by CARY MORAN
He wore a black coat, a white scarf and a top hat of marvelous sheen. In his left hand correct gloves, a slender stick thrust nonchalantly beneath his left arm. Glistening patent leather oxfords peeped from beneath razor-creased, black trousers and a white gardenia twinkled in the lapel of the tight fitting topcoat. In short, he was a paragon of impeccability!
Johnny Harding, ace columnist of the Daily Telegraph, was ready for his nightly chore, another boresome evening in the pursuance of that elusive will-o-the-wisp, Gossip, the Great American circulation booster.
The clerk at the desk surveyed the immaculate little man with great approval.
“Oh, Mr. Harding!” he simpered and as Harding turned, “You look positively lovely—lovely!”
Johnny grimaced. “Na, na, Clarence, don’t work yourself up! Remember what the doctor said about your blood pressure!”
The clerk giggled, patted his too-red lips with a lavender handkerchief. Johnny caught sight of his own reflection in a pier glass and grinned amiably. “At that the old gentleman doesn’t look so bad!”
He squared his shoulders, patted the resplendent top hat with approving fingers and made for the revolving door, the perfect picture of the man-about-town.
Beneath the marquee he paused, frowned. The obsequious doorman touched his brocaded cap.
“Evening, Mr. Harding. Shall I call a cab, sir?”
Johnny sighed. “You must have just come on duty, McGillicuddy. Didn’t anyone tell you I’ve got a car of my own now? See that young battleship there—the grey one? That’s mine. Now if I can just locate my driver!”
The doorman blinked rapidly, whistled beneath his breath. The long car crouched against the curbstone like a greyhound on leash. To the doorman there was something vaguely familiar about that bus!
“Listen,” he said anxiously, “ain’t that Mops Mariotti’s hack? The one he got killed in?”
“Yep, you guessed it! And what a job! Bullet-proof glass, solid steel body, built like a tank! Have I got it on these cabdrivers now! Bought it at the police auction, keed. How do you like her?”
The doorman laid a hairy paw on Johnny’s coat sleeve, spoke earnestly, “Listen, Mr. Harding, you better lay off that hack. It’s a Jonah. I wouldn’t ride from here to the corner in it! They shipped it in here from Chi after the State Street massacre when four guys got knocked off in it. No telling how many poor mugs got their last ride in it while Mops owned it. And then Mops himself gets a shiv stuck in his throat in the front seat of the same hack. It’s a jinx, Mr. Harding, a Jonah I tell you. If it was me, I’d give it back!”
Johnny laughed. “Mac, jinx or no jinx that hack is just what I need. I’m so damned tired of riding with cabbies who think they’re Barney Oldfield that my hair turns white at the thought of them. Ten years I been exposing life and limb to the hare-brained maniacs! Riding in this hack, a Mack truck could smack me and what? I’d laugh! Say, have you seen Lord Byron?”
“Hah? Lord who?”
“My driver. Big ape with freckles and red hair and a nose that wanders all over his face. You know, Lord Byron. That’s his name.”
“Nope, I ain’t seen no Lord nothings, Mr. Harding, but if I was you I’d get rid of that Jonah!”
His answer was an airy flirt of the little man’s gloves as he walked across the sidewalk toward the long grey limousine. The back door was unlocked. Johnny sank down in twelve inches of cushion with a sigh of relief. He glanced across the street, toward the corner, in search of his driver, but no Lord Byron was in sight. Harding lit a cigarette, rolled the left window down from the top for a distance of four or five inches. Impatiently he flicked on the light, drew a thin gold watch from his waistcoat and frowned in annoyance at the time. In exactly fifteen minutes he was due at the apartment of Nora Fanning, his girl Friday, efficient secretary to the town’s most popular columnist.
The watch back in his pocket he spun the cigarette into the street in a fiery parabola. He pointed the tip of his cane at the mother-of-pearl horn button, pressed down. The blast of Gabriel’s trumpet pierced the night air. He waited—pressed again.
Across the street a huge figure appeared in the doorway of a Greek coffeepot. It hulked there in the light grotesquely, with long, dangling arms that emerged from too-short sleeves, a too-small cap perched ludicrously on a thatch of bushy hair and bowed legs accented by a pair of gleaming puttees. The caricature cupped hands to its mouth and a roaring answer could be heard even above the buzz of traffic.
“Just a minute, boss! This Grik is coming out. I’ll be right there!”
A black sedan crawled slowly around the corner. Watching Lord Byron, Johnny Harding hardly noticed the creeping approach of the car until he caught a glimpse of white faces at open windows, metal gleaming in the flicker of the arclight.
The clatter of the tommy-gun sounded like the clack and smack of a gigantic typewriter. Leaden bees buzzed through the four inch opening, plunked against the closed window on the other side of the car, caused jagged streaks of miniature lightning to appear suddenly in the glass. The steel body of the car thumped and rang with the spatter of the burst. The immaculate top hat, shiny and resplendent, flew from Harding’s head as he dropped to the bottom of the car.
A sawed off shotgun roared in the sudden silence that followed the first burst. The big car rocked like a moored boat in the wake of a steamship. With a clashing of gears and a roaring of wheels the black sedan sped away.
Cautiously Johnny peered over the seat, watched the tail light wheel around the next corner and disappear.
There was the sound of running feet on the pavement, the door flew open and Lord Byron peered in owlishly at his prostrate boss. His voice was as thick as his chest.
“Geez, boss, them guys play rough, don’t they?”
Wordlessly, face white with rage, Johnny sat up and dusted his knees.
“You big ape,” he snarled, “if you’d stay out of those damned Greek coffeepots this—Get in here, quick! Shove this bandwagon away from here before all the cops in town are asking me foolish questions. Come on now!”
The big man slid behind the wheel, threw the car in gear. They moved off just as the open-mouthed crowd on the sidewalk was joined by a brass buttoned copper who tried to shoulder his way toward the departing limousine.
Lord Byron ran a red light, whirled down an alley and out the other side on two wheels, chattering all the time.
“You know it always makes me kinda sick to my stummick to get shot at. Like eating too many oysters. I remember once out in Chi—”
Johnny grabbed his hat as the limousine whirled past a street car on the wrong side.
“To hell with Chi,” he howled. “Watch where you’re going, you ape! Can’t you get it through your head that a couple of torpedoes just tried to bump me off? I don’t want to get gunned and I don’t want to get wrecked. I don’t want to die at all! Take it easy!”
“Sure, sure, boss,” soothed the driver. “I know how you feel. I get a little nervous myself when lead gets flying in the air. You need a drink, you—”
The big grey car grazed the traffic officer who promptly shook his fist and gave vent to heartfelt Celtic curses. Johnny groaned, hid his face in his hands. His voice was almost prayerful.
“Stop this thing, Lord Byron! Stop it, don’t you hear me? Let me out! You can have the car. Keep it! Take it home to your little brother, only let me out! Look! Already I got a bullet through my hat and you try to wreck me!”
“Through the hat? Did that mug get one through your top hat? Say, that’s pretty good shooting!”
On and on rambled the talk of Lord Byron, a flow of rhetoric that matched the flight of the car! Presently he grew silent, thoughtful, his big, red face screwed up with the unusual effort. Cautiously Johnny spoke again.
“Take me over to Miss Fanning’s, Lord Byron, and please, please, for the love of God, take it easy!”
No answer. The car sped through the snarls of traffic like a homing pigeon, responding to every touch of the heavy foot on the accelerator. Johnny marvelled. Then he worried, Lord Byron with no conversation?
“Mr. Harding, you’re a lucky guy. I was just thinking!”
“That mug shot you through the top of the hat and never touched you! Now what if you’d have been wearing a cap? You’d have been dead as hell!”
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