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Skin And Bones
From Bed to Bed
THE first report of the revolver galvanised all legs present into desperate action. And with each subsequent explosion those legs got busier and busier.
The Whittles, led by the bellboy, fled in one direction; Mr. Bland with the man behind him sprinted in the other. And Mr. Bland did very well. He tried to do even better. The prospect of being blown to powder to make life easier for a vacuum cleaner added many inches to his stride.
As Mr. Bland bounded past the floor telephone operator, that courageous young woman promptly plugged in on the desk clerk. He had just relieved Mr. Booker, so the operator's information was all news to him.
"There's a skeleton up here," said the girl. "He's running through the halls."
"What's that to you?" snapped the clerk. "A guest in this hotel has a perfect right to be as thin as he wants."
"This one's a real skeleton," said the girl, unemotionally.
"Well," replied the clerk, "you're not so fat yourself."
"And a man is shooting at him," went on the girl, disregarding any implied dissatisfaction with her figure.
"Who's doing the shooting?" the clerk wanted to know.
"That person in 1782," replied the girl.
"Up to his old tricks, eh?" said the desk clerk. "Well, you can tell him for the management that if he pulls another murder in this hotel we'll throw him out on his ear."
"He's in no mood to listen," replied the operator.
"He's nothing but a drunken gangster," said the clerk, a little irritably.
"That's quite a lot to be," said the girl and pulled out the plug.
In the meantime Mr. Bland was weaving his frantic way down the long, heavily carpeted corridor. Bullets were either speeding past him or through him. He could not be sure what the bullets were doing, but from the speed he was making he felt satisfied he was still alive. He pranced round a corner and ran into a volley of shrieks issuing from a door on his right. Some woman was in mortal terror of her life. Forgetting his own peril, Mr. Bland flung open the door and sprang into the room, slamming the door behind him.
A brutal-looking man was busily choking a scantily clad woman. Mr. Bland noticed she was wearing cerise-coloured garters. He was not sure he liked them, then decided they looked excitingly meretricious. The rest of the woman was in keeping with her garters. She could still be a useful and active member of society if she were not choked too much.
Upon the entrance of Mr. Bland the man gave the woman a rest and looked over one shoulder to see who had so rudely interrupted his pleasant occupation. When he got it through his head that he was looking at a heavily panting skeleton he froze in his position, one great hand still open, as if waiting for a throat to fill it. When the girl saw the skeleton she closed her eyes and thrust her neck back into the extended hand.
"Go on and choke me," she said in a flat voice. "Finish me off quickly before that thing has a chance to drag me down to hell."
For the moment the man had lost his taste for any further murderous activity. He backed away from the girl, allowing her body to fall on the bed. Mr. Bland moved away from the door. If the brutal man wanted to go, there was nothing to be gained in preventing him. Mr. Bland would be only too glad to see the last of him.
The man made a rush for the door and seized the knob, pausing for a moment to glare back at the girl on the bed.
"I see how it is," he cried. "I see everything."
Mr. Bland looked more closely at the girl.
"Don't leave me alone with that," she pleaded.
"Acting!" cried the man. "Always acting! Not content with snatching them from the cradle, you also snatch them from the grave. I'm going to get a gun and blow you both to bits."
"That makes two marksmen," thought Mr. Bland as the door closed on the brutal man's exit.
He turned and considered the girl lying half crouched on the bed.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he told her.
"What else can you do?" she asked, sitting up quite unexpectedly and fluffing out her hair, which was, Mr. Bland noted, almost the colour of her garters.
"Are you suggesting games?" he asked her. "Anything that's friendly," the girl replied. "I'm tired of being choked."
At that moment the voice of the drunken gambler sounded in the hall.
"Where are you?" it shouted. "Hey, skeleton, come on out and take your medicine. Back to the grave for you."
A loud report immediately followed this uncongenial suggestion, and a bullet buried itself in the door. Mr. Bland had no desire either to take any medicine or to go back to the grave. He dived into the girl's bed and pulled the covers up over his skull.
"Your beard is sticking out," she told him.
"Tuck it in, won't you?" he asked her. "There's a man outside with a gun."
"It would take a lot more than gunplay," said the girl, "to get me to tuck that beard in bed."
"What's wrong with the beard?" Mr. Bland demanded.
"It isn't human, if you want to know," she answered.
"A beard isn't supposed to be human," he told her. "It's merely a decoration."
"Come on out," cried the voice of the gangster. "Hey, skeleton, come on out. I hear you whispering in there."
A second shot lodged in the heavy door.
This was a little too strong for the girl. She tumbled into the bed and pulled up the covers on her side.
"Just because you saved my life," she whispered, "don't think you've a right to get gay."
"Gay," muttered Mr. Bland. "My dear young lady, I'm feeling far from that."
"Don't blame you," whispered the girl. "I couldn't be gay either if a man was looking for me with a gun. Think it's all right, me being in bed with a skeleton?"
"It's all right with me," said Mr. Bland. "As a matter of fact, I'm glad you're here. Being shot at by strangers is one of the loneliest feelings in the world."
"Did anybody ever choke you?" asked the girl.
"Not yet," said Mr. Bland.
"Well, that isn't any fun, either," she told him.
"This seems to be a very violent sort of hotel," observed Mr. Bland.
"It is," agreed the girl. "You can get away with murder here as long as you pay your bill."
"I hope that man owes a lot," said Mr. Bland.
The door banged open, and the drunken gangster stood on the threshold.
"Hey, skeleton," he called; then, seeing a girl in the bed, he addressed himself to her: "Have you seen a dirty skeleton?" he asked her.
Mr. Bland did not like this description of himself one little bit. Lorna called him a dirty man, and this drunken gangster called him a dirty skeleton. Something should be done about it, but all he could do at the moment was to lie quite still and hope against hope his beard would remain undetected.
"No," replied the girl, "but I saw a dusty skeleton once in a sideshow."
The drunken gangster shook his head in a dull way. His lips fumbled for the words before they formed and spoke them.
"This was a dirty damned skeleton," he said with stupid gravity, "this skeleton I'm looking for. Thought he'd come back to torture me, but I showed him different. I put him in his grave once and I'll put him there again. The damn' thing's wearing a beard. I don't care if he wears a dozen, understand?"
Mr. Bland thought this over. He fervently wished he had a dozen beards. A dozen beards like the one he had on would make a fur coat, not a long one, perhaps, but adequate for the purposes of concealment. The girl beside him was speaking. Her voice sounded coolly annoyed. As Mr. Bland listened he reflected that women were at their best when they had something to conceal. They generally came up to scratch. Man with his arrogance and physical superiority had forged a weapon against himself and placed it in the mouth of a woman.
"Why are you confiding all this in me?" asked the girl. "I'm not your big sister. If you'd stop stuffing my door with bullets I'd try to get a little sleep."
"I won't be able to sleep," said the man, "until I've put that skeleton—that dirty skeleton —into a can of tooth powder."
"That man is a sheer genius," thought Mr. Bland. "He can think of the most amusing things to do with me. I'd hate like hell to be cooped up in a can of tooth powder. A vacuum cleaner would give me a better run for my money."
The man turned to the door, then turned back again and made a sudden lunge across the room to the bed. Mr. Bland had just sufficient time to snatch off his beard and thrust it under a pillow before the bedclothes were dragged from his body.
"Jeeze!" said the gangster. "He's as naked as a babe."
The familiar comparison sounded quaint on the gunman's lips.
"What!" exclaimed the girl in genuine surprise. "Why, so he is. I don't think I ever saw a nakeder man."
"Don't look!" cried Mr. Bland.
Frantically he ploughed up the bedclothes like a dog digging sand. Both modesty and caution prompted him to cover himself as speedily as possible. He had been changing form so frequently since arriving at the hotel that he was afraid he might return to a skeleton at any moment.
"Why don't you go skeleton-shooting?" he demanded, indignantly. "You're wasting three people's time here, and that's too much for any one man."
"Jeeze, mister," said the gunman, apologetically, "I'm sorry, honestly I am. Thought you might be that dirty skeleton."
"Are you thoroughly convinced I'm not?"
"Sure," said the man. "I could tell you wasn't a skeleton."
"So could I," said the girl in an ominous voice.
"But if you see that skeleton," went on the gangster, "just give me a shout. I'll be sneaking along the halls. You can tell him by his beard. You won't like it."
"Why should I?" said Mr. Bland. "On the spur of the moment I can't think of any beard that claims my admiration."
Holding his automatic ready for immediate action, the gangster placed a finger to his lips, winked frightfully, and left the room.
"I wouldn't be in your spot for all of Radio city," said the girl as soon as the man had gone.
"What do you mean?" asked Mr. Bland a little nervously.
"That's easy," replied the girl, sitting up in bed. "If you stay the way you are, my boy friend will shoot you, and if you change back to a skeleton, that drunken thug will fill you full of lead."
"His present plans are much more elaborate than that," said Mr. Bland, moodily. "You heard what he said about a can of tooth powder. His heart is set on putting me in one."
"That's what you get for diving into my bed under false pretences," declared the girl. "I don't know what manner of man you are, or how you pull your stuff, but I do know that a skeleton is the last thing in the world a lady in bed wants to see."
"I'd better be going now before your boy friend comes back with his gun," said Mr. Bland.
As he half rose in the bed, the girl flung two cool arms round his neck.
"This," she whispered, "is for saving my life."
And she gave him a long and experienced kiss.
How long it might have lasted will never be known, for it was rudely interrupted by a ferocious cry from the door.
"By God, what a woman!" came the furious voice of the boy friend. "First a grinning skeleton and then a naked man."
Under such unfavourable circumstances all the laws of decency were so much unnecessary ballast. Mr. Bland snatched his beard and sprang from the bed. He could never recall how he got himself out of the room, but he had a vivid recollection of dashing down a long corridor while bullets overtook and passed him. This time he was pursued by both the boy friend and the gangster, the latter apparently willing to shoot at any moving object.
Although Mr. Bland could outrun his pursuers, he could not hope to equal the speed of their bullets. With a pang of alarm he realised it would be a matter of only a short time before one or more of these missiles laid him low. Putting a corner between himself and his two unreasonable enemies, Mr. Bland turned sharply to the left and disappeared down an off jutting hallway. It was not such a good move. The passage was a short one and offered no outlet. Mr. Bland was forced to choose between one of two doors. The first one was uncompromisingly locked. The second one gave to his hand. In went Mr. Bland and into another bed, this one also attractively filled by a woman, as were most of the beds in that hotel.
"Heavens! What a rush you're in," said a sleepy voice. "Didn't you stop to lock the door?"
"I'll lock it in a minute," Mr. Bland panted.
"It isn't very tidy to fling yourself into bed with your clothes on," continued the sleepy voice, "shoes and all."
"I haven't any clothes," muttered Mr. Bland. "Not a stitch."
"Haven't you?" said the woman beside him, reaching out a hand. "Why, I should say you haven't. Don't see how you did it."
Mr. Bland shrank back in the bed.
"You mustn't do that," he said, reprovingly.
"Why not, I'd like to know?" the woman demanded.
This time she reached out two hands and rolled over on her side. They both screamed at the same time and almost in the same key.
"I told you you shouldn't do it," said Mr. Bland.
"I thought you were a different man," replied the woman.
"Oh, dear," said Mr. Bland. "Don't tell me you're expecting a different man."
"I certainly am," the woman told him. "He will be here at any minute. That's why I left the door unlocked."
"Does he carry a gun, too?" asked Mr. Bland.
"Does he carry a gun?" said the woman with a hard laugh. "My man isn't a lizzie. He carries two guns."
"One would be more than enough," Mr. Bland replied in a heavy voice. "There are two guns already after me. I might just as well lie here and get shot in comfort."
"But you can't lie here," the woman protested. "He's likely to kill us both."
"A gun for each," said Mr. Bland with a shudder.
"And then it isn't nice," continued the woman, as if the idea had just occurred to her. "A lady shouldn't allow naked strangers to come bounding into her bed. What did you do with your clothes?"
"Another lady has them," said Mr. Bland in a hopeless voice. "At least I think she has. The last time I saw her she was running with them along the corridor."
"Gord," breathed the woman. "You're a terrible sort of man. Mean to say you got undressed in the hall?"
"No," said Mr. Bland. "In the lobby."
"In the lobby!" exclaimed the woman. "Did the lady get undressed there, too?"
"No," said Mr. Bland. "Just me. I was doing tricks."
"Getting undressed in that lobby is a trick in itself," observed the woman. "Wonder the management let you."
"I was a skeleton then," said Mr. Bland.
"You're hardly more than one now," the woman told him.
"I mean I was a real skeleton," explained Mr. Bland. "All bones and no flesh at all. I've been changing to a skeleton on and off all day."
This last piece of information was a little more than the woman could bear. She slipped out of the bed and from a safe distance stood nervously watching Mr. Bland, who was now wearing his beard. The woman gasped and put a hand to her eyes.
"Please don't play any more tricks in here," she said. "Go on back to the lobby and have a good time."
"I haven't had a good time in years," Mr. Bland told her.
The door opened quietly and a tall, powerful, competent-looking man entered the room. With purposeful deliberation he drew two automatics and levelled them at Mr. Bland.
"So you haven't had a good time in years," said the man in a mocking voice. "Well, I'm sorry to interrupt, but you're not going to have one now. You're going to have the worst time you ever had in your life."
"I've been having it all morning," answered Mr. Bland in a small dull voice.
"You can't shoot him," said the woman, throwing her arms about the man. "Look at his long white beard. He's old enough to be my grandfather."
"I don't want to look at his beard," replied the man, struggling to free himself from the woman's arms. "He might be old enough to be your grandfather, but he still has young ideas. Let me at him."
Tired as he was, Mr. Bland sprang from the bed. While the man and the woman were struggling, he succeeded in opening the door andgetting into the hall. This time as he fled through the corridors he was pursued by three heavily armed men, the other two suddenly appearing the moment the two-gun stranger opened fire on the fleeing Bland.
"The management of this hotel is very lax," he reflected as he endeavoured to equalise the discrepancy in numbers by running three times faster. "Very lax indeed. It's all very well to let guests have a good time occasionally, but there's no sense in allowing three murderers to chase a man through the halls."
His reflections were cut short by the sudden appearance of a woman at the far end of the corridor. As well as Mr. Bland could make out she was partially clad in a bath towel. She was so excited that apparently she forgot the sparse state of her attire, for she quickly snatched off the towel and waved it frantically at Mr. Bland.
"That," thought Mr. Bland, "must be about the only woman in this hotel who hasn't any so-called boy friend. She seems to want to see me."
When he reached the woman he discovered she was Pauline Whittle.
"My God!" he panted. "Don't wave that towel at me. Throw it around you somewhere. I can tell who you are."
"The hell with all that," she retorted, seizing him by the hand. "This is no time to stand on ceremony. Quick!"
She pulled him through the door, and together they raced for the bed. Mr. Bland was too exhausted to cover himself up. Pauline performed that office, then flung herself in his arms.
"I'm so frightened," she murmured, lazily.
"You don't act it," said Mr. Bland. "Where's your husband?"
"He's gone out to look for you," she told him. "Save me from those bad, bad men."
"Listen, Pauline," said Mr. Bland, "this is the third bed I've been in this morning, and each time I get in a bed another man appears with a gun. I'm getting sick and tired of it. I can't get rid of them. They keep chasing me about the halls and popping off their guns at me. If this keeps up there'll be so many gunmen wanting to take a shot at me they'll have to make appointments."
"Were there women in the other beds?" Pauline wanted to know.
"Is that all that interests you," demanded Mr. Bland, "with three murderers waiting outside that door ready to blow me to bits?"
"Did you try to get in bed with them?"
"No," said Mr. Bland. "I got in bed with their women."
"Did the women mind?" Pauline asked.
"They were much more adaptable," said Mr. Bland with some dignity, "than their boy friends."
"I'm adaptable, too," Pauline told him. "Why don't you take off your beard?"
"I won't," said Mr. Bland. "You're more than adaptable. You're damn' well depraved."
At this moment Mr. Whittle walked into the room and stood regarding the couple in the bed.
"There are a lot of rough-looking men standing outside the door," he announced, "and all of them are holding great big guns in their hands."
"Have you a gun by any chance?" Mr. Bland asked, uneasily.
"No," replied Mr. Whittle. "I couldn't hurt a fly, but if Pauline doesn't get out of that bed I'll beat her within an inch of her life."
"That," said Mr. Bland with a feeling of deep relief, "is what I call the reasonable attitude to take."
Outside the door the waiting gunmen were conversing in low voices.
"He's the damnedest man for women I ever saw," proclaimed the strangler. "I chase him out of my Jane's bed, and by God, he runs smack into the arms of a naked woman waiting for him in the hall."
"After first having got in bed with my girl," said the man with two guns.
"With all of us shooting at him," observed the man in search of a skeleton, "you'd think he'd cut it out for a while."
When Mr. Whittle appeared among them and busily entered his room the three gunmen fastened their eyes expectantly on the closed door.
"If that guy doesn't shoot him down," said the strangler, "we'll get him when he rushes out."
But Mr. Bland never appeared, and eventually the gunmen abandoned their vigil.
"I know what it is," said the strangler in tones of deep disgust. "I learned all about it in France, during the war. Them Frenchies call it a ménagerie à trois."
And that was just about what it became after the Whittles and Mr. Bland had finished the second bottle.
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