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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN

FURLOUGH FROM ETERNITY

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First published in Fantastic Adventures, April 1943

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-12-05
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, April 1943, with "Furlough From Eternity"



Illustration

With shocked incredulity he recognized the body in the alley much as his own!


TABLE OF CONTENTS



Gentry died because he gambled. Yet his
gambling gave him a chance to live again.



CHAPTER I. — [UNTITLED]

BIG, wide-shouldered, dark-haired Mike Gentry put his highball down carelessly on the glistening surface of the expensive and highly polished dresser, and leaned forward to adjust his black bow tie in the dresser mirror.

A cigarette dangled from Gentry's wide, unsmiling mouth, and his dark eyes, under thick black brows, stared unwinkingly, expressionlessly back at his mirrored reflection as he completed the irksome straightening process.

Behind Gentry, busily brushing invisible specks from the smooth lapels of his employer's rich, well-tailored, double- breasted dinner jacket, Joey Orlando, his combination valet and bodyguard, waited patiently.

Mike Gentry paused, surveyed the tie, picked up the highball glass, drained the remaining contents, placed it back on the dresser, and extended his arms casually as his valet-bodyguard moved up with the dinner jacket and assisted him on with it.

"You know what, Mike?" Joey Orlando said as Gentry buttoned the coat.

"If it has anything to do with that bug in your bean—" Mike Gentry began.

"I think you'd better pack a rod tonight, anyhow, Mike," Joey Orlando said quickly, pleadingly. "If only as a favor to me, huh?"

Mike Gentry sighed patiently, a half smile touching his wide mouth.

"Supposing we forget that stuff, Joey," he said.

"But, Mike," Joey Orlando squeaked desperately, "I got a hunch that something's gonna—"

Gentry cut off his valet.

"Hunches are for suckers, Joey," he said quietly. "You ought to know that by now. The smart guy plays the odds."

"But supposing—" Joey began.

"Supposing what?" Mike Gentry asked, removing his cigarette and flicking it unerringly out of an open window.

"Something happens," Joey said. "Supposing something happens?"

"Happens where?" Gentry asked amusedly.

"Why, anywhere," Joey protested. "At the supper club, or on the way from there to the game, or, even more likely, on the way back from the game in the early ayem."

"It won't," Mike Gentry said. He turned, crossing the bedroom of his luxurious suite, glancing briefly at his watch as he did so. "You call for the car?" he asked.

Joey Orlando, following behind his employer, rubbed his thin, long jaw worriedly. He was short, bald, wiry, with a face like a horse.

"Yeah I got it waiting downstairs," he said.

"Unless you want to use it tonight yourself," Gentry said, "tell them to send it back to the garage. It's a nice night and I got plenty of time. I think I'll walk."

"Boss!" Joey protested. "Not tonight. Not when I got this bad hunch!"

A flicker of impatience touched Gentry's dark eyes.

"You heard me," he said quietly.

MUTTERING under his breath, Joey Orlando nodded and went in search of his employer's coat and hat. When he came back into the living room, where Gentry now stood by the door lighting a fresh cigarette, Joey looked almost sullen.

"Here y'are, Mike," Joey muttered, holding out the coat.

Gentry slipped into it, took his hat, and with his hand on the door paused a moment to grin at his valet-bodyguard.

"Take it easy, Joey," Gentry said, and with an ungloved hand he reached out and rubbed Joey's bald forehead briskly. "Take it easy and I'll be back in the morning with fifty grand."

"You take it easy, Mike," Joey begged huskily. "I don't know when I've ever had such a screwy feeling about—"

"Sure," Gentry agreed. "Sure. I know. But never forget. Hunches are for suckers—the smart guy plays the odds."

IN THE elevator, on the way down from his thirty-fifth floor suite, Mike Gentry thought smilingly about Joey Orlando and his hunches. A good guy, Joey. Loyal, honest—though not too swift mentally. Gentry had picked Joey up outside a race track in Europe in 1930. As another American—Joey, a Brooklyn lad, had been riding horses for a French stable until discharged—Gentry had taken pity on the little ex-jockey and staked him to a meal, then a ticket back to the United States. Joey had just seemed to be impossible to shake after that, and when Mike Gentry docked in New York, Joey'd wrangled himself the position he held even now.

They'd seen a lot of the world together after that. Cannes, Monte Carlo, London, Paris, Rome, everywhere and anywhere that big-time gamblers roamed, Mike Gentry had taken Joey Orlando along with him. In London once, when they'd really hit rock bottom, Joey had stuck by—to the extent of turning over every penny of the money he'd saved from his salary so that Gentry could stake it on a comeback session.

But Joey had picked himself a terrible lifetime job, inasmuch as he was such a constant worrier. Gambling and worry didn't mix well; and after ten years with Gentry, Joey's bald brow resembled a well-furrowed field from the worry he'd put in over his employer's fortunes.

Mike Gentry smiled. Tonight, unfortunately, would add another furrow to Joey's forehead.

In the lobby Gentry smiled and nodded to several building employees, slipped a ten-dollar bill into the palm of the beaming doorman as he stepped into the street.

The doorman grinned happily, staring at the bill in his hand. Then he touched his cap, looking up.

"Good luck tonight, Mistah Gentry, suh!"

Gentry nodded briefly and started along the street through the pleasantly brisk autumn air. It was only four blocks from his apartment to the Panther Club, where he was to meet Margo Drusane for supper, and along the brightly lighted thoroughfare when Gentry turned uptown two blocks from the place, he smiled inwardly at the attention given him by traffic policemen, small- time bookies, supper club crowds, and the never-ending stream of big and little shots coming to life along the brightly lighted avenue with the twinkling on of each flashing bulb.

This was a world apart from the world of the daytime. This was Gentry's world. The world he'd found himself in when just a kid shining shoes and peddling papers a long time ago. A world of bright lights, blaring bands, roaring traffic, hustling crowds, actors, hoodlums, hoofers, gamblers, small fry wanting to be big, and big fry wanting to be bigger.

Mike Gentry waved amiably to those who had the temerity to speak to him, and grinned cynically at the half-whispered, awed remarks that followed him from the lips of those who envied.

"That's Gentry. Yeah, The Gentry, no less. Mike Gentry ... the big shot gambler.... He's gonna play tonight.... How do I know? Doncha see the white carnation in his lapel? That means he's gonna play tonight.... Boy! What a game that'll probably be! ... Hunnert, two hunnert tousand bucks'll probably change hands before morning.... Betcha Gentry gets mosta it..."

Mike Gentry walked on, feeling the eyes that followed, the envy that followed, and smiled still more cynically inside....


CHAPTER II. — "PLEASED—MR. GENTRY."

THE Panther Club, one of the swankiest, most outrageously expensive night spots in the big town, rivaled a Hollywood director's conception of a lavish supper club and then some.

The doormen—there were three of them for each succeeding entranceway through which the customers passed—looked like nothing less than major generals before Buckingham Palace. If you entered the Panther Club with anything less than a nationally recognized reputation or a six-inch bankroll the chances were that you wouldn't get past the cold scrutiny of the second doorman. But if you possessed either the prestige or the bankroll, your welcome was fawning indeed.

Mike Gentry had both the reputation and the bankroll, and in addition to that was on excellent terms with Curtis Frazier, owner and proprietor of the establishment. But four years previously Mike Gentry had saved Frazier from financial ruin, given him enough money to reopen the Panther Club on its now magnificent scale. Of course, at that time, Curtis Frazier had been Cushy Francesco. He had changed his name to meet the demands of the ultra swank club he operated.

Gentry passed through the gauntlet of the three widely beaming doormen, onto the rich, deep carpeting of the foyer, and gave his hat and coat over to a beautiful young lady in an exquisite evening gown who, it seemed, was merely the hat check girl, Daisy.

"Glad to have you tonight, Mr. Gentry," Daisy paraphrased the greeting of the three doormen, adding a smile and wide-eyed innuendo which, of course, could not be equaled by the greedy grins of the three major generals at the portals.

Off to the left of the foyer, Gentry heard the subtle show tune melodies of the excellent orchestra which was part of the gilt surroundings. In the sumptuous dining room people were laughing and dancing, the clink of glasses and the slither of silver mingling with the sounds of music and voices.

Gentry looked at his watch, then to the right of the foyer where the ivory and gold decoration of a lush bar and cocktail lounge was visible. It, too, was already fairly well crowded with dinner-clothed guests.

Gentry went into the bar, taking a stool in the right hand corner, and ordered a Martini.

The orchestra was still playing in the dining room, but much of the noise of voices and dining had ceased, leaving only the soft sliding of feet and the soothing strains of the melody. Above this, Gentry heard the sudden beginning of a torchy ballad sung in a low, vibrant, throatily feminine voice.

That would be Margo Drusane on the bandstand, singing her last number for this show. Margo Drusane, young, blonde, utterly beautiful, who was, in a sense Mike Gentry's fiancee. Gentry and Margo had been linked in the big-time gossip columns as "an item" for over a year now. A year in which, for the first time since he could recall, there had been only one woman in Gentry's life. Margo, of course, being that woman.

Mike Gentry sipped his Martini reflectively and listened through to the end of the ballad. And as the applause was still sounding from the diners, Gentry rose, moved away from the bar and started for the dining room.

MARGO was waiting for him at their special table when he came up to it. Waiting and smiling brightly, beautifully, as he made his way across the richly appointed dining room.

"Hello, Mike," she smiled, catching his hand and squeezing it as he bent and brushed a kiss across her cheek.

"How are you, baby?" Mike asked, seating himself.

"Never felt better," Margo said.

"Missed you today. Feel lucky tonight, darling?"

Gentry shrugged. "I never count on lucky, baby. You know that. It's the—"

Margo smiled wryly, mockingly holding up one hand.

"I know, Mike," she laughed. "I've heard it often enough to know it by now. It's the odds, not luck or chance."

"That's right, baby," Gentry grinned. He patted his breast pocket, frowned slightly. "Got a cigarette? I left my case at the apartment."

Margo opened her small evening bag, poked inside with a small, delicately beautiful finger, shook her head.

"Not a one, honey," she said.

Gentry turned slightly, signaling to the headwaiter with two fingers to his lips, turned back to Margo.

"Frazier around right now?" he asked.

Margo shook her head. "Don't think so. Haven't seen him yet tonight. Why?"

Gentry shrugged. "Just wanted to talk to him. He's playing tonight, you know."

"Frazier?" Margo's eyebrows went up in surprise.

Gentry nodded. "So I understand. He ought to stick to his own trade. There'll be a lot of tough gamblers there tonight, and the stakes are going to skyrocket, I've a hunch. If he runs a bad streak tonight, he might end up with one of those gorillas owning the Panther Club as his security. I don't like it. I staked him to this place and it's been doing plenty well for him. It doesn't look so smart for him to start stepping into a line where he might get hurt."

Margo Drusane smiled. "He can take care of himself, Mike. Don't worry about it."

Again Gentry shrugged. "I don't give a damn if he loses his shirt. But he's the younger brother of a guy who used to be my pal—-Johnny Francesco. That's the only reason I ever helped Frazier, anyway, you know."

"He's smart," Margo said reassuringly.

Gentry shook his head. "He doesn't seem to be."

Margo put her hand on Gentry's.

"Do we have to talk about that, Mike?" she smiled. "Here I am starving and almost dying of thirst, and you haven't even—"

Suddenly Gentry grinned an apology. "Sorry, kid. I almost forgot."

He turned, beckoned to a waiter, who hurried to their table.

"Two Martinis," Gentry said. "We'll order when you bring them."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Gentry," the waiter beamed.

"Cigarettes, Mr. Gentry?" a voice said a moment after the waiter had gone.

MIKE GENTRY looked up into the smiling, eager, pretty face of young, redheaded Gloria Allen, one of the Panther Club's cigarette girls. Her lovely figure was almost too daringly revealed in the scanty blue costume in which the management uniformed her. Gentry smiled.

"My regular brand, Gloria. Two boxes, please."

He took the cigarettes from her, noticing with some surprise that her hand trembled slightly. Then he dropped a bill on her tray and smiled dismissal. Falteringly, the girl returned his smile, and with cheeks flushed, hurried away.

Mike Gentry looked his surprise at Margo.

"What do you suppose was eating the kid?" he asked.

Margo smiled. "You'd never believe it, Mike. It's simply too, too funny. Poor little thing."

"Huh?" Gentry demanded. "What are you talking about?"

Margo made a mock serious expression. "If you promise not to throw me overboard, Mike, I'll tell you. The little goof is having a terrific crush over you. Everyone of the girls employed in the club knows it by now."

"On me?" Gentry asked. "She's carrying a torch for me?"

Margo laughed throatily, nodding.

"It's true, darling. You'd better watch out. The little redheaded minx has her claws all set for Mike Gentry—believe it or not!"

Mike Gentry's expression was unfathomable.

"I'll be damned," he said softly. "Poor little kid."

The laughter left Margo's expression.

"Hardly a poor little kid, Mike," she said reprovingly. "Not in that get-up. Why, I could carry her costume in the back of my locket."

"She didn't design the get-up," Mike said. "And I don't think she'd want that job in this gilt-covered flea trap if she could get another."

Margo looked at him in annoyance.

"Now, Mike," she said. "You're talking like something that should be done to a background of Hearts and Flowers. Really, sometimes you sound like Galahad on a white horse. Such gallantry!"

Mike Gentry grinned suddenly and shrugged.

"Let's not argue about anything tonight, baby," he said. "It isn't worth it."

Margo's dazzlingly lovely smile returned instantly.

"You're right, darling, she certainly isn't worth another word. Incidentally, how's your shadow?"

"Joey?" Mike asked. "Oh, fine. Worried as usual. Or even more than usual, I should say."

Mike Gentry told her then of Joey Orlando's "hunch" and insistence that his employer travel armed that evening.

When Margo had finished laughing at this, she asked Gentry teasingly, "And have you taken Joey's advice?"

Mike Gentry didn't smile in answer. "You know I don't pack a rod with me, baby, unless I'm certain I'm going to run into trouble," he said quietly.

THERE was a silence, an oddly uncomfortable silence which lasted almost a minute and was finally broken by Gentry.

"Everything seems odd tonight, baby," he said, "just like we were missing on a few sparks, you and me. Anything wrong?"

Margo looked up quickly, and for an instant it seemed as if there might have been fear in her lovely blue eyes. But then her bright smile flashed, and she laughed quickly.

"Why, Mike, honey. I didn't notice anything. Maybe you're just a little jittery over the game tonight."

Gentry shook his head soberly. "I never get jittery, baby," he said, "over anything."

"Well, you were worried about Frazier," Margo retorted quickly, "right from the minute you sat down."

Again Gentry shook his head. "Worried, yeah. And perhaps a little sore. But not jittery, baby." He rubbed a big, well manicured hand over his eyes tiredly and sighed.

The waiter came, then, with their drinks.

Margo reached across the table, touching Gentry's hand lightly with her own.

"You're nerves are a little raw tonight, darling. They always are, even if you know it or not, before a big game. Relax, honey, and let's not get into a fight."

Mike Gentry grinned, patting the girl's hand between his own.

"Okay, baby. I'll relax."

He lifted his glass, smiling over the rim of it at her.

"Here's to us," he said. "May we live long and well, eh, baby?"

Mike Gentry was too busy downing his drink to notice that Margo choked, for the slightest fraction of an instant, over the first sip of hers....


CHAPTER III. — EIGHTY-FIVE GRAND.

IT was a big, old-fashioned mansion-style hotel on the edge of town. Tradition, long-custom in the higher bracket gambling fraternity had made this place the rendezvous for innumerable "big" games over the past forty years in that city.

Pete Ubanik, fat, florid faced race track owner had a suite here, and it was in one of the rooms of the suite that the game for the evening was slated to be played.

They were all there when Mike Gentry arrived, waiting for him with the impassive serenity known only to professional gamblers. A white coated waiter was setting out liquor on a sideboard filled with varied foodstuffs.

The greetings—each knew the others—were quiet, brief, business-like.

In the corner of the room two flat-faced, stocky, muscular rod men sat rigidly beside a heavy, solid looking strong box, the "bank." They glanced at Gentry only briefly as he entered.

Pete Ubanik, the race track owner, had been chosen for the deal that night. Sometimes he sat in on the relatively smaller games, but he knew himself to be too much of an amateur for this session and was therefore staying out. Honest, above any price, he'd make an excellent man for the deal.

Mike Gentry had seen Curtis Frazier, once Cushy Francesco, when he'd entered the room. But aside from a quiet, "Hello, Frazier," he hadn't spoken another word to him. Frazier was short, moustached, too well tailored. His face was thin, eyes brown and darting, nose hawked, and mouth predatory. He seemed to sense Gentry's disapproval of his presence.

Blair Wallis, a blond, red-faced, chunky fellow in his late thirties, had the table position to the left of Gentry. Wallis was reliable as far as Gentry knew. A West Coast gambler who'd once operated a huge casino in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Wallis was merely passing through the city and had decided to sit in.

To the right of Gentry's table position sat Hugh Garrity, gray haired, mild mannered, bespectacled, once one of the biggest gamblers in the East, now owner of a string of casinos throughout the middle west. A man who'd been born with cards in his fists, he had cleaned up over two hundred thousand dollars in Alaska when only a kid of sixteen.

Frazier and Luke Henchley sat across the table from Gentry. Tall, lean, utterly bald, Henchley had a high domed forehead which shone almost mirror-like in the glare of the hanging table light above the green felt game board.

Henchley's mouth had a perpetually sad droop at the corners. It was rumored that he had smiled once, disliked the sensation, and had never done so since. It was also rumored that Henchley's game—with sucker bait—was strictly off the level. However, none of his opponents for the evening, save perhaps Frazier, was sucker bait. Henchley would play clean this evening, or Henchley wouldn't leave.

Pete Ubanik, in his deep growling voice, announced the game rules for the evening. Rules that had been agreed upon by the players in advance.

"Table stakes," Ubanik said, "of ten thousand dollars a man for the first hour from the first deal. Twenty thousand a man for the second hour. Thirty thousand for the third hour. Open play during last and fourth hour. Is that understood?"

Ubanik, for no apparent reason, then cleared his throat in the dead silence of the room, broke a clean deck, and the game began....

AT the end of the first hour's play, Gentry, feeling out the others' games, had lost two thousand dollars. He had removed his dinner jacket and a highball was at his elbow, a cigarette hanging dejectedly from the corner of his wide mouth. His eyes were very much alert.

Wallis, surprisingly enough, had been pushed out at the three quarter hour mark by plunge betting on Henchley's part. Hugh Garrity stood several thousand in the red, and the sweating Curtis Frazier had lost but three hundred dollars. Henchley had taken the preliminary session, winning a little over fourteen thousand dollars.

The second hour's play brought revisions in several instances. Wallis, now working on a twenty thousand table stake, was able to play his own type of game more freely and with better results. When the hour was over he had won over twenty thousand. Frazier had lost ten grand, Henchley fifteen thousand, Garrity, five thousand. Mike Gentry had cleared something around eight thousand dollars.

Pete Ubanik broke the third fresh deck, checked the table stake chip amounts, and the third hour—thirty thousand table stakes—began.

It was midway in this session that Frazier, out another ten thousand in poorly calculated poker, began to go wild, dropping ten grand more in as many minutes.

Mike Gentry took the next pot, approximately twenty thousand dollars in it, from Frazier. As Gentry raked in the chips he stared stonily at Frazier.

"Table stake gone, Mr. Frazier," Ubanik called out. His sweat- beaded, sharp features chalk white, Frazier rose and left the table. As the next hand began Gentry could hear Frazier demanding a double highball from the white coated attendant. A big help that would be to an already fuzzled brain.

Just before the third period ended, Henchley hit a streak which brought the lean, bald, sad-mouthed gambler up ahead of his table stake by ten thousand or better. He still held this advantage when the third hour ended.

Mike Gentry was now twenty-three thousand dollars in front of his stake. Wallis approximately even, Garrity a few thousand ahead. But the open play was next. No limit on stakes or bets. The night's heavy winnings and losses would emerge at the end of this hour.

Pete Ubanik had to call Curtis Frazier from the bar.

"Last hour, Mr. Frazier. Open play. Do you care to take your chair?"

Flushed over the pallor still deep in his cheeks, Frazier rejoined the table group. Gentry stared at him coldly, then set to stacking his chips. Thirty-two thousand in the hole already, and the steepest hour of the game was coming up, Gentry thought bitterly. The damned fool Frazier couldn't stand much more of this.

Ubanik's voice broke in on Gentry's thoughts.

"Are you ready, gentlemen?" he asked. "No stake. No limit."

Mike Gentry calmly turned his impassive expression to the dealer and watched Ubanik's fat but nimble fingers split the cellophane from the fresh deck.

THE opening pot—over thirty thousand dollars—was more than indicative of the tenor of the gambling to be witnessed in the next hour. Wallis set the pace by raking it in. Gentry and Garrity had dropped after their openers, the white faced Frazier a little later, and the bulk of the loss was taken by the moody Henchley.

Gentry took the next pot, and the one after that, stacking a profit of almost forty thousand dollars on the two hands. For the next three rounds he played light, dropping early against an imposing array of cards drawn by Garrity on each occasion.

The pace of the play then jumped another notch, as Henchley, coming back, raked in a twenty-thousand pot, to be followed by Frazier, who—through unfortunately over-eager betting—found himself with but ten thousand on a pot that, well played, would have netted him four times that amount.

It was shortly after this that Gentry began a six-pot run which left him far ahead of the field at the break of the streak. There were only four other hands after this, and Gentry, riding easy on the first three, played high on the final one, taking the largest pot of the evening.

"Time, gentlemen," Ubanik said quietly. "Cash in your chips."

Garrity looked at Gentry wryly.

"You'll do all the cashing this time, Gentry," he said. "I consider myself lucky to be out only ten grand."

Henchley merely glared sourly at Gentry, saying nothing as he rose from the table. Wallis, who had cleared a little over eight thousand, looked ruefully at the huge stack of chips before Gentry.

"You play a smart game, Gentry," he observed amiably enough. "No wonder your name is legend, even in Los Angeles."

Mike Gentry shrugged, rising.

"The bank owes me eighty-five grand, Pete," he said to Ubanik. Gentry deliberately ignored Frazier, who still sat strickenly before a small scattering of chips. Frazier's losses for the evening, Gentry had figured roughly, ran close to fifty thousand dollars.

"The draft will be in your bank tomorrow morning, Mike," Ubanik assured him. "Okay?"

"Okay," Gentry grinned. "Very much okay, Pete."

Henchley spoke then, to Frazier.

"Come on, pal," he said sullenly, "you promised me a lift back uptown."

Gentry watched Frazier rise slowly from the table. The dapper, sharp faced little night club proprietor seemed almost dazed. He looked at Gentry blankly for an instant, wetting his lips with a lizard-like tongue. Then he followed Henchley toward the door.

For a flickering instant, Gentry frowned. Henchley wasn't good company for anyone, even Frazier. Then, mentally, he shrugged. He turned to Wallis, Ubanik and Garrity.

"How about a drink, gentlemen?"


CHAPTER IV. — "THIS IS IT!"

IT was almost three o'clock when Gentry left the brownstone mansion hotel. The keen, tangy pleasantness of the autumn night still held, and Gentry—deciding to clear his head of smoke and alcohol fumes—elected to walk back uptown.

As Gentry started leisurely uptown he turned over worriedly the events of the evening concerning Frazier. Those losses of Frazier's had been tremendously steep, even for a man of his money. And in addition to that, Gentry was troubled over the apparent familiarity between Frazier and Henchley. It was the first he had known about it.

"I wonder," Gentry muttered half-aloud, "if the dammed punk is having trouble clearing expenses at the Panther Club." But then he shook his head. There was no reason in the world to suspect that. Outwardly, at least, the Panther Club was making money hand over fist.

Gentry had covered four or five blocks before he became aware of the low, black limousine.

In the almost deserted neighborhood streets, its motor was audible even as far as two blocks away. The first time Gentry noticed it he turned, curious, and glanced back.

It was moving along the curb at a snail's pace, only its parking lights aglow.

Gentry frowned, but turned around and continued his walk.

He saw it again two blocks later, ahead of him this time, moving at a perpendicular angle slowly through a cross street intersection. But there was no mistaking it, even in the darkness and from a distance of several blocks.

There was something about the dark outline of the limousine that seemed familiar to Gentry. Again he frowned puzzledly, his expression growing faintly annoyed.

Two blocks later, Gentry heard the limousine down the street behind him once again. And when he turned he saw it proceeding slowly along the curb two blocks away, its motor almost idling.

It was now clear to Gentry that the limousine had been circling around and around his route, keeping him always within a two block radius. The annoyance on Gentry's face gave way to a slow anger. His lips tightened and he paused an instant. There was an alleyway half a block ahead of Gentry.

As Gentry went on again he quickened his pace deliberately, and was rewarded by the sound of the limousine's motor responding. At the alleyway Gentry turned abruptly, stepping into its blanketing darkness.

Now he heard the limousine roaring into second as it shot down the street toward the alley in which he waited. A screech of brakes less than five yards away in the street, and the limousine stopped.

Mike Gentry stood there in the darkness, waiting.

A CAR door slammed, and footsteps crossed to the sidewalk quickly. Then, suddenly, a short wiry figure stepped into the darkened alleyway.

Gentry took a deep breath, held it, peering through the darkness, trying to make out the—

"Why, you punk!" Gentry suddenly exploded.

"Mike! Jeeeeze, it's good to find yuh!" Joey Orlando's voice broke forth.

Gentry stepped from the darkness and confronted his valet- bodyguard. Joey was now grinning in sort of red-faced abashed relief, his horse face beaming sheepishly.

Mike Gentry saw the limousine under the streetlight, now. No wonder it had seemed familiar even from a distance. It was one of his own.

"What's the big idea," Gentry demanded.

Joey Orlando shuffled his feet, starting to reply.

Gentry cut off his words. "You had me figuring the finger was on me, you crazy loon. Good gods, Joey, when are you going to get some brains?"

"I knew if I waited outside Ubanik's, especially since you told me you didn't need me tonight, you'd get sore," Joey said apologetically. "But I couldn't just sit on my hands, could I, when there was my hunch?"

"So you decided to shadow me as a big protection, eh?" Mike Gentry asked patiently.

"Yeah, boss. That's right," Joey declared.

Gentry sighed. "You're a good guy, Joey. You mean well, very well, I know. But now you're going to get back into that car and drive on. Understand?"

Joey Orlando nodded miserably, worriedly.

"And I don't want any more well-meaning shadowing, understand?" Gentry demanded.

"Sure, Mike," Joey muttered. "Sure thing."

Suddenly Gentry grinned. "I have a hunch it wouldn't be a sure thing, Joey. I got a hunch you'd start your little tail game all over again, staying out of my sight this time. And I know how I can scotch that idea."

Joey looked guilty, then blank.

"Huh?" he asked.

"I'll drive, Joey," Gentry said, grinning. "You finish my walk for me, how's that?"

"But, Mike!" Joey bleated.

"Keys in the car?" Gentry demanded.

Joey nodded.

"Fine," Gentry grinned. "Good-night, Joey. I'll see you back at the apartment in a few hours. Have a nice walk."

"Take it easy, boss!" Joey begged. "Get onto the boulevards and stay there, please!"

"Good-night, Joey," Gentry repeated, climbing in behind the wheel of the big limousine.

Gentry drove away leaving his valet-bodyguard standing forlornly on the sidewalk, futilely searching up and down the deserted neighborhood streets for a taxi....

IN FRONT of the Panther Club, Mike Gentry turned his limousine over to one of the fifth assistant doormen. And as he entered the luxurious foyer of the swank club, he nodded briefly to the hat check girl, giving her his coat and hat.

It was then that he noticed Gloria Allen coming across the foyer in her abbreviated cigarette vending uniform. He grinned, nodding to her, and her blush was almost as crimson as her lovely red hair.

The last show was ending, and the music floating from the dining room accompanied a male crooner's rendition of a popular ballad. Gentry went into the cocktail lounge, summoned the head bartender and asked him if Frazier had been in.

"Yes, sir," Gentry was told, "but he left since then. He came in about an hour ago with a Mr. Henchley. They only stayed until Miss Margo Drusane finished her number, then they left."

Gentry nodded. "That's too bad. Is Miss Drusane in her dressing room?"

"Oh no, sir," the bartender said. "Like I told you, she left with the boss, I mean Mr. Frazier, and Mr. Henchley."

There was no emotion on Gentry's features to indicate that the information was even slightly surprising.

"Thanks," he said. "Shake up a sidecar, will you?"

As the bartender left, Gentry allowed himself a frown. Margo's leaving with Frazier was not too surprising. She hadn't expected Gentry back that evening, and Frazier often took her home. But again, the tie-in with Henchley was too strange to suit Gentry in the least.

Suddenly Gentry shrugged. He was letting his imagination get the best of it. Undoubtedly Frazier was seeing Margo home in the course of things, and was possibly stuck with Henchley as a companion for a few hours even if he didn't like it too well.

And yet—

Mike Gentry resolved to talk long and well to Curtis Frazier the first thing the following morning.

The bartender returned with Gentry's sidecar, and the latter reached into his pocket, only to find himself again out of cigarettes.

"I'd like some smokes," Gentry said, "Send a cigarette girl over." And then, for no reason he could think of, he added: "Send Gloria Allen over."

The bartender nodded and turned away. Gentry wondered if he'd caught a flicker of amusement in the other's eyes.

When the redheaded cigarette girl came over she was visibly a little flustered. Gentry noticed that her smile, usually automatic and impersonal, was both eager and uncertain, and was forced to admit to himself that the lovely little redhead had an undeniably fresh charm which was exceptionally unusual to find in a glitter-dive such as the Panther Club.

"Good morning, Mr. Gentry," Gloria said.

Gentry was a trifle startled, then he grinned. "That's right, Gloria, it is morning, isn't it? I never think of this hour as being morning. Must be the hours I keep."

"One box or two, Mr. Gentry?" Gloria asked, fumbling for his favorite brand of cigarettes in confusion.

"Two," Gentry said. "Do you like working here, Gloria?"

The girl looked surprised.

"Why, ah, why—" she began.

"You don't, particularly, do you?" Gentry persisted.

SUDDENLY the girl shook her head emphatically, red locks flying about her shoulders.

"No. I guess I don't, a great deal," she admitted. "But the pay is good, and with tips, I don't know where I could make as—"

Gentry cut her off. "I understand. Were you born in this town?"

Gloria shook her head. "No. Out west. California." She hesitated an instant. "It was beautiful out there."

"Big city blues, eh?" Gentry said knowingly.

The girl blushed. "No. Not really. It's just that I, ah, well, I'd like to go back, sometime," she finished lamely.

"Maybe you will sometime," Gentry declared. He lifted his sidecar, drained the rest of it, put down the glass and handed the girl a bill.

"See you later, Gloria, and thanks," Gentry said. He walked away from the bar and into the foyer. Wide-eyed in surprise, the lovely little cigarette girl stood there stupidly holding the bill he'd given her, staring after him.

The bartender's voice, sharp, cynical, broke in on her daydream.

"Wake up, baby. He's too big a shot to be bothered with the help."

The girl looked up, startled, crimsoning in acute embarrassment. She opened her mouth to speak, changed her mind, and turned swiftly away to hide the sudden moisture trembling on her eyelids....

OUTSIDE the Panther Club, Mike Gentry gave instructions to the major general doorman to have his limousine sent to his apartment's garage, said, no, he didn't want a taxi, and started homeward on foot.

He'd gone a block when he encountered two grimy-faced little bootblacks crouched in a darkened store doorway shooting craps.

For fully a minute Gentry stood there looking at them rolling their dice for pennies and nickels before they became aware of his presence.

They both looked up simultaneously, frightenedly, staring at him with round, awed eyes. Then the chubbiest and most grimy faced of the two urchins exclaimed:

"Jeepers—it's Mike Gentry, Art!"

Gentry bowed in mock acknowledgment.

"Good evening, chums. Got room in that game for another?"

The two urchins exchanged incredulous glances, then stared wordlessly, frightenedly, back at Gentry.

"What are the limits, chum?" Gentry asked, stepping into the wide doorway. "Two cents, three cents?"

The chubby little bootblack found courage to answer, his voice squeaky and uncertain.

"Nickel limit."

Mike Gentry crouched down beside the tykes soberly.

"You don't mind?" he asked. He fished into his pocket and brought out a scattering of small change, nickels, pennies, dimes. "Who's got the dice?" he asked cheerfully.

The chubby little bootblack produced the two worn dice in a grubby paw.

"I was tossing," he said. "I'd just made my point."

"Well, toss again, pal," Gentry said. "I've got a nickel says you don't."

The skinny little tyke, wordless until now, said, "Me, too," and tossed a IOUs into the center.

The chubby urchin blew on the cubes in his grubby fist, shook them hard against his ear, and tossed.

"Eighter," Gentry said. "Any side bets?"

"'Nother IOUs says I make," the chubby urchin said.

"You're on," Gentry told him. He took a IOUs from the pot and put in a dime.

The urchin went through the blowing, rattling, and rolling again. The worn cubes tumbled from his grubby little paw and bounced up—seven.

"Too bad," Gentry said. "My win." He looked at the skinny tyke and said: "Your dice now, pal."

"I'll leave my dime," the skinny urchin declared tremulously, "and add free cents."

"Covered," said Gentry solemnly. He threw three coppers into the pot.

The skinny tyke didn't blow on the dice, but had his own ritual. He shook them in his left fist, then his right, and tossed.

He made a six.

"Any side bets?" Gentry asked.

"Nuts," said the skinny one. "I'm ridin' too much awready."

He went through his own ritual again and tossed. Eight came up. He tried again. Four. On his fifth toss he caught a seven.

"I win again," Gentry said. "And this time I get the cubes." He took the dice from the skinny urchin, picked up the coins he'd won, and threw down a quarter.

"You two cover it?" he asked.

THE urchins exchanged calculating glances, then nodded. They brought forth enough small change in nickels and pennies to cover Gentry's quarter.

Solemnly, Gentry tossed the dice.

He sevened.

Gentry took in the quarter.

"I win. Cover another two-bits?"

The urchins went into a huddle, hey came out grimly.

"We got twenty-t'ree cents amongst us," the chubby one said. "Y're on fer that."

Again Gentry rattled the dice. Again he tossed. The cubes bounced out, stopped.

"Seven!" exclaimed the chubby urchin sickly.

"Jeepers!" said the skinny tyke dully.

"I win again. You guys cleaned?" Gentry asked.

The bootblacks nodded abashedly.

Mike Gentry rose, brushing off his knees. He stared soberly down on the urchins.

"Did you learn anything, chums?" he asked.

They didn't answer.

"If you didn't, you should have," Gentry went on. "Gambling is a sucker's game. You kids lost half a night's earnings in just about four minutes. Think of how hard you worked and how quick it went, chums. And get wise to yourselves!"

Mike Gentry slipped the cheap, worn cubes in his pocket and started to turn away.

"Hey, Mr. Gentry," the chubby kid exclaimed, "them's our dice!"

Mike Gentry lifted his eyebrows.

"What do you want with dice?" he asked.

The chubby tyke colored under his grin, shuffling his feet in embarrassment.

"You got me, Mr. Gentry. I dunno," he muttered.

Mike Gentry grinned suddenly.

"They're no toys for you guys," he said. "But in my business maybe I can use them. They were lucky for me tonight. I cleaned you guys of darned near six-bits. Tell you what, I'll buy 'em from you. What's your price?"

The urchins went into a huddle. They came out, and the chubby one spoke.

"You kin keep 'em," he said. "Wit' our compleemints, Mr. Gentry."

Gentry shook his head. "Uh-uh. I'll keep 'em. But I'll give you what I think they're worth." He pulled out his wallet, removed a five dollar bill and handed it to them. "Split it evenly," he said. "And don't try to bet it on anything. It isn't luck money. I won it from a damned fool."

The urchins gaped pop-eyed at the bill as Mike Gentry strolled away.

AT THE next corner, Gentry ran into Pat Flavin, the big- shouldered, white haired, rock-jawed plainclothes-man assigned to this particular sector of the night-club beat. Flavin had been a copper in harness in this same sector when Mike Gentry had peddled papers on that very corner.

"Well, well, if it ain't the gentleman gambler!" Flavin exclaimed. "How're tricks, Mike?"

"No squawks, Pat," Gentry told him amiably. "Everything under control?"

"Peaceful and quiet," Flavin sighed. "In the good old days there used to be a little action on this beat."

"You've done your job too well," Gentry grinned. "If anyone wants to start trouble these days, he's goes to some other copper's beat to do it."

Flavin laughed heartily at this. "Maybe you're right," he acknowledged. "Well, sleep well, Mike."

"I'll try to," Gentry promised.

"You shouldn't have trouble," Flavin said. "You're one of the few guys in this neighborhood who doesn't have a guilty conscience."

"You flatter me, Pat," Gentry said.

"I'm glad I don't have to," Flavin assured him.

Mike Gentry moved on, then, turning off the still brightly lighted night club belt two blocks farther on. He'd walked another block and a half when he passed the darkened alley from which the hoarse, muffled voice suddenly shouted:

"Hey—Gentry!"

Gentry halted, turning to face the darkened alleyway.

"Who is it?" he asked, startled.

"This is it, Gentry," said the voice from the darkness "This is it!"

Mike Gentry had no chance. The orange flame spitting out from the darkness at him flashed five times, each flash splitting the darkness in unison with the deafening reports of an automatic pistol.

Gentry fell face forward, sprawling into the mud of the alley darkness, the cry that had come to his lips choked out in a welling of his own blood.

Mike Gentry's assassin had done his job thoroughly, coolly, and quickly....


CHAPTER V. — "OF COURSE YOU'RE DEAD."

MIKE GENTRY'S body had been dragged farther into the darkness of the alleyway and left there by his assassin within swift seconds of the moment he fell dead. And in less time than that, the assassin was gone.

It was not until then, however, that the shadowy figure, who'd been standing less than fifty feet away on the other side of the street as witness to the slaying, emerged from the doorway which had sheltered him, and quietly strolled into the alleyway.

He was a medium-sized man, wearing a black raincoat, a black slouch hat, and black shirt and tie.

His face, in the shadow of the black felt hat's brim, was indistinguishable.

For fully a minute he stood over Mike Gentry's body, staring down speculatively at it. Then, gently, he stirred the corpse with the toe of his shoe.

"All right, Gentry," he said quietly. "Get up."

There was no movement from the corpse, and the man dressed in black seemed not to expect any.

"Come on, Gentry," he repeated in that quiet, commanding voice. "Get up and come along."

It was then that the darkness started graying out into light once more for Mike Gentry. He groaned, putting his hands flat against the mud of the alley, and pushed himself upward.

Weakly, Mike Gentry rose to his feet and stood there swaying. Then his equilibrium returned, and with it his sense of vision. He stared around bewilderedly, then saw the shadowy figure.

"Wha—" Mike Gentry began.

"Take it easy, Gentry," said the shadowy figure. "Take it easy, and look down at what's lying by your feet."

Automatically, Gentry found himself obeying the shadowy stranger. And what he saw brought an exclamation of horror to his lips.

"Good God!" Gentry gasped.

"Look closely," said the shadowy stranger, "and see whose body lies at your feet."

"It—it's mine!" Gentry said chokingly. "It's, it's my body. And it's riddled with bullets."

The shadowy figure nodded. "That's right, Mike Gentry. You've been slain. You're dead."

"But, but—" Gentry choked hoarsely—

The shadowy figure nodded again, almost sympathetically.

Memory returned to Gentry then.

"You—you—" he began.

The shadowy figure shook his head.

"No. I didn't kill you. I knew you were going to die, however, and that's why I was waiting across the street in the doorway. So I could take you along."

NOW Gentry was aware for the first time that the stranger's features were indistinguishable under the low brim of that black hat. And he was aware, too, of something else, an eerie, chilling something else that told him wordlessly what the answer to the question he formed would be.

"Who are you?" Gentry asked.

"Death Number Nine," said the shadowy figure.

"Death Number Nine?" Gentry repeated incredulously.

"An agent of Death," the shadowy figure amplified. "There are many of us. Officially, I am called Death Number Nine." He paused. "Now we'd better not waste any more time. Come along."

Mike Gentry covered his face with his hands, standing there trembling in the mud and chill of the alley darkness.

"I'm not dead," he muttered. "This is crazy. This is some damned pipe dream. Why, I've hands, and arms, and I breathe—I'm not dead!"

"Look again at your body lying there in the mud, if you must," the shadowy figure, Death Number Nine, declared. "That should remove any doubt you might have."

Slowly, shudderingly, Mike Gentry forced himself to stare down at the body lying at his feet—his body. For almost a minute he stared incredulously. Then he raised his eyes.

"It's always hard to get used to the idea," Death Number Nine declared. "But you seem to be taking it better than most of them usually do."

The fear and horror had left Gentry's voice now, leaving only bewilderment and shock.

"Then this is really it, eh?" Gentry mumbled dazedly.

Death Number Nine nodded.

"That's right. This, as you say, is it."

"I'm dead," Gentry said tonelessly.

"Of course, you're dead," Death Number Nine agreed. "Now come along." He sighed. "Let's not drag this out with any silly you- are-so, I-am-not dialogue."

"Come along?" Gentry blinked. "Come along where?"

"With me," Death Number Nine said cryptically. "You'll see soon enough."

"To, to Heaven?" Gentry asked. He felt eerily idiotic asking that question.

"That all depends," Death Number Nine said. Then he added: "It's really very funny how many people ask that question. It never occurs to them that they'd wind up anywhere else."

Gentry took a step forward, then halted. He turned and gazed down at his riddled corpse again. After an instant he turned back to Death Number Nine. His voice was hoarse as he asked the question.

"Who did it?"

"Did what?" Death Number Nine asked.

"Rubbed me out, gave me the lead," said Gentry huskily.

Death Number Nine shrugged with elaborate casualness.

"I couldn't tell you even if I knew, which I don't. I was just supposed to be here at this time and at this place to bring you along when you were killed. That's all I know about it."

"But you saw the whole thing," Gentry said. "Didn't you?"

Death Number Nine nodded. "Certainly I did," he said a little impatiently. "But I didn't see any more of the person who killed you than you did. Now, for goodness sakes, come along."

Mike Gentry moved forward.

"Okay," he muttered. "You've got the aces, and they're back to back. Where do we go?"

Death Number Nine pointed to a deeply shadowed niche in a wall of the alley blackness.

"Through there," he said. "Follow me."

Mike Gentry blinked unbelievingly. But Death Number Nine stepped confidently into that inky niche of the darkness—and disappeared!

Gentry gaped foolishly. Then, for an instant, he turned to take one last look at his crumpled body lying there in bloody mud.

"Come on," Death Number Nine's voice called impatiently from the darkness of that mysterious niche. "Come on!"

Mike Gentry tore his eyes from his body and started after Death Number Nine. The inky darkness of the niche yawned invitingly toward him and he stepped into it without hesitation....

IT SEEMED to Mike Gentry, after he had stepped through the doorway of darkness and emerged into that strange, ethereal forest on the other side, that the journey which followed lasted no more than an hour in all.

For the first ten minutes of the journey—or what seemed to Gentry to be comparable to that length of time—they had followed the shadows of the forest pathway until reaching an abrupt fork in the trail.

The fork was completely enshrouded in a light, almost feathery mist, and Death Number Nine took Gentry's hand then, for it was almost impossible to see through that thick mantle of fog. They moved on slowly like this for what seemed to be another twenty minutes, until, quite suddenly, they stepped from the mist banks into a vast, open, meadowed area where the sun was shining dazzlingly down on them.

"Here we are," Death Number Nine said conversationally.

Mike Gentry stood there blinking in the unexpected sunlight, his eyes filled with awed wonder.

"Where?" the gambler demanded. "Where are we? What do you call this place?"

"Eternity," Death Number Nine said matter-of-factly.

Mike Gentry stared around slowly, regarding the moss green meadows, the low, rolling hills and tranquil, pastel blue sky. He shook his head unbelievingly, searching for a word to describe it.

"Why, why, it's, it's beautiful!" he exclaimed foolishly, aware that even the word he'd never had in his vocabulary before was pitifully inadequate.

Death Number Nine nodded.

"This part of it is," he agreed. Dryly, he added: "There are other parts, however, not quite on this level."

For another wordless fifteen minutes, then, they walked on, Mike Gentry and Death Number Nine, over lush green hills and across wide, sweeping meadows, until they came at last to the soft dirt road which cut deeply into a sudden series of pillowed green hills.

For perhaps a quarter of a mile they followed this road, the hills on either side of it rising higher and higher with every yard, until they reached the turn. There, at the turn, Gentry had his first glimpse of The Gate.

The Gate covered the entire road. It was more like a tall ivory wall than a gate. A tall ivory wall with a door in the center, and an old man in a white flowing robe and a long white beard sitting patiently beside the door.

AS THEY drew closer, Gentry saw that the old man held a huge gold key in his hand. He looked up as he became aware of Gentry's and Death Number Nine's approach.

Gentry wasn't certain, but he thought that he saw the old man grin above that long white beard.

"Hello, Rudy," Death Number Nine said, as they reached The Gate.

"Howdy," said the old man. "Business slow, eh? Only one you brung in so far today."

"A lot more coming. They all seemed to bunch up at the same time today, Rudy," Death Number Nine declared in the casual tones of a magazine salesman discussing canvassing.

The old man Death Number Nine had called Rudy looked keenly at Mike Gentry, making no effort to conceal his curiosity.

"Who's this one?" he asked.

"Gentry—Michael. A gambler. Shot and dragged into an alley," Death Number Nine replied.

The old man called Rudy looked on Gentry with what seemed to be a new respect.

"Well, well," he said. "Violent, eh?"

"Very," said Death Number Nine, his voice dryly amused.

Mike Gentry glanced from the old man to his eerie escort unbelievingly. They were discussing him just as if he weren't there, as if he were—and Gentry gagged on his own simile—a newspaper murder case!

And it came to Mike Gentry then, in a strange, spine-chilling sort of numbness, that within hours, back in the world of those alive, he would be a subject for murder headlines!

Death Number Nine's voice came to Gentry, then, breaking through his thoughts.

"Is the Board in session, Rudy?"

"Sure is," affirmed the old man. "Pretty durned crowded, too."

"Hope I can rush this one through," Death Number Nine observed. "Like I told you, I got a rush of cases waiting to be picked up back there."

Rudy moved to the door, inserted the enormous gold key in an even larger gold lock. The ivory door in The Gate swung inward, then. Death Number Nine touched Gentry's elbow lightly in summons.

"Come on in, Mike," he said. "You'll find this pretty interesting."

Looking through the open door, Mike Gentry saw that across its threshold lay a vast, marble room. It seemed larger than any depot Mike had ever imagined. And it was filled with people. People, unquestionably, in the same state of entry to a new world as himself.

"I won't feel lonely, anyway," Mike Gentry muttered. Then, wetting his lips with his tongue, he followed his guide through the door....


CHAPTER VI. — "HEAR ALL! HEAR ALL!"

THE entrance of Death Number Nine and his charge, Mike Gentry, caused a small murmuring of curiosity among those gathered in the huge marble hall. And as for Gentry, he gaped around the room and at its occupants with no attempt to conceal his stunned astonishment.

Everything in the vast hall, Gentry became immediately aware, was marble. The floor, the ceiling, the walls. The benches along the walls, on which were an incredible array of human beings of both sexes, all ages, and all conditions of dress, were also of marble.

At the far end of the room, gleaming against the vast marble wall in which it was placed, was a small, standard-sized gold door.

The people sitting on the benches against the wall numbered almost a hundred, and each of them sat beside a faceless, black- attired Agent of Death similar in appearance to Gentry's own escort, Death Number Nine.

Mike Gentry noticed with some surprise that all the occupants of this vast room seemed rather well under control. There was no alarm or hysteria on any of their faces, and if there were any standard emotion depicted universally among them, it was of awed, unbelieving wonder at themselves, their escorts, and their surroundings.

"They all in the same boat as me?" Gentry whispered to Death Number Nine.

His guide nodded.

"But of course. Naturally, if you'll look around, you'll see that each of them has just been brought from his own particular form of death. That old lady at the far end of the room, for example, the one wearing the nightgown and flannel bed-cap, died in her sleep. That rather astonished young chap sitting across from her in his shorts, stepped down an open elevator shaft in his apartment when he was drunk. That chap with the peaked hat and striped overalls was a locomotive engineer who missed his signals at a grade crossing."

"Where are his passengers?" Gentry asked.

Death Number Nine tsked regretfully.

"Curious thing," he replied. "They all escaped unscathed, even the fireman who was in the cab with the engineer. The Death Agent at the crossing was very disappointed. He'd thought he'd get enough in that one haul to take the rest of the day off."

"How sad," Mike Gentry observed dryly.

"You'll find them an interesting assortment," Death Number Nine declared.

"Any other, ah, murder victims like myself?" Gentry asked.

Death Number Nine shook his head.

"Not yet. But I expect two of them in a little while."

As his guide spoke, he led Gentry over to a vacant place on the marble benches to the right.

"You wait right here," Death Number Nine instructed Gentry, "while I go inside and see if I can't get your case moved up ahead of these others."

"Well," Gentry gasped. "Never thought I'd have pull up here."

"You haven't," Death Number Nine said a trifle testily. "I just happen to know an angel who's court bailiff on this session. He does favors for me like that when I have to get back to pick up other cases."

Ridiculously enough, Gentry felt squelched.

DEATH NUMBER NINE left him then, heading toward the gold door at the far end of the room, and Mike Gentry turned to take stock of his associates on either side of him.

To his right sat a white haired, red-faced, portly old gent clad in loud golf knickers and a multicolored sweater. He smiled rather vaguely at Gentry, moving over a bit to make more room on the bench.

"Hello, there," he hissed, and to Gentry's amazement, extended a pudgy paw. "My name is Farrell, J. T. Farrell. President of Farrell and Hobbs. Insurance, my line."

Mike Gentry pumped the other's hand briefly.

"Glad to know you. Insurance, eh?" Gentry observed. "Must have left your family pretty damned well fixed, eh?"

The portly insurance executive's expression changed from that of commercial cordiality to swift woe.

"Dammit," he said. "I quite forgot. Still can't get used to this thing. Being dead, I mean."

"I understand perfectly," Gentry said wryly. "I'm having trouble like that myself."

The insurance executive ignored this. He went on talking.

"Playing golf," he declared with puzzled reminiscence, waving a hand toward his attire. "Bolt of lightning. Damnedest thing. Pow!"

He slammed one hand into his palm to illustrate the suddenness of it all, frowned.

"They all told me I'd die of a heart attack on the damned golf course some day," the insurance executive said. Suddenly he beamed proudly. "But I didn't. I fooled 'em. Heart, hell. Strong heart. Took the damned lightning to do it!"

"Yes indeed," Gentry observed dryly. "You really fooled 'em all right."

"Seventeenth hole," the insurance executive recalled sadly, still paying no attention to what Gentry said. "Needed only an eight on that final hole to come in under a hundred. Damned shame. Can't see why I wasn't allowed to finish that last hole. Just dropped a ten-foot putt on the seventeenth green, too. Game was on."

The portly insurance executive sighed, lapsed into a silence which completely excluded any further conversation on Gentry's part.

In spite of everything, Gentry grinned. He turned his attention then to his left, where a thin, be-smocked, bespectacled young man with a pad and pencil in his hand sat intently scribbling formulas and muttering to himself under his breath.

Gentry noted that the young man's smock was discolored by innumerable chemicals, in addition to being very badly scorched. The young man was all too obviously fresh from a laboratory of some sort.

"Hello, chum," Gentry said.

"Eh?" the young man looked up startledly.

"I said hello," Gentry told him.

"Oh." The young man smiled vaguely. "Hello." He bent his head over the pad again and resumed scribbling equations and formulas on it.

"Inventing something?" Gentry asked.

Again the young man looked up startledly. And again there was that vague smile.

"Oh. Yes. Yes, I am. An explosive. It will have five hundred times the force of nitroglycerin, y'know," he declared. Once more he bent over his pad.

MIKE GENTRY shook his head marvellingly from side to side. Here was a guy who didn't even know he was dead, apparently. Too engrossed in his work. Probably didn't even realize that whatever in the hell it had been that he was compounding, the explosive had gone off too soon and too well, blasting its inventor into infinity.

Gentry had heard of absent-minded young professors and slaving young geniuses. But here, evidently, was a slaving young genius who was both too busy and too absent-minded to take stock of the very grim fact that he was no longer numbered among the living.

And at that point in Gentry's meditation, Death Number Nine returned.

"All set," said his sponsor. "I rushed it through. You'll get a hearing ahead of these others. Come along."

Mike Gentry rose and followed Death Number Nine toward that gold door in the marble wall at the far end of the vast room. When they finally paused there, Death Number Nine pressed a gold buzzer on the marble wall beside the door.

"Come in!" a deep voice muffled by the door, came to their ears.

Death Number Nine pushed the door inward, stepping back against it to let Gentry enter first.

The room Mike Gentry now found himself in was small in comparison to the vast hall he'd just left, but, nevertheless, extremely spacious.

At the far end of this room—which was all marble, as the other had been—was a tall, long, marble dais that looked like an elongated version of the Supreme Court tribunal bench.

Behind this court-like marble bench sat half a dozen white- gowned dignitaries. Gentry knew that they were dignitaries because of the impressive cast to their features and the fact that each leaned his head against his palm, elbow propped on the bench.

It was then that Gentry noticed that a seat in the center of these six dignitaries was still vacant. And it was then that Death Number Nine leaned over and whispered sharply in Gentry's ear.

"Be respectful, and don't speak put of turn. You'll have a fair trial, so don't worry about that part."

Gentry had only time to blurt, "Trial? What do you mean, trial?"

Then one of the dignitaries at the end of the bench, a round- faced, rosy-checked, beardless chap, picked up a gavel and pounded on the marble bench.

"Rise as the Court enters!" he shouted.

To a man, the other five dignitaries rose, and then Gentry saw, sailing majestically into the room from a side entrance, the huge, black-bearded, toga-clad, cigar-smoking figure.

"Who's that?" Gentry hissed.

"Shhh. Saint Peter!" Death Number Nine hissed back.

MIKE GENTRY stared popeyed at the tableau as Saint Peter, vast of stature and magnificent in manner, strode to the big marble dais and around to his rightful seat in the middle of the row of six dignitaries.

As Saint Peter sat down, the rest resumed their seats, with the exception of the gavel-wielding chap, who pounded once again on the marble bench top.

"Hear all, hear all," he intoned loudly. "The case of this Court versus one Michael Gentry. Advance Death Number Nine and Mr. Gentry."

With that the gavel-wielding chap resumed his seat. Death Number Nine poked Gentry in the ribs.

"Now don't forget," he hissed warningly. "Retain your dignity."

And then, in spite of a sudden crazy impulse on Gentry's part to bolt and run, he found himself advancing toward that dais in step with his escort, Death Number Nine.

In front of the dais, looking up at the six flowing-robed figures, centered by the handsomely impressive, black-bearded, cigar-smoking Saint Peter, Mike Gentry found himself halting in unison with Death Number Nine.

There was no time now for Mike Gentry to question his escort, no time for him to get this strange tableau straightened out in his puzzled mind. No time for anything, but to go through with this weird hearing as best he could.

There was a silence, in which the six judges—Gentry had finally decided them to be judges—and Saint Peter sized up Gentry, while Gentry stared uncomfortably back at them.

Then Saint Peter cleared his throat.

"You are Michael Gentry?" Saint Peter asked.

Gentry nodded. "That's right."

"You seek admission to Heaven?"

Saint Peter asked.

Mike Gentry blinked. This was the first time he'd thought of all this from that angle.

"Why, ah, since I'm dead, ah yes. Sure. Yes—I do," he said. Then he added: "Am I allowed to?"

"That," said Saint Peter, "is what this Court sits to determine."

"Huh?" Gentry blinked.

"Your life is about to be reviewed in trial, Mike," Saint Peter explained, his deep voice taking a kindly rumble. "If we decide it passes muster, we let you into Heaven. If not—it's the hot spot for you."

"You mean I'll be given Heaven or Hell on what you and the others decide?" Mike asked a trifle weakly.

"That's about the size of it, Mike," Saint Peter said kindly.

"Well, I'll be d—" Mike Gentry began.

Saint Peter held up his hand, eyes twinkling.

"We don't know if you will be or not, yet," he said.

MIKE GENTRY took a swift, searching appraisal of the others on the dais. The gavel-wielder seemed like an amiable chap. Mike recalled the advice of a famous lawyer who always said to pick fat people for your jury. The gavel-wielder passed on that point.

Next to the gavel-wielder was a stern, thin-nosed, gray- bearded old man who looked gouty and bad-tempered. Mike winced, his eyes going to the next, a small bland-faced chap who seemed to be the youngest of the group. He had red hair and a pug nose, and seemed more interested in the ceiling than in the proceedings. The other three who'd be his jury, Mike noted, were just bearded patriarchs. It was hard to tell what went on behind their serene, calculating stares.

Mike Gentry took a deep breath. "Do I get a lawyer?" he asked.

Saint Peter nodded. "Naturally there's always a prosecuting and a defending lawyer in trials such as this, Mike. It's your privilege to pick your own defense counsel after your record."

"You mean you spiel my life history before the arguments start?" Mike Gentry asked.

"That's right," Saint Peter said. "Standard procedure up here." He looked down at a sheaf of papers before him. "Might as well begin right now," he declared. "We've got it all here, in black and white."

Mike Gentry realized that he had never felt so morally naked in all his life, and then remembered that, after all, he was no longer alive.

Gentry took a deep breath.

"Good ahead, shoot," he said.

Death Number Nine tsked disapproval at this lack of dignity, and at that instant, Saint Peter cleared his throat and began to read from the record of Mike Gentry's life....


CHAPTER VII. — "IT'S A BUM RAP!"

WHILE Mike Gentry fell under the spell of Saint Peter's excellent dramatic narrative basso, he returned, vicariously and nostalgically, to the days of his early childhood.

There was the orphanage where Mike had spent eight years until running away to begin his struggle with the world. And after that, there was the shining of shoes and the peddling of papers, the gnawing hunger in a grimy-faced kid's stomach that had made him steal that loaf of bread. He might have gone to reform school for that, if it hadn't been for Patrolman Patrick Flavin, who'd taken him under his wing protectingly and seen to it that little Mike Gentry got a job as a bellhop which would give him a room and food and clothes.

There was the wide-eyed admiration of the big shots who stayed in that hotel where the little eager-faced bellhop worked. There was the constant, keen-eyed observation on the part of the kid that had been Mike Gentry. Observation of the dress and speech and mannerisms of the wealthy and cultured who stopped at that hotel. Observation that became the only sort of schooling that taught him anything.

There was more, much more, about those early days, and Mike Gentry listened in fascination to instances he would never have recalled otherwise, but which now became crystal clear in his memory.

Then there was Mike Gentry's first glimpse of the man who was to become his symbol of glamour, power, affluence. A gambler, a handsome, wealthy, keen-eyed devil who tipped Mike Gentry with ten dollar bills, and who gave the worshiping bellhop his first tip on a horse race.

When Gentry had won half a year's salary on that race he'd needed nothing more to make up his mind on a career. He was sixteen when he set out on his own as a small fry gambler.

Recorded on Saint Peter's ledger was that scene with an irate Patrolman Pat Flavin who, on learning that punk Gentry was determined to be a gambler, had concluded a wrathful lecture with the words the kid would never forget.

"If that's what you're itching to be, I can't help you. But remember this, you punk Mike Gentry," Pat Flavin had said, "you'll be an honest gambler or none at all. If I'm ever hearing a shady word about Mike Gentry, I'll knock your head in with me own nightstick, personal, understand?"

There were the ups and the downs in the early years after that. Downs more than ups, as Mike Gentry served his apprenticeship in a trade of odds versus chance. Ups and downs that led all over the nation and finally all over the world, as the downs grew less and Mike Gentry rose from punk status to that of national gambling prominence.

Saint Peter's deep voice rolled on over these years long gone, lulling Mike Gentry into a hypnotic state of nostalgia, and gradually bringing the ledger closer and closer to the moment when Mike Gentry met death in the mud of a darkened alleyway.

IT WAS over as abruptly as it had started, and Mike Gentry, still back in his own past, was jerked back to the present by Saint Peter's voice.

"Is that record correct to your knowledge, Mike Gentry? Is there anything that has been omitted, or anything inserted which is false?"

Mike Gentry blinked. "Huh?"

Saint Peter repeated the question.

Gentry shook his head in awe. "No. Nothing omitted. Good lord, I never had any idea that such a complete—"

"No one ever realizes that," Saint Peter broke in. "But you didn't answer the last part. Was anything false inserted in your record?"

Mike Gentry shook his head.

"Not a word," he declared,

"Then we can proceed with the trial," Saint Peter said. He spoke now to the six dignitaries flanking him on either side. Two of you will be selected as the defense and prosecution attorneys. The remaining four will sit in judgment, with me, on Mr. Gentry. You have all heard his life record, and I trust you will withhold judgment on the merits or evils of it until the case has been plead by both the defense and the prosecution."

There was a murmur of assent from the flowing-robed gentlemen flanking Saint Peter. Then Saint Peter turned his remarks back to Mike Gentry.

"You now have the privilege of choosing your defense lawyer, Michael Gentry," he said. "Any of the six men seated up here with me is capable of conducting a defense to your best interests. After you choose your own lawyer, I will then appoint another one from this group to conduct the prosecution. Please choose."

"Take your time," Death Number Nine whispered. "This is important."

Mike Gentry ran his hand through his straight dark hair, hunched his big shoulders forward in contemplation, put his chin in the palm of his hand, his elbow in the palm of the other hand.

For fully a minute Gentry stood there frowningly searching back and forth along the faces of the dignitaries on either side of Saint Peter.

"I kind of lean toward the guy with the gavel on the end," Gentry whispered behind his hand to Death Number Nine. "Except that I'd like to keep him on the jury."

"The redheaded one is a good bet," Death Number Nine said out of the corner of his mouth. "He's had quite a bit of success with clients lately. Persuasive in debate."

"That right?" Gentry whispered.

"I wouldn't tell you wrong," Death Number Nine muttered softly.

Mike Gentry made up his mind.

"I will choose as my counsel the redheaded dignitary sitting to your right, Saint Peter," Gentry said.

Saint Peter smiled, as if approving of the choice as wise.

"Very well, Michael Gentry.'" Then he leaned to his right and addressed the one Gentry had chosen. "Angel Donald, you have been selected to act as Defense Counsel for Mr. Gentry."

THE redhead, called Angel Donald, had been happily contemplating the ceiling, and didn't hear Saint Peter's first summons. The Saint repeated it again, sharply.

Angel Donald removed his contemplation from the ceiling and turned bland eyes on Saint Peter.

"Did you say something?" he asked.

Saint Peter repeated himself for the third time. Gentry had sudden qualms about his choice. But then Angel Donald smiled down at him and rose.

"Thank you for the honor of your choice," he said. "Supposing we retire to the ante chamber for a brief discussion of our plea?"

Mike Gentry looked doubtfully at Death Number Nine.

"It's customary," Death Number Nine whispered. "Give you time to work up a brief defense strategy. Go ahead."

Young, redheaded Angel Donald was coming down from the dais and starting toward a door at the side of the room. Death Number Nine pushed Mike Gentry gently in this direction.

"Follow him," he hissed.

"I'm beginning to have my doubts about that one," Gentry whispered uneasily. "He's too starry-eyed to suit me."

"He's deep," Death Number Nine hissed reassuringly, "that's why he seems vague."

Saint Peter broke in now.

"Don't you think you'd better join your counsel in the ante chamber for a discussion of your case, Mike?" he asked.

Mike Gentry took a deep breath, nodding, and turned to follow the redheaded Angel Donald to the ante chamber.

"Now then," said Angel Donald, when he'd closed the door of the tiny ante chamber behind them, "we'd better get this defense straight. There might be a chance to save you from Hell if we play our cards smartly."

Mike Gentry was open-mouthed in consternation.

"Might be a chance!" he exclaimed. "What do you mean, might?"

Redheaded young Angel Donald seemed mildly surprised.

"Aren't you aware of the spot you're in?" he asked, eyebrows raised.

"I am not!" Mike Gentry exclaimed indignantly. "What have I done to face a rap like Hell?"

"Why," said the Angel Donald, spreading his hands in a gesture pleading for reason, "the very fact that your entire life has been devoted to the vice of gambling is, in itself, going to be very hard to explain."

"What's wrong with gambling?" Gentry demanded.

"That," said Angel Donald, growing dreamy-eyed once more, "is not the point at all. You see, we'll have to prove what's right with gambling, and I'm afraid that's impossible." He paused to contemplate the ceiling. "You see," he went on, "most people facing a hearing here stand or fail on the good they've done in their lives. If the good they've done outweighs the bad they've done, they stand a good chance to get through. But if it's the other way around—" Angel Donald let the sentence trail off meaningly.

"But listen," Mike Gentry protested. "You heard Saint Peter's recital of my record. Wasn't it a pretty good one, considering I began with the odds all against me?"

THE Angel Donald shrugged. "It had its Horatio Algerish points, to be sure," he admitted. "From rags to riches, and all that. But the point is that you rose from rags to gambling notoriety. Now, if you'd risen to be a captain of industry or something like that, it would be different. Can't you understand?"

"No," said Gentry flatly. "I don't understand at all. There's nothing in my past that I'm particularly ashamed of, and—"

But Angel Donald hadn't been listening, and now he cut Gentry off in mid-sentence, snapping his fingers excitedly.

"I've got it!" Angel Donald exclaimed.

"Got what?" Gentry frowned irritably.

"Your defense, of course," said the Angel Donald. "We'll hit home hard on the fact that you never had much chance in life, never had the opportunities others had, for example. We'll play up your orphanage, the peddling papers, shining shoes and all that. We'll point out the fact that you did well not to become a murderer, gangster, or common thief!"

"Now, wait a minute—" Mike Gentry began.

But the Angel Donald was going on with increased enthusiasm now. His face shone delightedly as he continued to paint word pictures of the hardship and struggle in his client's early youth.

"Just a minute—" Gentry protested again.

"And we'll wind it all up with a dramatic plea in which you throw yourself and your misguided past on the mercy and kindness of the court!" the Angel Donald concluded ecstatically. "That's my forte, pleas of that nature. I've pushed through plenty of borderline cases that way."

"But, listen—" Mike Gentry tried once more.

The Angel Donald wasn't listening. He threw an arm affectionately around Mike's shoulder.

"That'll be the line of our case," he said enthusiastically. "Don't worry about a thing. You'll have a fifty-fifty chance to beat Hell, at least!"

Mike Gentry's lips went tight in anger, his eyes flashing indignantly.

"We'll see what my chances will be," he said quietly. "If you ask me, Angel Donald, I'm facing a bum rap!"

The Angel Donald, not recognizing Gentry's boiling point, naturally enough, merely smiled vaguely and nodded. It was obvious that he was already holding a mental rehearsal of a stirring jury plea based on strong emotional appeal. And it was also obvious that he anticipated the coming trial happily ...


CHAPTER VIII. — "WHO SAYS I'M SORRY?"

WHEN the quietly fuming Mike Gentry reentered the courtroom with his defense counsel, Angel Donald, he was greeted with the sight of the gouty-looking, thin-nosed, sour old graybeard who'd been sitting by the gavel-wielding dignitary. He was standing before the dais a few feet from Death Number Nine, waiting patiently, all too patiently.

Saint Peter identified the sour-looking dignitary.

"I have chosen Angel Horatio, here, to conduct the prosecution of this trial," Saint Peter explained, pointing down to the gouty-looking graybeard. "While you and your counsel were out preparing defense, Angel Horatio had compiled his side of the case. The trial can therefore now begin."

Gentry saw, with faint surprise, that chairs had been placed on the floor below the dais, and the Angel Donald now led him over to a pair of them, as prosecuting Angel Horatio cleared his throat, glared balefully at Mike Gentry, and opened his attack.

Angel Horatio, Gentry found out in less than a minute, had a voice that was as acidulous as his appearance.

"I move," Angel Horatio's first words were, "that this trial be instantly dismissed as beneath the time and dignity of this court. I further move that Mr. Gentry be cast directly into Hell, where he most certainly belongs."

"I object!" shouted Angel Donald with alacrity that was pleasantly surprising to Gentry. Then the Angel Donald added: "On the grounds that is has not yet been proven that Mr. Gentry belongs in Hell."

Saint Peter cleared his throat.

"Objection sustained," he said. "Movement offered by the prosecuting counsel is overruled as considerably premature. Please proceed, Angel Horatio, with your arguments."

The Angel Horatio nodded, unperturbed, as if he had expected what had happened and thought nothing of it.

"The life history of this man Michael Gentry has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt," Angel Horatio resumed, "that the fact that vice and criminal pastimes were not only tolerated by him, but seized upon as a means of livelihood, is of primary importance in my case, and a factor that cannot at any time be disregarded by the jury during the pleas of the defense." Angel Horatio paused to let this sink in. Then he went on. "I submit, furthermore, that, even though his early youth was one of considerable hardship, many other men faced with the same struggle succeeded in besting their environment and emerging unsullied by it. I submit that Michael Gentry had the same chance as other men of scant opportunity to make something of his life, and that, unlike other men, he took the easy, the insidious, the sullied course of professional gambling. On that basis—" and here Angel Horatio smirked triumphantly at his rival, Angel Donald, "—we can disregard what will obviously be the plea of the defense, namely, lack of opportunity!"

Mike Gentry shot a quick glance at his counsel, Angel Donald. But the young, redheaded, snub-nosed angel seemed scarcely listening to his opponent. He was gazing serenely at the ceiling. Gentry felt slightly sick.

"And lastly, in this brief argument," concluded Angel Horatio, "I submit that we are all aware of the heinous nature of gambling, of the chaos and despair it has brought the world of foolish, groping humanity. I submit that Michael Gentry, as a professional gambler, must be held responsible—along with the rest of his ilk—for much of the misery among his fellow creatures today. And, because of these coldly logical, indisputably sound arguments, I request a verdict committing Michael Gentry, gambler and wastrel, to the fires of Hell!"

ANGEL HORATIO wheeled with the last words from his acid tongue, pointing dramatically at Mike Gentry. There was a murmur from the dignitaries seated on either side of Saint Peter. A murmur that sounded far too agreeing to Gentry.

"Are you still sticking to your original line of defense?" Gentry hissed shakenly to the Angel Donald.

His counsel looked surprised. "Of course," he said. "It will make a splendid case."

Mike Gentry's rage and indignation returned to him in a swift, sweeping wave.

"Not to my mind, brother!" he snapped. And then, without quite being conscious of what he intended to do, Mike Gentry found himself on his feet and striding toward the place just vacated by Angel Horatio.

There was a shocked exclamation from everyone in the court except Saint Peter. Then Mike Gentry was holding the floor, the center of all eyes, staring up at Saint Peter and the four others who held his eternal fate in their hands.

"If you don't mind," Gentry said, "I'd like to throw out my lawyer and conduct my own defense."

"That's unheard of!" It was Angel Horatio who protested.

Saint Peter, eyes twinkling, shook his head.

"It is entirely permissible. Go right ahead, Mike. Conduct your own case as you see fit, if you'd rather," he said.

Mike Gentry cleared his throat and glared around him.

"There's a few things I want to make clear right now," he began. "The first is that I don't deny I was a gambler, and I am not sorry or ashamed about it. I'll get back to that point later. Secondly, you all seem to forget one fact in my life history, and that's the manner in which I died. You forget that I didn't come here through an accident, or my own fault, or old age, or any of those things. I didn't have a lot to say about it, since I was murdered. I'll touch on that a little more later on, too."

Mike Gentry dug his hands into his pockets, spreading his legs wide in a fighting stance, head slightly lowered, glaring around the court.

"I don't make any squawk about not having had a chance when I was a kid," he said. "Maybe I didn't have everything that a lot of other kids did, but, looking back on it, I didn't know the difference, didn't know what I was missing, or supposed to be missing, as so I never had any squawks. I enjoyed my childhood, and I wouldn't trade it in a million years, tough as it was. So eliminate that angle. I don't want that kind of hogwash sympathy.

"Now," he continued, "about that gambling angle. Sure I was a gambler. I still am. But get this straight. When I gambled, it was with other professionals. I never clipped sparrows, or stole from kids, or ran gambling joints that took dough from people who couldn't afford to lose it. You find any of that dirt on my record, and I'll eat it. I never turned a dishonest card. I never threw a loaded pair of dice. I gambled, but I played it straight, and clean, and smart, understand? I'm damned proud of the way I played it, as a matter of fact."

MIKE GENTRY paused a moment, peering upward belligerently to see how his audience was taking it. He found it impossible to tell. Only Saint Peter seemed on one side or another, and Gentry had felt he could count on him all along.

Clearing his throat, Gentry barged on. "Maybe I've never done anything wonderful. Maybe I'm not good enough to get into your Heaven. But by the same token, in all honesty, you can't say I'm bad enough to deserve Hell. I've never knowingly stepped on anyone's fingers at any time in my life. I've lived and let live and gone my own way in my own racket. And then what happened to me. I was murdered! I was shot down like a dog in an alley without even a chance to find out who the skunk was who did it!"

Saint Peter broke in, gently.

"And what do you figure it all adds up to, Mike?" he asked.

"Just this," Gentry said. "I've been given a bum deal all around. The deck was marked, and it's even more marked if you can sit around here and talk about tossing me into Hell. Does it sound just to you, Saint Peter? Does it sound like a clean deal?"

With this, Angel Horatio leaped again to his feet irately.

"I object!" he said. "The question put by the defendant to the Court is totally out of keeping with formal procedure!"

Saint Peter frowned slightly at Angel Horatio.

"The question, like the defendant's declarations, is rather interesting to this Court. It shall be answered." Saint Peter turned to Gentry, smiling slightly. "You want to know if it sounds like a fair deal to me, is that right, Mike?"

Gentry nodded. "That's right."

Saint Peter tugged reflectively at his black beard, as if mentally phrasing his answer.

"I will grant you, Mike, that there's some justice in your thinking that it isn't fair. But you'll have to remember that your case is one of the most singularly unusual ones tried before this Court in some time. Incidentally, what would you consider to be a fair deal on your hearing here?"

Mike Gentry cleared his throat, he seemed to set himself more solidly, as if readying for a physical rebuff to his declaration.

"I agree on one thing only," Gentry said. "I agree that maybe I'm not good enough for Heaven. But I'm not deserving Hell, and that's a fact. I think I was snatched up here too soon. I think, to make the deal fair, you shouldda waited until I'd done something in my life either really good or bad. I think you ought to toss me back into the pond, like a fish that's too short to pass the game laws. That's my idea on this."

Angel Horatio not only rose in protest this time; he dashed to Gentry's side and shouted his shocked astonishment.

"I protest. I protest most vehemently the brazen effrontery of this tinhorn gambler to make such a statement before this Court!"

Gentry glared at Angel Horatio.

"What's wrong with it?" he demanded.

The Angel Horatio ignored Gentry, and answered him through a direct, indignant appeal to Saint Peter.

"Such a plea is positively unheard of. It is shockingly in bad taste. It is utterly preposterous!"

SAINT PETER hid a grin behind the palm of his hand, pretending to stroke his black beard. His eyes went questioningly to Mike Gentry, as if hoping that the sparks between Gentry and Angel Horatio would not stop now. Gentry did not disappoint the Saint. "The only thing you got against me is that I'm a gambler!" Gentry told Angel Horatio. "And my record will be proof enough to back up all the statements I made about the kind of gambling I did. The records'll show it was all straight. I never took a dime of dirty money!" He paused, then added: "Are you afraid to give me a chance, is that it?"

Angel Horatio began to splutter. Then Saint Peter took over.

"So that's your idea, eh Mike?" he smiled. "You think we ought to toss you back like a fish under game-law length, eh? You think we ought to give you a crack at doing something either good or bad, eh?"

"I do," said Mike Gentry positively.

"Angel Horatio was right when he said such a move would be unheard of, Mike," Saint Peter said. "It would be positively an admission of confusion on our part. But—" he hesitated.

Angel Horatio leaped into this moment of indecision with both fists.

"Surely this Court is not for an instant tempted to grant such a preposterous request!" he exclaimed aghast. "Why, this person Gentry stands convicted by his own admission of never having done anything of good—"

Saint Peter cut him off.

"But he has never done anything bad, Angel Horatio, please keep that in mind," he said. He half closed his eyes. "I feel somehow that perhaps this request is not so presumptuous as it sounds. In fact, I wonder—"

It was Angel Horatio's turn to interrupt. He did so swiftly, desperately.

"This man Gentry was not even worthy enough to gain the love of his fellow human beings, Saint Peter!" Horatio protested. "He could not number those who loved him on three fingers. He—"

Mike Gentry broke in, now, angrily.

"Lots of people thought I was okay," he said. "Ask anyone in that town what they think of Mike Gentry. Why, all you have to do is—"

Saint Peter rejoined the conflict, cutting Mike off.

"That's it!" Saint Peter exclaimed. "That would do it quite fairly, I think!"

Both Gentry and the Angel Horatio looked bewilderedly at the presiding Saint, who elaborated eagerly, pleased with his idea.

"It would take months, perhaps years, for Gentry to come forth with a really good or bad act on which we could sentence him justly," the Saint declared. "Angel Horatio is right. It would be preposterous to return Mike Gentry to the world until he is satisfied with those conditions. However, on the second point raised by Angel Horatio, that of the love or lack of love which Mike Gentry must certainly have raised, or failed to raise, in his fellow human beings, we have an interesting experiment!"

"I don't get it," Mike Gentry said.

"Nor I," declared Angel Horatio suspiciously.

"Why, it's crystal clear," Saint Peter said. "If Gentry could prove to the satisfaction of this Court that, say, three people he left behind him in life were so influenced by the good in him to love him honestly—he should most certainly deserve Heaven."

"But he can't prove it!" snapped Angel Horatio triumphantly. "He can't prove it, because he couldn't find even three people who loved him with honesty, without reservation!"

MIKE GENTRY saw his opening.

"Give me the chance, and I can!" he snapped. "Send me back for three weeks and I'll have the whole town hanging out flags for me to prove it!"

Saint Peter suddenly sighed. He shook his head regretfully.

"No, Mike. I'm sorry. That's out. It would have made a darned interesting experiment, though. But we can't send you back."

"Why not?" Gentry demanded.

"It just isn't done," said Saint Peter.

"For two weeks," Mike begged.

Saint Peter shook his head firmly. "No, Mike. Not a chance. I'm sorry."

"A week!" Mike exclaimed desperately. "Just seven days. What could you lose? You'd have your finger on me. I couldn't skip out on you."

Angel Horatio broke in. "I move that this ridiculous discussion cease, and that the defendant either resume his own defense or rest his case."

Mike Gentry glared at the interruption, and spoke again to Saint Peter.

"Three days!" he implored.

"No, Mike."

"Two days," Gentry begged hoarsely. "Just forty-eight hours. Surely, you—"

Saint Peter cut him off. "No, Mike. No dice. I'm sorry."

"No dice, eh?" Gentry said softly. And then a quick gleam came to his eyes. His hand went suddenly to his pocket.

"I move—" Angel Horatio began plaintively.

Mike Gentry cut him off. "Listen, Saint Peter," he said quickly, urgently. "I'm going to stand or fall on my gambling background, isn't that right?"

Saint Peter nodded. "I'm afraid that's so, Mike. Especially since we can't judge you by anything else."

"Then you can't, in all fairness, refuse me a chance to bring gambling into the decision to help my side of the case, can you?" Gentry demanded.

"Of course not."

Mike Gentry took his hand from his pocket, smiling triumphantly. He held it, palm open, out toward Saint Peter. The cheap dice he'd taken from the urchins lay there.

"How about it, then?" Gentry demanded. "How about a chance to roll for that forty-eight hour furlough? How about giving me a gambling chance to have forty-eight hours in which to find those three people Angel Horatio claims don't exist—three people who love me?"

Beside Gentry, Angel Horatio drew in his breath in shocked horror.

There was a cold silence, while Saint Peter stared almost unbelievingly at the dice in Gentry's palm.

Mike Gentry drove on, quickly, trying to clinch his desperate request.

"You said it would make an interesting experiment," Gentry reminded Saint Peter. "Well, here's a chance to play fair with me, and at the same time possibly see that experiment go through. If I lose, then no furlough, and I'll feel at least that I've had a square chance from this Court. And if I win, you don't lose anything, and you'll get that chance to see the experiment put to a test. What do you say?"

"Let me see those cubes, Mike," Saint Peter said suddenly, his grin flashing.

MIKE GENTRY handed the dice to Saint Peter, and the latter turned them over in his big, strong, well formed hands curiously, smilingly. He looked up after a minute, addressing Gentry.

"You understand, Mike, that we haven't convicted you as yet? You understand that you might have a chance at Heaven anyway, if this trial proceeds as before? And do you understand that if you take Angel Horatio up on that angle of finding three people who love you, and fail, you haven't a chance of anything but conviction before this court?"

Mike Gentry nodded. "I figured that," he said. "I understand."

"Let me warn you, too, that my experience has proven that many people think they are loved but are not really so. For one mortal to find three people who love him is not an easy task, I assure you. Do you realize that?"

Mike Gentry nodded.

"And under the circumstances I've outlined, you still want a chance to gamble for a forty-eight hour furlough back in the world of the living?"

"You bet," Gentry declared firmly.

Saint Peter leaned forward, handing the dice back to Mike Gentry.

"Okay, Mike. You'll have your chance. But if you roll these dice and lose, or even if you roll them and win but fail on your furlough, there'll be no more complaints about a bum deal, right?"

"Right," promised Mike Gentry, taking the dice eagerly.

Angel Horatio finally found voice.

"This—this is preposterous!" he croaked weakly.

Saint Peter glanced at him archly.

"Don't forget your position, Angel Horatio," he warned. "You were merely selected as Prosecuting Counsel. I'm still running this Court." Saint Peter turned back to Gentry. "All right, Mike. Toss 'em. I understand the, ah, humph, rudiments of the game of dice, so you don't have to explain."

Mike Gentry grinned, raising the dice cupped in his right hand. He turned his grin tauntingly to the benumbed Angel Horatio as he rattled the cubes in preliminary.

Then Gentry crouched swiftly, spinning the cubes out of his palm across the marble floor. They stopped some five feet from the left edge of the dais.

Saint Peter rose, leaning forward and peering down at the dice. His expression was one of wondering amazement.

"Well, I'll be—" he began.

"Uh, uh!" Gentry warned, grinning.

The cubes read four and three. Seven.

"A natural!" Saint Peter gasped, and sat back heavily.

"I win the chance," said Mike Gentry.

"There's no denying that," Saint Peter admitted.

"This is terrible!" Angel Horatio moaned shudderingly.

Mike Gentry stepped over and picked up the dice, dropping them into his pocket. He turned back to Angel Horatio.

"Like Hell it is," Gentry declared.

Saint Peter's grin was vast. He beckoned to Death Number Nine.

"Escort Mr. Gentry back to the world of the living, Death Number Nine, according to the terms of our agreement," Saint Peter said....


CHAPTER IX. — "HELLO, WORLD!"

MIKE GENTRY and Death Number Nine stood at the borderline of shadows between Life and Eternity. Gentry's escort, who had been wordless from the time they'd left the huge marble hallway, finally cleared his throat and spoke.

"It's for forty-eight hours, Gentry," Death Number Nine declared. "No longer. I'll be waiting for you at the end of that time. And, ah, incidentally, I don't mind telling you that you succeeded in doing the impossible in getting this crazy furlough."

"Don't you like it?" Gentry asked.

Death Number Nine shrugged. "It's none of my business," he said. "I don't care one way or another. After all, I don't work on commission, you know."

Mike Gentry laughed. "That's very droll."

"Another thing," said Death Number Nine. "I might as well warn you that the circumstances of your return when you step through these shadows back into the world of the living, will be somewhat hard to get used to at first."

Mike Gentry frowned in sudden suspicion.

"What do you mean?" he demanded. "Well, you'll still be dead, for one thing, as far as everyone in the world of the living is concerned."

"I don't get it," Gentry said. "How can I be both dead and back there?"

"Your body will be dead," Death Number Nine said. "That can't be changed. So, because of that, you'll find yourself in another body."

Gentry's jaw went agape.

"What!"

Death Number Nine nodded. "That's right. So you see, you'll have quite a time of it getting proof that three people love you."

"Why," Gentry exploded, "this is a lousy gip! How can I operate in such a short time as forty-eight hours when I won't even have my own body?"

"That's up to you," said Death Number Nine. "After all, the only thing Saint Peter promised in your bargain was that you'd be permitted to return. He didn't say how."

"But good gods!" Gentry exploded again. "No one will know me from Adam. It'll be impos—"

Death Number Nine cut him off.

"Those who love you will know you," he said quietly. "For after all, your body is just a shell. You'll still shine through to the ones who really love you, no matter what body you're wearing."

The expression on Gentry's face suddenly changed. A curious gleam came to his eyes. A look almost akin to satisfaction.

"Maybe that won't be so bad at that," he said softly, as if to himself. "Maybe it'll be an additional break."

"And one last thing," said Death Number Nine. "I wouldn't feel so smug, if I were you. Saint Peter knows exactly why you wanted that furlough."

"Huh?" Gentry blinked.

DEATH Number Nine nodded.

"That find-three-people-who-love-you stuff didn't fool him, Gentry. He knows you wanted this furlough just to get the person who murdered you."

Mike Gentry looked incredulous. "He knew all along?"

"That's right," said Death Number Nine. "But if I were you, I'd keep one thing in mind. The bargain was made on the basis of finding three people who love you. Saint Peter will hold you to that bargain. If you spend your forty-eight hours trying to track down and shoot holes into the person who murdered you, you might miss the boat completely on the terms of the bargain. You'd regret it for the rest of Eternity if you did."

Mike Gentry didn't speak. He rubbed his hand along his chin bewilderedly.

"You see, Gentry," Death Number Nine concluded, "you're going to have an almost impossible job finding three people with that regard for you. And if you don't succeed in doing so, again let me remind you, it will be too bad!"

"But—" Mike Gentry began. And at that instant the shadows around them became mists that shrouded Death Number Nine completely, whirling wraith-like before Gentry's eyes.

"Death Number Nine!" Gentry called.

There was no answer. The mists swirled more swiftly, blinding Mike Gentry.

"Death Number Nine, wait!" Gentry called again. But the mists blanketed all sound, all seeing, all sensation. They swirled swiftly and even more swiftly over Gentry. He had a sudden feeling of overpowering drowsiness. There were sounds, vaguely familiar, swirling around and around in his swiftly ebbing consciousness....

MIKE GENTRY had no way of knowing how much time had passed between his loss of consciousness there in the shadowland between Life and Eternity and his sudden awakening in the world of the living.

It was as if he'd been jarred from a brief sleep.

Blinking, he opened his eyes, looking around in surprise.

He sat in a doorway fronting an unused store on a darkened side street. The sound of traffic from a nearby boulevard came to his ears and the constant background noises of a big city, partly asleep and partly at play, was familiarly present.

Mike Gentry climbed to his feet, unconsciously brushing his clothing as he did so. And then he remembered.

Swiftly, Gentry stepped around to the black, shining surface of the big plate-glass store window.

It provided a practically perfect mirror in which to survey the reflection of his strange new body.

For fully a minute, Mike Gentry stared at his reflection wonderingly. Stared at the reflection of a man several inches shorter than the other Gentry. A man whose shoulders were bulkier than the other Gentry's had been. A man whose coloring was lighter, whose features were a trifle thicker, almost brutal. A man dressed in a cheap, tight-fitting blue serge suit. A man who looked like a movie version of a yegg, a torpedo, a gunman.

Then Gentry laughed, harshly, uncontrollably.

He could not have been given a more ironically suitable body for the role that lay ahead of him in the next forty-eight hours.

"This is rich," Gentry muttered to himself, when his laughter died. "This is a scream. Mike Gentry, gentleman gambler, back in the role of hood and gangster."

Then Gentry saw that a cheap, black Fedora lay in the doorway where he'd been sitting. He stepped over, picking it up, placing it on his head. He pulled the brim down slightly over his eyes, fishing automatically in the pockets of his cheap suit for a cigarette.

He found a pack, battered, dried, and some matches. He lighted a cigarette flicked the match away, pulled his cheap Fedora even lower over his eyes, and turned up the street in the direction of the main night club stem.

Gentry walked for over fifteen minutes before he reached the Panther Club. And then he didn't go inside. He walked on past it, keenly surveying the laughing crowd of swankily attired customers who emerged as he strolled by.

Gentry saw a clock in the window of a large store across the street. It was close to five in the morning. The crowds coming out of the Panther now would be the tail-enders, even though the night club seldom closed doors until six or so.

Gentry frowned. It had seemed to him as if innumerable hours had passed while he'd been in Eternity. But in the reckoning of time in this world, it hadn't been longer than two.

He crossed the street and walked back in the direction of the Panther Club from this less proximate viewpoint. Directly across from the club, he paused, finding another cigarette and lighting it deliberately. Across the flame he squinted narrowly at the big black limousine that was pulling up before the doorway of the night club.

Tossing the match away, Gentry saw the gilded doorman hurry to open the doors of the machine. It was Curtis Frazier's super- deluxe buggy. And Curtis Frazier climbed out, followed by the tall, unmistakable figure of Luke Henchley.

GENTRY stood motionless, watching the pair enter the night club. Then he turned away and walked down to the end of the block where a forlorn newsie was hawking papers to the remaining stragglers of the section's nightclub crowd.

He found some change in his pockets, gave the kid a nickel, and walked over to a street lamp with the paper.

If the news had been picked up at all it would have a prominent place on the front pages, Gentry realized dryly. But there was nothing in the papers about it.

Mike Gentry hadn't been discovered yet in that alley. Or, at least, his body hadn't.

Gentry folded the paper and walked back to the corner, handing it to the surprised newsie. Then he crossed the street to the side on which the Panther Club was located, swung right, and headed directly for the nitery.

At the doorway, just as he had expected, the loudly uniformed first doorman refused him admittance after a quick survey of his appearance.

"This isn't any place for you, pal, run along," the doorman said. He put one hand firmly on Gentry's arm, starting to steer him away.

"I'm looking for a couple of guys I gotta see. It's important," Gentry said.

"No one in here you'd know, buddy. Get on, now," the doorman said hostilely.

"I'm looking for Curtis Frazier and Luke Henchley," Gentry said. "It's damned important to them that I see 'em."

The doorman, still obviously hostile, hesitated at those names.

"Perhaps you'd better tell 'em I want to see 'em," Gentry suggested. "Or send the word in. They'll be glad to see me, when you tell 'em I got news about a pal of theirs, Mike Gentry."

The doorman released his grasp on Gentry's arm. He glared darkly.

"You'd better be right, buddy. 'Cause if they don't wanta see you, you'll wish you hadn't asked." He turned away, then turned back. "What's your name?" he asked.

Mike Gentry thought.

"Joe," he said at last. "Joe Brock."

The doorman's suspicion was even more aroused by this. But he turned away, stepping into the first foyer of the club and passing the information and request on to the second doorman to be further relayed. Then he returned to Gentry's side.

"You'd better be telling the truth, pal," he said. "We don't go for jokes around here."

Mike Gentry took a deep draught from his cigarette, exhaling the smoke directly into the doorman's face.

"Why—!" the doorman grated.

Gentry's hand slipped swiftly, significantly, to his coat pocket. The doorman caught the gesture and paled.

"Take it easy, Napoleon," Gentry urged, withdrawing his hand from the pocket again.

IT WAS then that the page boy stepped out into the street.

He called to the doorman.

"Where's the guy who wants to see Mr. Frazier?" he asked.

The doorman pointed dubiously to Gentry.

"Follow me," said the page boy.

Gentry leered at the doorman and followed after the boy into the first foyer. Here, as he expected they would, they turned off sharply, ignoring the second and pretentious foyer and following a narrow hallway to a door some forty feet away.

The door was thick, oak-paneled, important-looking. It led directly into Curtis Frazier's private offices, as Gentry well knew. The page boy pressed a buzzer and stepped back.

In an instant, Gentry knew, there would be a click from an electric button inside to release the lock on the door. Then he would step into the swank private offices of Curtis Frazier.

Gentry wet his lips. He didn't know what this was going to lead to. He wasn't even certain—except for Frazier's strange connection with the crook gambler Henchley—that he was starting his murderer's track-down with the right angle. But he felt fairly certain of at least one thing. Whatever happened in the next minutes would, in some fashion, narrow down his lists of possible suspects.

Mike Gentry heard the click then, releasing the lock. And it was followed by a voice, Frazier's voice, calling for him to enter....


CHAPTER X. — "YOU WOULDN'T KNOW ME."

MIKE GENTRY was scarcely conscious of the fact that the page boy had vanished on the heels of Frazier's voice. He was conscious only of the fact that the door had been opened from the inside, and that he faced the luxurious surroundings of a movie-style office in which Curtis Frazier, dapper, sharp featured, moustached, sat nervously atop a solid mahogany desk—and that Luke Henchley, tall, bald, skinny and sour- looking, had opened the door and now stood beside it with a pistol in his hand. A pistol trained on Gentry.

"Put up your mitts," Luke Henchley ordered.

Mike Gentry did so, raising his hands above his head. Then Henchley stepped forward and frisked him with quick, practiced dexterity.

Finishing the frisking, Henchley frowned. He spoke for Frazier's benefit as well as Gentry's, and his voice was suspicious and puzzled.

"The doorman called in that you were carrying a blaster, guy. What goes? Where'd you ditch it?"

"Can I give my arms a rest?" Gentry asked.

Henchley nodded sourly, and Gentry dropped his arms to his side.

"I reached into my pocket and made out like I was lugging a popgun. I didn't like that doorman's attitude," Gentry explained.

Henchley considered this sourly.

"A funny man, huh?" he said.

Gentry shrugged. "That ain't why I'm here."

"You said outside that your handle was Joe Brock," Henchley said. "Was that funny stuff, too?"

"I've had a lot of handles," Gentry said. "In lots of places, too."

"Such as?" Henchley asked.

Gentry shrugged elaborately. "Frisco, last. Before that, Chicago. Before that, Miami. What the hell's the matter?"

IT WAS then that Frazier rose from the desk and entered the interrogation.

"Let me talk to him, Luke," Frazier said. Then, to Gentry, he said "Okay. You say your name's Joe Brock. Outside you told the doorman that you had some news about a friend of mine, Mike Gentry. What do you know about Gentry, and what's this all about?"

"I understand," Gentry declared, choosing his words with care, "that something happened to Mike Gentry tonight. I understand he got into some trouble, some shooting trouble. I understand he got hurt bad."

Gentry had been watching narrowly for any betrayal of expression on the faces of Frazier or Henchley. And he was disappointed. Frazier merely stared at him narrowly in a fashion that could mean anything from disbelief to sharp suspicion. Luke Henchley's face was as sourly wooden as before.

"And how do you understand that?" Luke Henchley asked quietly.

"I heard it," Gentry said.

Frazier shot Henchley an unfathomable glance. Then he turned back to Gentry.

"You must be out of your mind. Who'd want to shoot Mike Gentry in this town?" Frazier asked.

"He won a lot of money early this ayem in a poker game, I understand," Gentry answered.

"Yeah, but he didn't carry it," Luke Henchley said tonelessly. "There'd be no reason to plug a guy if he didn't have that dough with him."

"I don't think this was meant to be robbery," Gentry said.

"What do you think it was meant to be?" Frazier asked. A sudden flicker that might possibly have been fear came to his eyes.

Gentry shrugged. "I figure it might have been anything. And I figure, too, that it might have been none of my business, see?"

"No," Frazier said flatly. "No. I don't see."

"I just blew in tonight, on the rails. I'm down on my uppers," said Gentry. "What I found out I got by accident. But that ain't the point. You'll need a good torpedo with a smart head and a sealed yap around here, now that Mike Gentry has been—"

"Been what?" Frazier demanded.

Again Gentry made his shrug casual. "Been too much in the way for some people to stand any longer. You got a big fast club here, and you can use a willing lug like me around." He turned to Henchley. "Don't you get the idea?"

Luke Henchley stared hard at Gentry for fully a minute. Then he answered.

"You say you blew in on the rails, and that you're down on your luck and looking for a spot. Anybody who knows you see you when you came in?"

"Nobody in this burg knows me," said Gentry.

Henchley looked sharply at Frazier, then back to Gentry.

"You sure you're not beating out some rap in some other town?" Henchley asked.

Gentry grinned crookedly. "None that need worry you guys," he said. "You wouldn't know me!"

Henchley turned to Frazier. "Come on into the other room a minute. I want to talk to you."

Frazier looked puzzled, but turned and followed after Henchley as the tall raw-boned gambler- crossed the room to a door in the far corner. The pair stepped through this, and the door closed behind them.

MIKE GENTRY, eyes narrowed, stood motionless where they'd left him. Desperately he tried to figure out the strange angles to their behavior. He would have risked a fortune on the hunch that he'd stumbled immediately onto information directly tied in with his murder. But yet, there was a chance that—

Henchley and Frazier came back into the room.

It was Henchley who did the talking.

"We think we can use you, Brock. We're planning on adding a big gambling plant to this club in order to make it pay off the way it should. We'll need a few mugs like you around."

Mike Gentry tried to keep the surprise from his eyes. This, then was the explanation for the familiarity between Henchley and Frazier! The crooked gambler had been persuading the weak-willed night club operator to open up gambling floors, with Henchley, undoubtedly, in supervision.

But Henchley, still talking, crossed the room to Gentry's side at that instant.

"We'll give you a stake to carry you over for a couple of weeks while we get things set," Henchley was saying.

And then it happened, catching Mike Gentry completely off guard. The big, skinny gambler had had his right hand in the pocket of his dinner jacket casually as he'd approached Gentry. And with quick, deadly timing as he stepped beside him, brought forth his pistol in an uninterrupted arc, smashing it down on Gentry's skull!

Everything cosmic exploded in Mike Gentry's skull. Blackness, flecked with showering sparks of swift, sickening pain, descended as he fell face forward to the floor. And then he knew no more....

IT WAS raining, and the downpour washed the muddy waters of the alley into the gash on Mike Gentry's skull. Gentry stirred slightly, groaning, and the rain slashed down on his face. The shrill scream in the back of his shuttered consciousness grew more and more insistent.

Gentry opened his eyes dazedly, uncomprehendingly, blinking away the mud and rain. He felt something hard and cold in his right hand, and the stink of creosote was faint on his shoulder. Then he realized that he lay in the mud of the alley.

And then he became aware, dully, of the meaning of the shrill insistent scream. For it was louder, much louder, and considerably nearer now, drawing nearer every second.

Police sirens!

Instinctively, Mike Gentry tried to rise to his feet. But he was only able to lift himself to one elbow. He fell weakly back into the mire of the alley.

The sirens were much louder now, scarce blocks away.

Gentry shook his head, trying to clear it of the fog. The effort was agony, and he clenched his teeth against it.

And then Gentry remembered. Remembered Henchley, and the gun, and Frazier's grinning face as he had toppled to the floor. He cursed thickly, spitting the alley ooze from his teeth, and tried to rise again.

It was then that Gentry saw what he'd had clenched in his right fist. It was a pistol, an automatic.

Teetering there in the mire, leaning on his elbow, Gentry stared stupidly at the weapon.

The shrill wail of the police sirens, blotted from his mind momentarily by the sight of the gun in his hand, now returned to his consciousness loudly, frighteningly.

Mike Gentry had a wild impulse to rise and flee. And though his tortured body tried to obey the commands of this frantic impulse, he was not equal to it. His legs seemed numbed, his arms helplessly weak, his mind still dazed. Every effort he made to get to his feet resulted in the same swift stabbing vertigo, the nauseating rebellion of a beaten body unable to respond to the stabbing commands of will.

And then the police prowl cars, sirens still moaning in both of them, swung down the alley in which Mike Gentry lay.

The bobbing fingers of their spotlights caught him in a white, merciless glare an instant later. Mike Gentry, still trying to rise, cursed dully, feverishly, sensing that somehow these police cars were there to trap him.

A car stopped a few yards away, its spotlight still on Gentry. A door slammed, voices sounded.

"Watch him—keep him covered!" Mike Gentry heard one of the voices urge sharply. "It might be an act!"

Then Mike Gentry slipped face forward again in the mire, his consciousness mantled by a half-cloak of pain and exhaustion. He heard footsteps in the mud beside him, heard startled, sharp exclamations.

"He's got a rod!" someone shouted.

Gentry felt an instant of blazing pain as a heavy foot kicked the automatic from his hand, smashing his weary fingers. Then hands were pulling him to his feet, roughly, brutally, and a flashlight beam glared mercilessly in his eyes.

Someone grabbed Gentry by the hair, jerking his rolling head back sharply, the better to reveal his features.

ENTRY closed his eyes against the glare.

"Know him?" a voice snapped.

"Hell no. Never seen him before," another voice answered. "A tough looking hood, If I ever saw one!"

Another voice sounded, then, a few yards away.

"Good God!" the voice shouted in amazement and excitement. "Look who he plugged!"

There was the sound of feet sloshing through the mud swiftly to the side of the last speaker, then quick, equally incredulous exclamations.

The footsteps sloshed back to Gentry.

"Drag him over and let him see the guy he bumped, in case he don't know already!" a voice snarled.

Mike Gentry sensed that the flash beam was taken from his face. He opened his eyes in the rainy darkness. Men on either side of him, holding him with vise-like, aching grips, dragged him several yards through the mud to where a knot of six other men, three uniformed and three plainclothesmen, had gathered around a dark lump that proved to be a body lying in the mud.

The knot opened to admit Gentry and the men who dragged him forcibly up to the strangely inert body lying there in the alley in the rain.

"Turn the body over again," someone said, "and let this killer get a look at the job he done!"

Someone, a uniformed policeman, turned the body over so that the face stared open-eyed in death at them.

"Why'ja kill him, hood?" the plain-clothesman holding Gentry's right arm rasped hoarsely. "Stickup, or planned job?"

Mike Gentry looked down at the body, nausea gripping his vitals until he thought he was going to vomit.

"I—I didn't kill him!" he mumbled, horrified.

Someone slapped Gentry hard across the mouth, bringing agony to his aching skull again.

"The hell you didn't!"

Gentry tried to speak. Tried to find the words that would explain the wild, impossible, sickening irony of the accusation. He tried to speak, but failed.

Someone slapped him again. And again there were stabs of agony lancing through his skull. But the stabs of agony could not erase from Gentry's mind the picture of the murdered man lying there in the alley mud. Nothing could erase that ghastly picture.

The face staring open-eyed in death at them all was his own face—the face of Mike Gentry. It was the real body of Mike Gentry!

And the murder Mike Gentry was being accused of—as madly impossible as it was—was his own murder!

He was slapped across the mouth again. And as he shut his eyes and clamped his jaws against the pain, Mike Gentry heard a voice grating that accusation harshly at him.

"You murdered Mike Gentry, you rat!"

"Come on," growled another voice. "Let's take him back to the station. It's too damned messy in this alley."


CHAPTER XI. — "YOU KILLED MIKE GENTRY!"

THE next hours were a dazed, impossibly agonizing horror for Mike Gentry. From the moment in which they'd hurled him into a prowl car and raced madly back through the streets to the central police station until the time the bucket of water sloshed over him in the cold, bare grilling room, Gentry had lost consciousness. But after that, he was to wish for unconsciousness a thousand times during the hours that followed.

He was propped in an agonizingly uncomfortable chair, and his slightest painful squirm was a signal for a slap across his bloody mouth.

They had held forth a crude piece of iron piping, the end of which was covered with hair and bloodstain.

"This is what he clubbed you with defending himself, isn't it?" a voice demanded.

"No," Gentry mumbled through swollen lips. "No!"

"He saw you coming at him with a rod, and grabbed this to belt you with," the voice went on relentlessly. "Don't lie. We found it in Mike Gentry's dead hand! You shot him just as he belted you on the skull with it!"

"I didn't," Gentry mumbled. "I didn't!"

"It's been analyzed already," the voice persisted harshly. "The bloodstains and hair on the end of it are yours. Don't cause us no more trouble denying it!"

"No!" Gentry mumbled. And again a beefy palm slapped him across the mouth.

"You were knocked silly by the guy you murdered, just as you plugged him. You staggered back, unable even to try to get his dough, and collapsed in the alley with the gun still in your hand. The gun you plugged him with!"

It had continued like that for what seemed to be an eternity to Gentry. The endless questions, the beefy palm smashing across his already swollen and bloody mouth, the aching agony in his skull, the white, hot glare of the light, the cramped torture of that chair, the faces all around him, glaring, hostile, leering.

At last he had been only too glad to sign the paper thrust before him, sign a wavering, sweaty—Joe Brock.

The voices ceased after that, and they took him to a cell where he was able to stretch out on a hard cot. A doctor came in a little later in the middle of Gentry's feverishly exhausted slumber, and woke him by the sharp, stinging torture of medical alcohol cleaning and swabbing the wound in his skull.

They left him to his feverish nightmares, then. Mike Gentry, alias Joe Brock. Mike Gentry, who'd confessed gladly, at last, to having murdered Mike Gentry....

MORNING came, or a cold, soupy gray day, that heralded his equivalent of morning, and with it consciousness returned to Mike Gentry. Though he had slept for less than five hours, Gentry felt strong enough, at least, to rise and slide to the edge of his cot, where he sat with his throbbing head in his hands for a moment.

He realized, then, that it must be almost noon, inasmuch as his grilling had lasted several hours, and since it couldn't have been later than six in the morning when the squad cars had found him there in the alley.

Bitterly, Gentry wondered why they had bothered to allow him even such brief slumber. And then he remembered the confession that he'd signed, and realized that they could afford to give him time to regain some strength and normalcy for the hearings in the afternoon before the State's Attorney's staff and newspapermen.

For Gentry didn't doubt that there would now be such a hearing. He tried to recall, in fact, any occasion of murder followed by a swift confession or apparent guilt which had not been dealt with by the local police in much the same manner he now awaited.

Bitterly, Gentry amused himself by concocting captions and headlines to fit beneath his pictures as they would appear in the afternoon papers.

"Held in Slaying of Self!" That, Gentry thought, should be a corker.

"Gentry Held in Gentry Murder Guilt!" might be another droll picture headline.

And then Gentry thought of the most ironic of all. A picture of himself, in his strange new, or borrowed, body, of course, with the neat little caption quoting Death Number Nine in effect.

"Those who love this man will know him."

That would be ripe irony, Gentry decided, gingerly touching the still swollen bruises on his head and face. And suddenly, bitterly, and without humor, Gentry began to laugh.

It seemed so ridiculous, so damned tragically ridiculous, that it all should have come to such an end. Mike Gentry, wheedling a furlough from the jaws of death, comes back to find three people who love him and even more ironic, bring his own murderer to justice. Net result—the most thorough kicking around from the hands of fellow mortals that he'd ever received in all his life, plus bringing himself to justice for the murder of himself!

Mike Gentry rose and walked stiffly to the window of his cell, staring through the barred grillwork down into the jail-yard and the bleak brown brick wall that fenced it in.

He stood there, staring at nothing but the dismal grayness of the day.

"What a happy and triumphant return," he muttered. "I wonder if Saint Peter is getting his quota of laughs, if he can see me now."

SUDDENLY Gentry heard a rattling of keys behind him. He turned, to see a lockup keeper opening his cell door. The lockup officer had a tin basin, a thin towel, and a small piece of soap in his hands.

"Wash up before grub, Brock!" the keeper snapped. He stepped into the cell, placed the half-filled basin and soap and towel on Gentry's bunk. Then he stepped out, locked the cell door and went away.

Dispiritedly, his body still aching in every muscle, Gentry moved over to his bunk. He jabbed a finger experimentally into the basin. The greasy water was lukewarm.

As Gentry sat down beside the bowl and began to wash apathetically, he wondered bitterly how Frazier and Henchley had made such a complete frame-up on him so quickly.

It was obvious, of course, that it had been Henchley's tactical genius that arrived on the plan of framing an unknown and unwanted hood by the name of Joe Brock with a murder committed but a few hours before.

And it seemed also fairly obvious that Frazier and Henchley had seen to it that Mike Gentry's body was moved from the immediate scene of the killing until such time as they decided what to do about covering the trail.

"I must have been the answer to their prayers," Gentry thought aloud, "walking in on them like that. Hell, I'll bet they were hard at planning how to dispose of my real body right at the time I walked into that office!"

Again Gentry laughed bitterly. "A Heaven-sent fall guy for a bum rap;" he snorted.

Gentry wondered then what Frazier's and Henchley's reactions would have been had they known that the guy they were framing for the murder of Mike Gentry was actually Mike Gentry in another body, come to avenge the wrong done him.

The thought made Mike Gentry wince. It was bad enough just thinking that they were undoubtedly rubbing their hands at the moment in triumph over having carried out a murder and frame-up to perfect completion.

"And now Frazier'll be free to play ball with his brother rodent, Henchley," Gentry mused sickly. "They can turn the upper floors of the Panther Club into a big time and extra crooked gambling joint. It's easy to see now why Frazier was so chummy with Henchley. Hell, the snake probably promised Frazier a take from the games that would almost triple his present income."

And yet, Gentry frowned, there was one thing which was still not perfectly clear. Why had they thought it so necessary to murder him, Mike Gentry, before going through with their plans?

"I would have tried to steer Frazier clear of the idea had I known," Gentry reasoned. "And yet, I couldn't have stopped him from doing as he saw fit with the club. Hell, I turned over my interest in it to him months ago. It isn't reasonable to think that they'd imagine I'd put a direct kibitz on their plans. And yet, what other reason could there have been to make either Frazier or Hinchley, or both, want to get me so permanently out of the picture?"

Mike Gentry's throbbing head was beginning to ache again, and he gave up his speculations for the moment. He finished washing and now searched through his clothing to see if they'd left him any cigarettes or matches. He still had both.

GENTRY rose from his cot, lighting his cigarette as he did so. Then, as he blew out the match, he heard the footsteps coming down the hallway of his cell block.

He stood there listening as the steps drew closer, a frown furrowing his forehead. Gentry was aware that the cell block in which he was imprisoned was otherwise uninhabited, separated from the tiers in which the other prisoners were held.

Those footsteps would have something to do with him. Of that much he was certain. Perhaps they heralded the men from the State's Attorney's office, perhaps newspaper photographers, reporters.

Gentry took a deep draught from his cigarette and stepped over to the door of his cell. He could hear voices, now, as the footsteps came nearer.

"Make it short," someone was saying. "You shouldn't be allowed to see him until the State's Attorney's crowd goes over him, really. My orders are no visitors until then. I'm only doing this as a favor to you-know-who."

Gentry identified the voice, then, as belonging to the lock-up keeper. But the muffled voice that answered was both indistinguishable and brief. Gentry had to content himself with waiting to see who his visitor would be.

Now the steps were much closer. Gentry waited tensely.

The lock-up keeper and his visitor stepped into sight an instant later. Stepped into sight, as Gentry stifled the exclamation that came involuntarily to his lips with his recognition of the visitor.

He was a short, seemingly wiry man, this visitor, and he wore a topcoat that seemed a trifle too large for him. The collar was turned up around his ears, helping—along with a slouch brimmed Fedora pulled low over his eyes—to hide his long, horsey features. His hands were buried deep in the pockets of the topcoat, and his eyes glared balefully at Mike Gentry through the bars.

Mike Gentry's visitor was Joey Orlando, his ex-valet and bodyguard!


CHAPTER XII. — "YOU DIRTY SNAKE!"

THE lock-up keeper was fumbling with his keys while Gentry stared speechlessly at Orlando and the latter's blazing eyes shot stabbing hatred through the bars at him.

Opening the cell door an instant later, the lock-up keeper turned to Joey Orlando.

"Okay, now. Remember what I said. Not long, now. If they found out I let anyone in to see him, for an instant, it'd be my job!"

Joey Orlando nodded and stepped into the cell.

"Run on down the hall," he told the guard over his shoulder. "I'll call you when I get done with my business."

The lock-up keeper nodded worriedly and disappeared.

Then Joey Orlando turned back to Mike Gentry. The horse faced little ex-valet bodyguard's lips went flat in a snarl.

"So you're the dirty snake who rubbed out Mike, eh?" he grated. "You're the lousy so-and-so who killed the greatest guy I ever knew!"

Joey Orlando pulled his right hand from his topcoat pocket, then, in a lightning swift gesture.

He held an automatic pistol in his hand, trained unwaveringly on Gentry's stomach, and his voice dropped to a harsh whisper of frenzied hate.

"The State ain't gonna kill you, Brock. I'm gonna do the job for them. I'm gonna square accounts for Mike Gentry personally, see? If you know any prayers, say 'em fast, skunk!"

It was only then that Gentry found voice.

"Joey," he said softly. "Joey, you crazy damn fool, you. You haven't pulled a trigger since that night in Monte Carlo. Don't you remember what I told you about the odds on plugging a guy? Don't you remember what I always told you? Don't you remember that the smart guy plays the odds?"

Joey Orlando looked up swiftly, his face a mixture of fright, bewilderment and shock. His jaw went agape foolishly. The blazing sheen of hatred in his eyes vanished, and something closer to sanity returned.

"Wha—" Orlando gurgled chokingly.

"Don't you know me, Joey?" Mike Gentry said softly.

Joey Orlando shook his head from side to side idiotically.

"No," he muttered again and again. "No. You can't be. You can't be!"

"But I am, Joey. I am. You know it, Joey. You know I am. You don't have to know why, or even how, Joey. All you have to know is that I am Mike Gentry!"

Joey Orlando's mouth twitched, his eyes still widely incredulous. And then Mike Gentry moved forward, putting his hands on Joey's shoulders gently.

"Get hold of yourself, Joey," Gentry whispered commandingly. "You gotta get hold of yourself, see?"

There were tears in Joey Orlando's eyes, now, and his body trembled as if from a sudden chill. His lips moved, and he found words.

"Mike," he whispered. "Then you weren't—you weren't—" he broke off.

"I'm still alive, Joey," Gentry said. "And this is the way I look. That's all you have to be sure of."

"Gimme a minute, jest a minute, to, to—" Joey whispered hoarsely, dazedly.

"Sure, Joey," Mike Gentry said soothingly. "Take all the time you want."

Joey Orlando slumped down on the cot, looked up at Gentry, shook his head shudderingly, and buried his face in his hands. Mike Gentry stood there looking down on his faithful little valet-bodyguard with eyes that shone mistily. Joey had known him. Joey had known him. Good little Joey Orlando hadn't failed as the rest had ...

IT TOOK a little while before Mike Gentry was able to talk to Joey Orlando with any hope of a coherent discussion. And even then, as Gentry sought from the little valet-bodyguard the information he wanted, Joey would pause from time to time to fix Gentry with a gaping stare of numbed bewilderment.

"Who fixed it so you could get in here to kill me, Joey?" Mike Gentry demanded.

"Frazier," Orlando mumbled. "He had a pull with some big shots."

"Did he know that you intended to kill me, or, rather, kill the man you thought killed me?" Gentry asked.

Joey Orlando nodded dully. "Yeah, yeah, Mike. He told me to go to it, and more power to me. He said no jury would ever execute me for avenging the life of the guy who meant everything in the world to me. But I didn't even care so much about that. About what happened to me after I did it, I mean. I just wanted to rub out Mike Gentry's murderer. That's all that mattered to me."

Gentry's mouth went tight in wrath at this.

"So Frazier told you that, eh? Frazier told you no jury would hang you for it. He was right. But he didn't mention any jury would be forced to send you up for life for such a killing—the skunk!"

Joey Orlando looked up uncomprehendingly.

"But why would Frazier wanta get me into such a mess, Mike?"

Mike Gentry tossed his cigarette on the floor and ground it out savagely.

"Because Frazier and his pal Henchley were the ones who rubbed me out, or paid to have me rubbed out. That's why!"

Joey Orlando's expression on hearing this was stunned outrage.

"You know that, boss?"

Mike Gentry nodded emphatically. "And knowing that they'd rubbed me out and covered their own slimy trail by framing a guy they thought to be a dumb trigger man, they hit on the idea of putting you out of the way by fixing things so's you could kill the dumb fall guy in his cell, surrounded by cops. Naturally, they didn't know that the dumb fall guy and Mike Gentry were both the same."

Gentry's last words brought the frightened bewilderment back to his little valet-bodyguard's eyes. Seeing this, Gentry added: "But don't worry about that angle, Joey. Don't worry what happened to me, or how it is I'm not in the old Mike Gentry's hide any more. Just think like bodies are only clothes, kind of. Just think like I got my good suit ruined and had to change to the one you see me wearing now, see?"

Joey Orlando nodded uncertainly but obediently, and suddenly, to Gentry's surprise, spoke.

"And I'll think that Frazier and Henchley were the ones who ruined your good suit, eh boss? I'll think like they were the cause of you having to borrow this not-so-good suit, huh?"

Mike Gentry grinned suddenly. Joey was coming back slowly but surely to his normal self.

"That's right, Joey," Gentry said. Then his lips went tight in anger once more. "Anyone else know Frazier fixed it to get you into this place to kill the guy you thought to be Joe Brock?"

Joey Orlando looked up in sudden remembrance.

"MARGO," he said. "Margo Drusane. She's waiting outside in a car right now, in case I was able to get away after bumping off the guy I thought killed you."

"How did she find out what you planned to do?" Gentry asked in surprise.

"Frazier told her, I guess," Joey said. "She came to me, then, and offered to help. She was all broke up about you, of course, when she read it in the newspapers. She said she'd drive a getaway car on the chance that I was able to lam the jail after the shooting."

Mike Gentry cursed. "The poor damned fool kid," he said. "That skunk Frazier tipped her off deliberately, knowing she'd get into trouble too!"

Joey Orlando looked thoughtful.

"I never liked Frazier, boss," he muttered, "and now I'm beginning to have reasons."

"That makes two of us," Gentry said. "But now that I've got some idea of what's in the wind, I think I'd better get going while the chance to get going still holds. That guard'll be coming back in a few minutes, Joey. Give me your rod."

Joey Orlando looked bewildered again. But he handed the automatic to Gentry unhesitatingly.

"Whatcha gonna do about the outside guards, boss?" Joey demanded. "There's two of 'em I had to pass."

"Take off your hat and coat, Joey," Gentry said.

The little valet-bodyguard did as he was told. Gentry donned the togs which, fortunately enough, had been oversized on Orlando.

"I overpowered you, Joey. Take off your tie, while I knot your wrists with it," Gentry said. "Better take off your belt, too, and I can use that to tie your feet. We'll use a shoestring and a handkerchief as the gag."

"I wish I could go along with you, Mike," Joey Orlando said as Gentry swiftly trussed him. "I wish to hell I could be of some help."

"Joey Orlando," Mike Gentry declared almost buoyantly, "you'll never know how damned much you've helped me today. And no matter what happens, remember that I'll never forget it, no matter what happens to me."

"You ain't gonna plug the lock-up keeper, Mike?" Joey asked.

Gentry shook his head. "No. I'll just bounce this off his bean." He gestured with the gun barrel. "These people around here got a few broken skulls coming to them," he said wryly. "Don't you worry about getting messed up in the stink over my break, Joey. Just stick to your story. They can't touch you for it. The guards Frazier fixed to get you in here will take a rap, but if they're friends of Frazier's, it'll be a pleasure seeing them get fired."

"Good luck, Mike," Joey said fervently.

"Stick to your story, Joey. But don't tell anyone the truth. I mean about me."

Joey Orlando grinned for the first time.

"You want me to put myself in line for the booby hatch, Mike? You think I'd be that loudmouthed?"

Mike Gentry smiled. "I never thought of that, so help me, Joey," he said. Then he asked: "Where is Margo parked in that car?"

Joey Orlando told him.

Gentry nodded. "I'll have to use the car she's driving to get out of range of any quick chase. I'll clear her of any implication in the getaway by making her step out as soon as we get a few blocks away."

Gentry wore the topcoat and felt Fedora now, collar pulled up and hat brim down, as Orlando had worn both garments when entering. He held a handkerchief and a shoestring in his hand, with which he began to arrange a makeshift gag on his valet- bodyguard.

The gag in place, Gentry stepped back, appraising his work. He nodded grimly, satisfied.

"So long, Joey Orlando," Gentry whispered. "I'll see you again, sometime, somewhere. And until then, play the odds, pal." He waved briefly, stepped to the cell door and leaned out just far enough so that his hat could be seen.

"Hey, lock-up keeper," he called in a fair imitation of Joey Orlando's voice. "Come on. I'm all done talking to this jerk."

Mike Gentry heard the guard's steps starting briskly down the cell block hall. He took a firm grip on the automatic in his hand, and waited patiently ...


CHAPTER XIII. — "HELLO, BABY!"

MARGO DRUSANE sat behind the wheel of a low- slung convertible roadster, parked directly across from the side street entrance to the jail. The motor was idling, Gentry noted, as he stepped casually past the uniformed guards inside the entrance.

The guards looked up at Gentry, noted the pulled brim hat and the elevated collar, nodded, and looked away again. Evidently they were not too anxious to notice the illicit visitor. They had jobs to protect, too.

Gentry speculated briefly on how much their jobs would be worth when the news of his break came to light, and kept his pace a casual stroll as he crossed the street toward the convertible.

The sight of her sent Gentry's heart into a quicker beat than the danger of his jailbreak had produced. Margo—doing this damned fool thing along with loyal Joey Orlando. Margo, who was another one to whom the real Mike Gentry could declare himself with every certainty of her believing and accepting the situation.

She turned as Mike's footsteps sounded near the car, peering out the window. She was smoking a cigarette, and squinted through the smoke and the moisture on the window pane.

Mike Gentry moved around to the other side of the car and opened the door. There would be no time here to make his identity known to Margo, Gentry realized. And for that reason he held the automatic in his hand, trained on the girl, as he slid into the seat beside her.

"Okay," Gentry said harshly. "Step on it, baby. Follow the directions I give you, and make time!"

Margo's eyes were wide in horror at the sight of the gun and the appearance of this stranger.

Her lovely red lips opened in an exclamation of dismay which Gentry cut off with another curt order.

"Come on. I'm not fooling around, baby. Drive, and fast!"

Margo spoke at last, her voice choked in fright.

"Where?" she asked.

"Straight ahead until I give you another direction," Gentry replied.

The girl threw the car into gear and they roared off.

GENTRY bade her turn some four blocks later, and they drove along a wide boulevard in the direction of the city's suburbs for another ten minutes before either spoke. Then Margo broke the silence.

"Did you kill Orlando, or what?" she asked huskily, voice trembling.

Mike Gentry frowned. How would she know him to be the man little Joey Orlando had decided to kill? And then he realized, Joey's hat and coat were the answer. She recognized them, and had drawn her own conclusions.

"No," Gentry said almost gently. "I didn't kill Joey. He's tied up on the cot in the cell where they had me. He wasn't even hurt, baby."

Margo drove on, wordlessly, and Gentry, gun still in his hand and pointed at the girl, turned his attention back to the road ahead. They were getting out into wider boulevard stretches which foretold the end of the city line and the start of county highways.

Then Gentry instructed Margo to turn again, and they entered a narrow, deserted little side-street in a never-exploited realty subdivision. The tall trees on either side of the street, the thick, high grass growing in the vacant lots meant to hold buildings at one time, provided a perfect temporary shelter from observation by any cars moving along the boulevard they had just turned off.

"Stop the car, baby," Gentry ordered.

Silently, Margo did as ordered.

"Now give me the keys," Gentry instructed.

Again the frightened girl obeyed. Mike Gentry dropped them into his pocket. He grinned at the girl suddenly.

"Hello, baby," he said, "don't you remember me?"

Margo's expression grew even more frightened.

"What are you going to do to me, Brock?" she asked tremulously. "I didn't have anything to do with your frame-up. I swear to God, Brock that I didn't!"

"Baby, I'm not a guy named Brock. I'm Mi—" Gentry began, and then his expression changed swiftly, and his jaw went grim. "Say that again, baby. Say what you just said once more!"

The girl shrank back from him in sick terror.

"I said I didn't have anything to do with your frame-up, Brock. I saw them drag you out of the Panther Club, and I knew they were going to tie you in with Gentry's murder, somehow, to clear themselves. But they're the ones who planned the whole thing, honestly. Believe me, they did!"

Sickly, Mike Gentry stared at the girl who'd been his but brief hours before. Numbly, he realized the staggering significance of her words. But he forced himself to bring it to a climax with his next question.

"How about Orlando?" he demanded. "He didn't seem to know I was framed for Gentry's killing. He tried to plug me."

Still ashen in her terror, Margo babbled quickly in answer.

"He didn't know," she said. "The little sap was sent, primed up by Frazier, to kill you. He thought you'd killed Gentry and wanted personal revenge. He didn't know that Frazier and Henchley had put Gentry out of the way and framed it on you. Honest, Brock. That's all I know. I've told you the truth. I'll get money for you. Enough to get out of town, to get away. I promise. I swear. Please don't kill me! Please don't look at me like that!"

She began to sob hysterically.

MIKE GENTRY stared at the girl in sick loathing. This, then, was the explanation for her having left with Frazier and Henchley on the night that those two had him murdered!

Gentry said sharply, "Stop blubbering and look at me!"

Margo turned an hysterical, tear smeared face toward him. Her mascara, rouge, lipstick and powder were streaked into a mess that did little to enhance her appearance.

"Ever seen me before?" Gentry demanded.

The terrified girl shook her head wildly.

"Not until last night, when they took you from the Panther Club to frame you on—"

"Other than then," Gentry cut in.

"No. No, so help me. I never have!" Margo moaned.

Mike Gentry's expression was contemptuous. "A little guy named Joey Orlando remembered seeing me before," he grated. "But that was only because of one thing. The crazy, loyal little squirt had loved a guy named Mike Gentry. I guess you never did, at any time, even though Gentry was damned fool enough to think so."

The girl had buried her cosmetic smeared features in her hands again and was sobbing once more in terror. She didn't seem to hear. Gentry prodded the automatic into her side.

"Get out from behind that wheel, baby," he said harshly. "You got a long walk home!"

The girl continued to sob wildly, unheeding.

Mike Gentry leaned past her and pushed down on the door handle on her side. The door swung open.

Deliberately, Gentry placed the automatic back in his pocket. Then he placed one hand on the girl's shoulder, the other against her side.

Gentry shoved the girl completely out of the seat and car and onto the street. He reached into his pocket, found the ignition key, and started the convertible.

In the rear vision mirror as he drove off, Gentry could see the bedraggled, hysterical girl picking herself up dazedly from the pavement.

He laughed briefly, harshly.

Mike Gentry looked at the clock on the dashboard as he turned the nose of the convertible back onto the boulevard in the same direction in which he and the girl had originally been travelling.

It was fifteen minutes to two o'clock. Less than two hours had elapsed since he'd opened his eyes in that cell, beaten, embittered and ready to throw in the sponge.

And now, thanks to Joey Orlando and the information from a blonde he'd once intended to marry, Mike Gentry had a fighting chance to clean up the business that had brought him this strange, mad furlough from Eternity.

A fighting chance to deal from the same deck and in the same way in which his murderers had second-dealt him. A fighting chance that would hold until five o'clock tomorrow morning at the outside. For at five o'clock, his forty-eight hour furlough was over.

Gentry wondered briefly what would follow that. And then he pushed the thought from his mind. Let it follow in order. It was a cinch that it would do so, inexorably. The only thing that mattered to Gentry was the settlement with Frazier and Henchley before he went back to Death.

And that was the immediate problem to which he had to find a lot of angles, especially with the time running out as swiftly as it was.

Gentry turned his mind to his first consideration. Should he try to get Henchley and Frazier as quickly as possible? In broad daylight, now, if he got the chance? There would be greater risks in that, especially since a dragnet was undoubtedly underway at that very moment by a band of highly indignant police in search of one escaped murderer named Joe Brock, otherwise, and previously, known as Mike Gentry.

Gentry frowned and began to weigh every factor, every angle, with the infinitely painstaking computation of odds that had made him the cool, unerring, calculating gambler he'd once been.


CHAPTER XIV. — "WHILE THE SANDS RUN."

AFTER Mike Gentry had parked the much too conspicuous convertible down in the warehouse district along the railroad terminals, located in the first outlying suburb, he secreted himself aboard a convenient freight train—eventually destinated for San Francisco—and permitted it to carry him approximately a hundred miles away from the city in which he was sought.

At a watering spot, Gentry climbed off the freight train and took to the countryside. He walked for several hours, keeping clear of the highways and—except when he was forced to cross them—infrequent side-roads.

An hour later, as darkness began to settle on the countryside, Gentry stumbled onto a deserted farmhouse conveniently clear of any decent roadway approaches.

Half an hour later, stretched out on a makeshift bed of straw with his rolled coat as a pillow for his head, Mike Gentry was sound asleep in the musty, dust-thick parlor of the old farmhouse.

He had taken into his careful calculations, of course, the urgent necessity for rest, and his slumber marked the successful conclusion of the first leg of his scheme ...

WHEN Gentry woke, some three hours later, it was to the chirping serenade of crickets and the croaking of bullfrogs in a nearby swamp.

The gray drizzle of rain which had persisted throughout the day was over, and the night sky was clear, cloudless, and gemmed with a million stars.

Methodically, Gentry went about preparing his departure, and when he at last shrugged into the topcoat he'd taken that morning from Joey Orlando, he took from its right hand pocket the automatic pistol he'd carried since that time.

Carefully, Gentry checked the magazine clip, found the weapon fully loaded, and inspected the mechanism to make certain the gun was perfectly in order. Then, grimly satisfied, he put it back in his pocket and stepped out into the night.

Gentry walked for twenty minutes until he neared the big state highway, and it was another ten minutes before he came to the roadside restaurant and gas station where the big trailer trucks were lined.

Even then, Gentry didn't emerge from the roadside underbrush until he saw one of the truck drivers step out of the restaurant and head for the cab of his huge trailer truck.

While the driver was warming the motor, Gentry slipped unobtrusively across the highway, moved in between the big trucks until he was beside the readying vehicle, and ducked down underneath it.

When the truck pulled out, one minute later, and headed toward the city Gentry had fled that afternoon, he was firmly, though quite uncomfortably barnacled beneath it.

Even though the big trailer was making excellent speed, Gentry was grateful for the fact that the roadways they covered were all smooth, well-paved highways. Anything else would have made his precariously clinging journey too uncomfortable for a human being to bear.

For the first hour, and the first sixty-odd miles, the big truck roared city ward without interruption. But as they drew nearer to the metropolis they hit the first of an inevitable series of stop lights which would grow more frequent from then on.

It was at the third of these stops that Gentry overheard the vocal indications of the police dragnet, which was seeking him, in action. State troopers of the highway patrol had formed a blockade at that intersection. They were examining trucks, questioning the occupants of automobiles, and in general serving as a sieve through which it would be impossible for the hunted murderer and jail-breaker to pass.

As Gentry had foreseen, vehicles of any kind, truck or passenger car or bus, headed toward the city were neither stopped nor searched, nor were their occupants questioned.

It would be utterly ridiculous to suppose that the fugitive would be heading right back into a city he'd escaped.

Or so, at any rate, the police had figured. Exactly as Mike Gentry had decided they would figure.

HALF an hour later, the trailer truck carrying Gentry passed into the city limits. And ten minutes after that, on the east side of town, Gentry scrambled out from under his unwitting carrier.

Brushing as much of the dust as he could from his clothes, Gentry transferred the automatic to a makeshift holster position in his belt beneath his suitcoat. Then, walking through an alley, Gentry rid himself of the topcoat by stuffing it into a garbage pail.

When he emerged from the alley, Gentry walked several more blocks until he came to a small residential-business street. The clock in the window of a drugstore told him that it was shortly after midnight.

Gentry was grimy, unshaven. His clothes resembled those used by a manual worker on a dirty job who determinedly wears a once "good" suit to get the last stitch of service from it.

At a refuse box in the middle of the next block, Gentry found enough old newspapers to lump into a fair sized ball. These he wrapped somewhat neatly with a not too soiled newspaper. He tied the package neatly with a piece of string found in the same refuse.

Now, equipped with his package under his arm, the nonchalantly strolling Gentry looked very much like a night-shift worker going to or coming from a tough job in some factory.

At the first streetcar line he came to, Gentry waited patiently for a trolley heading uptown.

When he boarded it he paid his fare to the conductor, took a transfer which he didn't intend to use, and walked back to a seat in the center of the car.

The trolley was rather crowded, carrying at least a dozen men who looked like older or younger brothers in toil of Gentry. They wore similar clothes, carried similar packages, seemed just as tired and as grimy.

Gentry had counted rather shrewdly that the police combing the city on the chance that he had not as yet escaped would hardly think to look for a fugitive murderer snoring serenely in the middle seat of a crowded streetcar, package in one hand, transfer in the other.

And so Gentry proceeded loudly to go to "sleep," making himself as comfortable as he could in the hard seat, throwing his head back, closing his eyes, and snoring.

No one paid the slightest attention to him after the first mild snores.

At midtown, just two blocks from the heart of the night club belt, Mike Gentry came "awake" with a start, dashed to the rear platform of the car, and pushed his way off through a stream of passengers getting on.

He joined the pedestrian stream, once he reached the sidewalk, threw away his transfer and, still clutching his "package," moved along like a man fearing arrival at his job too early.

Two blocks from the Panther Club, and half a block from the brightly lighted night club sector in which it was located, Gentry turned down another alley.

Now all pretense of leisure in his pace was gone. He tossed his dummy "package" away, and hurried on through the darkness. There was a rear entrance—through the kitchen—to the night club, and Gentry had decided long before that it would be his safest bet. His chances of slipping past the cooks, waiters and dishwashers who would be busily at work there, would be more than even, especially since Gentry was thoroughly familiar with each corridor, room, and closet of the place.

There was the chance, of course, that Frazier and Henchley, realizing that the man they'd framed had broken jail, would have torpedoes guarding the place. Certainly Frazier and Henchley would know by now—through the hysterical story of Margo Drusane—that the man they thought to be Joe Brock was thoroughly aware that they were the pair who framed him.

Still, Gentry smiled grimly to himself, they couldn't seek police protection. They couldn't because of the very simple fact that to do so would tip off their connection with the entire mess. Henchley and Frazier, Gentry felt fairly sure, would have ways in which to keep informed of the search for the fugitive Joe Brock. There was no doubt of that. But such information—thanks to Gentry's careful planning—would point only to the fact that Joe Brock had fled the city and was by now headed west.

MOMENTS later, Gentry arrived in the alley at the rear of the Panther Club. Aside from the parked cars of the employees, the open lot just off the alley behind the club was deserted.

Gentry smiled grimly in satisfaction at this. If Frazier and Henchley had hired thugs to guard the place they would most certainly be stationed out here as well as inside the club and out front. It seemed obvious, then, that they thought Joe Brock had fled the city while the chance was good.

Moving past the parked cars, Gentry slipped quietly up to the big windows of the club's kitchen. Standing aside, back against the wall, he peered inside.

The kitchen was bustling with activity. Waiters and busboys moved quickly in and out, cooks shouted orders, food checkers registered checks and drink counts.

Gentry stepped away from the window, satisfied that they would all be far too busy to notice anything that went on outside their kitchen in the next few minutes.

Above him was a fire escape, running down from the third floor to the second, where it ended in a pulley operated ladder that swung down to the ground when weight was put on it from above.

Gentry moved over to the iron grillwork which covered a darkened pantry window adjoining the kitchen. Here he grabbed the grill, pulling himself up to the window ledge. Then, using the grill as a ladder, he found footholds that enabled him to work his way precariously to the top of the window. From this point, leaning out while holding to the grill with one hand, Gentry was able to secure a grasp on the fire escape's ground ladder. He swung free, then, letting his weight carry the ladder down with him.

The apparatus clanked noisily, and as his feet touched the ground, both hands now grasping the ladder, Gentry held his breath and waited. Inside the kitchen they were all apparently too busy to have noticed anything.

Breathing again, Gentry pulled the ladder slowly down until it rested on the ground. Then he ascended it with nimble stealth. Once on the second floor of the fire escape platform, Gentry hauled the ladder back up again. Then he turned his attention to the door directly behind him. The door he knew would lead him into the second floor lounge of the club.

It was locked.

Gentry stood there an instant, cursing silently. And then he heard the muted strains of the dance band flooding up from the dining room below. Directly below, of course, was the kitchen. And now, by pressing his ear to the door, Gentry was able to hear above the sounds of the band, the noise from the kitchen.

For another minute, Gentry continued to listen. There seemed to be no sounds coming from immediately beyond that door. But he waited another minute to be certain.

It was a chance he had to take.

Carefully, Gentry pulled forth his automatic. Just as carefully, he removed his coat, wrapping it around the gun which he held in his right hand.

Then Gentry placed the nose of the gun directly against the lock of the door. He waited, listening. The orchestra was coming to the close of its number. At the precise instant that the band crescendo signalled the end of the music, Gentry fired.

THE sound was louder than Gentry had figured, even though much of it was muffled by the coat he'd wrapped around the gun. But the lock on the door was shattered.

Gentry stood there breathlessly. The smoking gun still in his hand, the coat still wrapped around it. Had he timed it perfectly? Would the crescendo from the orchestra have drowned the noise? Could it have been heard in the almost deafening clatter of the kitchen?

Evidently not. At least, after another minute of waiting, there seemed to be no reaction to the sound of the shot. Gentry slipped into his coat again, and with his automatic still in hand, he pushed open the fire escape door and stepped into the second floor lounge of the Panther Club....


CHAPTER XV. — "REMEMBER ME?"

THE ten seconds in which Mike Gentry stood inside the second floor lounge, blinking in the half-light of its luxurious surroundings, seemed that many hours to him.

He had closed the door swiftly behind him as he'd entered, so that not even a chance draught should send warning of his entrance. And now, as his eyes adjusted to this new lighting, they swept quickly across the room.

The lounge was deserted, but Gentry heard the sound of voices and laughter coming up the winding plush staircase that led to it. He realized then that some of the dancers leaving the floor were moving upstairs before returning to their tables.

There was the door that Gentry sought at the other end of the lounge. The door he knew opened into a hallway that would lead him to the front of the club. But the stairway entrance was between him and that door, and the voices were growing louder, nearer.

Gentry was thankful for the thick plush carpeting of the lounge as he sprinted across it for the door. And his shoulder hit it, swinging it inward, just as the first of the dinner guests entered the lounge. Gentry had the door closed behind him and was moving down the hallway just in time.

Now he moved cautiously, though quickly, toward the front of the club. Everything was familiar to him, but there was still the chance that he might run into a waiter, porter, or curious guest. He still held his automatic in his hand, ready for that emergency should it arise.

Twice Gentry halted at a sound in the hallway. But each time it proved to be a false alarm. And in another minute he reached the door at the end which led downstairs to the first floor of the club.

FRAZIER'S office was at the bottom of those stairs, just two doors away. Gentry took a deep breath, and started down them. They were winding, with a sharp turn after the first flight of ten steps. Gentry paused before this turn and listened.

The main door to Frazier's office would be locked, Gentry knew if either Frazier or Henchley was there. The automatic lock system opened only by a press-button from the inside.

But the offices were large, consisting of at least five rooms. They were, in fact, an office-apartment which Frazier could use to bathe, change clothes or sleep in if he desired. There were several other doors not as elaborately locked, Gentry knew which would be more easily accessible. One of them lay directly off the stairs.

Satisfied that there was no apparent indication of movement down there, Gentry continued cautiously down the steps.

Now he could see the smooth paneling of the door he sought—the door which should open into the bathroom of Frazier's office suite. Quickly, Gentry stepped down into the hall. A quick glance revealed that it was deserted at the moment.

Gentry stepped swiftly to the door, paused an instant, and listened. There was the sound of water running, splashing, and movement from inside.

He hesitated only an instant before putting his swiftly born gamble into effect.

Then Gentry rapped lightly on the door.

The sound of the splashing and movement halted abruptly. The noise of the running water continued. Again Gentry rapped lightly on the door.

He heard footsteps move toward it. Then a voice muffled and indistinguishable, muttered angrily.

Again Gentry rapped.

Now the voice from inside demanded angrily, "Who in the hell is out there?"

Gentry picked a waiter's name at random.

"Angelo. It's Angelo. I got something I gotta tell you. Something important, boss. The cook, he—"

There was an explosive curse from the other side of the door, and Gentry heard the lock swiftly turned. A voice snarled irately as the door opened.

"You blithering, brazen jackass! What in the hell do you mean by daring to bother me! You know employees aren't allowed within a hundred feet of this hallway at any time! Who let you through to—"

The door was fully open then, revealing a highly incensed Curtis Frazier. Frazier in shirtsleeves and obviously in the process of getting out of his clothes.

Mike Gentry spoke as he swung the gun barrel hard against the side of Curtis Frazier's mouth.

"Hello, skunk!" he grunted. "Remember me?"

The sound of teeth smashing was brief, sickening. Frazier toppled over backwards to the tile floor, his mouth a rapidly widening blotch of red.

MIKE GENTRY stepped into the bathroom and locked the door quickly behind him. Then he turned back to Frazier, groaning agonizingly on the floor, his hands to his smashed mouth.

Gentry wiped off the gun barrel on his sleeve.

"One too-loud peep out of you and it'll be the last," he said. "Get up!"

Frazier continued to whimper, his hands still over his bloody mouth.

Gentry stepped over to him, leaned down and grabbed him by the collar. He yanked him halfway to his feet, holding the gun barrel back in a threatening gesture.

"Get up!" he repeated. "Or I'll cave in the other side of your bridgework!"

Frazier managed to rise the rest of the way, clutching to the side of the washbowl for support. He swayed there weakly, gazing at Gentry from terror-crazed eyes.

"Where's Henchley?" Gentry demanded.

Through swollen, blood-smeared lips, Frazier started to reply. He choked, then, spitting out blood and three pieces of teeth. Mike Gentry pushed the gun into his ribs.

"Move along ahead of me," he ordered. "We're going to look around this dump a minute."

Frazier released his grasp on the washbowl, changing it for hand support along the wall as he turned to do Gentry's bidding. His hands left red prints on the white wall surface.

He stepped ahead of Gentry and moved weakly toward the bathroom door which opened into a bedroom. Gentry was behind him, automatic pressed in Frazier's back.

It was then that Gentry saw the girl.

She was bound, gagged, and stretched across the bed. Her originally skimpy costume was torn, disordered. Her blue eyes were wild with fear, and her red hair tangled and disarranged.

She was the cigarette girl, Gloria Allen.

Gentry jabbed the gun hard into Frazier's back in his stunned surprise.

"Hold it!" he grated. "Not a move out of you!"

Then he stepped quickly around Frazier and over to the bed. As swiftly as he could, keeping one eye on Frazier, Gentry freed the girl from the harsh ropes which had bitten deep into her soft flesh. Then he removed the gag from her mouth.

She was staring at him dazedly, frightened. But there was something else in her eyes, something more than the terror and bewilderment.

"Stand up, kid," Gentry ordered. "Move around as much as you can. Get as much circulation back as possible. I don't know how you fit into this. But you've got to get out of here in a hurry."

The girl tried to rise to her feet, and only after two efforts did she succeed. She was still staring at Gentry, open-mouthed, uncomprehending.

"You—you're the one they framed for Gentry's murder," she choked, whispering. "But—but, you're someone else, too. I mean—" She faltered, put her hands to her face, started to sway forward.

Gentry put an arm around her shoulder.

"Get yourself together," he said. "You've got to get out of here kid. You've got to get out of here in a hurry, see? There's going to be more blood around here, and a couple of bodies, understand? You've got to leave."

THE girl stared bewilderedly at Gentry, like someone in a trance. Her words were a harsh, choked whisper.

"Bodies," she shuddered convulsively. "I saw two of them. One was Mike Gentry's. They brought his body here. The other was yours, after they almost killed you here and took you out to place you beside Gentry's body. I saw them here, and heard them. And they... found ... out ... I ... heard." She paused, a shudder coursing through her soft body once more. Then, eyes bewilderedly fixed on Gentry's face, she murmured. "You're the one they framed. But you're someone else, too. You're—you're.... Mike Gentry!"

Mike Gentry stared in amazement at the girl, opened his mouth to speak, and then she collapsed in his arms in a dead faint.

Cursing, Gentry moved to place the girl back on the bed. He was just doing so when he heard the voice that was not Frazier's.

"All right, Brock," the voice barked, "just hold that pose, and spread your hands wide—without your rod!"

Gentry knew' that voice instantly. It belonged to Luke Henchley, and it came from the bedroom door.

"Spread those hands!" Henchley's voice repeated again.

Sick, cold despair closed its tight fist over Mike Gentry's heart. He dropped his gun and slowly extended his hands, palms out....


CHAPTER XVI. — "YOU REMIND ME OF A GUY!"

MIKE GENTRY heard Henchley's footsteps moving further into the room, and then the other's voice, saying:

"Okay. Now turn around. Slowly."

Gentry did as he was told, wheeling slowly to face the tall, thin, sour-faced gambler with the gun.

Frazier, far too sick to show any emotions of relief or triumph at the entrance of his henchman, leaned against a dresser, head low, vomiting on the floor.

"Move forward very slowly," Henchley told Gentry. "And keep your hands high and wide."

As Gentry started forward, Frazier, between the two but a little to one side, looked up long enough to glare redly at him.

"I made a mistake in knocking your teeth out," Gentry said harshly. "I should have knocked your damned brains out. They'd look a lot prettier on the floor."

Frazier gurgled something that was meant to be a curse, released his hold on the dresser and stumbled, blind with rage, at Gentry.

"Look out, you fool!" Henchley shouted wrathfully.

But Gentry had taken the swift opportunity for all it was worth. He leaped for Frazier, just as the night club owner came between Gentry and Henchley. Leaped for Frazier in a flying tackle that caught the other hard just above the knees and sent him crashing back into the pistol hand of Henchley.

Henchley's automatic roared deafeningly through the room.

Frazier screamed hoarsely as the bullet from Henchley's gun tore into his back.

And then Gentry, Frazier and Henchley were all on the floor in a tangle of arms and legs. Gentry released his grasp from the badly wounded Frazier, hurled the other's body against Henchley, and reached out desperately for the gambler's gun hand.

Gentry hung on to Henchley's wrist doggedly as the tall, surprisingly strong gambler struggled to break free. They rolled over and across Frazier's body until Henchley was suddenly atop Gentry and smashing a big bony fist again and again into Gentry's mouth in an effort to make him release his grasp on the gun hand.

Mike Gentry turned his face from that agonizing barrage of blows, bringing his knee up to his chest as far as he could. Then he pushed back in a snapping kick that caught Henchley in the chest, then the groin.

The big gambler cursed in agony and fell back, releasing his hold on the automatic.

Mike Gentry rolled to one side and scrambled for the gun. He had it in his hand and was climbing to his feet when Henchley came after him again.

The tall gambler-killer had seized a bottle of shaving cologne from the dresser, broken it off short to a jagged stem, and was driving in wildly toward Gentry's face with it. His eyes were mad with rage and hatred.

Gentry triggered the automatic.

The gun clicked futilely!

And then Henchley was swinging his right fist hard into Gentry's face. A right fist which held the jagged, broken bottle neck.

Desperately, Gentry hurled himself to one side, away from the path of the killer, throwing the useless gun full into Henchley's face an instant before he did so.

AS GENTRY hit the floor he heard a curse of pain from Henchley, and then he rolled over and climbed to his feet to see the tall killer swaying there in the center of the room with both hands to his eyes. Henchley's forehead had been split wide by the gun barrel as the automatic smashed into his face. And now the wound gushed crimson blindness into Henchley's eyes.

Gentry stepped in swiftly and smashed a looping right hand into Henchley's jaw.

The gambler dropped to his knees, his hands no longer over his blinded eyes, but instead, groping wildly over the floor in search for the gun. He was sobbing and cursing madly.

Gentry grabbed him by the collar and hurled him to the floor, and as he did so, Henchley clawed desperately at his legs, trying to drag him down with him.

It was only now that Gentry became aware of the pounding on the doors outside the suite. How long it had been going on, he couldn't tell. But it couldn't have been for more than seconds. For in the next instant there was a thundering series of blows on the doors, and he heard the sound of splintering wood.

Gentry stepped back from Henchley's clawing hands, suddenly weak. He heard footsteps and voices storming in through Frazier's office, and knew that in a moment he'd be found here.

Gentry looked at Frazier lying beside the dresser. Henchley's accidental bullet had torn a hole the size of a silver dollar in the once dapper night club owner's chest. Frazier's eyes were open, but they were glazed, sightless. He was dying.

And then they were in the room. Police, in their blue uniforms, brandishing guns and shouting excitedly as they burst through the door. There was someone leading them who wasn't uniformed, who wore plainclothes, but who was a copper Gentry had known more than well in the other days. It was old Pat Flavin. His red face redder than ever before, and his white hair beneath his black Fedora a shining halo.

Mike Gentry held his hands aloft.

"Okay," he told them wearily. "I'm Joe Brock. I've just evened up a score."

It was Pat Flavin who snapped the manacles on Gentry's wrists....

MIKE GENTRY scarcely heard the words spoken to him in the small front room at Central Station. He sat there in the chair near the window while the three detectives pounded endlessly away with their questioning.

It was funny. It was very very funny. They thought they were going to scorch him. They thought that it was going to be like that.

But Gentry could see through the dirty pane of the window beside him, and he could see as far as across the street where a man stood just out of the glare of a street lamp looking over at the station.

The man was of medium stature. And he wore a black raincoat and a black Fedora, and you couldn't see his face. Gentry knew him, even though he had never seen his face.

That man over there, that watcher, was—of course—Death Number Nine.

The furlough from eternity was almost at an end.

With every ticking second of the big clock on the wall directly across from Gentry, it drew closer to an end. And the cops continued to pound him with questions. Questions which Gentry continued to ignore.

It's almost over, Gentry thought bitterly. It's almost at an end. Frazier's dead. That score is evened. I didn't get Henchley. No one will get Henchley, now. He was smarter, I guess. Three people who loved me. That was a laugh. Really funny. Little Joey Orlando, that's all. Good little guy. Wonder what Margo will think when she finds out her pal Frazier is dead. Probably break her heart, if she has one.

The cops were still asking questions. Gentry answered yes or no as it pleased him. He didn't know to what he was answering yes or to what he was saying no. They were getting hotter and hotter.

It was then that Pat Flavin pushed his head into the room. He gave Mike Gentry a curious glance, then barked an order to the detectives. One of them stayed in the room, and the other two went out into the hall at Flavin's order.

The clock kept on ticking.

Across the street the shadowed figure of Death Number Nine waited patiently.

How long had it been since the ride in the prowl car from the Panther Club to the station? Gentry couldn't guess. A long time, when you counted it the way he was counting it now. Or maybe a short time.

Mike Gentry looked at the clock on the wall, then down to the detective. The detective just sat there staring at him, face expressionless.

The clock continued to tick.

Eternity drew closer.

MIKE GENTRY felt terribly tired, bitterly, sickly tired. And then the door opened again and Pat Flavin came into the room. He left the door ajar, nodding to the detective.

"Beat it," he said. "I want to talk to this prisoner."

The detective didn't seem surprised. He got up and left. Pat Flavin walked over to where Gentry sat and stood there in front of him, frowning.

"You're a lucky guy, Joe Brock," Flavin said suddenly.

Mike Gentry looked up in surprise.

"Henchley was enough out of his nut to spill his guts about everything. The Gloria Allen kid, the cigarette girl, gave us all the dope she knew about it. It turned out to be plenty, enough so that we could bluff Henchley into a confession. We'd not have had much chance to do so if he knew we had only one witness."

Suddenly Mike Gentry could hear the clock ticking ironic echoes to Pat Flavin's words.

"That's fine," Gentry said tonelessly. He looked out the window and across the street. Death Number Nine was still there. He didn't have many more minutes to wait.

"If Henchley had had any idea, either, that the Gloria Allen dame was out of her head, he'd never have admitted it all."

Mike Gentry asked casually. "How do you mean?"

"This is pathetic, Brock, and funny," Flavin said. "She thinks you are two people. She thinks you're really Mike Gentry. Of course, I made her promise to drop that dipsy-doodle talk for the sake of the credibility of her testimony. But she still thinks so."

Mike Gentry remembered, then. Remembered for the first time the girl's words when he'd released her in Frazier's room. He shook his head bewilderedly, amazedly, and something twisted in his heart.

"She, she thinks that?" Gentry asked slowly.

Pat Flavin nodded. "Yeah. But you don't seem to be so surprised at such screwball ideas."

Mike Gentry didn't answer at first. He was thinking: There was another. Someone I hardly knew existed! Someone beside Joey Orlando who loved Mike Gentry. Two -people loved Mike Gentry—a mug of a little valet and a sweet-faced little cigarette girl!

THEN Gentry said: "It's very surprising." The sharp twisting of his heart came again. "It's too late now," he said to himself.

Flavin was looking over Gentry's shoulder through the window. Now he spoke.

"So you go scot-free, Brock. We have nothing to hold you on. Incidentally, the guy standing across the street over there looks a lot like the fella who came up to me and tipped me off something was breaking in the Panther Club."

Mike Gentry looked sharply out the window. There was no one across the street but Death Number Nine. Gentry frowned.

"Are you sure?" he asked.

"Of course not," Flavin said. "And I'm not interested."

The clock ticked louder.

"That's funny," Pat Flavin said, "that guy is coming across the street."

Gentry turned again, to see Death Number Nine sauntering leisurely across the street.

"You'll have to stay in town for as long as we need you, Brock," Flavin said. "But, otherwise, you're free to beat it out of here right this minute. Now, get along with you, and don't shoot off your face to reporters until we give you the word."

Mike Gentry rose. He looked at the clock.

Five minutes were left.

He looked over his shoulder and down into the street. Death Number Nine now stood just below the window, near the entrance of the station.

"You don't seem so happy, Brock," Flavin said. "Or maybe you've got a poker face."

The clock ticked loudly. Less than five minutes now. Mike Gentry moved to the door. Pat Flavin stepped ahead of him and opened it for him.

"There's a dame waiting, the Gloria Allen screwball I told you about," Flavin said. "She's got a car and she wants to see that you get where you're going safely. Incidentally, she's a looker as you no doubt noticed. If I were you, I'd play up to her crazy streak. What the hell, let her think you're Mike Gentry." Flavin nudged Gentry and snickered.

Gloria Allen stood outside in the hall. She came quickly up to Gentry the moment she saw him. To Gentry the sight of her was agony, lovely agony.

She looked at Gentry exactly as she'd looked at him in those other days. And then she noticed Flavin, and colored.

"I—I want to thank you, Mr., Dr.—" and again her gaze went to Flavin. "Mr. Brock," she finished lamely.

Mike Gentry forced a grin.

"That's all right, kid," he said. "I guess I owe a lot to you."

He started for the door. Three minutes, now, or maybe two. Death Number Nine would be waiting.

Gloria Alien's footsteps sounded, and he turned to find her hurrying along beside him. She touched his arm, and in a choked sobbing whisper, said: "I know you're Mike Gentry. I know it."

THEY started down the steps.

Through the glass door Gentry could see Death Number Nine standing out there near the curb, waiting. How many minutes now? Two One?

At the bottom of the steps, they paused. Gentry put his hands gently on the girl's shoulders.

He kissed her.

"Goodbye, baby," he said.

"Mike. Mike," she whispered bewilderedly. "You are Mike Gentry. I don't understand. I can't pretend to understand. But I want to go with you, wherever it is. I want to be with you."

A voice sounded from the top of the stairs. Both turned and looked up to see Flavin standing there.

"Take good care of Brock, young lady," the detective said. "I have a personal interest in him. He reminds me of a guy I knew very well. In fact, he reminds me of the same guy you think he is, but I'm a copper, and I'd lose my reputation and my job if I ever dared say so."

Mike Gentry stared in shocked amazement at Pat Flavin. But the detective turned away, then, and disappeared down the hall.

"My God," Gentry muttered, "there were three. Flavin makes the third!"

Gloria Allen had opened the door, and now they stepped out into the street; Gentry sickly aware again of the presence of Death Number Nine.

Once again he turned to the girl. His voice was urgent, desperate.

"Goodbye, baby."

Mike Gentry kissed her this time thoroughly—a long, lingering kiss. A kiss intended to carry him through Eternity.

And then Death Number Nine stepped out of the shadows and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Pardon me," he said kindly.

Gentry had a sudden bitter flash of rage, and he wheeled to face the blackly attired agent, glaring into that shadowed face.

"All right," he grated. "I'm coming."

Death Number Nine's voice was still kind.

"I didn't mean to bother you," he said. "But I thought the young lady would like to know her slip is showing."

Mike Gentry's jaw fell open stupidly, as Death Number Nine touched the brim of his hat, bowed politely, and sauntered off.

For an instant Gentry was frozen speechless. Then he found voice.

"But—" he choked bewilderedly.

Death Number Nine paused and turned back.

"Was there something else you wanted to know?" the agent from Eternity inquired mildly.

"The—the—the time—" Gentry stammered. "The time has run out."

"Oh, no. Not for a while yet," Death Number Nine said.

Dazed, uncomprehending, deliriously happy and terribly afraid to dare to be happy, Gentry managed one word.

"When?" he croaked.

"When?" Death Number Nine repeated. He seemed to shrug his shoulders. "After all, who knows when? Surely no other human does."

Death Number Nine turned away again, and strolled leisurely out of the street lamp glow into the darkness.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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