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Cancelled in Red / Chapter 1

by Hugh Pentecost

Nassau Street, twisting its way northward toward City Hall Park, is always crowded during the business hours of the day. It is crowded with people hurrying in and out of dingy-looking small shops and office buildings—busy people.

Almost no one paid any attention to the man who walked with long, uneven strides along the east pavement. One or two did turn to look at him, not so much because his worn, frayed overcoat was far too thin for the bitter March afternoon, or because he wore no hat on his head, which was closely shaven, convict style, but because of the expression on his face. His skin, drawn tightly over the bones of his face, was the colour of old newspaper.

There were two faint, hectic spots of colour high on his cheeks. His eyes, sunk in deep sockets, were bloodshot and burned with a smouldering light. Although bumped and jostled by other pedestrians, he kept moving forward with grim, purposeful detachment.

Presently he entered an office building and walked straight into the elevator.

“Adrian Stamp Company?” he asked. His voice sounded parched, cracked.

“Third floor.”

At the third floor the man got out, went along the corridor, and turned into an office. The waiting room of the Adrian Stamp Company was something to see. The furnishings were impressively modernistic, but the bareheaded man had no eye for them. He did not look at the bright scarlet chairs set on frames of silver pipe, nor at the black walls bordered in chromium, nor at the amazing chequer-board linoleum on the floor, with red and white chessmen painted on its black and silver squares, nor at the black and white surrealistic drawings which dotted the walls. His gaze was centered on the door marked “Private,” just behind the desk where a pretty receptionist sat. His eyes were still on the door when he spoke to the girl.

“My name is Lon Nicholas,” he said. “I want to see Adrian.”

The girl looked at his coat, worn through at the elbows. The strong smell of whisky reached her. She made a decision.

“Mr. Adrian is not in,” she said.

“We’ll see,” said Lon Nicholas.

Before the girl could stop him, he strode past her to the door, and pulled it open. He ignored the girl’s sharp cry: “Mr. Louderbach!” He was looking balefully at the man who stood behind the big kneehole mahogany desk in the private office.

“Adrian!” he said. His thin blue lips seemed to writhe as he spoke the name.

Max Adrian glanced up quickly. For just an instant his black shoe-button eyes were startled. He was a huge man, standing six feet tall, but his height was dwarfed by his great breadth. He must have weighed two hundred and eighty pounds. After that first startled look, he smiled. His smile was wide and dazzling, displaying very even, very white teeth; but his tiny eyes had a calculating, frosty light in them.

“I’ll be damned!” he said. “Lon Nicholas.” His voice was suave.

“Yes,” said Lon Nicholas.

Another man came hurrying into the office behind Nicholas. He was thin and stoop-shouldered. He wore thick-lensed spectacles that magnified his scholar’s eyes to comic proportions. A fringe of mud-coloured hair surrounded a completely bald head.

“Look here, my man,” he sputtered, “you cannot do this sort of thing. You cannot intrude—”

“It’s all right, Louderbach,” said Max Adrian. “Mr. Nicholas is an old friend of mine.”

“Oh! Very good, Mr. Adrian.” Louderbach retreated, closing the door.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, Nicholas,” said Max Adrian. “I heard you’d had some hard luck.”

“Yes … yes, I had hard luck,” said Lon Nicholas. His eyes never left Adrian’s face. They burned like hot coals in their sockets.

Adrian settled himself in his oversized swivel chair. He picked up a heavy glass paperweight from the desk. Absently he hefted it in his right hand and then in his left, examining its flowered centre. Nicholas did not sit down, but he shifted his position as the sunlight falling through the windows behind Adrian’s desk was reflected against the bright chromium wheels and dials of a large safe in the corner.

“I never did know exactly what happened to you,” said Adrian.

“Just a bad break,” said Nicholas. He stood looking down at Adrian, his hands sunk in the pockets of his coat. “You knew,” he said slowly, “that I worked a long time—ten years—to raise the capital to go into the stamp business. I … I love stamps, Adrian.”

“You should have been a collector, not a dealer,” said Adrian. He shifted the heavy paperweight from his left hand back to his right.

“I couldn’t afford collecting,” said Nicholas. “But I had to be around stamps, so I went into business.”

“No go, eh?” said Adrian.

“No go,” said Nicholas. “I had some tough luck.”

“Too bad.” The smile seemed to be painted on Adrian’s face. It stayed there, but he wasn’t really smiling at all.

“I let a man have the bulk of my stock on approval,” said Nicholas. “A man named Oscar Rivero. He had built up a fine credit in the business. But he was a crook. He disappeared after he got my stuff. There wasn’t any such person. His address had been a blind, just a place to get mail.”

“Too bad, too bad,” said Adrian. “It’s been done before.”

“It ruined me,” said Nicholas. “I’ve spent two years trying to find out who Oscar Rivero was.”

Adrian balanced the paperweight thoughtfully. “Very interesting but I’m pretty busy this morning, Nicholas. If twenty-five dollars would help you out …”

“It wouldn’t,” said Nicholas. His voice suddenly shook. “I came here to collect forty thousand dollars!”

Adrian laughed. “You’re drunk,” he said. “What do you want me to do, set you up in business again?”

“You’ll pay me what you owe me,” said Nicholas. “Because I know now who Oscar Rivero was!” His sunken eyes blazed. “You, Adrian! You!”

Max Adrian’s right hand shot out. There was a sound like the report of a pistol as the heavy glass paperweight connected with Lon Nicholas’s jaw. At the same instant Adrian heaved his huge bulk sideways out of his chair to sprawl on the floor.

“Louderbach!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.

The office door opened and the man with the glasses ran in.

“Good heavens, Mr. Adrian! What’s happened?”

Very slowly Adrian crawled on his hands and knees around the corner of the desk. He saw Lon Nicholas lying on the thick Turkish rug. Nicholas’s eyes were closed, his face dead white.

Adrian got to his feet and walked over to Nicholas. He bent down, felt in the overcoat pocket, and produced a gun. He looked at it with a kind of stupefied amazement.

“He was going to kill me, Louderbach!”

“I’ll summon the police,” said Louderbach, starting for the door.

“No!” said Adrian, sharply. “Shut the door.” He stared down at Nicholas for a moment and then launched a square-toed shoe at the side of Nicholas’s shaven skull. He turned back to his desk, blotting at his forehead with a large blue silk handkerchief.

“No police,” he said. “They’d take up a lot of time. We’d have to prefer charges, appear in court.” He looked at Louderbach thoughtfully; then he smiled. “Get Larry Storm on the phone,” he said. “Tell him to come over here and take his boy friend away if he wants to keep him out of trouble.”

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