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Skin And Bones


Thorne Smith


The Whittles Reappear

IT was an inspiration on Mr. Bland's part to think of Claude Whittle. Both Whittle and his wife were cast in an imperturbable mould. They could take an animated skeleton in their stride without batting an eyelid. More than that, they could bring themselves to associate with that same skeleton on terms of unstrained equality. Sound people in a tight fix. Mr. Bland was certain that if any man's fix was tight, his was that fix. Accordingly he dialled Mr. Whittle's hotel and was soon connected with that gentleman himself.

"Hello, Whittle," he said when a mild voice at the other end of the line had announced that its owner was there. "This is Quintus Bland."

"What a name that first half is," said the mild voice, plaintively. "You can't imagine how silly it sounds just coming out of nowhere, although when I saw you last you were nearly next to nothing yourself. It's raining."

"Listen," said Mr. Bland, "are you sure you've finished about my name and your zippy little weather reports? I'm paying for this call and you're using it all up."

"People so seldom telephone me," Mr. Whittle explained, "I'm actually telephone hungry—starved, I might say. Famished. Where's your body now?"

"That's just the trouble. I haven't any body."

"But you did have some body? Is that it? I'm no detective. Never was."

"Don't you ever stop drinking?" Mr. Bland demanded. "I'll try again. Listen well. I did have a body only a few minutes ago, but the damned thing has done a bunk on me and left me stranded in the D.L. & W. station with a long white beard and no place to go."

"Whose beard is it?" asked Mr. Whittle.

"Does that mean a lot to you?" Mr. Bland replied, impatiently.

"No," admitted the mild voice, reflectively, "but it's sort of interesting. You have a beard, you say, and it's white. That means you have a white beard when one really gets down to brass tacks. What more do you want—another beard?"

"God, no!" exclaimed Mr. Bland, slipping another coin in the slot at the urgent behest of the operator. "I've got enough beard to last one a lifetime if I'm careful. I want you to come over here and get me."

"You or the beard?" asked Mr. Whittle. "Me in the beard," said Mr. Bland.

"Will you wear the beard for me?" the mild voice asked with increased animation.

"What do you think I'm going to do with it, wave it like a flag?"

"You could," said Mr. Whittle after a short pause. "That is, if it's long enough, and the way I figure it, a beard doesn't have to be so long to be waved like a flag. I'm to look for a skeleton in a white beard, is that it?"

"You're to be prepared for a skeleton in a white beard," Mr. Bland told him.

"Oh, I won't mind greatly," said Mr. Whittle. "You're not as bad as loathsome reptiles, at any rate. If I could stand you in a pillowcase I guess I won't baulk at a beard. Where will you be?"

"In one of those private washrooms."

"Oh, I know those places," said Mr. Whittle. "Went to sleep in one of them once and they thought I'd committed suicide."

"You were drunk," said Mr. Bland.

"Yes," said Mr. Whittle, sorrowfully, "I was drunk."

"You won't be long, will you?" asked Mr. Bland, a note of real anxiety creeping into his voice. "And you won't forget all about me?"

"Certainly not," protested Whittle. "Pauline will remind me. She's collected my clothes already. There's something morbid about that woman the way she falls for the abnormal. She wants to know if your beard flows."

"Freely," said Mr. Bland, "and without stint."

"I can hardly wait," came the mild voice of Mr. Whittle. "How will I know which one you are in?"

"Just call my name softly," replied Mr. Bland, "and I'll snap right out."

"Well, don't snap out too fast," said Mr. Whittle. "I'm willing, but my heart is weak, and your beard might get caught in the door. I won't say 'I'll be seeing you,' because the last person who said that to me I called an exceptionally vile name. Shall I ring off now?"

"Why not?" said Mr. Bland.

"All right, I'll do it," the voice of Whittle replied, "but isn't it funny, me looking for a skeleton with a white beard in a gentleman's private washroom. Don't you think so, or do you know of something funnier?"

"I'll tell you when I see you," said Mr. Bland. "Get started."

"Don't forget," came the voice of Whittle, faintly. "I'm going now. Good-bye."

Mr. Bland returned the receiver to the hook and got himself into a private washroom as unobtrusively as possible, warning the Negro attendant not to disturb him until called for. When the Negro looked at the size of his tip, each tooth in his head fairly gleamed its gratitude.

"Thank you, boss," he said. "Thank you kindly. You can stay a solid month, and if you want your meals brought in, I'm your man."

Mr. Bland entered the small room and, knowing the casual ways of the Whittles, sat down and prepared himself to wait for an indefinite period. However, on this occasion Claude Whittle did not tarry long on the way. About an hour after Mr. Bland had heard his voice over the wire he heard it again outside the door to his room.

"George," Mr. Whittle was saying to the attendant, "I'm looking for a white beard feebly supported by a tall, thin gentleman. Have you seen anything like it?"

"Sure have, boss," replied the attendant. "He's right in there, suh, and he can stay just as long as he wants."

"Good!" cried Mr. Whittle; then, slightly elevating his voice: "Señor Toledo, how long do you want to stay in there?"

"Señor Toledo doesn't want to stay in here another minute longer," replied Mr. Bland. "Señor Toledo comes."

Unlatching the door, he stepped out and faced Mr. Whittle. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he outfaced that gentleman, for after one swift look at Mr. Bland and his beard, Mr. Whittle's eyes fell.

"Well?" said Mr. Bland, feeling somewhat self-conscious. "What do you think of me?"

"Don't let's take that up at this moment," replied Mr. Whittle. "Give me a little time to analyse my emotions. I will say this, however, you're not an anticlimax. Pauline has a taxi waiting."

The door to the taxi swung open at the approach of Mr. Bland and his escort. A woman's low voice came from the semi-darkness of its interior.

"Is he wearing any drawers?" Pauline wanted to know.

"How about yourself?" snapped Mr. Bland as he jack-knifed himself through the low door.

"What do you think I am?" asked Pauline Whittle, indignantly. "A prude?"

"Do you know what she's trying to get at?" inquired Mr. Whittle in his mild, patient manner.

"I hope she isn't trying to get at anything," replied Mr. Bland.

"Come, come," said Mr. Whittle.

"I asked merely because I want to have a clear understanding of the situation," Pauline explained. "If his trousers fall off in the lobby it would be well to have a second line of defence."

"My drawers are no defence at all," said Mr. Bland. "They're a second source of anxiety. If my trousers fall off in the lobby my drawers will accompany them. They have always been too large."

"I say, lady," said the taxi driver, thrusting his head through the partition window, "is there anything criminal in this?"

"There is," replied Pauline. "Now do you feel at home?"

"It's all right by me," said the driver, "but that's a damn' poor disguise. The dumbest flattie on the force could spot him a mile off."

"We're not going to let him play with flatties," said Pauline. "He's keeping under cover. Snap to it and drive on. You're carrying the oldest gunman in the world. He's likely to knock you over just in the spirit of fun."

"Okay, lady," said the driver. "Tell the old murderer I'm on his side."

The Whittles lived in a large and ostentatious uptown hotel. About it there was no suggestion of home atmosphere. For this reason the Whittles liked it, never having been able to get through their heads what home life was all about. It was frankly a pagan temple, this huge structure dominating the Gay White Way. It offered every modern convenience except a morgue. Its Turkish baths and dormitories did much to keep gangsters both clean and sober. In luxurious suites of rooms beautiful women lived not such beautiful lives. And almost everybody had a good time until he was either shot down or kicked out. So far the Whittles had managed to avoid both of these unpleasant occurrences.

When the trio emerged from the taxi its bearded member was discovered wearing Mr. Whittle's raincoat. It was much too short for him, but that slight detail made little difference. Mr. Bland could look no worse than he did regard-less of what he wore.

"Pull your coat collar up and your hat brim down," Pauline commanded, "and hang on to your pants and beard."

"Trousers," muttered Mr. Bland. "I keep on telling you."

The desk clerk's name was Booker, and his eyes were harassed and weary from looking into so many different types of faces. Booker believed there was not a face in all the world of which he had not seen the counterpart. He promptly revised his opinion when he looked into Mr. Bland's. Confronted by this somewhat synthetic gentleman, Booker for once lost his air of cynical detachment. He held his left hand up before his eyes and told off the fingers with his right. Once more he looked at the bearded face as if still unconvinced. Then he repeated the performance, only this time he held up his right hand and counted its fingers with the left.

"Why are you doing that?" asked Mr. Bland. "You're making me very nervous."

"You've already made me that," said Booker. "I was trying to discover if I was losing my eyesight. I almost wish I were."

"This gentleman is a friend of ours," Pauline Whittle explained. "He wants a large room with a bath."

"I should say," replied Booker, "the gentleman wanted a doctor, or a barber, or better still, a hearse."

"Nonsense," snapped Mrs. Whittle. "Señor Toledo is a distinguished Spanish magician."

"Then Señor Toledo should play some tricks on himself," said the clerk. "He'll have a hard time holding an audience if he doesn't do something about his appearance."

Annoyed, Mr. Bland held two fleshless fingers directly beneath Booker's nose, then snapped them suddenly. The resulting noise was not unlike the explosion of a small firecracker.

"Bah to you," said Mr. Bland. "Do I get a room or don't I?"

"I guess you get a room all right," replied Booker, "but I hope to heaven you stay in it until you've decided to change your make-up. It might go big in Spain, but it's a little too strong for Broadway."

"I'll knock them cold," said Mr. Bland.

"You will that," agreed the clerk. "I'm chilly as hell myself—pardon my language, Mrs. Whittle."

"Don't show off," replied Pauline, "or pretend you have any gentlemanly instincts left, if you ever had any to begin with."

Mr. Booker grinned and, summoning a bellboy, handed him the key to 1707.

"Take Señor Toledo to his room," said Booker, "and see that he stays there—I mean, see that he's made comfortable."

As they were turning away from the desk, Mr. Bland was politely accosted by a small, suave individual with piercing eyes and a black goatee.

"Pardon me," said this gentleman, deftly extracting a visiting card from Mr. Bland's beard, "but did I hear this lady say you were Señor Toledo, a distinguished Spanish magician?"

"You did," announced Pauline, aggressively. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Simply this, madam," said the stranger, suddenly wiggling his chin like a rabbit and flipping his goatee into oblivion. "I am the Great Girasol, the mysterious jewel of all magicians. What did you think of that?"

"Great Scott!" exclaimed the simple-minded Mr. Whittle. "The little beggar fairly tossed his beard away."

"Yeah," put in Pauline, nastily. "Well, just keep your eyes on our entry. Come on, Señor Toledo, show this rank amateur some real hot stuff."

By this time they found themselves in the centre of a circle of spectators, all intent on extracting the last ounce of amusement from whatever was taking place, which is a good old New York custom. Mr. Bland glanced nervously about him, then looked at the inflexible Pauline. Previously he had suspected, but now he felt convinced, that both she and her husband had been drinking.

"Do you mean," he asked, uneasily, "right out here in front of all these people?"

"Why not?" she retorted. "Girasol started it. Show the little geezer up, or I'll leave you flat."

For a moment Mr. Bland pondered. He knew that as he stood he was the most remarkable man in the world, yet he felt disinclined to demonstrate that fact before so many spectators. Nevertheless he could not allow this challenge to pass. Pauline had already announced to the world that he was Señor Toledo, a distinguished Spanish magician. He could not let her down. He took another look at the mysterious jewel of all magicians, then quickly made up his mind. Girasol was strutting like a game cock, a smug smile on his vividly red lips.

"All right," said Mr. Bland. "For the honour of dear old Spain."

He stepped back a pace, then gave his skull a violent snap. When he looked up, the white beard was resting beneath his left ear.

"What do you think of that?" he demanded. "Girasol did better," said a voice in the crowd. "He made his beard disappear."

"That's all very well," another voice argued, "but look at the difference in the sizes of the beards. Girasol's beard you could put in a thimble. You'd have to get a truck to lug that other brush away."

Pauline was somewhat disappointed in Mr. Bland's effort, but she did not show it.

"Swell work, Toledo," she said. "That's got the little guy guessing."

The Great Girasol held up a hand for silence.

"Observe," he said in a magnificently deep voice, then quite casually tossed his left arm away. "Match that if you can."

Before the cries of horror and approval of the spectators had died away, Mr. Bland, now thoroughly aroused, got into action. Once more he snapped his head, but this time with such violence that his hat flew off with the beard nesting in it. Then he raised his head and presented a grinning skull to the crowd.

"God!" exclaimed a professional gambler. "If they keep it up at this rate they'll be getting rid of themselves entirely."

Girasol looked at Mr. Bland's skull, then blinked several times. Here, indeed, was a new one on him. He was game, however, and did not show his perturbation.

"What did you think of that?" asked Mr. Bland, feeling a little better about himself.

"Good," admitted Girasol, "but not good enough. Watch this!"

He extended his right arm in the air and snatched back his left, which he fitted into place, then with a wriggle of his chin he somehow succeeded in recapturing his black goatee.

"Thank Gord," said a well-kept blonde. "If he'd started in flinging his legs away I'd of gone clean batty."

"Get in there, Toledo," Pauline urged. "Get in the game and show them what you're made of."

"Shall I?" asked Mr. Bland.

"Sure," said Mr. Whittle. "Give the Great Girasol the shock of his life."

Without another word Mr. Bland busily stripped himself to the waist, then slowly turned around like a mannequin displaying the latest Paris model.

"What do you think of that?" he asked the Great Girasol.

Girasol was sweating. He mopped his fore-head and made a heroic effort to pull himself together. The spectators gazed at Mr. Bland with a mixture of admiration and revulsion in their dilated eyes.

"Don't know why I'm standing here," came the voice of the well-kept blonde. "That Spanish lad has aged me ten years already."

"You can see clean through his ribs," whispered the gambler, "and out the other side. What manner of man is he?"

The Great Girasol, realising the tide had set against him, made a supreme effort.

"Attend!" he cried. "The Great Girasol will make Señor Toledo look sick."

"He looks every bit of that already," said a well-known racketeer. "He looks damn' well near dead."

Sitting down on the floor, Girasol created the perfect illusion of a man tossing his legs into space.

"What do you think of that?" he cried, turning triumphantly on the partial skeleton.

"I knew it," said the well-kept blonde. "That little guy's been itching to chuck his legs away, and now he's gone and done it. Next thing you know the kid from Spain will be pitching his skull in our laps."

Pauline, tense with excitement, took Mr. Bland aside.

"Girasol has shot his bolt," she whispered. "Now you must shoot yours. Take off your pants and give them everything."

"Trousers," murmured Mr. Bland. "I keep on telling and telling you. Men wear trousers and women wear pants."

"I don't wear either," said Pauline, "but that's another matter."

With a brief nod Mr. Bland stepped forward and tauntingly confronted his rival, then bowed to the spectators.

"Girasol," he said, looking down at the dapper magician, "you'd better get your legs back and be prepared to run. Clap your eyes on this."

Quickly releasing his belt, he stepped out of his trousers; then, kicking off his shoes, he stretched himself to his full height and extended two long, bony arms in the direction of the seated Girasol. That jewel of mystery did not remain long seated. With a startled cry he unfolded his missing legs and sprang to his feet.

"Toledo isn't a magician!" he cried. "He's the son of the devil himself."

And with this parting denunciation the Great Girasol turned on his heel and took both himself and his magic off.

"I don't know but what he's right," observed the well-kept blonde. "I must get myself a facial to get rid of my horror-stricken expression."

Having driven his opponent from the field, Mr. Bland was calmly dressing again.

"Don't trouble about that now, Señor," said Pauline, swiftly gathering up Mr. Bland's abandoned garments. "You can dress in your room."

"I'd like to have my beard," said Mr. Bland. "I don't feel quite so naked with it on."

"Oh, he's got to have his beard," declared Mr. Whittle.

"Take your old beard," said Pauline, "and stick it on your chin."

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