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THE MURDERED MATHEMATICIAN
A STRANGE AND CURIOUS QUEST
QUIRIBUS BROWN, his 7½ feet of giantism causing him to tower high above all the pygmy-like humans about him, his vivid plaid lumberjack’s short jacket and blue-and-orange-striped tightly-fitted knitted cap turning him into a literal blaze of colour for the inhabitants of such a drab city as Chicago, paused uncertainly at the unsavoury down-at-heel corner of Harrison and State Streets.
The fact that the whole region hereabouts smacked of pickpockets and strong-arm men—plus the fact that the sum of $1,171 was on Quiribus’s person—his life savings, no less!—worried the giant not in the least. For not only could he, did he so wish, with his 360 pounds of weight and his 3-foot-long arms, toss any two of the people around him a dozen feet, but that $1,171 was buttoned tightly in the capacious pocket of the grey flannel shirt he wore, and buttoned over it, in turn, was the plaid lumberman’s jacket. And so, if that bright yellow time-table, flopping openly from his hip pocket, branded him, this summer-like late October day, at a quarter of 2 in the afternoon, as a huge and gargantuan 27-or-so-year-old infant from the North Woods, possessed of kindly, trusty brown eyes and genial, easy-going long face, Quiribus did not in the least care.
Indeed, all he was worried about, just at this moment, was which way he should now go. To attain a certain curious objective. Curious, at least, for a giant! For, having gained the point where he was by a somewhat deviously wandering path from the Michigan Central Railway Depot, somewhere to the south and also to the east, he was just a bit in the dark as to his next direction.
For in front of him, as he stood uncertainly, lay a busy though narrow cobblestoned street of clattering trucks and drab ramshackle one-story shops; while, to his right, along a wider but paved street of more clattering trucks and streetcars, came sounds of life, of music, of—
And riveted thus, as it were, the cynosure of dozens of eyes turning back and gaping curiously, some even grinningly, at him, Quiribus could not see the bright, black, hard eyes of a girl of about 27, with almost too highly carmined lips, and dressed in a checkered suit and neat little scarlet hat, across from him on the diagonally opposite corner, grow harder yet at sight of him and his undeniable lumberjack’s accoutrements, nor did he hear her say to herself: “Lumberjack—and the biggest I ever saw in my life!—his whole summer’s wages inside his filthy shirt, and him and it ready for the taking. A plain pushover, no less—if I follow my usual line—from A to Izzy. For a guy with an outsized carcass like that pos-i-lutely couldn’t have any more than—than minus-zero in wits! A pushover. Except—for the big question! Is he going to go straight down Harrison Street—or is he going down State?”
Much less, of course, could Quiribus—even had he been looking straight towards this particular hard-eyed girl at this very second, and which he wasn’t—have seen her feel quickly within a secret pocket of her checkered skirt to see if a certain fragile phial of powerful knockout drops that should be there, was there—and find that it was. Nor could Quiribus, considering that his back was squarely to the curbstone intersection, even see the girl pause uncertainly; and then, betting on her woman’s hunch that if the more lively of the two streets confronting him did not immediately capture his footsteps, he would nevertheless be practically certain to turn back to it, and on to it, after traversing a couple score feet of that duller cobblestoned one, speed down the wider block of clanging streetcars in order to cross over that block, at its further end, and meet him a quarter way or so up it. For the full carrying out of that peculiar procedure which she had described, at least to herself, as “my usual line—from A to Izzy.”
For it was right at this juncture, as Quiribus stood still uncertainly at the intersection, that a wizened, grizzled old fellow, with a wide-brimmed flopping grey felt hat, and black shirt minus tie—a man with, however, a kind but weatherbeaten face—detached himself from a bit of wall where he was loafing in the early afternoon sunshine, and, moreover, smoking a corncob pipe, and came over to Quiribus Brown.
“Howdy, Great Big Stranger f’m the Big Timbers,” he greeted, friendly, pipe now in gnarled fingers. “Kin I he’p yo’ out any? Yo’ look kinda puhplexed like.”
Quiribus looked the other over troubledly.
“Maybe you can,” he assented. “You—you live in this town?
“Hell no, stranger! I hain’t no Chycagyan ’tall—ef’n that’s whut you mean; nor am I f’m them big woods, nuther, whar you hangs out—me, I’m f’m Big River—down ’round Memphis, but I be’n hyar a few weeks, hangin’ ’round tryin’ t’ git myse’f a job some’eres firin’ a b’iler or so’thin, an’ so mebbe I kin steer you a’right. So whar, mebbe, yo’ aimin’ to go, heh?”
“We-e-ell,” said Quiribus undecidedly, “I was just wondering how to get to the—the downtown district.”
“Downtown deestrick, heh? Wa-all, jest go long this street yo’re on—no, not this narrer cobblestoned ’un facin’ ye, but th’ paved ’un to yo’re right—an’ yo’ll—shoo!” This to a couple of stragglers-by who had stopped, a few feet off from the colloquy, were gawking back—threatening to start a crowd, or at least a ring about the two men. “Git goin’, you two,” threatened the old man fiercely. “Cain’t a man talk to a friend in this town ’thout a crowd gatherin’? Shoo!
“Yowsah, Big Man, t’ git t’ th’ downtown deestrick, yo’ go ’long this paved street, to yo’re right, an’ yo’ll hit the elyvated road atter a long, long block whut’s fully long’s two blocks. Which elyvated road ’gins the busyiness section. But yo’ jest watch yo’re step, Big Man f’m th’ Woods, on this block atween hyer an’ thar—fer that block’s called Flesh Row, Big Boy, an’—”
“Flesh Row?” Quiribus’s shaggy black-brown eyebrows raised.
“Yowsah, Big Boy. Flesh Row! Used once’t, they say, t’ be called Honky Tonk Row, an’ then, still later, Gypper’s Block, but hit’s got a new and better name now. In proper line ’ith this—this Sodom of Amerricy whut Chycago is, so he’p me. They’ll play ag’in you, Big Boy, f’m hyar on —shoo!”—this to another momentarily spellbound passerby, who seemed threatening to become part of the meeting except that, as Quiribus amicably tossed out a stock frown to add to the old man’s “shoo,” the new arrestee scurried off like a frightened bug—“they’ll play ag’in you, Big Boy,” the old man resumed, “f’m hyar on, ’ith marked kyards—an’ll keep a-tryin’, too. Fur they adage ’long hyar is ‘Th’ bigger they comes, th’ harder they falls!’ An’ ef’n that’s true, yo’ll shore hatter watch yo’re steps! When’d you git in town?”
“About—twenty minutes ago,” said Quiribus, rendering, at least, the time he’d left that depot.
“Evah b’en hyar befo’?”
“Well yo’ jest watch yo’re step, Big Boy. On Flesh Row! Fur hit’s got ab’s’lutely evah game evah i’vented— bar none!—fer to ’ppeal to a man’s baser an’—an’ lower— an’—an’ carnal se’f—th’ Ol’ Mist’ Devil in him, yowsah!— but tries hard’s it kin t’ never d’liver—an’, when it does d’liver, hit’s on’y fer to take yo’ fer so’thin’ bigger—fer all yo’ got. So watch yo’re step. An’ good luck.”
“Thank you, my friend—and I’ll do all you suggest.”
And down Chicago’s famous Flesh Row, Quiribus turned.
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