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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN
(WRITING AS CLEE GARSON)

CLUB OF THE DAMNED

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Ex Libris

First published in Fantastic Adventures, February 1943
This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library
Version Date: 2019-09-29
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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Fantastic Adventures, February 1943, with "Club of the Damned"



Illustration

Gray faces watched impassively.




Devlin was dead; a member of the club of damned men. But he
had the choice of living again if he were willing to perform a deed...




YOUNG Devlin left the theater that evening with an immeasurable sense of happiness and wellbeing. The play had been superbly done, more than brilliantly acted, and contagiously exciting. Vicariously, young Devlin's own emotions had been keyed singingly to the buoyant, glad-to-be-alive zest that had been the theme of the performance.

Devlin's stride was brisk, his eyes sparkling, his smile still lingering, therefore, as he left the theater and started across the Loop through the brisk, tangy delight fulness of an unusually fine autumn evening.

Since it was scarcely after eleven, and since his apartment was not far from the Loop, Devlin decided to take full advantage of this excellent evening by walking the distance to the near North Side address.

With that in mind, Devlin filled his lungs with the crisp, clean air, squared his shoulders, and began a rapid, loose, carefree stride which brought him to Michigan Boulevard, where he turned north.

Then his pace slowed a little, and he gave himself time to drink in the wonders of the majestic city skyline, the surging, happy throngs of people passing, and the very wordless joy of being so alive, so young, so gloriously happy.

With each block he walked, Devlin was even less conscious of the time that passed and the distance he was covering—even more enthralled by the tingling, exciting wonder at the meanest, most mundane things around him.

Oak Street was behind him, and to his right, beyond the Outer Drive, the long white beaches of Lake Michigan were flecked with the spray of the breeze-sent whitecaps crashing endlessly in upon them.

Devlin filled his lungs more deeply, smiled more broadly to himself. His stride quickened to the freshening sting of the lake winds, and he buttoned his topcoat loosely.

To his left were row on row of brown-stoned, lofty dwellings, once the residences of Chicago's fashionably great, now clubs, consulates, humble boarding houses, or renovated apartment dwellings.

But the lawns to either side of Devlin bore great trees, the leaves of which were multicolored in gorgeous hues of brown and rust. And from the darkened side streets drifted wispy tendrils of smoke, caught from the fires made of fallen leaves.

"The smell of burning leaves in Autumn!" Devlin murmured half aloud. "There's no perfume to match it."

He realized now that he was but a few blocks from his own apartment, and knifed by a sharp regret at this, he determined to walk on a few blocks past it. This was a night not to be wasted.

"This is too fine to mi—" Devlin began.

But he never finished the sentence.

He'd been crossing one of those quiet side street intersections just as he spoke. And somehow he hadn't noticed the automobile roaring down on him until its headlights filled his eyes as he turned at some inner prompting of disaster.

Devlin knew only the glare of those lights, and a half-dimmed flash of a grinning, malicious face behind the wheel of the car.

Then it struck him—he couldn't have avoided it—and hurled him fully ten feet through the air.

Blackness closed over Devlin, then. The blackness of unconsciousness....


SOMEONE shook Devlin's shoulder gently. Someone's voice was saying things to him. Things blurred by the ache in Devlin's head. He opened his eyes, and looked up into the face of a stranger.

"Easy now, fellow," this stranger warned. "You had a nasty crack from that machine. Don't move until you're certain that you're all in one piece."

Devlin got his elbows beneath him, and pushed unsteadily to one knee. He looked foggily around. He had been lying beside the curb of the same intersection which he'd started to cross at the instant the car struck him. Lying, where he'd been hurled, in the gutter.

Unconsciously, Devlin made a gesture to brush his clothing.

"Here, I'll help you rise," said the stranger.

He put his hand under Devlin's arm to steady him, and the young man rose groggily to his feet.

Now Devlin was able to view his benefactor clearly for the first time. The stranger was of medium height, about Devlin's own size, but some fifteen or twenty years older. The stranger wore a tweed of Oxford gray, a soft slouch hat pulled over one eye. He had a long, rather horsy face. His complexion was slightly pallid.

"Thanks," Devlin mumbled. "Thanks a lot, old man. Was it a hit and run driver?"

The stranger nodded.

"I just got to the scene as the car was moving away," he said. "Gave you a nasty jar. Couldn't get its number."

Cautiously, Devlin was testing his arms and limbs. He seemed sound enough. A trifle bruised, perhaps. But his headache had apparently vanished. He was able to smile wanly now.

"A narrow squeak," he said. "That damned skunk might have killed me."

"He might have, at that," the stranger agreed. "But, here, you still look plenty gray and definitely shaken. Could I offer you a drink?"

"An excellent idea," Devlin declared. "However, I hope you'll let me repay a little of your kindness by doing the buying."

"My club is right around the corner," said the stranger. "I would feel honored if you'd let me carry out my self-styled Samaritan role."

"But—" Devlin protested.

The stranger smiled. "Please," he said.

"Well," Devlin said reluctantly.

"Thank you," said the stranger. He took Devlin's arm companionably and helped him up to the sidewalk.

"Just around the corner," said the stranger....


SCARCELY two minutes later, Devlin stood with the stranger on the big stone porch of what was once a pretentious old gray stone mansion. His benefactor had pressed twice on the bell beside the ancient thick oaken door.

"My name is Devlin, sir."

"And mine is Benson," declared the stranger gravely.

The door opened at that instant. Opened to reveal a tall, old, gray-faced man in the uniform of a butler. He looked from Devlin to Benson, and, to the former, said:

"Come in, sir."

Benson stepped back, and Devlin walked ahead of him into a small, marbled hallway. A hallway which smelled old, almost musty, and was lighted only by a solitary ship's lantern hanging from an elaborate brass chain in the center of the ceiling.

"You'll pardon my presumption, Benson," Devlin said, turning to his companion once they were in the hallway. "But exactly what is the name of this club? I don't recall ever having heard of any club being in this vicinity before."

"Very few people have," Benson smiled. He took off his hat and handed it to the gray-faced old butler. Devlin, saw his benefactor was bald. "Very few people have," Benson repeated. "It's called the 'Association of Gentlemen of the Pale.'"

Devlin was slightly astonished.

"A rather odd name, isn't it?" he asked.

Benson stared at him unsmilingly, and Devlin suddenly wondered if he had offended his benefactor.

"It isn't at all, really," Benson said, smiling suddenly. "If one understands the complete purpose of the organization."

The butler stepped around them, now, and opened another door directly ahead.

Again Benson stood back, gesturing with a sweep of his hand to indicate that Devlin should precede him. And again Devlin was first through the door.

The room into which he now stepped was much larger than the cold, somewhat eerie, marble hallway. It was about thirty by fifty feet in measure, high-ceilinged, heavily beamed by thick, black timber.

In one corner of this room was a bar some twenty feet long. Behind the bar stood an elderly man in a gray shirt and gray apron who seemed almost a counterpart to the gray-faced butler.

The room was dimly lighted, like the hall. Its illumination, also like that of the hall, consisted of lanterns, ship style, hanging from two elaborate brass chains running from the ceiling.

In the gloom of the room, Devlin found it difficult at first glance to ascertain if any others were present. There were tables, many of them, scattered around conveniently. But as far as Devlin could see, all were unoccupied, and the barroom—for it must have been that—was utterly deserted save for the barkeep.

"We might as well have that drink I promised you," Benson said briefly, causing Devlin to wonder at the subtle changing in his benefactor's manner.


TOGETHER they crossed to the bar, their footsteps ringing on the polished flooring.

"Not very crowded tonight, eh?" Devlin offered.

Benson looked at him with raised eyebrows. He smiled in amusement, as if Devlin's remark had been particularly humorous.

"There's hardly what you'd call a crowd here at any time," Benson answered.

"But naturally," Devlin blushed apology. "It seems to be a club of rather small and exclusive membership."

Benson nodded. "Exclusive, all right. I'll say that much for it."

"If you don't mind my asking," Devlin said, "what's the total membership in this organization?"

Benson shrugged carelessly.

"I really haven't any accurate idea, old man," he said.

They were at the bar now, and the gray-faced, white-haired barkeep moved over unsmilingly to greet them.

"Good evening, gentlemen. What will it be?"

Benson looked at Devlin.

"Scotch," said the latter. "Plain water."

Benson smiled one of his curious smiles, and said: "You might serve the same for me, Grensa."

As the barkeep moved away to get the drinks, Benson remarked:

"There are a number of members whom I know would be only too anxious to meet you, Devlin."

Startled, Devlin blinked. "Why, what do you mean?"

"I mean, merely, that after we have another drink, we might as well go upstairs for a bit, while I introduce you to some gentlemen who have been patiently awaiting your arrival," Benson said casually.

"Awaiting my arrival?" Devlin gasped. "Why, you're joking. No one could foresee that I'd be here and—"

Devlin stopped his sentence abruptly, staring wide-eyed at Benson.

"I don't mean to say that they expected you, exactly," Benson smiled. "But they are expecting someone. And you happen to be that person."

"I—I don't understand—" Devlin faltered.

"You will soon enough, Mr. Devlin," Benson declared. He smiled again, indicating the glasses and bottle which the solemn-faced old barkeep was placing before them. "But for the present, let us have that drink, eh?"

Devlin watched Benson pour the soda atop the ice and whisky in his glass, then repeat the process for Devlin's drink. This completed, Benson took his own glass, turned to Devlin.

"To your best luck, sir," he said.

Automatically, Benson took his glass from the bar, half- raising it in a toasting gesture.

"And to your kindness," Devlin murmured bewilderedly.

As Devlin raised his glass to his lips, he caught the eye of the strange old barkeep, and for the first time was aware of amusement in the old man's watery gray eyes.

Hurriedly, Devlin drained the contents of his glass and set it back upon the bar. Turning to his host, he saw that Benson had gulped his own drink in surprisingly short order, and had been staring at Devlin with that curious half-smile again.

"Will you have another?" Benson asked.

Devlin shook his head. "Thanks, but no. I—I think that perhaps I had better be getting along. Won't you come, too, and join me in a drink at some neighboring bar?" He flushed again, under Benson's strangely intent scrutiny. "I really appreciate what you've done, sir. But I feel, ah, rather guilty imposing on your hospitality any more. If you'd permit me to repay you in some small—"

Benson cut him off.

"But the gentlemen upstairs, Devlin. Surely, you haven't any intention of disappointing them?"


DEVLIN felt uncomfortably backed against a wall. He didn't know what to say, what to think of this stranger who called himself Benson. He was also extremely bewildered by these surroundings which Benson called his club.

"I, ah, thought you were merely joking about that," Devlin said uneasily.

Benson shook his head. "Not at all. The gentlemen upstairs are expecting my guest and me. It so happens that you are my guest. Surely you'll stay long enough to meet them."

"But who, who are these gentlemen?" Devlin demanded.

"The Committee," Benson said simply.

"The Committee?" Devlin echoed hollowly. "I—I'm sorry, but I still don't understand."

"Why, on my word, Devlin," Benson exclaimed in sudden sardonic amusement. "You appear to be frightened!"

Devlin flushed hotly. "Not at all," he said. "It's just that, that—dammit, Benson," he suddenly exploded, "you have to admit that this is all singularly strange. You were kind to me, yes. But I don't know you, and I've never been in this—this club before. In fact, I've never heard of it before now. And now you say that you wish to introduce me to a—a committee of members whom I am certain I've never met before. Surely you recognize that the situation is distinctly unusual, to say the least!"

Benson shrugged. "Perhaps," he admitted. "But I can promise you that your curiosity will disappear when you meet our committee. It will all become very clear to you, then."

Benson's smile returned, mocking.

Devlin set his jaw in sudden decision. "Very well, Benson," he said evenly. "I'll meet your committee. But I'm doing so principally to satisfy my own curiosity, understand?"

"Excellent," Benson smiled. "Come along, then, if you please." He started away from the bar toward a door at the other corner of the room. Devlin quickened his step until he walked beside Benson. Neither said a word. Benson still smiled.

At the door, Devlin's strange host paused, rapped twice on the dark oak paneling, and turned to Devlin.

"They are all extremely anxious to meet you," Benson said.

Devlin had the sudden impression that his host's voice had taken on a purring quality.

There was no sound from the other side of the door. No sound until it suddenly opened inward to admit them. And then Devlin's hoarse, involuntary gasp came forth.

The room into which they looked was rather small, possibly half the size of the barroom. And it was even more weirdly illuminated than the barroom, in that its single focus of light was centered directly in the middle of the room, and came from a single, green-shaded lamp suspended by what must have been a long cord from the ceiling. The lamp hung perhaps three feet above a round old-fashioned gaming table covered by smooth green felt. And its round beam was only large enough to include the table.

The rest of the room was hidden in thick, semi-darkness. Darkness just heavy enough to make indistinguishable the outlines of the people, at least a dozen of them, who stood in a semicircle around the table.

And then Devlin was conscious of his own startled outcry. He turned swiftly to Benson, to see that the other was grinning sardonically at him.

Devlin flushed deeply, opening his mouth to speak.


AND then a voice spoke from the darkness. A voice which seemed to come from the middle of the semicircle around the lighted table. A low, masculine, ingratiating voice.

"We have been waiting," the voice declared.

"I have brought you a Mr. Devlin, gentlemen," Benson announced.

Devlin had a sudden mad sensation of terror. Terror caused by an inarticulate premonition of danger. But something held him there. Something kept him from the wild flight to which his mind was urging him.

"Let Mr. Devlin enter," said the voice from the darkness beyond the green felt table.

And suddenly Devlin realized that he was stepping forward, and that Benson remained where he was, while the door closed as noiselessly as it had opened.

Devlin stood alone in the room.

Alone, that is, but for the indistinguishable shadows in the gloom around the green felt table. Benson was no longer beside him. Benson had remained in the barroom.

There was a sudden rustling from those shadows. A sound like the shifting of dried leaves in a night breeze. And Devlin felt, rather than heard, a murmur, a giggling murmur, from those stirring shadows.

"What is this?" Devlin cried out suddenly, scarcely conscious that his vocal muscles had broken their swift bonds of fear. "Who are you? What is this all about?"

Now Devlin heard the dry, rustling giggle from the shadows clustering around that table.

"You are young," said the same voice that had spoken first from the darkness. "It is always so with those as young as you. They never realize it has happened."

"Damn you!" Devlin choked. "What is this? Who are you? Turn on some lights and be seen!"

"It might be better if you didn't see us," said the voice. "Even under the circumstances. Don't you really know where you are? Didn't the other tell you?"

Devlin felt suddenly, inexplicably chilled. He opened his mouth to answer this, but no words came.

"Obviously not," the voice continued. "Then I must tell you now. You were brought hear from an accident, were you not? An accident in which you were either killed or miraculously saved. That is yet to be decided."

Devlin found voice again. "You are mad!" he choked. "What sort of fool's gibberish is this? A car struck me. I was not badly injured. That person outside this room, Benson, helped me up and brought me here on the pretense of a drink. What is this all about?"

There was a murmur from the shadowy figures around the table. The same dry, rustling giggle.

"You are in the Pale," the voice from the darkness said. "You are directly between life and death. You are caught between the shades of Death and the realities of Life. And you are here to be offered an opportunity to cheat Death. You are here to receive your chance to walk again in the world of the living."

For an instant Devlin was stunned. Then anger flooded him.

"You are mad!" he shouted. "This is all sheer babbling lunacy. If you think that—"

The voice from the darkness cut in.

"If you do not believe those words, why do you not leave here?"

"I will!" Devlin exploded. "You're damned right I will. I'll get out of this madhouse right now!"

"Please do," said the voice mockingly.


SWEAT stood out on Devlin's brow.

His body was tensed, straining. His will, his mind, his strength all screamed for him to turn and leave the room. But he was helpless. Powerless. He couldn't move a muscle.

A minute passed, while the dry, rustling giggling again swept the shadows in the darkness.

The cry that burst from Devlin's lips was choked, sick, thick with terror.

"Perhaps you will now believe me, Devlin," said the voice at last. "You are neither dead nor alive. You are here in the Pale, where there is neither life nor death. Do you believe that?"

For an instant Devlin's lips worked before sound came. And then one word, torn shudderingly from his very fiber, choked forth.

"Yes!"

There was again a dry, rustling murmur from the figures in the shadows. A wordless sigh that was like the soft scraping of a bough against the earth.

"That is better," said the voice from the darkness. "Now I will repeat what I have already told you. You are here because you are going to be offered a chance to frustrate death. You are here because we are kind enough to offer you an opportunity to regain your life, to return to it exactly as if you had never been struck by that automobile. Do you want that chance?"

Devlin's voice, hoarse, despairing, gave answer.

"Yes! Oh, God, yes!"

Again that rustling inhuman sigh from the shadows behind the table. A sigh of pleasurable satisfaction.

"You are certain?" said the voice from the darkness.

"Yes." Devlin's answer was a choked whisper of supplication.

"Then approach this table," said the voice from the shadows.

Devlin's steps carried him robot-like toward the green circle of light splashing down on the felt surface of the table. He halted less than two feet from it.

"We ask only one thing for this chance we give you," said the voice. "We ask only that you bring back to us a life in exchange for the life we give you."

Devlin's eyes had been fixed hypnotically on the green felt circle of light. Now, by calling on every vestige of his will, he tore them from the table and stared wildly into the darkness across it.

"What do you mean?" he whispered hoarsely.

"A life," said the voice. "The life of another, in exchange for your own. That is all."

"But I couldn't—" Devlin began.

"You are to take that life for us," said the voice. "And it is yours to choose whose it shall be. We are not particular."

"I?" The word came from Devlin's lips in a sob.

"You," said the voice. "Look back to the table, Devlin."

Devlin found his eyes returning to the illuminated circle of the green felt table top despite the resistance of his mind. And then he gasped in hideous repulsion.

An automatic pistol, cold, ominous, glittering, lay in the exact center of the table!

The rustling, half-human, giggling sigh swept the shadows in the darkness once more, and chill terror froze the very blood in Devlin's heart.

"No!" Devlin gasped. "No. Good God, I won't!"

"If you don't, you cross the Pale to death," said the voice from the shadows. "Remember that, Devlin, before you choose."


DEVLIN stared in horror at the blunt, cold glitter of the weapon. A shudder shook his body; his lips worked, and the sweat that trickled down his back was as ice.

"You are young, Devlin. Much lies ahead for you. There are others, countless others, whose lives are worthless, spent, cheap," said the voice. "Consider that. We do not demand any life in particular. It is for you to choose the life you'll give us in exchange. Don't you care to live, Devlin?"

Devlin ran his tongue over lips that were suddenly thick and dry. Again his body shook shudderingly, as if from fever.

"Yes," he whispered faintly. "Yes, I want to live."

"Then take the gun from the table, Devlin," said the voice. "Take the gun from the table, slip it into your pocket and go out into the streets. You will find there a life to exchange for your own."

Devlin's hands twitched spasmodically. His lips worked again, and the glitter of the gun in the center of the green felt table was dazzlingly blinding.

"Take the gun, Devlin," the voice suggested. "Take the gun and go out into the streets. We will give you half an hour in which to give us a life in exchange for your own. Otherwise you die, Devlin."

Suddenly, lurching, Devlin stepped forward and grabbed the gun from the table. He staggered back, the weapon cold and heavy in his hand, his eyes fixed wildly on it.

The hideously chilling, rustling sigh swept the numberless shadows around the table once more—insane, unclean, giggling. Devlin raised his tortured eyes from the gun in his hand.

"Half an hour?" he croaked.

"That is the time limit, Devlin," said the voice. "Not a second longer. One life, for your own life. Any life it pleases you to take. It is now almost midnight, Devlin. The one who waits just outside the door, the one who brought you here, will accompany you."

Devlin slipped the gun into the pocket of his topcoat, his hand still closed tightly around it. He backed away from the table.

"Good hunting in your half hour, Devlin," said the voice tauntingly. "And do not forget. If you find no life to exchange, your own is forfeit."

Devlin turned suddenly and stumbled toward the door. Before his hand could close over the knob, it opened for him. He stumbled out of the room, as the door closed behind him, cutting off another unclean rustle of a giggling sigh.

Benson waited for him, smiling.

"You took the chance," he said quietly. "You are wise. Life is precious, Devlin. Come, we'd better get started." He glanced at his watch. "It is now midnight, and we have half an hour for you to find your victim."

Devlin looked at Benson wordlessly through eyes mad with torment....

FOR five minutes they had walked westward from the boulevard. Five minutes in which neither the tortured Devlin nor his companion had spoken a word. Five minutes of tension and torment made all the greater by the very wind that brushed Devlin's cheek.

And then at last they stood at an intersection which cut across one of the more tawdry and appallingly sordid sections of North Clark Street.

A streetcar rattled by, and on the corner across from them an ancient and half-blind electric sign proclaimed that the establishment in the filthy quarters beneath it was the "Joy Ni C b." Up and down North Clark, to right and left, similar hovels, with and without signs stood cringingly beneath the all too bright glare of the street lamps.

Here every eighth sign was the age-old symbol of a pawnshop, and every third entrance was the squalid doorstep of a ten and twenty cent "Gent's Hotel."

The sidewalks were peopled by the jetsam of the human race, who moved sluggishly along in a ceaseless shuffle to nowhere or stood stolidly against the sides of cars which banked the filthy curbs. Merrymakers, obviously not too particular about the places where they purchased their release from reality, moved in and out of the endless chain of sordid taverns, pausing only to quarrel drunkenly, at times, on the comers.

Benson spoke to Devlin for the first time since they had started out.

"You picked a nice hunting ground," he said grinningly. "One might well call this bargain street, for the exchange you're seeking."

Devlin's eyes stared fixedly ahead, and he didn't answer. He seemed, without moving his head, to be sweeping the street with an almost dully determined scrutiny.

And then Benson, pointing directly across the street, spoke again.

"There you are," he said. "You needn't look further. Standing with her back to us over there is a harlot. See her? She's busily looking into the window, using its reflection to canvass the street for customers or police."

Devlin turned his glance in the direction Benson pointed.

He saw the woman after an instant. As Benson had said, her back was turned to the street, and she seemed intent on the contents of a darkened store window.

Even from where they stood, Devlin could see the weary, beaten clump to the creature's thin shoulders. He could see, too, the badly worn heels of her cheap shoes, the ladder-like runs in her silk stockings.

She wore the sleaziest, thinnest of coats, and her long, straggling blonde hair hung to her shoulders as its bleached dullness shone in the stark illumination of the street lights.

Devlin's right hand was in his topcoat pocket, closed tightly around the automatic.

The woman suddenly coughed hackingly, her shoulders shaking from the effort.

"Go ahead, you fool!" Benson snapped.

Slowly, Devlin moved across the street. Then he stood on the corner, less than ten yards from the girl. The gun in his pocket was now moist from the dampness of his hand around it.


THE girl still stood peering into the window, and her cough had now subsided. Devlin stood motionless, staring at her.

"I'm young." he told himself. "I've a life ahead. That poor devil has a life that's shattered. It would be mercy, sheer mercy."

Very slowly, he moved over toward the window where the girl still stood. He tried to catch a glimpse of her face in the dark mirror of the lightless window.

Then Devlin stood directly beside her, his hand tight on the gun in his topcoat pocket. He had his words rehearsed. Let's walk around that corner, up the side street. Don't want the cops to butt in.

The girl half turned, looking from the darkened window up into Devlin's face. Her smile was red, tarnished, mechanical.

"Hello, handsome," she murmured.

"Did you see me in the window?" Devlin asked.

The girl's eyes showed genuine surprise.

"Window? Hell, no, handsome. I was just looking in, why?"

Devlin turned automatically to glance briefly into the darkened store window. For the first time he realized that it was the window of a flower shop.

The girl caught his glance.

"Pretty, ain't they?" she asked.

Devlin was momentarily taken aback.

"What?"

"Them orchids up in front," she said. "I look at 'em at least a dozen times every night when I'm walking my beat along here."

And then Devlin saw the orchids in their slim glass stem- vases. They were white, delicately formed, beautiful.

Devlin found the words coming automatically to his lips.

"You look at them every night?" he asked.

"Sure," the girl said. "Sometimes I think I'd work all night for nothing for one of them things." She laughed harshly, unmusically. "Hell, handsome. A girl can dream, can't she?"

Suddenly the creature started to cough again. She put her dirty scrap of a handkerchief to her red mouth in a futile attempt to stem the spasm.

For fully a minute Devlin stared at her, the expression in his eyes one of incredulous wonder.

The girl had choked off her coughing spasm. And now she gave Devlin her red, tarnished smile again.

"Whatcha say, handsome—" she began.

Devlin's hand had slipped from the gun in his pocket.

He nodded briefly, scarcely conscious that he was doing so, and started to turn away.

"Hey—" the girl began whiningly.

"Sometime, perhaps, you'll have one of them," Devlin said. "An extraordinary lovely one, white, with beautiful purple petals."

He turned and started back across the street. Benson, his face a mask of amused scorn, waited for him on the other corner.

"Are you crazy, Devlin?" he demanded.

Devlin looked unseeingly at Benson. "She still dreams," he said. He turned and started southward up the street. Benson caught up with him in a few strides.

"Don't be a fool, Devlin!" Benson smirked. "Don't forget for a minute the forfeit you'll pay if you lose your nerve too often."

Devlin strode on, not turning his head.

"There are only twenty minutes remaining, Devlin," Benson said. His voice was mocking, taunting.

Still Devlin didn't reply. They walked a block in silence, then, and finally Devlin's pace slowed until at last he paused on another street corner.


SLOWLY, Devlin looked around the intersection. They stood before the windows of a cheap all-night restaurant. Inside, beyond a greasy steam counter where a pasty-faced, puff-eyed night-counter man leaned boredly back against an ancient cash register and picked his teeth, were rows of one-armed eating chairs.

With the exception of two heavily-painted chorines catching a snack between floor shows at a frowzy neighboring dive, and a small, seedily dressed little man in his late sixties, there were no customers.

Devlin's gaze was fixed intently on the seedy little man, however. Fixed on the small stooped shoulders, the clean but frayed white shirt, the weary, pinched features.

The pathetic little fellow was reading a newspaper and finishing a cup of coffee. A small plate at his elbow, unstained but empty, was ample evidence that his repast had consisted also of no more than roll or doughnut.

Benson was now aware of Devlin's intent scrutiny, and he joined him in staring at the little fellow inside.

"Not a bum," Benson said sardonically. "But well on the way. Still makes a futile effort to keep up what little face there's left to him. Look at that shirt, white as sugar, yet falling apart. And that suit's as shiny as a polished shoe."

Devlin didn't answer Benson, but spoke half to himself.

"Another year and he'll slip a little lower on the ladder of survival. Looks as though he picks up what pennies he now has from odd jobs. His hands are red, swollen. Washing dishes already, no doubt, or scrubbing floors in cheap hotels. Nothing left but his self-respect, and that's probably taking more and more of a frightful beating."

The little man suddenly folded the newspaper, placed it under his arm. He wiped his lips with a paper napkin, took off his spectacles carefully and placed them in a case which he put into the frayed inner pocket of his suit-coat. He had no hat.

"Only clothes he owns are on his back, such as they are," Benson murmured.

The little man walked up to the steam counter and pulled out a small, ragged change purse. From it, he carefully took a nickel. Then he counted out five pennies which he added to the sum. He placed the change on the steam counter and turned away toward the door.

"You'll be doing him a favor," Benson whispered in a softly urging tone.

Devlin saw that the newspaper under the little man's arm had been folded to the employment - wanted columns. And then the pathetic little chap was pushing through the revolving doors.

Devlin's movement was one of sudden desperate resolve. He stepped swiftly over to the entrance out of which the little fellow was emerging at this moment. Devlin's hand was once again tight on the gun in the pocket of his topcoat.

The frayed little chap and Devlin almost collided.

It was the little fellow's quick sidestep which averted the near collision. And as he stepped aside, he looked up into Devlin's face and smiled amiably.

"Almost bead on, what?" the little chap said.


BUT Devlin didn't answer. He was staring at the small, worn, utterly ridiculous button in the badly frayed lapel of the other's seedy suit. A two colored, pathetically jaunty little button of the type sold by cheap novelty stores.

"Keep On Smiling!" it read.

The little man seemed unperturbed by Devlin's lack of reply. Then he was suddenly aware of the scrutiny to which the button was being subjected. He widened his grin, and it seemed as incongruous on his pinched, weary little face as did the button on the ragged lapel.

"A dandy slogan, eh?" he asked.

Devlin spoke mechanically, like a man in a trance.

"Yes," he answered. "It certainly is."

He turned away, almost bumping into Benson. The little fellow, moving on down the street in the opposite direction, was whistling. The cheery notes, fading away, were suddenly drowned by the din of a passing streetcar.

"You fool," Benson said disgustedly. "You're as great a fool as he."

Devlin didn't meet Benson's eyes.

"Let's move on," he said tightly.

They crossed the street and started southward again. In the middle of the block, Benson looked at his watch.

"You have only ten more minutes, Devlin. You'd better make up your mind. You're muffed two chances already."

"I couldn't see his face," Devlin muttered in bitter torment, "until he smiled."

"If you'd forget their faces and remember your own hide you'd be wiser," Benson said scornfully.

Devlin said nothing, and they went on in silence for another block.

"Time is passing quickly, Devlin," Benson said.

Devlin stopped, turning on his companion with eyes that welled tortured rage.

"Damn you!" he snarled. "Don't you think I know it?"

"Then get it over with, you fool," Benson snapped contemptuously. Suddenly he was gazing over Devlin's shoulder, and his eyes lighted.

"Here comes one that should be easy even for you," Benson said quickly. "Turn around and have a look."

Devlin wheeled.

Down the street, weaving most unsteadily in their direction, came a filthy, bearded, tattered spectre of a human being. Even from a distance of twenty yards or more it was obvious what the creature represented.

A derelict. An utterly filthy piece of floating flotsam. A rum-soaked, louse-ridden shell of a man. Had Devlin searched for a more disgusting representative of the sort of human driftwood clogging that street, it would have been impossible to find a more sickening specimen.

"Now!" Benson exulted. "Don't be a fool about this one. Just walk up to him quickly. Shove the gun against his heart and let him have it!"

White-faced, Devlin hesitated. His expression was a pattern of twisted anguish.

"Don't tell me you can't even give it to this one?" Benson sneered.


THE derelict was weaving drunkenly nearer now. Devlin watched his unsteady approach in hypnotic fascination. His hand on the gun in his pocket opened and closed convulsively. He wet his lips, swallowing hard. He could see the bum's gutter-grimed face now, the hopeless, red-rimmed, staring eyes. The drooling, grinning mouth and yellowed teeth. The filthy, matted stubble of beard.

"You fool!" Benson snarled.

And something broke in Devlin, then. His hand went tight around the gun in his pocket, as if for emotional control, and he wheeled on his companion.

"Damn you!" he blazed. "Damn you and the rest of them! I can't do it, understand? I won't do it? I don't care what they're like, or how badly beaten. If they're alive they're fighting, at least for survival!"

"You sucker!" Benson spat the words at him in mocking derision, and his lips twisted in a malevolent smirk. "You'll get no more than you deserve, then. The minutes are ticking off, sucker, and before many more are gone you'll be a corpse left broken and mangled in the gutter I picked you up from."

Devlin threw his hand across his eyes, and shuddered in terror.

"I can't do it!" he gritted. "I can't do it!"

"Only a sucker wouldn't," Benson mocked. "A weak stomached fool!"

Devlin took his hand from his face and stared at Benson. His eyes went wide in sudden astonishment.

Benson was grinning evilly, maliciously, tauntingly.

And Devlin knew that he had seen that grin briefly, hideously, before! Had seen that grin over the hood and between the almost blinding headlights of the automobile that had ruthlessly run him down!

Devlin spoke slowly, in an almost awed horror.

"You were the one, Benson. That's how you gave them a life in exchange for your own. They offered the same chance to you, and you drove down the first human being you encountered, mercilessly, brutally. You were behind the wheel of the car that ran me down. You gave them my life for yours—just as I was supposed to give them a life now for mine!"

A mad, overpowering rage swept Devlin. He glared insanely at his white-faced companion.

"You lousy, cold-blooded, murdering swine!" Devlin spat.

The last two words were drowned in the blasting reports from the automatic which Devlin shoved hard against Benson's chest in a swift, vicious gesture.

And Benson, face still twisted in terror and pain, was falling forward, crumpling inward as he fell, blood pooling from the gaping rent five shots had torn in his chest.

That was all that Devlin saw, for a sudden, engulfing blackness swept overpoweringly down on him....


THERE was a hand on Devlin's shoulder. He opened his eyes and stared up into the face of a worried policeman.

"That's better, lad," the policeman sighed. "Count yer bones to see if yer still in one piece. That madman driver almost run yer down. I seen it from the other corner. He only nicked yer shoulder, though, thank God. The spill it gave yer musta knocked yez out fer a minute or two."

Dazedly, Devlin sat up. He was at the intersection just off the lake front, not more than a few blocks from his apartment. Foggily, he remembered the terror of the headlights bearing down on him.

"Was it a—a hit-and-run driver, officer?" Devlin asked shakily.

The policeman nodded soberly.

"He hit yez and tried to run. But he didn't run far, lad. His machine wrapped around a steel light pole half a block down as he was getting away. They're down there now picking the pieces of what's left o' him from the wreckage."

Devlin felt sick to his stomach.

"He—he's dead?" he managed.

"Cut up inta a dozen pieces, he is," said the policeman. "If he ain't dead, nobody's ever been."

Devlin rose on wobbly legs. The policeman put a big hand under his arm to steady him.

"I'm just after checking the license identification tags we got outta the wreck," the policeman said conversationally. "We think the guy's name was Benson."


THE END


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