Authors: Dorothy B. Hughes
The Delicate Ape
For Abbot Leonard Schwinn
“In Viam Pacis”
HE MAN CAME OUT
of the front doors of the great and gray Pennsylvania Station into the early night. The street was curiously empty, deserted. It was as if all living, moving things had known he was emerging at this hour and this place and had, in instinct rather than knowledge, scuttled into hiding. The lighted lamps at the moment seemed to throw no black geometrics to the pavement. Rather there was spread a strange twilight look, not light, not dark, an unhealthy pallor. Far overhead the sky was clear. If you looked long enough and hard enough you could distinguish the fragments of stars.
The man started across the wide deserted street to the opposite pavement. His heels counted his steps with fearsome clarity. In the silence, intensified by the muted hum of uptown New York, they had the sound of doom. They were too even, too studied; he should break the rhythm, perhaps run the last of the way. He did not run. He was afraid to run, a fear perhaps if once he started he would not be able to stop.
He stood for a moment listening, not moving. The night touched a chill finger to the back of his neck and the touch snaked down his spine into his entrails. It wasn’t a cold night but Washington had been humid, unseasonably so for May; the club car had been, despite conditioning, airless. The contrast was too sudden for his blood to warm before he shivered. He thrust his hands into his pockets and started towards Broadway.
There was no taxi in sight; he hadn’t expected there would be. If he’d wanted one, he could have moved with the other passengers towards the underground stands rather than making his way through the station and out the front door. The walk would be good for him. He needed air in his lungs. The blocks to the hotel, where he had registered four days earlier, were short, too short for a man who normally covered miles in a day. He had spent hours sitting in offices and trains this day; he was tired of the indoors and inaction.
He bit on the truth. He was afraid to take a cab. Cab drivers were open to bribery. Even if he were delivered safely, there could afterwards be a whispered conference on the corner, an exchange of address for a dirty green bill. He would walk. One of the occupants of the club car conceivably might have known that the man in the dark blue suit and brown shoes and soft brown hat, the youngish man without distinguishing marks, was Piers Hunt.
Conceivably in one or another of the government offices where he, as Mr. Thompson—Smith, Brown, Jones were too obvious—had wasted the day, someone might have divined his true identity. How, he didn’t know. He hadn’t a half dozen speaking acquaintances in this part of the world. He had seen none of them since he arrived. Piers Hunt was not known to be in the United States; he had no reason to be here. The job on this side of the water was Gordon’s. Even Gordon didn’t have information that Piers had come over. But Piers knew that there were times when inaccessible knowledge filtered through in almost fanciful fashion. This might be one of them.
He turned left, started up the cavernous empty path of mid Broadway. The lights here, not many blocks from the sunburst of Times Square, were sparse, and the overhanging heights of buildings laid heavier shadow than was pleasant. There was no reason to be uneasy, listening to the hard metre of his heels thudding the pavement. He had been alone in front of the Pennsylvania.
There was a loneness more pregnant of danger than sight or smell of the enemy. It was a loneness he had known in jungle deeps and in forest, moments when it seemed as if God had withdrawn His hand. There was no reason for the feeling to enter into him here but it quivered within him. Its very reasonlessness quickened his senses and he divined rather than heard the footsteps behind him.
They were not close, not as yet, and they were not loud. They were more indistinct than the city sound a few scant leagues ahead of him. They might have been imaginary, but when he broke the rhythm of his stride, diminishing it, he heard them, distinct. He walked a few paces then again broke rhythm and again he heard them falter in their attempt to synchronize into invisibility. He knew then, knew this was no casual walker on the streets of New York.
He controlled the impulse to break and run. The kaleidoscope of lights was visible ahead but he was only at 36th street. He knew how far Times Square lay in actuality. He might, it was true, be able to outrun his pursuer these blocks but he couldn’t hope to outdistance a bullet. That he had not been killed before he became conscious of the follower became a latent reassurance. This man, whoever he was, wasn’t hired to kill, only to smell out the burrow where the fox was holed. With the realization came quick hard anger, and, on its heels, decision.
They didn’t know the hotel where he was registered. They weren’t to learn this easily. Having discarded the first method of escape, a sprint, he also discarded the next obvious, a devious route. His anger at being discovered was too sharp. Had there been other men abroad on this lonely stretch, he would have faded into the shawl of a facade, waited to surprise his shadow. But all humans, save himself and the man in the dark behind him, were still hiding where they had fled at the silent crackling of danger. He did what he dared out of anger, out of hopelessness akin to despair, out of spirit. He turned, stood planted, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his dark sack coat. He stood, a target, and waited.
The man behind him didn’t know what to do. The man, had his nerves been strong, could have turned on his heel and slunk away. Instead he moved, hesitant, his steps lagging as he cowered forward the more than half-block to where Piers waited. He came almost abreast and Piers did not give way. He stopped then. He was a small man, a head and half smaller than Piers. His coat was bunchy, his new dove-gray hat sat stiffly on his head. There was a small green feather stuck in the bow. His face was a yellowish square; he wore a bedraggled yellow mustache over bad teeth, and his pale eyes were shifty under ragged yellow eyebrows. His necktie was stiff and ugly, in purples and greens. There was a greenish tinge to his brown suit.
Piers didn’t see this detail on the dark street. The man had been across the aisle, near to the door, in the club car up from Washington. A man rolling a thin cigarette, rubbing at a spot on his black shoes, scraping his thumb nail on his chin—a man with nervous fingers. The eyes scuttled now from Piers. He dived right. Piers shifted inexorably. A scribble of terror went over the yellow face. A tongue licked the lips, the eyes measured the space to the left.
Piers spoke softly, so softly. “Have you a match?”
The tongue darted out again; the glands of the man’s thin neck swelled.
“A match,” Piers repeated. He kept his eyes on the face before him.
The man started to tremble, it began with his hat and ran through him like water. The nervous fingers fumbled in his pockets. His eyes kept leaping to Piers’ jacket pocket; jammed stiffly forward by his fingers. He didn’t say a word.
Piers laughed so softly. His voice blurred. “Or have you the time, perhaps?”
Terror jabbed into the man. His fingers, shaking like wind, held a small packet of unwanted matches.
“You have a match,” Piers noted gently. “Strike one.”
The craven obeyed. His tongue kept touching the corners of his mouth. The trembling light flared.
“Hold it higher,” Piers suggested. “No, higher.”
It illumined the yellow face, the perspiration wetting the brow and the scraggling yellow mustache, the moisture in the nostrils, the frantic eyes.
Piers blew his breath and they were again in darkness. “I wanted to see your face.” He said it pleasantly but still too softly. He waited but the man did not, could not speak. “Shall we walk together now?” He swung beside the man and his arm jarred the shaking elbow. “It is wiser, perhaps. There might be danger walking alone these dark blocks. I take it you are going my way?”
The man stumbled forward, pressed on by Piers’ dominant arm. He didn’t make any sound but his breathing was like a sob. Obviously he believed that Piers held a gun. Obviously he himself did not carry one, or, if he did, dared not reach for it. They crossed to where the Metropolitan Opera House stood, dark, deserted after the season. In this abandoned block the man, if he were a man, would turn and strike. He wasn’t. He was as boneless as inert matter.
Knowing this, yet because of the possibility of attack, Piers spoke again. “What is your name?”
The breathing thickened. The man was trying to speak but only sounds came.
Piers repeated, “Your name. What is your name?”
The voice came at last. It was thin, reedy. “Where are you taking me? What do you want with me?”
Piers laughed. It wasn’t meant to reassure. He said, “I told you. I believe it is safer we walk the rest of the way together. And what is your name?”
“What do you want with me?” the man stammered shrilly.
“You were on the train from Washington,” Piers said. “I noticed you. Did you know that I noticed you, Mr. … ?”
The man said eagerly, as if it were a lesson well learned, “I am a commercial traveler. Between New York and Washington. I live in New York.”
Piers interrupted. “In this country you are called a traveling salesman.” His voice laughed. “You should have been told that, too. Perhaps we can have a drink together. There are some questions I should like to put to you. Your name. Your—”
They had come upon 42nd street. Across it flared the white and red and green and blue lights of a bright Broadway. Once it had been blacked out. That was a long time ago, twelve and more years ago. Returning to it after twelve years, Piers could not look upon the whiteness without a welling in his blood, a determination in his heart. The lights of the world, the lights of Broadway, must not be put out again.
Still jabbing the hireling’s elbow, he moved him across the street to the west side where the brightest lights overhung the pavement below. The walk was dense with man, the customary, evening, before-theater crowd, milling and swelling and shuffling north and south. Beyond the curb the motor traffic was as dense as the foot traffic here, and more strident—the hard rub of tires, the squeal of brakes, the whir of motors. The hum of the city rose to a percussive din; there were no shadows in the electric glare.
Piers bent to the ear of his captive. “Why won’t you tell me your name? I can find out, you know.”
They were in front of the Paramount where the crowd was most thick, the noise most shrill, pierced only by the atonal chant of the theater’s uniformed barker, …
Without warning the man ducked and cut away. Piers, turning quickly, saw his bunchy coat pushing frantically through the mass, battering against its imperturbability and its ingrained dislike of a disturbing cross-current. Piers shouted, “Wait—”