Flight to the Lonesome Place (2 page)

BOOK: Flight to the Lonesome Place
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“Yeah,” said Gus. “We gotta protect our investment.”

Their investment, Ronnie knew, had been protected beyond their wildest dreams. Nor did they ever again bother with anything requiring memorized records. To the Corporation, the Blue Boy was worth a hundred times as much.

But the old accounts weren't forgotten. Though his manager never mentioned them, certain names were beginning to come up in the news these days, and the big man would seem to freeze whenever he heard them. Then there was that curious matter of the extra money. The other day, when no one was watching, Gus had slipped a heavy sealed envelope into his hand, and said quietly, “Tuck that in the bottom of your zipper bag, and don't say anything about it. You may never need it, but it's a smart thing to have a little extra cash around.”

As he thought of it now, Ronnie shook his head and stopped abruptly a few feet from the door of his suite. Why, really, had Gus given him the money? It didn't quite make sense. He already had a big allowance, more than he could spend. Anyhow, Gus had always seen to it that the Corporation paid for whatever he wanted.

But he had been given extra cash. A great deal, from the feel of the envelope.

Why?

Ronnie shivered, and moved slowly to his door. With the key in his hand he hesitated, strangely uneasy about entering. All at once he wished he could be down again in the crowded lobby. With people around him he wouldn't feel so—so uneasy. But when he glanced over his shoulder at the distant area of the elevators, he knew he couldn't force himself to go back. Not through that long stretch of empty corridor, where he had just been.

He heard an elevator door open, and saw two men step out. At the same moment he was aware of the faint ringing of one of the telephones in his suite. Why didn't Peter Pushkin answer it, or a guard?

Suddenly, swiftly, he unlocked the door, entered the suite's drawing room, and thrust the door closed behind him. “Peter?” he called. “Joe? Hank?” Then, in rising uneasiness, “Hey, where's everybody?”

No one answered. The only sound was the steady ringing of the telephone over in his bedroom. He ran to it and snatched up the receiver. “Hello?”

“Ronnie! Thank God you answered.…” The voice, hoarse and gasping, belonged to Gus Woolman, but it was barely recognizable. Gus had been away all day.” Ronnie, get your bag and get out of there, fast—”

“L-leave here?” he stammered, not immediately comprehending. “But—but where do I go?”

“Anywhere,” Gus said hoarsely.” Just get going … and don't tell Peter or a soul.… You gotta get out of there before you're caught. That bunch will kill you.… They'll be there in minutes.… Hurry.…” There was a muffled sound, a gasp, then silence.

Ronnie stood frozen, staring at the dead receiver. He was aroused from his trance by an impatient knocking on the outer door. His heart contracted as if a cold hand had clutched it. That couldn't be Peter or one of the guards outside. They would have let themselves in without knocking. And there had been no one in the hall but the men who had stepped from the elevator. Strangers …

A key scraped softly in the lock. It rattled faintly, was withdrawn, then again came the faint scrape and rattle as if another key were being tried. In sudden horror Ronnie remembered that he had not taken time to put the safety chain in place when he entered.

All at once he hurled himself at the bedroom door, closed it and locked it. He ran to the closet, snatched up the small zipper bag containing Gus Woolman's envelope, and sped with it to the side door opening directly into the corridor. With his hand on the knob he paused a moment, listening. Now he could hear sounds in the drawing room behind him.

They had gotten in already.

Trembling, he managed to ease his corridor door open. Making sure that the way was clear, he tiptoed out and turned right toward the stairway. Panic caught up with him as he started downward, and he began racing madly for the safety of the street, nine stories below.

2

DESTINATION UNKNOWN

AT THE FINAL TURN of the stairway, with the angle of the lobby in sight, Ronnie stopped and clung to the banister, gasping for breath. In his entire descent from the tenth floor he had seen no one, not even a maid or a cleaning woman. But that was to be expected at this hour. The fact that he had heard nothing behind him was not reassuring. The stairs were thickly carpeted. Even now the men could be running to overtake him, only a floor or two away.

If they were after him, he had only seconds to spare. Somehow he must get through the lobby unnoticed, and lose himself on the street.

As he started down the last few steps, he was shaken by the thought that a third man might have been stationed in the lobby to watch for him. In that case his wig and glasses wouldn't help a bit. If he were the only young person around, he would be spotted immediately.

At the edge of the lobby he paused just long enough to give the place a searching glance, then turned left toward the side entrance. He tried to walk naturally and control his ragged breathing, but so many people seemed to be looking at him that it was almost impossible not to break into a mad dash for the street. A few paces from the entrance a man stepped in his path as if to stop him, and he bolted.

Outside, in the warm New Orleans night, Ronnie continued to run as far as the corner, even though he was not followed. The man, he realized, probably hadn't even seen him, but had merely stepped forward to greet a friend.

For a while he drifted with the crowd, too shaken by what had happened to be more than vaguely aware that he was somewhere in that area known as the French Quarter. His mind was in a daze; it was impossible to think what to do. Never in his life, not even in those hungry days in the ghetto, before the reformatory, had he felt so completely lost.

If there was just some place to go, someone he could talk to …

His nostrils caught the odors of food coming from an all-night restaurant on his left. He stopped, uncertain. He didn't feel hungry, but it was nearly midnight, the time when he usually ate his evening meal. If he went in and ordered something, it would at least give him a chance to sit down a while. Then maybe he could figure things out.

Entering, he found a seat at the crowded counter. He started to order a hamburger, but decided upon a full dinner instead. The dinner would give him more time. While he waited for it, he glanced up and saw his pale, thin face staring back at him from the mirror flanking the coffee urn. His heavy glasses gave him a goggle-eyed look like a scared chipmunk. A telltale wisp of blue under one ear caught his attention. He was hastily tucking it out of sight when he heard his name mentioned.

Ronnie almost jumped from his seat, then he realized that the man on his right was talking about him to the waitress.

“Think he's really as smart as they say?” the man was asking her.

“Of course he is! Didn't you ever see him on TV?”

“Yeah, but there must be a trick somewhere. No kid that young—he can't be more than twelve—”

“I've heard he's fourteen,” said a man farther down the counter. “But he's small for his age. The only tricky thing about him is that blue hair. I understand it's really white.”

“I don't care what color his hair is,” the waitress put in. “He's got every right to wear it purple if he wants to. Any boy smart enough to do the things he can do, and earn a million dollars a year—”

“He earned twice that in his last movie,” interrupted the second man. “A friend of mine knows a girl who used to room with one of the Blue Boy's secretaries. Did you know that it takes fifteen secretaries just to answer his
fan mail?

“No!”

“It's a fact.”

Ronnie was grateful when the waitress left to take an order, and the talk about him died. She returned presently, bringing his dinner, and said kindly, “You look kinda lost. Your folks away or something?”

He nodded, unable to speak, and she said, “That's all right. Just be glad you've got folks. Me, I didn't have nobody but a good-for-nothing uncle.”

At the moment he would have been willing to settle for any kind of relative, even if the kinship offered only temporary shelter. Still, he thought, the police could give him that.

While he picked at his food he considered going to the police, then decided not to—except, of course, as a last resort. Going to them wouldn't solve anything, and they couldn't protect him indefinitely. As for friends …

He didn't know anyone in New Orleans, and of the hundreds of people he had met all over the world, there wasn't a one he could really call a friend. The Corporation had seen to that. Of course, there were potential friends scattered about, and he would have been on his way to see one of them now had any lived close enough. But most of them lived abroad.

Well, why not fly abroad, say, to London? His passport was in the zipper bag with his money, and there were at least three important acquaintances in the London area who certainly would help him.

Then he realized it wouldn't work. He was too young, too small. If he went to the airport and asked for a ticket to any distant place, he would attract instant attention. He would probably get the ticket, but not until he had shown his identification and proved he wasn't some crazy kid trying to run away from home.

No, he didn't dare take such a chance. The people who wanted him dead—and he had a pretty good idea who they were—would be able to trace him without the least trouble.

If only he were older, and bigger, he would have no real problem. He would be able to go anywhere in the country and just drop out of sight for a while. But tonight he couldn't even get a room in a second-rate hotel without the risk of being discovered.

What was he going to do?

For the first time since he had become the Blue Boy, Ronnie wished he wasn't so famous. It made hiding a thousand times more difficult.

Suddenly he thought again of the tiny girl from Santo Domingo who had tried to warn him during the performance. What a strange time to warn anyone—unless she had known that trouble was already on the way. It seemed impossible. How could she, of all people, have known anything? As for that silly talk about spells and magic …

All at once he stiffened, and slowly put down the fork he had been toying with. The solution to his problem was staring him squarely in the face. He swallowed as he saw the dangers in it, but it was the only chance he had, and he knew he'd better move fast. Another hour might be too late.

But first he ought to make sure about what had happened.

Ronnie left a generous tip for the waitress, paid his bill, and hurried out to find a telephone. First he called his hotel and asked the switchboard operator to ring Gus Woolman's room.

He waited, breathless, wondering if anyone would answer. He was a little shocked to hear Peter Pushkin's voice in his ear.

“Mr. Woolman is not here,” said Peter. “But I am one of his associates. May I take the message?”

Ronnie swallowed. “Peter,” he began, “where's Gus? Have you any idea?”

“Ronnie!” the tutor exclaimed. “For heaven's sake, where are you?”

“Never mind where I am. What about Gus?”

“Gus is dead! He was shot in a phone booth trying to make a call. The police are here checking on things.”

Ronnie swallowed again. It was what he had expected, but it was still hard to take. “He—he was trying to warn me, Peter. I—I managed to get away, just in time.”

“Good Lord!” Then, sharply, “Ronnie, where are you?”

“Don't ask me, because I'm not telling anyone.”

“But you must! Don't you understand? It's obvious that you know something you shouldn't. That's dangerous information. No one as well known as you would have a ghost of a chance alone. You've
got
to have protection! Hurry—where are you?”

Ronnie hesitated. Then, thinking of Peter's cold eyes, he said slowly, “I needed protection when Gus called me. Where were you and the others then?”

He hung up without waiting for an answer, and stood frowning at the telephone book, wondering where to place his next call. How do you locate one particular ship in a port as big as New Orleans? Finally he dialed the Coast Guard.

When the man on duty answered, he made his voice as low as possible, and said, “I'm trying to find a ship called the
Cristobal Colón
.”

“The
Cris
—what?”

He spelled it slowly, and added, “I think she's a freighter. She's being loaded now, and will sail in a few hours. Where can I find her?”

“The Captain of the Port could tell you, but that office is probably closed now. Hold it a minute, mister.” There was a murmured consultation, then,” My buddy here knows about her. She's on a regular run down to the islands. She always loads at the Perry Street wharf.”

“Where is that?”

“On the Algiers side of the river, just above the bridge. If you cross the bridge instead of taking a ferry, look down on the right while you're crossing, and you'll see her.”

Ronnie thanked him, hung up, and stood chewing his lip a moment while he planned his next move. The location of the ship made everything more difficult. It meant a long cab ride that would surely be remembered by the driver.

Suddenly he closed his eyes and visualized a map of New Orleans he had studied with much interest when he first came to the city. He had not tried to memorize it, but now a section of it came vividly to his mind and he had no trouble picking out the intersection he wanted.

A few minutes later, in a cab, he said, “Take me over the bridge to Algiers, and let me off at the corner of Burmaster and Monroe.”

Presently, when they were racing over the great high bridge, he looked down and saw the ship outlined in a blaze of lights at the wharf. But all the approaches to the area, for some distance around it, were dark. The fact troubled him until the cab, after leaving the bridge, finally slowed, and the driver asked him for directions.

BOOK: Flight to the Lonesome Place
9.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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