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The Glorious Pool
THE LOWER HALF'S A LADY
IT has been almost definitely established that no one hook and ladder ever succeeded in making more of a nuisance of itself than did the one so casually borrowed by Rex Pebble and his party.
After its departure from the slightly burning residence of Charlie, the various stages of its progress were reported more or less hysterically by outraged property owners of the surrounding community telephoning in to police headquarters.
The eccentric behavior of the hook and ladder could be attributed to several causes, all of which militated against the safety and best interests of those riding upon it as well as those innocent citizens who were so unfortunate as to have anything at all to do with it. Unfamiliarity with the operation of the attenuated vehicle was one of the main causes. Another one could be reasonably said to be the artificially stimulated condition of the members of its crew. A steady flow of gratuitous and irresponsible advice added to the general confusion, but by far the most influential factor was the preoccupied state of Rex Pebble's mind.
His thoughts still lingered with those two strange beings, Charlie and Mr. Gibbs. He was considerably puzzled by their philosophically discursive reactions to a deliberate act of incendiarism, which even at that moment was threatening the safety of one of their homes. Mingled with his doubts and speculations was a definite element of envy. Never before had Mr. Pebble encountered anyone outside of an institution whose conduct had been more calmly and consistently unbalanced than his own when once he had set his mind on it. If possible, he decided, those two gentlemen were even madder than Nockashima, and to Rex Pebble's way of thinking such a triumph of madness was well-nigh inconceivable. Therefore, with all these thoughts racing through his mind, there is small wonder that he drove the machine through the streets of that thriving surburban community with the capricious abandon of an enterprising child playing in a crowded room with an overgrown toy.
"Hey, Sergeant," a voice said over the telephone about ten minutes after the Pebble party had taken leave of Charlie and Mr. Gibbs, "a hook and ladder has just driven through my dog house."
"Eh?" muttered the somnolent policeman. "This isn't a dog house. It's worse. This is a police station."
"I know," came the patient reply. "This isn't a dog talking. I'm an owner, and I'm talking for my dog. A hook and ladder has just driven through his house."
"What's the dog doing now?" asked the sergeant, realizing something was expected of him.
"Does it matter?" demanded the voice. "But if you must know, the damn fool is sitting on the boards, and they're all full of nails."
"Why don't you whistle?" suggested the sergeant.
"Why should I whistle?" asked the voice. "I don't feel like whistling."
"I mean," said the officer heavily, "why don't you whistle to the dog?"
"Oh," replied the voice, "I see. Wait a moment." A shrill noise offended the sergeant's ears. "He won't come," the voice resumed in tones of discouragement. "Not a budge out of him. He looks sore as hell."
"He'll budge all right," said the officer, knowledgeably, "if he sits on one of those nails."
"Say, officer," continued the voice, "let's waive the dog for a moment."
"Don't see what good that's going to do," grumbled the sergeant. "It certainly won't help the dog any to go waving him about. He'd hate it more than sitting on a nail."
"I don't mean to wave the dog like a flag," protested the voice. "I mean, let's drop the dog."
"If you want to drop your dog," said the sergeant impatiently, "go right ahead and do it, but damn me if I'm going to help you."
"I don't want you to help me drop my dog," said the voice wearily. "I don't want you to do anything. Just hang up quietly and try to forget the whole unpleasant incident. Good-night!"
A vicious banging of the telephone on the other end of the line emphasized to the sergeant the speaker's desire to have nothing more to do with him. He was still puzzled some minutes later when the telephone rang again.
"Officer," cried an excited voice, "there's a hook and ladder full of murderers on my lawn."
"Funny place for a lot of murderers to be," commented the officer. "What are they doing on a hook and ladder?"
"It's what they are doing on my lawn that's burning me up," said the voice. "They're shouting and singing and flinging themselves about. You should see them."
"I don't want to see them," the sergeant answered truthfully. "But somehow that doesn't seem to be the way murderers are supposed to act."
"How are they supposed to act?" asked the voice.
"Oh, I don't know," the sergeant hedged. "Different ways, but they don't shout and sing and fling themselves about. Not murderers."
"Maybe they do after they've committed a pretty good murder," replied the voice. "Might make them sort of happy like."
"Murderers are never happy," said the sergeant, who had never seen one. "They slink along carrying blunt instruments."
"How awful of them," replied the voice admiringly. "Would you mind telling me if you happen to be a murderer?"
"I would be one, if you were here," snapped the exasperated policeman.
"You talk just like a murderer," went on the voice. "I mean, you seem to be so thoroughly familiar with their nasty ways—just how they walk and what they carry. It's wonderful. How about the murderers on my lawn? Do you want to come up and give them a little talk? I want to go to sleep."
"No!" shouted the sergeant. "Go out and throw yourself into their midst. I hope they cut you to ribbons."
"But, officer," objected the voice, "how could they, with a blunt instrument?"
This time it was the sergeant who viciously snapped down the earpiece. Before he had time even to think about cooling off, the bell once more chattered irritably in his flushed face. Seizing the telephone round the neck as if he were going to throttle it, he shoved the receiver against his ear with such force that he cursed bitterly into the mouthpiece.
"Damn it to hell!" he said.
"No," a timid voice faltered. "I don't want any of that. I want the police station."
"Lady," said the officer, "this is the police station. You're talking to it."
"Well, I must say," remarked the lady, "it doesn't talk like a police station. I mean to say, a police station shouldn't talk like that. Are you very busy?"
"Of course not," replied the sergeant with ponderous sarcasm. "Do you want me to come up and see you some time? Or would you rather bring your tatting down here?"
"I don't want to see you at any time," declared the voice decidedly. "I want to see a gentleman. A face just looked in at my window."
"What do you mean, a face looked in at your window?" demanded the officer. "Didn't it have any body?"
"Not at first it didn't," said the lady. "It was just a face, and it had queer little slanty eyes, and skin like an old, dried orange."
"What did it see?" asked the sergeant, growing interested.
"It saw me," said the lady. "And it spoke."
"It did?" replied the officer. "What did it say, lady?"
"Must I tell?" faltered the voice. "Must I?"
"Certainly," snapped the sergeant. "That's important."
"Well, officer," said the lady slowly, "this slanty-eyed little face said in the strangest voice, 'Night keep up all naked. This pretty good stuff.' That's what it said, officer."
"Why didn't you pull the shade down?" asked the sergeant.
"I was too busy crouching," replied the lady. "I got all scroggled up."
"You got all what, lady?" asked the sergeant in a shocked voice. "That sounds bad."
"Well, it wasn't any laughing matter," said the lady, "but it wasn't as bad as that. I got all scroggled up, you know—bent double and everything. And the face just giggled. 'He-he-he,' it went, just like that."
"Don't do it any more, lady," pleaded the sergeant. "It sounded awful at this end."
"It sounded even worse here," said the lady. "I'm way up on the sixth floor."
"I see it all, lady," replied the officer. "Don't worry your head any more. It must have been a bird. No one man is twelve stories high."
"No, officer," stated the lady most emphatically, "I know that. No one man is twelve stories high in his bare feet, but this man was standing on a ladder. I saw his body."
"Wasn't he even dressed?" asked the officer in a hoarse voice. "You really saw his body?"
"You're getting all mixed up," complained the lady.
"I was the one who wasn't dressed, but the man was. He had on pants and a white jacket."
"Thank God for that," breathed the sergeant. "Are you dressed now, lady?"
"What do you want to know for?" the voice asked suspiciously.
"Not for fun," replied the officer. "Suppose I send some of the boys along?"
"No," declared the voice, "don't send any boys. I want this handled by men."
The sergeant almost choked.
"What do you want handled by men?" he whispered over the wire.
"What do you think?" the voice demanded snappily.
"I don't know, lady," he replied helplessly, "but please don't say anything you wouldn't like used as evidence. Let's get back to your story. What happened next?"
"Well," the voice replied, "nothing much happened. I just stood there scroggling—bent double, you know—and those slanty eyes in that yellow face kept blinking at me like two jumping beans. 'You should see boss,' he said. 'Boss plenty naked, too. Only tablecloth. But he not have pain in belly. I go get.' Then——"
"Have you a pain in your belly, madam?" asked the sergeant, growing a little tired. "I mean stomach," he added hastily.
"No," replied the voice quite cheerfully, "but that funny little yellow face made the same mistake, too. I'm all right."
"Good," said the sergeant, wishing the woman was in convulsions. "If you don't mind, will you please finish your story? I might have a murder or something at any moment."
"Oh, don't have a murder, sergeant," admonished the woman. "Try counting up to one hundred. Well, as I was saying, the yellow face disappeared, and before I had time to snatch a robe another one popped up in its place."
"Another yellow face?" gasped the officer. "Sure it wasn't the same one back?"
"You mean the back of the same yellow face?" came the voice.
"No, no, lady," said the officer, "I don't mean that. God!" he cried out in an exasperated aside, "this woman is worse than Gracie Allen."
"No, I'm not," retorted the woman. "I've heard her too, and she's ever so much worse than I am."
"All right, lady," agreed the sergeant. "Tell me the end of your story?"
"This new face was much better than the yellow one," the voice resumed. "A great improvement. In fact, it was a real nice face. Splendid eyes. I could feel myself getting red."
"How do you mean, lady?" asked the officer, hopelessly confused. "Where were you turning red?"
"All over," said the lady.
"All over?" the man slowly repeated. "Oh, I think I see. You were blushing, eh? Well, that was quite a blush, lady. Lots of ground to cover. Between yellow faces and red bodies I don't know where I'm standing. Kindly state only the important facts."
"This new face spoke English," the woman continued. "'Do you want to be saved?' it asked. 'What for?' I asked right back. 'I'm not so bad.' 'I should say not,' replied the face, but I wasn't having any of that, so I said, 'And furthermore, mister, this is no time and place to start preaching sermons to a lady.' 'No harm in asking,' he answered, 'but if I stay here much longer I'll be needing a little saving myself.' What do you think he meant by that, officer?"
"He probably wanted to strangle you to death," grated the officer, momentarily losing control of himself. "Sorry, lady. Is that face still there?"
"No," said the voice sadly, "but I don't think it wanted to strangle me. It didn't look like the face of a murderer. It isn't here any more, and when I looked out the window I saw a naked man in a towel chasing a hook and ladder down the street. I saw everything distinctly. The little man in the white jacket and yellow face was driving like mad. I couldn't have driven worse myself. And that's all I know, officer. Will you send some of your men around? I'm all upset."
"Me, too, lady," shrilled the sergeant, a maniacal light in his eyes. "I'll send around the firing squad."
"Then you'd better send that hook and ladder smack back with it," said the voice of the woman. "To put out the fire, you know."
Slowly and with the utmost care the sergeant lowered the receiver on its hook. He was too consumed with brute passion, too straining with evil intent, to trust himself to express his emotions either in word or deed.
The next time the telephone rang he turned the call over to a sleepy-eyed rookie.
"Hey, Pat!" called the sergeant with hypocritical heartiness. "Snap out of that chair and I'll give you a chance to take a call. It's a good thing to get the hang of. There's a knack in it."
Feeling as highly favored as his sluggard wits would over allow to him, the heavy-footed young son of Erin lumbered over to the telephone and made his hands into fists virtually all over it.
"Fine, Chief," he said gratefully. "This will do me good." Thrusting his mouth into the transmitter he began to do himself good at the top of his lungs. "Hello! Hello!" said Pat excitedly. "This is Murphy of the police force talking. Who are you?" A sudden pause. "Oh," he began again. "It's a drunken hook and ladder, did you say?" Another pause while Pat more deeply entrenched his ear. Then, "Hold the line, mister." Turning to the sergeant, Pat tried to impart his information. "It seems, Chief," he said, "that this guy has been dodging either a drunken hook and ladder or a hook and ladder driven by drunkards or maniacs escaped from the asylum. What shall I tell him?"
"That hook and ladder is going to drive me into my grave!" groaned the sergeant.
"That's what it's nearly done to this man," said Pat. "He says he can't keep up dodging it much longer. He's fair exhausted from being pursued by the hook and ladder."
"Ask him where it is," commanded the sergeant.
"Where is this hook and ladder?" Pat asked over the wire, then waited to be told. "Hang on," he said, and again turned to his superior. "I thought this was going to do me good," he complained, "but damned if I believe it will. Do all people go crazy when they telephone to us?"
"This is no time for idle questions," said the sergeant tartly. "I don't care whether or not it does you any good. That damn telephone has almost ruined me already. Where did the guy say it was?"
"He said it was all over," Pat replied. "Sometimes here and sometimes there. It sort of appears from all directions, then goes bounding in pursuit of him, no less."
"That guy must be drunk himself," muttered the sergeant. "A hook and ladder can't appear from all directions. Ask him if he is."
"Are you drunk, mister?" asked Pat of the man at the other end of the wire, then quickly removed the receiver from his ear. Even the sergeant, standing several feet away, could hear the incoherent protests tumbling from the mouth of the telephone. "He says he isn't, Chief," said Pat at last. "He seems to be sure about it. He says he is a public-spirited citizen, and unless something is done about that hook and ladder he is going to report the entire force. Do you want to talk to him? I'm dead certain this isn't going to do me any good at all."
"Are you afraid to talk to the man?" demanded the sergeant. "You started the conversation, go on and finish it."
"What shall I say now?"
"Ask him where he is—if he won't tell us where that hook and ladder is," replied the chief. "String him along somehow. Maybe he'll forget about it or the thing will go away."
"A bounding hook and ladder filled with maniacs would be a hard thing to forget," commented Pat, looking with distaste at the telephone. "All right, Chief. I'll take another chance." Once more he hid as much of his mouth as possible in the telephone and shouted what he hoped would be soothing words to the infuriated citizen at the other end. "Don't be like that, mister," said Pat. "We didn't mean it. The chief was just having some fun." Pause. "Oh, you're glad to know the chief is enjoying himself." Here Pat turned to the sergeant. "The guy says he's glad you're having a good time," he told his superior. "Says he wishes you were down there where he is."
"I heard! I heard!" cried the sergeant irritably. "Leave my name out of it. Ask him where he is."
After Pat had complied with this request he listened for a long time to the voice at the other end of the wire, an expression of profound astonishment on his face.
"What!" the sergeant heard him exclaim. "There's a woman on the hook and ladder? Yeah? Oh, half fireman and half woman, you say. Now, mister, how can that be? Hold on! I'm not calling you a liar. Sure, I know. Certainly. You can tell half of a woman when you see one. I never saw one that way. Of course, you're no baby. You could tell even less of a woman than that. Wait a minute. The chief ought to hear this." With wide blue eyes Pat stared his incredulity at the sergeant. "Golly," he said, "something's funny somewhere. I'm almost afraid to tell you what that guy told me. Shall I?"
"Go on!" cried the sergeant.
"Well," said Pat in a hushed voice, "he says there's a thing scrambling around that hook and ladder that's half fireman and half lady, and he claims the men are maniacs.
"Ask him which half is which," said the chief in a dead voice.
"Do you think I should?" asked Pat a little slyly. "I should think either half of a woman or a fireman scrambling over a hook and ladder would be enough to upset anybody. And when it comes to a half of each crawling after one another—my eye! I don't like to think about it."
"Go on and do as I say," said the chief. "It's important."
"Why?" asked Pat.
"Haven't you got sense enough to know that there's a lot of difference between the two halves of a woman?"
"I know there is," replied Pat, "but I don't see what good either half is going to do us now. Whatever half it is, the other one's a fireman, and that's not so good."
"What are you trying to get at?" the sergeant demanded.
"Nothing at all," Pat hastened to assure him. "I certainly don't want to get at that monster, no matter which half is which. Let's hang up, Chief."
"Go on and ask that question," commanded the sergeant.
"Listen, mister," said Pat diffidently. "The chief wants to know which half of the thing is which, a woman or a fireman?" As he listened his face grew pink. Finally he put his hand over the mouthpiece and addressed himself to the impatient sergeant. "It's the bottom half," said Pat in a hushed voice.
"The bottom half is which?" demanded the other.
"The bottom half is all lady," replied Pat. "Think of it, Chief, think of it. And on top there's a fireman. What a sight that must be!"
"It's as I thought," muttered the sergeant. "No wonder those men are maniacs. Did he say where this hook and ladder was?"
"Somewhere around Main and Spruce," replied Pat, "It's playing all about."
"Hey, boys!" the sergeant shouted with sudden decision in his voice. "Murphy, O'Brien, Samuels, and Schmidt, line up, the four of you." When the boys, languidly buttoning their tunics, were standing in front of the desk, the sergeant snapped out his instructions. "There's a wild hook and ladder raising hell all over this town. God only knows what it will do next. Go down to Main and Spruce and pick up the trail and——"
"Do you want us to shadow the thing?" Officer Samuels asked hopefully.
"Certainly not!" exploded the sergeant. "I want you to arrest that hook and ladder and drag back here either dead or alive. And everybody on it," he added.
"What about the half and half ?" inquired Pat. "Shall we treat the thing as a lady or a fireman?"
"That depends upon which half gives you the most trouble," replied the chief.
"I don't like any part of the unholy body," answered Pat.
"You don't have to like it," the sergeant retorted, "Policemen ain't supposed to fall all over the people they arrest."
"Gord!" ejaculated Pat. "I wouldn't fall all over that thing if my life depended on it"
"What sort of a thing is it?" asked Officer O'Brien.
"It's a thing," Pat Murphy explained, that's one half fireman and another half woman."
"Yeah?" said O'Brien. "Who do you you think you're kidding? Which half is a woman?"
"The bottom half," said Pat.
"And how far up does it go?" asked Schmidt.
"That's none of your business," put in the Chief. "You clear out of here and bring both halves back."
"Divs on the south end," said Samuels as the policemen filed from the room.
"You're welcome to both ends of it," Pat Murphy told him.
The telephone tinkled merrily. Before he settled back in his chair the sergeant gently removed the receiver and placed it on the desk. Then he lighted a fat, black cigar and sighed a long pull of smoke into the still air. He had done his duty. Now he would rest and relax. He was still doing this when the head of the Fire Department strode in.
"I've lost my hook and ladder," he announced.
"You have?" said the sergeant mildly. "Well, that's just too bad. Every member of the community has found that hook and ladder with the exception of yourself. And," he added with swelling bitterness, "if you ever get the damn thing back, I hope to God you'll never let it out of your sight again. I'm dog tired of your hook and ladder."
"What do you mean?" demanded the other.
"Listen," replied the sergeant. "Have you a number on your force that's half fireman and half woman?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," said the owner of the lost hook and ladder. "Have you gone crazy?"
"I have," replied the sergeant quietly. "Stark, staring mad. Listen some more, Commissioner."
Then the sergeant told him all. And when he had finished, the Commissioner was just human enough to want. to know which half was which.
"I knew you were going to ask that question," the sergeant replied sorrowfully. "Commissioner, the lower half's a lady."
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