Chapter XXVII. The Palace of Pleasure
 

Mr. Sammy Simpson was a character. He was tall and slim, certainly not less than fifty years of age, but with an evident desire to appear much younger. His face was cleanly shaven, and when he removed his hat to scratch his head I saw that he was nearly bald.

He was dressed in a light check suit and wore patent-leather shoes. I put him down as a dandy, but fond of drink, and that he proved to be.

"Whom do you work for now?" I asked.

"No one. To tell the truth, I'm down on my luck and I'm waiting for something to turn up."

"You say you worked for Holtzmann two years ago?"

"No, I said I worked for him two years. I only left last month."

"And he accused you of stealing?"

"Yes; but it was only to get rid of me because I knew too much of his private affairs."

"What do you know of his private affairs?"

Sammy Simpson rubbed his chin.

"Excuse me, but who am I talking to?" he asked abruptly.

"Never mind who I am. I am here to get all the information I can about Chris Holtzmann, and I'm willing to pay for it. Of course I'm not rich, but I've got a few dollars. If you can't help me I'll have to go elsewhere."

My plain speech startled Sammy Simpson.

"Hold up; don't get mad because I asked your name. You've a perfect right to keep it to yourself if you want to. Only make it sure to me that I'll get paid for what I tell and it will be all right."

I was perplexed. I had half a mind to mention Mr. Harrison's name, but if I did that, the man might expect altogether too much.

"I will promise you that you lose nothing," I said. "But we can't talk things over in the street. Tell me where I can meet you later on."

"Want to see Holtzmann first?"

"Yes."

"You won't get anything out of him, I'll wager you that."

"I don't expect to. I want to see what kind of a man he is."

"Well, you'll find me at 28 Hallock Street generally. If I'm not in, you can find out there where I've gone to."

"I'll remember it. In the meantime don't speak of this meeting to any one."

"Mum's the word," rejoined Sammy Simpson.

I went on my way deep in thought. I considered it a stroke of luck that I had fallen in with Chris Holtzmann's former clerk. No doubt the man knew much that would prove of value to me.

I doubted if this man was perfectly honest. I was satisfied that the concert-hall manager had had good grounds for discharging him. But it often "takes a rogue to catch a rogue," and I was willing to profit by any advantage that came to hand.

At length I reached the next corner. On it stood a splendid building of marble, having over the door in raised letters:--

CHRIS HOLTZMANN'S
PALACE OF PLEASURE.
Open all the Time. Admission Free!

For a moment I hesitated. Should I enter such a hole of iniquity?

Then came the thought of my mission; how I wished to clear the family name from the stain that rested upon it and free my father from imprisonment, and I went in.

I do not care to describe the scene that met my eyes. The magnificent decorations of the place were to my mind entirely out of keeping with its character. The foulness of a subcellar would have been more appropriate.

In the back, where a stage was located, were a number of small tables. I sat down at one of these and had a waiter bring me a glass of soda water.

"Is Mr. Holtzmann about?" I asked.

"Yes, sir. There he is over by the cigar counter. Shall I call him?"

"No."

I paid for my soda and sipped it leisurely. The place was about half full, and all attention was being paid to "Master Ardon, the Wonderful Boy Dancer," who was doing a clog on the stage.

Mr. Chris Holtzmann was very much the style of a man I had imagined him to be. He was short and stout, with a thick neck and a double chin. He was loudly dressed, including several seal rings and a heavy gold watch chain.

I calculated that he would be a hard man to approach, and now that I was face to face with him I hardly knew how to proceed.

At first I thought to ask him for a situation of some kind and thus get on speaking terms with him, but concluded that openness would pay best in the end, and so, rising, I approached him.

"Mr. Holtzmann, I believe?" I began.

"Yes," he said slowly, looking me over from head to foot.

"If you please I would like to have a talk with you," I went on.

"What is it?" and he turned his ear toward me.

"I have come all the way from Darbyville, New Jersey, to see you."

"What!" He started. "And what is your business with me, sir?" he went on sharply.

"I would like to see you in private," and I glanced at the clerk and several others who were staring at us.

"Come to my office," he returned, and led the way through a door at one side, into a handsomely furnished apartment facing the side street.

"Ross, you can post the letters," he said to a clerk who was writing at a desk. "Be back in half an hour."

It was a hint that we were to be left alone, and the clerk was not long in gathering up the letters that had been written, and leaving.

"I suppose Woodward sent you," began Chris Holtzmann, when we were seated.

This remark nearly took away my breath. I thought he would deny all knowledge of having ever known the merchant, and here he was mentioning the man at the very start.

I hardly knew how to reply, and he continued:--

"I've been expecting him for several days."

"Well, you know there was an accident on the railroad," I began as coolly as I could. "The bridge shifted and the trains couldn't run."

"Yes, I heard of that." He paused for a moment. "What brought you?"

This was a home question. I plunged in like a swimmer into a deep stream.

"I came to get the papers relating to the Strong forgeries. You have all of them, I suppose."

I was surprised at my own boldness. So was my listener.

"Sh! not so loud," he exclaimed. "Who said I had the papers?"

"John Stumpy spoke about them to Mr. Woodward."

"He did, eh?" sneered Chris Holtzmann. "He had better keep his mouth shut. How does he know but what the papers were destroyed long ago?"

"I hope not," I replied earnestly.

"What does Woodward want of the papers?"

"I don't know exactly. The Strong family are going to have the case opened again, and he's afraid they may be dragged in."

"No one knows I have them but him, Stumpy-- and you." He gave me a suspicious glance. "Who are--"

"The Strongs know," I put in hastily, thus cutting him off.

"What!" He jumped up from his chair. "Who was fool enough to tell them?"

"Nicholas Weaver left a dying statement--"

"The idiot! I always said he was a weak-minded fool!" cried Chris Holtzmann. "Who has this statement?"

"I don't know where it is now, but Carson Strong's son had it."

"Strong's son! Great Scott! Then Woodward's goose is cooked. I always told him he hadn't covered up his tracks."

"Yes, but he paid you pretty well for your share of the work," I returned. I was getting mixed. The deception could not be kept up much longer, and I wondered what would happen when the truth became known.

"Didn't pay me half of what I should have got. I helped him not only in Brooklyn, but here in Chicago as well. How would he have accounted for all his money if I hadn't had a rich aunt die and leave it to him?" Chris Holtzmann gave a short laugh. "I reckon that was a neat plan of mine."

"You ran a big risk."

"So we did-- but it paid."

"And John Stumpy helped, too."

"He did in a way. But he drank too much to be of any great use. By the way, do you drink?"

As Holtzmann spoke he opened a closet at one side of the room, behind a screen, and brought forth a bottle of liquor and a pair of glasses.

"No, thank you," I replied.

"No? Have a cigar, then."

"Thank you; I don't smoke."

"What! Don't smoke or drink! That's queer. Wish I could say the same. Mighty expensive habits. What did you say your name was?"

At this instant there was a knock on the door, and Chris Holtzmann walked back of the screen and opened it.

"A man to see you, sir," I heard a voice say.

"Who is it?" asked Chris Holtzmann.

"Says his name is Aaron Woodward."