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ONCE IN A RED MOON
I. EIGHTEEN DOLLARS FOR DEATH
OLD Tim Grady, the movie millionaire, sat in the Alhambra Palace with his son Padriac. The Grady super-picture, starring Rose Dawn in “Sin” was on the silver screen. Those lovely wistful eyes of beautiful Rose Dawn! Certainly they were worth fifty-five cents of any man’s money, including war tax.
Police Lieutenant MacErcher leaned over the theater’s back seat, his legs crossed, lowly conversing with Solemn Ike Duval of the Argus Agency (private detecting neatly done).
“That’s a cold un, that young Padriac Grady,” MacErcher said with a jerk of his head. “Always figuring. Look at ’im now. Smart business man, I guess.”
“Not much like old Tim,” whispered Ike, softly moving his jaws. “But then, though they don’t look alike, in a kind of way they do look alike.”
“Ain’t it the truth? Young Grady seems like the old man’s shadow.”
In close-up ten feet high the screen showed beautiful Rose Dawn. Round pearl tears upon her cheeks. Mist gathering in her large eyes. Her mouth trembling as though she yearned to kiss each man in the Alhambra Palace who had paid his fifty-five cents. Thoughtfully MacErcher rubbed his stub nose. Solemn Ike kept silence; his small, cold eyes softened; he coughed behind his hand. Yet he was a man who knew no love of women.
Old Timothy Grady, sitting far down front, shivered through all his giant frame. He clasped the chair arms. Erotic music, how it quickened hot blood within the heart. And old Tim had taken liquor.
In simulated love delirium the woman on the screen threw her arms about her screen lover, clipped him close, drew his lips to her shut eyes. Throb! throb! throb! pulsed orchestral minstrelsy, drowning the high theater hall in floods of deep-noted music.
Screen tricks, screen tricks! Only a painted passion for the camera.
Old Tim Grady growled an oath, his voice raspy with brogue. “I wish she’d act like that for me.”
Padriac Grady didn’t answer his father. Deliberately he looked at his watch. His gray eyes were expressionless. He had never seen Rose Dawn in the flesh. “I want to catch the Knickerbocker for Chicago,” he said. “That picture’s going big out there. We ought to make a mint of money from it.”
Rose Dawn still lingered in the arms of her screen lover. The packed house was mute. Only Padriac Grady seemed bored.
And one other man. He arose, stumbling over knees, stumbling up the aisle, staring at the carpet. The Gradys did not see him, nor would they have known Anthony Anthony of the Argus Agency.
Ike Duval straightened up, giving a curt salute. “ ‘Afternoon, Mr. Anthony.” But Mr. Anthony was still looking at the floor, intently, pondering something. Without a word to Ike he passed through the doors out into the cold gray day.
“That your chief?” MacErcher asked, rubbing his nose again. “Smart looking fellow.”
“No, he’s no fool,” said Solemn Ike. “But he’s a man with damn’ queer ways, MacErcher. Sometimes he’s almost beyond me.”
A screen villain had seized beautiful Rose Dawn, haply purporting to kiss her holy lips, haply to strangle her. Her gold curls raveled free. She fought madly till her dress was torn. No one of the thousands watching her took full breath. They clenched their fists. Spencer, the physician, pulled his beard. Bellbender, the minister, tugged at his collar band. Todd, the lawyer, passionately mopped his bald head. The orchestra beat bass chords.
Over a table the villain bent Rose Dawn. She seized something, a knife, a paper-cutter, a pair of shears. She struck. Tearing at his throat, the screen villain toppled heavily. He raised his arms. He spun on one heel. He fell; and so died.
Rose Dawn stood with arms stretched, as on a cross. She shook her curly locks. Something of the tiger’s fury in her eyes! A flame; a holocaust. Quick the light died. She was cold again, beautiful Rose Dawn, perfectest of actresses, as she kneeled to look at the dead screen villain.
In that heavily breathing house no one applauded.
“Well done!” whispered Padriac Grady.
Old Tim took deep breaths. “You’d never think she could look so fierce that way,” he said unsteadily. “She’s a queer gir-rl.”
Solemn Ike Duval put on his derby hat, preparatory to leaving the Alhambra Palace. “Them movies!” he jeered. “Did you ever hear of a woman killing a man like that, MacErcher?”
“Movies aren’t what they used to be. I liked her better in her first plays, ‘Hearts Afire’ or ‘Mexican Love,’ eight—ten years ago. Too much of this trick acting now. She used to be the real thing when she was playing with old John Dawn.”
“Dead stuff,” said Ike with a yawn. “What’s a good place to get beer?”
The Grady car was waiting when the Gradys came out of the theater. Old Tim was not yet entirely accustomed to his vast wealth. He surveyed pridefully the car’s dark green gloss, with the tiny harp and initials on its door panels. He made loud show of drawing on his gloves of staring around him, of giving commands to his giant Negro chauffeur as he stood with a foot on the running board. Padriac was nervous, impatient of the observant crowds. He urged his father inside.
Tim looked about for some acquaintance he might patronize.
“How are ye, Thorn, boy!” he shouted to an elderly gentleman approaching through the Broadway throng.
A slight frown appeared on the gray, supercilious face of the man addressed, but he made no sign.
“How are ye, Thornwood?” Still Tim Grady got no answer. “Good afternoon, Mister-r Clay!”
Mr. Clay lifted his grave silk hat. “How do you do, Sir?”
“Well, I do pretty dar-rn well,” old Tim muttered as he climbed in the dark green car.
He rolled away, proud of his car, proud of his giant black chauffeur, mightily proud of having been saluted publicly by a Clay, than whom, God knows, is nothing better.
Citizens on the sidewalk stared after the Grady car ten minutes.
“ ’S Mr. Grady himself,” said Citizen A. “Tim Grady!” cried Citizen B. “I don’t believe a word of it!” said Citizen C. “It ain’t possible. Why, that fellow walks or talks just like you or me.”
Black Tom, the chauffeur, swerved the green car west through traffic to Eighth Avenue. Tim ordered him to a halt before a small pawnshop. Above the doors a gilt sign: “A. Bliss”; in the windows mandolins and toilet sets; the entrance iron-barred, looking exceedingly black within. This was a place much patronized by actresses, jobless men, and by persons who had become possessed of pawnable jewelry and silverware in queer, mysterious ways.
Padriac waited in the green limousine while old Tim strode through the doors. Mr. Gus Bliss, the shop’s proprietor, left his iron-grilled cage and came with haste to meet Tim Grady. Tim’s mottled red-gray face was furious. His lips clapped open and shut, emitting only harsh hisses.
Bliss was a small, soft man. His doglike eyes were frightened. He belonged to a trade accursed; a pawnbroker is insulted, threatened, hated and despised by all men; none is more truly of the tribe of Ishmael. Gus Bliss was wary. Like the kicked cur, he was quick to show his teeth. It does not seem possible (perhaps only Anthony knew it) in his Sephardic heart of hearts Gus Bliss wanted to be a gentleman and a poet.
“Where’d ye get that photo?” roared old Tim, pointing a shaking finger. “What do ye mean showing the face of Rose Dawn to all the war-rld in your dirty rabbit-den, ye louse?”
The pawnbroker did not dispute a matter of mixed metaphors. He rubbed his hands. Tim was pointing to a large silver frame which enclosed a picture of Rose Dawn, her head lying on her two palms pressed together.
Old Tim made furious gestures. He tore off his hat and rumpled his red-gray hair. His hooked nose quivered. The purple pouches beneath his eyes inflated like small balloons. By a head he topped Gus Bliss as he leaned over, swinging his right fist in short arcs. Old Tim Grady was a fighting fool, especially when confronting small men.
“Well, Sir,” the pawnbroker stammered, “a very fine gentleman left that with me, as pledge. Many fine gentlemen have dealings with me. Mr. Gay Deleon—”
“Gay Deleon, the notar-rious gambler?”
“What does he mane selling the photo of my intinded wife to ye,” old Tim foamed, “like as if she was a common wench! I’ll have him hanged! I’ll have him jailed! I’ll give him a kick! Give it here!”
He made a lurch for the picture, wrenched it from its shelf, smashed the glass with his fist. “Ouch! O, mother Macree!” Old Tim sucked his knuckles. He tore out the picture of lovely Rose Dawn, stuffing it in his overcoat pocket. He threw down the silver frame, jumping on it. In swift cycle his wrath had passed from Bliss to Deleon to the silver picture frame. And now that the frame lay stunned and lifeless, old Tim Grady’s wrath was calmed.
He smiled grimly. “How much do I owe ye?”
Death lingers in a second. Gus Bliss hesitated twice a second. In that time old Tim’s quick roving eye had passed around the shop, over the cheap suitcases, the clocks, the stacks of blankets. In a glass case he saw the serpent knife.
A heavy-bladed weapon, steel and silver. Around hilt and haft, marvelously intricate, was coiled the gold-green serpent. Its rattles were clearly marked. Its scales shone. Its emerald eyes winked and blinked at old Tim Grady, venomously hypnotic. Apparently it stirred and moved.
“Be Jasus!” said Tim Grady, watching it strangely, “I’d like to have that thing! How much ’s it cost?”
“Well, Sir,” said Gus Bliss. “That’ll cost you pretty high.”
Outside the green car waited. The evening grew darker and colder, but Tim Grady did not come out. Padriac had drawn forth a notebook; with a pencil-stub he busily figured costs and percents. Tom Jefferson, the giant black chauffeur, beat his breast for the cold. He drew up his coat collar till only his great white eyes shone in the gathering night.
A girl, passing hastily down Eighth Avenue, thought those white roving eyes were for her. She halted stock still, planted on her stumpy, fawn-colored legs. Her dry red hair frizzled with anger. She clasped her imitation sable coat about her breast. Shop lights now flashing on shone in the eyes of Tom Jefferson as he met the girl’s stare.
The girl stuck out her tongue. “Go ahead and get a eyeful, you big baboon!” She approached, putting her hands on her hips. Provokingly she stared through the limousine windows at Padriac Grady. “Make your nigger keep from looking at me!”
Padriac glanced up, rubbed his chin, then resumed his calculations. A half dozen street loafers sauntered up. “What’s the coon doing to you, Dot?” Their weak, white faces scowled at Tom Jefferson. “Don’t you try fooling with a white girl, black boy!”
Tom Jefferson looked stonily ahead of him. Apparently he had not heard. But beneath his fur coat his giant shoulder muscles rippled. Cold, hard, immitigable as black granite.
The slow approach of a policeman drove the loafers and Dot away.
Within the pawnshop old Tim Grady and Gus Bliss yet bargained over the price of the serpent knife. Keenly they fought. Old Tim was shrewd. Liberal as the wind in his gifts, but tight as a Scotchman in a bargain. His glances brightened. He would make the bargain hard, even for death.
“This here knife,” said Gus Bliss, leaning over his counter, his soul warmed by converse with such a fine gentleman as Mr. Grady. “This here knife was left by me by Mr. Pete Lopez, the gentleman who reads fortunes.”
“Twelve dollars!” growled old Tim. “Not anither cent, if I bar-rn for it!”
“Forty-eight, and I lose money. This here knife was used by Mr. John Dawn in the movies. He cut another gentleman’s throat in ‘Hearts Afire.’ ”
“Far-rteen dollars!” old Tim said, banging down his fist. “I’d not do more for my own mother.”
Mr. Bliss threw wide his palms. Tears trembled in his soft brown eyes. Lovingly he fondled the serpent knife, broad steel blade, light silver handle.
“Thirty-six dollars,” he said gently. “This here knife is one beautiful piece of work. It would be a fine thing to give to a lady.”
The pawnbroker balanced the weapon on his palm. Old Tim’s fingers itched for it. The weighty blade slipped from Bliss’s nervous hand. Point deep it drove in the soft pine counter. The serpented haft vibrated to music inaudibly fine, as though the snake’s belled tail had begun a warning poisoned song.
Old Tim pulled it out, but it cut the pads of his fingers; again the knife dropped, again stuck point first in the wood. Tim Grady cursed.
“A heavy blade,” said Gus Bliss, “and sharp.” He stroked the weapon once more. The artist’s fiery passion was evident in his glance. “Thirty-six dollars,” he said, softly.
“I’ll split the difference,” old Tim roared. “I ain’t a nickel nurser. Eighteen dollars!” He flipped out a large wallet and fished through it.
“Split the difference between what?” asked Mr. Bliss.
“Between thirty-six and nothing,” said old Tim Grady. “Eighteen! Count it. Smell it. Bite it.” He slapped down the dirty bills.
Gus Bliss intoned the dolorous song of the Babylonian captivity as he wrapped the serpent knife in an old copy of the Morning Mist, strong twine about it. Its heavy blade could not cut through, nor its golden serpent sting. Old Tim watched with the pride of ownership, glorying in a bargain.
A blow upon Grady’s shoulders. “Well, wad the divils look? It’s auld Tim Grady!”
Old Tim turned furiously. A fat man had come in the shop, an illy-wrapped bundle under his arm. His nose was snub, set in a face round and red as an orange. He reeled, leaning heavily on Tim’s shoulders. His breath was beery. Foolishly he winked and laughed. “Pawning yer pants, Tim?”
“Git off me, McGinty, ye drunken mick!” old Tim said with dignity, giving a blow to the fat fellow. “Don’t ye know a gintleman when ye see one?”
McGinty’s laughter faded. “Why so uppty-duppty?” he inquired. “Do ye think I’ll take an-ny airs from ye, Tim Grady? Ain’t we fri’nds?”
“We do not belong to the same class of society,” said old Tim Grady, brushing the sleeve McGinty had polluted.
“Ay,” said McGinty, with half a sneer, watching the wrapping of the knife. “Up to yer auld tricks, Tim!” He nudged old Grady.
“What do ye mane?” Tim roared in thick brogue.
Winking often and drunkenly, McGinty leaned over and whispered close to old Tim’s ear. McGinty was tall, yet he had to stand on his toes. Gus Bliss listened, but he could not hear what words McGinty spoke.
“. . . The bloody moon. . . .”
What whisper was it in that darkly lighted pawnshop from McGinty’s drunken lips? Old Tim Grady clutched to the counter. His knees sagged. Why did old Grady’s jowls fall slack? Why wilted the fury from his face? What ague of terror made his body shake?
“Ye can trust yer fri’nd Dinnis McGinty,” said McGinty, giving another poke to old Tim’s ribs.
Blood came back in old Tim’s face. He turned in a fury, waving his fists so viciously that McGinty was sobered. Bliss crouched behind his counter, muttering: “Gentlemen! Gentlemen! Pleasant gentlemen!” McGinty stumbled backward, his arm over his face.
“I’ll turn ye over to the police, Din McGinty, if you open your mouth! I’ll get you!”
“Try and do it,” said McGinty. “Try and do it.”
Old Tim Grady snatched up the wrapped serpent knife, hurrying out to where his son and black Tom awaited him. Even through the thick paper wrappings the heavy blade felt cold.
And his heart felt cold. It was the ebb-flow of alcohol.
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