Title: You can't scare me!
Author: Henry Farrell
Release date: September 16, 2023 [eBook #71666]
Original publication: Chicago, IL: Ziff-Davis Publishing Company, 1947
Credits: Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at http://www.pgdp.net
By CHARLES F. MYERS
Toffee knew that Marc Pillsworth was
in trouble again, so she came out of
his subconscious mind to help him.
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Fantastic Adventures March 1947.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Whether or not they had passed through the portals of Earl Carroll's, the girls that threaded their way daily through the offices of Marc Pillsworth's advertising agency were undeniably some of the most beautiful in the world. It was probably this abundance of beauty, more than anything else, that caused Marc to shun the more seamy things in life. It was this also that made it so doubly unbearable that, nine times out of ten, every time his office door opened, it was only to admit to his presence one of nature's most vulgar experiments with American womanhood. What Marc, by marrying Julie, had gained in a wife, he had quite certainly lost in a secretary.
Miss Quirtt closed the door primly and turned to face Marc—very easily the nastiest thing she could possibly have done to anyone. As always, just to add stark horror to the picture, she smiled and revealed to her unappreciative employer that she had accomplished the extremely doubtful triumph of whitewashing the old fashioned cow catcher, without, in any way, detracting from its accustomed appearance of up-swept grandeur. The proof of this lay in the sudden appearance of her amazing teeth. As the tight, dry skin of her face drew back to reveal this hideous accomplishment, it was hard to believe that the accompanying creaking sound that echoed through the room, was only a trick of the imagination.
"Yes, Mr. Pillsworth?" she inquired, and thereby added to this already astonishing display of hideosities, the horror of her voice, which held all the melody of a palsied hand searching vainly for the key of E on a rusty guitar.
Marc shuddered and quickly turned his gaze to a strip of oak paneling which had suddenly become, to him, an object of indescribable loveliness. He had only lately come to know why Julie had insisted on the employment of Miss Quirtt. The very qualities which he now found so repulsive had been, to his wife, the attributes that made the woman so desirable for the job. It might as well be admitted that Julie had become unreasonably jealous of Marc's association with a group of girls that seemed to her, pretty stiff competition for the most glamorous "Glamour Chorus" in town, let alone herself.
"Well," Marc said with false heartiness, "today is the day, Miss Quirtt. Will you please bring me the layouts for the Reece campaign? I'm going to submit them this afternoon. You have the key to that file, I believe?" He tried hard not to hear her answering rasp, and heaved a sigh of relief as he heard the door close; the signal that this horribly jarring note had once more, at least momentarily, gone out of his life.
When she returned, it was not quite so bad. This time, he had the contents of the brief case to distract him. It was important that the layouts be complete. His hands ran over them almost lovingly—a full year's advertising material for the most sensational medical product ever to be offered to a suffering public.
Old Gregory Reece really had something this time; a cure-all to end all cure-alls, and one that was the real McCoy into the bargain. It did everything that the old-time medicine doctor claimed, and a good deal more, as well. And that was the very thing that made the drug's initial presentation to the public so difficult. It was too wonderful to be true.
Reece had been cagy in asking all the agencies to submit advertising campaigns. That way, he would be certain to get just the right publicity slant, since this was easily to be the largest account to be had by any agency, ever. It would "make" the agency that got it, and quite likely break the ones that didn't. The firm handling this Reece product would be able to pick and choose the rest of its clients, and Marc was well aware that if the Mayes Agency, his most formidable competitors, beat him out on it, they would hesitate considerably less than a second to pick and choose the very accounts which he, himself, was now handling. However, he was not disturbed. The campaign that his boys had turned out was just the ticket—honest, imaginative and convincing. Besides that, he was already handling a number of other Reece products with considerable success. Confidently, he slid the material back into the brief case and rose from his chair. It was then that he noticed that the room was still haunted by the spectre of the outer office.
"Is there something else, Miss Quirtt?" he asked stiffly.
"Yes, sir. Mrs. Pillsworth called to say that she would meet you here for lunch."
"You told her that I would be out, didn't you?"
"I didn't tell her, sir." Miss Quirtt shrilled half-wittedly. "She always makes a fuss about those things. She always thinks that you...."
"I wasn't aware that Mrs. Pillsworth was causing you so much trouble," Marc cut in sarcastically. "I'll have to speak to her about it. In the meantime, Miss Quirtt, call her back and say that I'll be tied up in some very important business during the lunch hour."
There was sincere concern in Marc's eyes as he picked up his hat and left the room. Julie's jealousy was fast becoming an office scandal. Something would certainly have to be done about it, he thought, as he hurried through the outer office, down the steps, and out, onto the sidewalk.
This ugly facet in Julie's otherwise completely beguiling nature, still had a firm grip on his thoughts as, at the sound of the traffic signal, he stepped from the curb, into the street. The city, in this quiet, pausing moment, just before the noon rush, seemed almost too serene. In the mid-day sun, the usually busy intersection had become almost unnaturally still. Perhaps it was this stillness that made the scream appear so dreadfully shrill.
It was a scream that, like a certain cough medicine, came with a three-way action—ear-splitting, hair-raising and nerve-wracking. Marc stopped short, and spun quickly around to discover the source of this dismaying performance. What met the eye didn't match up at all. He wouldn't have been a bit surprised to have seen a banner stretched across the intersection with the query, "What's Wrong With This Picture?" written across it.
At it was, the girl simply stood there on the sidewalk and yelled her head off, for no apparent reason whatever. If there had been a man with an evil looking glint in his eye, running either from or toward her,—it made no matter which—there might have been some reason for this wretched recital, but there was not. Suddenly, the girl unbelievably increased her volume and pointed directly at Marc. It was then that he heard the automobile behind him. He turned just in time to receive a montage impression of flashing chromium, black enamel, and spinning wheels,—all headed squarely in his direction.
What happened after that was a bit confused, except for the one clear fact that the pavement, apparently overcome with a mad desire to have a better view of Marc's face, was rushing impetuously toward it. It may have been this topsy-turvy indifference to the natural laws of gravity that dislodged the manhole cover, but whatever it was, a dark, black hole had instantly appeared in the center of the street, and Marc was unaccountably plunging, head first, into it.
As he descended into the thick darkness of the hole, he had no sensation of fear, however. He was falling slowly, almost floating downward; and his occasional contact with it, told him that he was moving through a sort of cylinder, the wall of which was of a consistency that brought to mind a sort of soft sponge rubber. Indeed, he had almost begun to enjoy his mishap, when he came easily to rest on what apparently was the bottom. This time, his hands came in contact with a different substance. He seemed to be lying on a small plot of grass.
As though his landing there had been the signal for it, a thin rim of bright light appeared evenly around the bottom of the dark tube, and began to widen steadily. As Marc looked up to discover down what passage he had come, he realized that it was withdrawing into what appeared to be a cloudless blue sky, and instantly his attention was drawn to his immediate surroundings.
There was something familiar about the tranquil little valley, with its emerald greenness and its soft blue mist that gave everything a shimmering chiffon-like softness. It was like a place long forgotten that, once remembered, would surely recall happy memories. Marc got to his feet and turned to the tree that stood, alone and lovely, behind him. Then, suddenly he started back in alarm. The tree seemed to have given bud to a pair of extremely well shaped legs.
"Well, it's about time!" Toffee said shrewishly, peering out at him from the foliage. "You've no idea how bored I've been, just sitting around in this awful stately mind of yours. I don't see how you can stand the silly thing, yourself. Don't you ever think of anything off-color,—something I could really get my teeth into?"
Marc stared at her in dismay as she swung lightly out of the tree. Her red hair, caught by the breeze, seemed like flame.
"Good grief!" she continued fretfully. "I've been sitting around up here, waiting for you, for so long, I've nearly got middle-age spread."
Marc quickly closed his eyes as she prepared to prove this statement. "I'll take your word for it!" he cried hurriedly.
Toffee's deep green eyes suddenly came alight as she grinned. "Oh, all right, you hypocritical old Puritan," she said affectionately. "Now that you're here, I might as well admit I'm glad to see you again." She started toward him. "Kiss me and say hello,—in that order."
Marc's hand was instantly raised in defense. "Oh, no!" he cried. "We're not going to have any more of that! It just leads to trouble."
Toffee looked grieved. "You haven't changed a bit," she said disappointedly.
"And that isn't all," Marc replied evenly. "I'm not going to change, either. When I think of the way you messed things up for me last time, my flesh fairly crawls. You're going to have to sit this one out alone."
Toffee smiled mysteriously. "Don't you bet any money on that," she said confidently. "Anyway, it won't hurt anything if we just talk over old times, will it?" She motioned toward the tree. "Let's sit down. You look tired."
Slowly, and definitely against his better judgment, Marc started in Toffee's direction, then suddenly he stopped short.
"Run! Run!" boomed the voice. It didn't seem to come from anywhere in particular. It was just in the air. Even the mist seemed to stir under its heavy tone. "Run! Run!" it repeated, and Marc, not knowing clearly why, felt an impelling urge to follow its commanding advice.
Suddenly, in the grip of an unknown panic, he was running without direction or reason, until, in the influence of an impulse, he looked back, over his shoulder.
The black cylinder, now flexible, was twisting and turning after him, gaining on him at every step. Frantically, he increased his speed. In spite of the disturbing presence of Toffee, now that he had found his way back to the peaceful valley, he was reluctant to leave it. He tried desperately to dodge, as he saw the mouth of the dark passage almost directly overhead, yawning threateningly. Then, resignedly, he knew it was no use. It had followed him, and was already shutting away the light of the valley.
"Run! Run!" the voice continued vainly, but edging its way through, was also the voice of Toffee.
"Wait! Wait for me!" she screamed, and suddenly, impetuously, Marc was holding a hand out to her through the remaining free space.
All of a sudden, the tube closed over them with a dreadful sucking sound, and they were being lifted upward, Toffee clinging to Marc desperately, as though for her very life. The upward journey, thought Marc, was to be very like the descent, except for the accompanying sound of the voice, as it repeated over and over, "Run! Run!"
"Hit and run," someone was saying. "This guy was on the wrong end of it. Got it right in the middle of the street. According to his identification, his name is Pillsworth. He's not really hurt, just bruised up a little."
Then, a door closed somewhere, and a distinctly antiseptic smell was whispering to Marc that he was in the receiving room of a hospital. He lay still and kept his eyes closed for a moment. His head had become the uneasy heir to a dull throbbing feeling.
After a moment of silent consideration, he opened his eyes and then closed them quickly. He could have sworn that he'd seen Toffee smiling down at him. But that was impossible! It couldn't possibly happen twice in one lifetime to the same man,—not one that drank as little as he did, anyway. In another moment, however, a pair of warm lips were pressed firmly against his own, to tell him that it not only could happen, but had. In a mood of utter helplessness, he did not resist.
"Well, that's more like it!" Toffee said happily.
Marc immediately became starkly upright on the slab-like examination table, and at once, Toffee's wayward mode of dress was forcibly recalled to him. She still wore the same filmy, transparent scrap of material, and it, for its part, still seemed to cling to her remarkable figure reluctantly, as though having urgent business elsewhere. It was a material that could conceivably be put to a wide variety of uses, but it was unfortunate that not one of these uses was, in the remotest way, connected with the coverage of the human body.
"You—you—you—No!" Marc sputtered incoherently.
"No?" asked Toffee.
"No! You can't be here!" Marc gasped. "It isn't right! You'll just have to go back to where you came from."
Toffee's expression swiftly became that of the patient martyr. "Do I have to explain it to you every time?" she asked. "You know perfectly well that I've materialized from your subconscious, and I can't possibly return until the proper time—whenever that is. I promise faithfully to disappear when you sleep or lose consciousness—then I have to go back—but until my mission is accomplished, I have to keep right on materializing during every one of your waking hours. I do wish you'd get used to the idea."
Marc winced perceptibly. "Your mission?" he asked.
"Of course," Toffee said. "You men are all alike,—just a pack of selfish dogs. You must have needed me for something or you wouldn't have dreamed me up again."
"But you can't stay this time," Marc wailed. "I'm a married man now."
"Oh, don't let that bother you," Toffee said reassuringly. "I don't mind a bit. In fact, I think it's lovely for you to be married."
Marc leaned defeatedly back on the table and buried his face in his hands. "Oh, no—no," he murmured mournfully. Then, he sat up quickly as a voice sounded from just outside the door.
"Is this the right room?" it asked. "Is this where you put Pillsworth?" Then there followed a silence in which another unseen being apparently answered.
"Holy smoke!" Marc whispered. "You've got to get out of here! If they find you in here, like that, all hell will break loose." His eyes searched the room frantically and finally came to grateful rest on a white cloth covered screen in the far corner. He pointed quickly to it. "Get behind that!"
"What for?" hissed Toffee, placing a slender hand defiantly on a round, smooth hip. "Why do you always want me to hide just when a man comes around?"
"Don't argue!" Marc said threateningly. "Get behind that screen!"
"Oh, all right," Toffee pouted, "but I think you're just a kill-joy."
Slowly, she crossed the room, and slid behind the screen, just as the door opened to admit one of the tallest interns Marc had ever seen. In his white uniform, he looked like one of the chalk cliffs of Dover, and his ruddy face might well have been the sun rising over that cliff.
"Well, Mr. Pillsworth!" he called with hateful professional joviality. "I see that we're up. How are we feeling after our little accident?"
"Were you in it too?" Marc asked dryly, but the young man was not to be set aside with so trivial a rebuke. He, with his silly smile, thought Marc, had probably attended patients for years that hated his very guts.
"We were very lucky," the fellow continued offensively.
"Yes. You haven't really been hurt at all. According to the report, you've no internal injuries, and only a few bruises that won't show at all, since they're located...."
"Never mind!" Marc cut in hastily, glancing toward the screen. "I'll find out where they are for myself."
The interne lounged his way across the room, and dangerously rested his arm on the top edge of the screen. Marc wondered if he were going to have a relapse. He almost wished he were still unconscious.
"I—I'll be permitted to leave the hospital, won't I?" he asked shakily.
The young man nodded. "You're perfectly all right. You'll just need to take it easy for a day or so. We might have kept you here for observation, but the hospital is too crowded. We tried to call your wife, but she was out."
"Fine!" said Marc. "And where is my brief case?"
"Brief case?" the fellow asked stupidly.
"Yes. Brief case. The one I was carrying when I was hit."
"But there wasn't any."
Marc felt a rush of terror which subsided almost immediately. It had probably been taken back to the office. After all, his name and address were all over the thing. Then, once again, his heart leaped to his throat, and the brief case was forgotten, as he saw the interne's hand slip lazily behind the screen. Marc needn't have worried himself about what was going to happen, for it happened instantly, and no one could have prevented it anyway.
The young man's red face turned an extravagant shade of deep purple, as his anguished cry rang out through the room like a call from the damned. Moaning wretchedly, he bent double and pressed his injured hand between his knees. The screen tottered drunkenly for a moment, and then clattered to the floor to reveal Toffee engaged in a half-won battle to wedge herself into a stiffly starched nurse's uniform.
The fire of virtuous outrage that blazed in Toffee's eyes, as she stepped over the screen, forcing her arm through a reluctant sleeve, clearly implied that, compared to her, Elsie Dinsmore was nothing more than a loose living slattern.
"You bit me!" the interne wailed.
"You bet I did!" snapped Toffee. "And next time you come groping around where I'm dressing, with those great hammy paws of yours, I'll gnaw them off clear up to the elbows!"
In the face of such heated self-righteousness, the young man could hardly doubt her statement. Obviously, he was being tormented by the picture of himself, continuing, armless, through the remainder of his life. "I'm sorry," he said contritely, apparently forgetting that, in view of the excellent nurse's quarters just upstairs, the indignant girl had chosen a rather singular place to dress.
"You should be," Toffee replied icily. "If it happens again, I'll report you." And without waiting for an answer, she started regally from the room.
"Button that dress!" Marc yelled inadvertently.
"Button your lip," Toffee replied composedly, disappearing around the edge of the door.
Marc wished desperately that he could go after her. There was no telling what she might do. He only knew that, having Toffee back, was merely a matter of traveling the shortest road to utter confusion at the highest rate of speed. He shivered at the thought of what doubtlessly lay ahead.
As Marc swung out of the hospital door, the last brilliant rays of a dying sun almost blinded him for a moment, and he didn't see Toffee, at first, sitting there on the steps, chin in hand, and looking very much like a completely thoughtless rendition of "The Thinker."
"What kept you so long?" she asked irritably.
"I had to sign some papers," Marc explained. "It's too bad that no one got the license number on the car that hit me. It would have...." Suddenly, he stopped, and stared at Toffee, mouth agape. The white uniform that he had last seen her in had miraculously been replaced, in part, by a black evening gown, that had obviously seen hell at the ruthless hand of its cutter. It had hardly a back to call its own, and as for the front, instead of covering Toffee's amazing figure, it seemed merely to draw a heavy black line around it for emphasis.
A look of pain came into Marc's eyes. "Where did you get that?" he asked weakly.
Toffee motioned vaguely across the street. "At that store over there," she answered serenely. "I charged it to you."
Marc groaned. "What was the matter with the uniform? I thought it was very neat."
"Wasn't it, though?" Toffee replied disdainfully. "It's no wonder all the people in the hospital are sick. It's enough to make anyone ill, just having to look at a woman all trussed up in one of those starch ridden atrocities." She pivoted on the steps, and a shimmering black cloud moved gracefully above her lovely legs. "Isn't it a dream?"
"Yes," Marc said emphatically. "A perfect nightmare. You look like something that should be raided and hauled off to headquarters. Why, if Julie...." A sudden chill lodged itself in his spine. "Holy Smoke! Let's get out of here!"
Unceremoniously, he took her by the arm and rushed her down the length of the steps to a taxi that was luckily standing idle in the hospital drive. As they approached it, an aged head, looking not unlike a mildewed melon, jutted from the driver's window, and two faded eyes widened with surprise. From wrinkled lips, a thin whistle sounded feebly into the dimming day.
"That's what I like about this world," Toffee said, getting into the cab. "Everyone seems so happy. At least the men do. They're always whistling."
"Oh, I remember this place," Toffee said, as Marc opened the door to the agency.
"I wish you didn't," Marc said flatly. "Without a memory, you're a terror, with one, you're a positive menace." He swung the door wide and motioned toward the steps. "Get in there, out of sight."
"And waste this beautiful dress?" she asked disappointedly. "I thought you were taking me out somewhere."
"You were wrong," Marc said shortly. "And besides, that dress has already been wasted until there's hardly anything left of it. It's indecent."
"Yes. I know," giggled Toffee, starting up the steps.
For a moment, they continued in silence, until Marc suddenly stopped short. There was a light burning just beyond the head of the stairs. "Wait a minute," he commanded. "Miss Quirtt is still up there. The efficiency of that female is enough to make your blood run cold, and she's got a mind like a clogged up cesspool. If she gets a load of you in that dress, it'll be a public scandal by morning."
"What are we going to do?" asked Toffee.
Marc considered this for a moment, and came to a decision. "We're going on up," he said determinedly. "But you'll have to stay behind me. Stick to me like wall paper."
Toffee nodded enthusiastically. Sticking to Marc like wall paper seemed to be her fondest dream. She stood aside to let him pass.
The minute Marc stepped into the outer office, into the presence of Miss Quirtt, he realized the error of his instructions to Toffee. In her effort to stick to him, she was also treading on his heels, and Marc, never too sure-footed, anyway, found himself romping helplessly across the office with all the self-conscious abandon of a performing porpoise. Miss Quirtt, still at her desk, looked up in alarm, her pale eyes filled with wonder.
"Mr. Pillsworth!" she squeaked.
Marc, without answering her, lunged drunkenly toward the door to his office, like a drowning man grasping for a life line. Reaching it, he drew it open, careful to continue facing Miss Quirtt, and swung his free arm behind him with all the feeble strength he had left. A soft rustling sound told him that Toffee, willy-nilly, was safely out of sight. He said a silent prayer of thanks as he noted that the office was dark.
"Hello, Miss Quirtt," he said, smiling stiffly. "I just dropped in to pick up my brief case."
"Your brief case?"
Unexpectedly, from behind, slender fingers were digging lightly into Marc's ribs, and all of a sudden, he was giggling helplessly. "Ye—yes," he simpered like a feeble minded school boy. "My—my brief case!"
His hands crossed violently in mid-air, and came down to his sides with a resounding slap. Miss Quirtt, taking all this in with horrified eyes, seemed in acute danger of leaping over her desk and making a run for it.
"Mister Pillsworth!" she cried.
Marc immediately sobered, as the fingers withdrew. "I was parted from my brief case in an accident," he explained hopefully. "I thought it might have been returned here."
"He's been parted from a lot more than his brief case," Miss Quirtt murmured desperately to herself.
"Well," Marc demanded. "Is it here or not?"
"It is not," the miserable woman answered decisively. "And what's more, Mr. Reece called to say that if you didn't have your campaign in his office by morning, it wouldn't be considered." She seemed almost glad to announce this piece of bad news.
Marc's expression became darkly grave, and then unaccountably, it seemed, changed to one of high-hearted glee, as the unseen fingers played lightly over his ribs for a second time. Miss Quirtt clutched frantically at the edge of the desk to keep from slipping to the floor.
"You do that once more," she gasped, "and I'll scream!"
The annoying fingers withdrew, and Marc's eyes filled with distaste. "You needn't," he said evenly. "You couldn't be safer, believe me." As he swung about, to slam the door after him, however, he caught a glimpse of the dreadful woman, scurrying out of the office like an unbalanced scorpion.
It was a mistake that Marc started across the room without first turning on the lights, for his very first step brought him in violent contact with Toffee, and the darkened room instantly became the sounding board for a series of scrambling, grunting noises that were far from reassuring.
"Let go of me!" Toffee shrieked as she hit the floor.
"Get your heel out of my ear, and maybe I can," Marc rasped furiously. In the ensuing mad scramble to let go of each other, they became so helplessly entangled that finally, in desperation, they both gave up. It was in this edifying moment that the room suddenly became ablaze with light.
Marc looked up to find Toffee sitting rigidly upright on his chest, her gaze directed at a chair across the room, her eyes filled with horror.
For an awful moment, the room became starkly silent, as Julie rose from the chair and stared down at them. Her blue eyes gave Marc a graphic description of a glacial age that he had thought long dead. The light flashed in her blond hair, as she lowered her face to Toffee's.
"Get off my husband, you nasty little harpy," she rasped.
Dazedly, Toffee did as she was told, and Julie turned her attention to Marc.
"And as for you, you double-dealing ogre; get up off that floor and stop looking like the less intelligent half of a seal act. And you needn't bother saying that she's your cousin, either. I've heard that one before. Even your family couldn't produce anything that depraved. She probably has a police record that would stretch from here to Shanghai."
"I have nothing to hide!" Toffee put in elegantly, refusing to accept this blot on her character.
Julie's answering gaze lingered malignantly on the black dress. "Lucky for you," she said caustically. "You'd be in a really rotten spot for it, if you did."
"But Julie! You don't understand!" Marc cried, disentangling his long legs, and getting uncertainly to his feet.
"I've understood for longer than you think!" Julie cried angrily. "I've always suspected that this sort of thing was going on around here, and when you broke our luncheon date, I thought I'd come down to find out the reason. I knew if I waited around long enough, something would turn up."
Marc turned beseechingly to Toffee. "Tell her," he pleaded. "Tell her I'm a good husband."
Toffee, flattered at being invited to take such an important part in this domestic drama, turned beamingly to Julie. "You just don't know what a wonderful husband you have," she announced innocently.
"I daresay," fumed Julie. "And someday, when you're not too exhausted from frisking around on the floor with him, suppose you drop around and tell me all about it!"
"She doesn't know what she's saying!" Marc cried.
"Don't ever tell her," Julie said with false sweetness, "or you'll ruin some of the liveliest testimony ever written into a court record."
"The divorce courts do keep records, don't they?"
The echo of Marc's cry was still in the air, as Julie crossed to the door.
"Yes. Divorce, Marc Pillsworth!" she said, turning back. "And I do mean you."
"But—but you haven't any grounds," Marc said hopefully.
"Don't worry about that," Julie replied, opening the door. "By the time I get to court, I'll have more grounds than a national park."
The slam of the door put a very definite end to the discussion.
Marc and Toffee stared dumbly at each other as the angry tap of Julie's heels, retreating through the outer office, and down the stairs, sounded dimly back to them through the closed door. Toffee dropped limply into an upholstered chair and drew her feet up under her.
"I just can't understand it," she said contentedly. "I just can't understand how your mind could be so dull when your life is so exciting."
"Oh, my life is a perfect scream," Marc smoldered. "Only I save up the good parts for when you're around to enjoy them. They seem better that way."
"You're sweet, Marc," Toffee replied sincerely.
Marc looked at her unbelievingly. "I just don't know how it happened," he said quietly. "Except for that hideous old crow out there in the main office, everything was perfectly tip-top this morning. Now, all of a sudden, my wife is suing me for divorce, my most important advertising copy is missing, and if I don't find it by morning, my business is just as good as ruined. Where did it all start?" He dropped dejectedly into the chair behind his desk and rested his chin in his hand. Once again the room became silent.
"It was that blonde," he said absently, after a moment.
"What blonde?" Toffee asked suspiciously, peering from the depths of her chair.
"The blonde that screamed. She was a decoy. She double crossed me."
"They'll do it every time," Toffee said firmly. "Now you take a redhead...."
"Never mind that," Marc said pensively. "She started screaming long before she could possibly have seen the car from where she was standing. She drew my attention away deliberately, so I'd be sure to get hit. I'm sure of it. She probably took the brief case, too. Maybe she was hired for the job. Good grief! If that's true, I'm really in a spot!"
"They'll do it every time, those blondes," Toffee repeated doggedly.
"I'm sure my brief case was stolen," Marc said, almost to himself. "I've got to find that blonde. And in the meantime, just to be sure, I'd better have the boys knock out another campaign tonight." He turned to the telephone and started to dial feverishly.
After fifteen minutes of assorted telephone conversations, Marc turned to Toffee dispiritedly. "It's no use," he announced. "Every last one of them has been called out of town for the weekend. I've never talked to so many simple minded wives and landladies in all my life. They haven't any idea where any of the men are. They would pick a time of crisis to start their weak-minded cavorting."
"Who would want to keep you from having the Reece account?" Toffee asked.
"The Mayes Agency," Marc answered promptly, and then shook his head. "But Mayes wouldn't do a thing like this. He's hard as nails when it comes to business, but he wouldn't do anything criminal, and I might have been killed by that car this morning. What am I going to do now?"
His question was promptly answered by the shrill ring of the telephone. He picked up the receiver disinterestedly, and before he could give his name, a sultry feminine voice sounded over the wire.
"This Marc Pillsworth?" it asked.
"Yes. Who's this?"
"Don't you mind who this is, Buster," the voice said evenly. "Just you listen to what I got to say, and don't interrupt. If you want your brief case back, you be at the Southlawn Cemetery at eleven sharp tonight."
"What!" Marc yelled. This was a great deal more than he'd expected.
"Yeah," the voice laughed. "It's just like a kidnapping. In other words, if you want to see your brain child, alive and healthy again, you be at the cemetery, like I said, with a million dollars in cash."
"A million!" Marc choked. "But that's impossible!"
"Yeah, I know," the voice replied conversationally. "It's the craziest thing I ever heard of, myself. I nearly died laughing when they told me. It's impossible to raise a million in one night—even with a full moon. I know. I tried."
"But—but—" sputtered Marc.
"No but about it, Buster," the voice said. "Them's the orders. And, oh yes, at the risk of soundin' corny, I gotta tell you to have the bills in small denominations and unmarked. Ain't that a scream?"
Suddenly the phone went dead, and Marc looked up dazedly. "I just can't believe it!" he groaned. "I must be dreaming."
"What's wrong," asked Toffee, "that isn't already?"
"I—I've been kidnapped," Marc said wonderingly. "I—I mean, they're holding my brief case for ransom."
"I don't know. It was a woman that called. Probably the blonde. She was undoubtedly paid off to make the phone call, too. I'm pretty sure it's someone else that has the copy."
"But the blonde is a lead," Toffee pointed out.
"Yes," Marc agreed. "I've simply got to get ahold of that girl."
"You go around, getting ahold of any girls," Toffee warned, "and I'll be down on you like the wrath of the Gods. You'd better hire yourself a detective."
Marc stared at her thoughtfully. "That's not a bad idea," he said finally.
"Of course it isn't," Toffee replied proudly. "You stick to me, and I'll have everything straightened out in jig time."
"Jig time," Marc corrected automatically, drawing a soiled newspaper from his desk drawer. For a moment, he thumbed through the wrinkled sheets, and then folded it back at the classified section. His hand traced slowly down the print filled columns for a time, then quickly darted to the opposite page.
"There she is!" he yelled.
Toffee glanced suspiciously about the room. "Where?" she demanded.
"Here!" As Marc held out the newspaper, his finger indicated an advertisement in the entertainment section.
"The Loma Club," it read, "Where you can lose a weekend and never miss it." Under that curious legend was the picture of an over-lush blonde young lady, whose name, according to the ad, was Ruby Marlow. The picture had apparently been taken during one of her performances at the club, for her mouth was wide open. Toffee gazed at the picture critically.
"That's just the way she looked on the street," Marc said.
"I don't think you were hit by a car, after all," Toffee said sourly. "A face like that would stop anything."
"Well, at least we know where to start," Marc said enthusiastically. "We're going to the Loma Club. A detective would take too long."
"Night clubbing?" Toffee asked happily. "Wait till I find me a club. I remember the last time. It was heavenly."
"This isn't going to be like the last time," Marc said sternly. "If you start another riot, I'll break your neck with my own bare hands."
The inner sanctum of the Loma Club appeared to be more a murky den, designed especially for barbaric rituals, than a place for relaxation and entertainment. To confirm this impression, the orchestra platform, when in use, proved to be nothing more than an altar, upon which a tiny group of exhausted, down-and-out musicians offered up, in horrible, though bloodless, sacrifice, the popular tunes of the day. High priestess of these gory activities, and hiding under the title of "vocalist," was Ruby Marlow. At the moment, she was holding a battered microphone in a death grip, that may, or may not, have accounted for the nerve-wracking, strangled sounds that were issuing from it. To Marc and Toffee, sitting at a table in a dark corner, the amplification of Miss Marlow's horrible mouthings was simply incredible.
"Lose a weekend?" Toffee said bitterly. "You'd fairly murder the poor thing in here. In fact, the whole atmosphere in this place is pretty murderous." She shoved her glass disdainfully away. "When I want embalming fluid, I'll go to a mortician. But come to think of it, maybe the waiter knows best, after all. One more of those, and I'll be dead as a flounder, anyway."
"I wish I hadn't even tasted the first one," Marc said morosely. "I keep seeing things."
"What sort of things?"
Marc pointed to a vacant table about a yard from theirs. "I think it's haunted," he said. "I keep seeing a little man down there. It's awful."
Toffee looked in the direction he indicated. "I don't see anything," she said reassuringly. "It's just an ordinary table with a table cloth on...." Suddenly she stopped speaking, and turned frighteningly pale.
Slowly, a scrawny hand appeared at the edge of the cloth and lifted it. Then, as if that weren't enough, a wrinkled ferret-like face jutted from under it, peered out querulously for a moment, and quickly disappeared. This singular performance was followed by a series of quick clicking sounds that were totally inexplicable.
"Lord love me!" cried Toffee. "I saw it too, and it was horrible! Is that all it does? Just peer out and click at you?"
"Isn't that enough?" Marc answered dumbly. "It's happened three times now."
"Maybe he's a bashful castinette player," Toffee suggested uncertainly.
"I don't think so," Marc answered gravely. "I think it's the liquor. If I start to order again, stuff your napkin down my throat."
They both had become so engrossed in the phenomenon of the adjoining table, that neither of them noticed the approaching Miss Marlow. That the murderess of innocent songs was full blown, was unmistakable even at the distance of the microphone, but close up, she looked like something that should be turned on side, and hung over a bar.
"You Mr. Pillsworth?" she asked lazily. "One of the boys says you want to talk to me."
"That's right," Marc said, looking up. "Please sit down." He gestured toward Toffee. "This is Miss—uh—Miss——"
"Don't embarrass yourself Mr. Pillsworth," cut in Ruby, turning an appraising eye on Toffee. "I know the type. They don't come with names—just sizes." She smiled maliciously. "And what's yours in mink coats, dear?"
Toffee's answering gaze dwelt indolently on Miss Marlow's expanding hips. "About five smaller than yours in girdles, hon," she said sweetly.
With all the callousness of the seasoned warrior, Ruby accepted this retort, and eased the objects that had inspired it into a vacant chair. She leaned forward and smiled at Marc.
"What can I do for you?" she asked coyly.
"I like your singing," Marc lied with apparent irrelevance.
"I'm so glad to hear it," Ruby was all graciousness as she said it.
"For the first time in your life," Toffee appended viciously.
"But I like it even better in the open air," Marc said evenly. "Your street singing left me with quite an impression."
Gone were the days of Ruby's innocence, but she wasn't above trying to look lamb-like when the occasion seemed to demand it. She did so now. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said.
"Okay," Marc countered, "we'll skip that, but who were you working for?"
"You heard me," Ruby said, trying to look indignant. "I don't know what you're talking about. From where I'm sitting, it just sounds like the wind whistling through the holes in your head."
"Stop the kidding," Marc demanded. "I know you took the brief case, and I intend to have it back. Where is it?"
"Search me!" said Ruby.
"If he does," put in Toffee, "I'll scratch his eyes out."
Ruby turned on Toffee a searing gaze that knocked in her teeth, tore the gown from her back, and left her bent and bleeding in a dark alley. "I'm getting out of here," she announced, pushing back her chair. "You're both nuts."
It was Marc's guess that the flambuoyant Miss Marlow would probably be considered a flop in her own social set without a police record, and took a chance on it. "Just a minute," he said. "There are a few boys on the force that would like to know where you are, since you've dyed your hair, and if you don't level off right now, I'll have them on you like a swarm of flies."
Ruby settled back in her chair immediately. "Okay! okay!" she said. "You don't have to yell about it. I'll tell you the whole thing. After all, I was only hired to go downtown and yell like crazy, and pick up any loose brief cases I happened to see lying around. There's nothing illegal in that."
"Who hired you?"
Ruby glanced nervously around the room, and then suddenly smiled. "All right," she said pleasantly. "I'll tell you. You see that guy sitting over there? The rough looking bird in the opposite corner. That's Manny Groute, the racketeer. He hired me."
Marc glanced briefly over his shoulder and shuddered. Manny Groute was the sort of fellow no one would ever suspect of having had a mother. He seemed to have been assembled, rather than born. In front of him, the table looked like a delicate foot rest.
"What does he want with my brief case?" Marc asked uneasily.
"Search me," Ruby said easily. "The ransom I suppose."
"You ask him to search you just once more," Toffee broke in menacingly, "and I'll break your bottle of peroxide."
"That's enough!" bawled Ruby. "That's the shot that got me! Stand up, and I'll tear that red hair out by the roots! And don't think I can't do it, either. I've got Irish blood in my veins!"
"And if you'd like it splashed all over the floor, where you can show it off better," Toffee flared, "just start something!"
Ruby, an affable creature by nature, and always open to suggestions of all kinds, took Toffee at her word, and lifted her none too daintily from her chair.
"Stop that!" yelled Marc, and rushing to the struggling women, took a bare shoulder in each hand. No sooner did he have them parted, than, as if by magic, a huge, meaty hand fell on Marc's shoulder and nearly weighted him to the floor. "Oh, murder!" he murmured as he looked up into the terrifying face of Manny Groute, which, at the moment, bore an expression that did little toward inspiring open-hearted confidence and trust.
"You named it right, bud," Manny rumbled ominously. "I don't like guys pawin' my girl friend."
In the following moments, Ruby and Manny looked like rather grotesque members of a water ballet, as, in perfect unison, they held their victims at bay, and drew back their fists. To anyone else, in Toffee's very potent position, Ruby's doubled fist would have been an item of consuming interest, but to Toffee, it was a forgotten detail, as her attention fell on the acrobats that were the current floor show attraction. It was the first time she had ever seen a human pyramid being formed, and that so many well developed masculine bodies should appear all in one clump, seemed to her, the most wonderful spectacle in the whole world.
If Toffee was oblivious of her coming fate, however, Marc was not. Indeed, as he glimpsed Manny's mammoth hand in the impressive process of doubling itself, he found himself regretting his oversight in not reserving a room while at the hospital that morning. He had a strong hunch that he would shortly have need of it. It was then that the unexpected happened.
Swiftly, a claw-like hand jutted from beneath the next table and grabbed Manny's thick ankle. In another second, Marc felt the racketeer falling against him, and the two of them were headed for the floor like a couple of felled pines. Instantly, for Marc, everything went black.
In the meantime, Ruby, in her determination to do a really bang-up job on Toffee, was giving her blow all the careful aim, and driving power it would need. Squinting, she sighted Toffee's right eye, and let go. It was precisely in this moment that Marc's head struck the floor and Toffee vanished into thin air.
The man on the flying trapeze had nothing on Ruby. She sailed gracefully through the air and came quickly to a skidding stop on the top of a nearby table, at which sat two of the club's more befogged patrons.
"Perfect belly landing!" one of them cried delightedly. "Smooth as glass."
"Just like a dame," complained the other, seeing the incident in a different light. "Not satisfied with yelpin' her horrible yellow head off at us up there, she's got to come over here and knock over our drinks."
Ruby boosted herself dazedly to one elbow, and gazed malevolently at the two. Daintily, she picked up a remaining beer bottle and dispatched them to the floor in attitudes of idyllic slumber.
"That'll teach you to talk about a lady," she mumbled quickly, and with that, silently collapsed.
It was in this restful atmosphere that Marc regained consciousness, and for a moment, as he rolled the still unconscious Manny from his chest, he had highly colored thoughts of atomic bombs and such. Then, reassuringly, the wild applause of the more awake customers of the night club, came to his ears. He got to his feet to discover the cause of their noisy enthusiasm.
On the dance floor, there was the most remarkable human pyramid anyone had ever seen. It wasn't so much the acrobats themselves, although they were a fairly curious looking lot, it was the girl in the black evening dress that sat casually on the shoulders of the top-most man. Toffee had not only materialized, but had chosen her spot for doing so, as well, and from the spectator's point of view, the effect had been pretty astounding.
"Smartest trick I ever saw," one seedy little man mumbled to himself, "but I'm dogged if I can figure how they got her up there so fast."
Another guest of the Loma, already dazed by drink, gazed wide-eyed at the spectacle, and slipped blissfully under the table. "I'd have broke me pledge long ago," he murmured, coming to sodden rest on the floor, "if I'd known I was going to start seeing dames like that. It sure beats the snakes."
But successful as the glorious tableau was, like all good things, it was destined for an early end. However, it might have continued longer, if the "Base" acrobat, upon whom the rest were depending for their support, hadn't become curious about the audience's sudden approval of the act. Usually, at this stage in the performance, a noticeable chill descended on the club.
It is hard to say what the fellow expected to see, as he turned his head awkwardly to look above him, but judging by subsequent developments, it is a pretty safe guess that it was not a redhead in a dangerous black evening gown, lounging radiantly on the shoulders of his partners, graciously blowing kisses to the audience. To say that the man was shaken, is to tell the whole story.
There was a dreadful series of whacking sounds as the forces of gravity worked swiftly to bring the entire act to an untimely end. As for Toffee, she alone descended gracefully, looking much like a streamlined ballerina, knocking off the swan after a busy day in the woods. As she bowed in the spotlight, the audience went nearly crazy with loud appreciation.
"I knew they couldn't hold it long," she said breathlessly, rushing up to Marc. "They're not as strong as they look."
"Never mind that!" Marc yelled. "Let's get out of here, before Ruby and Manny wake up. If they get ahold of us now, they'll tear us to ribbons."
"But, I thought you wanted to talk to Manny about your brief case."
"I don't think he'll be feeling very conversational," Marc rasped, grabbing Toffee's arm, and shoving her through the crowd. "Besides, he doesn't know anything about it. That was just a gag. All I'd get out of Manny would be a fractured skull. That's what Ruby was counting on."
"But what are we going to do now?"
"There's only one thing to do," Marc said, glancing hastily at his watch. "It's nearly eleven now. I'll have to go to the cemetery and try to make a deal."
"Is a cemetery anything like a night club?" Toffee asked excitedly.
Marc glanced back at the unheeded litter of prostrate figures that graced the Loma Club. "Quite a bit like this one," he said wryly.
Toffee settled herself comfortably on an ornate tombstone, and leaned languorously back to rest her head on the buttocks of a stone cupid.
"Get down from there," Marc said sternly. "You look obscene."
"In this moonlight, you're no work of art, yourself," Toffee replied lazily, making no effort to move.
Marc shrugged helplessly, and seated himself watchfully at the base of the stone. "It's past eleven," he murmured. "I wish someone would show up. If I don't get that copy back, I might as well kiss my business goodbye right now."
"Maybe Manny's got it after all," Toffee suggested. "And he's still out."
"I don't think so. And speaking of him, I'd sure like to know who the little man under the table was. He just about saved my life when he grabbed Manny's ankle." Marc glanced around peering intently into the darkness that, except for occasional patches of bright moonlight that filtered through the trees, was all around them. "It looks like we're all alone here with the spooks."
"What are spooks?" Toffee leaned forward, interested.
"They're something like you," Marc said absently. "Sometimes they are, and sometimes they aren't. Anyway, I understand they're always raising hell with somebody."
"They sound fine," Toffee said. "How do you go about stirring up a few?"
"Never mind," Marc replied, "we wouldn't have time for it, even if you could. Besides, no self-respecting spook would have anything to do with you. He'd rather be caught dead."
"Oh yeah?" Toffee said unexpectedly. "I'll bet I'm looking at one right now."
"If you don't believe me," Toffee said woundedly, "just look over there."
Humoring her, Marc turned his gaze in the direction that she had indicated, and suddenly froze. A claw-like hand was moving stealthily around the edge of a nearby head stone, and the effect was something worse than ghostly.
Transfixed, Marc watched it as it came to rest at the foot of the stone, and was suddenly followed by a wizened head. Marc tried hard to suppress a gasp of astonishment as he identified the ferret-like face as the same one that had appeared beneath the table at the club. He had only a moment in which to recognize it, for as before, it vanished as quickly as it had appeared, to be followed by the clicking sounds, that now echoed weirdly through the cemetery.
"Oh, that's not a spook," Toffee said disappointedly, and then, on second thought added, "at least I don't think it is."
"You bet it isn't," Marc cried, jumping quickly to his feet. "That's probably the guy that's got my brief case!" Swiftly, he took a step forward, caught his toe on a low marker, and sprawled, head long, into a landing that was all grin and gravel. His breath unhesitatingly rushed out to meet the night air, and apparently liked the company, for it didn't bother to come back for a while. In the ensuing stillness, hasty footsteps could be heard making their way out of the cemetery.
"Well, that's that, I guess," Marc groaned morosely, then he had regained his breath. "I scared him away, and he was my last chance. And to think that he was right next to us in the night club all the time!" He sat up and rested his chin defeatedly in his cupped hands. "With my wife gone, and my business gone, I might just as well go away and try to forget it all right now."
"Maybe you could go where those other men went," Toffee said in a baffling attempt to be helpful.
"What other men?"
"The ones that work for you. You said they'd gone cavorting, and that sounds pretty forgetful. Did they have something to forget?"
"No. They all got urgent telegrams."
"How should I know?"
For a moment, neither of them spoke, and then, all of a sudden, Marc's chin lifted, and his hands fell to the ground. "I'll bet that was a frame up too," he said. "It was! I'm sure of it! Whoever has my brief case, sent those wires to get the boys out of town, so they couldn't get out another campaign. They're all out on a goose chase."
"Then all we have to do," Toffee said brightly, "is find out who sent them. Then we'll know who to see about the brief case."
"Yeah. But how?"
"Call up their homes again."
"It might be an idea," Marc said, his hope rising faintly. "Come on down from there. We'll have to find a drug store with a telephone."
With a shockingly familiar hand, Toffee grasped the cupid, and boosted herself away from her perch. "Let's go!" she cried gaily, landing lightly beside Marc. "I don't like this place much, anyhow. There isn't enough life in it."
In the drug store, Toffee had just finished her third soda, and the teen aged fountain attendant, chin on counter, to have a better view of her, had just completed his fiftieth blissful sigh. He'd never seen so dazzling a creature anywhere, before. Suddenly, they both looked up as the door to the corner telephone booth burst open, and Marc came hurrying out.
"I've got the name," he said excitedly. "It was a Mr. Polasky, whoever that is. A few of the wives I talked to, said their husbands didn't know who it was either, but left because the messages were so urgent. It's my guess that the name's a phoney."
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," he said, as though just realizing it for the first time. "Good night! It's just another dead end, isn't it?"
For a moment, they gazed at each other worriedly, as the boy, overcome by his consuming curiosity about Toffee, edged closer.
"I have it!" Toffee cried suddenly.
"What?" yelled Marc and the boy simultaneously. Marc turned witheringly on the youngster, and he moved away again.
"I know what you can do," Toffee continued, pausing long enough to reassure the boy with a radiant smile. "You call up the telegraph company, and tell them you're Mr. Polasky. Tell them that you were expecting answers to the wires you sent and you still haven't received any. Then ask them to check to see if the wires were really delivered and check back with you. When they say they will, ask them to check the address and telephone number they have written down for you, and insist that they read it to you, just to make sure. That way, you'll know where Polasky lives, anyway,—or whoever it is."
Marc stared at her in amazement for a moment. "I don't know if it'll work," he said, "but it's certainly worth a try, Toffee. You're wonderful!" He leaned down and kissed her on the forehead.
"I'm pretty darned surprised, myself," Toffee replied happily. "I'll say it all over again, if you'll kiss me again." But Marc was already on his way to the phone booth.
Toffee turned to the boy and shrugged. "I don't know what he'd do without me," she said, her voice heavy with theatrical weariness. "I simply don't know!" Then she smiled as the boy leaned his chin back on the counter and sighed.
Marc paid the cab driver and turned to regard the apartment house questioningly. "I didn't expect anything quite so shabby," he said.
"Are you sure this is the number you got from the girl at the telegraph company?" Toffee asked.
"Positive," Marc replied. "Well, we can be sure of one thing, at least. Mayes wouldn't be living here. I'll bet he's never even seen this part of town." A small frown creased his forehead. "Maybe it's just another run around. Maybe Ruby sent the wires; she could have easily. I'd hate to run into her again."
"If it is Ruby," Toffee replied heavily, "I'll rip that yellow hair of hers out by its black roots. Her and her Irish blood!"
"Well, there's only one way to find out," Marc said wearily, starting forward. Then, he stopped, as Toffee tugged at his sleeve.
"What if it turns out to be Manny?" she asked apprehensively.
Marc winced. "We'll just have to face him, I guess. Anyway, it might not be. It could be the little fellow that tripped Manny."
"Yes. I guess it could be," Toffee admitted. "Well, in that case, let's go."
Inside, the old apartment house held all the stale, musty smells of old cooking and all the other activities of daily, crowded living, and the gloom in its hallways was almost tangible. Slowly, Marc and Toffee, like a couple of conspirators, crept along the downstairs passage, pausing before each door to read its carelessly stenciled number. Presently, at the rear of the hall, where the gloom was the thickest, they stopped.
"Well," Marc whispered uneasily, "this is number seven. This must be it."
"Yep," Toffee echoed. "This must be it, all right."
For a long moment, they just stood and stared at each other with apprehension.
"Well," Toffee said finally, "don't just stand there,—knock, ring a bell,—do something!"
"Don't rush me," Marc hissed irritably. "I'm looking for a name plate."
"Well, don't look at me. I'm not wearing one. Try looking on the door."
Marc, realizing the wisdom of her advice, turned his attention to the forbidding panel, and subjected it to a more thorough scrutiny than was absolutely necessary. All he needed was a magnifying glass to complete his impersonation of Sherlock Holmes on one of his more important cases. He was so close to the door, that when it suddenly opened, he nearly pitched into apartment number seven head first.
"I heard you snooping around out here!" a metallic voice shrilled above him. Marc could hardly believe his ears.
He had always known that, as long as he lived, he would never see a more horrible looking woman than Miss Quirtt, but now, as he looked up, he was dismayed to find that even she, this time a prickly nightmare in pin curlers, had surpassed herself for sheer frightfulness. And just to complete the picture, there was a strange light in her pallid eyes, that he had never seen there before. The movie monsters would have to go a long way to match this, he thought.
"Nice of you to drop in," Miss Quirtt said, and her usual twangey voice had something else in it that was almost undefinable. "Might as well ask your girl friend in too."
From outside, Toffee was spared the alarming sight of Miss Quirtt, but the voice had already suggested to her what she might see, if the door were fully open. "I think I have to be running along," she said uncertainly. "Thanks."
"I think you'd better come in," Marc warned shakily. "She's got a gun."
Toffee peered around the edge of the door and her face went starkly white. Her nose had almost brushed against the business end of a pistol that was almost as formidable as Miss Quirtt, herself. Then, unaccountably, as though remembering a joke, Toffee suddenly smiled and stepped into the room. "Well, if you really insist ..." she said breezily.
Toffee's manner had an instant calming effect on Marc, and in the moment in which Miss Quirtt closed the door behind Toffee, he felt his sense of reality slowly returning. "Is this a joke, Miss Quirtt?" he demanded.
Miss Quirtt regarded him with a sidelong, hostile glance. "I'm not laughing, am I?" she shrilled.
"You'd sure like to have your hands on that again, wouldn't you?" she gloated, gesturing toward a shabby table in the corner. On it, looking like a diamond in the mud, rested Marc's brief case. He started automatically toward it, but stopped short as, from the corner of his eye, he saw the gun swerve quickly from Toffee to him.
"Don't be greedy," Miss Quirtt said amusedly.
"I can't get a million dollars together right away," Marc began feverishly, "but I'll...."
"Don't be silly," Miss Quirtt broke in, with a weird laugh. "I wouldn't give it to you for two million. And if you went to the cemetery, I hope you had a lovely time. I'm sorry that I couldn't make it."
"We saw your friend there," Marc said sourly, "but he got away."
"My friend?" Miss Quirtt's eyes rolled, and came dangerously close to crossing, in a futile attempt to express perplexity.
"Yes. The little fellow you sent; the one with the ferret face."
"That clicks," Toffee added helpfully.
Miss Quirtt looked at them unbelievingly. "I didn't send anyone out there," she said, her voice racing uphill, out of control. "I had no intention of going myself, either. That was just a touch of mystery to throw you off the track. I don't intend to give you that brief case at any price. Besides," she added thoughtfully, "I don't know any little ferrets that ... that click."
"I wonder who it was?" Toffee said, deeply absorbed in the question.
The strange, fanatic gleam suddenly burned more brightly in the horrible woman's eyes. "I'm going to ruin you, Marc Pillsworth!" she announced dramatically, her stringy voice rising to such a pitch that it caused one to wonder if she hadn't studied bird calls at one time or another. Then she added as an afterthought, "And I think I'll kill you, too."
"But why?" Marc and Toffee chorused.
Miss Quirtt's eyes rolled again, this time in a painful attempt at coyness. "You promise you won't tell?" she asked foolishly.
Marc and Toffee exchanged a glance that held a full hour's discussion on the woman's mental status.
"Of course not," Toffee said persuasively. "Your secret couldn't be in safer hands."
"Well," Miss Quirtt said, becoming incongruously chatty, considering the formidable weapon in her hand, "I'll tell you all about it. It's all part of a plan, and it's terribly clever. I'm sure you'll think so." She paused to smile at them like a five-year-old about to recite a poem before company. "I've been working for big firms for twenty years now ... and just working that's all. I've been watching my smug employers and their smug wives, going about their smug lives, never giving me a thought, for twenty years. Can you imagine what that can do to a sensitive woman, like me?" She turned pleading eyes on Toffee. "Has a boss ever made a pass at me?"
"No!" Toffee cried, catching the confessional spirit of the thing.
Miss Quirtt nodded approvingly. She seemed to like dramatic effect. "Has a boss' wife ever been jealous of me?" she screeched.
"No!" Toffee cried again, recognizing her cue.
"That's right," Miss Quirtt continued sadly, brushing a tear away from the end of her nose with the muzzle of the gun, then promptly leveling the weapon directly to Marc's heart. "They never have. So I decided to ruin the lot of them." She turned back to Marc. "You're not the first one," she said, beginning to brighten. "There have been many others. I used to work for Mr. Burke."
"The ... the Mr. Burke that committed suicide?" Marc faltered.
"That's right," Miss Quirtt answered proudly. "That was one of my most poetic projects. Mr. Burke found himself with a lot of worthless stock on his hands one morning, and simply jumped out the window. He died without ever knowing who had bought the stuff for him. We parted the best of friends. He left me one of my very finest references ... along with the suicide note."
"It did end well, didn't it?" Toffee put in blandly.
"Yes. It was just lovely," Miss Quirtt agreed. "Much better than the job I did on old Mr. Grant. He didn't leave me any reference at all, and I had to write it myself. How I hate forgery! Of course, it may not have been entirely his fault. After all, they did rush him something awful when they came to take him away to the asylum." A dreamy reminiscent look came into her eyes. "The job with Mr. Forbes was much better. He said some very nice things about me before he left for prison. I was the last one he said goodbye to."
Marc shuddered. "A very impressive career," he said, "but you can't get away with it this time. I know that it was you that stole my brief case."
"Yes," Miss Quirtt answered promptly. "And that's why I'm going to have to make corpses of you ... so you can't talk, you know. It's really not my way of doing things, but I suppose that everyone has to make exceptions occasionally." She turned to Toffee and smiled. "I'm sorry to have to put you out of the way, dear, but you understand, I'm sure."
"Oh, perfectly," Toffee said helpfully, returning the smile.
Marc was beginning to wonder just how many of them were crazy, and in what combination. Even Toffee was making less sense than usual.
"And if I do say so, myself," Toffee continued. "Marc and I will make lovely corpses."
"Oh, indeed you will!" Miss Quirtt agreed enthusiastically. "Some of the nicest I've ever seen. And you'll be the very first ones that I've made all by myself. I'll be very proud of you."
"That's nice to know," Toffee said, "but you're not going to use that gun are you?"
"It won't work," Toffee said simply. "You'd better think of something else."
Miss Quirtt looked at her suspiciously. "What do you mean, it won't work?"
"We hate to admit it, and we wouldn't to anyone else," Toffee said, "but Marc and I are a little odd in some ways. Guns don't faze us. In fact, there's very little that does. If you doubt me, shoot me, and see for yourself."
Marc's mouth started open in alarm, but closed again as Toffee winked at him.
Apparently Miss Quirtt was as open to suggestions as was Miss Ruby Marlow. "All right," she said agreeably, a shrewd look coming into her eyes. "Just stand over there."
Toffee followed her directions, and took her place before the wall, and near Marc, where Miss Quirtt could keep them both covered during the experiment. "Be sure you fire close up," she said. "I wouldn't want you to miss."
"Don't worry," Miss Quirtt said menacingly, leveling the gun at Toffee. "I won't." She squinted down the barrel, her eyes really crossing this time, and pressed the trigger.
There was a sudden flash of white light, and an explosion. A crack etched it's way crazily through the plaster just behind Toffee, but Toffee, herself, remained just as she had been, a composed, smiling figure in a scandalous black evening gown.
"You see?" she said. "You'll just have to think of something else."
Miss Quirtt stared at her, not seeming to be so much amazed as thoughtful. "I'll have to think this over," she said pensively. "I had my heart set on making corpses of you, ... being my first, and all, you know." She crossed to the door and locked it, keeping the key, then turned back to them apologetically. "I'm afraid I'll have to leave you for a while," she said. "I'll have to dream about this. I get all my best ideas in my dreams."
"I'll bet you do," Marc said flatly.
She regarded the crack in the wall for a moment. "The landlord's going to make an awful fuss about that. He's so narrow minded. What's a home, if you can't shoot it up a bit once in a while?" She turned to Toffee. "It's rude of me, I know, to leave you alone like this, but I simply have to get to sleep right away, to think of some way to rub you out, as they say. You won't mind?"
"Certainly not!" Toffee replied grandly. "Go right ahead!"
As the strange woman started in the direction of the bedroom, Marc turned amazedly to Toffee. "She's crazy as a loon," he whispered.
"Balmy as a night in June," Toffee hissed back.
Suddenly Miss Quirtt whirled about. "I heard that!" she shrieked. "I heard what you said!" She regarded Toffee regretfully. "And I thought you were such a nice, helpful girl, too. It makes me sad to know that you can't be trusted. Now I won't be able to enjoy having your corpse around, like I would have." She moved quickly to a closet, dragged out two straight jackets, and handed them to Marc and Toffee. "Put them on!" she commanded, brandishing her gun.
"They're perfectly lovely," Toffee said sarcastically, struggling into hers. "They remind me of nurse's uniforms. Where did you ever get them?"
"Oh, I have dozens of them," Miss Quirtt said proudly. "And they were all given to me. Every time I go for a vacation, when I leave, they give me one of those. I remember a lovely summer at Bellview. The one you have on reminds me of it."
A few minutes later, Miss Quirtt surveyed her trussed up guests from her bedroom door, and smiled with satisfaction. "I think the gags were a nice idea, too," she said. "You'll have to be quiet, anyway, if I'm to get any sleep." Then, closing the door, she sighed, "Oh, but you'll make such lovely corpses. And I can hardly wait to have some of my own."
Silently, Marc and Toffee, their mouths uncomfortably full of Miss Quirtt's more intimate garments, gazed at each other mournfully.
It would be supposed that the last minutes of one's life would seem to pass with a terrible swiftness, but to Marc, it seemed that the minutes of the last two hours had dragged like the third act of a bad play, and he was certainly convinced that the morning would see him a corpse. And the fact that his lifeless body would receive all the personal care and attention due it, as the victim of Miss Quirtt's first murder, didn't help his state of mind as one might have supposed. He was not surprised that Toffee, during the last five minutes or so, had begun to behave peculiarly.
She seemed to be acting on a definite pattern, for she had repeated her little routine three times now, and it had always been precisely the same. She would leave her chair, walk directly to the wall, stand facing it for a moment, and then bend over at the hips, as though looking at something on the floor. This done, she would look up at Marc and nod her head toward the spot which she had been watching.
At first, Marc merely thought that it was nice that Miss Quirtt had left their legs free, if exercise meant so much to Toffee, but then, slowly, he began to realize that perhaps the nodding meant that Toffee had discovered something and wished him to follow her.
Walking to the wall, he waited until Toffee began to bend forward, and followed her example. Once down, he gazed at the floor intently, but there didn't seem to be anything to see, except a dismal section of very ordinary flooring. He looked up questioningly, but Toffee motioned him back again. This time, he gave the floor his undivided attention. He was determined to discover what it was that she had been looking at, and wanted him to see. At least it would give him something to think about, besides becoming a dead body.
If Marc had seen Toffee remove herself from his side, to a position just behind him, he would probably have moved away from the wall like a flash, but since he did not, he remained just as he was, bent over, head to the wall, and perfectly motionless. Toffee couldn't have asked a more willing victim, or a more perfect target.
Slowly, as she brought her foot to Marc's unsuspecting posterior, a pained expression crept into her green eyes. She hesitated a moment, made a few practice kicks for aim, then swung her foot quickly behind her. Sure of her aim now, she closed her eyes tightly, and brought her foot forward with all the force of a sledge hammer.
There was a dreadful splitting sound as Marc's head struck the wall. As he dropped to the floor and rolled over, the blissful, foolish grin of unconsciousness was discernible even behind the gag. In the next second, the room had become deathly still.
As Marc closed the door to Gregory Reece's office, he saw Toffee waiting for him near the elevator, and scowled. Somehow, in the morning light, the black dress seemed to leave even more of her exposed than it had in the evening. Undaunted, Toffee smiled brightly at the sight of him.
"Did he like the advertising campaign?" she asked. "Are you going to get the account?"
Marc nodded wearily. "Yes," he said in a dead voice. "He was very enthusiastic."
"What did he say?"
"I don't know," Marc replied sourly. "I could barely hear him. My head was roaring like a lion cage at feeding time." He turned to her fretfully. "Was it absolutely necessary for you to drive my head half way through that wall? If that landlord's to be sore about that bullet hole, he'll fairly scream his head off at the chunk of plaster I knocked out."
"I had to be sure," Toffee explained logically. "I had to be sure you'd lose consciousness, so I could return to your subconscious until you woke up. It was the only way I could get out of that straight jacket. You know that."
"Well, you could have told me, so I could have braced myself," Marc argued unreasonably. "You nearly broke my neck."
"With a gag in my mouth?"
"No, I guess not," Marc admitted reluctantly. "But it seems that you could have tempered your blow a little, at least." He frowned as Toffee suddenly began to giggle. "What's so funny?"
"I was thinking of the desk sergeant, down at headquarters. When I materialized, I miscalculated a bit, and faded in right on top of his desk. He nearly had me locked up without even listening to what I had to say. I don't know when he looked more mixed up, then or later, when he got a load of Miss Quirtt in those curlers."
"Now that I've got the account," Marc sighed, "I wonder if it was all worth it."
"Of course it was," Toffee said. "I thought it was loads of fun!"
If Marc's eyes had really held the power that their expression suggested, the ceiling would certainly have been down around Toffee's flaming head without further delay. "Let's get a cup of coffee," he suggested helplessly. "My head's chiming like Big Ben at midnight."
"All right," Toffee agreed, reaching for the elevator button.
"No! Not that!" Marc yelled. "The way that young fiend in there operates that thing, I'd be lucky to get downstairs with the top of my head still on. Let's take the stairs."
As together, they started down the carpeted stairway, Marc became pensive. Even if the matter of the brief case had been settled, his trouble with Julie was still as bad as it had been the day before ... probably worse, for all he knew. Then too, there was the problem of Toffee. Matters certainly wouldn't improve with her around. His troubled conjecture came to an abrupt end at the sound of Toffee's anxious voice.
"Look out!" she cried. "Look out for that tear in the carpet!"
"What did you...." Whatever Marc was going to say, was lost for good, as the toe of his shoe slipped under the torn carpet, for in the next instant he was flying, head first, down the length of the stairs, steps flashing past his face like box cars on a fast freight. Down and down he fell, on and on, and then, looking away from the stairs for a brief moment, he could see that he was heading into a dense, black fog, that obscured the bottom of the stairway.
As he drew close to this fog, it seemed to reach toward him and swallow him up, and then he found that he was falling through a great, unknown region, that was devoid of all light. He wondered where the floor had gone.
When finally he came to rest, Marc couldn't calculate how long he had been falling; it seemed an endless period. Wonderingly, he sat up, and looked around him for some bit of light, some reassuring bit of brightness that would tell him he hadn't lost his sight. Even as he searched, however, the fog began to lift, becoming lighter and lighter, until there was nothing left of it except a soft blue mist. Immediately, his surroundings were familiar this time. The valley was just as comforting and lovely as he had remembered it.
"It hardly seems fair!" came Toffee's petulant voice, and turning, Marc discovered her standing just behind him.
"What hardly seems fair?" he asked, rising to his feet.
"That I only got to materialize for a single night this time. The way you bounce me in and out of your subconscious is a screaming crime. I suppose I'll have to sit around here for another eternity, just waiting for you to get into another scrape that you can't get yourself out of."
"That's right," Marc said, grinning at her affectionately. "Every time I find myself in a tight spot, I just say to myself, 'Well, Marc, old boy, it's time to drop in and pick up Toffee. Now, there's a girl that can really fix things up!'" He stopped speaking and smiled down at her wryly.
"I'll bet you do," she pouted. "You just use me. Men are all selfish dogs."
"And don't you love them!" said Marc.
Suddenly Toffee grinned. "I guess I do," she laughed. "I suppose I'm just sore because it always comes to an end so soon. It'll all be over in a minute now. Kiss me goodbye?"
"Naturally," said Marc, and took her tenderly into his arms.
After a long moment, he released her, and looked down to find that she was smiling up at him.
"And remember," she said. "Think of something off-color once in a while, so I'll have something to work on. Besides, it'll be good for you."
"I will," Marc laughed. "I'll think of you. That is, I'll think of you when Julie...." Suddenly his smile faded into an expression of deep concern. "Julie! She's still going to divorce me! You're walking out on me, this time, before everything's settled."
"No, I'm not," Toffee said. "Everything will be all right."
"I believe you want me to be divorced!"
"Nonsense!" Toffee replied seriously. "You two love each other, and I wouldn't have anything happen to that for the world. Julie just needed something to jar her out of her jealousy, and I think she's had it. When you get...."
Toffee's voice trailed off into the distance, and Marc looked down to find that his arms were empty. She had vanished into the mist, it seemed.
"Toffee! Toffee!" he called, but there was no answer, and, all of a sudden, he felt dreadfully alone. His sense of loss was deep and painful. Then the voice broke through the stillness.
"Run! Run!" it boomed, just as before, and also as before, it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. "Run! Run!" it repeated, more urgently this time.
Without questioning the reason, Marc began to run frantically, dodging this way and that, to avoid ... he didn't know what. Then, with horror, he realized that, in his confusion, he had run in the wrong direction, for the black fog was directly in front of him, reaching toward him. Marc turned, but too late. Already, it was shutting out the soft light of the valley.
"Run! Run!" the voice continued weirdly.
"In the runner, there was a tear, lady," a strange voice was saying, "and he musta caught his toe in it. Anyway, we found him at the foot of the stairs. That's all I know about it."
"Well, thank you very much for bringing him," Julie's voice answered. "I'm sure he'll be very grateful to you when he wakes up."
There followed the sound of retreating footsteps and a door closing. Marc kept his eyes closed, and listened, until he heard Julie returning. Slowly, he opened his eyes and was glad to find that he was propped up in a chair in his own living room.
"Well!" Julie exclaimed annoyedly, seeing that his eyes were open. "So you decided to wake up after all, did you? The men that just dragged you in here said that you'd fallen down a flight of stairs. What a laugh that is! Dead drunk, and out cold would be more like it!"
"But I did fall down," Marc protested feebly.
"It's a wonder they didn't come hauling that vile little redhead in with you!" Julie said icily. "Where did she collapse?"
"But you don't understand about her," Marc said desperately.
"Hah!" snorted Julie, and the laugh that followed the inelegant exclamation was frozen solid around the edges.
"But Julie," Marc pleaded wretchedly. "I...."
"There's a gentleman waiting to see you, ma'am," Marie, the maid, interrupted. "His name is Mr. Dembert."
"Send him in here," Julie said, a grim smile forming on her lips.
"If it's someone to see you," Marc said apologetically, starting to rise, "I'll just go to my room."
"Oh, no!" Julie cried. "This ought to be of great interest to you. I really wouldn't want you to miss it."
"Very well," he said apprehensively, sinking back into the chair.
In a moment, Marie appeared again in the doorway. "Mr. Dembert, ma'am," she announced, and swiftly disappeared.
Marc's eyes moved listlessly to the doorway, and then, suddenly froze on the man that stood there. It was the ferret-faced little fellow from the Loma Club and the cemetery. Marc flinched at the memory of the clicking sounds, and the man's mysterious behavior. Then, he was aware that Julie was watching him.
"I want you to know Mr. Dembert, Marc," she said smoothly. "He's from the Regal Detective Agency, and he had the pleasure of following you all last evening ... if you can call it a pleasure. From what he told me over the telephone this morning, it must have been some night. He tells me that he even had to save you from a thug once—for the divorce courts, of course."
"A private detective?" Marc asked bewilderedly.
"I knew you'd be interested," Julie said with amusement, and then turned to the odd little man who had remained in the doorway. "Come in, come in," she called graciously. "I hope you brought the pictures?"
"Yes, I did," the fellow squeaked. "I picked them up only a moment ago and rushed them right over, without taking time to look at them myself." He moved with a mouse-like quickness across the room, and deposited an envelope in Julie's eager hand. "They're all there ... the night club, the cemetery, the drug store, and the apartment house. You can see the address plainly on that last one, I think. I was right in front when I took it."
"Thank you," Julie said, turning to smile viciously at Marc. "Mr. Dembert photographed you and that redheaded trollop, dear, everywhere you went last night. The results ought to be mighty interesting to the judge."
Marc winced, as he saw Julie open the envelope and draw out the pictures. He closed his eyes tight. He couldn't bear to see what was going to happen when Julie saw them. There would never, on earth, be a way to explain them. It seemed that the room remained quiet for an eternity until Julie's voice unexpectedly cut through the stillness like a knife.
"Get out!" she screamed. "Get out of this house, and don't you ever try to set foot in it again! If you do, I'll have you thrown out! You ... you ... you dirty, lying, double-dealing cheat!"
Marc, sincerely wishing that he had done so earlier, rose slowly to his feet and moved in the direction of the door, without even bothering to open his eyes. Then, thinking that Julie must be behind him by now, he opened them and suddenly stopped short. Mr. Dembert, more mouse-like than ever, was scurrying toward the door in a fit of terror. Quickly, he skidded around the corner, and was out of sight. A split second later, the slam of the front door announced his final departure.
"But, what ..." Marc stammered, turning to Julie.
As if he hadn't had enough surprises, he was suddenly presented with one more, that was even more confounding than any of the others. Julie's expression, as she came toward him, was one of absolute contriteness.
"Oh, Marc!" she cried. "Can you ever forgive me? I might have known you weren't out with that woman. The minute I got outside your office, last night, I knew I'd made a fool of myself, but I had to be sure. That's why I hired the detective. And when I thought you'd gone out with that redhead...." A flame of anger flickered briefly in her eyes. "And to think I let that little rat take me in with his phoney reports!" Again, she turned pleadingly to Marc. "Please say you'll forgive me?"
Marc stared at her, aghast, for a moment, wondering if he'd finally lost his mind, then his gaze darted to the scattered pile of photographs. Quickly he crossed over and picked them up, looked at them, and then, dropped them disdainfully to the floor.
"I'll think it over," he said severely, turning to Julie. "I don't know if I'll forgive you or not. You behaved very badly, I think. I'm going to my room to think about it, and I'll let you know my decision in exactly half an hour."
With that, he turned and strode majestically out of the room. Reaching the hallway, out of Julie's sight, he suddenly stopped and the grin that broke across his face, teetered dangerously on the edge of hearty laughter.
"I might have known, all along, that Toffee wouldn't photograph," he murmured. Then, he shook his head wonderingly and continued to his room.
It would be nice, he thought, just having lunch ... in his own home ... with his own wife.
 Reference is made to a previous adventure of Toffee and Marc Pillsworth, which appeared in the January issue under the title: "I'll Dream of You."—Ed.