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Arthur Fordyce had never done a criminal thing in his life, nor had the idea of doing anything unlawful ever seriously occurred to him.
The wallet that lay beside his chair was not only full; it was literally stuffed. It lay on the floor near his feet where it had fallen.
His action was as purely automatic as an action can be. He let his Racing Form slip from his lap and cover the billfold. Then he sat very still, his heart pounding. The fat man who had dropped the wallet was talking to a friend on the far side of the box. As far as Fordyce could see, his own action had gone unobserved.
It had been a foolish thing to do. Fordyce did not need the money. He had been paid a week’s salary only a short time before and had won forty dollars on the last race.
With his heart pounding heavily, his mouth dry, he made every effort to be casual as he picked up his Form and the wallet beneath. Trying to appear as natural as possible, he opened the billfold under cover of the Form, extracted the money, and shifted the bills to his pocket.
The horses were rounding into the home stretch, and when the crowd sprang to its feet, he got up, too. As he straightened, he shied the wallet, with an underhand flip, under the feet of the crowd off to his left.
His heart was still pounding. Blindly he stared out at the track. He was a thief . . . he had stolen money . . . he had appropriated it . . . how much?
Panic touched him suddenly. Suppose he had been seen? If someone had seen him, the person might wait to see if he returned the wallet. If he did not, the person might come down and accuse him. What if, even now, there was an officer waiting for him? Perhaps he should leave, get away from there as quickly as possible.
Cool sanity pervaded him. No, that would never do. He must remain where he was, go through the motions of watching the races. If he were accused, he could say he had won the money on the races. He had won money—forty dollars. The man at the window might remember his face but not the amount he had given him.
Fordyce was in the box that belonged to his boss, Ed Charlton, and no friend of Charlton’s would ever be thought a thief. He sat still, watching the races, relaxing as much as he could. Surprisingly, the fat man who had dropped the wallet did not miss it. He did not even put a hand to his pocket.
After the sixth race, several people got up to leave, and Fordyce followed suit. It was not until he was unlocking his car that he realized there was a man at his elbow.
He was a tall, dark-eyed handsome young man, too smoothly dressed, too—slick. And there was something sharply feral about his eyes. He was smiling unpleasantly.
“Nice work!” he said. “Very nice! Now, how about a split?”
Arthur Fordyce kept his head. Inside, he seemed to feel all his bodily organs contract as if with chill. “I am afraid I don’t understand you. What was it you wanted?”
The brightly feral eyes hardened just a little, and although the smile remained, it was a little forced. “A split, that’s what I want. I saw you get that billfold. Now let’s bust it open and see what we’ve got.”
“Billfold?” Fordyce stared at him coldly, although he was quivering inside with fear. He had been seen! What if he should be arrested? What if Alice heard? Or Ed Charlton? Why, that fat man might be a friend of Ed’s!
“Don’t give me that,” the tall young man was saying. “I saw the whole thing. You dropped that Racing Form over the billfold and picked it up. I’m getting a split or I’ll holler bull. I’ll go to the cops. You aren’t out of the grounds yet, and even if you were, I could soon find out who used Ed Charlton’s box today.”
Fordyce stood stock-still. This could not be happening to him. It—it was preposterous! What ever had possessed him? Yet, what explanation could he give now? He had thrown away the wallet itself, a sure indication that he intended to keep the money.
“Come on, Bud”—the smile was sneering now—“you might as well hand it over. There was plenty there. I’d had my eye on Linton all afternoon, just watching for a chance. He always carries plenty of dough.”
Linton—George Linton. How many times had Ed Charlton spoken of him. They were golfing companions. They hunted and fished together. They had been friends at college. Even if the money were returned, Fordyce was sure he would lose his job, his friends—Alice. He would be finished, completely finished.
“I never intended to do it,” he protested. “It—it was an accident.”
“Yeah”—the eyes were contemptuous—“I could see that. I couldn’t have done it more accidentally myself. Now, hand it over.”
There was fourteen hundred dollars in fifties and twenties. With fumbling fingers, Fordyce divided it. The young man took his bills and folded them with the hands of a lover. He grinned suddenly.
“Nice work! With my brains and your in we’d make a team!” He pocketed the bills, anxious to be gone. “Be seeing you!”
Arthur Fordyce did not reply. Cold and shaken, he stared after the fellow.
Days fled swiftly past. Fordyce avoided the track, worked harder than ever. Once he took Alice to the theater and twice to dinner. Then at a party the Charltons gave, he came face to face with George Linton.
The fat man was jovial. “How are you, Fordyce? Ed tells me you’re his right hand at the office. Good to know you.”
“Thanks.” He spoke without volition. “Didn’t I see you at the track a couple of weeks ago? I was in Charlton’s box.”
“Oh, yes! I remember you now. I thought your face seemed familiar.” He shook his head wryly. “I’ll not soon forget that day. My pocket was picked for nearly two thousand dollars.”
Seeing that Alice was waiting, Fordyce excused himself and joined her. Together they walked to the terrace and stood there in the moonlight. How lovely she was! And, to think he had risked all this, risked it on the impulse of a moment, and for what? She was looking up at him, and he spoke suddenly, filled with the sudden panic born of the thought of losing her.
“Alice!” He gripped her arms, “Alice! Will you marry me?”
“Why, Arthur!” she protested, laughing in her astonishment. “How rough you are! Do you always grab a girl so desperately when you ask her to marry you?”
He released her arms, embarrassed. “I—I guess I was violent,” he said, “but I just—well, I couldn’t stand to lose you, Alice.”
Her eyes were wide and wonderfully soft. “You aren’t going to, Arthur,” she said quietly. “I’m going to stay with you.”
Driving home that night his heart was bounding. She would marry him! How lovely she was! How beautiful her eyes had been as she looked up at him!
He drove into the garage, snapped out the lights and got his keys. It was not until he came out to close the doors that he saw the glow of a suddenly inhaled cigarette in the shadow cast by the shrubbery almost beside him.
“Hello, Fordyce. How’s tricks?” It was the man from the track. “My name’s Chafey, Bill Chafey.”
“What are you doing here? What do you want?”
“That’s a beautiful babe you’ve got. I’ve seen her picture on the society pages.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t intend to discuss my fiancée with you. It’s very late and I must be getting to bed. Good night.”
“Abrupt, aren’t you?” Chafey was adopting a George Raft manner. “Not going to invite an old friend inside for a drink? An old friend from out of town—who wants to meet your friends?”
Arthur Fordyce saw it clearly, then, saw it as clearly as he would ever see anything. He knew what this slick young man was thinking—that he would use his hold over Fordyce for introductions and for better chances to steal. Probably he had other ideas, too. Girls—and their money.
“Look, Chafey,” he said harshly, “whatever was between us is finished. Now beat it! And don’t come back!”
Chafey had seen a lot of movies. He knew what came next. He snapped his cigarette into the grass and took a quick step forward.
“Why, you cheap thief! You think you can brush me off like that? Listen, I’ve got you where I want you, and before I’m through, I’ll have everything you’ve got!” Chafey’s voice was rising with some inner emotion of triumph or hatred. “You think you’re so much! Figure you can brush me off, do you?”
He stepped close. “What if I got to that fancy babe of yours and told her what I know? What if I go to Linton and tell him? Why, you’re a thief, Fordyce! A damned thief! You and that fancy babe of yours! Why—”
Fordyce hit him. The action was automatic and it was unexpected. In the movies it was always the tough guy who handed out the beatings. His fist flew up and caught Chafey on the jaw. Chafey’s feet flew up, and he went down, the back of his neck hitting the bumper with a sickening crack. Then his body slipped slowly to the ground.
Arthur Fordyce stood very still, staring down at the crumpled form. His breath was coming in great gasps, and his fist was still clenched hard. Some instinct told him the man was dead.
“Mr. Fordyce?” It was his neighbor, Joe Neal, calling. “Is something wrong?”
Fordyce dropped to one knee and touched the man’s head. It lolled loosely, too loosely. He felt for the heart. Nothing. He bent over the man’s face, but felt no breath, nothing.
Neal was coming out on the lawn, pulling his belt tight. “Fordyce? Is anything wrong?”
He got to his feet slowly. “Yes, Joe. I wish you’d come down here. I’ve been held up and I think—I think I’ve killed him.”
Joe Neal hurried up, flashlight in hand. He threw the light on the fallen man. “Good heavens!” he gasped. “What did you hit him with? What happened?”
“He was waiting there by the tree. He stepped out with his hand in his pocket—you know, like he had a gun. I hit him before I realized.”
That was the story, and he made it stick. For several days it was the talk of all his friends. Fordyce had killed a holdup man. That took nerve. And a punch, too. Didn’t know he had it in him. Of course, it was the bumper that actually broke his neck. Still—had there been any doubts—and there were none—a check of Chafey’s record would have removed them.
He had done time and was on parole at the moment. He had gone up for armed robbery and had been arrested a score of times for in- vestigation. He was suspected of rolling drunks and of various acts of petty pilfering and slugging. A week passed, and a second week. Arthur Fordyce threw himself into his work, never talking about what had happened.
Others forgot it, too, except Joe Neal. Once, commenting on it to his wife, he looked puzzled and said, “You know, I’d have sworn I heard voices that night. I’d have sworn it.”
“You might have. They might have argued. I imagine that a man might say a lot when excited and not remember it.” That was what his wife said, and it was reasonable enough. Nevertheless, Joe Neal was faintly disturbed by it all. He avoided Fordyce. Not that they had ever been friends.
Arthur Fordyce had been lucky. No getting away from that. He had been very lucky, and sometimes when he thought about it, he felt a cold chill come over him. But it was finished now.
Only it wasn’t.
It was Monday night, two weeks after the inquest, the first night he had been home since it had happened. He was sitting in his armchair listening to the radio when the telephone rang. Idly, he lifted it from the cradle.
“Mr. Fordyce?” The voice was feminine and strange. “Is this Arthur Fordyce?”
There was an instant of silence. Then, “This is Bill Chafey’s girl-friend, Mr. Fordyce. I thought I would call and congratulate you. You seem to be very, very lucky!”
The cold was there again in the pit of his stomach. “I—I beg your pardon? I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean.”
“He told me all about it, Mr. Fordyce. All about that day at the track. All about what he was going to do. Bill had big ideas, Mr. Fordyce, and he thought you were his big chance. Only he thought you were scared. He got too close to you, didn’t he, Mr. Fordyce?”
“I’m sure,” he kept his voice composed, “that you are seriously in error. I—”
She interrupted with a soft laugh, a laugh that did not cover an underlying cruelty. “I’m not going to be as dumb as Bill was, Mr. Fordyce. I’m not going to come anywhere within your reach. Two murders are no worse than one, so I’ll stay away. But you’re going to pay off, Mr. Fordyce. You’re going to pay off like a slot machine. You’re going to pay off with a thousand dollars now and five hundred a month from now on.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you are probably insane,” he said quietly. “What you assume is ridiculous. If you are a friend of Chafey’s, then you know he was a criminal. I am sorry for you, but there is nothing I can do.”
“One thousand dollars by Friday, Mr. Fordyce, and five hundred a month from now on. I don’t think you were scared when Bill went to you, but how about the gas chamber, Mr. Fordyce? How about that?”
“What you assume is impossible.” He fought to keep his voice controlled. “And you are absurd to think I have that kind of money.”
She laughed again. “But you can get it, Buster! You can get it when it means the difference between life as you live it and the gas chamber.”
Her voice grew brusque. “Small bills, understand? Nothing bigger than a twenty. And send it to Gertrude Ellis, Box X78, here in town. Send me that thousand dollars by Friday and send the five hundred on the fifth of every month. If you miss by as much as ten days, the whole story goes to your girlfriend, to your boss, and to the police.” The phone clicked, the line buzzed emptily. Slowly, Fordyce replaced the phone.
So there it was. Now he had not only disgrace and prison before him, but the gas chamber.
A single mistake—an instant when his reason was in abeyance—and here he was—trapped.
He could call her bluff. He could refuse. The woman was obviously unprincipled and she had sounded vindictive. She would certainly follow through as she had threatened.
For hours, he paced the floor, racking his brain for some way out, some avenue of escape. He could go to Charlton, confess everything, and ask for help. Charlton would give it to him, for he was that kind of man, but when it was over, he would drop Fordyce quickly and quietly.
Alice—his future—everything depended on finding some other way. Some alternative.