At fifteen minutes past ten, "Little Joe" raised the window of his room and stepped out onto the fire-escape. He was short, squat, with an oblong head, and a thick growth of jet black hair grew vigorously above his low forehead. His jaws were heavy and distinct, and his mouth was fixed in a habitual sneer.
He moved casually up the fire-escape, ascending with apparent unconcern. Little Joe was muscular, thick-set; an ape-like animal.
Earlier in the morning Joe had tried to borrow five dollars from Pug, but had been refused. Even though Pug had made two hundred dollars the day before, he declined to make a loan to Joe.
And Joe had a "sure thing" on the third race at Belmont. By investing five he would win sixty. Often before Pug had staked him. This morning, however, Pug had been surly and vicious. Too much bootleg. Pug dealt in illicit liquors, and sometimes he sampled his own stock.
Through the open window of Pug's room, Joe saw the stingy financier asleep in bed. Pug had removed his coat, vest and shoes before retiring the night before, though he had neglected to completely disrobe. A short nose and a huge lower jaw had given Pug his name. He was an unlovely object as he slept. His mouth was open; his forehead was wrinkled as he tried to keep the morning light from his eyes; he breathed heavily.
The gruff rumble of traffic wavered and growled in the air. An elevated crashed by a block away. In this mean, crowded section of the city, men lived and died in sordid, half-crumbling buildings.
No one had noticed Joe as he climbed the fire-escape. If they had seen him, they would not have remembered the fact. People were too busy in the unending struggle to keep alive to bother with gossip, or remembering the movements of their neighbors.
Joe crept softly into the room. He must not awaken Pug, for then there would be an argument, and possibly a fight. Joe did not fear a tussle; battles were an everyday occurrence. A well-used black-jack reposed in Joe's hip-pocket. It had seen experience, and possibly it would see more.
To the left of the window in Pug's room was a small table. Joe was seized with a humorous idea. He drew a stub pencil from his pocket, and looked about for paper. A newspaper slumped upon the floor. With laborious fingers, Joe wrote on the edge of a page, "IOU 5 Little Joe." He had gained the sobriquet in a crap game, and it was used by everyone.
As Joe tore the words from the margin of the newspaper, Pug stirred uneasily. Joe halted, and kept still. Apparently, he had suddenly been turned to stone. Not a muscle moved; he held his breath; he was rigid.
And then the even breathing began again on the bed. Joe relaxed, and moved toward the sleeping man. He paused and glanced once, swiftly, at the recumbent bootlegger, but Pug made no sound or movement.
A truck ploughed down the street outside, clattering and bumping, and the air hummed with the muffled roar of the ponderously alive city.
In the small cell-like room a small, squat man thrust his hand cautiously beneath the bed-pillow. His careful, sensitive fingers touched the cold steel of a stiletto. Joe stopped, chilled by the knife's keen edge. This was not what he sought. Pug's money was somewhere near his stiletto, though.
Pug sighed, and again Joe grew tense. If Pug awoke, he would be in a murderous humor. Joe's intrusion would not be misunderstood. For Pug would be positive that Joe had come to rob him. Which was correct.
Joe's stubby fingers fumbled with the end of the pillow-case and then searched within it for the bootlegger's banknotes. Joe dared not look at Pug, for a steady stare will arouse a sleeping person. And then, a vise closed upon Joe's windpipe and began to squeeze. His head was forced back by the pressure of a huge, hairy arm. An instant later Pug's other hand increased the pressure upon Joe's neck.
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Pug Had Been Awake
From the moment Joe had entered the room, Pug had been awake. His sleep had been interrupted twice before during the morning. Once when Joe had requested a loan, and later when someone else knocked upon Pug's door.
Pug had awakened the first time with his temper ragged. He had swallowed a large quantity of whiskey the night before while celebrating a lucky escape from revenue officers. So, when Joe came in and tried to borrow five dollars. Pug had been angry. It was damnable that a man whose throat was caked with concrete, whose eyes were pin-points of pain, should be awakened for such a reason. Pug had a grouch, Joe was the first man he had seen; therefore, Joe's request was declined violently.
Rebuffed, and equally angry, Joe had departed, and Pug went back to bed. But the bootlegger could not resume his interrupted slumbers. His tongue tasted unpleasantly, and his forehead was hot and dry. For several moments he tossed uneasily, and then someone else had knocked on the door.
This time Pug answered by locking the door. The person on the outside announced he wished to enter. Pug told him to go away, whoever he was, and suggested a destination. And, notwithstanding their repeated knockings, he had not opened the door.
When Joe had entered from the fire-escape, Pug had been almost asleep. But the tearing of the newspaper had roused him, though he had concealed the fact that he was awake.
And, when Joe had neared his money, Pug had been moved to action. He opened Ins eyes and grasped Joe at the same second. A second later Joe leaped backward, dragging Pug from the bed.
Joe snarled, and a wordless oath rasped from between his yellow teeth. He knew that he had been tricked; that Pug had not been caught unaware.
Pug sprawled upon the floor; his grip upon Joe's neck had been broken. But he did not remain recumbent. Flashing upward, Pug uttered a cry of rage and surged forward.
The small uncarpeted room held few articles of furniture. A small table was perched near the window that looked upon the fire-escape. There was an unpainted, wooden chair tilted underneath the knob of the door. The bed occupied one side of the room.
Though it lacked furniture, the room held sounds and actions. Snarling and swearing, their arms going like piston rods, their fists crashing brutally upon flesh, their bodies bent and tense, the two men gave and took punishment.
Pug was the taller, his arms were longer, and his fists cruelly battered his opponent's body. Then Joe dashed into close quarters, his arms short and crushing, his squat body aflame with hate.
He was met by a man whose friendship had been violated, whose mood was a mixture of fury and rage. Pug was wiry; huge hands dangled at the ends of his nervously strong arms; he was viciously ferocious. His fingers sank deep into the short, round neck of the man who had come to rob him.
As they fought, words flowed in a horrible stream from their lips. The argot of the underworld and the frightfully meaningless phrases of their ordinary conversation shot in fierce fragments from them. A moment before, the room had been silent save for the stealthy movements of Joe; now it was filled with hot oaths, the writhing bodies of the two antagonists, and the straining hate of their struggle.
Seizing an opportunity Pug swung the smaller man against the side of the bed, and they toppled prone. Out flashed one long arm, and Pug had the stiletto.
As the steel flashed above him, Little Joe turned, caught the descending hand and stopped its downward fall. He squirmed, terrified, for death leered from the face above him. With a superhuman effort Joe lifted the taller man with one short massive arm, and pushed him aside. And then, grasping Pug's hand that held the knife, Joe put his utmost efforts into an effort to force it downward.
It was a question of strength, and Joe was a trifle the stronger. The tension did not last long; with a swiftly increasing speed the stiletto descended.
Pug sank back upon the bed, his eyes filled with ludicrous surprise. Wordlessly, his mouth opened, and his body twitched. The knife remained in its human sheath.
Panic seized Joe, a sudden, overwhelming fear. He tore furiously at the pillow case, grasped the thick bundle of bills, and dashed to the window. Quickly, furtively, he slipped down the fire-escape.
When he reached his room, which was directly below Pug's, Joe had a horrified second. Instinct told him to protect himself; he must not be accused of killing Pug. He must leave his room, leave the building, do something to take suspicion away from himself.
He caught up a cap, pulled it down on his oblong head, and slipped quietly down the stairs of the cheap rooming house. He reached the sidewalk without seeing anyone. And he turned into a small cigar store instantly.
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The Shadow of the Electric Chair
Tom, the man who ran the cigar store, was thin, with small, kindly, black eyes set in a wrinkled face. He had an eager, talkative way, and he was continually buying new things — a pencil, or a billfold, or one of the innumerable novelties that are sold by street-corner peddlers — and insisting that all of his customers notice and admire his new possession.
Joe slipped into the cigar store, and grunted when Tom spoke to him. At intervals a chill plucked at his scalp and made the hairs rise and waver. His breath was still accelerated from his fierce struggle with Pug, and his body tensed each time he thought of the man he had killed.
Perhaps even now Pug was still faintly breathing. The knife had sunk deep, and had not been removed. Pug had twitched; his feet had stirred upon the floor … no, he was dead now. Lying with a surprised look in his eyes. Maybe Pug had squirmed a bit, or fallen from the bed, but … he was lying quiet now. Looking surprised, but quiet. Joe felt his scalp crawl.
He had to do something; fix things so he wouldn't be suspected. He had to do something; plan something. Make Tom think he had been here a long time. Stayed here from ten o'clock until — "Look at this watch," said Tom, offering a thin, octagon-shaped timepiece for Joe's approval. "Bought it this morning. Perfect shape. Seventeen jewel. A bargain."
Joe looked, and then his eyes blurred. The watch was a half-hour slow! A half-hour slow … Joe knew that the time was at least ten-thirty, because he had started for Pug's room at ten-fifteen. But the watch was a half-hour slow! The hour hand had crossed the figure ten, and the minute hand was at twelve. The watch was running, its second hand was gaily marking off sixtieths of a minute, and — it was a half-hour slow! The watch said ten o'clock.
Here, begging to be used, pleading to be accepted, was an alibi. It was almost too easy. It was being forced upon him. It was too easy. And yet —
Joe took the watch from Tom's proud hands, and caressed it with trembling fingers. Ten o'clock. A half-hour slow. But Tom should not know that —
"Pretty good watch," continued Tom, his manner insinuating that the timepiece was an extraordinary and extremely valuable article. "Cost me twenty-five. Worth a hundred. See this lever?" He touched a small gold slide. "That's the chimes. Listen."
While Joe held the watch, Tom drew out the tiny gold lever. A soft, clear bell rang ten times, slowly.
"Tells time in the dark. Pretty good watch," said Tom, boastfully.
Joe gripped his jaws together to still the chattering of his teeth. When Tom had worked the lever of the watch, he had thought that perhaps the cigar store man wanted the return of his property. Joe would give the watch back, but he would begin his alibi first. He would make sure that Tom would be positive that he had been in the cigar store at ten o'clock. Too easy? Why, he wanted something easy like this.
Putting the watch to his ear, Joe listened to its clicks. His body prevented Tom from seeing the timepiece. So, when it crashed to the floor, the cigar store clerk was surprised. Joe had deliberately dropped it.
Now! No matter what happened, Tom would now swear that Joe had been in the cigar store at ten o'clock. There remained but one thing to be done: Joe must now arrange that he should be remembered somewhere else at ten-thirty, or later.
"I'll pay for having the watch fixed," said Joe, picking it up from the floor, and finding that it had stopped. "I didn't mean to drop it."
He took Pug's roll of bills from his pocket, and. peeled off the top one.
Tom was distressed; new lines appeared in his wrinkled face.
"That's the best — " he began.
"You've got the money to have it fixed," Joe interrupted. He was impatient, eager to go elsewhere. "I've loafed around here long enough. Think I'll travel."
He started toward the door. He would go to the corner grocery store, and make some mention of the time there. Or to the nearest drug store. Then his alibi would be perfect, bombproof.
His feet clung to the floor, and he stretched one hand to the counter to steady himself. He felt sick, as though a solar-plexus blow had caught him unawares.
Looking in through the door of the cigar store was a detective.
Joe could tell a "dick" by one swift glance. Just as wild animals know when a man is armed and dangerous, and when he is without a weapon, so Joe could detect those who were dangerous. And the man who peered in the doorway was an officer of the law.
Cummings was a huge mountain of a man, ponderously built, blue-eyed and impassive. He saw Joe, and started to enter the store.
Fright flowed frigidly through Joe's veins; he was caught in the grip of a paralyzing fear. Now, while his alibi was in the process of making, would he be caught and held? Would he be arrested? Now, immediately after he had seemed so safe. That alibi had been too easy.
"You live next door," stated the detective, his enormous body filling the doorway. "Who runs that rooming house?"
"Mrs. Britt." Joe answered weakly. "She lives two blocks away. What do you — "
"Never mind what I want. Where have you been all morning?"
Sullenly Joe said, "Around here. Talking with Tom."
"Talking with Tom," Cummings repeated. "Well, you come with me."
Joe stepped out of the cigar store, feeling the shadow of the electric chair had touched him. He would be questioned, and —
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"I want to know where Ernest Worth — he's called Pug — lives in this house," the detective said, leading the way toward Joe's home.
Little beads of sweat appeared upon the squat man's forehead, and his arms stiffened. He stifled the moan that trembled in his throat. He dared not try and escape from the detective.
They climbed the uncarpeted silent stairs and paused before Pug's door.
"Is this the room?" Cummings asked, and Joe nodded wordlessly. "Well, I knocked on this door this morning," the officer continued, "and got a grunt and a get-out-of-here for an answer." He rapped upon the door.
"Mrs. Britt, who runs this house, lives two blocks away," said Joe. If he could get the detective interested elsewhere, perhaps his captor would no longer detain him.
"She's out," was the brief reply. "I went down to see her. Now, where is your room?"
"Let me have your key. This fellow Pug is wanted; he has been mixed up in a bootlegging gang that — "
"I don't know anything about it." Joe broke in.
He did not want the door to open; he did not want to see Pug, with that surprised expression on his face, lying dead. A spasm of despair fluttered through Joe, his knees shook slightly. "I — I haven't — had -anything — "
Again Cummings knocked upon the door …
"Pug growled at me when I was here before," he said. "This key might not fit — "
In the midst of his fear Joe had a dazzling idea. He had wanted to go to the grocery store in order to complete his alibi. Why not ask Cummings what time it was?
"Pug goes out for breakfast every morning," he said. "Got a watch? Let's see what time — "
The detective consulted a cheap nickel watch.
"Ten-thirty-five," he announced. "Pug was here at ten o'clock."
Perfect! Joe almost screamed with relief. With these words the detective had completed Joe's alibi. Cummings had roused Pug at ten o'clock; therefore he was alive at that time. Tom's dropped timepiece would prove that Joe had been in the cigar store at ten o'clock, and the clerk would say that he had chatted with Joe both before and after that time. When he left the cigar store, Joe had departed with Cummings; consequently his actions during the thirty-five minutes were satisfactorily accounted for. He could not be convicted for killing Pug, for his alibi was perfect. Perfect!
The detective inserted Joe's key in the door of Pug's room. Joe fought to control himself; he must appear astonished and appalled, as though he had not anticipated seeing the lifeless body of his friend. There would be a ludicrous expression of surprise on Pug's face; the bootlegger would be lying on the bed, or on the floor nearby.
The key fitted the lock on Pug's door. Joe was sure of this fact, for he had entered by the door on his first visit to Pug that morning. He had made his second visit by way of the fire-escape, because Pug had tilted a chair underneath the doorknob to prevent another visit.
The detective pushed the door open, shoving the tilted chair to the floor. Joe was alert, ready to be shocked by what they would find. Again a crawling fear squirmed across his scalp. He closed his eyes, fearing to see that limp, sprawled body.
From a distance, Cummings's voice sounded. It was a placid, indifferent voice, quiet and composed.
"Well, I guess Pug has gone out to breakfast," the detective said calmly.
Joe opened his eyes. He saw a disordered room, the overturned chair, the bedclothes disarranged, but no sign of Pug. There were no splotches on the floor, nor any evidence that a man had been hurt or killed. And the body had disappeared!
The detective rummaged in a small closet, and discovered an empty bottle underneath some soiled clothes. He held the dark brown bottle aloft. It was empty.
"No evidence of bootlegging here," he said. "Let's get out."
Joe was stupefied. He stood in horrified bewilderment, looking for some trace of the man he had killed. His mouth seemed hollow, and his eyes were huge and full of biting pains. Again and again he stared at the bed, where he had last seen Pug. Nothing there. Nothing. Joe forced himself across the room, and put his hand in the depression in the bed made by Pug when he had dropped back after being knifed. Nothing. Pug was nowhere in the room. And there were no stains upon the floor, nor any evidence that the bootlegger had been killed.
"Come on," said Cummings, "I'm going to take a look at your room."
Joe did not reply, but followed the detective from the room and down the stairs. Terror whimpered in the squat man's mind, horrible fear coursed through his veins and he stumbled as he descended the uncarpeted steps. Even though his alibi was perfect, a premonition seized him. He recalled Pug's face with its expression of ludicrous surprise.
The detective stopped and opened Joe's door. The short, squat man hesitated in the hallway, held motionless by a mysterious dread. Again his frantic mind assured him that his alibi was perfect, that if his actions during the morning were investigated he would not be convicted of murder.
A muffled curse came from Cummings. The word held horror and dismay and astonishment. And an intangible force impelled Joe into his own room where the detective stood.
Cummings was staring at the window in. dazed surprise. Joe's hunted eyes followed the detective's glance, and — his body snapped into numbness. Pinpricks of biting cold bit into his brain. All his strength vanished from him.
And then the short, squat man began to scream. Shriek after shriek came from Joe's bulging throat, each rising higher and higher. No words issued from his mouth; the sounds were the fear-filled, desperate, horrified screams of a trapped animal that knows it cannot escape.
For, upon the fire-escape, peering into the room, was Pug! The knife was still imbedded in the bootlegger's body; it had not been dislodged from the time Joe had forced the stiletto to its mark. Even though Pug had crawled to the window for assistance, had leaned out, and had fallen down the fire-escape to the floor below, the knife had remained implanted in his flesh.
Joe saw the man he had killed; saw Pug looking in through the window. Now, Pug was not ludicrously surprised. Instead, ferocious hate glared from his features, devilish anger stared from his sightless eyes. And in one cold hand Pug held a torn bit of newspaper, which bore the words "IOU 5 Little Joe."
There was no need to accuse Joe of the crime; no need to seek for incriminating evidence. His screams had reached a pitch that sounded as though his vocal chords were being torn from his throat by the strain. He proclaimed his guilt in horrible noises. He forgot that his alibi was perfect; forgot everything but Pug's loathsome, leering face. Joe's wild screams betrayed him, and Cummings knew that he was in the presence of the man who had killed Pug.
Later, of course, Joe was calmed by opiates, and his confession written down. But the confession, and the bit of newspaper found in Pug's lifeless hand, was only corroborative evidence. The thing that destroyed Joe's perfect alibi, that broke down his feeling of safety, and that finally sent him to the electric chair was Pug's face staring through the window from the fire-escape.
~ The End ~
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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