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Chapter I


“No Reprieve!”


Joe Czeszcziczki, whose name had been woefully mis- pronounced as “Zicky” all through his recent trial and conviction for murder, rose swiftly from his chain-hung pallet as the two blue-clad, brass-buttoned prison officials stopped in front of his barred cell gate.

Had anyone told Joe Czeszcziczki at this second that his life, decreed by the courts of Central City, U.S.A., to end in about forty-eight hours in the electric chair, was entwined oddly with the life of a certain blue-eyed, blond-haired, ravishingly pretty girl secretary of London—a Miss Crystal Armswayne, of Queens Road, Peckham—Joe would have shouted frantically, “Yer crazy!”

And had anyone told him, moreover, that his life was even more oddly entwined—in a manner of speaking!—with that of a certain middle-aged dignified London journalist—a Mr. Jarrold Wynstaby, of Fleet Street—Joe would have shouted fiercely, “Nuts!”

But since no one was able to tell Joe Czeszcziczki either of these strange truths, he said neither of these things. Instead he gave full and desperate attention to the two blue-clad figures who had stopped silently in front of his barred cell gate.

Joe’s white and somewhat flattish face, with its queer duck-billed nose, was strained and tense, and his eyes, jet black like his hair, and blinking because of the bright ceiling light in the white-washed corridor outside, were stark with sudden fear. Fear and the realization that this was the moment when one Joe Czeszcziczki, aged thirty-four, was to learn irrevocably whether one Joe Czeszcziczki was ever to see thirty-five! Joe gripped a single vertical iron bar with one bloodless fist, and with his other hand nervously smoothed out the brown denim jail suit he wore.

“Yeah?” he inquired fearfully. “Yeah?”

From some point, seemingly a thousand miles distant from that isolated corridor, devoid just now of all cell occupants but Joe Czeszcziczki, boomed forth the single hallow “bong” of the jail bell-system that proclaimed, to those who could read it, the hour of ten p.m. However, Joe heard it not at all.

For the particular one of the blue-clad officials who had white hair—white hair coupled with brown eyes—was now shaking his head.

“No, Joe. No dice! Governor Moorgate said no. No reprieve. No commutation. Absolutely none. Absolu—”

“But,” Joe cried out frantically, “I—”

“He said,” cuttingly put in the younger of the two officials, a man with narrow-set cold blue eyes in a round red face, “that no killer of a State’s Attorney is ever going to get a reprieve or commutation from him as long as he—”

“Yeah, I know,” said Joe weakly. “What they kept harpin’ on all through my trial. That a killer of an S.A. should suffer ten deaths. On’y I never killed the S.A. I never—”

Joe stopped helplessly, realizing suddenly how utterly hopeless was this one hundred per cent. true statement in the face of the damning set of facts which had given him the chair, unqualifiedly, and on the first ballot of the mixed jury. He turned his head and surveyed almost longingly the narrow cell in which he had spent several months, ending this fateful sixth day of September. With its colourful Varga drawings from Esquire Magazine affixed to its blue-painted cement walls by bits of sticker tape, its threadbare but colourful rug lying diagonally across its unpainted cement floor, its comforting ten-cent-store, paper-shaded, low-powered, yet stoutly iron-mesh-enclosed electric bulb tied to the chain-anchor near the head of the pallet to read by, the high barred window that generously let in the morning sun, it hadn’t been a half bad place. But now—

He turned back.

“I s’pose, Mr. O’Heir,” he commented drearily, speaking only to the white-haired man whose brown eyes held in them kindness of a sort, “that I—I shouldn’t even have hoped. But—”

“That’s right, Joe,” the older man attempted crudely to comfort him. “I swear to you I did my best—and McNaboe here, by my strict instructions, kept his mouth shut. And we really went, Joe! The reason we’re back so soon is that we didn’t have to go to the State capital. The evening papers said that Governor Moorgate was here in Central City—at the Patner House. It being after all, Joe, September the sixth, you know—and the Mid-West governors being due to convene here on the ninth. And since the Patner House downtown is only half an hour from the Municipal and County Jail here—we-ell—”

The speaker made a gesture with his hand signifying the futility of expounding on civic geography for a native of Central City.

“Yes, Joe,” the white-haired, blue-clad O’Heir resumed, “I talked as hard for you as though I’d been your own mouthpie—that is—been Nyland Finfrock himself. But all my arguments about your case came to nothing—were met, I mean, by the governor with other arguments. I even commenced my plea, Joe, with my ace-card—your history. To—to sort of soften him up, as it were. I pointed out to the governor how you’d been born and brought up back of the stock yards in some western city—how you’d been orphaned early—had to shift for yourself. No education ever, no chance in life. Never able to get a job higher than box-nailer for some shipping clerk. Unless, perhaps, one counts those few early boyhood years when you were errand boy for that artist—whoever he was—who did book jackets. Yes, I even told him about that, too. And told him, moreover, that even you were seized as—as the killer in this case which has brought you all the way here”—the speaker shook his head deploringly—“you spent your last piece of change to hire ‘Golden-Tongue’ Finfrock—a man who always believed you guilty anyway—instead of one who did believe in you. And he had to go and fall sick on you with virus pneumonia and kick off before he could even bring your clemency plea to the governor himself. And—yes, Joe, I did my very best. For after that—that initial softening-up process, I proceeded to advance all possible arguments. And still Steve Moorgate said ‘no.’ So-o—but as for those arguments, since the final outcome was ‘no,’ I won’t try to inflict them on you. For you’d hardly be interested anyway. And so—”

“On the cont’ry,” said Joe tonelessly, “I sure would be interested—since it’s me that’s ev’dently got to go to the chair, ’count o’ him not takin’ no ’count of them arguments, to know just—just what they was. On’y time I’ll ever get to meet the Big Fellow himself, I guess, is to hear what he had to say, an’ how he said it. An’ besides—”

He stopped cryptically.

So much so that the close-eyed McNaboe, evidently consumed with curiosity, put in a scornful query.

“Yeah? Besides—what!”

Joe threw him a defiant look. “Miracles happen, don’t they! After all, I don’t go to that there chair for—for more’n forty-eight hours yet. And the—the Big Fellow might kick off to-night. Then the looey-gov would take over. And under the law we’d have a—a chance for a new plea to-morrow, before the new man. And them there argiments—”

“—would he available all over again,” put in the white- haired man in wondering disbelief, “to use with the next governor?”

“That’s right,” said Joe doggedly. “So, Mr. O’Heir, if you want to give me the details—”

He stopped.

The white-haired man shook his head helplessly, plainly marvelling at the new phenomena ever to be found in the field of punishment. Then he spoke.

“Very well then, Joe, if it makes you feel any better. Though I warn you, the chances of the very well-fed-looking and healthy Governor Moorgate dying off, and a new man taking over—” He stopped, and shook his head again. “But as you say, miracles happen! So—but I’ll make it brief. Here, then, were the arguments between myself and the governor concerning the murder of Umphrey Ibstone, State’s Attorney. And the supposed and—and presumed perpetrator thereof—Joseph Zicky. Here they were, Joe!”



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