|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|
The Glorious Pool
MEANWHILE, Mr. Pebble and party were steadfastly trying to mind their own business with a discouraging lack of success. For once in a blue moon the telephone reports of eyewitnesses had been substantially accurate, if a trifle irrelevant. One might even say those reports had been misleadingly conservative. No mention had been made of the incident of the demolished hothouse or of the mutilated ninth green on the local golf course. Also, several twisted lamp posts seem to have passed unnoticed. The desperate struggle caused by Nockashima inadvertently starting the hook and ladder during the temporary absence of Rex Pebble never became public knowledge, although it was long remembered by those directly concerned. Hal, the only professional present, was by far the most unhappy. He was firmly convinced he had lost not only his livelihood but also the need of having one, inasmuch as he would soon be losing his life as well. Nockashima's rendition of "The Last Round-up" in pidgin English went a long way toward making everything less pleasant. The Pebble party was now enjoying a brief breathing spell in a dimly lighted alley situated in the heart of the town. On their right rose the sheer walls of a large and enterprising department store. Throughout the surrounding countryside Crown's Cosmopolitan was jointly famous. No finer store existed outside of a large city. On the left of the little group the smooth, windowless side of a bank building offered scant hospitality. The end of the alley was uncompromisingly blocked by a formidable brick barrier. In other words, Rex Pebble and his companions would find themselves in a pretty kettle of fish should their present whereabouts be discovered by Pat Murphy and the rest of the boys. However, for a moment or so their peace remained undisturbed.
"It's pleasant here," Mr. Pebble observed. "A good place to stretch one's legs before hurtling forth on another spin."
My legs stretched from ear to ear already," Nokashima declared. "That seat too high for short Japanese body to attend pedals. Feet dangle on way."
"And if you try to monkey with the hook and ladder a second short Japanese body will be dangling at yellow end of a rope."
"Speaking of necks," remarked Major Jaffey, gently fingering his own, "mine has not settled back to its former position since that short Japanese body in question dangled on the end of my legs."
"Give me a cigarette, Major," said Spray Summers, "I'm dying for a smoke."
Courteously the Major passed a package of cigarettes among the members of the party. Soon five small red sparks were glowing in the darkness. It was these indications of life that first attracted the attention of the squad of searching policemen.
"Look!" cried Pat in a piercing whisper. "I'll bet they're down there. Be careful of an ambush."
"Did you hear that?" asked Hal in a low voice. "Somebody's betting we're down here."
"Then he wins," commented Rex Pebble. "We are."
"Not if I know it," flung back Hal. "They're cops, and they're after us. Nothing would please them more than to run in a fireman."
"How to get out?" soliloquized Nockashima in the manner of a Nipponese Hamlet. "That plenty vital question."
"We're not going to get out," said Rex Pebble. "We're going to get up and in. Bear a hand there, Hal. We'll raise a couple of ladders and escape through the Cosmopolitan. My wife has a charge account there."
"So have I," observed Spray Summers, "but any judge in his sober senses would think it an odd time to be seized with a sudden desire to make use of it."
Disregarding this somewhat depressing observation, the four men busied themselves setting up the ladders.
"Major," commanded Rex Pebble, "you and Hal go up first. Something seems to tell me that you are not without experience in the art of breaking and entering. Hal makes a regular business of it. Look lively, both of you. I hear the unmistakable sounds of flat feet flapping at our rear."
"I'd like to flop mine against theirs," grumbled Spray. "What have we done? Nothing!"
"Perhaps you're right," replied Rex Pebble, "but we've done it so damn thoroughly that it will be more than enough to lock us up for life if we trust entirely in our innocence."
"When I go, boss?" Nockashima asked eagerly.
"You can nip up at any old time," Mr. Pebble told him. "You're doing me no good here."
And that was exactly what Nockashima did. He nipped up the ladder with the agility of a monkey, which he closely resembled.
"Pist!" came the signal from somewhere in the darkness above their heads. "Pist! Pist!"
"What is it!" asked Mr. Pebble, lowering his voice.
"Pist!" was all he got for his trouble. "Pist! Hey, pist! Pis-s-s-t-t!"
"Stop it!" exclaimed Spray Summers. "Of all the asinine noises to make. And he keeps on doing it. Always makes me think of bum actors in long cloaks ducking in and out of the wings. Pist, up there yourself!"
Nockashima, who had been making no noise at all, evidently believing that something was expected of him, ducked his head over his shoulder and peered down into the darkness of the alley.
"Pist, madam!" he offered politely. "Am hell bent on escape. Pist! Pist!"
"Please stop pisting," shouted Rex Pebble. "There's no time for all that. It makes us nervous."
"Holy saints, will you listen to them?" Pat Murphy said to his brother officers. "It's lunatics they are. And it only makes the other two nervous. I'd get sore as hell."
Nockashima had disappeared into the blackness of an open window, and Spray and Rex Pebble were two thirds the way up by the time Pat and his boys had reached the foot of the ladders.
"Begord, it's true!" explained Pat, looking up at Spray. "It's half fireman and half lady."
"That lower half ain't no fireman," declared Officer Samuels with deep conviction.
"Well, it ain't no lady, either," put in the one called Schmidt. "Even in these-days a lady wears a little something."
"Hey, you in the helmet," shouted Murphy. "Stay where you are. I see everything."
As unconventional as Spray was, this gratuitous information made her feel decidedly uncomfortable. Clutching the awkward rubber coat around her, she took a quick, strained glance below.
"If you were a gentleman you'd bow your head," she called down, "and look at your ugly feet."
"And if you were a lady you'd take a pike at something else," retorted Pat. "What sort of a thing do you
happen to be, anyway?"
"I thought you were seeing everything," she retorted.
"Not quite," said Officer Samuels. "It's still too dark."
"Well," replied Spray cuttingly, "you should have seen enough from where you're standing."
"I've seen almost too much," admitted Pat Murphy.
"One can't get enough of a good thing," Spray replied coolly, edging up a few more rungs. "That's what I always say."
"Will you come down, whatever you are?" demanded Pat Murphy.
"No, I won't," cried Spray. "Will you go away?"
"I'll come up there and lay hands on you," the exasperated policeman shouted.
"What a man!" she said to Mr. Pebble, perched semi-recumbent on the other ladder; then called tauntingly to the men below her, "Is that a threat or a promise?"
"You know," put in Mr. Pebble, "I'm finding it increasingly difficult to retain my poise. This ladder sways like a camel's back."
"I'm finding it damn near impossible to keep my modesty," she retorted, "and cimb the thing at the same time."
"Why trouble about modesty now?" he inquired. "After all, it's merely a matter of one's point of view."
"That's just what I'm worrying about," said Spray. "Those coppers down there have the wrong point of view."
"Pist!" sounded suddenly in the darkness only a few feet away. "Pist!"
"He's at it again," grumbled Spray. "Will you tell me whether that noise is intended to repel or attract? I can't get the idea."
"Maybe the excitement has driven the Major mad," suggested Mr. Pebble, "and he thinks he's playing snake."
"I wish he'd stop playing it in my ears," she complained. "I'll never get up this ladder with all these interruptions."
"Look out, madam," Nockashima called excitedly from a window. "Officers make grade. Snatch at behind."
"What!" cried the startled Spray. "The horrid things! There is no time to stand on any further ceremony. Hurry
up, Rex." Hastily she scrambled up to the window, then added as an afterthought as she pulled herself through, "And no matter what those rude policemen snatch at, Nockashima, you should endeavor to select your words with a little more delicacy. I don't know which is the more objectionable, to be snatched at or to be told where."
"Madam," replied Nockashima pedantically, "there are two behinds. One is thing, other is place. I refer to latter."
"Say, lady," came the earnest but subdued voice of Hal, the renegade fireman, "you and that dopey laundryman are going to talk us all into jail if you don't dry up."
"I not wet yet," Nockashima announced proudly.
"Listen, little Fu Manchu," the fireman retorted. "Those flatties are about to chuck their dogs right in those windows. You'd better hide while you can."
"If dogs of flatties smell no better than Mist' Henry," replied the Jap complacently, "we remain in obscurity to end of days."
"Pardon the interruption," spoke up Major Jaffey in a calm, informative voice, "but from a brief investigation of our whereabouts I should say we are now in the furniture department. There is also a suggestion of toys at the far end. It's a jolly place for hiding. God only knows where we'll be cuter."
"Fine!" exclaimed Spray. "Lead me to a bed."
"Hot invitation, that," observed the voice of Nockashima. "Who you ask, madam?"
"Somebody hit that Jap," said Spray. "He's gone bad on our hands."
"Am on hands and upper joint of legs," the loquacious little yellow man informed them. "Like missionary fella, I progress amid encircling gloom."
"What's that!" exclaimed Spray as a violent commotion broke out near the windows.
"Flatties chucking in dogs," hazarded Nockashima,
"Dogs not amused, nor this wormlike son of honorable house. In silence I seek a huddle."
From the moment the little yellow man set forth to seek a huddle that floor of Crown's Cosmopolitan became the center of dark confusion, occasionally relieved by the flashing of electric torches, the flame of a match and the momentary switching on of overhead lights. Cries of consternation echoed through the vast department. There were the sounds of running feet, of pursuing grunts, of painful collisions with unseen objects, of unexpected giggles and scattered conversation. There were shouts of surprise and mortification and some of mortal fear. It was no floor at all for nervous people, yet every person on it was more or less that way. It is almost safe to say that no group of frenzied bargain hunters on sales day ever conducted themselves on that floor as unbecomingly as did the police and the Pebble party.
The opening signal of distress came from Spray Summers, who had thoughtlessly concealed herself in the first bed she could find. Her fool's paradise was suddenly and rudely shattered by the frantic arrival of two unknown figures caroming off her body from two different directions. They were received with a grunt of anguish which was the best the lady could offer at the moment. Painfully she reached out her left hand and felt a small semi-human face; then her fingers slipped down to the fabric of a starched jacket.
"Not that, madam," Nockashima whispered tragically. "Not that! If do I push loud cries like Fifi."
"You snake in the grass," gritted Spray. "Do you realize you're in bed with me?"
"Realization almost stupefying," breathed the little servant. "I feel just like it"
"You do?" Spray whispered. "Take this, then, and tell me what you feel like."
"Hardly can," gasped Nockashima, taking what Spray had given him in the pit of his stomach. "I feel like small cherry blossom beneath foot of great giant."
"This is no time to be talking about cherries," retorted Spray.
"Cherries my dish," the little man informed her. "I go mad for cherries."
"You've gone mad without them," Spray told him.
"Yes, madam," he admitted. "That why I go mad."
"Do you realize, small ounce of vileness, what a liberty you've taken?"
"If not take some liberty here," declared Nock, "I lose all liberty to dogs of flatties. Where are flatties' dogs, madam? I hear no sniff-sniff nor patter of bounding feet."
"One can't hear anything above the roar of those policemen," replied Spray. "Do you happen to know who belongs to this other body beside me?"
"Only vague surmise," admitted Nockashima. "Madam may have caught cowardly flattie. Squeeze down on neck. Maybe he turn to fox."
"I don't want to be in bed with a fox," declared Spray. "You're bad enough."
"If I turn into fox," mused Nockashima, "I lure dogs on pursuit of untamed goose, then I go home and. offer myself to nose of Mist' Henry. If he no smell, my broom droop with deep despond."
"Not broom," Spray corrected. "You mean your brush."
"Is that what I have, madam, if I turn to fox? Brush on the end of me. How nice."
"How awful," murmured Spray Summers. "Please be quiet, snake in the grass."
"One more thing done," the little servant pleaded. "I not snake in grass, madam. I not even so funny as fox. Just small little Japanese feller in bed with lady and unknown body, and contorted with alarm."
"I'm not altogether easy in my mind myself."
"Why not tentatively finger opposite body?" the yellow one inquired. "Maybe encounter familiar object."
In spite of herself, Spray laughed.
"What a fool you are, Nocka," she said, then turned to the other object behind her. "Who are you?" she demanded sharply. "Speak up!"
"Pist!" came so suddenly and explosively from the unknown body on her right that she jumped almost a foot from the bed. While she was up Nockashima frantically burrowed under her. When she settled back she felt very much like a person who had unexpectedly sat on a cat.
"Pist!" once more popped irritably from the man beside her. "Pist!"
"Unidentified must have been restraining those for long time," observed Nockashima in a muffled voice. "Your body, madam, is mutilating too many of my parts."
"And this body over here has got me completely baffled," replied Spray. "I don't know how to open a conversation with it if it keeps on making those noises."
"Pist!" uttered the body.
"Will you stop doing that!" cried Spray, blindly cuffing the body in the dark.
The pist was promptly turned to a grunt.
"My dear lady," expostulated the voice of Major Jaffey. "Never do that again. As it is, I doubt if it will be necessary. You should have better sense."
At this moment a light flashed blindingly in the eyes of the three occupants of the bed, and the voice of Pat Murphy cried loudly, "Here they are, boys! I've got 'em!"
From all parts of the floor heavy feet came crashing towards the center of attraction. The bodies on either side of Spray Summers were galvanized into desperate action as they melted into the darkness, their eager feet adding to the general din and confusion. Cursing all Japanese and majors from the bottom of her heart, Spray remained behind, struggling in the grasp of Pat Murphy. That lusty limb of the law unceremoniously dragged the furious woman from the bed, dropping his torch in so doing, then, with no definite object in mind, hurtled her along the floor.
"Say, Pat!" shouted a voice. "Where are you now, man? Is the lower half a lady?"
"Haven't been able to find hide nor hair of a fireman yet," Pat called back. "It seems to be all lady."
"Well, don't look any farther," Spray protested. "You're here to do your duty, not to amuse yourself."
"If you'd only tell me whether you're a lady or not," the policeman panted. "I might know what to do with you."
"And what would that be, may I ask?"
"Don't exactly know," said Pat, "but I wouldn't handle you so rough, maybe."
A body collided violently with the woman as a fresh pair of hands took hold of her.
"I'm with you, Pat," said the newcomer. "Which half do you want?"
"Will you two men stop trying arbitrarily to divide me," protested Spray. "I'm one continuous body, and if there's any fireman about me I have yet to find it out."
"You mean, you're all lady?" breathed Pat.
"From head to toe," said Spray.
"The sergeant said you were some fireman, lady," said the other voice in disappointed tones.
"Well, you tell the sergeant," she retorted, "that I'm not going to switch my body about just to please him. Where are we going, anyway? Are we just taking a walk in the dark?"
"We don't know, lady," Pat Murphy replied. "Haven't had time to think. Hey, boys!" he shouted suddenly."Round up the rest of the gang. We've got one of them. Dig the others out."
From somewhere in the darkness came the quavering notes of "The Last Round-up." Nocka was at it again.
"I don't know where I've hidden myself," a voice complained, "much less where the rest of 'em are."
"Holy Saints!" breathed Pat. "What an awful sound! It's like a ghost wailing for its lost soul."
Spray felt herself suddenly seized from the rear and plucked from the grasp of her two astonished captors. She was dragged through an aperture, and a door slammed behind her.
"Who's got me now?" she inquired pessimistically. "Not that it makes much difference."
"You're in the model home," whispered the voice of Rex Pebble. "This is the bathroom."
"Thank God for that," said Spray. "How is it under the shower?"
"A bit stuffy," replied Rex Pebble, "but at least it's quiet and exclusive. You're a public scandal." -
"I'd be all of that," she admitted, "if I had a public."
"I say, old darling," asked Mr. Pebble conversationally from the shower, "doesn't this strike you as being rather an odd way to be spending the first night of our new lives?"
"It does. It does," she assured him. "It's one hell of a quaint way to be spending the first night of a new life or an old one. But we don't seem to learn any better."
"And," observed Mr. Pebble, "if those policemen have their way with us we'll be spending the last night of our new lives locked in the arms of the law."
"I've been locked in those arms already," said Spray.
"And you'd be locked in them still," Rex Pebble assured her, "had I known what use you were going to make of your freedom."
While this reunion of souls was progressing, Nockashima, that prince of Japanese house boys, had found his way by nervous fit after frantic start into the toy department, which was situated at the rear of the floor. Here it was his momentary bad luck to encounter the papier-mache head of an exceedingly dashing-looking lion, glorying in a pair of great malevolent eyes and a mane of tremendous vitality. It was a trying moment for the already hard-pushed little man. Although darkness saved him from savoring the full horror of the object con-fronting him, those parts of it which his groping hands had felt were more than enough to convince him he was standing unarmed in the presence of a deadly peril—possibly one of those dogs of the flatties, a strong, silent dog. Fortunately for himself as well as for others the little yellow man was too overcome by his emotions to push even so much as a squawk. Too terrified either to retreat or to advance, he remained static in the darkness, shuddering in all his Oriental limbs.
However, as time passed and no overtures of a hostile nature were manifested by the deadly peril, the inordinate curiosity which had made Nocka's life one continuous calamity reasserted itself to such an extent that before the lapse of many minutes he was cheek and jowl with this effigy of the king of the jungle. At last, with some vaguely formulated plan in his peculiar little mind, he slipped the head of the lion over his own and went circulating aimlessly through the darkness to discover what fate held in store for him in his radically altered appearance.
A short time later Officer Pat Murphy was indelicate enough to switch a light on the retreat occupied by Mr. Pebble and his mistress. Officer Pat Murphy was thereby a very much startled policeman.
"What's this?" he asked, for lack of anything better to say.
"A bathroom," replied Spray, springing up. "What does it look like to you?"
"Say, lady," he answered chidingly, when he had recovered a little from the shock of discovery, "you can think of the damnedest things to do when you're being chased by the cops. First you go to bed, then you find a bathroom. Haven't you got any better sense? This isn't a private home."
"It's the only private home I've got at the moment," the lady responded. "Be so good as to respect its privacy."
"The devil I will," said Pat. "I'm going to run you in.
"On what charge, may I ask?"
"On any one of fifty. You and your boy friends too. If I tell the judge what I just saw he'll put you away for good."
"Don't be childish, Pat," replied Spray. "How would you tell the judge that?"
"I'd whisper it to him," said Pat meanly. "In his ear, I would."
"Oh," retorted Spray, sparring for time. "Not in his eyes, like most people."
"Nobody whispers in other people's eyes," said Pat. "Don't be funny. Come on and snap out of this."
"I like it here," she told him.
"You certainly made yourself at home," he retorted. "Do you want me to put the bracelets on?"
"Do I have to look pretty to see the judge?"
"If he sees you the way you are, he's going to look awful," Pat assured her. "It might kill the old man."
"Then you will be charged with murder," she said, "for showing me to the poor old man. Go away now and look for some of the boys."
"I will not," said Pat. "This is the nuttiest place to try to find anyone in. What did you want to come up here for?"
"I wanted to go shopping," she answered.
"You sure do need some clothes," he admitted. "All you've got on is a coat, and that isn't yours."
"How about fixing me up nice for the judge?" suggested Spray. "Slip downstairs and grab off a nice dress and a pair of passionate panties." - -
"Lady, you're bad," said Pat. "You shouldn't use such words. You're after asking me to compound a felony."
"You'll be compounding another one if you don't get me some clothes," she threatened. "I'm going to take the coat off."
"Don't, lady," Pat pleaded.
"Off comes the coat!" cried Spray.
"Button it up," he urged her. "What will the boys think if they find us together like this?"
"What do you think they'll think?"
"You know," he replied.
"I do not," retorted Spray. "I haven't an evil mind. And if I can make myself heard above the din the boys are making, I'm going to scream for help. Off comes the coat."
For the salvation of his own soul Pat Murphy sprang through the door and began to wrestle with the apparently furious woman. Unseen to the combatants, Rex Pebble thrust a curious head through the curtains and peered at the active scene, then hurriedly withdrew. To retain his poise he grasped the nearest tap, and a vicious deluge of icy water descended on his naked spine. A long, shuddering cry issued from the shower. The wrestlers immediately released each other and stood regarding the curtain with startled eyes.
"What's that?" Pat gasped. "It sounded like a poor soul being murdered in cold blood."
"Cold blood it is," complained the shower wetly. "The damn fools didn't have to make their confounded shower so all-fired realistic."
"Turn on the hot," suggested Spray, "and I'll come on in with you. I'm getting sick of this dumb policeman."
"You mustn't do that," admonished Murphy in a shocked voice. "You've gone far enough, lady. Who's the guy in the shower?"
"I'm the guy in the shower," the curtains announced. "And you're a gone cop. Stand where you are."
"What do you mean?" asked Pat.
"I've got you covered," said the shower.
"I wish you'd cover this lady," the officer answered moodily.
"Never mind the lady," snapped the shower. "You back out of this room."
At this moment a scream bearing all the earmarks of sincere distress came simultaneously from Spray and Pat Murphy. Popping his head through the curtains Rex Pebble made a scream of his own. Completely unstrung by this reception, Nockashima began to scream too, which made him all the worse. Three hurtling bodies bounded over his speedily flattened figure and became wedged in the door of the bathroom.
"Let me outta here!" gasped Murphy. "Holy Saint Patrick, the baleful eyes of the beast! Did you see them?"
"Shut up!" chattered Spray. "It might understand English."
"That monster's so awful," declared Pat, "it doesn't understand itself."
"If you two want to stand here and discuss the thing to its face," said Rex Pebble, "I don't want to be included. Give me a chance to run."
"Give me the strength," muttered Spray.
From all points of the floor lights were flashing on and off, and excited voices were bellowing through the darkness.
"Have you got one, Pat?" a colleague called out.
"I haven't," he shouted, "but one has almost got me. And what a one it is!"
"You mean the half fireman and half lady?"
"No," replied Pat. "It's half monster and half man. And it's all bad."
"Then don't arrest it," urged the voice.
"Arrest it!" cried Pat hysterically. "I'm trying to leave it miles behind. The baleful eyes of the beast. Let me through, the both of you."
As the deadlock was broken, Nockashima, bereft of his lion's head, rose from the floor and, still screaming at the top of his lungs, dashed after the retreating figures. The fireman known as Hal, on his way to no place in particular, spied the abandoned head lying in the light of the bathroom, and promptly placing it over his own, ran after Nockashima. Pat Murphy, looking back over his shoulder, caught a horrified glimpse of the oncoming figure.
"Begod!" he cried in amazement. "It's grown twice its size."
Nockashima, far too busy to realize his loss, followed the policeman's example, then turned his screams into speech.
"Dog of flattie," he told an uninterested world, "is fox of evil magic."
"Fox, me eye!" breathed Pat. "Take another look, you runt."
"Not need another look," Nocka assured him. "Didn't enjoy last. Wait till it turns to serpent. Then watch out."
"Don't talk like that," Pat scolded, "or I'll lock you up for baiting an officer."
"Please you do," replied Nockashima. "Lock me up from beast of monster when sure it not turn to beautiful naked lady. I know Japanese fella——"
"Shut up!" gasped Spray. "Would you tell dirty stories in the very jaws of death?"
"Not in jaws," murmured Nockashima. "I want but small how-do-you-do with jaws."
"It will soon be good-bye," said Spray.
Suddenly the overhead lights flashed up in all parts of the floor. Hal, who was passing a mirror at the moment, caught a glimpse of his unamiable reflection and jumped two feet from the ground, uttering hoarse cries the while.
"I'm worse than I expected," he mouthed hollowly. "I'm even scared of myself."
"Listen, he admits it," said Spray. "The damned thing's talking to itself."
"It's better than having it screaming at us," observed the philosophical Mr. Pebble, clinging to his dripping tablecloth. "Any fair-minded monster with eyes in its head would have to admit it isn't a hot number. That thing would be silly as hell if it considered itself a bathing beauty."
"Your sarcasm is about as labored as my legs," retorted Spray. "Heavens! What's that?"
It was the sound of several revolvers all talking at once. From various parts of the room excited policemen were taking pot shots at the fleeing monster. In self-defense Hal removed the lion's head from his and hurled it well before him. Cries of horror and stupefaction broke from all beholders of this ghastly act save Nockashima. That one was giggling knowingly.
"Very funny business, this," he managed to get out. "I fairly stream with mirth."
Spray blinked, then closed her lovely eyes, although running at full speed. "I wish it would chuck its legs away next," she wheezed; "then we might be able to give ours a bit of a rest."
"Never a dull moment," said Rex Pebble. "We got our youth and strength back just in time to become physical wrecks."
"Rex," cried Spray suddenly, "it's got me!" So saying she catapulted through the air, rolled over several times, then came to rest with Hal's helmet miraculously on her head and the lion's on her left foot. "Rex! Rex!" she sobbed. "The monster's swallowed my foot with his neck. Please do something about it."
"What do you want him to swallow it with?" Rex Pebble asked reasonably enough.
"I don't want him to swallow my foot at all," she complained rather pathetically, "especially since I've lost my corns. Come here and take it away."
Here she waved one slim, lion-capped leg aloft in a frantic effort to dislodge it. A carefully concealed police-man thrust his head from behind a pillar just in time to witness this odd spectacle.
"Hey, boys!" he shouted, quickly withdrawing his head. "It's one half fireman now, and the other half's a wild beast. And both ends are peering at each other."
The boys received this devastating bit of news in stunned silence. Presently a timid voice spoke up.
"Which half of the thing is wild beast?" it wanted to be told.
"I don't know," replied the policeman behind the pillar. "Both halves are heads and a lot of mouth."
"And what's become of that lower half of a lady?" the voice continued.
"Damned if I know that either," said the policeman. "I'm out of luck entirely."
"Why not take a shot at the wild beast?" suggested the voice. "That is, if you're sure no part of it is the lower half of a lady."
This suggestion paralyzed Spray. She strove so hard to get her leg as far away from the rest of her body as possible that she was lying on the back of her neck. A shot rang out, and the lion's head became merely a matter of record, its fragments flying through the air. Theyflew no faster than Spray. With one bound she was clear of the floor, and with another she was climbing up Rex Pebble's back.
"That ends all hope of poise," he bitterly observed. "What are we going to do with each other?"
"I don't know," she retorted wearily, "but I've been a half of this and a half of that for so long I might just as well pretend I'm a part of you. Run away somewhere and hide us. My foot still tingles."
"This way!" suddenly bellowed the parade-ground voice of Major Jaffey. "This way for the fire party. An exit. It is here!"
Although the good Major had not the vaguest idea as to what new dangers the exit led, he rightly assumed they could be no worse than those already confronting them. With the Pebble party at his heels, he dashed down several flights of stairs and at last emerged into the main floor of Crown's Cosmopolitan. Here, protected once more by darkness, the old business of hiding began all over again.
"Grab whatever clothes you can find and put them on," ordered the Major. "Thus we will be disguised for a later flight. If you insist on being honest we can charge them to Mrs. Pebble. Her husband will explain later."
"In detail," came the caustic voice of Rex Pebble through the darkness. "My wife will enjoy it."
For some minutes the darkness of the main floor was filled with the stealthy yet industrious sound of searching feet. Rex Pebble fortunately encountered the figure of a gentleman in evening clothes. This he promptly stripped of all garments and transferred them to his own person. He was completely attired in every detail, including a top hat. No sooner had he finished his toilet than he felt a pair of hands furtively investigating his body. Mr. Pebble froze in his tracks and tried to emulate the position of the figure he had just denuded. Suddenly his hat was deftly whisked from his head. Mr. Pebble made no remonstrance. The next minute one of his feet was lifted from the floor and the pump flipped from it. This happened to the other foot, and still Mr. Pebble made no demur. But when his trousers were firmly seized and neatly slipped down his legs he thought it was high time to take a little interest in himself.
"Whoever you are," he said in his most formal tones, "be so good as to put those trousers back where you found them. Also the shoes and hat."
"All right, boss," came the depressed voice of Nockashima. "You must look so nice. Not first time I undress you. He! He! Where I put pants?"
"Where I usually wear them, Nocka," replied Rex Pebble patiently. "On the legs and middle section." When the little servant had finished redressing him, Mr. Pebble patted him affectionately on the shoulder. "Sorry to have disappointed you. Better luck next time. Go find an outfit of your own."
"I go, boss," replied Nockashima. "I array myself like baron. All very fine."
But like many whose hearts are overflowing with the best intentions, Nockashima soon became discouraged and finally desperate. This unsettled state of mind led to another contretemps.
Spray Summers, who had got herself into something rather good in the line of an evening gown, was at first a little flattered when she felt masculine hands laid upon her. However, she remained motionless and silent until she had assured herself that the hands were on friendly business. When her step-ins were seized and zipped from their place of repose she did not scream as would have some women, but merely satisfied her emotions by giving the unseen gentleman a playful little push. What was her surprise when she received a push back of such vigor that the breath was nearly knocked from her body. Staggeringback, she rallied her forces, shook her head like a dazed boxer, then gamely returned to the assault. No matter how friendly his intentions, this man must be taught a lesson. His advances had been satisfactorily direct. Those step-ins had been handled with the deftness of an expert. But the man's idea of playfulness was altogether too rough. He needed a little polishing to make him entirely acceptable. She would be forced to show the fellow that there was a right way and a wrong way to everything. In such affairs technique meant much to a lady. There was nothing to be gained in crippling a woman one intended to amuse later on. Therefore, when this time Spray Summers unleashed a blow in the darkness, she did so with a will. The flat of her swiftly traveling hand forcibly encountered a closely cropped head. There was a sudden gasp, the sound of a body operating out of control, then an alarming crash of glass as a show case was definitely and permanently put out of business. Spray smiled grimly but not for long. If he returned to her after that one, she reflected, he would be a determined chap indeed. And return he did, but in no soliciting mood. Spray felt herself grasped firmly round the knees, lifted from the floor, then violently deposited thereon. For a moment or so she sat moodily where she had landed and rubbed the spot of contact. Then she sighed. This last attack of her unseen admirer was sufficiently ruthless to convince her that no matter how agreeable he ultimately intended to be, he was certainly making a shambles of things at the present moment. In short, the ends failed to justify the means. The wear and tear was too terrific.
Heaving herself to her hands and knees, she was about to crawl from the field, using the better part of valor for an excuse, when she was seized from behind and the slippers—a size too large—dragged from her feet.
"What the hell!" she muttered, twisting her head back over her shoulder. "I say there, are you still playing, or are you mad at me?"
"Not each," came back the answer. "Striving to retain life in small body. Also to disguise same beneath alien garments."
Spray was appalled. The cool effrontery of this imp from some Japanese hell made her momentarily speech-less.
"Will you stop trying to disguise yourself beneath my garments?" she demanded at last. "Give me back my shoes and pants. You deliberately stole them from me."
"Not steal, madam," said Nockashima. "All charged up. Very sorry. Every figure I attempt to uncover turns into angry being. 'Go 'way, vile Jap,' all say. Night of vast frustration. Here things, madam. Want me to slip on?"
"You slip on through the darkness," replied Spray. "And don't come near me for years."
"As I thought," said Nocka, sorrowfully. "Once more driven round about. Don't angry, madam. Maybe I suicide in own blood. Not sure, though. Maybe dogs of flatties mangle first. Where are dogs of flatties? I not see one."
"Don't trouble to look for them," advised Spray a little more kindly. "They'll find us soon enough."
Nocka suddenly giggled.
"I thought you dog of flattie," he told her. "Fight grimly for life."
"Dogs don't wear pants, Nocka," she informed him.
"Dogs of flatties might," he argued. "How I know? Dogs of flatties adopt confusing disguise, maybe. I not surprise if do. What a romp we had. I almost repose in glass casket like famous Russian redman."
"Are you still drunk, Nockashima?"
"A mere pushover," replied Nocka. "I suspend, madam."
"I wish you could find a drink." Spray's voice sounded wistful.
"Wish could," said Nocka. "No disgrace in valiant endeavor. I worm in search, teeteringly. Excuse please, madam."
Spray listened to his quiet departure for a few minutes, then she no longer had to strain her ears. A great rumpus somewhere out in the black void apprised her of the fact that the little yellow man had once more established contact with an angry being.
"Take your hands off me, whoever you are," she heard Hal, the fireman, declaiming. "Neither man nor beast is going to handle me that way."
Seemingly the small creature was out of luck again. Feeling a little sorry for him and a lot more for herself, Spray rose slowly from the floor and rearranged her dress and things.
While she was thus engaged, several lights flooded on in various parts of the store. The darkness was decimated. She glanced quickly around, then froze in her tracks. Other than the invading policemen there seemed to be no sign of life. This was due to the fact that, like herself, each member of the Pebble party stood poised in a position of suspended animation. Major Jaffey was modishly attired in a checked cap and light raglan. Hal, the fire-man, looking like an example of what the well dressed man was not wearing, had rigged himself up in a cross between a yachting outfit and a riding costume, retaining the worst features of each. Of Nockashima there was no sign.
"They're hiding on us," said Pat Murphy in a low voice. "Spread out and comb the floor."
Looking tremendously impressive in his evening clothes, Mr. Pebble stepped forward and confronted Officer Murphy.
"Murphy," he said severely, "I would like to know just what you and your men mean by making a play-ground of this store? I am chairman of the board of directors and have a perfect right to be here. I was telephoned to during a party I was giving and forced to hurry right down. If you haven't a satisfactory explanation, I'm afraid things are going to go very badly with you."
"Sorry, sir," said Murphy. "We were looking for a thing that was half fireman and half lady. One of the halves turned to a wild beast right before our eyes."
"I'm sorry, Murphy," said Rex Pebble regretfully. "When your buttons are popping off, just think of what you've been telling me."
"But this store was full of robbers and things," Pat desperately assured Mr. Pebble. "Ask any of the boys. We saw 'em and we heard 'em. Look, sir, that case is smashed a bit."
"True," admitted Rex Pebble. "I want to be fair and reasonable. We heard that disturbance. Perhaps robbers are in the store. If so, it is your duty to apprehend them. In the meantime have one of your men open a door and let us out."
With a stately stride Rex Pebble walked to the nearest door, a policeman preceding him. To the surprise and consternation of Pat Murphy and his brother officers the figures of a woman and two men suddenly came to life and followed their leader. Well in the rear glided the most surprising of all the figures. It was the stiff, lifeless form of a store model clad in the costume of a maid. This model had two pairs of feet, only one pair of which was moving.
"Look," cried Pat, pointing. "Look, for the love of God! It moves and it's not alive."
Major Jaffey, with great presence of mind, lifted the strange object in his arms and bore it to the door.
"It's the lady's maid," he explained over his shoulder. "The poor girl's scared stiff."
When the Pebble party was a safe distance from the store, the Major set his burden down, and the small body of the little yellow man was extracted with some difficulty, owing to the fact that various parts of him had become wedged within the hollow shell of his temporarily adopted habitation.
"Unable to disrobe one similar to Fifi in time," Nockashima explained blinkingly. "I attack from under. Amazed at own brilliance. What say, boss?"
"Ask that dimunitive Japanese maniac to say as little as possible to me for at least ten minutes," Rex Pebble said to Spray. "I will need all of that time to rehabilitate my poise. We are now going home—to my home, for a change."
"Look what I apprehend," announced Nocka, producing the lion's head from some recess within the shell of his recent disguise. "I bring home to Mist' Henry, and he bound with alarm."
Without a word Rex Pebble turned on his heel and led the way through the night.
Later that same night Officer Pat Murphy encountered the abandoned model of the maid leaning dejectedly against a wall. It was only after questioning it closely for some minutes that he discovered the object was not alive.
"I knew all along," he said to the fading stars, "there was some monkey business going on."
But when he gave his report to the sergeant he made no mention of his discovery. Things were bad enough to explain as they were, without adding another mystery to the list.
|Previous Chapter||Contents||Next Chapter|