Authors: Paul Cain
Wister was a very pale green. He stammered: “You mean—you mean you won’t turn us in?”
I said: “No, I don’t mean that. I’ll turn in everything I know as soon as I get the stones but I don’t want a lot of coppers in my hair until I
get them. That’s a break for you.”
Mrs Wister was smiling unpleasantly. She said: “What’s to prevent my shooting you, now—and saying you forced your way in here and threatened us?”
She meant it.
I had to press my luck. “The principal thing,” I said, “to prevent you is that my boss is waiting downstairs and he knows the whole setup.”
They looked at each other and I thought it was a good time for me to get up and mosey to the door. Then I turned and said to Wister:
“If there’s anything you want to tell me that’ll help prove Dekker murdered Lina Ornitz, now would be a good time.”
I think he wanted to talk, but he looked at the lady and then looked down at the floor. I opened the door.
“One last thing,” I said, “you two won’t get very far. If you want to do the smart thing you’ll show up at our office in the morning and we’ll talk it all over and see what we can do.”
Then I went out and closed the door and took a deep breath. The sweat was thick on my forehead; Mrs Wister had a cold eye.
It was ten minutes of eleven. I called the Old Man because I wanted him to cover me when I met Dekker but his line was busy. I waited a minute and tried again but no go, so I jumped into a cab and told the driver if he could get me to Eighth Street and Eleventh in nine minutes flat I’d buy him a new hat.
He made swell time; I got out at a saloon about a block and a half above where I was supposed to meet Dekker and gave the driver his hat money and called the Old Man again. The line was still busy. I walked on down to Eighth Street.
Dekker rolled up in a cab in about five minutes. He got out and paid the driver and crossed the street to me, yipped heartily: “Well, well—we are both on time.”
I nodded. We started down Eleventh Avenue. It was deserted except for a couple of passing trucks. Dekker glanced behind us several times, seemed satisfied that we weren’t being followed.
I had taken my gun out of the shoulder holster, tucked it into a thin hip holster under the waistband of my trousers, against my stomach. My coat covered it fairly well.
I said: “They just arrested Wister for the murder of Lina Ornitz.”
Dekker stopped as if he’d suddenly run into a stone wall, turned, croaked: “What do you know about Wister?”
I stopped and faced him. “Not much. That’s what I want to check—with you. I want to know all about Wister.”
He came very close and put one hand on my arm. “Listen,” he said. “I will tell you about this thing. It will not change our agreement—our deal?”
I told him it wouldn’t change our deal as long as we got the emeralds. I wondered what he’d do with fifty thousand dollars when he was sitting in the electric chair for the murder of Lina Ornitz but I didn’t mention it.
He said: “Wister and his brother David who works in the London office of Burke-Reynolds were behind it. David was the brains—he has been doing it for two years with other branches of the company, all over the world.”
I turned and he turned with me; we walked on, slowly.
“There were five of us in it this time,” he went on, “David and John Wister; Jolas, the man who actually stole the stones—we will meet him in a little while; and Lina Ornitz and myself. David Wister could make it very easy for Jolas to get things that were heavily insured by the company. He knew where they were kept and all about the burglar alarm and other measures that were taken to safeguard them—that was his job with the company.”
Dekker paused a moment, went on:
“It was all a very fine scheme. Jolas would turn the stones over to Lina Ornitz and she would bring them to New York. She’s slick at this game and has had several girls working for her, smuggling smaller stuff, for several years. Then, she would bring them to me to re-cut and I would call the police. She would ostensibly escape just before the police arrived and I would give them a wrong description of her and turn the stones over to the insurance company and collect the reward.”
I said: “And it’d split five ways—twenty thousand dollars apiece—yourself and Lina, Jolas and the Wisters?”
He nodded. “But Lina was scared at the last minute—there was too much fuss in the papers, and she would not go through with it, so Jolas brought them.”
We turned down a dark alleyway leading to one of the disused North River wharves; Dekker was a little in front of me, on my left.
“That is where we are going now,” he finished. “Jolas came in tonight on a Dutch tramp that is anchored out in the stream.”
I said: “What the hell makes you think he’ll turn the stuff over to us? And why didn’t you go out by yourself?”
Then I guess whoever decides such things figured I’d had enough luck for one night. Dekker was laughing suddenly. I did not hear him but I could see his round pink face in the faint glow of a distant arc-light, and that is the last I remember for a little while. Something hit the back of my head very hard and I fell forward into darkness.
I opened my eyes and looked up into yellow fog. I was lying on my back in the bottom of a small motor launch and the muffled engine was beating a few inches from my head. I guess I slid back into the dark for a little while because the next I remember I was being carried up a short gangway and dumped on a slippery steel deck. My hands and feet were tied and my head felt lopsided.
There wasn’t very much light but I could hear the launch going away and Dekker’s voice jabbering softly in Dutch for a moment, then lapsing into his stilted, precise English. I turned my head and tried hard to listen.
I knew enough Dutch and could catch enough of the English to know he was propositioning the skipper. The point seemed to be that the skipper didn’t know what Jolas—evidently his only passenger—was carrying, and Dekker was telling him all about the emeralds, with lots of adjectives and gestures, and trying to sell him the idea of upping anchor and shoving off for St Thomas or Kingston or Halifax, anywhere out of the States where they could cash in on the stones.
I found out later that Dekker had brought a case of instruments along and was all set to go to work at his trade. I didn’t understand what he proposed doing with Jolas but I found out about that in a little while.
I guess he made it sound pretty good to the Captain because I heard him give some orders in Dutch and in a little while I heard the winch puffing and the anchor chain rattling up. I couldn’t move and it wasn’t a lot of fun lying there and thinking what a damned idiot I’d been and wondering what was going to happen to me.
Then I heard two shots aft a little ways. I tried to sit up but someone came up behind me and kicked me in the head and I went bye-bye again. When I came to that time I was lying in the scupper and the deck was shaking under me; we were underway. The thing that interested me most, though, was that someone was crawling toward me along the scupper; I could see the outline of a man’s head and shoulders very faintly against an afterdeck light.
Then the man’s head was near mine and he was whispering. It was Jolas. I found out later he had a slug in his belly and one high in the right side of his chest. Dekker had left him for dead and he’d managed to crawl over about forty feet of littered, slippery deck.
He gasped something unintelligible, the only recognizable word of which was revolver, and I suddenly felt my hands slip free. I heard a knife click on the deck as it slid from his hand and he slumped forward, down; I twisted around and groped in the darkness, found the knife and cut the line around my ankles.
It is certain that Jolas had no idea who I was; he knew only that I was tied up and was very evidently opposed to Dekker. He raised his head a little and tried to speak again; I leaned very close to him and above the shriek of the wind and the roar of the engines made out the words:
“Revolver … in coat … cabin… .”
He succeeded in raising one arm a little, pointing aft.
It probably took me ten minutes to crawl forty feet. A seaman passed twice and someone who looked like a Chinese mess-boy. I flattened myself against the deck in the shadow of the bulkhead and they went by without noticing me.
The door of a cabin was open, swinging in the wind; I waited until the deck was clear, jumped up and ran across to it. I hadn’t realized how groggy I was until I stood up; I barely made the cabin, stumbled and fell inside. It was very dark. I guess I must have been pretty nutty. I didn’t think anything about whose cabin this might be—I just took it for granted it must be Jolas’. I got up as soon as my head stopped spinning, found the clothes press in one corner and groped for a coat.
Anyway I found a revolver. It was an old-fashioned eight-shot Krupp and loaded. I stuck it into my pocket and felt my way along the bulkhead toward the door; bumped into the washbasin. That was one of the swellest breaks of the evening; I filled the basin with cold water, doused my head, and felt like three or four new men.
The next five minutes were something like a three-ring circus, something like a shooting gallery. It’s surprising how much hell one man with a gun and a grudge and nothing to lose can raise on a ship. Especially when he isn’t expected.
I went forward, up to the bridge without running into anybody. Dekker and the skipper were bent over the chart-table; there was one man at the wheel and another with his nose pressed against the glass of one of the wheelhouse ports.
I shot Dekker. I didn’t think about it at all. I just shot him where it would hold him for a while, and his knees got soft and went outward, and he sank down to the deck. The Captain whirled around and jerked at one of the drawers in the chart table. I only had seven cartridges and I had to make all of them work; I squeezed the Krupp again and I’ll be damned if I didn’t miss him—at about ten feet. I guess I was about three-quarters slug-nutty. I got him, second shot, and the other two men put up their hands.
A guy started up the bridge ladder behind me and I got him first shot, too. That was all. I told the man at the wheel to put the ship about, and I held the revolver so that it was plenty conspicuous and told the other man—he turned out to be the Mate—to tell the radio man to call the police radio boats and tell them to stand by.
The Mate seemed to think everything I asked him to do was very reasonable. He was a very bright guy. That was about all, except for about a million cops and a lot of noise.
Jolas was dead. Dekker was tried in New York and was stuck, among other things, for Lina’s murder. He’d been scared of Lina turning them in ever since she’d backed out on bringing the stones over.
He was over at the flat when Ornitz called from the restaurant and told her I wanted to see her, and when she said she was going over to see me, a private dick, he didn’t take any chances. Then he waited for me outside, watched me go in, and when I came out he tried to let me have it from the blue coupé. He thought I knew a lot more about the whole setup than I did. When he missed he figured the best thing to do was proposition me about a split on the reward, and if I bit he could eliminate me at the earliest opportunity.
The Wister boys are in a Limey prison for long enough. I don’t know what happened to Mrs Wister but I don’t worry about her much. I think she can do a pretty good job of taking care of herself.
I had a headache for a couple of weeks that moved back and forth between the place Dekker’s sidekick smacked me with a timber and the spot back of the ear where the guy on the ship kicked me. But my cut of the reward paid for a lot of aspirin.
n fine weather, of which there was a spate that summer, it was the whim of M. Etienne de Rocoque to emerge from his restaurant in East Sixty-first Street at exactly six-thirteen of an evening and stroll west to Fifth Avenue, south to Sixtieth, east to Park Avenue, north to Sixty-first, and so back to the restaurant and home. It had been discovered by long and diligent experiment that the time he now habitually chose for these somewhat circumscribed excursions was the approximate sixteen minutes between the last home-hurrying stragglers of the commercial day and the first diversion-bent explorers of the night: the streets were comparatively deserted.
He was invariably accompanied by Bubu, a Nubian dwarf, who trotted about two paces behind and a little to the left of his master carrying a narghile from which the latter drew long, deeply pleasurable puffs of green Surinam tobacco, dispensed them in great green clouds upon the silky evening air. They were—Etienne globular and enormous in polka-dotted seersucker and Persian slippers, wielding a vast palmetto fan, Bubu tiny and tatterdemalion in a ragged cloth-of-gold jerkin, his eager little ape-face glistening like an eggplant—a striking and somehow heartwarming pair.
Etienne’s immensity had confounded medical science, most especially biochemistry, for a long time. Early in life he had worn his liver and certain other gastrically essential equipment down to tenuous and entirely decorative nubbins, had at the time we now observe him subsisted on thin cornmeal gruel and distilled water for upwards of eleven years, but he still tipped the scale at three hundred and three pounds in his shantung shorts. This anomaly had led at least one Harvard professor, nameless here, who had devoted most of his mature life to protein research, shrilly to cry “No!” and fling himself backwards into the Charles River.
On the evening with which this tale is most intimately concerned, a wisteria cab drew close to the curb as Etienne and Bubu were waiting for the light to change at Madison Avenue, a man wearing a curly, obviously false beard thrust his head out and went “His-s-st!” Etienne, after a brief glance, continued across the street, west; he
spoke to strangers.
As they crossed Park Avenue on the homeward lap, the wisteria cab again stopped directly in front of them with a thin shriek of brakes, and the man again popped his head out of the window hoarsely to whisper, “His-s-st! I must speag to you!” His accent was deep Balkan Peninsula, darkly belying his blond beard and what Etienne now, on second inspection, saw to be an even blonder wig. For answer, he exhaled a thick cloud of green smoke which momentarily obscured the entire cab and when it had cleared away, they were alone. Bubu giggled soundlessly; they went home.
There, doffing his slippers and wilted seersucker, Etienne enjoyed a tepid shower, then wandered in monstrous nakedness to a front window of his living quarters above the restaurant, peeped; as he had more than half suspected, the cab was across the street. He snapped his fingers. Bubu, slicing a pomegranate in the kitchen, two floors below and in the rear of the house, though mute, was gifted with preternaturally acute hearing, jumped at the first snap and galloped up the stairs.
“Go”—Etienne indicated the cab—“Go and bid the bearded stranger enter.”
Bubu grimaced up at him in stunned wonder for a moment and, after a simple handspring, clattered down the stair. Gertrude, the myna bird, who had been indulging in unaccustomed silence since Etienne’s return, now, after a deep sigh, sang out, “Man the pumps, men—we’re heading into a sou’wester.” There was often a certain incongruity in Gertrude’s pronouncements, in that while her words and usually her sentiments were most uncouth, her diction was perfect—perhaps a little too much so.
Etienne watched Bubu scuttle across the street and make signs to the stranger, then crossed to sit on a wide divan; in a matter of moments the stair creaked—a touch ominously, he thought—Gertrude gave with a thick and obscene guffaw, and Bubu, bowing to the floor, waved the bearded man into the room.
He was a young man, thin of shank and broad of shoulder—a tall young man with a kind of steely beauty about him. He wore a simple black sack suit, black sneakers, a plain white shirt, and a narrow black four-in-hand tie, carried a large squarish object in Christmas paper: a bit of an anachronism because it was the middle of July. Etienne inclined his head towards a nearby chair, and the young man gratefully sank into it, put the obviously heavy package on the floor between them.
“I am moz happy you decide to speag wiz me now,” he gurgled, “elz I ’ave to bozzer you day after day until you do.”
Etienne nodded almost imperceptibly. “You may as well remove your whiskers,” he suggested, “and your wig.” He picked up the big palmetto fan, fanned. “It is very warm.”
“Ett eez eendeed,” said the young man. “Zank you, zank you!” And whipping off his blondness he shoved it into his pocket, disclosing a long tanned Greco face, also bearded, but blue-black, a cap of shiny blue-black hair.
“The accent, too, is obviously a strain,” Etienne went on after a moment. “It is entertaining at first but would wear on me terribly in a little time. Shall we dispense with it?”
“Very well, sir,” the young man said in perfect English, a touch stiffly.
“And now”—Etienne’s roving, faintly amused eyes had come to rest upon the gaudily sealed and beribboned package—“and now, what, in an exceedingly banal but blessedly short phrase, have we here?”
“Ah! …” The young man leaned slowly forward until his long nose almost touched a kind of conical projection protruding from the top of the package; his dusky gaze was fixed upon the small still life—a pear, a pipe, a mandolin—that Braque himself had tattooed upon Etienne’s left chest these many years ago. “Ah, Monsieur de Rocoque,” he intoned breathlessly, “we have here the answer to all your problems, all your prayers—the dearest wish of your heart… . We have here,” his nose grazed the conical projection, “the Tasting Machine… .”
Etienne’s, it must be stated somewhat parenthetically here, is not a restaurant in the ordinary sense. No one can buy a meal there—a
, a sweet, nor even a glass of wine. Etienne de Rocoque, Chef de Cuisine Transcendantale, is infinitely beyond being a restaurateur and has so been for many years. His is a clientele conspicuous for its far-flung sparseness, an even hundred pampered stomachs scattered about the earth. But once each month or so he plans and cooks and serves one dinner, or one luncheon, or, perhaps, even a breakfast, and to that boon are invited two or three—five on a really festive occasion and never more than seven—of the fortunate few who grace his guest list.
From Montreux comes, mayhap, the Duc d’Ange, Montfiore Toeplitz from Madrid, Ling Hang Lo from Chungking, The Hon. Jezebel Gapeingham, O.B.E. from Bath. And Etienne, in this time, redolent of steam and sweat and spices, lopes about his kitchen plucking gastronomic pearls, one after another, out of his pots and pans and ovens to set before these favored four and finally, wilting with joy, presides at table—to taste, alas, only their pleasure.
There is his cross. It is not so much that he cannot share these viands, these fabled wines with them—the pain of that is dulled by years—but that his whole life is limited now, designed for, geared to, actually
upon their appreciation of his work, their grunts and groans and low-pitched moans of ecstasy. Here is the crux of the matter, then—whisper it softly, softly—even the most superlatively attuned palate sickens of wonder, in time… . There is his cross… .
Etienne had paled. This, a phenomenon of whiteness which, even when he was fully clothed, had been known to affect the beholder with a kind of nameless terror, was now, in his huge nudity, little short of stupefying. The young man drew back, closed his eyes. Bubu ran to hide his head in a corner; Gertrude hummed a bar of “Throw out the Life-line,” delicately belched. Then Etienne’s blood surged to his veins again and he pinkened back to life.
“What do you know, dark youth,” he demanded in a thunderous whisper, “of
heart’s dearest wish?”
“That which I do not know I have divined,” said the young man quietly, opening his eyes. “Such is the frailty of flesh that you have come now, finally, to founder in perfection.”
Etienne pondered this at length. Here, in a simple and felicitous turn of phrase, this extraordinary fellow had named his malady. Perfection …
“And how,” he slowly lowered his stare to the package, “and what has this contraption to do with me?”
“And how did you come by it?”
“I invented it.”
The young man had leaned forward to tear off almost savagely the ribbons, the bright paper; a glossily dark gray box resembling a small phonograph was revealed, its simplicity marred only by four jointed metal arms on one side, folded now, at the extremities of which were deftly welded a knife, a fork, a spoon, and a kind of two-pronged hook. There was a small round aperture in the same side, and the conical projection on top, which now turned out to be a plexiglass tube containing a single hair-thin filament.
“I invented it,” the young man repeated, then breathed devoutly, “for you.”
Bubu had turned from the corner, and Gertrude swooped to light upon his shoulder; together they approached to examine the gift with timid skepticism. It is typical of Etienne that he did not laugh, nor smile, nor anything, but accepted the validity of the machine as easily as he would have accepted the color of an Oncidium orchid—not so much from naïveté as from a kind of congenital innocence of cynicism.
And now, although the young man had pressed no buttons, turned no knobs, Etienne momently became aware that the machine was working. There was a deep but gentle whirring sound and slowly, very slowly, one of the metal arms—the one with the fork—was unfolding, reaching out and—snick!—it had suddenly speared the largest, ripest, and most luscious grape from a cluster on a nearby salver. Quickly it carried this dripping, glittering morsel to the aperture and popped it in; the filament glowed, ever so faintly, and then—Etienne felt his whole soul shudder slightly with gratification—the machine sighed… .
Softly, languidly, it heaved a tiny sigh of satisfaction.
“Observe that, having chosen the best grape on the bunch, it spurns the rest,” the young man murmured. “It, too, is designed only for perfection… .”
But now the two-pronged hook was reaching towards the salver, seized, with the speed of light, a magnificently unblemished tangerine. The knife went snicker-snee and peeled it in a twinkling. It, too, disappeared into the aperture, and the machine moaned gently, slaveringly smacked its internal lips.
Bubu clapped his heavily bejeweled hands tinklingly in small Nubian delight. Gertrude whistled shrilly, warbled “Damn my eyes—but that’s a pretty sight!” Etienne rose. The young man stirred, smiled up at him.
“No longer,” he crooned, “shall you be subject to the idiosyncrasies of your patrons’ moods, Monsieur: quirks of digestion, ravages of time, and repletion upon the taste buds and the gastric system. No longer need your spirit cringe beneath the human equation with all its foibles and fallibilities… .” He rose. “The Machine is infallible. Its taste is exquisite. And”—his lips curved for a split second to something almost frighteningly like a sneer—“it will never wear out… .”
They stood there. The thin suggestion of a sneer had swiftly gone from the young man’s mouth, and he was smiling almost tenderly. Gertrude chortled, screeched, “Damn my bloody eyes!” and flew back to her perch. The cuckoo clock on the floor below distantly caroled seven.
“This is it”—Etienne groped for adequate words—“this, indubitably, is beyond adequate words… . But how did you know? And what, dark youth, is your name?”
“I divine… .” The young man extracted a square of cobalt linen from his sleeve and gently blew his nose. “And my name is Vincent.”
“If you have divined this”—Etienne had squatted to examine more closely the wondrous mechanism; it was silent now, its filament cold, its arms demurely folded—“then, Vincent, you have divined that, though penniless, I am vastly rich in jewels and doodads and sundry tokens that admirers of my art have left for me.”
The young man nodded, his face expressionless.
Etienne rose again and stroked his jowls. “My treasure chests and coffers bulge and overflow with diamonds, rubies, square-cut emeralds. Ask what you will.”
The young man slowly shook his head.
“But,” Etienne fell back apace, “I cannot accept this miracle as a gift!”
The young man stopped shaking his head; his voice was barely audible: “I had thought, rather, of a trade, Monsieur.”
Etienne beamed. “A trade! Excellent! Then name it!”
The young pan’s eyes were fixed upon the small still life that Braque had wrought.
“I had thought, Monsieur,” he said, “of Mercedes… .”
There was a moment of fraught silence. Then Bubu hid his face in his hands, sank to the floor, and frightfully, soundlessly sobbed; Gertrude screamed raucously, “Man the lifeboats, men! Stand by to abandon ship!” Etienne? Etienne was as one turned to stone; his lips framed the word, but no sound came forth.
The young man whispered, “Mercedes,” smiled, then stooped to pluck a single grape from the salver and consume it.
In the immediately ensuing three and one-half seconds, an aeon of time, a universe of space, a billion thoughts crowded through Etienne’s brain, simmered away to these:
How did this young upstart know of Mercedes—and what? Mercedes, whose skin was as the petals of the moonflower, whose hair was Thracian silk, whose mouth was carven, yielding coral. Mercedes, whom he, Etienne de Rocoque, had, after wading through veritable seas of blood, snatched from the harem of a mighty caliph at the age of three and reared in luxury these full fifteen years, inviolate from the world. Mercedes, who even now he could hear splashing happily in her perfumed bath. Never had she set her perfect foot beyond his door—yet this unspeakable poltroon had mouthed her name! How?