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Never-Fail Blake By Arthur Stringer Characters: 24744

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Blake, the Second Deputy, raised his gloomy hound's eyes as the door opened and a woman stepped in. Then he dropped them again.

"Hello, Elsie!" he said, without looking at her.

The woman stood a moment staring at him. Then she advanced thoughtfully toward his table desk.

"Hello, Jim!" she answered, as she sank into the empty chair at the desk end. The rustling of silk suddenly ceased. An aphrodisiac odor of ambergris crept through the Deputy-Commissioner's office.

The woman looped up her veil, festooning it about the undulatory roll of her hat brim. Blake continued his solemnly preoccupied study of the desk top.

"You sent for me," the woman finally said. It was more a reminder than a question. And the voice, for all its quietness, carried no sense of timidity. The woman's pale face, where the undulating hat brim left the shadowy eyes still more shadowy, seemed fortified with a calm sense of power. It was something more than a dormant consciousness of beauty, though the knowledge that men would turn back to a face so wistful as hers, and their judgment could be dulled by a smile so narcotizing, had not a little to do with the woman's achieved serenity. There was nothing outwardly sinister about her. This fact had always left her doubly dangerous as a law-breaker.

Blake himself, for all his dewlap and his two hundred pounds of lethargic beefiness, felt a vague and inward stirring as he finally lifted his head and looked at her. He looked into the shadowy eyes under the level brows. He could see, as he had seen before, that they were exceptional eyes, with iris rings of deep gray about the ever-widening and ever-narrowing pupils which varied with varying thought, as though set too close to the brain that controlled them. So dominating was this pupil that sometimes the whole eye looked violet, and sometimes green, according to the light.

Then his glance strayed to the woman's mouth, where the upper lip curved outward, from the base of the straight nose, giving her at first glance the appearance of pouting. Yet the heavier underlip, soft and wilful, contradicted this impression of peevishness, deepened it into one of Ishmael-like rebellion.

Then Blake looked at the woman's hair. It was abundant and nut-brown, and artfully and scrupulously interwoven and twisted together. It seemed to stand the solitary pride of a life claiming few things of which to be proud. Blake remembered how that wealth of nut-brown hair was daily plaited and treasured and coiled and cared for, the meticulous attentiveness with which morning by morning its hip-reaching abundance was braided and twisted and built up about the small head, an intricate structure of soft wonder which midnight must ever see again in ruins, just as the next morning would find idly laborious fingers rebuilding its ephemeral glories. This rebuilding was done thoughtfully and calmly, as though it were a religious rite, as though it were a sacrificial devotion to an ideal in a life tragically forlorn of beauty.

He remembered, too, the day when he had first seen her. That was at the time of "The Sick Millionaire" case, when he had first learned of her association with Binhart. She had posed at the Waldorf as a trained nurse, in that case, and had met him and held him off and outwitted him at every turn. Then he had decided on his "plant." To effect this he had whisked a young Italian with a lacerated thumb up from the City Hospital and sent him in to her as an injured elevator-boy looking for first-aid treatment. One glimpse of her work on that thumb showed her to be betrayingly ignorant of both figure-of-eight and spica bandaging, and Blake, finally satisfied as to the imposture, carried on his investigation, showed "Doctor Callahan" to be Connie Binhart, the con-man and bank thief, and sent the two adventurers scurrying away to shelter.

He remembered, too, how seven months after that first meeting Stimson of the Central Office had brought her to Headquarters, fresh from Paris, involved in some undecipherable way in an Aix-les-Bains diamond robbery. The despatches had given his office very little to work on, and she had smiled at his thunderous grillings and defied his noisy threats. But as she sat there before him, chic and guarded, with her girlishly frail body so arrogantly well gowned, she had in some way touched his lethargic imagination. She showed herself to be of finer and keener fiber than the sordid demireps with whom he had to do. Shimmering and saucy and debonair as a polo pony, she had seemed a departure from type, something above the meretricious termagants round whom he so often had to weave his accusatory webs of evidence.

Then, the following autumn, she was still again mysteriously involved in the Sheldon wire-tapping coup. This Montreal banker named Sheldon, from whom nearly two hundred thousand dollars had been wrested, put a bullet through his head rather than go home disgraced, and she had straightway been brought down to Blake, for, until the autopsy and the production of her dupe's letters, Sheldon's death had been looked upon as a murder.

Blake had locked himself in with the white-faced Miss Elsie Verriner, alias Chaddy Cravath, alias Charlotte Carruthers, and for three long hours he had pitted his dynamic brute force against her flashing and snake-like evasiveness. He had pounded her with the artillery of his inhumanities. He had beleaguered her with explosive brutishness. He had bulldozed and harried her into frantic weariness. He had third-degreed her into cowering and trembling indignation, into hectic mental uncertainties. Then, with the fatigue point well passed, he had marshaled the last of his own animal strength and essayed the final blasphemous Vesuvian onslaught that brought about the nervous breakdown, the ultimate collapse. She had wept, then, the blubbering, loose-lipped, abandoned weeping of hysteria. She had stumbled forward and caught at his arm and clung to it, as though it were her last earthly pillar of support. Her huge plaited ropes of hair had fallen down, thick brown ropes longer than his own arms, and he, breathing hard, had sat back and watched them as she wept.

But Blake was neither analytical nor introspective. How it came about he never quite knew. He felt, after his blind and inarticulate fashion, that this scene of theirs, that this official assault and surrender, was in some way associated with the climacteric transports of camp-meeting evangelism, that it involved strange nerve-centers touched on in rhapsodic religions, that it might even resemble the final emotional surrender of reluctant love itself to the first aggressive tides of passion. What it was based on, what it arose from, he could not say. But in the flood-tide of his own tumultuous conquest he had watched her abandoned weeping and her tumbled brown hair. And as he watched, a vague and troubling tingle sped like a fuse-sputter along his limbs, and fired something dormant and dangerous in the great hulk of a body which had never before been stirred by its explosion of emotion. It was not pity, he knew; for pity was something quite foreign to his nature. Yet as she lay back, limp and forlorn against his shoulder, sobbing weakly out that she wanted to be a good woman, that she could be honest if they would only give her a chance, he felt that thus to hold her, to shield her, was something desirable.

She had stared, weary and wide-eyed, as his head had bent closer down over hers. She had drooped back, bewildered and unresponsive, as his heavy lips had closed on hers that were still wet and salty with tears. When she had left the office, at the end of that strange hour, she had gone with the promise of his protection.

The sobering light of day, with its cynic relapse to actualities, might have left that promise a worthless one, had not the prompt evidence of Sheldon's suicide come to hand. This made Blake's task easier than he had expected. The movement against Elsie Verriner was "smothered" at Headquarters. Two days later she met Blake by appointment. That day, for the first time in his life, he gave flowers to a woman.

Two weeks later he startled her with the declaration that he wanted to marry her. He did n't care about her past. She 'd been dragged into the things she 'd done without understanding them, at first, and she 'd kept on because there 'd been no one to help her away from them. He knew he could do it. She had a fine streak in her, and he wanted to bring it out!

A little frightened, she tried to explain that she was not the marrying kind. Then, brick-red and bull-necked, he tried to tell her in his groping Celtic way that he wanted children, that she meant a lot to him, that he was going to try to make her the happiest woman south of Harlem.

This had brought into her face a quick and dangerous light which he found hard to explain. He could see that she was flattered by what he had said, that his words had made her waywardly happy, that for a moment, in fact, she had been swept off her feet.

Then dark afterthought interposed. It crept like a cloud across her abandoned face. It brought about a change so prompt that it disturbed the Second Deputy.

"You 're-you 're not tied up already, are you?" he had hesitatingly demanded. "You 're not married?"

"No, I 'm not tied up!" she had promptly and fiercely responded. "My life 's my own-my own!"

"Then why can't you marry me?" the practical-minded man had asked.

"I could!" she had retorted, with the same fierceness as before. Then she had stood looking at him out of wistful and unhappy eyes. "I could-if you only understood, if you could only help me the way I want to be helped!"

She had clung to his arm with a tragic forlornness that seemed to leave her very wan and helpless. And he had found it ineffably sweet to enfold that warm mass of wan helplessness in his own virile strength.

She asked for time, and he was glad to consent to the delay, so long as it did not keep him from seeing her. In matters of the emotions he was still as uninitiated as a child. He found himself a little dazed by the seemingly accidental tenderness, by the promises of devotion, in which she proved so lavish. Morning by jocund morning he built up his airy dreams, as carefully as she built up her nut-brown plaits. He grew heavily light-headed with his plans for the future. When she pleaded with him never to leave her, never to trust her too much, he patted her thin cheek and asked when she was going to name the day. From that finality she still edged away, as though her happiness itself were only experimental, as though she expected the blue sky above them to deliver itself of a bolt.

But by this time she had become a habit with him. He liked her even in her moodiest moments. When, one day, she suggested that they go away together, anywhere so long as it was away, he merely laughed at her childishness.

It was, in fact, Blake himself who went away. After nine weeks of alternating suspense and happiness that seemed nine weeks of inebriation to him, he was called out of the city to complete the investigation on a series of iron-workers' dynamite outrages. Daily he wrote or wired back to her. But he was kept away longer than he had expected. When he returned to New York she was no longer there. She had disappeared as completely as though an asphalted avenue had opened and swallowed her up. It was not until the following winter that he learned she was again with Connie Binhart, in southern Europe.

He had known his one belated love affair. It had left no scar, he claimed, because it had made no wound. Binhart, he consoled himself, had held the woman in his power: there had been no defeat because there had been no actual conquest. And now he could face her without an eye-blink of conscious embarrassment. Yet it was good to remember that Connie Binhart was going to be ground in the wheels of the law, and ground fine, and ground to a finish.

"What did you want me for, Jim?" the woman was again asking him. She spoke with an intimate directness, and yet in her attitude were subtle reservations, a consciousness of the thin ice on which they both stood. Each saw, only too plainly, the need for great care, in every step. In each lay the power to uncover, at a hand's turn, old mistakes

that were best unremembered. Yet there was a certain suave audacity about the woman. She was not really afraid of Blake, and the Second Deputy had to recognize that fact. This self-assurance of hers he attributed to the recollection that she had once brought about his personal subjugation, "got his goat," as he had phrased it. She, woman-like, would never forget it.

"There 's a man I want. And Schmittenberg tells me you know where he is." Blake, as he spoke, continued to look heavily down at his desk top.

"Yes?" she answered cautiously, watching herself as carefully as an actress with a r?le to sustain, a r?le in which she could never quite letter-perfect.

"It's Connie Binhart," cut out the Second Deputy.

He could see discretion drop like a curtain across her watching face.

"Connie Binhart!" she temporized. Blake, as his heavy side glance slewed about to her, prided himself on the fact that he could see through her pretenses. At any other time he would have thrown open the flood-gates of that ever-inundating anger of his and swept away all such obliquities.

"I guess," he went on with slow patience "we know him best round here as Charles Blanchard."

"Blanchard?" she echoed.

"Yes, Blanchard, the Blanchard we 've been looking for, for seven months now, the Blanchard who chloroformed Ezra Newcomb and carried off a hundred and eighteen thousand dollars."

"Newcomb?" again meditated the woman.

"The Blanchard who shot down the bank detective in Newcomb's room when the rest of the bank was listening to a German band playing in the side street, a band hired for the occasion."

"When was that?" demanded the woman.

"That was last October," he answered with a sing-song weariness suggestive of impatience at such supererogative explanations.

"I was at Monte Carlo all last autumn," was the woman's quick retort.

Blake moved his heavy body, as though to shoulder away any claim as to her complicity.

"I know that," he acknowledged. "And you went north to Paris on the twenty-ninth of November. And on the third of December you went to Cherbourg; and on the ninth you landed in New York. I know all that. That's not what I 'm after. I want to know where Connie Binhart is, now, to-day."

Their glances at last came together. No move was made; no word was spoken. But a contest took place.

"Why ask me?" repeated the woman for the second time. It was only too plain that she was fencing.

"Because you know," was Blake's curt retort. He let the gray-irised eyes drink in the full cup of his determination. Some slowly accumulating consciousness of his power seemed to intimidate her. He could detect a change in her hearing, in her speech itself.

"Jim, I can't tell you," she slowly asserted. "I can't do it!"

"But I 've got 'o know," he stubbornly maintained. "And I 'm going to."

She sat studying him for a minute or two. Her face had lost its earlier arrogance. It seemed troubled; almost touched with fear. She was not altogether ignorant, he reminded himself, of the resources which he could command.

"I can't tell you," she repeated. "I'd rather you let me go."

The Second Deputy's smile, scoffing and melancholy, showed how utterly he ignored her answer. He looked at his watch. Then he looked back at the woman. A nervous tug-of-war was taking place between her right and left hand, with a twisted-up pair of ecru gloves for the cable.

"You know me," he began again in his deliberate and abdominal bass. "And I know you. I 've got 'o get this man Binhart. I 've got 'o! He 's been out for seven months, now, and they 're going to put it up to me, to me, personally. Copeland tried to get him without me. He fell down on it. They all fell down on it. And now they're going to throw the case back on me. They think it 'll be my Waterloo."

He laughed. His laugh was as mirthless as the cackle of a guinea hen. "But I 'm going to die hard, believe me! And if I go down, if they think they can throw me on that, I 'm going to take a few of my friends along with me."

"Is that a threat?" was the woman's quick inquiry. Her eyes narrowed again, for she had long since learned, and learned it to her sorrow, that every breath he drew was a breath of self-interest.

"No; it's just a plain statement." He slewed about in his swivel chair, throwing one thick leg over the other as he did so. "I hate to holler Auburn at a girl like you, Elsie; but I 'm going-"

"Auburn?" she repeated very quietly. Then she raised her eyes to his. "Can you say a thing like that to me, Jim?"

He shifted a little in his chair. But he met her gaze without a wince.

"This is business, Elsie, and you can't mix business and-and other things," he tailed off at last, dropping his eyes.

"I 'm sorry you put it that way," she said. "I hoped we 'd be better friends than that!"

"I'm not counting on friendship in this!" he retorted.

"But it might have been better, even in this!" she said. And the artful look of pity on her face angered him.

"Well, we 'll begin on something nearer home!" he cried.

He reached down into his pocket and produced a small tinted oblong of paper. He held it, face out, between his thumb and forefinger, so that she could read it.

"This Steinert check 'll do the trick. Take a closer look at the signature. Do you get it?"

"What about it?" she asked, without a tremor.

He restored the check to his wallet and the wallet to his pocket. She would find it impossible to outdo him in the matter of impassivity.

"I may or I may not know who forged that check. I don't want to know. And when you tell me where Binhart is, I won't know."

"That check was n't forged," contended the quiet-eyed woman.

"Steinert will swear it was," declared the Second Deputy.

She sat without speaking, apparently in deep study. Her intent face showed no fear, no bewilderment, no actual emotion of any kind.

"You 've got 'o face it," said Blake, sitting back and waiting for her to speak. His attitude was that of a physician at a bedside, awaiting the prescribed opiate to produce its prescribed effect.

"Will I be dragged into this case, in any way, if Binhart is rounded up?" the woman finally asked.

"Not once," he asserted.

"You promise me that?"

"Of course," answered the Second Deputy.

"And you 'll let me alone on-on the other things?" she calmly exacted.

"Yes," he promptly acknowledged. "I 'll see that you 're let alone."

Again she looked at him with her veiled and judicial eyes. Then she dropped her hands into her lap. The gesture seemed one of resignation.

"Binhart's in Montreal," she said.

Blake, keeping his face well under control, waited for her to go on.

"He 's been in Montreal for weeks now. You 'll find him at 381 King Edward Avenue, in Westmount. He 's there, posing as an expert accountant."

She saw the quick shadow of doubt, the eye-flash of indecision. So she reached quietly down and opened her pocket-book, rummaging through its contents for a moment or two. Then she handed Blake a folded envelope.

"You know his writing?" she asked.

"I 've seen enough of it," he retorted, as he examined the typewritten envelope post-marked "Montreal, Que." Then he drew out the inner sheet. On it, written by pen, he read the message: "Come to 381 King Edward when the coast is clear," and below this the initials "C. B."

Blake, with the writing still before his eyes, opened a desk drawer and took out a large reading-glass. Through the lens of this he again studied the inscription, word by word. Then he turned to the office 'phone on his desk.

"Nolan," he said into the receiver, "I want to know if there 's a King Edward Avenue in Montreal."

He sat there waiting, still regarding the handwriting with stolidly reproving eyes. There was no doubt of its authenticity. He would have known it at a glance.

"Yes, sir," came the answer over the wire. "It's one of the newer avenues in Westmount."

Blake, still wrapped in thought, hung up the receiver. The woman facing him did not seem to resent his possible imputation of dishonesty. To be suspicious of all with whom he came in contact was imposed on him by his profession. He was compelled to watch even his associates, his operatives and underlings, his friends as well as his enemies. Life, with him, was a concerto of skepticisms.

She was able to watch him, without emotion, as he again bent forward, took up the 'phone receiver, and this time spoke apparently to another office.

"I want you to wire Teal to get a man out to cover 381 King Edward Avenue, in Montreal. Yes, Montreal. Tell him to get a man out there inside of an hour, and put a night watch on until I relieve 'em."

Then, breathing heavily, he bent over his desk, wrote a short message on a form pad and pushed the buzzer-button with his thick finger. He carefully folded up the piece of paper as he waited.

"Get that off to Carpenter in Montreal right away," he said to the attendant who answered his call. Then he swung about in his chair, with a throaty grunt of content. He sat for a moment, staring at the woman with unseeing eyes. Then he stood up. With his hands thrust deep in his pockets he slowly moved his head back and forth, as though assenting to some unuttered question.

"Elsie, you 're all right," he acknowledged with his solemn and unimaginative impassivity. "You 're all right."

Her quiet gaze, with all its reservations, was a tacit question. He was still a little puzzled by her surrender. He knew she did not regard him as the great man that he was, that his public career had made of him.

"You've helped me out of a hole," he acknowledged as he faced her interrogating eyes with his one-sided smile. "I 'm mighty glad you 've done it, Elsie-for your sake as well as mine."

"What hole?" asked the woman, wearily drawing on her gloves. There was neither open contempt nor indifference on her face. Yet something in her bearing nettled him. The quietness of her question contrasted strangely with the gruffness of the Second Deputy's voice as he answered her.

"Oh, they think I 'm a has-been round here," he snorted. "They 've got the idea I 'm out o' date. And I 'm going to show 'em a thing or two to wake 'em up."

"How?" asked the woman.

"By doing what their whole kid-glove gang have n't been able to do," he avowed. And having delivered himself of that ultimatum, he promptly relaxed into his old-time impassiveness, like a dog snapping from his kennel and shrinking back into its shadows. At the same moment that Blake's thick forefinger again prodded the buzzer-button at his desk end the watching woman could see the relapse into official wariness. It was as though he had put the shutters up in front of his soul. She accepted the movement as a signal of dismissal. She rose from her chair and quietly lowered and adjusted her veil. Yet through that lowered veil she stood looking down at Never-Fail Blake for a moment or two. She looked at him with grave yet casual curiosity, as tourists look at a ruin that has been pointed out to them as historic.

"You did n't give me back Connie Binhart's note," she reminded him as she paused with her gloved finger-tips resting on the desk edge.

"D' you want it?" he queried with simulated indifference, as he made a final and lingering study of it.

"I 'd like to keep it," she acknowledged. When, without meeting her eyes, he handed it over to her, she folded it and restored it to her pocket-book, carefully, as though vast things depended on that small scrap of paper.

Never-Fail Blake, alone in his office and still assailed by the vaguely disturbing perfumes which she had left behind her, pondered her reasons for taking back Binhart's scrap of paper. He wondered if she had at any time actually cared for Binhart. He wondered if she was capable of caring for anybody. And this problem took his thoughts back to the time when so much might have depended on its answer.

The Second Deputy dropped his reading-glass in its drawer and slammed it shut. It made no difference, he assured himself, one way or the other. And in the consolatory moments of a sudden new triumph Never-Fail Blake let his thoughts wander pleasantly back over that long life which (and of this he was now comfortably conscious) his next official move was about to redeem.

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