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The Auction Block, a novel by Rex Beach

Chapter 26

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There was but one man to whom Bob dared appeal in this unhappy situation, and that man was John Merkle. The banker listened gravely to Bob's recital, then inquired with apparent irrelevance:

"You are mighty fond of Lorelei, aren't you?"

"Why, of course."

Merkle nodded reflectively. "I was mistaken in you," he admitted. "I didn't think the marriage would last. I suppose you are immensely pleased with yourself--reformed character, aren't you?" His face expressed a cynical inquiry.

"Pleased with myself? Not much! Lorelei reformed me. I didn't have anything to do with it."

"Good! I wondered if you took all the credit to yourself. Lorelei did do it, and I don't intend to let you forget the fact. Now, about this Lynn woman--you have been stung, Bob."

"You think so? I wonder--"

"Don't be a fool!"

"You think it is a frame-up?"

"What else could it be? Think!"

Bob exploded in desperation: "I can't think, with my wife in this condition. However, if you're right I'm going to see Max Melcher and tell him about Lorelei. Then I'm going to make him wait."

"Make him? MAKE HIM?"

"Yes, I'm going to MAKE him wait." Bob's lips were white; he raised his eyes slowly, and Merkle saw that they were heavy with resentment.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed the latter. "Where is your common sense? Never use violence; it is antiquated and expensive. Suppose you let me handle this thing in my own way."

"Have you any plan?"

"I'm never without one. They're not all good plans, understand; some are very bad, in fact. But, you see, I have been expecting something like this for a long time. I saw blackmail in your brother-in-law's face the night Jarvis Hammon was killed. I don't sleep much, so I have time to think, and, being dyspeptic, I'm always suspicious. Dyspepsia has spared me many disappointments; people are never any worse than I believe them to be."

"You don't believe Jim is in this, too? Why, he is Lorelei's brother!"

"What possible difference can that make to a man of his stamp?" the banker demanded, querulously. "Don't you know your own brother-in-law? To a conscienceless rogue it's no more unnatural to conspire against one's relatives than against total strangers. It is the logical thing to do. It is nature's method of protecting the stranger, and it's one of the penalties for having relatives. You are young and sentimental, so I sha'n't tell you what my plan is. Meanwhile, though, you may tell Lilas that you have acquainted me with the situation and that I am willing to spend a lot of money to avoid publicity."

"Do you mean you are willing to pay her?"

Merkle smiled sourly. "Let her put her own construction on the statement."

Beyond this Merkle would give Bob little satisfaction, but later in the day, after a short telephone conversation, he called at one of the up-town political clubs and inquired for Senator Sabin. The Senator was expecting him, and Merkle lost no time in explaining his trouble.

Nature had endowed Sabin with the faculty of hearing more than people said and saying less than people heard. He sat now with a graven smile upon his fat, good-humored face, but with eyes that were serious and watchful. Only once did he interrupt his caller's recital, and then at the mention of Inspector Snell.

"Snell!" he exclaimed, sharply. "Are you sure?"

"So the woman says."

Sabin nodded; he carefully matched his fingers, tip to tip, and then relapsed into silence. Merkle went on with his story, feeling the while as if he were addressing an audience of two men, one a sympathetic, convivial soul, the other a baffling, sinister person behind a mask. But when Sabin finally spoke it was as neither; his voice was friendly and matter-of-fact.

"This is a bad business, John."

The banker broke out, irritably: "Now don't begin that! I have a pastor who keeps me in spiritual uncertainty, and a doctor who torments me physically, and a business that's hell in both directions. I didn't come here to swap tears; I want help."

"It may cost--"

"Of course it may. I don't expect you to square it with a bunch of double English violets, but it can be squared, and it MUST be, if only for the sake of Hammon's women folks. It won't serve any good purpose to air that old scandal."

The Senator nodded. "First we will have to eliminate the gang-- clean them out." He made an expansive, eloquent gesture. "You don't object?"

"Kill 'em, if necessary," Merkle growled, vindictively.

"Very well; I'll do my best."

"Then it's done."

Merkle rose with relief, shook the Senator's limp and pudgy hand, then departed, knowing that the secret of Jarvis Hammon's death was quite as safe in Sabin's keeping as in his own. That plump, imperturbable politician had long been one of the triumvirate that ruled the city, and Merkle knew him to be the tomb of confessions far more startling than this; he knew also that although Sabin took toll of the public in the way of all powerful political rulers he put no price on his favors.

That evening Inspector Snell occupied the same chair in which Merkle had sat, and found himself the target of Sabin's veiled stare. Snell was a bulky, forceful, unimaginative man. He was vastly impressive in his uniform, but the Senator's questions appeared to bewilder him.

"What do you mean--Melcher?" the Inspector finally inquired.

"He claims you give him protection."

The officer's face purpled. "Oh! he does, does he? Well, you'd know if I did, wouldn't you? That's how them fellows get along, by selling something they can't deliver."

"Ever take any of his money?"

"Not a cent."

"What do you know about the killing of Jarvis Hammon?"

"Hammon, the steel man? Why, he wasn't killed, was he?" Snell was plainly puzzled. "Well, well!" he confessed, when the truth had been gently eased into his mind. "That's news! I'm much obliged for the tip, Senator."

"Wait a minute. That's not the idea at all," Sabin said, quickly. "The woman acted in self-defense."

"Ha! They all do. I'm thinking about myself. These are big names-- this is a big case, and it will do me a lot of good to work it out."

"It will break you," the Senator murmured, quietly. "You are getting ahead just as fast as it is possible, Snell. Cut out this grave-robbing stuff and make some real friends. Understand? You need friends of the right sort, and this is your chance."

For some time longer the two men talked guardedly. At last the Inspector rose to leave, saying: "I think I have all the details now, and I'll scatter the gang as quick as possible. I can hang something on the woman easily enough, and the boys, too, but it's different with Max. He has a drag."

"Leave Max to me. Do you need money?"

"Not from your friends, Senator," the officer disclaimed, hastily. "I'm only too glad to help out in any way I can."

To Bob Wharton the suspense of the next few days was trying in the extreme, particularly as Merkle kept declaring there was nothing to report, while Jimmy Knight betrayed an apprehension so pitiable as well-nigh to banish suspicion of his complicity in the plot. But before long there came to pass in various quarters certain events which gave Bob cause for thought. Strangely enough, these events, one and all, had some effect, either direct or indirect, upon the habitues of Tony the Barber's place. To begin with, Tony himself was summoned to headquarters and forced to spend a distressing half-hour with a harsh, ill-natured police official, as a result of which the pinochle-room at the rear of the barber- shop was closed and the door nailed up. With an unnatural show of indignation Tony warned its frequenters to stay away from his shop. Naturally he had recourse to Melcher, who promised to square the misunderstanding. But for once Melcher failed. When his efforts proved fruitless he was puzzled. So was Tony. The man upon whom Max relied for help was likewise at a loss, and finally hazarded the opinion that Tony must have made an enemy of somebody "higher up."

This chilling phenomenon was still a subject of discussion when Armistead was arrested for selling cocaine. Now Armistead's addiction to the drug was well known--in fact, he readily confessed to it--but, knowing only too well the risks involved in its sale, he had never even contemplated such a thing. He was outraged and incredulous, but a dope-shattered derelict swore out a complaint against him, and when Armistead's room was searched, strange to relate, the police discovered a considerable amount of cocaine concealed therein. Bail was fixed at an unusually high figure even for a felony, and Max Melcher wondered vaguely as he arranged to meet it.

Misfortunes multiplied rapidly. On the very next day Young Sullivan was caught picking pockets in the Times Square Subway station and once more Max was forced to journey jail-ward. Sullivan's story gave his chief still more occasion for thought, for this arrest seemed plainly "a frame," being absurd upon its face. The pugilist had huge, misshapen paws that could scarcely explore his own, much less another's pockets, and his stiffened fingers could not palm a coin in the dark, yet a stranger had accused him of deftly lifting a watch. It seemed significant that two plain-clothes men should have been at Sullivan's elbow at the moment. The prize-fighter had acted according to his nature, and a fine row had resulted, in the midst of which there had dropped out of his clothes a gold watch which Sullivan violently protested he had never seen before. His imperious demand upon Max for help was resentfully couched, but Melcher dared not refuse to act as his bondsman.

Max was worried when he left the jail, and his perturbation increased when he discovered late that night that Armistead had disappeared, with the evident intention of jumping his bond. Convinced now that something must be badly out of joint, he lost no time in warning Lilas Lynn to go slow with her blackmailing enterprise. Indeed, he ordered her to drop it entirely until he had time to discover where the trouble lay.

Upon the girl this command had an unexpected effect; for not only did it prove to her that Max had lost his pull at headquarters, but it also strengthened her determination to betray him in accordance with Jimmy Knight's suggestion. Why, indeed, should she share her gains with anybody? If Max had no right to any part of the loot what possible claim had Jim to share in it? Once Lilas's cupidity was aroused it banished even that meager ghost of honor that is supposed to prevail among thieves; and, disregarding Max's caution, she decided to take things entirely into her own hands, riding this wave of success to the finish. Accordingly she sent for Bob.

It did not take her long to see that Wharton had changed since their last interview, and accordingly she did not put herself to the trouble of acting--in fact, Bob allowed her no opportunity of doing so.

"Now don't give me that stall about Melcher," he said, in answer to her first inquiries "I'm on."

Miss Lynn's cheeks had lost the power of changing color, but her eyes were as expressive as ever, and now as she stared at her victim they showed a certain inflexibility of purpose.

"You must have been talking to Merkle," she said, slowly.

"Exactly. He's not such a fool as I am."

"Well?" There was an insolent rising inflection in Lilas's voice. "What are you going to do about it?"

Bob had prepared himself for some denial, for some pretense of ignorance, at least, and he was taken aback at this ready acceptance of his challenge. Something malevolent in her air increased his uneasiness. The girl was as hard as flint and seemed capable of any desperate action.

"You say you love Lorelei; you pretend to be grateful to me--"

As if the mere heat of his accusation had ignited her fury Lilas interrupted him angrily: "Oh, cut out that love-and-gratitude talk! I want money, do you understand? MONEY! You think I won't dare go through with this, and so does Merkle. You, neither of you, can understand why I'll take a chance on 'the chair' just to make you pay. Well, that's because you are men, and because you are healthy and happy and have something to live for. But what have I got? I'm sick. I'm going to pieces. I'll be gone in a few years if I don't get the coin. I've always fought and I've usually been licked, but I won't be licked this time. Men like you and John Merkle licked me--Why, I was licked before I had learned to fight back, and you taught me to hate you before I had put on long dresses."

"You know that's not true!" Bob cried, sharply. "You harmed men before they ever harmed you. You hated Jarvis Hammon, and yet he did more for you than any one in all your life; Merkle helped you, too, when you needed help, and so did I. Lorelei was your friend--"

"Bah! I haven't any friends; I never had any, and I don't want any now. Nobody ever did anything for me. You and John Merkle are going to pay me for what other men have put me through. Oh, come, I'm not bluffing! You're afraid to stand the gaff, but I'm not. I'm getting old. My looks are gone. Who's going to pay me if you don't? Who--" Lilas's voice, which has risen steadily, broke now, and she shook a clenched fist in Wharton's face. He saw that she had worked herself up into one of her abrupt, reasonless rages.

"I've got you!" she keened. "I can drag you and your sick wife, and Merkle, and those Hammon women out into the light, and I'll do it, too. I can make you all squirm, so let's get down to cases. There's millions of dollars among you, millions that were squeezed out of my kind of people; now I'm going to try my hand at squeezing. If I lose--very well. But I'll holler, and you'll have to stop my mouth or the world will hear. You don't dare holler."

"I'm glad you're in the open at last," Bob told her, roughly. "We'll see if Melcher is as desperate as--"

"To hell with Melcher!" screamed the girl. "He's a fool. He's scared already, but I'm not, and I'm the one to settle with, remember that." She was a-quiver now; her nerves, tortured from overstimulation, were jumping; but she felt a tremendous sense of power, together with a contemptuous disregard of consequences. "Go to Max, if you want to. Sound the alarm. Do anything you please," she mocked, "but get your pennies together or I'll bawl you out from the housetops."

There was no arguing with her, as she was drunk with the sense of her advantage, and Bob could only depart, his ears ringing unpleasantly with her threats.

As to just what effect her unrestrained spleen would have, or in which direction it might work the greatest damage, he was uncomfortably in doubt. For himself, he had no particular fears, but he dreaded terribly the effect upon his wife. It seemed to him, therefore, that the only way of gaining time was to pay Lilas enough to satisfy her. The more he thought of this the more imperative seemed the necessity, but when he ventured to submit the proposition to Merkle the banker curtly refused to entertain it.

Sick with anxiety, weak at thought of the peril to his wife's health, Bob determined to call upon Max Melcher and demand immunity upon pain of violence. Accordingly he turned his steps in the direction of the Metropolitan Club. But as he neared his destination he found a crowd gathered in front of the place; two patrol-wagons were backed up to the curb opposite the gambling- house; a line of policemen streamed in and out of the premises. Some of the officers were armed with axes and sledges, others carried burdens that evoked jeers and taunts from the bystanders.

Doubting the evidence of his own eyes, Bob elbowed his way closer. It was true! The Metropolitan Club, the oldest, the safest, the best-protected palace of chance in the city, was the object of a daylight raid. Its sacred doors had been battered in, and the fragments of furniture that came out gave evidence that the raiders had used their destructive weapons with unusual violence. Racks of multi-colored ivory chips, faro-layouts, splintered remains of expensive roulette, crap, and poker tables of mahogany and rosewood were flung carelessly into the waiting wagons and driven away. Bob Wharton's amazement was shared by the onlookers, for nothing like this had even been known in the Tenderloin.

Bob was not a dull young man. In time a light broke through his troubled mind, and he returned to Broadway, lost in thought. Evidently Merkle's plan was working. _

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