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The Glorious Pool
A WALK THROUGH TOWN
"NEVER mind about my excitable nature," remarked Spray Summers, as they turned into a particularly quiet and deserted street. "I never would have believed that being bottled up in a department store with so many men could make me so nervous, but I feel like jumping at every shadow. Can't we keep off these side streets? I expect to meet Frankenstein or Dracula any minute."
"After our recent experiences," said the Major gravely, "side streets are the thing for us. It was just about here, only one block down on the main thoroughfare, that we made that corner on two wheels."
The night was black. Black as ink. Black as pitch. Black as Egypt. Any one of the stand-by comparisons would have done, but the truth is that this particular alley looked like nothing so much as the inside of a stovepipe or a coal cellar in the dark. You felt as though something might be living in it, beyond eyesight, sneaking along, maybe tap-tapping with an invisible cane.
"Where are the stars?" asked Hal, the fireman, sleepily and innocently.
"Hasn't anybody told you?" returned Spray with kindly venom. "We're not using them since the Light and Gas Code was signed. They're on a strike. Wish they'd do some picketing, though," added the woman, shivering, as an afterthought. Rex Pebble, in the lead of the group, stepped into a doorway to light a cigarette. It seemed a shame to run the risk of having their trail again picked up by the police just for the sake of one little light. He opened a packet of matches and struck one. Nothing happened. He struck another match head, and this one, just as his companions caught up, ignited. Rex stepped out from the doorway.
"My God," screamed Spray at the top of her none too delicate lungs, "the place is alive with men!" She clutched the arm of Hal, who, stumbling along in his weariness, suddenly leaped forward like a fire horse at the sound of the bell. From the rear Hal tackled Major Lynnhaven Jaffey, who in turn whirled upon Nockashima. Spray Summers, seeing herself deserted, flung her lissom young form harshly against Rex Pebble.
"It's I!" cried Rex, pushing her away.
"Oh, yeah?" retorted the woman. "Well, plenty of women have gone wrong from believing men who said it's I in the dark." Spray landed a swift slap on Rex's right cheek, while Hal, the Major, and Nockashima, after banging one another around, recovered their wits sufficiently to rush to her defense. They all landed upon Rex full force. The poor fellow was sinking under their combined weight when Spray discovered their mistake.
"It's Rex!" she cried, and her friends, believing her to be hailing Rex's approach as a new champion, flattened the unfortunate man on the sidewalk. "I've got him," said Nockashima glibly, sitting on his boss's neck at the uncomfortable point where Adam's apple is the Gibraltar between Atlantic of body and Mediterranean of head.
"So I see," whispered a weak voice from beneath the human pile. "Now that you've had your fun, let me up, will you?"
"Very fresh for masher," returned Nocka, practically jumping up and down. "Teach good lesson."
"You let him up this minute, you wizened yellow idiot," said Spray. "Do you realize who you're sitting on?"
"Formal introduction not necessary," returned the Japanese,, who was proudly taking credit for the entire triumph of the onslaught. "Only that madam attacked."
"We do not care, my dear girl," said Major Jaffey with' great heroism and formality, "who the fellow is, so long as we have saved you from dishonor and disgrace."
"Let him up, Major," commented Spray. "You're too late. You should have met us in a dark street twenty years ago. That's my fate you have glued to the sidewalk there."
"Your fate?" inquired the Major, raising his eyebrows and looking round for Rex. "I was under the impression that I had been out with your fate all evening."
"Out with him and on top of him," returned Spray; "only, when you're through using his reconditioned chassis as a mattress, I think I'll wrap it up and take it home with me. In other words, gentlemen, you're sitting on Rex Pebble."
Three shadowy figures sprang up in the darkness, out-lined faintly in the pale wash of light that drifted through the street from the lamp on the corner. A fourth shadowy figure rose and seemed to creak as it rose. It also seemed to stretch its arms and legs, and from it issued a deep and satisfying groan.
"A good job," commented Rex. "I've never been so thoroughly mistaken for a gang of stick-up artists in my life. Something to add to my experience." While his three assailants continued to pour regrets and apologies upon him, Rex Pebble took Spray Summers' arm, and again the group moved down the street.
"First think we meet strange men and beat up," apologized Nockashima; "now only hope do not meet strange dogs or animals." He brandished his spoil, the lion's head. "May prove turning point in Mist' Henry's life. Very likely to arouse primitive passions. Either Mist' Henry overcome with superiority of imitation over nature, inspired to help self, or slink off coward-like." Nocka was genuinely worried. It was vital that Mr. Henry take to the lion's head.
"Never mind that bloody beast—I mean that bloodless beast," Spray spoke out of the blackness; "just let's get home before we massacre each other. Let me hold your arm too, Major. I don't feel too easy yet."
Spray Summers suited the prophecy to the moment, for, just then, from the dark triangle of a small doorway stepped a figure. The only thing visible about it was a white handkerchief across its face. The Pebble party felt its presence rather than saw it. They stopped short, arm in arm, with Nockashima in the rear pressing close against Major Jaffey and Hal.
"Stick 'em up!" said a voice, "or I'll fill your bellies full of lead!" Ten hands shot into the air.
"Now turn around and walk Indian file in front of me," continued the voice. There was a peculiar note of hesitancy in the command. The voice seemed somehow to question its own judgment. It wavered. "Is that right, Joe?" it inquired of an unseen presence in the doorway.
"Yes and no," returned the presence. "Of course, you've got to vary your technique with the personalities concerned. However, I can't really sense these personalities, let alone see them. It's hardly a fair trial."
Rex Pebble felt that it was time to put in a word. "Are you predicting anything about a trial, or is that just part of your course in technique?"
"Just part of the course," said the presence in the doorway, which was male. "We're just a couple of young fellers working our way through school, and we're on the second story now, won't you help us out?" The presence seemed to be struggling with an old instinct for salesmanship, just as the actual robber appeared to be mentally thumbing the index of a book of directions on how to commit a robbery.
"Sure, glad to accommodate," answered Rex Pebble, "especially if you'll give us a receipt and let us go on home."
"Oh, no," said the first voice, quite shocked. "We can't let you go home alone. First we'll take your clothes—just come along now, strip them off—and then we'll be very glad to see you home."
"You'll see more than my home if you take these clothes off," remarked Spray, as she started to slip off her dress, "because I only had time to grab something for the outside. I'm practically nude inside, you know."
Both voices were silent. They seemed to be considering. What was the proper thing for a robber to do now? The romantic thing was to let the woman keep her clothes, reform yourself, and then marry her, but that seemed a little harsh for a young gentleman gangster just starting out.
Spray sensed the embarrassment that hung over the scene. "Oh, come now," she said, "we didn't mean to hurt your feelings. You're far too sensitive as it is. I just don't see how you could use clothes like mine in your business."
"Well," he said, "you'd better keep your clothes on. We want to keep this hold-up clean. No sex. It's against the Union now, anyhow." The fellow stuck a torch into Spray Summers' face.
"Oh, she's lovely," said the somewhat cold presence who came forward from his director's stand in the door-way. They both were engrossed; they spoke as though none of their victims could hear. "I could use that in my business."
"Look out now," said No. 1. "I may not know as much as you do about technique, but I can tell about some other things. You can't have love and a career, you know."
"Who do you think I am—Hitler?" inquired No. 2 icily. "I'm afraid that I'll just have to ask you to stick to your work. I think we might just try taking that dress off."
Rex Pebble realized that things were coming to a crisis. No. 2 was evidently a man of social grace, highly susceptible to feminine charm if, without even seeing Spray's face, he wished to take her dress off. Something had to be done quickly. Rex felt his adversary's weakness.
"You fellows might be interested in a little party we're throwing up at our place," he suggested. "It seems like an awful bad night in your line."
"Matter of fact, couldn't be worse," said No. 2 sociably. "I never would have gone out at all if it hadn't been for him." It appeared that he was pointing with scorn at his companion. "They didn't think he was getting along at all, and it was just my luck to have him come into my class. I always say that if you stay in a school as long as three years without progress, you'll never get out."
"Have you been in three years?" asked Spray Summers, following Rex's lead in hoping to keep the talk impersonal.
"In three years?" replied No. 1 viciously. "What does she mean, in three years?"
"Now, don't go getting on your high horse," warned No. 2, "because that's one of the main things that holds you back. She doesn't mean any offense. She merely means, have you been in school three years."
"Oh," said No. 1 with evident relief, "oh, that, sure. It isn't the work so much that holds me back as the social life. School is so much social life, nowadays."
"Which is all the more reason for you to come along and join us. When we left the house there was half a fire department and a French maid at play."
"See there," remarked No. 2, who apparently, after looking forward to a dull evening, saw things beginning to pick up. "What you ought to do is to get out and meet some of the customers."
"Can't mix business and play," No. 1 was murmuring stubbornly when Nockashima broke in with admirable tact.
"Perhaps," suggested the little man, whose knowing smile could not be seen in the deep night that surrounded them, "young men like nightcap?" No. 2 appeared to be utterly overwhelmed with this idea. He abandoned all attempt at a professional manner and frankly tugged at his companion's sleeve.
"Listen, pal," said Joe pleadingly, "these ain't the regular kind you'll find yourself sticking up. They're decent. They're worth meeting. Come to think of it, you ought to get used to finding your way around homes of hospitable people. It's knowledge that will come in handy some day. Go to the bathroom. Find how it lets out of the bed-room. Pardon me, folks," Joe interrupted himself, "I gotta tell him some of these things so's to sell him on the idea of coming along with us. It's the inside layout that counts. You got the approach. You can handle a ladder. I've seen you work: you're slick as a cat, you go through a place like greased lightning. The fellas all like to work with you. But what good does all this do you if you don't know the build-up of these places inside? Not often you get a chance like this. Come on, pal, I can't quit on you, but I want to go."
"That's right," said Rex Pebble, who would have been dubious about the whole proposition except for the fact that No. 1 could not be persuaded to lower his pistol, which was pointed directly at Rex, or so he imagined. "Why not settle the argument? You come along with us, Joe, and let your friend here bring up the tail end. He can keep on aiming his pistol at the last one in the line."
No sooner had Rex got the words out of his mouth than there was a mad scramble in the street, everyone striving to get first into line, with Major Lynnhaven Jaffey in the natural process of evolution coming out last, No. 1's unhesitating gun poked between his shoulder blades. The line proceeded up the street.
"Well, it's mighty funny to me," persisted No. 1 as the party moved along, "and I can't see why I should be still sticking you up when you're all on the move and on your way home, but I guess I know my duty when I see it. Get along there," he commanded the Major roughly.
"Could you possibly lower that thing just a bit?" inquired the Major, "because, while I may be an old man and not particularly interested in life, it tickles me when it bobs up and down. You might as well put it away, anyhow."
"What kind of drinks have you got?" asked Joe, coming to the point in a business-like manner. "Somebody remarked something about a nightcap. What's that?"
"Oh, that's a drink we give you before we put you to bed," answered Spray Summers, who had begun to won-der how these latest two additions to the party were going to fit into the group that might already be celebrating something or other at her house when they got home.
"Bed?" Joe packed a wealth of meaning into one small word. "Did you hear that, Elmer? Bed."
Rex, Spray, Hal, Nockashima, and Major Jaffey were swinging along in lockstep now, much more as though they were on their way to the workhouse than to Spray's comfortable home. .
"Why so surprised?" asked Spray. "Don't you boys ever go to bed?"
"Well, yes," admitted Joe. "But everything does seem pretty upset tonight. Not more than an hour ago I was back there"—he indicated somewhere behind them with a jerk of the thumb—"watching Elmer clean up his tool for the evening, and now here I am going home to bed with my prospects. I guess I'll never be a success. I think I must have an inferiority complex. Just ask me somewhere, and I'm a pushover."
"Well, you'll be all right when you get some of our drinks under your belt," Rex assured him. "I could use one myself. How long have you been in this game?" he asked the sociable young man who had directed the stick-up.
"Oh, say three years, off and on," returned Joe. "Long enough to get the feel of the thing. But I don't like it. I always wanted to be a banker."
"Well, now," spoke up Major Lynnhaven Jaffey, with interest, "just how much would you be interested in putting up, should the right opportunity present itself? I think I know of something most attractive to a chap of your background and bearing."
"Major, Major," warned Spray Summers, "remember he's only a boy."
"I could round up five or six thousand pretty easy," answered Joe, who in order to make the Major hear him had to raise his voice quite a bit. It was a strange procession. But it was making time, owing to the relentless pace set by Joe in the hopes that they could shake his accomplice or tire him out. "Five or six thousand, did you hear me?"
"That would do nicely," called back Major Jaffey, "this particular institution is out in Arkansas, near Pine Bluff."
"Neat," commented Spray. "An institution, is it?"
"What would five or six thousand get me?" asked Joe. "I want a white-collar job."
"Well, just look at me, my boy," admonished the Major. "You can hardly see me at the moment, but we'll remedy that later. I am a tall, distinguished, well-dressed man of sixty, and attribute my success solely to one thing: I never let anything worry me. You just let me have that five or six thousand, and neither of us will worry about anything."
"Could I stand behind a cage and pass out books?" asked Joe eagerly.
"I think you're confusing banks and public libraries," remarked Spray, "but you can do one thing for me."
"What's that, lady?"
"Just sell your boy friend on the idea of dropping that gun. The Major, though a friend of mine, is pretty thin, and I've just been thinking that if your friend should shoot him, the bullet would probably push its way through him, on up here to me. And I don't want to die—not tonight."
"Listen, Elmer." Joe adopted a new tack. "If you'll put the gat away, I'll let you hold 'em up on the front steps of their own house when we get there. Think of what that would read like in the papers. I'll even have a flashlight picture made. Elmer Browne, snapped sticking up prominent West End residents. We might even get a spread in the society section. How's that?"
"How often," replied Elmer with ponderous dignity, "do I have to tell you that I take this profession seriously. If I stick somebody up, he stays stuck up, society section or not, even if I have to follow him home."
"That's it," cut in Spray, "we want to give you a break. We want you to have a fresh start right at our home. You're all tired out holding that gun. You'll feel a lot more like making a snappy hold-up if you'll just put it down for a while."
"And meet some nice girls," invited Rex.
"And have potent drink," added Nockashima.
"And take that damned pistol out of my shoulder blades," said the Major.
"Oh, all right," Elmer capitulated reluctantly. "But remember, when we get there?"
"When we get there," promised Rex.
"Speaking of there," suggested Spray Summers, her ear cocked in the direction in which they were walking, "I suspect that I hear music."
From the direction of the Summers menage there issued a medley of sound. It was as though a Negro band in collision with a load of milk cans were playing Gershwin. Somebody was evidently beating on a dish pan, and somebody else had manufactured a home-made comb cornet. The air was not easy to identify, as the singers themselves seemed uncertain, but one thing was sure, that Fifi, patriotic to the core, imagined herself to be leading in the less mentionable verses of "Mademoiselle from Armentieres."
"How nice," said Rex Pebble. "I think the Fire Department must have arranged a housewarming."
"Well, if they did," Spray came back, "I hope they left some of my extinguisher in the cellar. It sounds as though they must have drunk it all up."
"Do you take home gangs every night?" put in Elmer doubtfully, his fingers slipping over the handle of his pistol.
"Oh, no," said Spray; "these were just some fellows from the Fire Department who stopped in some hours ago to help extinguish a blaze. I think they stayed to entertain the maid, or vice versa. You'll like them. They're awfully jolly people—in for anything, at the drop of a hat."
"The drop of a fireman's hat is very important." Major Lynnhaven Jaffey cleared his throat and called ahead, "Don't forget, old man, that when we arrive at our host's I would like a few quiet words with you. A banker never forgets."
Turning from the side street abruptly brought the Pebble party suddenly before a small gate in the wall of Spray Summers' garden. Rex, as first in line, had been guiding the footsteps of that intrepid brigand Joe, a willing victim of victimized hospitality. There was a tiny ship's lamp alight above the gate, and in the diffused yellow glow from this the party drew up. Elmer, a tanned-face, black-eyed, sullen young man, regarded the company with distrust, wagging his head at Joe. Joe, on the other hand, wore an alert expression on his blond countenance. He turned a quizzical expression upon each face in turn. "Well," he said, "you're not a bad lot of yeggs at all. Who's the old codger?"
"That's your prospective banking associate, of whom you speak so flippantly," Rex Pebble informed him.
"And be sure to lock the cash drawer nights," advised Spray.
"My friends here are being jocose with me," laughed the Major. "We'll just step inside and discuss the matter." The Major opened the little gate and stepped in. At once he stuck an astonished face back. "What's going in here?" he queried. "They've broken windows and knocked down doors."
"Still looking for a fire," said Spray disconsolately, "that's where our taxes go."
"Should think Mademoiselle Fifi provide plenty fire for boys," put in Nockashima.
"Well, you just go in and tell them to come out, Spray dear," suggested Mr. Pebble. "Tell them it's time to go home, that the chief wants them. And you might add that they'd better hurry, as we're arranging a little stick-up party on the front lawn."
"I will not," retorted the woman. "It's as much your house as it is mine. I'm damned if I'm going to get mixed up with any more municipal branches. I started out with the Fire Department, got in bed with the police, invited gangsters home, and now you want me to start all over. I may not be the same as I was this morning, but I know when my dogs are tired, even if I am restored to my youth, and they are tired now."
"Perhaps I'd better go in and fetch you the slippers Sue sent you for the anniversary of your seduction?" Rex insinuated, a teasing little smile curving his handsome mouth.
"You leave that huzzy of a wife of yours out of this," in a tone that rang through the night air. Both Elmer and Joe looked shocked. It was plain to see tha they felt that if the trend in robbery was towards the gentlemanly frisk, this was not the sort of company for them to be out with. From the house, however, came an inquiring voice that drew the attention of the company.
"Who's there?" it called in a deep bass.
"A friend," returned Spray Summers. "In fact, I'm the mistress of this house."
"Mistress?" questioned the voice. "Well, then, come on in," it continued with a show of determination.
"No, you come on out," returned the woman. "Let's play out in the yard."
"If you're really the mistress of this house, I'll give you a drink. I bet you'd like a drink, too. You must have been away a long time, because I've been here for hours and hours and hours, and I can't remember ever seeing you."
"Oh, you were young when I left this house. But don't let that worry you. I'll bet you know your way about now. Come on out and bring your friends."
"I haven't any friends. They've all deserted me. I'm all alone in the world. They're all out in the kitchen with Fifi, singing dirty songs."
"Why aren't you out in the kitchen with Fifi?"
"Because I don't know the words."
"That won't make any difference," called Spray. "Come on out; we want you for witness at a shooting."
"A shooting?" The word hung poised on air.
"Yes, and then we'll sing afterwards."
"Oh, but are you sure that I'll sing afterwards?"
"Well, what difference will it make? You can't sing now."
"That's right," agreed the voice. "You sound like a mighty sensible woman. I may be mad, but I think I'll take you up on that. Tell you what, I'll come out on one condition."
The Pebble party held its breath. Elmer was beginning to finger his pistol. It seemed like a shame to let the lad grow restive and really spoil things. Besides, he looked like an awfully good shot. Joe wore an apprehensive look, as though his period of influence with the hothead were rapidly drawing to an ending. Then there was the matter of ridding the house of firemen. This would take considerable strategy. A great deal depended on the answer of that unseen voice in the window.
"We'll do 'most anything to please you." Spray Summers chose her words with care, as became the feat of dealing with a distant drunken fireman.
"I'll come down and I'll witness your shooting—or my shooting, if you must—but you've got to have a drink with me."
"Oh, that. That's easy." A sigh broke over the whole band, from the Major to Nockashima. "Hurry up, now, come on down and bring that drink. There're eight of us."
"Eight of you? What is this—a shooting gallery? Wait till I go where I started to go up here on the second floor hours and hours and hours ago." The voice trailed off like the Cheshire cat's head.
"What happens when he does come down?" demanded Elmer. "You told me when we got to the house we'd have the stick-up."
"Certainly," returned Rex, "but the idea is that you must accept of our hospitality first. One drink. One drink to a good haul and a better shot if necessary."
"That's fair," urged Joe, who in the soft light of the ship's lamp above the little garden gate was taking a keen interest in Spray Summers' lissom young form, and in those deep, burning brown eyes whose sparkle was heightened by her recent debate. Suddenly, while Elmer argued with himself, a hand was thrust through the gate, extending a quart bottle of liquid.
"Here," said the bass voice, "I'll be out in a minute. Don't you lose this, now, because it's all I've got, and you're all the friends I've got."
Nockashima took the bottle from the hand. Tut-tutting over it, the little yellow man bemoaned the lack of a cocktail shaker and equipment. "Gurgles from bottle grow tiresome," he murmured. "Anxious restore proper order to madam's bar. If any bar left." He gazed with rue toward the gate, when a bright idea seemed to attack him.
"Here, take," said Nockashima to his boss, handing him the bottle and at the same time donning himself the phony lion's head which he had lugged along as a trophy for Mr. Henry. "Scare burning daylights out of Fire Department."
Evidently the fireman with the conversational bass had returned to the house for glasses, for at this moment, as Nockashima poked his lion's head inside the gate, there was a crash as of many small glass objects dropped at once and a heavy pounding of feet on the lawn. "God help me!" the words tumbled through the night air, "if it isn't a menagerie." A door slammed.
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