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Topper Takes A Trip
AN INVITATION TO BE MURDERED
'MY friend,' remarked the commissaire as the tumultuous sounds faded with the figure, 'you seem to be known in some rather esoteric circles.'
Before Topper could reply, a harsh voice was heard behind the two men.
'Am I at liberty to leave this awful place?' demanded the wife of the American visiting politician.
Devaux's face froze with pain at the sound of the woman's voice. He closed his eyes as if to retain the memory of the vision they had so recently seen. It was apparent that the good commissaire was exercising the utmost self-control to keep from performing some criminal act himself. France's reputation for politeness was in the balance.
'But certainly, madame,' he managed to produce at last, together with a smile that must have cost him dear. 'And with the utmost expedition. Please be so gracious as to consider the damages entailed by your ladylike conduct in hurling a brick through a hard-working patron's windows entirely on this municipality and the Republic of France itself.'
'My husband will hear of this,' was the gracious manner in which the lady accepted courtesy of the French Republic. The commissaire beamed.
'I hope so, madame,' he exclaimed. 'Perhaps he would honour us with a speech when the new window is installed.'
'I don't know about that,' said the woman doubtfully, her grim features relaxing a little. 'Perhaps he would. He's become a bit choosy about his speeches lately. Nevertheless, it would be an opportunity. The folks back home would get printed copies of it — my name would be mentioned — Betty Sanders would turn green with jealousy and...'
Thus musing the lady departed out of the lives of Monsieur Devaux and Mr Topper. When she had gone the commissaire turned to his former prisoner.
'This night, my friend, I have seen and heard more than is good for a mere police official,' he said. 'Tell me — unofficially, of course — do you know the lady of the pedestal?'
'I know one who looks surprisingly like her,' replied Topper.
'And is it true,' continued the commissaire, 'that sometimes she accompanies you merely as a head and sometimes with even more attractive portions displayed?'
'And frequently none at all,' replied Mr Topper, avoiding a direct admission.
As Topper walked down the street the eyes of Commissaire Devaux followed him enviously.
'Some men have all the luck,' he reflected. 'Could anything be more convenient on occasion than a disappearing mistress?'
Topper did not return to his villa that night. He felt hardly strong enough to look on the shambles the Colonel and his crew must have inevitably made of the place. He took his way to the Splendide, where his reception by the manager was marked by a demeanour of nervous suspicion almost amounting to awe.
As he passed down the hall leading to his quarters a lion's skin got up from the floor and followed him. And as if this were not sufficiently surprising, the lion's skin staggered a little in its gait. A peripatetic lion's skin sans lion is even more demoralizing to one's nervous system than one well filled with lion, although there is scant cause for self-congratulation in the presence of either. Topper's attendant seemed to take that view. So did all the other guests who were privileged to witness the strange procession — Topper being followed by a slightly drunken lion's skin trying to walk stealthily.
Topper looked back once to see what it was all about. Once was more than enough. He did not look again. He merely contented himself with wondering if there was anything under the face of the sun that could not happen to him. When he opened the door for himself — the attendant having been good enough to drop the key in his flight — the lion's skin crowded into the room behind him. Topper closed the door and turned to face his unusual visitor. The lion's skin had squared off and was making hostile passes at the air. Topper was more interested than alarmed. He realized that this was a thing he might never see again in his life — not that he was especially anxious.
'Put 'em up,' came the thick voice of George Kerby. 'Put 'em up, you bed presser. I'm going to give you the beating of your life, Topper, but I'm not going to kill you — not quite.'
'How about a drink first, George?' suggested Topper. 'I can give you more action with a little drink in me, although God knows what good you expect me to accomplish by cuffing that damn skin about.'
'Don't swear at this skin,' retorted the gesticulating shell of a lion. 'I killed this lion myself with my own bare hands — strangled him to death — then I skinned the bum, and I'm going to show you just how I did it.'
'Don't pull a tall one on me like that,' said Topper. 'You either bought or stole that skin, George. You know you did.'
'But you don't know which,' replied George with the innocence of a drunkard.
'No, I don't know that,' admitted Topper. 'Stop prancing about so much and tell me.'
'All right,' George conceded. 'You order the drinks, and I'll tell you all about it. Then we'll have a fight — a good long one.'
Topper was treated to the spectacle of seeing the lion's skin throw itself into a chair and carelessly cross its legs.
'Why do you wear it at all?' he ventured. 'Don't you find it rather stuffy?'
'I stuff it,' said George complacently. 'I'm the stuffing.'
'Well,' observed Topper sceptically, 'if you find any pleasure in playing stuffing for a lion's skin I see no reason why anyone should object.'
'That's what I say,' said George. 'Topper, you're a man after my own heart. No. I forgot. I'm mad at you. I'm after your heart — your jet-black heart.'
When the unsuspecting waiter arrived with the drinks he was so upset to find Mr Topper listening attentively to a gesticulating lion's skin that he dropped the drinks and fled. The skin and Topper looked at the broken glass, then looked at each other. 'Too bad,' said the skin.
'A pity,' commented Topper. 'I'm afraid the only way we'll be able to get a drink is for you to abandon your skin.'
'Very well, then,' said George. 'To hell with the skin. I stole it from a dealer. Beat him at his own skin game. Not bad, eh, Topper?'
'Cleverly put,' allowed Topper. 'Very cleverly put. You're there, George, although I can't see you.'
The skin was flung through the air and landed at Topper's feet. 'You can have the skin,' declared George without heat. 'You'll need one when I'm finished with you.'
'You're getting better,' said Topper. 'Pulling them fast and funny.'
'Am I, Topper?' asked George, greatly pleased. 'Do you think I'm really funny?'
'You know I do, George.'
'I'm glad you do, Cosmo. It's not going to last long.'
'Nonsense! Keep it up.'
'I'd like to,' replied George. 'I'd like to keep on being funnier and funnier, but I'm always afraid my tremendous temper will overmaster me.'
'A drink will help a lot,' Mr Topper assured him.
They arrived, the drinks, but this time three waiters arrived with them. They edged into the room, shrinkingly skirted the abandoned lion's skin, and placed the drinks on a table. And this was one of the rare occasions when Topper did not have an ample opportunity to offer a tip in France. He had no opportunity at all, for after depositing the tray on the table the nerves of the waiters snapped, to a man, and the three of them fought their way from the room, while George laughed heartily if invisibly.
'Did you bring back any more trophies, George?' Mr Topper asked innocently after the drinks had been taken. 'I'll bet you did, you old dog.'
'Got some,' admitted George. 'Left 'em in an empty room on the next floor up. Couldn't stand another night with that South American woman — lots of spice but no bite. Want to see 'em? I've a bit of an elephant's tusk with a dirty picture carved on it. You'll like it.'
'I'd love it,' lied Topper, thinking of the depravity of the man.
'Tell you what, George, you go get your stuff, and I'll order a lot of drinks.'
'Might just as well make a night of it before we have that fight,' agreed George, preparing to leave the room. 'Of course you know where Marion is, but you won't let on.'
'All I know is that she and her gang got me arrested,' said Topper with feigned bitterness. 'They play too fast for an old chap like myself. I dare say the lot of them are enjoying themselves somewhere.'
When George left the room by the door, Marion Kerby came in through the window, and when George returned in the same manner he did not find Mr Topper, but he did find a lot of drinks. Sobered a little, he considered things, tossed off a few drinks, then set off with the determination to find Topper, come what may.
In the meantime Topper and Marion were sitting on the rocks by the hidden beach. They were drinking wine and looking at a revolver, both of which objects Marion had brought along untidily wrapped in a towel.
'What do you want with that thing?' Topper asked a little nervously.
'I have a small plan,' replied Marion, a peculiar expression in her eyes.
'I never like your small plans,' said Mr Topper. 'I never seem to win.'
'I'm afraid you won't like this one,' replied Marion. 'You see, I'd like to shoot you.'
'Yes,' admitted Marion. 'I want to murder you in cold blood.'
'Good God!' Topper edged away.
Then Marion began to talk. She talked earnestly and convincingly. The burden of her talk was that she wanted Topper always with her. She could never tell what might happen. And she wanted Topper. Not Topper at a disadvantage, but a Topper as free and flexible as herself. Together they might rise to the highest plane or sink to the lowest. Who could tell? Topper's withdrawal from life would not make a great deal of difference. If he insisted on it she would murder Scollops, too. Mrs Topper would be well provided for — happy with her sorrow and dyspepsia.
'After all,' she concluded, 'you have only two things to look forward to — old age and the unspeakable things George is sure to do to you some time in the near future.'
As Topper sat there discussing his own murder he was not sure whether he was drunk or dreaming. He never knew. Neither of them knew that, acting on a tip from Clara Hart, George was already making his way towards the beach. It was a race of death against life.
'I know, Marion,' said Topper, 'but, hang it all, isn't that gun too large? It's a painful-looking weapon.'
'No,' said Marion, looking consideringly at the gun. 'I think it will do the trick.'
'Please,' protested Mr Topper. 'Don't talk so snappily about my murder.'
'This is the way I figure it,' continued Marion in a businesslike voice. 'If I can hit you in some vital spot with this thing your chances of life would be nil.'
'What vital spot?' asked Topper with morbid curiosity. 'We won't go into that,' said Marion.
'No, but a great big ugly bullet will,' replied Topper, 'and inasmuch as it's my spot, I feel that I ought to know.'
'How about blowing your brains out?' suggested Marion easily.
Topper stifled a scream.
'Oh, no,' he got out. 'Oh, no, no, no. Don't, Marion. What a thing to say.'
'Well, they say,' went on Marion placidly, 'that if you plug a guy in the stomach he's sure to be wiped out. Gangsters think highly of the stomach.'
Topper let out a long breath that ended in 'o-o-o-o'.
'I'm not going to be murdered,' he declared at last, 'unless you can think of some better place and unless you speak a little more becomingly.'
'How would you like to be shot in the heart?' asked Marion. 'Simply love it,' replied Topper, 'but suppose you missed?'
'I'd just keep on banging away at you until you were shot to pieces,' said Marion coolly.
Topper nearly curled up at this.'Literally full of holes,' he muttered. 'A sieve.'
'Oh, a couple of shots will do,' declared Marion. 'You're sure to be murdered.'
'But how is what burns me up,' was Mr Topper's reply. He rose wearily to his feet.
'Would you be more comfortable lying down?' asked Marion in a professional voice.
He looked at her reproachfully.
'How can you speak of comfort at a time like this?' he asked her. 'By gad, the way you talk, one would think I was getting my picture taken instead of my life.'
'Why, there won't be enough left of you, my boy, to make a speck on a time exposure,' Marion assured him.
'Ah-a-a-a!' was all the reply Topper was able to make to this.
After that things happened quickly. Marion kissed him lightly upon the lips. She had no idea of weakening her man. Then she moved back several yards and raised the gun.
'Half a minute,' called Mr Topper. 'Have you been drinking, Marion?'
'Yes,' admitted Marion, and this time it was her voice that shook.
'But you're all right, aren't you? I mean your hand doesn't wobble?'
'No, old dear,' said Marion in a small voice. 'Are you all right yourself?'
'Yes, kid, don't worry. I love —'
A fraction of a second before the sound of the gun shattered Topper's last words, George Kerby sprang forward and whirled him about. Then came the bang, and his body seemed filled with fire. He swayed, buckled to the ground, and, crumpling over on his back, lay still. Marion, opening her eyes, saw George kneeling down by the body.
'Where did I hit him?' she asked, running forward. 'Is he dead yet?'
'Can't answer either question,' said George briefly. 'All I can say is that you must have been nuts, the pair of you.'
Both of them were now kneeling by the fallen man, both frantically examining him.
'It's not here,' said George, searching Topper's chest diligently for a wound.
'His stomach's okay,' called Marion. 'Take a look at his head.'
'No hole here,' said Kerby, 'except the usual ones.'
'Well, I give it up,' remarked Marion. 'He must be struck somewhere. I'll take a look here.'
'Oh, no you won't,' said Topper weakly, suddenly snapping out of his daze. 'You damn fools, turn me over.'
'Never thought of that,' muttered George, rolling Topper over. 'By jove! here it is. Now, how would the newspapers put it? "Wealthy American Found Strangely Wounded in the —" Just how would one designate the spot?'
He began to laugh softly. Marion was almost crying. What an inglorious end to an enterprise so heroically conceived and executed!
'I don't know what they'd call it,' she said, sinking to the ground. 'I'd call it a damn bad break. Why did you have to butt in?'
And the potential murderess broke into a series of low and painfully human sobs. Topper, with his nose on a clam shell, reached back and patted her hand. George stood over her and helplessly patted her back. Everything else was forgotten for the moment save Marion and her tears.
'There — there,' said George soothingly. 'The Colonel will fix him up as good as new.'
'That's just the trouble,' sobbed the girl. 'I don't want him as good as new. I want him all dead.'
Although the idea of the Colonel laying ruthless hands on his person did not appeal to Topper, he said nothing about it.
'Sure,' he replied cheerfully. 'Why go on like that over a mere shot in the pants — I mean, trousers?'
That night, after a somewhat drunken extraction performed braggingly by the enthusiastic Colonel to the accompaniment of a string of obscene and ill-timed jests, Topper became a little feverish. And all night long Marion, a little huddled, sat by his bed. When dawn broke she bent over and kissed him. Moving quietly about the room, she touched a few of his things here and there. But she never looked back at the bed as she went away.
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