The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
Chapter XXVIII. The Final Attempt
Proof that his shot had not missed its mark was supplied to John immediately upon his arrival at the office on the following morning, when he was met by Pugsy Maloney with the information that a gentleman had called to see him.
"With or without a black-jack?" enquired John. "Did he give any name?"
"Sure. Parker's his name. He blew in oncst before when Mr. Smith was here. I loosed him into de odder room."
John walked through. The man he had seen with Mr. Scobell at the Knickerbocker was standing at the window.
The other turned, as the door opened, and looked at him keenly.
"Are you Mr. Maude?"
"I am," said John.
"I guess you don't need to be told what I've come about?"
"See here," said Mr. Parker. "I don't know how you've found things out, but you've done it, and we're through. We quit."
"I'm glad of that," said John. "Would you mind informing Spider Reilly of that fact? It will make life pleasanter for all of us."
"Mr. Scobell sent me along here to ask you to come and talk over this thing with him. He's at the Knickerbocker. I've a cab waiting outside. Can you come along?"
"I'd rather he came here."
"And I bet he'd rather come here than be where he is. That little surprise packet of yours last night put him down and out. Gave him a stroke of some sort. He's in bed now, with half-a-dozen doctors working on him."
John thought for a moment.
"Oh," he said slowly, "if it's that--very well."
He could not help feeling a touch of remorse. He had no reason to be fond of Mr. Scobell, but he was sorry that this should have happened.
They went out on the street. A taximeter cab was standing by the sidewalk. They got in. Neither spoke. John was thoughtful and preoccupied. Mr. Parker, too, appeared to be absorbed in his own thoughts. He sat with folded arms and lowered head.
The cab buzzed up Fifth Avenue. Suddenly something, half-seen through the window, brought John to himself with a jerk. It was the great white mass of the Plaza Hotel. The next moment he saw that they were abreast of the park, and for the first time an icy wave of suspicion swept over him.
"Here, what's this?" he cried. "Where are you taking me?"
Mr. Parker's right hand came swiftly out of ambush, and something gleamed in the sun.
"Don't move," said Mr. Parker. The hard nozzle of a pistol pressed against John's chest. "Keep that hand still."
John dropped his hand. Mr. Parker leaned back, with the pistol resting easily on his knee. The cab began to move more quickly.
John's mind was in a whirl. His chief emotion was not fear, but disgust that he should have allowed himself to be trapped, with such absurd ease. He blushed for himself. Mr. Parker's face was expressionless, but who could say what tumults of silent laughter were not going on inside him? John bit his lip.
"Well?" he said at last.
Mr. Parker did not reply.
"Well?" said John again. "What's the next move?"
It flashed across his mind that, unless driven to it by an attack, his captor would do nothing for the moment without running grave risks himself. To shoot now would be to attract attention. The cab would be overtaken at once by bicycle police, and stopped. There would be no escape. No, nothing could happen till they reached open country. At least he would have time to think this matter over in all its bearings.
Mr. Parker ignored the question. He was sitting in the same attitude of watchfulness, the revolver resting on his knee. He seemed mistrustful of John's right hand, which was hanging limply at his side. It was from this quarter that he appeared to expect attack. The cab was bowling easily up the broad street, past rows and rows of high houses each looking exactly the same as the last. Occasionally, to the right, through a break in the line of buildings, a glimpse of the river could be seen.
A faint hope occurred to John that, by talking, he might put the other off his guard for just that instant which was all he asked. He exerted himself to find material for conversation.
"Tell me," he said, "what you said about Mr. Scobell, was that true? About his being ill in bed?"
Mr. Parker did not answer, but a wintry smile flittered across his face.
"It was not?" said John. "Well, I'm glad of that. I don't wish Mr. Scobell any harm."
Mr. Parker looked at him doubtfully.
"Say, why are you in this game at all?" he said. "What made you butt in?"
"One must do something," said John. "It's interesting work."
"If you'll quit--"
John shook his head.
"I own it's a tempting proposition, things being as they are, but I won't give up yet. You never know what may happen."
"Well, you can make a mighty near guess this trip."
"You can't do a thing yet, that's sure," said John confidently. "If you shot me now, the cab would be stopped, and you would be lynched by the populace. I seem to see them tearing you limb from limb. 'She loves me!' Off comes an arm. 'She loves me not!' A leg joins the little heap on the ground. That is what would happen, Mr. Parker."
The other shrugged his shoulders, and relapsed into silence once more.
"What are you going to do with me, Mr. Parker?" asked John.
Mr. Parker did not reply.
* * * * *
The cab moved swiftly on. Now they had reached the open country. An occasional wooden shack was passed, but that was all. At any moment, John felt, the climax of the drama might be reached, and he got ready. His muscles stiffened for a spring. There was little chance of its being effective, but at least it would be good to put up some kind of a fight. And he had a faint hope that the suddenness of his movement might upset the other's aim. He was bound to be hit somewhere. That was certain. But quickness might save him to some extent. He braced his leg against the back of the cab. And, as he did so, its smooth speed changed to a series of jarring jumps, each more emphatic than the last. It slowed down, then came to a halt. There was a thud, as the chauffeur jumped down. John heard him fumbling in the tool box. Presently the body of the machine was raised slightly as he got to work with the jack. John's muscles relaxed. He leaned back. Surely something could be made of this new development. But the hand that held the revolver never wavered. He paused, irresolute. And at the moment somebody spoke in the road outside.
"Had a breakdown?" enquired the voice.
John recognized it. It was the voice of Kid Brady.
* * * * *
The Kid, as he had stated that he intended to do, had begun his training for his match with Eddie Wood at White Plains. It was his practise to open a course of training with a little gentle road-work, and it was while jogging along the highway a couple of miles from his training camp, in company with the two thick-necked gentlemen who acted as his sparring partners, that he had come upon the broken-down taxicab.
If this had happened after his training had begun in real earnest, he would have averted his eyes from the spectacle, however alluring, and continued on his way without a pause. But now, as he had not yet settled down to genuine hard work, he felt justified in turning aside and looking into the matter. The fact that the chauffeur, who seemed to be a taciturn man, lacking the conversational graces, manifestly objected to an audience, deterred him not at all. One cannot have everything in this world, and the Kid and his attendant thick-necks were content to watch the process of mending the tire, without demanding the additional joy of sparkling small talk from the man in charge of the operations.
"Guy's had a breakdown, sure," said the first of the thick-necks.
"Surest thing you know," agreed his colleague.
"Seems to me the tire's punctured," said the Kid.
All three concentrated their gaze on the machine.
"Kid's right," said thick-neck number one. "Guy's been an' bust a tire."
"Surest thing you know," said thick-neck number two.
They observed the perspiring chauffeur in silence for a while.
"Wonder how he did that, now?" speculated the Kid.
"Ran over a nail, I guess," said thick-neck number one.
"Surest thing you know," said the other, who, while perhaps somewhat deficient in the matter of original thought, was a most useful fellow to have by one--a sort of Boswell.
"Did you run over a nail?" the Kid enquired of the chauffeur.
The chauffeur worked on, unheeding.
"This is his busy day," said the first thick-neck, with satire. "Guy's too full of work to talk to us."
"Deaf, shouldn't wonder," surmised the Kid. "Say, wonder what's he doing with a taxi so far out of the city."
"Some guy tells him to drive him out here, I guess. Say, it'll cost him something, too. He'll have to strip off a few from his roll to pay for this."
John glanced at Mr. Parker, quivering with excitement. It was his last chance. Would the Kid think to look inside the cab, or would he move on? Could he risk a shout?
Mr. Parker leaned forward, and thrust the muzzle of the pistol against his body. The possibilities of the situation had evidently not been lost upon him.
"Keep quiet," he whispered.
Outside, the conversation had begun again, and the Kid had made his decision.
"Pretty rich guy inside," he said, following up his companion's train of thought. "I'm going to rubber through the window."
John met Mr. Parker's eye, and smiled.
There came the sound of the Kid's feet grating on the road, as he turned, and, as he heard it, Mr. Parker for the first time lost his head. With a vague idea of screening John, he half-rose. The pistol wavered. It was the chance John had prayed for. His left hand shot out, grasped the other's wrist, and gave it a sharp wrench. The pistol went off with a deafening report, the bullet passing through the back of the cab, then fell to the floor, as the fingers lost their hold. And the next moment John's right fist, darting upward, crashed home.
The effect was instantaneous. John had risen from his seat as he delivered the blow, and it got the full benefit of his weight. Mr. Parker literally crumpled up. His head jerked, then fell limply forward. John pushed him on to the seat as he slid toward the floor.
The interested face of the Kid appeared at the window. Behind him could be seen portions of the faces of the two thick-necks.
"Hello, Kid," said John. "I heard your voice. I hoped you might look in for a chat."
The Kid stared, amazed.
"What's doin'?" he queried.
"A good deal. I'll explain later. First, will you kindly knock that chauffeur down and sit on his head?"
"De guy's beat it," volunteered the first thick-neck.
"Surest thing you know," said the other.
"What's been doin'?" asked the Kid. "What are you going to do with this guy?"
John inspected the prostrate Mr. Parker, who had begun to stir slightly.
"I guess we'll leave him here," he said. "I've had all of his company that I need for to-day. Show me the nearest station, Kid. I must be getting back to New York. I'll tell you all about it as we go. A walk will do me good. Riding in a taxi is pleasant, but, believe me, you can have too much of it."