originally appeared in the may-june 1947 through sept-oct 1947 issues of the magazine of excitement and illumination
part one of three
bud bradley watched through the glass dome of spaceport 3-a as the mission to arcturus blasted off.
gosh darn it! he wished he was on it.
but it was the explorer corps that was manning the ships to arcturus.
and bud was in the defense corps - charged with defending earth against any invaders who might show up from the depths of space.
the invaders who never showed up.
year after year the explorer corps blasted off with the cheers of billions ringing in their ears, earning glory and honors as earth's empire increased in size and scope.
and year after year the defense corps stayed on earth. training, training, eternally training - for the so far non-existent invaders.
how many times had bud and the other fellows in his outfit read the accounts in the official and unofficial history books, and watched the grainy old films showing the congressional hearings back in the 1950's in which it had been decided that the two separate space corps should be established.
it had seemed like a good idea at the time.
professor mordred, the most respected scientist on earth, had testified that it was a certainty that there were intelligent beings in other solar systems and galaxies. and that it was a virtual certainty that some of them would take notice when humans began probing outer space.
and that they probably would regard the earthlings as a threat.
and seek to eliminate them before they got too far into space.
therefore it was imperative that a strong space defense corps be established, and that the boldest and bravest and truest humans be encouraged to join it.
bud's dad and older brother jud had been among the first to rally to the new green white and blue colors of the defense corps.
twenty years had gone by. earth had become one nation under the guiding hand of the space exploration commission, which had brought peace and freedom and justice to the world.
there had been no more war. only peaceful cooperation among all the peoples of the earth in the great enterprise of exploring and colonizing space.
bud's dad, colonel buck bradley, had finally retired without ever firing a shot at an alien. he had been promoted to the rank of general before being eased out, but it was small consolation.
of course when buck had retired he had said all the right things - the same things jud and bud and all the other fellows were taught to say whenever the subject came up - with civilians and especially journalists - that they sure were glad there was peace, because even though they were ready any time, nobody wanted war, blah, blah.
that's what they were taught to say.
but they wanted to see some action, gosh darn it!
here it was almost 1980, and still not an invader in sight!
the last glimmer of blast fumes from the ship to arcturus vanished into the summer air outside the spaceport.
a green light came on over the door to the launching pad. this was a signal from the ship that take off had gone with 100% smoothness and that they were safely on their way to arcturus.
a cheer broke out from the crowd.
bud joined in, along with the man he was accompanying, colonel hank moresby.
colonel moresby, who had the title, for what it was worth, of operations officer of the defense corps, was attending as the representative of the corps, and bud was his assistant.
assistant operations officer of the whole defense corps - it sure sounded swell, all right !
when the cheering subsided, colonel moresby took a deep breath and looked around. he tried not to be too obvious about it but his eyes roamed over toward the spaceport bar.
the slight twitching of his graying mustache under his red nose signaled that he hadn't had his first drink of the day.
the bradleys and the moresbys had crossed swords in the war between the states, the bradleys with the blue and the moresbys with the gray. bud respected colonel moresby as a fine officer. but the long inactivity was getting to everybody, he understood that.
"well." the colonel cleared his throat. "there's more than one way to celebrate this momentous occasion." he looked frankly over toward the bar. "oh, no."
bud and the colonel both saw her at the same time.
florinda farquharson, ace reporter for the spaceport sentinel.
of the pittsburgh and newport farquharsons.
with her trademark brown derby hat with the red feather in it.
and her old-fashioned three piece suit, which, bud had to admit, she filled out quite nicely.
and no doubt, her same stupid questions which she never seemed to tire of asking.
"i can take care of her, colonel, " said bud. "if you like," he quickly added.
"oh, please do, bud." the colonel started to move away. "please do."
but florinda was already upon them. "good afternoon, gentlemen," she smiled.
the colonel made a slight bow to her. "good afternoon to you, miss farquharson. it's always a pleasure to see you here on these historic occasions."
florinda affected to look around the inside dock area. most of the people who had been in attendance had already left, either to the bar or to the cabs and limousines lined up outside the port. "not so historic as all that, do you think? these things are getting are sort of old hat."
"exploring the universe and advancing the cause of humanity are never old hat, miss farquharson, " the colonel replied with a smile.
"really?" florinda smiled back. "but i didn't see the president here."
"i am sure president harrison had something important to attend to," the colonel answered.
"and no speaker grimsby? no professor wetherall? and - not to make light of you fine gentlemen, not even any general ormswell? poor sparky - he hardly had anyone to take a picture of."
"perhaps," bud told her, "the unblemished safety record of the space program and the explorer corps has given the public a feeling that little suspense is attached to these events. but that does not mark them as any less historic - or detract in any way from the heroism and dedication of all involved."
"by thunder, that's well said!" colonel moresby cried. "you see, miss farquharson, what a way with words my assistant has. i'll leave you with him, no doubt he will have even more fine things to say." he bowed to her again and turned to leave.
"very well. if you happen to see sparky in - the refreshment area, colonel, tell him i won't keep him waiting long."
"i will do that." the colonel left.
florinda watched him cross the now almost empty expanse to the bar. "poor man, i guess he didn't want to hear my exciting news."
"you have news, miss farquharson?" bud almost felt like yawning in her face. he was familiar with, and up to her tricks.
"indeed i do. news that just might knock your navy blue socks off."
"news? or some sort of rumors?"
"i suppose some people might classify them as rumors."
"rumors from - where, exactly? the senate? the committee of world safety?"
"oh, no. from an observatory. a scientific observatory in the south pole somewhere."
"i see." bud looked around. the dock area was now deserted. they were effectively alone.
"you remember my cousin antoine, don't you?"
"um - i'm not sure that i do."
"come on, bud, stop being such a big stuffed shirt like you don't even know me. you must have met him at roberta rowlandson's ball, last christmas."
"i'm sorry, florinda, i really don't think i do remember him." antoine? maybe that twerpy little guy with horn rimmed glasses and a green bow tie?
"well, whether you remember him or not, he has a pretty exciting story."
"really? exciting enough for anybody to pass on to president harrison or professor wetherell?'
"they might have." florinda lowered her voice. "that just might be why neither of them were here this afternoon."
"you don't say." bud had heard this sort of thing before - from florinda and other reporters. suddenly he had a craving for a big glass of tomato juice or carrot juice. and a good run around the spaceport.
he knew it was rude, but he glanced down at his two-way wrist watch.
bud was just important enough to have a little blue light on the face of his watch.
a little blue light that would shine if there were ever a confirmed invasion.
* Assistant Professor of Underappreciated Literature, Olney Community College; editor of “Say Hey to All the Mob for Me”: the Prison Letters of Horace P. Sternwall; the Olney Community College Press.
“Now you be good, darling,” said Auntie Margaret.
“I’ll be good, Auntie,” said Gwendolyn.
“Read a book, and be sure to go to bed by ten if I’m not back by then.”
“Oh, I doubt you’ll be back by ten, my dear,” said Serge.
“Not bloody likely,” said Pierre.
“Do mind your language, Pierre,” said Auntie Margaret.
“So sorry, my dear,” said Pierre.
“Would you like me to have Mortimer check on you, darling?” said Auntie Margaret.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Auntie,” said Gwendolyn.
“If you want anything to eat, just call room service.”
“We really should dash, dear Margaret,” said Serge. “Tommy Sullivan don’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Tommy Sullivan will wait quite as long as he has to,” said Auntie Margaret.
Serge shrugged. He never argued with Auntie Margaret, and neither did Pierre. No one ever argued with Auntie Margaret, and why would they? She was the most beautiful woman Gwendolyn had ever seen, and someday Gwendolyn hoped to be just like her.
Auntie bent down and put her face next to Gwendolyn’s, and made a brief kissing movement with her luscious red lips.
Then she straightened up and turned to Serge and Pierre, who were standing there by the open door, both of them smoking cigarettes.
“All right, you mugs,” she said. “Let’s blow.”
“Soyez sage, ma petite,” Pierre said to Gwendolyn.
“Je suis toujours ‘sage’!” said Gwendolyn.
“Indeed she is,” said Serge. “Do you want us to bring anything back for you, ma p’tite ange?”
“Nothing, thank you,” said Gwendolyn.
“Ciao, darling,” said Auntie.
“Ciao, Auntie Margaret,” said Gwendolyn.
The three of them filed out, Serge closed the door, and at last they were gone.
Gwendolyn waited five minutes, just to make sure they were clear of the lobby, then she took Auntie’s pink angora shawl off the dresser and Auntie’s pink leather purse and Jane Eyre and went out the door herself.
“Well, hello, little missy,” said Mortimer the elevator operator.
“Hi, Mortimer,” said Gwendolyn. “Lobby, please.”
“Lobby it is,” he said. He closed the grill-work doors of the elevator, pulled his great lever, and the cage began its slow and jolting descent.
They were almost to the second floor when suddenly Mortimer pulled his lever again and stopped the elevator with a jolt, but then he always stopped it with a jolt, just not usually between floors.
“Hey, wait a minute, missy,” he said. “Your Aunt Margaret just told me to keep an eye on you, and to make sure you didn’t get into any mischief.”
“I’m only going down to the lobby to read my book.” She held up the book for him to see. “See? Jane Eyre. Did you ever read it?”
“No, I gotta say I never did,” said Mortimer. “I did however see the movie with Mr. Orson Welles and Miss Joan Fontaine.”
“The book is ever so much better.”
“I don’t really have much time for reading books,” said Mortimer.
“You should read it, Mortimer. It’s ever so good.”
“Well, maybe someday,” he said.
“Can you please start the car again now and take me down?”
“Ah, gee, missy, I told your aunt –”
“She told me I could go down to the lobby.”
“Yes. Girl Scout’s honor.”
“Well, okay, then. You promise you won’t run out onto the avenue or nothing?”
“Why ever would I want to run out into the avenue?”
“How do I know? I don’t know what little girls like to do.”
“I’m not a little girl. I’m twelve. Now start the car please. I’m becoming quite claustrophobic standing here.”
“Oh, all right. But just promise me you’ll stay in the lobby.”
“I promise, Mortimer.”
“Well, all right then.”
He pulled his lever once again and the car lurched and started again to descend.
Men, thought Gwendolyn. They really were just puppets to be bent to a woman’s will, just as Auntie Margaret said.
Once out in the lobby Gwendolyn immediately went over to where old Mr. Blythe sat in his usual place at one end of the faded old divan, next to the enormous rubber plant, which, like Mr. Blythe, seemed perpetually on the verge of death.
“Hello, Mr. Blythe,” she said.
“Hello, Gertrude,” said Mr. Blythe.
“Gwendolyn,” said Gwendolyn.
“Gwendolyn, yes,” said Mr. Blythe. “How are you, my dear?”
“Very well, thank you. How are you, Mr. Blythe?’
Mr. Blythe paused before answering. He paused so long that Gwendolyn started to wonder if he was going to reply to her polite question at all.
But finally he spoke.
“I am not in pain. And I’m still alive. At my age this is the best one can hope for.”
“Would you mind if I sat next to you and read my book?”
“Not at all, my dear.”
Gwendolyn climbed onto the divan next to Mr. Blythe, to his right. On the small table to Mr. Blythe’s left was a glass half full of Mr. Blythe’s usual sherry and a cut-glass ashtray in which sat his usual rather large Cuban cigar, one-third smoked.
“I can read aloud for you if you like, Mr. Blythe,” said Gwendolyn.
“No, that’s all right, thank you very much, Gertrude.”
He went into one of his long pauses, or maybe it wasn’t a pause, maybe he had said all he was going to say for the time being.
She had just opened her book to her place though when he did speak.
“I’ve read so many books you see, Gertrude. Thousands of books. They teem and swirl about in my brain, mixed in with all the thousands of people I’ve met, the millions of moments I’ve lived. All of it. All of it. It almost seems redundant to read at this point in my life.”
He reached over and picked up his cigar. He put it into his dry old lips and drew on it. A bit of ash fell onto his suit, but he didn’t seem to notice, or if he noticed he didn’t seem to care.
Soon, Gwendolyn knew, he would fall asleep, and that was when she would make her move.
She had lifted a five-spot the last time, and a tenner the time before. Tonight with any luck she would find a double sawbuck in his wallet, or, failing that, in his vest pocket, or one of the side pockets of his suit coat. The old fellow was always practically bristling with greenbacks, and he obviously had more of them than he knew what to do with.
Auntie Margaret always told her a girl had to look out for herself.
pull yourself together, man, george paul wilson exhorted himself sternly, after stan slade had left. are you a man or a mouse? there is nothing to fear but fear itself. don't let the bastards get you down. there is no sense bailing out a boat that isn't leaking.
at times of stress george paul liked to fall back on the old wisdom, as he had been taught to do by his aunt aphrodite, who had trained him since childhood to be a magician and later a jewel thief. when decisive action was required, original thought was only a distraction.
but what was decisive action?
waiting in his room for frisco johnny ramirez to come and cut his throat?
that is, assuming that frisco johnny was actually within a thousand miles of the venerable hotel st crispian, and that slade's "rumor" was not an all too crude ploy by slade to drive george paul out of the safety of his room.
should he go down to the lounge? the prince room, or whatever they called it. george only drank in moderation, and when the exigencies of social amenities seemed to call for it. the last thing he needed right now was to addle his wits with liquor.
the poker game in room 712 actually intrigued him. under more relaxed circumstances george paul would have been happy to join it. he prided himself on being a pretty good player, and even more so, as a result of his training as a magician, on his ability to quickly spot any kind of cheating and double dealing - a talent which itself could often be quite remunerative.
he looked out the window. the snow was starting to come down harder.
leaving the hotel and just going to a show or a movie was not completely out of the question, but not very enticing.
george paul decided to go down to the lounge. he would have just one drink. if he wanted to stay longer he could just drink soda or even have a cup of coffee.
he had come to a decision. he felt better already.
room 712 was larger than most - actually a small suite - and had a large table which was suitable for card games. whether the table had been deliberately put there for that purpose at some time in the hotel's history no one really knew, but enterprising employees like jake had been making use of it when it was available - usually on middle of the week nights - since "forever".
jake, changed out of his bellhop uniform, sat at the table riffling the cards. the only other players who had shown up so far were mortimer and "farmer" brown.
the farmer rubbed his hands together. "might as well get started, don't you think? it's always better to have a game in progress if someone comes by and they're not sure if they want to get in." the farmer was always the first person to show up for the game and he made this same observation at every game.
"sure." they each anted a quarter and jake dealt them each two cards down and one up. it was understood that the game was seven stud unless otherwise specified.
jake preferred seven stud but did not run the game with an iron hand. if a high rolling guest - or almost any guest - wanted something else he obliged. he didn't really mind draw or five stud but hated wild card games like baseball which he regarded as little kids' games. and sometimes guests from west of the mississippi like to play with the joker and he obliged them with that.
jake himself never cheated. the slightest whiff of a reputation for a crooked game was the kiss of death, and besides, he would not have been very good at it.
mort had a queen showing, and jake and the farmer both had sixes.
before jake could look at his hole cards there was a knock on the door.
mortimer got up and opened the door. it was a man he had never seen before, a little guy with slicked back hair who looked like he might be british or european.
mortimer glanced over at jake, who had turned to face the newcomer.
"i was told there might be a game of chance here. by the bellhop. a colored fellow." the man had a slight british accent.
"sure, come in," jake told him. "there's a bar over there, make yourself a drink."
the man hesitated. "the drinks are free?"
"just the first one," jake told him. he was completely serious. the drinks were how he hoped to make money, even if he lost. he didn't cut the pot.
there was another knock. mortimer opened the door again. it was stan.
"well," said the farmer. "no use continuing here until you fellows are ready." he had a jack and a three - and no two cards the same suit - to go with his six. he tossed his three cards in the center of the table.
jake wasn't going to start the night off arguing with him. he glanced at his own cards before tossing them - three clubs, including the ace.
mortimer sat down and looked at his cards before throwing them in - another queen to go with the one showing, and an ace.
george paul pushed open the door to the prince hal room.
just one drink. he was looking forward to it.
the bartender was at the other end of the bar with his back to george paul.
george paul started to sit down on a stool at the bar.
there at the end of the bar, half turned away from george paul, talking to a young blonde woman who looked like she might be a society girl -
or she might have been a waitress or a student at n y u -
george paul's brain spun - what did he care who or what the girl was ? -
it was who and what the man was -
frisco johnny ramirez!
george paul took a deep breath and got up and not too fast, not too slow, walked out of the prince hal room.
he pressed the button for the elevator. with no one in sight he discreetly patted his inside breast pocket, feeling the envelope with the combination to mlle cazotte's safe.
"first time in new york, mister prentice?" farmer brown asked the man with the slight british accent.
"not the first time, no," the man answered politely, but with no indication he was going to expand on his answer. he had introduced himself as albert prentice, a dealer in english biscuits, who was attempting to introduce that ancient and honorable product to a heretofore indifferent american public.
but his name was not really albert prentice. it was really hector mountjoy, and he was known to the police of seven continents as one of the world's foremost and most audacious pickpockets. interpol and the paris surete ranked him as high as number three in the world.
there was another knock on the door.
it was george paul, and after jake let him in, he took a seat at the table directly opposite stan, and to the left of hector mountjoy.
george paul began to breathe a little easier as the night progressed. frisco johnny had not joined the game, but tommy sullivan and one of his boys had.
olaf had come by and played briefly, but had made way for tommy sullivan and gone home. collins had also come by but there had been no room for him and he thought the game looked a little steep for him so he decided not to wait for an opening and went away too.
the farmer, after losing a few hands, had decided the game was a bit too rich for his blood too, and departed with profuse apologies to all.
jake, mortimer, george paul, hector mountjoy aka "albert prentice", tommy sullivan and his boy, and stan were now elbow to elbow around the table.
jake wished mort would go home so a seat would be open if someone else showed up, but mort had slowly built up some modest winnings and was showing no sign of going anywhere.
george paul won a nice pot. as he raked it in, he felt almost euphoric.
suddenly it hit him. what if frisco johnny was waiting for him - back in his room!
hector mountjoy had felt nervousness coming off of george paul like radioactivity all evening.
the chap must have something on him worth lifting. it was time to step up and play the game.
tommy's boy had been losing, and whining, all night.
"this table stakes is for little girls. let's play pot limit."
"that would be a great idea," jake told him. "if we had a bank in the hotel." the punk was getting on his nerves.
"yeah, and if it was open all night," stan added.
"excuses, excuses. you guys just don't want to play. if you don't have the money, you shouldn't play."
"eddie, stuff it," tommy told him.
there was about a thousand dollars in the pot. eddie, hector mountjoy and stan were in for the last card, down and dirty. hector, high with a pair of nines , checked.
stan had nothing showing. he bet what he had in front of him - about nineteen hundred dollars. hector folded immediately.
eddie took his time. he lit a cigarette.
he counted the money in front of him. he had a little over seventeen hundred. as soon as he finished counting it he looked at stan.
"call." he put his money in the center of the table.
jake started to count stan's bet and eddie's bet .
stan threw his cards away. "you win, kid, i got nothing."
jake stopped counting. "you're about two hundred short," he told eddie.
eddie smiled. "give him two hundred back."
stan stood up. "thank you," he told eddie. he took the two hundred from jake and left.
"the night is young," tommy sullivan announced, as the door closed behind stan. "plenty of time for some of us unlucky bastards to get even."
george paul had been slightly flummoxed by all this. then he realized what stan was doing.
ha, ha! just to have an excuse to get out of the game - not that he could not just leave a big winner if he wanted to - he had thrown all his winnings away so he could sneak away and get into george paul's room. while george paul was '"trapped" giving tommy and the englishman a chance to win their money back.
ha, ha! brilliant move, slade!
because the combination to mlle cazotte's safe was not in the room, but safe in george paul's inside pocket.
ha, ha! he had always thought slade was an idiot - just a glorified pretty boy. now he knew it.
it was with some trepidation that george paul made his way back to his room after the game finally broke up. he had tried to think of some reason to ask jake to accompany him but could not think of one.
he had finally ended up winning about four hundred dollars. not bad, if he could get through the night alive.
he switched on the light. he knew right away the room was empty, but he checked the closets and the bathroom anyway.
whew! now, with no one watching, he reached into his inside pocket.
the envelope was gone.
he fought off panic. had slade gotten it? there was no way!
and of course he could still remember the combination. the paper was just a safety measure, a fallback.
he could remember it.
the snow had let up some, but was still coming down.
stan, jake and mortimer were the only customers at the all night automat beside the hotel.
the young woman at the change counter was reading "the custom of the country" by edith wharton, and paying them no mind.
stan brushed aside jake's and mort's commiserations. "it's called gambling, boys. if the kid folds, i'm good a grand. if he calls, i'm out of the game, which is what i wanted anyway." he took a sip of his coffee. he didn't mention his visit to george paul's room. or its unsatisfactory result.
jake shook his head. "if you say so, stan."
mortimer stood up. "i got to go. i wouldn't want mom to make my breakfast and me not be there to eat it."
"don't spend all that dough in one place," jake told him.
mort had ended up winning eighteen dollars.
jake had lost seventy-four dollars in the game, but made fifty back on the drinks, and eddie, who had been the big winner, had tipped him twenty dollars.
hector mountjoy had felt pleased with himself when he got back to his room on the third floor. true, he had lost a little over a hundred dollars - which he could afford. but he had proven to himself that he had not lost his touch at the most delicate operations by getting the envelope out of the coat pocket of the nervous chap.
he took the envelope and carefully opened it. which was not difficult, as it was not sealed.
it was empty.
surely there had been something in it. had he somehow dislodged it himself?
suddenly he was not so pleased with himself.
was he getting old?
in her six months of employment at the hotel, harriet had had to clean some smoky rooms, but this was one of the worst.
back on her home island, people liked to smoke a little gage once in a while, but not so much tobacco. and the tobacco they did smoke, though strong, was cleaner than the tobacco in american cigarettes.
even though it was still dark, and snowing a bit, she opened the windows wide to let some air in.
jake and mortimer had made a half hearted attempt to straighten the room out, but it was still a mess.
she noticed a small piece of stiff paper under the table, almost under her foot and picked it up.
there were some numbers written on it. too many numbers to be a telephone number. harriet decided to play the last three numbers - 364 - with the man on the corner on her way home.
she put the piece of paper down on the table.
wind was starting to come through the window with a little snow. but the room was still kind of nasty and she decided to leave the window open a little longer.
the wind picked up the piece of paper and blew it out the window, into the snowy night.