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First published in Fantastic Adventures, December 1945
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
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Fantastic Adventures, December 1945, with "Mister Anonymous"


I said: "Why don't you lay off helping people? You'll be the death of me yet!"

IN the newspaper business you run into a lot of funny people. Some of them—as often advertised—are interesting, others highly ordinary, arid still others plain bores. However, in all my years on the Record-Times I don't think I ran into anyone like this little screwball who came waltzing into my office that balmy afternoon in May.

Caroline, my secretary, beat him through my door by about half a minute.

"There's a gentleman outside," she said, very flustered, "who insists that you won't mind seeing him without an appointment."

"What's his name?" I demanded.

But Caroline didn't get a chance to answer. By that time this little refugee from a red corpuscle had skittered through the door at her heels, boozed around her, and planted himself in front of my desk.

If I hadn't been so miffed at his intrusion, I'd have burst out laughing at his appearance.

He was, as I said, a little guy, strictly little in every respect, even to weight. This, in itself, was neither funny nor unfunny. His face, however, was something else again. It was the face of one of those elves you see painted on Christmas cards, or running around in a Walt Disney movie. Ugly and kindly and pert and bewilderedly determined. It was a long, horse-like fizz, with a long, red nose and wide pale gray eyes. The nose had the watery sniffle of a bloodhound, and the eyes owned a misty uncertainty that might have been found in a week-old puppy.


He was just a little guy who went around helping everybody.
The drawback was that nobody lived long enough to thank him!

His chin, somewhat steam-shovelish, was outthrust combatively, and his wide mouth carried a lopsided grin.

I thought of a line I'd read somewhere.

"One fist raised to strike, one foot poised for flight."

"Hello," he said. He had a small voice, slightly on the squeaky side.

"Hello. Who the hell told you you could barge in here without an appointment?" I demanded.

"Oh, an appointment," the little guy said. He ran a long, gnarled finger that seemed all knuckles under an oversized celluloid collar. "The young lady said something about an appointment. But an appointment isn't important," he said firmly, then added, uncertainly, "is it?"

I gave Caroline the high sign to clear out, and she closed the door, stepping into the outer office and leaving us alone.

"Okay," I said. "What's your name?"

The little guy smiled, nervously smoothing the lapels of his black serge too-large suitcoat.

"My name?" he squeaked.

"Yeah. Your name."

"Oh," he said. "Oh. Well, names aren't important, are they?"

"Your telling me, or asking me?" I demanded.

He grinned foolishly. "I know your name. That's why I'm here. You're Fred Talbot. You write a daily column called Around & About People."

"That's right," I agreed. "And right now I'm very busy getting out my column for tomorrow. I've a deadline to meet, and not much time. If you have anything to say, get it off your chest now."

"I wanted to say," said my visitor, taking a deep, tremulous breath', "that I like your column very much."

"Thank you. Is that all?"

"N-no, not exactly. I wanted, to say that you get a very sympathetic, human touch to your column. You see so much misery, so much misfortune, yet so much that is good and so much that is happy. You have an eye for justice and injustice. You seem to know where any form of joy or tragedy can be found."

"A very pretty speech," I said, not nearly as irritated as I sounded. "It was nice hearing. Now, if you don't mind, I'll get back to work."

"But, I haven't told you why I'm here," the little guy protested quickly.

THIS conversational croquet was getting me down.

"Look—" I began.

"I want to ask your permission to accompany you through the week, as you—ah—explore the city for—ah—material for your column," the little screwball said in a garrison finish of words.

I put down the pencil with which I'd been abstractedly fiddling. Very patiently, I asked:


The little guy looked distraught, spread his hands in a gesture that was a combination of Stan Laurel and Zazu Pitts.

"So I can help," he said.

"Help? Help what? Help me write my column, is that it? Have I got another embryo columnist on my hands?"

He shook his head. "Oh, no. Oh, my no. You write your column about people. But you can't help them. You can only point to their plight, or explain their distress. I would help them. I would do good turns."

Now it was clear. I'd fun into this specimen before.

"Ahhhh, a do-gooder," I said. "A Boy Scout. A social Florence Nightingale. I see what you mean."

"You do?" he squeaked eagerly. "You do? That's wonderful. I am so very happy you do. You see, I'd never know where to look to do good on my own. I'm rather a stranger. You can take me with you wherever you go, and that way I'll find people to help."

I threw the pencil down on the desk. I stood up, giving him my best belligerent scowl.

"Okay. I've let you have quite a little bit of my time. I was crazy, but that's my fault. Now please beat it. At once. And as for your idea of hanging around in my hair, the answer is NO!"

I concluded my ultimatum by making the last word a hoarse bellow. It so frightened the little guy that he turned and bolted from the office like a rabbit who's just stepped on a snake.

Caroline poked her head in through the door an instant later.

"What on earth did you do?" she demanded. "Snap your store teeth at him?"

I gave her a nasty look. "A fine secretary you are," I sneered. "Can't ward off undesirables; can't even get them to give their names!"

"What was his name?" Caroline asked, sweetly contrite.

"I dunno," I said. "He wouldn't tell me, I—" I looked up and saw her grinning triumphantly.

"Then how did you expect him to tell poor me?" she demanded.

I glared at her. "Stop baiting me!"

"Honestly, what did he want?"

I told her, and she giggled.

"I think that was sweet of him to want to help," she said. "You should have let this little Mr.—ah—"

"Anonymous," I supplied.

"That's cute," Caroline said. "Mr. Anonymous. You should have let him tag around with you. You'd be a cute team. Around and About People, by Fred Talbot and Mr. Anonymous. That would be cute."

"Eight years ago you were overusing that word 'cute'," I said. "You still are. Beat it."

Caroline closed the door. Half a minute later she opened it again and poked her head into my office.

"Mr. Talbot?"

I ground my teeth. "What?"

"Do you suppose he's the Anonymous who writes all those poems, and sends all those flowers, and nasty notes to editors of newspapers?"

"Yes!" I bellowed. "Get out!"

IT was just as well for my peace of mind that I was able to forget little Mr. Anonymous within the next hour or so. My column got sticky on me, and it took about four rewrite jobs to starch it out, thereby holding my nose to the grindstone for over three solid hours.

By the time I was through and sent the copy off with a boy, the building had reached that semi-quiet state that indicated the day's work was done and the last edition was off the presses and almost everybody with any brains had gone home except yours truly.

Caroline, being a punctual secretary, had left an hour before, so I locked up the office and rode down to the lobby with the elevator man and comments on the weather for company.

Out in the street I looked for a cab, then changed my mind and decided on a relaxer or two at Trumbo's Tavern across the street. I was in the process of crossing against the red light, when I saw a furtive figure step back into a doorway on the other side of the street.

Something made me look twice.

It was little Mr. Anonymous.

I hesitated, then decided to ignore him. I continued across the street, my eyes fixed on the entrance of Trumbo's Tavern. But I wasn't able to ignore him completely, and found myself taking an occasional furtive glance at the figure in the doorway.

Then Mr. Anonymous left the doorway quickly, as furtively as he'd entered it, and started rapidly off down the street. It occurred to me, then, that maybe little Anonymous was avoiding me just as determinedly as I'd been ignoring him.

I was in front of Trumbo's, now, but I stopped and stood there staring after the little screwball. He was passing a parking lot, where old Pete Calkins, a familiar blind beggar in the neighborhood sat on the edge of the sidewalk with a hat full of pencils.

Suddenly Mr. Anonymous paused, looked quickly back over his shoulder, reached into his coat pocket, brought forth something, and tossed it into old Pete's hat. Then he broke into a run.

I was so surprised I didn't get into motion before he'd lost himself around the corner.

I drew up in front of blind old Pete a minute later. The old man was muttering to himself and pawing at something in his hat. His weatherbeaten old face was a weird mixture of emotions.

"This is Fred Talbot, Pete," I said. "What's wrong? What did that guy do?"

Old Pete looked up at the sound of my voice.

"Mr. Talbot, Mr. Talbot," old Pete said, "what is this? Tell me what this is."

I looked at what the old beggar was holding in his hand. It was a thick wad of crisp green currency, rolled tightly and secured by a rubber band.

"Why—why it's money, Pete. A hell of a lot of money, from the looks of it."

The old man was gulping tremulously.

"I—I didn't dare believe it," he said hoarsely. "How much money, Mr. Talbot? Tell me how much money."

I took the roll, snapped off the band. The outside bill was a hundred. I'd noticed that when I'd first glimpsed it. The other bills in the roll, nineteen more, were also hundreds.

"Two thousand dollars, Pete," I said. "The man gave you two thousand bucks."

I've never seen a face so torn with inexpressible emotions as old Pete's was at that instant. He was trying to speak, trying to say something, but he was so choked up he could only blubber. I was watching his reaction so closely that I didn't notice his rapidly changing complexion until half a minute later. By that time it was going from white to blue.

"Pete!" I exclaimed. "Pete, what's the trouble?"

By that time the old beggar's gnarled hand had clutched at his heart, and his chin slumped to his chest. I watched him slide slowly sideward until he lay inertly on the sidewalk.

"Pete!" I cried in horror.

But Pete's heart wasn't beating any longer when I crouched at his side in an effort to help him. The ambulance that came for him some twenty minutes after my telephone call, took him off to the morgue. The young intern in charge said that Pete had undoubtedly died of a heart attack caused by shock. Two thousand bucks had been too hard to take....

THE story of old Pete's death was as sure-fire human interest material as I'd had in my column in months. But in telling it, the following day, I purposely omitted any mention of little Mr. Anonymous, his desire to help people, his screwball antics in my office, or his being the guy who'd indirectly caused old Pete's death.

Ironically enough, when mentioning the benefactor who'd dropped the wad in Pete's hat, I called him merely "an anonymous philanthropist," and let it go at that. I really didn't know anything more about him, and I could see no point in clouding up natural copy with material which was slightly implausible—when you thought about it—and which would have divided reader sympathy for Pete.

But I confidently expected an aftermath, if little Mr. Anonymous read my column as avidly as he claimed.

I was somewhat surprised, consequently, when I didn't hear from the little guy the afternoon my story hit the newsstands, or even on the following day. Surprised, and a little bit sore. I realized, then, that I'd been anticipating his visit, even counting on it.

Caroline, to whom I'd told the full story behind old Pete's death, had expected the same thing, another visit from Mr. Anonymous. She was in about the same state as I, when that visit didn't materialize. But there wasn't a damned thing to be done about it. I was sorry I had so thoroughly scared the little guy away.

But yesterday's copy is yesterday's cold potatoes; and I'd managed to put the little guy out of my mind by the time I'd turned out another column for the next deadline and the next dollar.

If I thought about the little guy at all, it was only when I read the several dozen fan letters that came into the office as a result of readers being stirred by the story of old Pete's death. And by that time, as I said, I'd resigned myself to the fact that I'd seen the last of Mr. Anonymous.

I was completely unprepared for my next encounter with the little guy. I'd never expected it to happen where and how it did—namely, in my own neighborhood, a quiet little residential district on the North Side.

It was around seven o'clock, and I'd left the elevated and had walked three of the four blocks to my house. It was a nice spring evening, and the sun was still shining, and the kids filled the streets, playing ball, roller skate hockey, sky-blue, tag, and the hundred and one kid games that comprise their world.

Some of them shouted to me, and I waved back and grinned and felt like a million bucks to be known to such important guys. I'd seen so many of them growing from the time they were perambulator cases that I felt a foolish personal responsibility for all of them.

Consequently I got a sharp pang somewhere inside the avoirdupois that passes for my breast when I rounded the corner of the street in which most of the kids were playing, and saw little Ted Kelling sitting all by himself on the curb of a quiet side street.

The Kellings had lived in the neighborhood as long as I could remember. They were the neighborhood charity problem, thanks to Jack Kelling, the worthless father of the family who had always managed to dodge any work and find any available liquor. Mrs. Kelling, a kindly, long-suffering soul, took in washing, worked watching kids when other neighbors went out of an evening, did charwoman's chores at the church, and managed to keep her little family of four kids going in spite of her husband.

Little Ted Kelling was the oldest boy. He was around eight, I guess, getting to the stage where he could pitch in and help support the family. I felt pretty bad, seeing him sitting there alone, away from the other kids, scuffing his shoes in the gutter and looking intently at a speck on the curb edge.

I STOPPED and said: "Hi there, Ted. What you doing here—contemplating?"

He grinned as best he could.

"Yeah, I guess so, Mr. Talbot. Guess that's what I'm doing."

I wasn't kidded. "Something's wrong, isn't it?" I asked.

The kid hesitated. I noticed that his eyes were watery, and that he was having trouble keeping the tears from flowing.

"I—I—awww, lost my money," he said.

I raised my eyebrows. "No, really? Gosh, that's tough luck."

"I'd saved it from my odd jobs. Mom wouldn't let me give it into the house fund. She said she wanted me to save a little outta what I earned so I'd get something for myself that I wanted real bad. I saved enough for that wonderful second-hand bike down at Grazer's butcher shop. Nine dollars and forty-five cents. I was gonna buy it today. This morning, when I got up, I'd lost it. I dunno what happened to it."

I was suddenly boiling mad. When he got up, eh? I knew, then, that he was covering up for his no-good old man. Old Jack Kelling had swiped the kid's dough from wherever he'd hidden it. I knew now where old man Kelling had gotten the dough I'd seen him blowing in the neighborhood bar on my way home. The money his kid had earned and saved for a bike!

I fluffed his hair with my hand. I couldn't say anything at that point, I was too damned mad.

"Maybe you'll find it, Ted. Buck up."

He nodded and turned his head a little. The first of his tears had escaped, and he didn't want me to see it.

"Sure," he said. "Sure. I guess so, Mr. Talbot. Only, I'd thought so long about riding out there in the street on it, in front of all the other kids. It was such a beautiful bike."

"You wait," I mumbled vaguely. "Maybe the money will turn up."

I left him then, filled with a string of firecracker profanity which I'd like to have cut loose with on his father, but which had to boil inside me without a chance for outlet.

It was clear that Ted had looked on the day he got his bike as the day he'd make his debut in playing with the other kids. It was clear why he'd never really been one of the others; he'd undoubtedly felt unequal to them without the everyday toys and nick-nacks they possessed.

If I hadn't known for a fact that his proud mother wouldn't let any of the children take money from the neighbors unless they'd worked for it, I'd have taken the kid down to the drugstore and cashed a small check to repay him. Now I was thinking about some way I could fix things subtly in the next few days.

I was pretty explosive at the dinner table, telling the long suffering spouse about little Ted. She nodded, and said the same thing I did about trying to figure out a polite way to give the kid dough for his bike.

Dinner was over and I was having a cigar and a Scotch in the living room, listening to the news broadcast, when I heard my wife call from the front porch.

"Fred, oh, Fred, come here, quickly!" I came there with a minimum of haste: She was standing on the porch steps, pointing excitedly down the street.

"Look," she said, lowering her voice. "Look at that. Ted Kelling has his bike!"

I followed her pointing finger. Down at the end of the block, zooming around in proud circles for all to see, was little Ted Kelling, on a bicycle.

"Well, I'm damned," I said. "That's fine!"

"Look," said my helping hand, "he's already got an appreciative audience."

She was pointing now to someone standing on the sidewalk in the shade of a big elm. The someone was watching Ted delightedly and clapping his hands together enthusiastically while the kid wheeled and rode no hands, and made figure eights.

The someone was a little guy with the face of an elf. A little guy in a too-large blue serge suit. A little guy with a celluloid collar.

Little Mr. Anonymous—the do-gooder!

"Fred," my wife demanded, "where are you going?"

I was starting down the porch steps.

"I'm going to talk to Ted's audience," I said.

I WAS halfway down the block when Ted, on his bicycle, caught sight of me. He yelled joyously.

"Heeey, Mr. Talbot! Look! Look what I got!"

Which, of course, tipped Mr. Anonymous off to my approach. I saw him stop clapping, turn, stare open-mouthed at me for half a second, then take off in a stumbling run in the opposite direction.

I cursed under my breath. The night was hot, and even though little Anonymous wasn't a track star, I had a certain amount of unwieldy girth to handicap me in any race with him. He was out of sight by the time I reached Ted.

"Hey, look, Mr. Talbot," he said. "No hands!"

He rode no-hands in a wide circle, then said:

"This swell man just gave it to me. He said I won it in a newspaper contest for answering the right question. He asked me who was in command of the Fourteenth Air Force, in China, and I knew. He—" and then Ted completed his circle and realized that little Mr. Anonymous was no longer with us.

"Gee, he's gone!" he exclaimed.

"Sure," I said. "Probably to ask more questions. That's a fine prize, Ted," I added. "See, everything worked out just fine, didn't it?"

"It sure did, Mr. Talbot," he said. "Now I'm gonna ride down to the next block and show the other kids."

I watched him straighten out his circles and start off down the block. On my way back to the house I was thinking hard, trying to figure out how little Anonymous had known that he'd have to do his good turn with Ted in such a tactfully neat bit of lying about contests. In fact, how had he found out that the kid was in need of a good turn?

I was going up the porch when I heard the horrible blasting of a horn, the scream of brakes, and the heartrending cry of agony from a small boy's throat. The dread cacophony of sound came from the corner.

Something turned over inside, and instinctively I shuddered. Then I was going down the steps and running toward the corner. I could hear voices.

"It's little Ted Kelling. Oh, my God! How awful! That truck! He blew his horn but it was too late!"

When I got to the corner I saw the twisted frame of the bike lying against the curb where the impact of the truck had tossed it. There was a small crowd around the spot on the lawn to which little Ted had been carried. I heard someone say:

"He's dead!"

THERE was nothing about the tragedy of little Ted Kelling's death in my column when I'd finally sweated it through the following day. It would have been too much for a follow-up so shortly after the irony yarn concerning old Pete. Too, I didn't have the heart to make market value of something so close to home.

But I wasn't passing off Mr. Anonymous this time, nor was I forgetting that Ted's death chalked up number two on the little man's help-parade.

I talked it over with Caroline, when I got down to work in the morning, and had told her the story. She agreed with me that it would be more than a damned good idea to find Mr. Anonymous just as quickly as possible.

"Something's wrong, really wrong," Caroline shuddered. "That little man has something about him that's—" she trailed off, made a face. "I don't know how to say it," she groped lamely. "Old Pete's death could have been one of those once-in-a- million ironies, but the boy—"

I nodded. "I know what you mean," I agreed. "It's crazy for us to figure that way, I suppose. I never saw a little guy who seemed so utterly, harmless. Yet, I dunno. I have to find him. I want to talk to him. I've got a lot of questions I want answered. Such as where did he get all the dough he dropped into old Pete's hat. He's a seedy little fellow, and scarcely the sort to be running around with that kind of wad, even as a lifetime's savings."

"But howl you go about finding him?" Caroline asked quite reasonably.

I had to shrug that one off.

"I'll find him," I said, "somehow. I don't know how, but I'll do it."

It was around four-thirty, half an hour after I'd finished my column. I. was sitting with my feet on the desk and my mind in gray clouds, thinking about ways and means of locating Mr. Anonymous, when Caroline poked her head through the door.

"If this sounds crazy," she said, "tell me."

"I'll tell you," I promised.

"Why not run an advertisement for Mr. Anonymous in the personal column?"

"Why, that's preposter—" I began. Then I said, "Why—why on earth not?"

I didn't waste any time. I took the elevator three floors up- to our Want Ad department. Jerry Ulric, the department manager, saw me coming in the door.

"You're out of your element, aren't you, Fred?" he grinned. "What'd you darken these doors for? Want to run an ad?"

"Bright boy," I said. "Very bright. We ought to have your mind in the editorial department."

"Don't tell me," he said. "Let me guess. Lost and Found, that's it. You want to advertise for all the readers you've been losing."

"You're a riot," I said flatly. "Maybe you ought to be in our comic features section. Look, may I state my business?"

"Okay," Jerry grinned. "Be a sour-puss. What can we do for you?"

"I want an ad for the personal column," I said, "designed to find, or locate, a peculiar looking little duck whose name I don't know."

"What's he look like?" Jerry demanded, grabbing a scratch pad and pencil.

I described little Mr. Anonymous. But Jerry had taken only several details. When I'd finished, he wasn't writing at all; he was staring at me open mouthed.

"You're kidding?" he demanded.

"Hell no. What's wrong?"

"That little guy you described was in here this morning," Jerry said excitedly. "He placed one of the most peculiar ads we've ever taken. I think he's nuts."

It was my turn to say, "Are you kidding?"

Jerry shook his head. "Uh-uh. Wait a minute. I'll find a copy of the ad he's running for tomorrow."

I WAITED while Jerry went after the ad. When he returned, he shoved it under my nose. I picked it up gingerly, not knowing what to expect. And even at that, I was almost knocked into a backflip when I began to read.

Are you unhappy? Are you the victim of injustice? Are you poor? Does ill health, marital unhappiness, or any other misfortune plague you? Find happiness—in any form you desire. I will help you. I am seeking only the gain of knowing I've helped. For further details write Box H789, this paper.

I put the slip of paper back on the counter and stared at Jerry unbelievingly.

"You mean he gave you this to run?" Jerry nodded. "Paid cash, from a bulging wallet. Said there might be more and larger ads if this didn't bring enough replies."

"He didn't give a name, of course?" I demanded.

Jerry shook his head. "Uh-uh. Damned funny about it, too. Said names weren't important."

"This ad will run tomorrow morning?" I demanded.

Jerry nodded.

"And he'll have to come in to pick up his replies, eh?"

Jerry nodded again. "And from the looks of it he'll be in early the following day, bursting with impatience."

"That's what I think," I said. "Thanks a lot, chum. Skip my ad. I'll be in here the day after tomorrow, early, to find my man."

When I got down to the office again and told Caroline what'd developed, she was as excited as I was, and twice as triumphant, since it had been her idea and it had panned out so beautifully.

"All we've got to do now," I said, "is wait. A mere matter of less than forty-eight hours."

"And then you'll be talking to little Mr. Anonymous," said Caroline.


"And then what?"


"And then what?" she repeated with maddening feminine insistence.

"Why—uh—and then I'll know," I said.

"Know what?"

"Who he is, what his help-everybody scheme is motivated by. Why he botches it up every time," I said.

"Supposing," said Caroline, "he tells you to go to hell and refuses to tell you?"

"Why—uh—he can't."

"Why not? What can you threaten him with? What has he done? Just tried to play Santa to two people. The fact that the people were killed as a result of his kindness can't be blamed on him, not legally, anyway," Caroline said.

I glared at her. "Stop talking like an idiot," I said. "You're just trying to nettle me."

But whether she had tried to or not, my composure was nil by the time I put on my hat and started for home that evening. Less than forty-eight hours suddenly seemed to be an awfully long time to me. I was sore, now, that I hadn't found some way to collar Mr. Anonymous that afternoon, and halfheartedly I toyed with wild schemes to venture out in a search for him that evening. But I wasn't in the mood for sifting haystacks for needles, and I managed to get what was left of my composure into a stupor that permitted sleep.

AT the office, next morning, Caroline looked as though she'd slept as well—as poorly, I should say—as I had the previous night The reason for her restlessness was, of course, the same as mine.

"Darn that little guy!" was her first sentence as I entered the office.

"Those, more politely expressed, are precisely my own sentiments," I agreed. "But buck up, kid, we haven't much longer to wait."

"Another day," wailed Caroline, "is a long time."

And it did seem like one hell of a long time, each of the first four morning hours passing like a day in itself. When it came time for lunch I was very much in the mood to soothe my jangled nerves by drinking it. Trumbo's Tavern was the logical place for me to take myself for this sort of repast—which I did.

I got a stool at the far end of the bar and ordered a Tom Collins and a liverwurst on rye.

I was moodily sipping my drink and waiting for the sandwich when the dispute began. It wasn't exactly a dispute. It started as a one man harangue. A huge fellow, looking like an unemployed bouncer or an ex-wrestler, several, stools down, raised a deep, harsh voice in anger.

"Yuh're sitting right where I was sitting, fella. Git outta my seat!"

The gargantuan owner of the harsh voice was a trifle drunk. I didn't catch a glimpse of the person, to whom he'd been speaking until a moment later when a thin voice muttered an inaudible reply.

"To hell wit yere apologies. Git outta my seat!"

The mammoth drunk's second command was louder than the first. And the person to who it was addressed, a small, slight- shouldered, mild-mannered, middle-aged business man with glasses and pink cheeks that were rapidly crimsoning in embarrassment, slid from his bar-stool and said something once more, which was again inaudible. It was, however, even from where I sat, a polite reply.

The next bit of action happened rapidly.

The big drunk grabbed the mild-mannered guy by the collar of his well-pressed gray flannel suitcoat.

"Wise, eh, punk?" he bellowed.

I heard the middle-aged chap's reply this time. It was loud, and indignant, and pathetically embarrassed-but-dignified.

"Take, your hands off me!"

"Oh," bellowed the huge drunk. "Wanna start something, hey?"

The big drunk slapped the other man across the face with a beefy paw, the sound of the blow sounding like a gun blast in the sudden silence of the tavern. The slap knocked off the smaller man's glasses, and there was a tinkling as they broke oh the floor.

"Damn you!" the mild-mannered gent cried, tears of rage and humiliation in his voice.

"Ahhhh!" snarled the big drunk. He pulled a haymaker out of nowhere and let it chop up smashingly against the side of the other's jaw.

The smaller fellow slid a good six yards from the impact of the blow, and ended up on his back beside one of the corner booths. He was out cold, an inert heap.

And at that instant a startled face—a very familiar face—poked out around the edge of the booth. It was wild- eyed, indignant, tearfully sympathetic.

Little Mr. Anonymous!

LITTLE Mr. Anonymous had been drinking a glass of milk and munching a sandwich. He put down the glass, but his mouth was still full of sandwich as he slipped quickly out of the booth and dropped to his knees beside the stricken victim of the bully.

I couldn't imagine what Anonymous was doing. I saw he was bending close and whispering into the unconscious chap's ear, and at the same time running his hand, gently over the fallen gladiator's forehead, but what it all meant, I had no idea.

And at that instant the fellow on the floor opened his eyes, shook his head as if clearing cobwebs from it, and scrambled to his feet under his own power.

Less than a minute had elapsed since he'd taken the terrific, punch from the big drunk—it had all happened that quickly. But now the guy was up again, with a very strange expression on his face, moving in on the hulking inebriate, fists raised to do battle.

The drunk cursed in amazement as he saw the smaller man rise, then broke into profane elation as he saw the fellow coming in to do further battle.

The hulking drunk started a punch from his heels.

The smaller man sidestepped and, as he wove back inside the punch, sent an astonishingly well-delivered left hook driving sharply into the bully's ribs.

The big drunk grunted, started to lose his footing. The smaller fellow crossed with a right to the jaw, timed magnificently, and the drunk toppled backward like a felled oak.

There was a sudden shocked silence in the place. The babble and bedlam that had accompanied the weird, but brief battle stilled abruptly at the unexpected sight of the behemoth toppling.

Then there was a wild, incredulous gasp from all throats, instantly followed by spontaneous shouts and cheering.

The middle-aged businessman stood there over the inert form of his gargantuan assailant in stupefied shock.

It was then that the tavern bouncer stepped in—right on time, as always—and began to kick the downed drunk in the ribs. Thus making sure that the big drunk was beyond further resistance, the bouncer bent to drag the fellow's hulking mass from the premises.

He straightened up an instant later, his face white.

"Just a minute!" the bouncer gasped. "Just a minute. Somebody call the cops! This guy ain't out cold. He hit his head on the bar rail in his fall. The back of his head is a mess. His skull is crushed. I—I think he's dead!"

There was a sudden sharp sob of anguish to break the shocked silence that followed the bouncer's pronouncement. The sob came from the horrified, middle-aged, mild-mannered man who'd felled the bully.

"My God," he gasped. "I've killed a man!"

IN the bedlam that followed, I was able to move quickly in my exit from the place. I had to move very quickly to keep within catching-distance of the rapidly departing figure of Mr. Anonymous.

I was less than fifty feet behind him when we hit the street. And in a block, although he had broken into a walk that was almost a run, I'd gained ground until I was less than twenty feet behind him.

He turned a corner, not looking back. I followed him, gaining another few feet. At the middle of the block he turned abruptly into an alley. I ran, then, to the alley. There was no sign of him. And then I saw the shivering figure frozen in the shadow of a telephone pole behind a loading platform.

I stepped into the alley casually, knowing that he'd be holding his breath in the hope that I'd pass him without detecting him. At the telephone pole I turned quickly, stepped into the shadow, and got my hands buried firmly in a death-grip on that oversized black serge suit.

"Okay, Mr. Anonymous," I said. "You're going to come along with me. We're going to have a nice long talk together, and this time you aren't going to run away."

His long, kind sad-elf face regarded me almost tearfully a moment. Then he said:

"Yes, Mr. Talbot. I guess it would be best."

QUITE firmly, I turned the key in the door of my office, tossed my hat on my desk, and turned on little Mr. Anonymous.

"Okay, get comfortable if you want to."

He took a seat on the edge of a straight backed chair against the wall. He held his hat in his hands, nervously cartwheeling it around in his lap.

I sat down on the edge of my desk and in my best inquisitioner voice, pointed a big finger at him and barked:

"Who the hell are you?"

Mr. Anonymous shifted uncomfortably. He shot a wildly futile glance at the door, centered his gaze on a spot in the ceiling, and answered my question without meeting my stare.

"I—I'm sorry, I cannot say," little Anonymous said hesitantly. "And anyway it—uh—doesn't make any difference."

I let that pass, figuring to work on it later.

"Why did you get the idea that you'd play helping hand to old Pete, and young Tom Kelling, and that poor guy in the saloon today?" I demanded.

"I—uh—just want to help people. Really do. Honestly, Mr. Talbot. I want so very desperately to help people."

"Sure," I said bitterly. "You really want to help. So you give two grand to old Pete, and the shock kills him. Going on your helpful little way, you give Ted Kelling a bike, and the kid is crushed under a truck less than twenty minutes later. You haven't done enough for people, so you give the victim of a bully some crazy sort of ooomph that enables him to knock his tormentor cold—so cold he's dead and the guy you helped faces a manslaughter rap."

Mr. Anonymous squirmed under my verbal assault, looking as if he was about to burst into tears at any moment.

"Those—those were horrible accidents," he said faintly. "I couldn't help their happening. Believe me, I couldn't. They were just—just coincidental. Tragic coincidences."

"I'd like to believe that," I said. "Once was ironic, twice was coincidental, three times was something else again."

"No!" little Anonymous wailed. "No! You're wrong!"

I suddenly switched tracks in the questioning.

"Where'd you get the two grand you gave to old Pete?"

Mr. Anonymous looked perplexed. "Where did I get it?"

"Yeah," I said brutally. "You don't look like someone who had a grand in the bank, let alone two thousand to give away."

"Why—why," Anonymous said flusteredly, "uh—why I just had it, that's all. And I've much more. All I'll need, in fact, no matter how much I'll need, I'll have enough."

"Ah," I said, heavily sarcastic, "an incognito billionaire, eh?"

Mr. Anonymous blushed furiously, but said nothing.

"Maybe you'd like to tell me what the idea behind the advertisement you're running in today's personal column is, eh?"

He looked suddenly startled. "My advertisement?"

"Yeah," I said. "I know all about it, so relax. I stumbled on it yesterday afternoon, before it was even set up in type. What's the gag? What sort of a mail order racket are you starting?"

Mr. Anonymous looked sincerely bewildered.

"I don't understand what you mean," he said. "But your tone implies that you do not approve of my advertisement."

"Bright boy," I said. "You figured it out quickly. Now, let's have the rest. What's it all about?"

MY little chum took his time answering this one. He glanced at me uneasily, shuffled his feet, looked at his nails, cleared his throat.

"It is going to result in turning out mass-help to all who need it," he said slowly. "It is my plan to read the letters I get in reply to the advertisement most carefully. There should be hundreds of them. Then, when I have seeded them, so to speak, and decided on those that are sincere and really in need of help I will hold my gathering."

"Gathering?" I asked.

Mr. Anonymous nodded. "I will invite those hundreds of troubled souls to attend a mass meeting in a large hall, say a theater. There, with them all at hand, I will dispense aid and comfort to those who need it."

I nodded. It was beginning to grow clearer and clearer. I wondered why I hadn't thought of it before. Mr. Anonymous was as nutty as an almond bar. Very carefully, I let my voice' change to something more sympathetic.

"I see," I said. "Much smarter than going out and looking for people too. Much more efficient, too. Just let them come to you."

His face lit up like a lighthouse beacon.

"Do you really think so?" he begged eagerly. "Do you really agree with me?"

"Certainly I do," I said. "I think you've really got something there. It's too bad I can't help you. I'd really like to."

Mr. Anonymous almost fell out of his chair in delight.

"Would you? really?"

"I surely would, only, I guess you wouldn't want me to."

"But I would!" cried little Anonymous excitedly. "I do so wish you'd help!"

Now the really subtle dip to my angle entered. I tried not to overplay it. I didn't want him to get suspicious or frightened.

"No," I said sadly. "You're just saying that. You really don't want or need me. If you did, you wouldn't insist in keeping me so much in the dark about everything."

Mr. Anonymous considered this. He bit his underlip reflectively, indecisively. I prodded him gently.

"I couldn't help, not knowing anything," I sighed.

Mr. Anonymous looked plainly distraught.

"But I shouldn't tell," he muttered, half to himself. "I swore it wouldn't be wise to tell. I swore to keep it a secret. They'd be furious if my secret got out and word got back to them about what I was doing. Oh, my!"

"Who'd be sore?" I asked sympathetically.

"All of them," Mr. Anonymous said automatically, "back there. They don't know I'm gone. They had no idea what I've planned to do. I—I left an assistant to take care of my work in my absence. They'd be furious if they found out. And if I told anybody, they might find out."

I didn't have to do much guessing to figure out that "they" were undoubtedly the proprietors of the nut house from which Mr. Anonymous had escaped. But I played along, trying to get him to babble more.

"So they don't know you're gone, eh?"

He nodded soberly. "No, they don't. At least I don't imagine they know. They'd be hardly likely to notice my absence, inasmuch as I left an assistant to carry on."

"How long," I asked solemnly, "do you intend to stay away? I mean, does this go on forever?"

Mr. Anonymous frowned. "Not for long," he said. "Not for very much longer, in fact. You see, I just had to do this. I just had to come here to help people. I had grown so despondent with what I was doing, that the only self-redemption I could think of was coming here to help. I guess you'd call it a sort of combination vacation and spiritual refreshment.

"I see," I told him gently. "I see exactly what you mean. Only, there's one thing you haven't told me yet."

"No?" said Anonymous. "What's that?" Then he put his hands to his mouth, like the monkey speak-no-evil. "Oh, goodness, I've told you almost everything—and I didn't intend to at all. Oh, my!"

"Sure," I said quickly. "You've told me practically everything except who you are. Come now, you might as well tell me that."

Mr. Anonymous looked at me with pleading eyes.

"You promise to keep my secret?"

"Cross my heart," I said, "and hope to die."

He took a deep shuddering breath. Then he, got up from his chair, stepped to the door, listened a moment to make certain that there were no eavesdroppers. Then he tiptoed over to my desk, leaned forward and whispered dramatically in my ear.

I had expected practically anything but what he told me.

"Huh?" I said.

He whispered it once more.

"Now you see why I didn't want to tell?" he asked, stepping back.

I blinked at him solemnly.

"Sure," I said slowly. "Now I understand. But don't worry. I'm not going to tell a soul."

"You understand why I wanted to come here to do good, why it's so important that I do?"

I nodded. "Most natural thing in the world," I said.

"I was getting so terribly blue, so dreadfully despondent with what I was doing," he said. "I just couldn't go on any longer until I'd had this—this—"

"Fling," I said.

"Yes. This fling. But I can't stay much longer. My assistant will arrange to bring me back when I wish to leave. But if I can hold my great mass-meeting, I'll be able to leave feeling that I've completed my job handsomely."

"Sure," I said. "Sure. Just a minute, though. I want to make a telephone call. I just remembered it."

I went to the door, unlocked it, locked it noiselessly once I was on the other side. Caroline sat at her desk looking as curious as a thousand cats.

"Well?" she whispered.

"You've no idea, baby, what a loony we've got in there," I said. "Let me get on that telephone. I'm calling for a buggy bus from the nut clinic right now."

"He's really that bad?" Caroline gasped.

I nodded, picking up the telephone.

"Take a look through the keyhole," I said. "See if he's staying put."

I dialed the number. Caroline, at the keyhole, looked up.

"He's all right. He's walking around. He's smelling the fresh flowers I put on your desk this morning."

I nodded. "Fine. Anything to keep him from straying."

MY number answered then, and Caroline left the keyhole to hang over my shoulder as I talked to the people from the psychopathic ward in the County Hospital. I explained things precisely and to the point.

"I wish you'd send a loony wagon over to the Record- Times building, right away," I told them. "We've a dipsy- doodle in room 1334, Fred Talbot's office, who needs a strait- jacket, but bad. Huh? How should I know? All I know is that he's a nut, and probably very dangerous. No. This isn't a gag. Yes, you can call me back at this number to verify it. All right, call me through the paper's number. They'll connect you with me."

I hung up, waited half a minute, maybe a little longer, and my telephone rang. It was the psychopathic ward, checking.

"Okay," I said. "Yes, I'm Fred Talbot. I placed the call. It's not a gag. Hurry over with your crazy cart. This boob might get very impatient."

I hung up, looked at Caroline. Her eyes shone with excitement.

"Gee," she gasped, "do you really think he's dangerous?"

"No," I admitted. "But he needs to be put under observation. Besides, the way he's been helping people, accidental or not, hasn't been a boon to public safety."

"Maybe you'd better go back in there and keep him calmed down," she suggested.

"Yeah," I admitted, "it might be smart."

I unlocked the office door, stepped inside.

"Well, got my business call through. Sorry to have kept you wai—"

I didn't finish my sentence. I'd been talking to an empty room. Little Mr. Anonymous was gone!

And then I saw the open window. The flapping curtains called it to my attention. There was a fire escape right outside that window. The window hadn't been open when I'd left the room. Mr. Anonymous had undoubtedly used it for his exit. The reason was undoubtedly that he'd overheard, or listened in on, my conversation with the nut people.

"Caroline!" I yelped. "He's flown the coop!"

She came rushing into the office, looked wildly around.

"Oh, goodness, how awful," she wailed.

But I wasn't paying any attention to her, at the moment. My attention was claimed completely by a vase of flowers on my desk.

"Did you say you put fresh flowers in that vase this morning, Caroline?" I demanded.

She looked at me in perplexity. "Of course I did, but what has that got to do with—"

"Look at those flowers," I said.

She looked at the flowers, gasped.

"You said little Anonymous was smelling the flowers, admiring them, didn't you?"

"Why—why yes. Of course he was. And they were still fresh then, just a few minutes ago. Those aren't the same flowers," she wailed. "The flowers I put in the vase, the flowers Mr. Anonymous was admiring a few minutes ago, were fresh and lovely. Those in the vase now are dead and withered!"

"Yeah," I said flatly. "Yeah, they certainly are."

I SPENT the next half hour pacing up and down like a caged panther, wearing out my office rug and pulling at my none too plentiful gray hair. It took me all that time, plus about five minutes more, to figure out something that might enable me to pick up little Mr. Anon's trail again.

And then I cursed myself roundly for having taken so long, and wasted so much time, in thinking of it. I almost broke an ankle leaping to the telephone. I got Jerry Ulric, of the want ad department, on the wire.

"Listen," I said, "this is Fred Talbot. Do answers sometimes come in on your ads the very same day they appear?"

"Sure, Fred."

"Mail, as well as telephone?"

"Very often, in an unusual ad. That supposes, of course, the letters were mailed early on reading the paper, written immediately, and mailed right here in the downtown district. Incidentally, I'll bet you want to know if that crazy ad I showed you yesterday has had any answers yet."

"That's exactly what I want to know," I told him.

"Well stop worrying, then. The goofy ad pulled over a hundred answers in the first mail. Your little funny-faced friend was in here about twenty minutes ago to pick up the answers."

"Oh, God," I groaned. "That's what I was afraid of!"

"You still trying to get in touch with the screwball?" Jerry asked.

"I want to get in touch with him now more than ever," I said.

"Well, bub, I can give you some help, this time. The little guy took all the letters that had come in so far, and left ten bucks for us to give to someone to deliver any of the others that came in within the next ten or twelve hours."

"Deliver where?" I yelped, "What address did he give?"

"Some restaurant, on the near North Side," said Jerry. "I have it written down somewhere. Just a minute."

When he came back to the phone he read the address.

"Funny place for him to transact his business, eh?" Jerry observed.

"I'm beyond being surprised at anything this guy does," I said. "Thanks a lot for the info, Jerry."

"S'all right," he said. "Hope it does some good."

"Brother," I said fervently, "so do I!"

I told Caroline not to expect me back, and to send the booby hatch boys back to their playhouse when they arrived to pick up their loony.

"But how will I explain?" Caroline wailed.

I shrugged. "If they won't take any explanation, you go along with 'em. One nitwit's as good as the next."

I left Caroline spluttering her indignation. Outside the building I found a cab, gave the driver the address Jerry had gotten from Mr. Anonymous.

En route we passed the sort of store I'd been watching for. I told the cabbie to hold it for a minute, while I jumped out and ran into the place.

When I emerged I had three oblong boxes in my arms, and a fervent prayer of hope on my lips.

"Okay, chum, on to the address I gave you," I told the driver.

IT was a little restaurant. Half a dozen tables, little more than a dozen booths, comprised the place. I took a booth in the rear, stacked my boxes beside me, and waited for Mr. Anonymous to arrive.

Five cigarettes later, he strolled into the place. He looked out of breath, and was carrying a big envelope, apparently stuffed with papers. I saw him speak to the manager of the restaurant, and the manager nodded, brought out a scrap of paper and wrote something on it. Then little Mr. Anonymous walked over to one of the front booths and sat down.

At that point I got up, picked up my boxes, and walked over to my little chum's booth.

"Hello," I said.

Mr. Anonymous was decidedly surprised at seeing me. Surprised, discomfited, and quite a little bit burned up.

"How did you get here?" he said coldly.

"I have a friend in the want ad section," I said. "You sure made a quick exit, and a thorough one."

"I heard your telephone conversation," he said. "You certainly went to viciously deceitful measures to betray me."

"Now, just a minute," I said, sliding into the booth beside him. "Let's not be hasty. I'm sorry I did what I did. It was a mistake, and I apologize. That's one of the reasons for my being here—to try to make you realize I'm sorry and that I no longer doubt you."

"Thank you," said little Anonymous coldly. "I accept your apologies. Now will you please leave me alone?"

"You don't plan on going through with your mass meeting for help, do you?" I asked.

Anonymous glared at me. "It won't be what I expected it to be, but I'm going through with it. I have more than a hundred replies to my advertisement. I contacted over eighty of these persons who are willing to attend my meeting."

"In such a short time?"

"I can work with urgency when it is needed," he said.

"And then what?" I demanded.

"There will be other replies before the evening is old. I will contact those persons, tonight, and make arrangements for their attendance at my meeting."

"Still going to help them all, eh?"

"Yes. Even if you persist in trying to block my efforts. My meeting will be held tomorrow morning. It is none of your business where it will be held. You may try as you will, but you'll be unable to stop me, or to find out the location of my meeting. With your insistence on bedeviling me, I know I've little time in which to work. I will help these people tomorrow, and then go back."

"Look," I said earnestly. "You want to know why I'm really here?"

He didn't say anything.

"It's because I believe what you told me in my office. Believe it now for the first time. And it's because I want to remind you of those three people you've tried to help already."

Mr. Anonymous looked uncomfortable.

"You bring that up to harass me. All of those instances were accidental."

"You'd like to think so," I said. "You'd like to think you weren't, directly responsible for what happened to old Pete and Ted and that guy in the tavern. But down deep, you know you haven't changed, and that the very essence of what you are was what made your help to those people turn out as it did."

"No!" cried little Anonymous shrilly. "You're lying. You want me to lose faith in myself. I refuse. I'm going through with my idea."

"You worked your idea so well with your first three tries that you want to push it off on a hundred, maybe two hundred, other people tomorrow, is that it?"

"No! Tomorrow will prove that I can do as I have planned. It will prove that those first incidents were just accidents. You will see!"

"You refuse to listen to reason?" I demanded. "You insist on taking your so-called aid to several hundred innocent, hopeful persons tomorrow?"

"I refuse to listen to babble. I've had enough of your talk. Please leave—at once!"

I wiped the sweat from my brow. Reasoning, as I had feared, had failed to sway him. Now there was nothing left but my ace. I took a deep breath, then opened with its suit.

"Supposing I proved to you that I am right, that you can't escape the fact that you are what you are, even in trying to help people? Supposing I prove that no matter how much you try to help, things will always turn out in the pattern of your first three efforts? Supposing I prove that you cannot help yourself, no matter how decent your motives, and that whatever you caress is doomed?"

"You are being ridiculous!"

"But supposing I prove it?" I insisted.

"Why, I—I'd admit your premise. I would have my assistant bring me back to the place where I belong," Mr. Anonymous said slowly. "But I have told you, you cannot prove such a thing."

I jerked the string from the first oblong box, opened it, tossing the cover aside.

"Here," I said, "what do you think of these?"

Mr. Anonymous was thrown off balance.

"They, they're beautiful!" he gasped. "They're glorious!"

Instinctively, he reached forward and touched them, bending close to inhale their fragrance. They should have been everything he said they were. They were a dozen American Beauty roses, two bucks apiece.

I pushed the box aside, opened the second. Chrysanthemums, a dozen of the very finest. Ultra expensive. Mr. Anonymous gasped. He put his hand toward them.

"Hold them to your face," I said. "Take a deep whiff, they're super-special."

He didn't need a second invitation, he lifted the dozen long- stemmed beauties to his face, inhaling deeply. Then, reverently, he put them back into the box.

He looked up at me embarrassedly.

"I have always loved beautiful things," he said. "Flowers, beautiful flowers, are among the most gorgeous things on earth."

I had opened the third box as he spoke. Lilies. A dozen of the most fragrant, luscious lilies in town. Mr. Anonymous let out an odd little moan of pleasure, reached into the box and tenderly stroked the stems of the flowers.

IT was just about then that he realized the oddity of my display. He had, until that moment, been so carried away by the beauty of the blossoms, that he'd forgotten the unusual and uncalled for manner in which I'd dragged them into our conversation.

"But—but really. What has this to do with me? Why did you bring these flowers here?" he demanded.

"As proof," I said, "that your caress condemns."

I picked up the first box. The one with the roses. I held it out to him.

"Look," I said. "Dead, dried, horribly withered weeds. A few moments ago these were beautiful roses. But that was before you touched them."

He didn't have time to catch his breath before I picked up the second box. Its contents, once the lovely chrysanthemums, were but ragged, withered weeds.

"You embraced these," I said flatly. "Look at them now. Dead!"

"But—" Mr. Anonymous blurted desperately. I cut him off, picking up the last box, the one that had contained the lilies.

"Look at these. Brown, stricken, their beauty obliterated by death. You caressed their stems. Now will you believe me?"

He looked at me wordlessly. Anguish was on his face, pain in his eyes.

"I—I," he faltered, "I killed them?"

"Just as surely as you killed old Pete and Ted and the bully in the tavern and the future of the man you helped there."

Mr. Anonymous shook his head in bewildered dismay.

"Not because you wanted to," I said softly. "Your intentions were a million miles in the opposite direction. But you could not avoid the fact that you are what you are. What you are, killed all of them."

Mr. Anonymous rose. He extended his hand. I shook it.

"You win," he said. "I—I'll not risk my—ah—aid to the others. I believe you. I should never have started this thing. But I—I did so want to—" He faltered as his voice broke.

"I know what you mean," I said. "You thought you could change roles, for just a little while. But you couldn't."

Mr. Anonymous smiled a game, trembling little sad-elf smile; He picked up his hat.

"I—I guess I'll be getting back," he said.

I walked with him to the door.

"Your assistant will call for you?" I asked.

He nodded.

We were in the street.

"Goodbye," he said. "I'm glad you did what you did."

"That's all right," I said. "I'm sorry I didn't believe you."

Mr. Anonymous moved away, stepped down the curb and into the street. He looked back over his shoulder and waved briefly to me, that dead game, sad-elf smile still on his face.

THE truck careened around the corner just as little Anonymous reached the middle of the street. There wasn't a chance in the world of its missing him. His assistant had done a punctual job of calling for him. There was a shriek of brakes, and little Mr. Anonymous went down beneath the huge wheels of the vehicle.

The crowd had gathered around the body that had housed the elf-faced little man. I didn't join the curious. I knew he would be dead. I stood there on the sidewalk watching the confusion and trying to think straight.

A police officer came up to me, then.

"Listen, mister, that little guy is dead."

"Is he?" I asked.

"He hasn't any identification on him. But I swear you're the guy he waved to when he was crossing the street. Come now, you know his name?"

I looked at the cop blankly. I was thinking: Sure. I know his name. He told it to me once and I didn't believe him. I believe it now though. But I won't tell you. You'd think I was getting wise, or losing my mind. You see, his name is Death.

"Well?" the cop demanded truculently. "You know the guy, doncha? Ain't you gonna identify him?"

My answer was motivated by two factors. Once I had promised little Anonymous not to reveal his name when he told it to me. And then, I didn't want to make myself a candidate for a ride in the crazy cart.

I stared the copper right in the eye.

"I never saw the guy before in my life," I told him.


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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