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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER II GREG'S FIRST FARE
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Greg had come to a stop beside a gas lamp in a long block of little houses. Not a soul was in sight, and no window showed a light. Slipping out of his seat he opened the door to have a better look at his gruesome freight. Perhaps after all he had been mistaken. When the door was opened the feet impatiently pushed out again. There was something piteously human in the aspect of these turned-up toes in common-sense shoes with soft kid uppers comfortable for old feet. There was no doubt that the man was dead; the slack, huddled attitude, the awful serenity of his expression proclaimed it. Greg ventured to touch his hand; it was death cold.

It was the body of a man of middle age, plump rather than corpulent. He was well-dressed in a somewhat old-fashioned style, the open overcoat revealing a cutaway beneath, while a silk hat not new, lay on the seat of the cab where it had fallen. A gold watch chain still stretched across his waistcoat, and the little finger of the hand Greg touched displayed a handsome ring. So he had not been robbed. This ring bore a curious red stone cut in octagonal form. The clean-shaven face had a notably benignant look—this had been a kind old gentleman in life; he was very dark and had a slightly foreign look, a Spanish-American, Greg guessed. There was nothing to show how he had come by his death. The bag under his body was an old-fashioned suit-case with a collapsible side.

Meanwhile the question was hammering on Greg's brain: "What am I to do? What am I to do?" His obvious duty of course was to take the body to the nearest police station, but he shivered at the prospect of what would assuredly follow, the searching questions, the pitiless publicity. He could not hope to conceal his identity, for as yet the cabman Elmer Fishback had no background. And then to have his family and friends read next morning how Gregory Parr had become the driver on an owl taxi and was implicated in a murder—well, anything rather than that!

Why not dump the body out where he was, and let things take their course? The crime was none of his. But suppose, just as he started to drag it out of the cab, some one turned into the street, or came out of one of the houses? Or suppose, as was not unlikely, that the crime was already known, and the police even now were in search of a cab bearing his number? In that case to cast the body adrift would be to incriminate himself. For a moment or two Greg was inclined to abandon the whole outfit where it stood, but it now represented all he possessed in the world, and his native obstinacy would not permit of a surrender so abject. After all, he had done nothing wrong; he determined to see the thing through.

A hot tide of anger surged up in him against the man who had fooled him. What made it more bitter was the fact that he had liked the garrulous little cabman and had taken his word, only to be betrayed. How easily he had been deceived—fool that he was! But if he could get hold of him——! Well, even now it was only half-past twelve, and if the man really intended to sail on the Savoia there was time——! At this point in his reflections Greg shut the door again, and sliding back into the driver's seat turned his car and hastened back across town.

His state of mind was very different from that in which he had so blithely set forth, for now he carried a burden of horror behind. The picture of that poor form of human clay seemed etched on his brain, and he could not forget it for an instant. He was frankly terrified too; the hardest thing in the world to get rid of is a dead body that you cannot account for. He conceived the idea of driving out in the country and abandoning it in a lonely road. In that case he would have to have gasoline. Suppose while his tank was filling, some one glanced inside. Perhaps he ought to stop and set the body up on the seat and put its hat on its head—but what was the use? At the first jolt it would fall over again. When Greg passed a policeman he instinctively slumped down in his seat, and his heart stood still for a moment as he awaited the expected peremptory hail. But he was allowed to pass.

Back outside the Brevard Line pier, Greg stopped, at a loss what to do with his cab. He could not bring himself to drive out on the busy, lighted pier again; that they had escaped discovery the first time seemed miraculous now. He finally decided to leave it outside in a spot a little apart from the procession passing in and out. If anybody happened to look in while he was gone, well, so be it! The matter would be decided for him.

It is scarcely necessary to state that Mr. Gregory Parr, alias Hickey Meech, was not aboard the Savoia. As Greg looked for him voices were already warning all but intending passengers ashore. "Mr. Parr," Greg was informed, had not paid the balance of his passage money, and his reservation was therefore canceled. He was not in the stateroom that had been allotted him. His baggage still lay unclaimed on the pier.

"Safely hidden by now!" Greg said to himself bitterly, "leaving me to dispose of the issue of his crime! He knows of course that I dare not report the matter to the police! What a downy bird I have been!"

With a long earth-shaking rumble of her whistle the Savoia began to back out of her slip, while Greg made his way heavily back towards the spot where he had left his cab. He took a survey of it from a little distance, prepared for instant flight if necessary, but there was no one near it. He approached it gingerly, cranked his engine, and drove away, his problem still unsolved.

Once more the lights of the Brevard House across the plaza attracted him. The front door of the bar was now closed, but business was still being done by means of the side door. Greg went in with a foolish hope that he might find Hickey propped in his old place against the mahogany. It was doomed to disappointment, of course. The pink-cheeked bar-tender was still on duty. There was no use asking him if he knew where Hickey was, because Greg had seen on his first visit that they were not acquainted. The bar-tender looked hard at Greg, and the latter had not even the nerve to order a drink, but walked out again.

As he came out he got a sickening turn. A man was standing close beside his cab, looking around. Had he looked inside? The windows were closed, and one could not see very well without opening the door. Greg's first impulse was to run for it, but once again his obstinacy forced him to stand fast, forced him to march up to the man. He was a tall, handsome, distinguished-looking individual of middle-life, with hawklike patrician features. He had a slightly foreign air. His dress was perfection without being in any way conspicuous. He did not look as if he had just become aware of something horrible; on the contrary as Greg came closer he saw that the man was slightly intoxicated. "He does not know!" Greg thought with a great lift of the heart.

"This your cab?" the man said in a thick voice. "Want to engage you." His voice retained only a trace of a foreign accent.

"I've got a fare," Greg said.

"Where?" asked the other trying to peer through the glass.

"He's drunk," said Greg quickly. "He's lying down."

The tall man sniggered in a foolish way. "Well, he won't mind waiting a bit then. Take me while he's having his sleep out. I'll ride in front with you."

Greg reflected that he needed the money, and moreover that the man riding beside him would afford him a certain protection. Not much danger that he in his befuddled state would discover anything.

"All right," he said. "Where to?"

"Jersey City," said the tall man pointing across the plaza to the Erie ferry.

They seated themselves side by side and started.

"Where did you pick up the drunken man?" asked Greg's fare.

"Had him all evening," replied Greg. "His friends beat it and left him on my hands. I have to wait until he sleeps it off before I can collect my fare."

"You'll have to wait a long time," said the tall man with his foolish snigger.

It gave Greg a nasty turn. Was it possible he had seen or was this just the maundering of a drunken man? Perhaps he was not so drunk as he seemed. Greg thought "detective!" and his heart went slowly down into his boots. But surely this man with his inimitable air of breeding and his proud glance could not be a plain-clothes man. And anyway why should a detective want to take him to Jersey City? And if he were not a detective, what interest could he have in merely tormenting Greg. After a moment of sheer panic, Greg's spirits rose a little.

In his turn he began to wonder what errand a man of this kind could have across the river at such a time of night. That quarter is not usually thought of as the abode of aristocrats.

"Where to in Jersey City?" asked Greg.

"I'll tell you when we get there."

"I just asked because I don't know the town."

"Neither do I."

By this time they were at the ferry house. There was no boat in the slip and they had to wait outside for some minutes. When the gates were finally opened they were almost the first in line, but Greg's fare would not let him enter until all the express wagons, milk wagons, mail wagons and other late vehicles had gone in.

"Wait till the last! Wait till the last!" he said. "It's safer."

Greg laughed. "What do you mean, safer?" he asked.

"I wouldn't want to be caught in the middle of the boat if anything happened," the tall man said with the obstinacy of one in his condition. "Drive on last, and stay out on the back deck in the open. It's safer."

"There's nothing in that," said Greg.

"Well, you do what I tell you anyhow. I'm willing to pay for what I want. Here's five dollars on account."

Greg shrugged and took the money. He was sure then that he had the vagaries of a drunken man to deal with.

As his fare desired he let his taxi stand out on the after deck of the ferry-boat. As soon as she left her slip this part of the deck was deserted, for everybody else instinctively pressed up forward to be ready to land. Greg's fare lit a cigar of wonderful fragrance.

"This is nice," he said, taking his ease. "I don't like to be crowded on a boat."

But presently he underwent a feather-headed change of mood. "Let's stroll up to the bow so we can see where we're going," he said.

"But I thought you wanted to stay here," said Greg astonished.

"As long as the cab's here it's all right," he said with perfect inconsistency. "I didn't want to be penned up."

There was no making any sense out of this. Useless to argue with a man in his condition. "You go ahead," said Greg good-naturedly. "I'll stay with the cab."

"No, you come too," the other said with childish insistence. "I've got to have somebody to talk to. Mustn't be left alone."

Greg shrugged, and gave in.

The Twenty-third Street ferry to Jersey City is one of the longer routes, and the passage consumes upwards of twenty minutes. There were not many passengers at this hour—in the center of the deck a group of half a dozen drivers comparing notes, and at either side as many late commuters and Jersey citizens homeward bound. The overhanging bow of the ferry-boat trod the dark water remorselessly underfoot. On either hand it heaved in a silent tumult, like an agonized black breast. Along the shores the lights, yellow, red and green, sparkled with an incredible brightness, and over the center of Manhattan hung a dim radiance like the reflection of the embers of a burnt-out conflagration.

At Greg's elbow the tall man chattered on in the inconsequential way that accorded so ill with his aristocratic mask and falcon-like glance. "I hope the old boy's resting easily in the cab back there. He must be cramped lying on the floor." (So he had seen inside!) "Well, there's no accounting for taste in beds. You can't blame a man for taking a drop too much in weather like this. The dampness gnaws your bones. In my country the sun never forsakes us like this."

"What country is that?" asked Greg idly.

"Er—Peru," came the answer after a second's hesitation. He went on with his snigger: "I guess maybe I've had a drop or two too many myself. Two too many! English is a funny language! I had my first cocktail at five this afternoon—no, yesterday afternoon, and after dinner I seemed to lose count. Oh well, what's the difference! We only live once. I'll buy you a drink, cabby, when we land on the other side."

In the middle of all this he pulled himself up short and a great breath escaped him—was it of relief? For a moment his foolishness seemed to fall away. "Well, that's all right," he murmured.

"What did you say?" asked Greg curiously.

"Nothing." He resumed his chatter. Greg scarcely remarked the interruption, but he remembered it later; remembered too, that the man had been listening.

They returned to the cab. As they rolled out of the ferry house on the Jersey City side Greg said:

"Where to?"

His fare seemed to have become a little drunker. "Fellow told me you could get a drink in Jersey City any time you wanted. Said there was a place called Stack's over here. Something doing there all night. Stacks of liquor, stacks of fun—that's how I remembered the name. I forget the address. But it must be on the main street. Drive up a way and look for the sign."

Greg, reflecting that taxi-drivers had more to put up with than he had supposed, obediently drove quite a long way up the principal thoroughfare leading from the ferry. No "Stack's" appeared among the street signs. Greg's fare hummed snatches of a little Spanish song to himself, and did not appear to pay the slightest attention to the signs.

"Well, what do you want me to do?" asked Greg at last. "We seem to be coming to the outskirts now."

"Oh, ask a policeman," said the tall man foolishly.

Greg couldn't get rid of the feeling that he was being made game of. "What do you think I am!" he said. "If he did know such a place he couldn't give himself away by letting on. Very likely he'd want to run us in for asking."

"Oh well, let's go back to New York then. We've had a pleasant drive."

For a moment Greg forgot his role of the submissive cabman. "What the Hell——!" he began thoroughly exasperated.

"What do you care so long as you get your pay?" said the tall man unconcernedly.

Greg reflected that it did indeed make no difference, so he shrugged his shoulders once more, and turning, drove back to the ferry at a smart pace. He privately determined to charge this capricious fare double rates.

On the return trip the tall man evinced not the slightest concern as to where the taxi was put on the ferry. He had got over his talkativeness. He sat deep in thought, smoking one cigar after another. When they landed on the New York side he curtly ordered Greg to drive him to the Hotel Tours at One Hundred and Second Street and Broadway.

During the long drive to Eighth Avenue, to Columbus Circle, and up Broadway he scarcely spoke. He had apparently recovered from his drunkenness. The night air had cured him perhaps. As a natural result his spirits had sunk. Greg stealing curious side glances into his face as it was revealed in the light of the street lamps saw that his head was sunk on his chest, and that something grim and haggard and perhaps a little wistful had appeared in the handsome features. It suggested the face of a desperate gamester dreaming of the simple life.

Somewhere about Eightieth Street Greg's engine began to sputter. His fare was evidently an experienced automobilist.

"Gas running low?" he asked.

Greg nodded, and looked out for a garage. The first they came to was an open-air place in a vacant lot. A light was still burning in the little office, and Greg turned in. With a hail he brought a man out to the tank. He and his fare had to get out while the flivver was filled up. Afterwards the fare with true aristocratic carelessness handed Greg another bill and resumed his seat. Greg went back to the office with the man to get change. This was fifty feet or so behind the cab. It was dark in the vicinity.

As Greg stepped out of the office he felt a light touch on his arm. He beheld an eager young face looking up into his, a face whose speaking beauty went to his heart like an arrow. The glance of the brilliant eyes at once implored his assistance and enjoined secrecy upon him. Greg was won before a word was spoken. As for the rest he saw a slender, jaunty figure in boy's clothes with cap pulled low over the head. Amazement grew in him, for he knew instantly that it was no boy. A boy's eyes could not have moved him so. He gazed at her breathlessly as at a lovely apparition. He did not realize that she was speaking to him. She had to repeat her question.

"That's your cab there?"

He nodded.

"Where are you taking that man?"

"Hotel Tours."

"All right. I'm following in another cab. When you drop him go on for half a block and wait for me, will you? I want to talk to you."

Greg nodded eagerly. Just here his fare looked around the cab to see what was keeping him, and the pseudo-youth melted like a shadow into the darkness. Greg resumed his place at the wheel in a kind of dream.


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