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THIEVES’ NIGHTS

 

The Chronicles of DeLancey, King of Thieves

 

CHAPTER I

 

THIRTY DOLLARS AN HOUR

 

The one dirty window of the barren little room on the corner of Halsted and Maxwell streets, Chicago, looked out on a scene that, to Ward Sharlow, its only occupant, resembled nothing so much as that noisy maelstrom in London known as Petticoat Lane. Here, too, although it was evening and the lights of the city were on, were seemingly the same hawkers, with only their Cockney dialect missing, but selling the same goods—everything from tinny alarm clocks to shoddy clothing—from the same pushcarts; here too was the confusion, the babble of tongues of many lands, the restless, shoving throng containing faces and features of a thousand racial castes, and last but not least, here on Halsted and Maxwell streets, Chicago, were the same dirt, flying bits of torn paper, and confusion that graced the junction of Middlesex and Whitechapel High streets far across the globe.

But to Ward Sharlow, who knew Middlesex Street only too well, the similar sights that lay below the window of this little room in the Paris Hotel, Chicago, were for the time forgotten as he stared down at the open Chicago Evening Despatch with a growing frown of bewilderment between his eyes.

“It’s me!” he ejaculated ungrammatically, pencil in hand. “It’s me—for a certainty. I’m the blighter with the brown suit and the lavender necktie who was crossing the bridge at ten o’clock. But—but—but what does he want with me?”

Staring obtrusively up at him, and heading the first column of want advertisements, was a bulky insertion that read:

 

WANTED: CAN USE SERVICES OF YOUNG FELLOW with brown suit and lavender necktie who was crossing the Chicago river via State Street bridge, southward, Saturday morning at five minutes of ten. Extraordinary financial proposition! Apply any evening at Empire Hotel, 24 East Eighteenth street, and see Mr. Belzar in room 62.

 

Struck suddenly by an idea the lone occupant of the room turned over the pages of the newspaper and ran his eye down the “Personal” column. The puzzled frown grew deeper. Heading that column of the drab sheet was the advertisement:

 

PERSONAL YOUNG MAN WITH BROWN SUIT AND lavender necktie who was crossing the Chicago river via the State Street bridge, southward, Saturday morning at five minutes of ten, communicate at once with Mr. Belzar in room 62, Empire Hotel, 24 East Eighteenth street. Urgent! He will learn something to his advantage.

 

With deft fingers Ward Sharlow turned quickly to the “Positions Wanted” column. There it was again heading the column, but differently worded, to conform probably to the Chicago Evening Despatch’s ironbound classification. But, in gist, it was the same:

 

POSITION WANTED—AS ACQUAINTANCE AND BUS-iness advisor of young man with brown suit and lavender necktie who was crossing the State Street bridge, southward Saturday morning at five minutes of ten. My services will cost nothing—and will open remarkable opportunity in which returns will be immediate. Communicate at once, any evening, with Mr. Belzar, room 62, Empire Hotel, 24 East Eighteenth street.

 

“Well, I’ll be—” began the man sitting on the side of the narrow iron bed. He stopped short. “Somebody—somebody—in this big God-forsaken, chilling London of the West actually wants to help Ward Sharlow, of the only and original London—possessor of world’s wealth amounting to—let’s see.”

Inserting his fingers in one of his vest-pockets he carefully withdrew the whole contents and spread them out on his knee. Those same contents comprised a fifty-cent piece, a dime, a nickel, and three pennies. “Sixty-eight cents—no more!”

He gazed blankly, dazedly, about the room, one of those hopelessly cheerless little cubbyholes which rent in the neighborhood of one dollar and a half per week in American big city hotels that bear such names as “Star”—“Eagle”—“Northwestern”—“Stag”—and “Paris.”

The sole furnishings were the narrow iron bed with cracked green enamel, the worn matting on the floor, the scratched bureau with drawers that stuck and balked, the knobless washstand with yellow pitcher that rocked metallically in its bowl to the tune of every tread in the outside hallway, the lone gas-jet that whistled and sputtered and shed a doleful, wavering yellow light over the patched wall-paper of enormous red roses—now greasy and drab, the narrow window which looked out on a forbidding street of a thousand noises, smells and faces!

The ticking of the cheap nickel alarm clock on the bureau suddenly aroused Sharlow to action. With a glance at its hands, which pointed to 8 a.m., he sprang up feverishly, and jerking out a worn leather suit-case from under the bed opened it and fumbled among the few clean white collars it contained. He withdrew a collar, and in doing so dislodged from the pocket back of the shirts a letter, sealed with red wax, and typed neatly on the face of it in old faded typewriting:

 

To my son Ward, to be opened and carefully read on (but not before) September 6, 1929.

 

“And you,” he said with a trace of savageness in his voice—“thank Heavens, the day you’re to be opened will soon be here! Three more days—and we look you over.” He carefully replaced it in the concealed pocket of the suitcase. “But, believe me, Mr. White Rectangle with Red Seals, if you had ever felt as though you contained money, you’d have been ripped open long, long ago. Directions or no directions, dates or no dates, I’m tired of being hungry!”

Collar in hand, he paused as he stood upright again.  “September 6, 1929! And what the devil is September 6 to me? It’s not Christmas, British Bank Holiday, the King’s birthday, nor my own birthday! Then what is it?”

In the mirror he glimpsed the rumpled newspaper back of him on the bed and stopped suddenly in the act of removing his soiled collar.

“Now—now could it be at all possible that that letter and the ad of this mysterious Belzar could be—” He shook his head with a half-smile. “Of course not!”

Again he fell to removing his collar in front of the cracked mirror, and again he stared at his reaction and its puzzled frown. “But this Belzar in the Empire Hotel? What does he want with me—just in Chicago a week? I give it up. But I’ll soon know.”

He finished putting on his collar, carefully tied a lavender tie in place, and with a whiskbroom brushed his clothes meticulously. Then, seizing a brown derby hat and turning down the whistling font of yellow illumination, he left the room and stumbled down a dark flight of stairs to busy, noisy Halsted street, now thronged with even more nationalities, seemingly, than the thousand which graced it earlier each day. And shortly he was standing in front of a line of gaudy, poster-covered moving-picture shows, waiting for a streetcar.

Ten minutes later he was transferring to a tiny cracked yellow car at Eighteenth street, and was soon on State street where the “west” numbers of this gargantuan metropolis of four hundred and fifty square miles changed to “east.” Here, unlike the unsavory region around the Paris Hotel, there were no thousand nationalities to be picked out from the passers-by; instead, everywhere the eye could see were Negroes, tall and short, thin and fat, young and old, singly and in gesticulating pairs, and Sharlow realized that he must be on the edge or in the very heart of Chicago’s famed Black Belt.

A few steps along Eighteenth street brought him in front of a great, old-fashioned building of red brick directly under the threatening steel structure of one of the tentacles of the Rapid-Transit lines, along which above his head heavy eight-car electric trains were thundering and roaring by at scarcely quarter-minute intervals. A gaudy electric sign hanging out in front of the building proclaimed through its alternate bulbs of red and white “The Empire Hotel. Rooms $1 per day. With private bath, $1.50.”

Sharlow entered the broad swinging doors and, passing through a lobby filled with lounging men and cigar smoke, entered a lone, old-fashioned, wheezy cable elevator at the rear. “Room 6R,” he said to the old Negro who operated it.

A ponderous rolling and groaning, and he was put out at the sixth floor. He proceeded along the carpet-clad hallway, studying the brass numbers on the doors by the yellow gas light. In front of Room 62, from over the transom of which blazed a brilliant illumination, he paused dubiously.

“We’re there!” he murmured to himself. “And I wonder whether it’s a joke or an advertising stunt. Well—here goes!” He tapped lightly two or three times.

Almost instantly he heard a form arise from a creaking rocker, the door opened, and a man stood revealed in the doorway. He was an elderly individual, for the neatly trimmed hair was white, and his upper lip was covered by a close-cropped white mustache. His face was the face of an astute business man, for the shrewdest of steel-gray eyes stared out from rimless eyeglasses. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and across the vest of his rich business suit of gray tweed hung a massive gold watch-chain.

Back of him Sharlow’s quick gaze took in a neat hotel room filled with a few pieces of stuffy green plush furniture, an iron bed glistening with smooth black enamel, a snowy counterpane. And in that same glance he realized suddenly that the room was one of temporary occupancy only, for no articles whatever were on the bureau.

“I have come,” he began, “in answer to an—”

The keen eyes of the elderly man in the doorway continued to bore their way into his being. They roamed up and down his figure, over every square inch of his face, searchingly, carefully, appraisingly.

“Re—remarkable!” he ejaculated. “Remarkable!” He seemed to collect himself suddenly and threw open the door. With a polite, deferential gesture he indicated the interior of the room. “Please be seated, sir! I am very glad you came. Belzar is my name. And yours?”

“Ward Sharlow.”

“Have a chair, Mr. Sharlow,” Belzar directed. Sharlow dropped into an uncomfortable-looking chair over near the center table, and waited until the older man had closed the room door and taken up a seat across from him. Again the other scrutinized his face eagerly, and appeared to be more and more satisfied as to the outcome. Yet back of the satisfaction, paradoxically enough, there seemed to be a lurking sadness in his features—an indisputable suggestion of gloom and depression in his eyes.

“You are not a Chicagoan, Mr. Sharlow?” he asked suddenly.

Sharlow shook his head. “No, sir. London, England, was my birthplace. And I have been in Chicago only a week.” But he added no more that might explicate the fact that his speech was the speech that belonged only to Canada and America.

Belzar continued to stare strangely at the younger man across from him. “And, no doubt,” he remarked suddenly, after a lengthy pause, “you are wondering regarding my advertisement. Saturday morning I was on a State street car going northward, and my eyes fell on you passing over the bridge going southward. I confess that I received something of a shock. You—you have a most remarkable resemblance to—to—a certain party.” He stopped. “That you were not a Chicagoan, however, was evident from the manner in which you stared upward at those tremendous skyscrapers of Michigan Boulevard to your east, and then downward again at the lower level of the huge new Wacker Drive which runs along our riverbank.” He stopped again. “So Ward Sharlow is your name? And you hail from London? Although I take it you have seen considerable of our life on this side of the ocean? Mr. Sharlow, will you kindly give me a few details of your life before I proceed to talk business? I am confident that you and I are going to enter into an unusual agreement—with mutual advantages.”

Ward Sharlow leaned back in his chair, surveying the older man across from him in some bewilderment. As yet he was no more enlightened than when he had first glimpsed the advertisement in the paper, and the baffling nature of the one-sided arrangements was beginning to be irritating. But the remembrance of a certain sixty-eight cents now remaining in his pockets, and of certain trying experiences of the past week tended most emphatically to create in him an attitude of genial diplomacy.

“Well,” he began slowly, “Sharlow—Ward Sharlow—is my name. My father was Jason Sharlow, originally a bookkeeper in a London brokerage office. My mother was Jane Sharlow, nee Jane Smith, also of London. My father has been dead five years and my mother three. I am twenty-six years of age—will be twenty-seven on December 24 next.

“My boyhood was spent in a court off Whitechapel High Street, on London’s East Side, at least until I became thirteen years of age. My father, whose wages in London were exceedingly small—less than two pounds per week—then emigrated to Canada—to Montreal—where he entered a brokerage house there, merely as bookkeeper, and remained there till he died. I received the equivalent of your American grammar-school education and a high-school education as well, but we were too poor to extend it further than that. I have read considerably, however, along many lines of higher education, and feel that I have the equivalent education of a junior at college. I worked in the same brokerage office in Montreal that my father did; after mother died, two years later, I went from there to its Toronto branch, and thence to Detroit when it opened a Detroit branch. Recently the whole business failed, owing me a great deal of back salary. There were no assets. I had spent something like three years in the Detroit branch, losing out on all the seniority that my employment with that one firm would have given me.

“To cut the story short, a week ago I came on with little money to Chicago, this livest city, as they say, in America, in the hope of connecting up with a certain brokerage office on your La Salle street, but the letter from my bankrupt employer didn’t seem to have the effect I expected, or else my prospective employer was curtailing his help instead of adding to it. I landed here practically penniless, for I had received no salary for months and months, and prior to that I had been paying off a long and expensive hospital bill connected with my mother’s last illness. I have not been able to connect up with any work here so far. Perhaps if I were a bootlegger or a gangster, I might meet with instantaneous luck. But I’m not. And—and—well that’s about the whole story. No brothers—no sisters.”

Belzar heard him through, rapt. His sad eyes continued to roam up and down Sharlow’s figure. His ensuing words seemed to constitute a single significant inquiry. “Have you ever thought you would like to see—well, South America?—South Africa?—Europe!”

“No,” replied Sharlow, “but I have often thought I would like to revisit London, the home of my boyhood, and look up the companions of those happy days. In fact, I have thought I would like to stay over there for perhaps an indefinite time—possibly study over there.”

Belzar nodded as if in unison with Sharlow’s own thoughts. And at the conclusion of this final piece of information he leaned forward, and his voice was now low and tense.

“Then, here Sharlow, fate, in the shape of a State street car, has thrown you across my path, and vice versa, just at the crucial time for both of us. What would you say if—if I should offer you the chance to enter my home and take the position of my son for exactly two weeks—to meet his friends, his acquaintances, my business associates, and then to leave for London, the city of your birth, the city towards which you feel the tenderest of memories, with a full-paid first-class passage in your possession?

“Think it over carefully. It can be done. You are his living counterpart—even to the voice. He has lived in England—Oxford—for two years. You have lived on our side for many more than that. If ever there were two men suited by fate to exchange personalities, you two are those two. And the rate of payment for this simple impersonation will be something in the neighborhood of thirty dollars an hour, sleeping or waking, for when you leave Chicago for England you will leave with a fee that will enable you to live and study over there for as long as you wish. That fee, Mr. Sharlow, will be ten thousand dollars in cash.”

Belzar leaned forward in his chair. “How—how does it strike you?”

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