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THERE was two commuters, one loaded down with a patent runner sled, the other chewin' a cigar impatient and consultin' his watch, a fat woman with a six-year-old who was teasin' to go see Santa Claus in the window again; a sporty-lookin' old boy with a red tie who was blinkin' googoos out of his puffy eyes; and then there was me, draped in my new near-English top coat and watchin' the swing doors expectant.
So you see they ain't particular who hangs out in these department store vestibules. But I'll bet I had the best excuse! I was waitin' for Vee! She'd gone in at five-twenty-one, sayin' she'd be only a couple of minutes; so she wasn't really due for half an hour yet.
The commuter with the sled had just been picked up by Wifey, loaded down with more bundles, and rushed off for the five-forty-something for Somewhere, and a new recruit in the shape of a fish-eyed gink with a double-chin dimple had drifted in, when I has the feelin' that someone has sidled up to me from the far door at the left and is standin' there. Then comes the timid hail:
"I beg pardon, Sir."
You'd naturally look for somebody special after that, wouldn't you? But what I finds close to my elbow is a wispy little girl with a pinched, high-strung look on her thin face, an amazin' collection of freckles, and a pleadin' look in her big, blue-gray eyes. She's costumed mainly in a shaggy tam-o'-shanter that comes down over her ears, and an old plaid cape that must have been some vivid in its color scheme when it was new.
"Eh, Sister?" says I, gawpin' at her.
"Is it true about the work papers, Sir?" says she.
"The which?" says I, not gettin' her for a second. "Oh! Work papers? Sure! They can't take you on unless you're over fourteen and have been to school so many weeks."
"Not anywhere? Wouldn't they?" she insists.
I shakes my head. "Wouldn't dare," says I. "They'd be fined if they did."
"Th-thank you, Sir," says she. "That's what the man said."
She was winkin' both eyes hard to hold the brine back, and her under lip was trembly; but she was keepin' her chin up brave and steady. She'd turned to go when she swings around.
"Please, Sir," says she, "where does one go when one is tired?"
"Why, Sis," says I sort of quizzin', "what's the matter with home?"
"But if one has no home?" she comes back at me solemn.
"The case being that of a little girl," says I, "she wanders around until she's collected by a cop, turned over to the Children's Society, and committed to some home."
"But I mustn't go there," says she, glancin' around scary. "No, not to a home. Daddums said not to."
"Did, eh?" says I. "Then why don't he By the way, just where is Daddums?"
"Taken up," says she.
"You mean pinched?" says I.
"I think so," says she. "Cook says the bobbies came for him. He left word with her that I wasn't to worry, as he'd be let out soon, and I was to stay where I was. Three weeks ago that was, and and I haven't heard from Daddums since."
"Huh!" says I. "Listens like a case of circumstances over which But where did you pick up that trick of speakin' of coppers as bobbies?"
"I beg pardon, Sir?" says she.
"That tells it," says I. "English, ain't you?"
"London, Sir, Brompton Road," says she.
"Been over long?" says I.
"A matter of three months, Sir," says she.
"And what's the name?" says I.
"Mine?" says she. "Helma Allston. And yours, please, Sir?"
I wa'n't lookin' for her to send it back so prompt. She ain't at all fresh about it, you know: just easy and natural. I don't know when I've run across a youngster with such nice manners.
"Why," says I, "I guess you can call me Torchy."
"Thank you, Mr. Torchy," says she, doin' a little dancin'-school duck. "And if you don't mind, I'd like to to stay here for a minute or two while I think what I'd best O-o-o-oh!" She sort of moans out this last panicky and shrinks against the wall.
"Well, what's the trouble now?" says I.
"That's the one!" she whispers husky. "The the man in the blue cap the one who told me about the work papers. He said I was to clear out too."
And by followin' her scared glances I discovers this low-brow store sleuth scowlin' ugly at her.
"Pooh!" says I. "Only one of them cheap flat-foots. Don't mind him. You're waitin' with me, you know. Here!" And I reaches down a hand to her.
Maybe it wa'n't some grateful look Helma flashes up as she slips her slim, cold little fingers into mine and snuggles up like a lost kitten. The store sleuth he stares puzzled for a second; but the near-English top coat must have impressed him, for he goes sneakin' back down the main aisle.
So here I am, with this freaky little stray under my wing, when Vee comes sailin' out, all trim and classy in her silver fox furs, with a cute little hat to match, and takes in the picture. Maybe you can guess too, how the average young queen in her set would have curled her lip at sight of that faded cape and oversized cap. But not Vee! She just indulges in a flickery smile, then straightens her face out and remarks:
"Well, Torchy, I haven't had the pleasure, have I?"
Say, she's a real sport, Vee is, take it from me!
"Guess not," says I. "This is Helma, late of London, just now at large. It's a case of one's havin' mislaid one's home."
"Oh!" says Vee, a little doubtful. "And one's parents too?"
"Painful subject," says I, shakin' my head warnin'.
But Helma ain't the kind to gloss things over. She speaks right out. "If you please, Miss," says she, "I've no mother, and Daddums has been taken up the bobbies, you know. And I fancy the money he left for my board must have been all used; for I heard the landlady say I'd have to go to a home. So before daylight this morning I slipped out the front door. I'm not going back, either. I I'm looking for work."
"For work!" says Vee, starin' first at me and then at Helma. "You absurd little thing! Why, how old are you?"
"I was twelve last month, Miss," says Helma, bobbin' polite.
"And you've been out since daylight?" demands Vee. "Where did you have breakfast and luncheon?"
"I I didn't have them at all, Miss," admits Helma.
Vee presses her lips together sudden and then shoots a knowin' look at me. "There!" says she. "That reminds me. I haven't had tea, either. Well, Torchy?"
"My blow," says I. "I was just goin' to mention it. There's a joint somewhere near, ain't there?"
"Top floor," says Vee. "Come, Helma, you'll go with us, won't you?"
And you should have seen the admirin' look Vee got back in exchange for the smile she gives Helma! The look never fades, either, all the while Helma is puttin' away a pot of chocolate, a club sandwich, and an order of toasted muffins and marmalade. She just lets them big eyes of hers travel up and down, from Vee's smooth-fittin' gloves to the little wisp of straw-colored hair that curls up over the side of her fur hat. You couldn't blame Helma. I took a peek now and then myself.
Meanwhile we has a good chance to inspect this waif that's been sort of wished on us. Such a sharp, peaked little face she has, and such bright, active eyes, that it gives her a wide-awake, live-wire look, like a fox terrier. Then the freckles just spattered with 'em, clear across the bridge of her nose and up to where the carroty hair begins. Like rust specks on a knife blade, they were.
"You didn't get all those livin' in London, did you?" says I.
"Oh, no, Sir," says she. "Egypt mostly, and then down in Devon. You see, Sir Alfred used to let Daddums take me along. Head butler, you know, Daddums was until the war. Then Sir Alfred went off with his regiment, and Haldeane House was shut up, like so many others. Daddums was too old to enlist, and besides there was no one to leave me with. So he had to try for a place over here. I I wish he hadn't. It was awful of the bobbies, wasn't it?"
"Looks so from here," says I. "Was it jew'lry that was missin', or what?"
"Money, Cook said," says Helma. "Oh, a lot! Fancy! Why, everyone knows Daddums wouldn't do a thing like that. They could ask Sir Alfred. Daddums was with him ever so long since I was a little, little girl."
I glances across at Vee, and she glances back. That's all; but them big eyes of Helma's don't miss it.
"You you don't believe he took the money, do you?" says she, wistful and pleadin'.
At which Vee reaches over and pats her soothin' on the hand. "I don't believe a word of it," says she.
"He's a good Daddums," goes on Helma, spreadin' the last of the marmalade on a buttered muffin. "He was going to take me to Australia, where Uncle Verne has a big sheep ranch. And he'd promised to buy me a sheep pony, all for my very own. I love riding, don't you? In Egypt I had a donkey with a white face; but only hired from Hassan, you know. And in Devon there was a cunning little Shetland that Hobbs would sometimes let me take out. But here! I stay in a dark little room alone for hours. I I don't like it at all. But it costs such a lot to get to Australia, and Daddums hasn't been well, he's had a cold on his chest, and he's been afraid he would lose his place and have to go to a hospital. Just before he was taken up, though, he told me we were to sail for Melbourne soon. Daddums had found a way."
This time I took care that Helma wa'n't lookin' before I glances at Vee. I shakes my head dubious, indicatin' I wa'n't so sure about Daddums. But Vee only tosses up her chin and turns to Helma.
"Of course he would!" says she. "What have you in your lap, Child?"
The kid pinks up and produces a battered old doll, one of these cloth-topped, everlastin' affairs, that looks like it had come from the Christmas tree quite some seasons back.
"This is my dear Arabella," says Helma in her old-maid way. "I suppose I'm too old to play with dolls now; but I I can't give her up. Only the night before Daddums went off I missed her for a while and thought she was lost. I cried myself to sleep. But what do you think? In the morning I found her again, right beside me on the pillow. I haven't gone a step without her since."
"You dear little goose!" says Vee, reachin' out impetuous and givin' her a hug. "And where do you think you're going, you and your Arabella?"
"I don't know," says Helma. "Only I mustn't let them put me in a home; for then I couldn't go with Daddums when he came out you see?"
Sure, we saw that and a lot more. I could tell that Vee was puzzlin' over the situation by the way she was starin' at the youngster and grippin' her muff. Course you might say we wa'n't any Rescue Mission, or anything like that; but somehow this was diff'rent. Here was Helma, right in front of us! And I'm free to admit the proposition was too much for me.
"Gee!" says I. "Handed out rough sometimes, ain't it? What's the answer, Vee?"
"There's only one," says she. "I'm going to take Helma home with me."
"What about Aunty?" says I.
At which Vee's lips come together and her shoulders straighten. "I know," says she, "there'll be a row. Aunty's always saying that such affairs should be handled by institutions. But this time well, we'll see. Come, Helma."
"Oh, is it true?" gasps the youngster. "May I go with you? May I?"
And as I tucked 'em into a taxi, Arabella and all, Vee whispers: "Torchy, if you're any good at all, you'll go straight and find out all about Daddums and just make them let him out!"
"Eh?" says I. "Make 'em say, ain't that some life-sized order?"
"Perhaps," says she. "But you needn't come to see us until you've found him. Good-by!"
Just like that I got it! And, say, there wa'n't any use tryin' to kid myself into thinkin' maybe she don't mean it. I'd seen how strong this story of little Helma's had got to her; and, believe me, when Vee gets real stirred up over anything she's some earnest party no four-flushin' about her! And it don't seem to make much diff'rence who blocks the path. Look at her then, sailin' off to go up against a stiff-necked, cold-eyed Aunty, who's a believer in checkbook charity, and mighty little of that! And just so I won't feel out of it she tosses me a job that would keep a detective bureau and a board of pardons busy for a month.
"Whiffo!" says I, gawpin' up the avenue after the cab. "And I pulled this down just by bein' halfway human! Oh, very well, very well! Here's where I strain something!"
Course, if I hadn't knocked around a newspaper office more or less, I wouldn't have known where to begin any more than well, than the average private sec would. But them two years I spent outside the Sunday editor's door wa'n't all wasted. For instance, that's where I got to know Whitey Weeks. And now my first move is to pike down to old Newspaper Row and locate him. Inside of half an hour we'd done a lot too. We'd called up their head-quarters' man on the 'phone and had him sketch off the case against one Allston, a butler.
"Yep, grand larceny," says Whitey, his ear to the receiver. "We know that. How much? Eh? Twenty thousand!"
"Ah, tell him to turn over: he's on his back!" says I. "Not twenty thousand cash?"
"That's what he says," insists Whitey, "all in hundreds. Lifted out of a secret wall safe."
"Ask him where this guy was bustling, in a bank," says I, "or at the Subtreasury?"
And Whitey reports that Allston was workin' for a Mrs. Murtha, West 76th Street; "Mrs. Connie Murtha, you know," he goes on, "the big poolroom backer, and one of the flossiest, foxiest widows in New York."
"Then that accounts for the husky wad," says I. "Twenty thousand! No piker, was he? Ask your man who's on the case?"
"Rusitelli & Donahue," says Whitey. "Mike's a friend of mine too; but he never talks much."
"Let's have a try, anyway," says I.
So we runs this partic'lar detective sergeant down, drags him away from a penuchle game, and Whitey begins by suggestin' that we hear how he's done some clever work on the Allston case.
"I got him right, that's all," says Mike. "And he'd faked up a nice little stall too."
"Anything on him when you rounded him up?" asks Whitey.
Donahue shakes his head disgusted. "Stowed it," says he.
"Some cute, eh?" says Whitey.
"Bah!" says Mike. "Who was it sprung that tale about his being a big English crook? The Yard never heard of him. I doped him out from the first, though. Plain nut! The Chief wouldn't believe it until I showed him."
"Showed him what?" says Whitey, innocent like.
"This," says the sleuth, haulin' out of his pocket a bulgy envelope. "I found that in his room. Take a look," and he lifts the flap at the end.
"What the deuce!" says Whitey.
"Sawdust," says Mike, "just plain, everyday sawdust. I had it analyzed, no dope, no nothing. Now tell me, would any one but a nut do a thing like that?"
We both agreed nobody but a nut would; also we remarks in chorus that Mr. Donahue is some classy sleuth, which he don't object to at all. In fact, after I've explained how a relation of Allston's had asked me to look him up he fixes it so I can get a pass into the Tombs. Followin' which I blows Whitey to one of Farroni's seventy-five-cent spaghetti banquets and then goes home to think a few chunks of thought.
As the case stood it looked bad for Daddums. A party like Mrs. Connie Murtha, with all the police drag she must have, wa'n't goin' to be separated from her reserve roll without makin' somebody squirm good and plenty. He might have known that, if it was him turned the trick. Or was he nutty, like Donahue had said? Before I went any further I had to settle that point, and while I ain't strong for payin' visits through the iron bars I was up early next mornin' and down presentin' my pass.
"You cub lawyers give me shootin' pains in the neck!" grumbles the turnkey that tows me in.
"How'd you guess I wasn't the new District Attorney?" says I. "Here, have a perfecto for that pain." And that soothes him so much he loafs again the tier rail while I knocks on the door of Cell 69.
"I beg pardon?" says a deep, smooth voice, and up to the bars steps a tall, round-shouldered gent, with hair a little thin on top and a pair of reddish-gray butler sideboards in front of his ears. Not a bad face either, only the pointed chin is a little weak.
"I'm from Helma," says I.
That jolts him at the start. His hands go trembly, and twice he makes a stab at speakin' before he can get the words out. "Is isn't she all right?" says he. "I left her in lodgings, you know. I I trust she "
"She quit," says I. "They was goin' to put 'her in a home. Picked me up on the street, you might say. But she's safe enough now."
"Safe?" says he, dartin' over a suspicious look. "Where?"
"Take my word for it," says I. "Maybe we can swap a little information later on. Now what about this grand larceny charge?"
"All rubbish!" says he. "Why, I hadn't been out of the house! They admit that. If I'd taken the money, wouldn't it have been found on me?"
"Then they pinched you on the premixes?" says I. "I rather thought from what Helma said you'd been to see her that night?"
"Not since the night before," says he. "Helma was down in the kitchen with Cook when they came."
"Huh!" says I, rubbin' my chin as a help to deep thought. "The night before?"
I don't know why, either, but somehow that makes me think of sawdust, and from sawdust say, I had it in a flash.
"Sorry, Allston," says I, "but on account of Helma I was kind of in hopes they was just makin' a goat of you. She's a cute youngster Helma."
"She is all I have to live for, Sir," says he, bowin' his head.
"Then why take such chances as this?" says I. "Twenty thousand! Say, you know this ain't any jay burg. You can't expect to get away with a wad like that."
"I know nothing about the money," says he, stiffenin' up. "They'll have to find it to prove I took it."
"Big mistake No. 2," says I. "They got to convict somebody, and the arrow points to you. About fifteen years would be my guess. Now come, Allston, what good would you be after fifteen years' hard?"
He shivers, but shrugs his shoulders dogged. "Poor little Helma!" says he. "Where is she?"
"Excuse me, Mr. Allston," says I, "but that ain't the order of events. It's like this: First off you tell me where the wad is; then I tell you about Helma."
Makes him groan a bit, that does, and he scowls at me stubborn. "They tried all that on at Headquarters," says he. "It's no use."
"You'd get off lighter if you told," says I.
"I've nothing to tell," he insists.
"How about swappin' what you know for two tickets to Australia?" I suggests.
"Hah!" says he. "Helma's been talkin'!"
"She's a chatty youngster," says I, "and she thinks a heap of her Daddums. I ain't sure though, whether you come first or Arabella."
If I hadn't been watchin' for it, I might not have noticed, but the quiver that begins in the fingers grippin' the bars runs clear up to the sagged shoulders. His mouth twitches nervous, and then he gets hold of himself.
"Oh, yes," says he, forcin' a smile. "Her doll. She she still has that, has she?"
"Uh-huh!" says I, watchin' him keen. "I'm keepin' close track of both."
That little touch did the business. He begins pacin' up and down his cell, wringin' his hands. About the fourth lap he stops.
"If I only could take her to Australia," says he, "and get her out of of all this, I would be willing to to "
"That's enough," says I. "All I want is your O.K. on any terms I can make with Mrs. Murtha."
"She's a hard woman," says he. "And she doesn't come by her money straight."
"Nor lose it easy," says I. "She wants it back. Might talk business, though, if I could show her how "
"Anything!" says Allston. "Anything to get me out!"
"Now you're usin' your bean," says I. "I'm off. Maybe you'll hear from me later."
Course I didn't know what could be done, but I phones Piddie at the office to tell 'em I won't be in before lunch, and then I boards an uptown subway express. Easy enough findin' Mrs. Connie Murtha too. She's just finished a ten o'clock breakfast. A big, well-built, dashin' sort of party she is, with an enameled complexion and drugged hair. She's brisk and businesslike.
"If you've come to beg me to let up on that sneaking English butler," says she, "you needn't waste any more breath. He's going to do time for this job."
"But suppose he could be coaxed into tellin' where the loot was?" says I.
"He's had the third degree good and strong," says she. "The boys told me so. He won't squeal. Donahue says he ain't right in his head. Anyway, he goes up."
"He's leavin' a little girl," I puts in, "without anyone to look after her."
"Most crooks do," says she, sniffin'.
"But if you could get the wad back?" says I.
"All of it?" says she quick.
"Every bean," says I.
She leans forward, starin' at me hard and eager. "He'll tell, then?" says she.
"Said he would," says I, "providin' him and the little girl could be shipped to Australia."
She chews that over a minute. "That's cheap enough," says she. "I could claim I'd remembered putting the money somewhere and forgotten. Young man, it's a bargain. I'll have my lawyer go down and "
"Say," I breaks in, "why fat up a lawyer? Let's settle this between you and me."
"But how?" says she.
"Just a minute," says I, lookin' her full in the eyes. "I'm playin' you to give Allston a square deal, you know."
"You can bank on that," says she. "Connie Murtha's word was always as good as government bonds. And if you can wish back that twenty thousand, I'll put a quick crimp in this prosecution."
"What could be fairer than that?" says I. "I'll be back in an hour."
It was only forty-five minutes, in fact; but Mrs. Connie was watchin' for me.
"Let's have a pair of scissors," says I, as I sheds my overcoat and produced from under one arm, where it had been buttoned up snug and tight, about the worst-lookin' doll you ever saw. I hadn't figured on Mrs. Murtha goin' huffy so sudden, either.
"You fresh young shrimp you!" she blazes out. "What's that?"
"This is Arabella," says I. "She's sufferin' from a bad case of undigested securities, and I got to amputate."
She stands by watchin' the operation suspicious and ready to lam me one on the ear, I expect. But on the way down I'd sounded Arabella's chest, and I was backin' my guess. When I found the coarse stitchin' done with heavy black thread I chuckles.
"More or less the worse for wear, Arabella, eh?" says I. "But how that youngster did hang onto her! Little Helma Allston, you know. And me offerin' to swap a brand-new two-dollar one that could open and shut its eyes! 'It's for Daddums,' I says at last, and she gives up. There! Now we're gettin' to it. No wonder Arabella was some plump!"
"Well, of all places!" gasps out Mrs. Murtha, and, believe me, it don't take her long to leave Arabella flat as a pancake. "But how did he manage to "
"It was the night before," says I. "You didn't miss the roll until the next afternoon. And he ain't a reg'lar crook, you know. It was a case of bein' up against it, sickness, and wantin' to get away somewhere with the kid. Honest, he don't strike me as such a bad lot: only a little limber in the backbone. Better count it."
"All there," she announces after runnin' through the bunch. "And maybe I'm not tickled to get it back! Catch me forgetting to lock that safe again! But I thought no one knew. Allston must have seen me moving the picture and guessed. Well, I'm not sore. Poor devil! I'll call up the District Attorney's office right away. He gets those tickets to Australia, too. Leave that to me."
Yep! Mrs. Connie wa'n't chuckin' any bluff. She went down herself and had the indictment ditched.
I didn't mean to stage any heart-throb piece, either; but it just happens that yesterday, when we pulls off the final act, Vee tells me that Helma is in the libr'y, playin' nurse and hair-dresser to Aunty's chief pet, a big orange Persian that she calls Prince Hal. That's how Helma had won out with Aunty, you know, by makin' friends with the cat.
"You tell her," says Vee.
So I steps in quiet where the youngster is busy with the comb and brush. "Someone special to see Miss Helma," says I.
"To see me?" says she, droppin' pussy and gazin' at the door. "Why, who can O-o-o-o-o! Daddums! Daddums!"
And as they rush to a fond clinch in one room something happens to me in the other. Uh-huh! I'm caught around the neck quick and something soft and sweet hits me on the right cheek, and the next minute I'm bein' pushed away just as sudden.
"No, no!" says Vee. "That's enough. You're a dear, all the same. Of course I knew he didn't take it; but how in the world did you ever make them let him go?"
"Cinch!" says I. "I saw through the sawdust, and they didn't."
I couldn't let on, though, about that inside tip I got from Arabella.
(End of chapter nine.)
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