TABLE OF CONTENTS
When he came back to his hotel, Terry Bradford found a note awaiting him. The young lady at Lawyer Starrett’s office had a message for him from New York — would he please come and get it?
Terry had spent the entire morning in Starrett’s office, and he remembered the young lady … quite an attractive number. He went there at once.
Even as he turned the handle of the door, a queer premonition held him. It was after two of a warm Saturday afternoon in August, and the entire building seemed empty. The elevator was not running; he had had to walk upstairs. He surmised that the message was from his chief, Lije Prentice, President of Mammoth Oil, and might be important.
Finally he decided that the straw of the last few days had made him a bit nervous. A lot of people would have been immediately amused by that idea, people who had seen the black-haired thunderbolt in action. Whenever there was trouble, the Mammoth Oil Company called for, its general utility man, its Mr. Fixem, Terry Bradford.
Nevertheless he opened the door cautiously and peered in. It occurred to him that the message might have been left on Starrett’s desk in his private office, the door of which was closed. Suddenly impatient with himself, Terry strode across the long room and threw the door open.
A masculine falsetto called, “Come in, sweetie — pie!”
He sprang back and reached for the forty-five under his coat — and as quickly stopped. Suicide did not appeal to him.
THE PATENT ASSIGNMENT AND THE PLANS
There were two men in the small office, and the window-blind was down. Their guns pointed straight at him. One, who sat behind Starrett’s desk, was a big fellow with meaty shoulders and a moon-like face. His right ear was a cylinder; the hand which held the gun was huge. The other, standing against the wall, was dark, slender, immaculately dressed in a gray suit à la Broadway. There was a significant sureness about the way he held his weapon in a smooth brown hand.
The big fellow said jocularly, “Come in, Mr. Bradford, dew come in! The dame said to apologize for not keepin’ the appointment. Didn’t she, Harry?”
He seemed to be enjoying himself hugely.
Harry said unsmilingly, “Yeah!”
He closed the door behind Terry.
He said, “Hey, pull up that blind a few inches, Marty. It’s hot as hell in here!”
“Sure, sure!” Marty complied. “Terry ain’t gonna holler and disturb the neighbors, are you, Terry? He ain’t that dumb — from all I hear he’s a real smart guy!”
Without replying, Bradford seated himself close to the desk and watched them through alert gray eyes.
“See, he’s gonna be nice!” approved Marty. “Why the hell should he get hisself bumped off for some oil company that don’t give a damn about him? What does a good-lookin’ guy like him wanna get slugs through his belly for? He’s got too much sense. Don’t he look like any who’s got sense to you, Harry?”
“He’d better have!” said Harry.
Bradford said coolly, “I’d like to get my cigarettes out of my pocket, if it won’t make you bozos nervous.”
“He wants to smoke,” Marty commented. “Do you think it’s good for him to smoke, Harry?”
Harry seemed to consider. “No, better not. Cigarettes might stunt his growth.” His diction was better than Marty’s.
“In what reformatory did they preach that to you?” asked Bradford quizzically.
The big fellow laughed with great glee. “Say, he must know your family, Harry.” He scratched his nose with his gun-barrel, and Terry wished fervently that it would go off.
Harry commanded grimly, “Stand up, Bradford! Raise your hands–now turn around and face the wall.”
“You been a bad boy!” explained Marty. “Teacher is gonna punish you.”
For an instant Bradford toyed with the idea of a swift snatch at the little fellow’s gun, followed-by a blow to one of several vulnerable spots whose location he knew. But he abandoned it. For all his frivolity, the big fellow was alert, his gun steady. Reluctantly he raised his arms and turned about, tensing involuntarily for the blow that might come. But Harry only reached for the gun under Terry’s coat, and threw it on the desk in front of Marty.
With a bear-like left hand, Marty picked it up, opened the cylinder, and glanced at the lead noses of the cartridges reposing there. He snapped the gun shut. Bradford sat down again.
“Got two rods now!” Marty remarked. “I certainly could ruin you, Bradford, if you got me peeved. But you wouldn’t do that, would you? Get poor old Marty worked up in this hot weather? Just come across with that sketch and the — the — what do you call it?”
“Patent assignment,” suggested Harry. “No, we don’t want the assignment — he hasn’t got it anyhow–it’s the plans we want.”
“Yeah, them — and then we’ll all go in swimming! It’s too nice to stay in this office on a scorcher like this, or” — -his face suddenly became grim — “in a morgue.”
Harry added to that: “So bring out those things before we begin working on you, Bradford.”
“Now look here, you wise guys”–Bradford pretended to lose patience — “you’re talking screwy. What patent? What plans?”
“He’s callin’ us names,” chided Marty, “and us so nice to him — thinkin’ he’s a right guy. Should we slug him first and then search him, Harry, or visey-voisey?”
“Marty isn’t fooling,” admonished Harry. “He’s a good-natured guy, but when he’s crossed he gets mad — and the next thing you know, there you are in an undertaker’s back room, giving work to unemployed embalmers!”
“He looks tough,” admitted Terry mildly.
“I’m no angel myself, but Marty’s got no heart at all. Don’t be a sap, Terry — there are other jobs but you’ve got only one life. Come across with the plans — I happen to know you mailed the patent assignment.”
Bradford understood. If they got the plans, whoever was behind them would manufacture a similar gadget, and take a chance on fighting it out with the Mammoth on an infringement suit.
“Those plans,” Bradford stated, “were mailed to Mr. Elijah Prentice in New York.”
“Quit trying to kid us!” Harry’s smile was complacent. “This morning you got the plans and the patent assignment from Bruce Kingsberg’s lawyer, right here in this office, and you gave him a check for two hundred and fifty grand. Then you called old man Prentice and he told you to mail the assignment, but bring in the plans yourself. Now do I know what I’m talking about? Come across and stay healthy, Bradford — I’m speaking to you like a pal.”
Marty commented admiringly, “Ain’t he got the gift of gab, Bradford? I always tell him he shoulda been a mouthpiece. You kin see he’s dead right, can’t you? He’s talkin’ for your good, sweetie — pie.”
“How would you like to go to hell?” Bradford was irritable. “You’d make a swell comedian — up the river.”
“I was there!” bragged Marty pridefully. “I played on the football team — right guard. I was good, too! Ask anybody.”
They were certainly well-informed; Bradford wondered where they had obtained such accurate information. A leak somewhere. Arranging the trap in the very office where he had consummated the deal that morning was fast work. And neither of these two looked as though he had any more conscience than a weasel, and no more aversion to killing.
There was no doubt in Terry’s mind that McMahon of the Benton Motor Company was their employer. The stake was a huge one, and McMahon was not one to be deterred by scruples. Those patent rights and the plans had cost Terry’s company a quarter of a million dollars, but they were worth millions. He remembered how it had all come about.
Some weeks earlier, a letter had come to the New York office of the Mammoth Oil Company signed by one Bruce Kingsberg, of Springfield, Massachusetts. In it the writer stated that he had perfected and patented an invention which would enable automobiles to travel two hundred miles on one gallon of gas.
It was turned over to the company’s representative in Springfield, with instructions to interview the writer and report immediately. In a short time the reply came that Kingsberg’s invention seemed capable of doing just what he claimed. Also, and what was more serious, that the inventor had also written the Benton Motor Company for a bid.
At once Bradford was dispatched to Springfield with a skilled engineer. The engineer confirmed the report already received, and the matter was then referred to Elijah Prentice.
That invention might mean the loss of millions annually to the oil company; the laying off of thousands of men; general ruin and havoc in the industry. Kingsberg’s contrivance could be used not only in automobiles, but in any type of gasoline-driven motor. It would curtail the use of gasoline fifty to sixty per cent.
So Bradford was sent back to Springfield with a blank check. And just about the time he was through negotiating with Kingsberg, the Benton Motor Company descended on Springfield like a wolf on the fold. The Benton’s interests lay on the other side of the fence from the Mammoth. With this patent, every car sold would have to pay a royalty to the Benton Company. A contrivance that would enable a Benton car to run two hundred miles on one gallon of gas was worth anything the inventor asked.
The Benton Company’s representative quickly persuaded Kingsberg’s lawyer that his client was not being paid enough for so valuable a patent. The lawyer advised Kingsberg to break his agreement to sell to Mammoth. But Kingsberg, a Canadian, happened to be the sort of man who believed in the sanctity of a promise, written or verbal. To him the price he had agreed to accept was ample. Disregarding his lawyer, he went through with the deal and sold out to Mammoth.
Right up to the last minute, all kinds of pressure had been exerted on Kingsberg by the Benton Company’s representatives … even threats of violence. But these only made the Canadian more resolute. And so that morning the final papers had been signed and executed in the office of Kingsberg’s lawyer, and delivered to Bradford in exchange for the firm’s check.
Old Elijah Prentice had told Bradford over the telephone substantially what Harry had quoted: “Mail in all the papers, including the patent assignment, Terry — everything but the plans. Those are too valuable to be sent by mail — bring them in yourself. And watch your step. McMahon wouldn’t stop at murder to get them.”
Bradford had promised grimly, “I’ll bring them in, Chief — don’t lose any sleep worrying.”
It seemed safer to go home by train; Bradford had decided that in a car there would be the risk of a holdup or an accident.
A DESPERATE PLAN
Well, he just hadn’t been careful enough. It looked very much as though curtains would shortly be rung down on the exciting career of one Terry Bradford, trouble-shooter for the Mammoth Oil Company. But if he felt any fear, he didn’t show it.
“So you got the information that I’m carrying those plans back myself?” His laugh derided them. “You really think they’d trust them to me, instead of to the United States mail? Old Lijah foxed you, that’s all — and you fell for it. Those papers are all In the mail. You’ re barking up the wrong tree.”
The man called Marty turned a questioning look on his accomplice. But Harry shook his head.
“He’s lying, Marty. I’m going through him. If he hasn’t them on him, he knows where they are … We may have to get rough with this baby. Here, you, stand up and turn around.”
“Sure, sure!” Bradford stood up and stretched his arms. “I suppose getting rough with me is going to get you the sketch, isn’t it?”
“Shut up!” ordered Harry without heat. He went through Bradford carefully, even forcing him to remove his hat and shoes.
Then, “Take your coat off,” he directed, and Bradford obeyed. With two swift rips, Harry tore the lining away from the inside.
Bradford said bitterly, “That suit cost me fifty bucks, you heel!”
He was facing Harry again.
“Heel, am I?”
Harry was suddenly enraged. His upper lips drew back from his teeth, fang-like. “Gabby guy, aren’t you? They’ve been telling you you’re tough until you got to believe it. Well —
“Swing your toe into the seat of his pants!” advised Marty.
“Hell with that!” crackled Harry. “Let’s quit fooling around: Where are those papers, wise guy?”
His gun-barrel dug savagely into Bradford’s stomach. Death glinted in the dark depths of his blazing eyes.
Marty said ominously, “Better talk quick, teller!”
He had Bradford’s gun on his lap; his own pointed at Bradford’s heart. “It’s easier to frisk a stiff than a live one.”
A lethal silence hung in the close, heated air. From the street below came the sound of traffic; the August sun drove hot rays through the cracks in the shade and whitened the window-sill beneath it.
A plan took tenuous form in his mind … a desperate plan, with all the odds against success. But he decided it was worth a try. If it failed he wouldn’t be there to worry over it.
He said with apparent reluctance, “All right, you win. The plans are in my grip at the hotel. I was coming back for them in time to make the four-ten train to New York.”
“At the Brunswick? That where you left it? In your room?” Harry jabbed him again.
“What’s your number? Where’s your key?”
“Room number 565. I left my key with the hotel clerk.”
Marty said, “Aw, you don’t need his key,” and pulled out what looked like a cylinder with a buttomhook attached.
“Here, Harry, you know how to use this can-opener, don’tcha? I’ll keep this mug here till you come back!”
His light blue eyes had begun to redden.
“If those papers ain’t there, I’m going to blow your head off, teller! I feel like doin’ it anyhow! You got a nerve callin’ Harry a heel!”
Harry said, “I’ll be right back!” and went out.
All the false jocularity had disappeared from the gunman’s face. His eyes held no more mercy than those of a hungry tiger.
“Turn around! Sit down!” he snarled. “Unless you want to go for me! Come on, try it! I heard you was tough. Where’s your guts?”
Only one man to tackle, now, thought Bradford. Swiftly his mind revolved and discarded one expedient after another.
He said with his disarming smile, “All right; I know when I’m licked. I’m no glutton for punishment. You’re on top and you’re getting what you’re after. What the hell more do you want? Give me a cigarette.’
Marty threw over a cigarette with his left hand.
“If we get it …”
His tone was significant. “If we don’t … well, they’ll find you here on Monday, but you won’t look so nice.”
Bradford demanded, “What’s McMahon paying you for, to bump me off or to get that sketch? Will he take the rap for you when it comes time for you to burn!”
He loosened his collar and tie; it was hot.
“Hell, you shoot your mouth off too much!”
But now there was less rage and more amusement in the crook’s voice.
“Don’t worry about what we’re gettin’. He’s payin’ us enough. We ain’t no pikers, Harry and me.”
There could be no further doubt of the intentions of these two men. They meant to kill him as soon as they had the plans.
Marty had admitted that McMahon was paying them because, reasoned Bradford, there could be no harm in making such an admission to a man who would not be alive to tell tales.
“You go clear if you give up those plans,” offered Marty. “All we want is to get them, give them to McMahon and get our dough.”
Bradford knew he had to act quickly. The Brunswick Hotel was only three blocks away, and Harry would be back any minute. He would come back with empty hands, because the papers were not in his grip. Bradford visualized the paroxysms of rage and the swift finish — with himself as the victim.
“Listen, Marty,” he began quietly, “I want to give you a friendly tip. You remember calling on Kingsberg, the inventor, and threatening him? It was you, wasn’t it? Sure! He’ll be able to identify you if anything happens to me. There’s nothing against you in this transaction yet–at least nothing but threatening Kingsberg, and that don’t amount to much. But if you rub me out — “
Now the gunman was his jocular self once more, and as nasty as a fly in a bowl of soup. “S’pos’n I do? I ain’t sayin’ I will, but s’pos’n I do? How’ll they know it was I done it? There’s a lot of other guys would bump you off for less’n we’re gettin’. Who’d know Harry and I done it?”
Bradford puffed at his cigarette and reached across for the ashtray. He said scornfully, “First thing, Kingsberg would go through the picture gallery, and he’d have to be blind not to recognize you, having seen you at his house. Then again–have you ever heard of the science of ballistics? They’ll find that gun of yours and — “
Marty interrupted, “Jeeze, but you are a dope, ain’tcha? Why couldn’t I bury the gat somewhere — get rid of it? What kind of a sap do you take me for? Or — hell, I don’t even have to do that!”
He put his gun down and picked up Terry’s — the very thing Terry had been hoping he would do.
“How ‘bout my pluggin’ you with your own gun? Suicide! You was in love with some gal here in town, maybe — and she give you a standup and you committed suicide!” He chuckled self-approvingly. “Say, that’s a good one, too, ain’t it? You won’t be around to say it ain’t so!”
“Oh, hell, I suppose you got me!”
Terry rose dejectedly and put his hands into his pockets. The gun in Marty’s hand followed him, and Marty’s eyes were alert, his lips twisted into an amused sneer as though he suspected Terry intended to attack and was quite ready to let him commit self-destruction. Terry strolled forward a step.
At the corner of the desk, Terry turned and faced Marty. He began, “Listen, Marty …”
Then he threw himself forward in a fierce, lunging dive — one hundred and ninety pounds of mauling ferocity.
His fangs showing like a wolf’s, Marty pulled the trigger of Bradford’s gun. A futile pop resulted. Yelling hoarsely as Terry struck him, Marty dropped Terry’s revolver and tried to pick up his own. But now Terry’s fists smote him in the softness between chin and collarbone, and abruptly the big fellow went limp. To make doubly sure, Terry banged him over the head with his own forty-five, scooped up the other gun, and stepped away. Marty slid half off his chair, and Terry let him lay. The gunman was out cold.
His eyes on the door, Terry grabbed the telephone. In another moment he was speaking to the Springfield chief of police.
“Hiyuh, chief — this is Terry Bradford! I’m in Starrett’s office on Abington Street, suite 404. Got a prisoner for you — attempted murder and a couple of other things. His side kick is due here any minute … . What? Yes, I’m all right now, bu’ I wasn’t a little while ago. Say, I really ought to duck this bird that’s coming here … got no right to take chances with what I’m carrying … only I happen to be sore at him for ruining my coat.
“The fellow I have here is one of the two who threatened Kingsberg — remember? They tried to finish me off … . I just happened to be lucky. Hurry over here, Chief!”
He put down the instrument and ran out, closing the door of the inner office behind him. He raced through the outer office, into the hallway to the elevator shaft, and pressed the button several times. Then he remembered the elevator hadn’t been running when he came.
To his ears came the sound of footsteps climbing up the stairs. He went back into the outer office and stood to one side of the closed door.
A moment later the door opened almost noiselessly. He could see Harry’s form through the opaque glass. Harry carried a suitcase — Terry’s.
Silently Terry rose behind him. The butt of his revolver came down with a vicious swing over the gunman’s ear. Harry staggered sideways, his knees started to buckle. Then he folded up like an accordion. Terry let him fall. He straightened him out and went through the inert form with expert fingers, removing a gun and a blackjack. Opening the suitcase, he put Harry’s weapons into it. He stuck Marty’s gun into his own pocket … he might need it.
It was a quarter of three, still almost an hour and a half short of train time. He made up his mind he would spend that hour and a half in the police station. He had no right to take any more chances with those plans.
Then, smiling to himself, he drew out the cylinder of his own forty-five. All the cartridges were intact. And Kingsberg’s sketch, made on tissue thin onionskin paper, had been rammed into one of the cartridge cases — after it had been emptied of powder. That cartridge case had been one bullet removed from the firing-pin. Marty’s shot had been ineffective because when he pulled the trigger, the firing-pin had fallen on a paper-wadded cartridge.
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