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THE SKULL OF THE WALTZING CLOWN

 

CHAPTER I

 

NO. 16 RUSSELL SQUARE

 

Wharf 16, Honolulu—to No. 16 Russell Square, Chicago.

What a long jaunt that had been!

And now I stood on the sidewalk, in front of what presumably was No. 16 Russell Square, my three pieces of hand luggage strewn each side of me, and cast my optics over the place.

So this was the home of Simon Stannard?

Owner of 7-Tales Magazine!

Famous collector of old safes!

Candidate for Mayor of Chicago on the Dissatisfaction Party ticket.

Whited sepulchre!

His note, in my pocket, had begun friendly enough “My Dear Nephew George”—but I had no illusions but that he had something up his sleeve. For there was an air about the house in which he lived that was as cold and friendless as the inside of a Kelvinator refrigerator on a below-zero day.

To be sure, it lacked but an hour of noontime, and the near-midday sun, even though it was the 23rd of October, bathed the entire front of the house. But nothing could warm that house up! And I had a pretty good idea that nothing could warm up the man who lived inside it.

Cold red brick, recently tuckpointed, and every junction of brick with brick painted jet black. An old house, therefore, renovated. Penury! The arched tops of the windows painted blue, and the stone sills hewed off flush with the brick. Modernization. But a failure, because of those ancient arched tops. The owner of that house was one who would think he was putting something over—when he wasn’t at all! Blue shades—would-be aristocrat! All drawn down to the exact same degree—finickiness! Two massive oak doors, each with a great polished bronze knocker, at the top of a short flight of stone steps, the latter painted black. Painting good stone a funereal black—it was a certainty he’d quote from the Bible! An artificial tree each side of the steps. A human being would have a real tree! A short iron fence, hemming in a flowerless lawn, with every spike cruelly sharpened by hand. Inborn cruelty!

A negro shuffled past. A tall rascal with a bandanna around his neck and a grey felt hat without a brim. I stopped him.

“Who lives there?” I asked, nodding toward the tombstone-like place.

“You strangah?” the black fellow asked. “Des’ lookin’ ’roun’ de town?” His eyes were fixed on the portable salesman’s typewriter at one side of me, and the leather portfolio and overnight bag on the other.

“Yeah, bo!” I told him cheerfully.

“You ain’t, mebbe now, f’m de Souf, is you?” he asked suspiciously.

“From the South?” I retorted. “Hell fire, black boy, can’t you tell a Yank yet?”

“Well, Ah des’ wanted to be suah,” he mumbled. “Dem Suvvenahs dey slap a man down ef he say an’ting ’bout a w’ite man.”

“Well, I won’t slap you down. So come out with it. Whose house—is that?”

“Boss,” he said, fervently, “you lookin’ now at de home of de lousiest ol’ son ob a bitch what evah was bohned! He gonna be mayoh ob dis heah town, mebbe, nex’ week. He own one ob dem friction mag’zines whut prints sto’ies, an’ he stoled it f’um de rightful ownah, too! He c’llect ol’ safes—he got a basement full ob dem t’ings; seems lak he mought be gibin’ some ob dat money w’ut he buy ol’ safes wid, to de po’. On’y, he don’ nevah gib nobody nuffin. Dat man, boss, so mean he kin peel de skin off ob a flea widout takin’ nary bit of de flea flesh!”

“Hm! You don’t like that guy, I take it?” I commented.

“Wha’fo should Ah? Didn’ he hiah me to wash up all his flo’s an’ his woodw’uk fo’ a dollah—an’ den say Ah didn’ do de job right—an’ den didn’t Ah say Ah’d sue him—an’ den didn’ he gib me one big laff an’ tell me it cos’ me th’ee dollahs des fo’ to file suit?”

“Well, maybe,” I said, “you didn’t do the job right.”

“De hell Ah didn’, boss. Ah don’ a swell job.”

“Well, didn’t he even give you half pay?”

“No, he didn’. He called his suvhan’ man upstayahs, an’ go to de phone to call de po-leece—so I git outa dah dam’ quick. An sence den, boss, Ah’s run ’cross mo’n twenty niggahs w’ut he’s picked up all ’rund town an’ got ’em fo’ to wu’k all day fo’ him like Ah did—and done de same t’ing to ’em.”

“Oh-oh,” I said. “Just naturally ornery, eh? Mean?”

“Mean? Ain’ nobuddah, boss, lak dat man. Ain’ no woman evah eben lub him enuf to ma’hy him. He—but what time you got, boss?”

I held my wristwatch up to him, so that he could see the time for himself.

“Whooie!” he said, staring at it. “Ah gotta git goin’. Ah’s got a houah’s scrubbin’ wu’k befo’ noon.”

And off he shuffled.

It certainly looked as though I had a generous earful about the gentleman who had appended the words “your affectionate uncle” to the note in my pocket!

Except—and it would be curious now—if this smug house I gazed at was not owned at all by the subject of the long oration I’d just had on the meanness and orneryness of one Simon Stannard! And if the place I was really supposed to go might be—for instance—that charming little green bungalow next door, with flower boxes on its windows, dainty window curtains inside, oyster-shell-studded garden in front, and a white picket fence hemming off the lawn.

So I got out the note again. That is, if one can call a 3-page letter a note!

And unfolding it so that its first page stood uppermost, endeavored once more to find out what the devil might be going through Simon Stannard’s head—and whether, at that, I did stand in front of the right house.

The embossed heading of the letter read:

 

Editorial Offices

of

7 TALES MAGAZINE

Russell Square, Chicago

 

and the letter itself ran:

 

September 24, 1942

My Dear Nephew George:

Because of the fact that your father, while yet alive, undoubtedly referred to me countless times as a whited sepulchre, do not let this induce you to fail to stop off at my home on your way back to Boston from Honolulu.

There is something, George, of great importance, that I wish to discuss with you; in fact, George, I propose to actually give you something which, to you, will be exceedingly valuable. Under the circumstances, you simply cannot afford, George, to go through Chicago without stopping off.

I learned by canvassing some of our distant relatives in the East that you were with the Recherché Shirt Company of Boston; on the road for them, in fact. The particular letter which told me this reached me around noontime today; and so, while waiting this afternoon in a big downtown drugstore for the proprietor, who I’ve learned has a very valuable prescription for gout—a damnable ailment with which I am troubled—I just took occasion, then and there, to call your company by long-distance. In order to find out, that is, when you might be next covering Chicago. And someone—a mere office boy, or something, so I gather—told me that they had just received a wire from you this morning that you were sailing, though more or less unexpectedly, for Honolulu today, on a highly speculative —so I gathered—mission; but my informant seemed quite positive that you would be back in Boston by not later, absolutely, than October 28th, so that you will be able to meet, for the first time, in person, your employer—the owner of the Recherché Company. Who, so I gathered from my brief conversation, lives on the Riviera, and makes but a single trip back to the States once a year to meet his old employes, and contact his new ones. My informant—this office boy, or whoever the devil he was!—also told me that a Chicago-Frisco-Hawaiian airmail letter would jump ahead of the vessel that you were going over on, and would be waiting for you at the Hotel Moana.

Hence this letter—which I have sent in exactly that manner.

Now, George, I suggest that you quite ignore the fact that your father and I were estranged for so many years, and without fail call upon me when you pass through Chicago on your return journey to Boston. Remember, not only have I not seen you since you were a lad of about five or so, and that therefore I so very, very much want to feast my eyes upon my one nephew; but I must see you now also, George—to give you something of great value.

As you can see from this letterhead, I am now the owner of the famous old 7-Tales Magazine, which was founded when you were but a boy. How I happened to acquire it is something I won’t go into here. Nor do I claim, myself, to know the difference between a fiction story and a stock market report, but I have an editor who can smell out a crackerjack story a mile away—and since we still pay the $100 flat per story—regardless of type, length, author, or anything else—that the magazine did when it was originally founded—we manage to put out a publication that people buy. And certain kinds of advertisers advertise in. And so I make a profit out of it. It is edited from my house, in fact. On Russell Square.

And in case you don’t know outlying Chicago, Bus No. 72, boarded anywhere on North Michigan Avenue near the Union Passenger Station at Randolph and Michigan, brings you to Russell Square. The north end of the square, in fact, is the terminal of that particular bus route. I am at No. 16 Russell Square. Which used to be known as 8330 Bond Avenue, in case you know the old streets and street numbering better. My place has a fence cutting off its yard, in case you strike the square late at night.

Acknowledge this letter, please, George, by airmail from Honolulu, letting me know definitely if I may expect you positively by not later than October 23rd, as I would say that that day—or let us say, to be exactly precise, the day following—is about the very latest you would be able to take advantage of what I have to give you. And, of course, please phone me from the station before you board the bus, so that I may dismiss the servants, thus insuring complete privacy in our conversation, for what I have to say, George, is something of a most confidential nature.

I await your reply, as well as your call.

Your affectionate uncle,

                         Simon Stannard.

 

Always that letter intrigued me to the extent that I had to read it all the way through. I put it away now, however. For this was the place all right. For the faint marks were still on the transom over the doors where four digits, comprising the number 8330, had once been pasted; but had not yet been superseded by the new number 16.

So I picked up my three pieces of luggage, went up the dead black stone steps, and rang a bell whose push-button I saw protruding through the polished ring of the ornamental knocker.

And awaited, pondering—So Simon Stannard had something—to give somebody! So Simon Stann—a donkey, drawing a small cart, with a couple of children in it, trotted past the house where I stood, hand ready to rattle knocker if bell did not bring someone.

The animal brayed loudly.

And it seemed to me, somehow, that the braying came not from the donkey—but from somewhere within myself.

Simon Stannard—giving somebody—something! There was a catch in it somewhere. Somewhere!

 

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