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首页 » 英文短篇小说 » The Owl Taxi » CHAPTER VII THE UNDERTAKER
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Greg and Hickey dined with Bessie Bickle. Greg's zest in his adventure was gone; there was a pretty stew of suspicion and jealousy in his breast. In his first bitterness he even told himself that the little red-haired girl was no better than the rest of the gang. Nevertheless he had promised to tell Bessie the story, and he did so, disguising his changed feelings as best he could. That is to say, he told them the main lines of the tale; certain details it seemed more discreet to keep to himself.

The volatile Hickey's sympathies were completely won. "Count on me to help you aginst them dagoes!" he said. Bessie, while kind, was less expansive. One could see that she was reserving judgment on a Miss who flew about town in taxi-cabs in the middle of the night dressed in boy's clothes.

After dinner Greg and Hickey yielded perforce to Nature's demands and slept for a couple of hours. Later Greg dispatched Hickey in the flivver to pick up some business if he could; for the firm would shortly be in need of funds. Greg himself started by trolley car for the morgue. He told himself self-righteously that, however his friend has deceived him, he would carry out his part to the letter. Pressed to tell lost in what she had deceived him he could not have told; but he was sore.

Entering the imposing little building on the East Side water-front his heart failed him a little, thinking of ghastly sights awaiting within. But he was spared all that. He saw only a business-like gentleman in a conventional office.

It appeared that a body such as he described had indeed been found in the North River that morning and had been brought to the morgue in a police launch. The description tallied in every detail down to the ring with the curious red stone. There could be no mistake. But to Greg's intense chagrin it transpired that, only an hour or so before, the body had been identified and claimed by one who pretended to be the dead man's nephew. Having satisfied the authorities of his right to receive it, he had had the body transferred to an undertaker's shop.

The name given had been Alfieri. The dead man was said to have jumped overboard from a ferry-boat while demented. The claimant had been identified to the satisfaction of the authorities, which suggested to Greg that the gang he had to deal with possessed wide-spreading influence in the background. The authorities had been the more easily satisfied because there was no mark on the body to suggest foul play; and besides the man's jewelry a considerable sum of money had been found on his person. There was no question of a robbery.

Greg satisfied himself with obtaining the address of the undertaker, and said nothing here about the facts of the case. He suspected that the newspaper offices must be in close touch with the morgue, and he had no desire to explode a public sensation until he was surer of his ground.

The body had not been taken to one of the humble establishments in the neighborhood, but to a fine place half way up-town; "mortuarian" read the sign. It was the first time Greg had been in such a place. He found the religio-commercial atmosphere, the heavy professional commiseration rather oppressive. "Why can't undertakers be simply business-like?" he asked himself.

In the handsome, subdued private office of the proprietor he found himself faced by a clayey-faced individual, irreproachably and sably clad, whose expression of preternatural woe was lightened in spite of himself by a spark of anticipation at the sight of, as he thought, a new customer. Greg disliked him at sight. Nobody likes an undertaker; not their fault of course; they have painful associations for all.

"Good afternoon, sir," said the undertaker with an air that seemed to say further: "I know the sad errand that has brought you to me, and I feel for you from the bottom of my heart!" Just the same Greg had the feeling that he would have rubbed his hands, had he not been told that it was unrefined.

All this made Greg a little brusquer than he need have been. "I understand you received a body from the morgue this afternoon said to be that of a Se?or Alfieri."

The undertaker's manner changed. "Morgue" brought out so bluntly offended his delicate susceptibilities. He apprehended an unfriendly atmosphere. He signified an affirmative.

"Is it here now?" asked Greg.

"May I ask what is your interest in the matter?"

"I represent the dead man's niece."

"Yes, it is here."

"May I see it?"

"Er—Not at the moment. It is being prepared. A little later perhaps—if you will be good enough to bring the necessary authorization."

"Authorization from whom?"

"Se?or Alberto Alfieri, the dead man's nephew, who engaged the services of my establishment."

"Would you mind describing this man to me?"

The undertaker looked astonished, but complied nevertheless. "A young Spanish-American gentleman, short and stocky, very dark, pale skin through which his beard showed though he was freshly shaven, a purplish scar on his left cheek bone."

Greg recognized the description of one of the men in the Ninth Street house. "I believe I have met the gentleman," he said dryly, "but I cannot promise to produce credentials from him. Instead I will try to bring the dead man's niece here to-morrow morning to identify the body."

"That will be too late, sir."

"What do you mean?"

"My instructions are to have the body cremated without delay. I ship to the crematory this evening."

Greg struck his fist into his palm. "I might have guessed as much!" he cried.

"I don't understand you, sir."

"You have been deceived!" said Greg earnestly. "This is really the body of Antonio Bareda who was murdered. His murderers are trying to destroy the evidence of their crime."

The undertaker smiled indulgently. "My dear sir! This is a preposterous charge! You may be assured that I satisfied myself everything was in order before I accepted the work."

"How 'in order?'" Greg demanded.

"The death certificate, the permit from the Board of Health, the younger Mr. Alfieri's credentials——"

"They have both money and influence," put in Greg.

"The dead man's jewelry was still on his person when the body was brought here."

"Men are murdered for other reasons than to secure their valuables. Look here, if I bring a reputable physician here will you allow him to perform an autopsy?"

"Not without the consent of my client."

"I hope he paid you in advance," said Greg.

The other shrugged.

"Did he give you an address?"

The other named a number far up-town.

"I'll swear it is fictitious. Will you do me the favor of investigating the address?"

"I am not convinced of the necessity for that."

"But you will at least delay the shipment of the body until I can get in communication with the dead man's niece?"

"I intend to carry out my instructions to the letter."

Greg perceived that the man was wholly under the influence of the handsome fee that had been paid him. He felt that he was wasting his time, but he tried one more appeal.

"But don't you see, sir, that in asking you to delay matters I could have no possible motive except to discover the truth, while the motives of those who wish to destroy the body so hastily are at least open to suspicion?"

"You should go to the police," was the cold reply. "That is what the police are for."

"I can't open a vulgar newspaper sensation until I am surer of my ground."

The undertaker rose. "Sorry I can do nothing for you."

Greg tried a new line. "Look here, when you have shipped this body, your interest in it is at an end, isn't it?"

The other shrugged expressively. "The ashes will be returned to me in due course. The order includes a handsome urn for their reception."

"A bit of stage-play," said Greg bitterly. "It will never be called for. If this body happened to come back here from another direction would you accept an order to embalm it?"

"That would hardly be ethical," was the smug reply. "Of course if the crematory cared to take the responsibility of departing from my order, you could take it to some other embalmer."

"Can you suggest anybody?" asked Greg slyly.

"Well, there's my son," replied the clay-faced one blandly. "He is just starting in business for himself. But it's in Brooklyn."

"That doesn't matter."

He gave an address.

"Thank you very much," said Greg dryly. "Where is the crematory?"

"Silver Pond, Long Island. About eighteen miles out on the Port Franklin branch."

"What time are you sending the body out there?"

"It leaves here about five. I understand they are always put on the eight-fifteen train arriving at Silver Pond about nine."

"Is the crematory near the station?"

"Some three miles distant, I believe; in a very lonely neighborhood."

Greg thanked him and they parted, having reached an excellent understanding after all.

Greg called up the Marsden Farms Hotel from a telephone booth. Loverlike, he anticipated a melancholy satisfaction in telling the girl who had used him so badly, as he told himself, how he had been working in her behalf. He was prepared to be nobly cold and self-sacrificing and virtuous. Unfortunately for these fine feelings he was told by the office of the hotel that no one of the name of de Socotra was stopping there. Thinking perhaps they might have registered under an assumed name, he described the ladies, but was assured that no such persons had arrived during the day.

Once more jealousy, anger and rage had full sway over him. She had purposely given him the slip, he told himself. She had only used him the night before for her own purposes. Very questionable purposes they seemed now. Well, he'd be hanged if he did any more for her! If he couldn't find her again he would donate the three hundred dollars to a worthy charity. Even while he raged against her a still small voice whispered to him that the glance of her flamelike eyes had been clear and true, but he would not have it so.

The more he told himself he would think no longer of her, the more the mystery of her teased him. If she were de Socotra's daughter how could she be an American as she had so proudly asserted? And if she were de Socotra's daughter how could she turn against her own father even though she had discovered he was a villain. That she was not deficient in natural affection her grief on learning of her uncle's death had shown; but Greg could not conceive of a daughter putting a mere uncle above her father. And if she loved America and Americans how could she possibly think of allying herself to anything so essentially un-American as the exquisite, enervated Castilian youth with his little head and his vacant, arrogant glance?

In the turmoil of his feelings Greg walked all the way down-town to the taxi-yard. As he passed through the little store Bessie told him there was a man waiting to see him.

"But nobody knows me at this address," said Greg astonished. "Who did he ask for?"

"The driver of T7011."

Greg went through to the yard. The man waiting there wore the uniform of a taxi-driver of the better class, but there was no sign of a cab.

"You want to see me?" said Greg.

The other had a naturally truculent manner. "I don't know whether I do or not. I want the driver of T7011."

"That's me."

He scornfully looked Greg up and down. "G'wan! You ain't one of us!"

"Sure, I am. I'm off duty now."

"'Tain't good enough, Jack."

"Come into the house and the woman will identify me."

Bessie, full of curiosity, was already at the kitchen door. She assured the man Greg was what he claimed to be, but the obstinate fellow having made up his mind was not to be swayed.

"I don't know you," he said to Bessie. "I don't know any of yez. It's a bad neighborhood."

The highly incensed Bessie gave him a good piece of her mind; this naturally only confirmed him in his obstinacy.

"If the cab's yours where is it now?" he demanded of Greg.

"My partner has it out."

"Likely story! I'll wait until I see it before I believe it."

"Suit yourself," said Greg marching into the house in a rage.

Fortunately for his much-tried temper it was not long before Hickey returned. Hearing the "machine-gun" come in, Greg went out into the yard and found the two chauffeurs in talk.

"I can't make out what he's driving at," said Hickey scratching his head.

"Let him tell me," said Greg. "First tell him that this is my cab."

Hickey did so. The other driver was not in the least abashed. Indeed he plumed himself more than ever on his astuteness.

"I drive for the New York Western cab service," he said. "They keep a sharp tab on us fellows and the gas we use, and I couldn't get down here until I was off duty. This morning at the Terminal three ladies engaged me: that is they was four in the party but one was a servant——"

Greg's heart began to beat.

"Old Spanish-looking dame and two pippins, black-head and red-head. Say, red-head was a little queen she was, with a little green hat and a whole grizzly bear around her neck, I guess it was——"

"Never mind her description," said Greg impatiently. "We know her. Get ahead!"

It only had the result of delaying the story still further. "Say, who's telling this, you or me?" burst out the irritable one. "I ain't telling it for your pleasure anyway, but for her that sent me. What if I do drive a taxi-cab, when I'm off duty I'm as good a man as any."

"Sure!" said Greg. "You're all right! But for God's sake get on with your story!"

"Well, I was ordered to take them to an apartment house on Riverside, the Stickney Arms it was, Ninety-fourth Street, big, swell place. Half a van load of hand-baggage they had. While it was being carried in the young lady had a chance to speak to me private. Says she: 'Go to Bessie Bickle's taxi-yard on Gibbon Street south of Houston——'

"When she got that far the black-haired one turned around sudden, and we made believe to be counting the bags. The old lady happened to call the black-haired one and little red-hair had a chance to finish: 'Tell the driver of T7011 that you brought me to this address.'

"That's all. Slipped me a couple of dollars she did, but I would have come for nothing. A peach!"

Greg experienced a complete revulsion of feeling. Gone were all his hard and angry thoughts. She had sent him word; she was all right!

"Good work!" he cried. "I'll give you another two myself if you'll let me."

The driver was not unwilling.

Poor Hickey, who had been looking forward to a "second helping" at Bessie's table and a good sleep, was turned around and bidden to drive to the Stickney Arms for all the flivver was worth. On the way Greg debated how to establish communications with his little friend. What he had seen himself, and what the chauffeur had told him, suggested that she was under the closest surveillance, and it behooved him to be careful in approaching her. Suddenly an idea occurred to him that made him chuckle and slap his knee.

He had Hickey stop at a druggist's where he purchased a sheet of showy note-paper and an envelope, and on the counter indited this note:

"The young man with the blue tie noticed by the young lady with the silver-fox furs on the steps of the Hotel Meriden this morning desires to make her better acquaintance. Read the personal column in the Sphere to-morrow."

The Stickney Arms proved to be a towering structure in what might be called the Jerry-Gothic style, the "Gothic" having been manufactured in a terra-cotta kiln on Staten Island. It was, notwithstanding, a very fine place of its kind, with a truly royal red carpet down the sumptuous corridor from front door to elevators, and in attendance four young Apollos wearing blue uniforms with gold cords across their breasts. One was to open the door, one to answer the telephone, one to run the elevator and one just to stand around and look ornamental.

The last boy had a peculiarly knowing look, and to him Greg addressed himself. Before saying anything he made a suggestive movement with his hand, to which the boy instinctively responded. A dollar bill changed hands like lightning. The blue-clad one assumed a responsive air.

"Little girl with dark red hair," said Greg, "black suit, little green hat, big soft fur around her neck; travels with two Spanish-looking ladies; do you know her?"

The boy nodded. "Sub-let a furnished apartment on the eighth floor. Moved in this morning."

"What name?" asked Greg.

"Soak-oat-er, or somepin like that."

"Slip her this," said Greg, showing his letter. "Only into her hands, see?"

The boy pocketed the letter. "I get you, boss."

Greg returned to his cab in high satisfaction. He had every reason to believe that the note would be delivered. Trust a New York hall-boy in matters of this kind! But even should it fall under other eyes, it could not but put them on a false track.

"Now for a bang-up feed," said Greg to Hickey. "We need it, for there's a big night's work beginning."

"Beginning!" groaned Hickey. "I thought my work was done!"


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