — say — fifty thousand dollars cash at any moment?"

"Double that amount, if the proposition is worth it!" Thornton replied, now really anxious to learn more about the mysterious box on the stranger's lap.

"Good !" the woman answered, enthusiastically. She turned to the man who had accompanied her. "Mr. Parker, will you demonstrate your device to Mr. Thornton?"

The man arose and stood by his chair as he fumbled with several little contrivances on the mysterious box. He made no effort to advance closer to Thornton's desk.

The woman leaned closer to Thornton confidentially and whispered to him. "He's suspicious of everyone. He won't show you the complete details now, but you'll learn enough when you see it in operation. It will surprise you, I assure you!"

The man was facing directly toward Thornton, as he fumbled in his pockets for an object which he laid on the top of the box. A false lid was raised, and Thornton could not see what the object was that the man placed on the box, for the upraised lid hid it from view.

The man seemed to have trouble in working some of the mysterious parts, for he finally laid the box on the chair by his side, to give him entire freedom of both hands. He bent down over the box for a few seconds while he worked with something behind the upraised lid.

Suddenly, the woman at Thornton's side uttered a half-smothered shriek and clasped her hind to her heart. Thornton turned quickly in alarm. The woman's eyes were widely dilated for a moment, as if in extreme agony, then she suddenly slumped over in a faint. She would have fallen but Thornton quickly reached out his arm and caught her. He supported her in his arms while he looked up at the man.

"Get me some water, quick! This woman has fainted!''

The man seemed to grasp the situation instantly, for he immediately turned and hurried toward the door leading into the outer office. As he did so, there was a sudden blinding flash of light from the mysterious box on the chair.

Events in the next few moments happened with dramatic rapidity. The man turned suddenly at the flash of light, grabbed the mysterious box and hurried out of the office. The unconscious woman in Thornton's arms suddenly revived, fixed her slightly disarrayed hat and gown, and arose to take her departure.

She smiled amusedly at the thoroughly mystified and dumbstruck Thornton.

"I thank you so much for the audience, Mr. Thornton," she smiled, "but I do not want to take up any more of your time than is absolutely necessary. We'll return at this time tomorrow — with the photograph."

"Photograph?" Thornton repeated, the light of comprehension entering his eyes.

"Yes, provided, of course, that it proves to be a good one. If it should not turn out clearly enough, we won't bother you again."

"Then that — mysterious invention was a — "

"Camera," the woman smiled mockingly. "It seldom fails. We've taken some wonderfully good photographs with it."

Convinced now that the woman's motives were ulterior, Thornton confronted her with a feeling of resentment at having been tricked so easily.

"I'm a busy man, Miss — Bender. Give me your proposition in as few words as possible," he said, curtly.

She seemed gallingly oblivious to his scorn. "We expect to have a very good photograph of you, Mr. Thornton — with me in your arms. It's merely a question of who considers that photograph of greater value — you or — Mrs. Thornton. We consider it worth to you at least five thousand dollars. That shouldn't be a staggering sum to a man who can lay his hands on fifty thousand cash at any moment he desires."

"And suppose I — don't consider it worth — or, rather, suppose I refuse to pay the blackmail?"

"Then, of course, I shall make the best bargain possible with Mrs. Thornton. I'm giving you first option."

"So generous of you," Thornton smiled, scornfully.

She seemed entirely unabashed and stood waiting expectantly, as if never doubting the final acceptance of her offer.

Thornton was interested in the woman's methods; she seemed so confident of herself.

"Tell me," he said, interestedly, "is this an — everyday occurrence with you?"

She smiled reprovingly.

"Rich men are not so plentiful, Mr. Thornton. Besides, we must pick our time. I never take chances — I always make sure of my ground first. You will notice I chose a time when you would be least likely to have any callers."

"But why all the rigmarole about the mysterious invention?" he persisted.

"I can't seem to conquer my love for dramatics, Mr. Thornton," the woman replied, smiling sheepishly. "I once followed the profession, you know, until I discovered there were greater returns in my present one. Besides, it is rather difficult to prepare to take a flashlight in a man's office without exciting his suspicion. The curtain covering the lens of the camera, you will recall, was not drawn back until the exact moment before the charge of powder was ignited. All a matter of mechanism," she explained, rather proudly.

"I suppose the — returns — are very gratifying?" he queried, noticing a huge diamond on her finger.

"I have no complaint," she replied, not taken back in the slightest. "Sometimes it is — rather embarrassing — but I try to cause as little trouble as possible."

"And is that part of your returns?"

Thornton asked, pointing to the stone on her hand which was flashing brilliantly in the early morning sunlight.

She gazed proudly at the diamond.

"Isn't it gorgeous?" she said, enthusiastically.

Thornton knew enough of precious stones to realize that the ring must have cost several thousand dollars. The diamond was extraordinarily large and of very fine cut.

The woman turned suddenly to go.

"Well, Mr. Thornton, I know you're a busy man, so I won't take up any more of your time — today. If we have been unfortunate in our photography, we will not bother you again. If it comes up to our expectations, I shall return tomorrow at this time for your decision."

Thornton bowed her out, admiring, in spite of himself, the woman's self-possession and complete confidence.

A few moments later he rang for his secretary, anxious to get his day's mail off his mind, so that he could give thought to the new problem that had thrust itself upon him. He waited a few moments and was surprised that Miss Armstrong was not as prompt as usual in answering.

He looked into the outer office and found her at her desk, gazing dreamily out the window, apparently oblivious to her surroundings.

He called her wonderingly. She rose with a start, and, smiling sheepishly, followed him into his office.

"Day dreaming?" he asked, smiling.

Miss Armstrong laughed, rather shamefacedly. "Yes, and a very foolish thing to dream about. I was picturing myself wearing the ring worn by the lady who just left."

"It was a beauty, wasn't it ?" he conceded.

"Oh, it was wonderful!" his secretary exclaimed, with beaming eyes.

From the expression on the girl's face, Thornton could understand how some women sold their souls for less expensive baubles.

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Chapter 2

The Lady Returns

Promptly at ten-thirty the next morning, Miss Bender called and was ushered immediately into Thornton's private office.

Thornton nodded a pleasant greeting and offered her a chair. He noticed a large envelope in her hand and surmised that it contained the photograph. He glanced up at her expectantly.

"I have good news, Mr. Thornton," Miss Bender smiled, ''that is, good news if you look at it from my viewpoint." "You succeeded in getting a good photograph ?"

"Excellent! It could not be clearer!" He found himself wondering why he was able to joke so pleasantly with this woman, who had so easily tricked him and then laughed at his stupidity.

"Now, would you mind giving me your proposition in detail, Miss — "

"There is nothing that I did not tell you yesterday, Mr. Thornton," she interrupted. "I have the photograph here which my assistant took yesterday. It is a first class likeness of yourself, holding me in your arms. I believe it should be worth at least five thousand dollars to you. If you don't agree with me, then I shall strike a bargain with Mrs. Thornton for it — and I'm sure it would interest her!"

"And if I pay you this five thousand dollars, what is to prevent you from — "

"I'll give you the negative also, and my word of honor that I shall make no further attempt to use the incident against you."

Thornton smiled at the reference to her "word of honor."

"You realize, I suppose," he said, slowly and with emphasis, "that this is pure blackmail?''

"Please don't use that word, Mr. Thornton!" the woman returned, mockingly. "There are so many nicer ways of expressing it."

"Would you mind allowing me to see what I am asked to pay such a sum of money for?" Thornton said, changing the subject abruptly.

His visitor obligingly produced the photograph and handed it over. From the attitude of the two in the picture, it certainly would be conclusive evidence in any divorce court. Thornton gazed at it a few moments, smiling enigmatically, then turned to his desk and picked up a large envelope. Placing the photograph inside, he silently addressed the envelope and sealed it.

His visitor scented trickery. "Just a reminder, Mr. Thornton, that you haven't paid for the photograph yet, and another reminder that I still have the negative and can make as many duplicates as I choose."

Thornton made no reply, but turned and faced the door leading into his outer office.

"Have you everything so far, Miss Armstrong?" he asked, without raising his voice.

The woman turned quickly, on her guard, but she saw no one. The man at the desk was evidently talking to the wall. She glanced hurriedly about the office, then turned and stared wonderingly at Thornton.

Three short, sharp knocks sounded on the outer door.

Thornton smiled.

"You may cut the wires now, Miss Armstrong, please," he said pleasantly.

Two short knocks sounded on the door, in answer to his instructions.

Thornton turned to his caller. "Now, Miss — Bender, is it? — I want to thank you for the photograph and compliment you on the excellence of the work."

The woman's lips curled in contempt, and she laughed carelessly, evidently confident of herself.

"I must warn you again, Mr. Thornton, that I still have the negative. It's a matter of a few minutes to make a duplicate of that photograph."

Thornton ignored her remark as he continued. "I will admit that I consider the photograph easily worth the amount you ask, but as long as it is not necessary to purchase it, why should I?"

The woman arose, furious, and prepared to make her departure.

''Just a moment, please," Thornton said, quietly, "I'll have to ask my secretary to unlock the door before you can go."

The woman rushed angrily to the door, for she believed Thornton was bluffing. She tried the knob and found the door locked.

She turned to the man at the desk with challenging eyes.

"Well, what's the game?" she panted, her first doubts beginning to assail her sense of security.

"Won't you sit down a few moments?" Thornton said, smiling at her discomfiture.

Miss Bender obeyed, then turned as if waiting for his next move.

"I think you told me your — profession was a very well paid one?" he began.

His visitor glared at him venomously and made no reply.

"Assuming that your words are true, I should think your liberty would be worth something to you."

Miss Bender turned, her face ugly in its mask of baffled rage.

"You can turn me over to the police, but a copy of that photograph will be in Mrs. Thornton's hands tomorrow!" she cried, furiously. "My assistant will attend to that! And what I will swear to on the witness stand will be plenty!"

Thornton smiled at her anger. Somehow he felt a curious sense of pleasure in playing with her, as a cat does before eating the mouse it has caught.

"My secretary has taken down every word that has passed between us this morning," he resumed.

He arose and pulled aside a large picture hanging on the wall.

The woman turned and saw a dictaphone, and knew the man was not bluffing.

"You realize, I suppose, that it is within my power to — "

"Well, what's your proposition?" the blackmailer demanded, impatiently.

Thornton reached over and pointed to the ring on her finger. "If you consider a half-hour's work worth five thousand dollars, wouldn't you consider your liberty worth — that ring?"

The woman seemed dumbstruck at his words.

"Why, it's preposterous!" she exclaimed, seething with fury.

"That's according to the viewpoint you adopt," Thornton replied, quietly, with a note of triumphant mockery in his voice. "I'm busy, Miss Bender, but I'll grant you ten minutes to make your decision. Hand over that ring on your finger, and I'll give you your freedom and make no attempt at prosecution for your attempted blackmail. Otherwise, I shall be compelled to telephone for the police."

After a few minutes' deliberation, the woman suddenly tore the ring from her finger and threw it angrily on his desk. An almost imperceptible sob escaped her lips.

Thornton picked up the ring and placed it in his pocket. "Before you go, Miss Bender, I want to add to your disappointment by telling you that Mrs. Thornton would gladly have given you five thousand dollars for that photograph! That dictaphone you saw behind the picture was placed there by detectives in the employ of Mrs. Thornton. She suspected that I was in love with my secretary. I pretended ignorance and allowed the instrument to remain, though I knew of its presence from the beginning. It was an easy matter to run in another wire for my stenographer yesterday, in readiness for your return."

He pressed the button on his desk and Miss Armstrong unlocked the door and entered.

He handed her the envelope containing the photograph.

"Will you please mail that for me at once, Miss Armstrong? And register it, please?"

The girl took the package and left the office.

The woman took advantage of her opportunity and gained the safety of the outer office. She turned and glared evilly at Thornton.

"Well, Mr. Thornton, for your trickery I'll reward you by telling you that Mrs. Thornton will receive a copy of that photograph in tomorrow morning's mail!"

"Which won't particularly interest her," Thornton replied, smilingly, "as she will receive the original in this afternoon's mail. My secretary has just mailed it to her by registered mail."

"You mailed that to — your wife?" the woman gasped, incredulously.

"Certainly. You see, Miss Bender, a divorce is the best thing that could possibly be handed to both Mrs. Thornton and myself. Our marriage is one that was never destined to last. It has survived this long only because of lack of sufficient grounds for divorce. And would not think of bringing any unpleasant notoriety to any lady — until you obligingly handed me what both Mrs. Thornton and myself have been seeking for months! Good day, and thank you so much!"

The woman stormed out of the office, furious at the circumstances that had robbed her of the large sum she had expected and nettled at the taunting mockery in her intended victim's voice.

A few minutes later Miss Armstrong returned. She handed her employer the postal receipt for the registered package.

"Got it off all right?" he smiled.

"Yes, it will probably be delivered this afternoon."

"Good!" He smiled rather anxiously. He turned suddenly to the girl. "Vallance, what was it you were day dreaming over yesterday when you didn't hear my ring for dictation?"

The girl gazed at him in smiling uncertainty for a moment, the incident not coming to her instantly.

"Oh, about the ring that woman was wearing," she replied, laughing sheepishly.

"Well, it was one day dream that came true," Thornton said, reaching in his vest pocket.

He withdrew his hand and placed the ring on her finger. The girl's eyes widened in astonishment, as she stared at the sparkling stone in disbelief.

"Why, it's just like the one that — woman wore!" she breathed in rapt admiration. "The stone is fully as large!"

"Yes, it does resemble it somewhat, doesn't it ?" Thornton smiled significantly.

~ The End ~