Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page

 

 

FIND THE CLOCK

 

CHAPTER I

 

The Manchester Lily Receives a Strange Proposition

 

His unscrupulous blue eyes gazing over his half-moon spectacles, the lean fingers of his left hand reflectively stroking the short, crisp beard flecked with gray, Doctor Victor Flandrau bowed out of the tiny side door of his office his last patient, a pasty-faced “dope head.” Then, stepping to the remaining door of his sanctuary, he bowed his head to the flashy looking blond girl who sat impatiently tapping the toe of a neatly shod foot near the sunny window of his waiting room.

“All right, Lily,” he said. “I’m done for the afternoon. Step in.”

The girl arose and, taking up a nearby parasol, passed with a careless swing of her body into the inner private office with its lone roll-top desk, its white enameled operating table, its conventional glass-walled cabinet of shining surgical instruments, and its little, tightly locked iron safe behind which the doctor kept his sundry drugs, which were for those only who had the price. She dropped easily, almost with a feline grace, into the visitors’ chair which stood at the side of his desk, and there she waited while the doctor carefully locked both the outer door of his waiting room and the smaller door of egress from the private office. Now they were quite alone and free from interruption. The doctor rejoined her and sank into his swivel chair.

For a moment Doctor Victor Flandrau surveyed the Manchester Lily from under a forehead which was creased with fine lines, as though weighing in his mind a weighty question. At length, stroking his sharp beard with his long, nervous fingers, he spoke.

“Lily, how do you stand on your finances now?”

The blond girl with the peaches-and-cream complexion laughed a lilting, yet cynical, laugh. “Still waiting for something good to turn up, doc,” she replied. “Hanging around in your bally America when I might be making a few pounds in London, Liverpool, or on the Continent.”

“Yes,” said the doctor reflectively. “Yes,” he repeated. He continued to survey her, tapping with the fingers of his left hand on the arm of his chair. At length he spoke again.

“Lily, something in my affairs has been developing within the last few days, and there is no reason in the world why that something should not prove of material benefit to you in your own affairs. As soon as the situation became quite clear to me I perceived that Lily Castleton—the Manchester Lily herself!—was the little golden-haired doll who could successfully handle the feminine end of it. And so I sent for you this afternoon.”

The girl, although truly of the doll-like variety, showed keen and attentive interest slumbering under the china-blue eyes, eyes which were the ever-deceptive orbs of the underworld.

“Let’s hear it, doc,” she said. “I’m what you might call receptive to anything short of murder, providing there’s money in it.” She stopped and crossed one silk-stockinged limb over the other.

“Well, I am going to give you the terms of the proposition,” said Doctor Flandrau briefly, “and you can then give me your answer just as briefly—in other words, yes or no. To my mind they are extremely liberal. Here they are: I stand ready to pass into your hands a full-paid passage to England on the best passenger liner of the seas, together with railroad transportation to New York as soon as the work is completed. I know that will appeal to you, for you’ve outlined pretty vividly to me how anxious you are to get back to your own stamping grounds. So much for that. In addition to this, on the day you leave Chicago an additional sum of one thousand dollars in cash will be paid over to you as your fee for one month’s easy work. For this month’s work five hundred dollars in expenses will be furnished. The chief items of the expense accounts will be glad rags and a nifty apartment. How does it sound?”

“A thousand, eh?” said the flashy girl, “and five hundred expenses. H’m!” She reflected a second. “But you speak of a month’s work, doc. I—well—what kind of a job is it? The closer I work to your American Scotland Yard, the more I charge per hour.” She gave a mercenary shrug to her shoulders.

Doctor Flandrau smiled. “Lily, the amount of actual work involved in this thing is so little as to be negligible. Pretty nearly all you have to do is to use that pretty, doll-like face of yours—to be seen in certain company under certain conditions for about one month. Not for one moment in the whole affair do you even touch elbows with a copper, nor anybody even remotely connected with the police. Even if you did, you run no chances whatsoever—for you break no laws. The possibility of your remaining here at the end of your month is absolutely zero, for I tell you, my girl, not a detective in Chicago can legally put a pair of handcuffs on you.”

The girl’s face brightened up appreciably. “All right, doc. Seems to me you’ve made a liberal proposition on the money as far as I can see. Now let’s hear what the game itself is, and I’ll tell you mighty quick how it looks to me.”

Doctor Flandrau did not reply immediately. Instead, as though to marshal his thoughts, he rose abruptly from his swivel chair and stepped over to the window, where he stood with his hands thrust deep in his pockets, gazing out absently over the unprepossessing district in the heart of which he wrested a precarious living from the world. Pushcarts, managed by raucous vendors; a street littered with trash, papers, dirt and decaying fruit; the adjoining windows of the cheap frame office building presenting an array of faded gilt professional signs flapping and whining in the wind like crows’ wings; a few cinema shows with huge flamboyant posters, and a motley and ever-moving crowd of long-bearded rabbis, Negroes, Greeks and fat Jewish women with shawls marked the district indubitably as being the Ghetto. For a second or two he surveyed the scene with evident distaste written on his thin and slightly aesthetic features, then he returned vigorously to his chair and again seated himself. He spoke slowly, outlining his strange proposition.

“In this city, Lily, is a young man of twenty-seven or so whose name I shall give you presently. He is what we Americans term ‘sportily inclined’; in fact, there isn’t much to him. He’s more or less of a weakling. He travels with a fast crowd. He works for a gambling syndicate which runs a set of handbooks on the Mexican and New Orleans races. He’s a sort of agent for the syndicate. Takes and collects bets daily from the brokers’ offices along La Salle Street and, so far as I’ve been informed, gets a salary and commission that enables him to live just about up to the speed of the crowd he travels with, but no more. He’s a bachelor; has a two-room apartment at the Chetson Arms. So much for him. Now for your work in connection with this young gentleman.”

He paused, and clearing his throat continued:

“There is, at this moment, a furnished two-room apartment right across the hall from this young man in the Chetson Arms. A deposit of twenty-five dollars has been paid upon it in the name which you are to assume. With your five-hundred-dollar expense fund you will rent that apartment. You will pay the balance of the first month’s rent, amounting to seventy-five dollars, and you will sign the lease for a year under the name of Miss Diana St. John. You will give as reference—say—myself, a practicing physician. We will see that you secure the apartment, even if we have to part with a slight bonus. Then, with a fairly good wardrobe—you must not plunge too deeply, of course, into your expense fund—you will take possession—say—as soon as next Tuesday. As quickly after that as possible your keen little brain must evolve some sort of a pretext for meeting this young man. He is very susceptible to beautiful women. You must make him want to see you again—to go out with you.”

Frowning slightly, the girl interrupted. “Counting, are you, doc, that the lad will get a bit mushy and fall in love, eh?”

Doctor Flandrau shook his head. “No, indeed. Love, Lily, is something that can’t be arranged as a mathematical proposition. It isn’t necessary that this man love you. If everything hinged upon such a doubtful thing as that I would not be going ahead with such assurance. All that is desired is that you arouse in him the interest that any beautiful, trusting, leaning girl arouses in a weakling who has a slightly exaggerated ego and a soft spot in his being for the female sex in general. All that is necessary is that this man desire to have Lily Castleton—who will be Diana St. John, of course—as a sort of companion around the cafes and road houses and other places which his swift set inhabits. That is sufficient.”

“And then what?” asked the girl tensely, obviously puzzled as to what this strange proposition was to lead to.

“And beginning with your acquaintance with him, you will manage to be his companion with the greatest of frequency. You must meet all of his friends—those men and women in his roistering set. You must, in other words, be seen in his company by the biggest number of people possible. Your own conversation must always be of big money, big interests, a big English fortune back of you—your talk, in simpler language, must be of wealth. This must be radiated at every point, without seeming to be obtruded. You will not wear expensive jewelry to bear this out. Quite on the contrary. You will wear a single artistic ring—a simple, inexpensive stone set in a simple setting of green gold. You will dress simply—but elegantly. You may occasionally speak of your friend and physician, Doctor Victor Flandrau.”

He drummed on his desk a moment and then went on.

“Now is a slightly more difficult thing—but one which the Manchester Lily, I have no doubt, can deftly accomplish. Sooner or later some one in the crowd with which you and this man will mix will complain of being short of funds or of expecting money. You must as soon thereafter as possible call them aside and ask them if you cannot oblige them by a loan of fifty or seventy-five dollars for whatever duration they wish. You must press this favor upon them, and getting their agreement, reluctant or otherwise, must withdraw from your gold mesh bag this little neat red-leather book of promissory notes and suggest that they sign a note. They will not object to this. You will tell them that you have loaned thousands of dollars to clients in a business way, and hint that this is a part of your wealth.” The doctor arose and from a pigeonhole of his desk took out not one, but three square, yet small, dainty notebooks, each with covers of red leather, each with gold-edged leaves, each containing a series of printed pages perforated so that they could be torn out, and each notebook showing, as he thumbed it over, a tiny leather pocket for change or jewelry on the inside cover.

The girl looked them over carefully and then glanced up. “Sort of legal IOU’s, doc, aren’t they? All printed in with the name of Diana St. John on the proper line just as though she were a regular money lender, eh?”

“Yes,” the medical man agreed heartily. “Exactly that.” He stacked the little red-bound, dainty books to one side and again resumed his talk.

“So much for that. Some time during the course of the one month in which you will be in evidence in certain circles in Chicago, you will go in much perturbation to the two people to whom you have loaned money and say that a draft which you have made on the Bank of England is being held up due to some unaccountable delay, and that you will allow them to redeem their notes for one half—in other words you will settle their debts for one half. If the parties are men, they will refuse utterly to do this, but will go out and get you at least half of the money from friends, after which you will live up to your word by deliberately mailing them their notes, marked across the face ‘Paid in full.’ On the contrary, if they are women, chances are altogether that they will eagerly take advantage of this proposition, and similarly you will give unto them their notes likewise, marked ‘Paid in full.’

“In the meantime,” continued Doctor Flandrau easily, his keen eyes riveted on Lily Castleton’s face, “you will proceed to drop somewhere in the business section, either on a street car or a bridge, two of these red leather booklets, each containing a small article of jewelry in the flap—say a five or ten-dollar ring, or an inexpensive pin. Immediately after so doing you will advertise prominently with a blind ad. in the lost-and-found columns of the leading newspaper that a small red booklet containing a sentimental keepsake has been lost, and that if the finder will return the keepsake to your address you will pay—say—ten dollars. The booklet is of no interest. This will insure your regaining the lost articles, and in so doing you will of course secure the names and addresses of the finders, which you will later turn over to me.

“In the meantime, now that your acquaintanceship with the young man in question has grown into an acquaintanceship with his friends, you will proceed to drop lines of some sort to no less than eight of those friends—a correspondence card in one case, a postal from up the lakes to another, a short note to another, a letter to another, and so forth, signing them each with your name, Diana St. John. And this, my dear Lily, is the full extent of your month’s work. You will utilize the energy other than that which I have here specified merely in eating the dinners which this man will buy, enjoying the places to which he will take you, sleeping generous hours, living the life you like—unless perchance your male friend becomes financially ripped, in which case it will become necessary for you to take him out now and then—tactfully advancing the money as a rich young lady who highly appreciates a handsome and charming escort.”

The Manchester Lily leaned forward, her beautiful blue eyes gazing oddly toward the doctor. “Let me ask you a question or two, doc. First, is there a real Diana St. John?”

The doctor smiled.

“There is none—until you appear on the scene.”

The girl nodded slowly. “Now about this money-lending proposition. Am I supposed to get this man to sign anything —say—” She inclined her head toward the red-leather books.

The doctor shook his head emphatically.

“Absolutely not, Lily. Chances are very doubtful that you could do this even if you wanted to.” He paused again. “No, I want to impress upon you that you are not required to do anything in connection with this man in the way of papers, signatures, or anything. Be his companion in a purely companionable way for a month—that is all. Absolutely all.”

“H’m.” She paused, thinking. “And what becomes of Diana St. John finally?”

“It is now Saturday, June the tenth,” the doctor replied. “If you took possession of the apartment by next Tuesday you would be starting in on the thirteenth. At the expiration of about three weeks—say on or around the sixth of July—you will begin to talk of investing heavily in some oil stocks owned by Doctor Flandrau, your friend, and perhaps advising your new acquaintances to get in on them, which of course is the last thing on earth they will do. About the thirteenth of July—a month from the time you take possession—you will suddenly relinquish the keys to your furnished apartment, and you will leave Chicago suddenly, writing your new friends from New York City that you have been unexpectedly called back to England on personal matters. After disembarking from the liner at Liverpool you will send out another batch of post cards, in several of which you will state that it is highly probable that you will go to India. Once those cards are sent you will again become Lily Castleton, and you need never be heard of again. Indeed, the wealthy and eccentric young Diana St. John will cease to exist or will hypothetically become swallowed up in the tangles of much-tangled Europe. Lily, isn’t this a rather ridiculously easy program for the sum of one thousand one hundred and seventy-five dollars, which is the cost of your fee and your transportation?”

The girl tapped her foot, smiling a smile in which there was a strong suggestion of cynicism. Finally she spoke.

“I’m getting eleven hundred and seventy-five dollars, doc, all right, and it may be easy money. In fact it is. But what of it? It’s plain that I’m the cat’s-paw that’s helping to put over a big, big scheme of some sort; a scheme in which a mere thousand dollars is just small change. Now why do I pull the little end of this thing for my cut?”

The doctor’s face betrayed that he was slightly nettled. “In the fable of the monkey and the cat whom he hired to get his chestnuts out of the fire for him,” he said, “the cat was forced to thrust her paw into a rather unhealthy place for a paw. You, on the contrary, Lily, run no risk whatever of any kind. You break no laws. Even if you meet detectives in the course of your introductions you will be able to feel quite easy in your mind. So you see you are not the proverbial cat’s-paw, rest assured.” His face grew a bit hard. “And as for the fee—well, Lily, there are other girls with faces as beautiful, girls like yourself, who can use good language when they get down to it and wear good clothes. So if the thing doesn’t interest you—”

She laughed an odd little laugh with a rising inflection. “Don’t get your wind up, doc. I need the money. I want to get home to England bad. I’m sick of this beastly land. I’ll play the game just as you’ve outlined—and I’ll play it as well or even better. But, old dear, just tell me one thing, will you? There’s a big brain back of this whole thing somewhere—and that brain isn’t yours. You’re too slow, doc, to work out the details of a game like this must be. I’ll wager you a sov. that all you’re doing these days is writing whisky prescriptions and selling dope to white-faced dope peddlers from that little safe over there.” She flicked a dainty little finger toward the iron safe in the corner of the room, and a cloud passed over Flandrau’s face. “I bet you haven’t done a legitimate piece of medical work for a month of Sundays, doc. But don’t get mad, old dear. Instead, tell me just one thing. Who is the big brain back of this scheme? So long as I’m not in on the know, won’t you tell me who’s the brigadier-general that’s running it?”

The doctor shook his head slowly.

“If I knew, Lily, I’m frank to say that I wouldn’t tell you. I grant you that there’s a game—a right good game in the air. And I grant you that there’s a master mind back of it all. But the fact of the matter is that who that mind is, and where he is, I no more know this minute than you yourself.”

The doctor shook his head slowly.

And as the Manchester Lily nodded her petite, golden head slowly, convinced beyond doubt that the man across from her spoke the truth, Doctor Flandrau drew forth his fountain pen to inscribe on a piece of blank paper the name and address of the man with whom she was to associate herself for thirty short days. And as the pen scratched its way across the paper, a pleasant conversation was going on between Doctor Flandrau and himself, solely in his own mind. To himself he was saying:

“So long as I know that Victor Flandrau gets one third of a cold hundred thousand dollars, and handles every cent of the cash himself, so that he can’t be swindled out of his own cut, what difference does it make as to who the real brain back of it all is? What difference indeed!”

Return to Ramble House Page

Return to Harry Stephen Keeler Page