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General Alert

General Alert

By Scriptorius


General Alert

Chris Hardy was in a good mood, and not without reason, for he was on his way to what promised to be a highly profitable meeting. Moreover, though prepared to cope with the odd surprise, he was confident that he could have written in advance much of the script for the coming interview, including practically all of the part that mattered. He knew why he had been summoned, and was aware that the man who had sent for him was ignorant of that fact.

Like the rest of the dying breed of former range detectives, Hardy had been obliged to widen his scope when the cattle rustling problem diminished. Now the few men left in the business tackled wrongdoing on a broad front. Hardy knew of only four men of his kind in the Southwest. Three of them – himself, Jack Shaw and Tom Nevins – met from time to time to exchange notes. The fourth, William F. Pullman, remained largely aloof from the others. Hardy had met him only once. The most successful of the quartet, Pullman was not inclined to divulge much about his methods, nor did he seem to feel the need to gather information from the others.

The man now awaiting Hardy’s arrival was the redoubtable Major-General Michael Colbert. In earlier days, Colbert had been regarded by many as the army’s most dashing and ingenious officer. Now, ten years after the end of his soldiering career, the master of strategy and tactics had carved out for himself as distinguished a place in business as he had had in military service.

Hardy had received the summons at his El Paso home, insofar as he thought of the place as a residence. He owned no real estate, preferring to live in a single room – albeit the best one – in a small hotel, keeping the place on a long-term basis, paying for it whether he was there or not. The hotel owner, an elderly widow, stood in awe of her slim dark-complexioned black-haired – well, greying slightly – quasi-permanent guest. Hardy had no desire to be tied down by property. His measure of wealth was strictly cash, of which he had more than most men but never enough to satisfy him.

Having alighted from the train at Blundell, Hardy had hired a horse and buggy for the four-mile ride to General Colbert’s fastness. He had arrived at the station early in the afternoon and intended to catch the westbound evening train for the return journey. Now he was travelling due east and had almost reached his destination.

There was no mistaking the general’s home. Situated on rising ground south of the straight east-west trail, it was marked by the owner’s surname in raised letters on a varnished wooden plaque by the open entrance gates. A long straight drive led through extensive grounds to a huge antebellum house. Hardy had no interest in architecture or horticulture, so he merely noted that the surroundings seemed commensurate with the standing of the man he was about to meet. It seemed that his approach had been watched, for as he came to a halt, a front door that would have done justice to a cathedral swung open. A short portly balding man in a black suit appeared “Mr Hardy?” he asked.

“That’s right. I believe I’m a little early.”

“Perfectly in order, sir. The general is in his study. If you’d follow me, I’ll inform him you are here.” He showed the visitor to a waiting room, then strode off in the way only men in his position – Hardy had correctly assumed that he was the butler – seemed able to do. It was three minutes before he returned, resuming the ‘please walk this way’ routine. They went to the rear of the house, where the man knocked on a door, went in, announced the visitor and retreated.

Hardy’s immediate impression was that a man who needed a study this size must have a good deal of thinking to do. The room was about thirty by twenty feet, with a ceiling twelve feet high. Hardy had entered by the only door, at the end of the room remote from a massive desk, situated between the two windows in the short outer wall. The other long wall, opposite the door, also had two windows, one on either side of a large stone fireplace.

To Hardy’s left was a low circular walnut table surrounded by six chairs, in an arrangement that seemed designed for informal meetings. There were no fireside chairs and no evidence of books anywhere. The walls held an array of landscape paintings. A deep-piled plain grass-green carpet covered most of the floor. In front of the desk were two handsome visitors’ chairs of studded brown leather, and behind it a much larger one in the same style, in which Colbert was sitting.

The general didn’t speak, but crooked a beckoning hand. Hardy set off across the indoor lawn, thinking that a scythe might have been useful. Before he reached the desk, his host stood, revealing himself as about the same height as his guest’s five-eleven, but of much heavier build. The large square fleshy face was clean-shaven, the grey eyes clear and penetrating. Colbert had a full head of hair the colour of iron filings. He was dressed in a black suit, not unlike Hardy’s. His posture suggested that the decade since his retirement from the army had done nothing to affect the ramrod stance of earlier years.

Remaining silent, Colbert waved a hand at the visitor’s chair to Hardy’s left. Wondering at his host’s continued silence, the detective matched it, sitting quietly. The wordless encounter continued for a further ten seconds, then Colbert spoke. “They say you’re good, Mr Hardy.”

“That’s nice of them.”

“Yes, I’m told you’re smarter than the others. What do you say to that?”

“Can’t tell. I don’t know all of them.”

“Good answer. I like that. Now, as you’re here and presumably available, you’ll just have to be good enough, won’t you?”

Hardy was becoming irritated by the general’s odd way of conducting a conversation. Concluding that it was an invitation to him to behave likewise, he said: “Tell me, General, are you making a special effort for me, or do you treat all your business callers this way?”

The general smiled. “Can’t tell. I don’t meet all of them.”

Hardy simulated a yawn. “That must be frustrating for the unlucky ones. I guess we’re about even now. Was there something you wanted of me, or are we just enjoying a joust?”

For a long moment, the two pairs of eyes locked, the minds behind them wondering if there was any point in further banter. Then, by mutual consent, both men began to grin, the general first by a split second. “Excellent, Mr. Hardy,” he said. I must ask you to excuse my unorthodox approach, but I’ve found that it saves time. A little exchange like this tells me more than an hour of verbal fencing.”

Hardy chuckled. “It’s your time and your money, General. If that’s the way you want to spend both, it’s all right with me.”

“Well spoken, Mr. Hardy. I think we’ll get on. Now, I’m being pestered and I hear you’re the right man to investigate the matter.”

“Who told you that?”

“It was an odd coincidence. I give my domestic staff a good deal of free time. Most of them spend it at one of the saloons in Blundell. My butler, Harris, is different. I must tell you that he’s not only a butler, but also something of a confidant. He rightly considers himself a cut above the others and he takes his afternoons off at the hotel, where he’s a crony of the manager and the barman. Now, a short time ago a man stopped off there briefly, on his way back from a job east of here. He was recovering from a gunshot wound and a broken arm. Apparently, he’s in the same line of work as you. His name is Jack Shaw?”

“Oh, yes. A good man, I believe.”

“Do you know him personally?”

“We met once, but only for a matter of minutes.”

“Well, he seems to know a lot about you. Praised you to the skies. When my problem arose, I consulted old Harris – he’d already mentioned that he had spoken with this Shaw fellow, and happened to have established where he lived. I had Harris make contact again, but it seemed that Shaw needed time to recover from his wounds. He said he couldn’t oblige me, but he suggested that you might be willing to step in.”

“That was thoughtful of him. What’s the problem?”

“Harassment. I have industrial and commercial interests beyond the imagination of most men. I own six companies outright. Three of them are mines, working respectively gold, silver and copper, with some overlap. Then there’s a lumber company, a furniture-making concern and a shipping line. Also, I have stockholdings, in some cases controlling ones, in over a dozen other enterprises – railroads, banks and so on.”

“So you haven’t wasted your time since you left the army.”

“No, but enough of that. The reason I approached Shaw was that I got news of attacks on some of the businesses I own. There were explosions at all three mines in quick succession. Fortunately, and I think intentionally, the incidents occurred between shifts, so nobody was hurt anywhere, but two of the operations had to be halted temporarily. That’s expensive. Also, shortly after those incidents, the offices of the lumber company were blown up, then the furniture place was almost destroyed by fire. Mr. Hardy, someone has declared war on me.”

“So it seems. Where are these places?”

The general opened a drawer, pulled out a map and unfolded it on the desk. “You’ll see I’ve marked them all.”

Hardy studied the layout for a few minutes, asking several questions, then sat down again. “Thank you, General. Anything else?”

“Yes. A day after the last mishap, a man handed in a letter to the freight depot in Blundell, which serves as our post office. I tried to get a description, but it wasn’t helpful – middle age, middle height, middle everything. Nobody here knew the fellow and he vanished immediately after making his delivery. This is what he brought.” Colbert pushed a single sheet of paper across the desk. The message was written in a small precise hand on the unlined white paper. Hardy read:

Major-General Colbert,
I was sorry to hear of the unfortunate events at your various places of business. Sadly, this is a sign of our times. However, you may feel the need of some reliable assistance. I am in a position to help you, but regrettably cannot do so cost-free. My associates and I deal only in cash, so if you could amass $50,000 in untraceable bills of denominations no higher than $50, I would be happy to act for you. I fear I cannot reveal my identity, but you may be sure that should you be favourably disposed to my intervention, I have resources sufficient to ensure that no further similar misfortunes will befall you.

If you accede, I suggest that you gather the sum mentioned within ten days from the date of this letter. Should you fail to respond positively, I really cannot say what might happen, save that whatever occurs will certainly be detrimental to your interests, as I am convinced by information received that certain parties are intent on engineering your downfall. I adjure you to be circumspect with regard to enlisting the aid of the law. The forces ranged against you are powerful and totally unscrupulous. I hope that I have made myself clear and shall contact you again.

A Wellwisher.

Hardy tossed the paper back onto the desk. “Polite, isn’t he?” he said.

Colbert picked up the letter and dropped it into a drawer. “What do you make of that? Mysterious, isn’t it?”

“No, General. I think it’s plain enough.”

“What? You mean you understand?”

“I believe so. This has the hallmark of a Lawrence Drake job.”

“Lawrence Drake? I think you’d better explain.”

“Let me put it this way. When you were an army man, you had the reputation of being a genius in your line, right?”

Colbert spread his hands. “It’s true that some people exaggerated my achievements,” he said modestly. “What of it?”

“Only this, General. I’m aware that there are military masterminds. They have their counterparts in the criminal world.”

“I imagine so. Go on.”

“Look, you’ve spent your time on the right side of the law and you’ve been considered a wizard. I don’t want to minimise your efforts, but just think how much brighter a man has to be to get a similar reputation on the other side. With every hand against him, he has to be brilliant. Lawrence Drake is just that, and this sort of approach is typical of him.”

“Well, good God, if he’s a crook, why isn’t he locked up?”

“Because as I just said, he’s a genius in his way. Oh, he’s not the first. There was a fellow named Jonathan Wild in England over a hundred and fifty years ago. He was caught and hanged eventually, but in the meantime he controlled an underworld empire. Drake’s from the same mould but even cleverer. Offhand, I’d say that half the illegal activity in the Southwest could be laid at his door.”

“I see. And I suppose the official forces of law and order would tell me that they can’t do much because they’re short of manpower, eh?”

Hardy nodded. “Right. They have limited resources. Also, they have to go by the book. I don’t. They have their views about Drake, but they can’t prove anything. As I told you, the man’s a master in his field. He arranges things and rakes in a percentage without involving himself in the rough stuff. This time, maybe he’s finally made a mistake. He wants it all. Usually he sees that jobs are done, then takes his share. And don’t get any illusions about the man. He rules his world with a rod of iron. There’s only one penalty for crossing him, and not many people want to chance that.”

“As a matter of interest, where is he?

“He has several locations. In fact one of them isn’t far from where I live. He does a little horse-breeding there.”

“Hardy, you’re going into a world alien to me. You say this fellow is an arch criminal, just living openly. He must be brought to book, mustn’t he?”

“You might think so, but he operates a system of cut-outs and blind alleys. No trail ever leads back to him. Take your case, for example.”

“By all means let us do that.”

“Right. Well, one of two things will happen. Either you’ll defy him, in which case he’ll keep on attacking your companies and costing you far more than the whole thing’s worth, or you’ll agree to his terms, in which case he’ll leave you alone. By the way, I believe he has a peculiar sense of honour. If you meet his demands, he’ll make sure that nobody else bothers you.”

“Really? You seem to have no doubt that this man is the culprit. Why?”

“I’m not absolutely certain, but everything points to him. First, he’s probably the only one who could have organised the manpower for all these strikes at your places, so widely separated. Second, look at the letter. Drake is an educated man. The style is just what you might expect of him, although oddly enough that’s the only thing that leaves me a little puzzled. I’d have expected him to lower his usual literary standard. The fact that he hasn’t done so indicates to me that he’s either cocksure or has made a mistake – and he isn’t one to blunder.”

“I see. Now, with regard to the letter, couldn’t someone recognise his handwriting? And anyway, why not use a typewriter?”

“As to your first point, you can be sure this isn’t Drake’s writing. He’ll have dictated it to one of his hirelings. And with regard to typing, I grant you that it seems anonymous, but there still aren’t all that many machines in this part of the world and they can sometimes be as individual as handwriting. They have inconsistencies in alignment, little characteristics in some of the letters and so on. A good detective, given enough time and persistence, might just trace the source. There’s no guarantee, but it’s the sort of thing Drake would consider.”

“I never heard the like of this. I mean, if I were to pay up, surely the trail could be followed?”

“No. You’d find yourself handing over money to some roughneck who’d be paid to pass it on to someone else – he wouldn’t know the whys and wherefores – and so on. The last contact would be one of Drake’s inner circle. There would be someone watching all the time. If the position ever looked doubtful, some contact wouldn’t turn up, so the chain would be broken. “

“Astonishing. You seem to have a grasp of these matters, Mr Hardy.”

“Well, you’d expect that, wouldn’t you? After all, it’s my job.”

“Yes, of course. Just as well you’re here. Have you any suggestions?”

“I have an idea. If it works, we could get Drake once and for all, but it would need your cooperation.”

“In what way?”

“First, could you raise the fifty thousand in time?”

The general dismissed that with a flick of the hand. “I could do it several times over, but why should I?”

“Bait, General. Look, I’d better go back to my place and get my ear to the ground. Meantime, I recommend that you come up with the money. Now, I don’t want to raise false expectations. If I’m right, we’re dealing with one of the sharpest minds in the land. Still, I’ve had my successes, too. If I could bring this man down, it would be the making of me. But we’ll probably have to use your funds to do it, and I have to tell you that it could go wrong.”

“So then I lose my money – and there’s your fee as well.”

“Don’t worry about that. If I fail, I charge expenses only. In this case, they’d probably include at least one bribe and maybe two – I have to pay for information. Now, I can’t put myself in your shoes, but you might want to think about balancing your chances of losing money against the fact that you may have the only opportunity there ever will be of putting a public menace behind bars. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, if you think it’s the only way …”

“I’m not certain of that right now. Maybe I’ll work out something better, but I’d say we should cover all possibilities, then pick the best course.”

“Very well. Incidentally, if you succeed, what will your charge be?”

“In this case, a flat two thousand dollars, however long it takes.”

“You don’t work cheap, do you?”

“Well, General, when you consider that I sometimes don’t work at all, and that when I do, it’s often twenty-four hours a day of constant danger – so far I’ve collected two bullets and a knife wound – I don’t think the fee’s excessive, but if you’ve –”

Colbert held up a hand. “No buts. The way you put it, the figure seems reasonable. Now, I notice you haven’t mentioned a need for increased security at my business sites. Why not?”

Hardy laughed. “I don’t want to be offensive, but just think about it. Mostly, the sort of men you’ll get for security work, especially if you want them at short notice, are second-rate types. If a real problem came up, they’d probably duck and stay down. They certainly wouldn’t be a match for the people Drake would use.”

The general scratched his head. “Well, Hardy, I never thought to be in this position, but now that I am, I think you should go ahead and do as you see fit. And it wouldn’t do me any harm to be involved in the capture of this fellow, would it?”

“You’d be helping to rid the world of a pest, General, but only you can decide. Just remind me, when does this ultimatum expire?”

Colbert looked at the letter. “This is dated the fifteenth,” he said. “He gives ten days, so that takes us to the twenty-fifth. Today is the eighteenth. That leaves just a week.”

“Very well, General. Now, I can’t be of any use here, so I’d better get the train back. Assuming that we don’t hear anything in the meantime to cause a change of direction, I’ll be here again on the twenty-fourth and we’ll make a final decision.” The general consented and Hardy left.

Six days later, Chris Hardy reappeared at Colbert’s home and was shown into the study. “Any developments, General?” he asked.

“Yes. One of my ships was damaged three days ago, near Galveston. Anything at your end?”

“I think so, but I’m not entirely sure. I’m afraid I’ve run us up a bill of five hundred dollars in bribes –”

Colbert wafted an impatient hand.

“ – but I think we’re on firm ground. Did you get the money?”

The general produced a valise, dropping it onto the desk. “It’s there,” he said “Now what?”

“Well, we’re on the last lap, General. You can still pull out, if you want to, but I do believe we’ll have him within a day or so.”

“In for a penny, in for a pound,” Colbert replied. “As a matter of fact, I’m beginning to relish this. What’s our next move?”

“The big one. I haven’t been idle. I made indirect contact with one of Drake’s henchmen. I had to use my initiative, so I put across the idea that you’re very annoyed, but that fifty thousand dollars is a price you’ll pay to be rid of such a nuisance. Even went so far as to get the opposition to accept that, as your agent, I make the first handover of the money. I don’t know how long the chain is, but I’ve laid my plans and engaged a few reliable men – they’ll cost us eight hundred, by the way – and I think I’ve allowed for every eventuality. I thought about bringing in the official people, but I believe that would be more hindrance than help. If everything goes as I hope it will, you should have news within twenty-four hours. It’s up to you now, General. Do we go on?”

“Yes, Mr Hardy. I hope for tidings by this time tomorrow.” After leaving his host, Hardy caught the evening train bound for El Paso. There were only three other passengers in his car, a young woman with a fractious infant and a tall dark-clad man with extravagant black whiskers, including a moustache of awesome proportions. Hardy didn’t go the whole way. There were six intermediate stops and at the third of these he alighted. He didn’t waste time, proceeding straight to the livery stable, where a saddled horse awaited him. He set off westwards and after a ride of six miles turned off the trail, working his way through rough country. A further two miles brought him to a long-abandoned mine. Seeing a horse tethered near what was once the office, he smiled. So far, so good. He hitched his own mount and pushed open the door. Waiting inside was Jack Shaw. “Evening, Chris,” he said. “Everything okay?”

“Hello, Jack,” Hardy answered. “Couldn’t be better. I believe we’ve done it.” He tossed the valise onto the table.”

Shaw laughed. “Wonderful,” he said. “You did a great job.”

“You did all right yourself, Jack.”

“Oh, my bit was pretty easy. Just had to strap on a couple of bandages and act like a man in pain.”

“More than that. You had to see to the mine explosions and various other things. How much are we paying those boys for the fireworks and general shenanigans they laid on?”

“Two thousand will cover it. I’ll pay them off, if you’re happy about that.”

“Sure. So, we have forty-eight thousand to share.”

“That’s right. I’ve got to hand it to you for figuring out how much the old boy could rustle up in ready cash. It’s a tidy sum.”

Hardy grinned. “I wasn’t sure, but I think we got near enough all he had available without too long a wait.” He didn’t see the need to dent his credibility by telling his partner that the general could have paid much more.

Shaw rubbed his hands together. “Well, Chris, I guess we’d better split it up and make dust. No point in hanging around until Colbert gets ideas. Did he give you any trouble?”

Hardy chuckled. “None at all. Maybe I’m a born confidence man, Jack, or it could be that I’m a good actor. Either way, I guess I fooled him.”

“Not quite. I think the expression is ‘stick ’em up’, boys.” The new voice came from the doorway, where a tall gaunt man stood, holding a forty-five revolver. The astonished conspirators looked at the newcomer, who was pulling off the black whiskers and moustache he had worn while on the train with Hardy. “Damn,” said Shaw. “Bill Pullman. How the hell did you get into this?”

Pullman smiled. “I never did have a high opinion of you two but even allowing for that, I’m disappointed,” he said. “You must have been crazy to think that a man like General Colbert would be fooled by that taradiddle you dreamed up. He contacted me shortly after you left him last week, Chris. It hadn’t taken him five minutes to figure out that this Lawrence Drake you mentioned was a figment of your imagination. I guess he reckoned he needed a real detective.”

Hardy was not quite finished. “Just a minute,” he said. “There’s only the three of us here. Can’t we make a deal?”

“I don’t see how. I’ve recovered the money, so you haven’t anything to offer. There doesn’t seem to be any reason why I shouldn’t get moving.”

Shaw leaned back, allowing his coat to fall free from his holstered pistol. “And how are you going to do that?” he said. “Seems to me we’re in a pretty out of the way place and there are two of us. You might get one, but the other will most likely get you. Have you given that any thought?”

“Oh, did I forget to mention that I have a trio of lawmen out here who’d be happy to save the jury a job if you make a fuss? Sheriff!”

A tall burly man wearing a star appeared in the doorway. At the same time, the two windows were broken by a pair of rifle barrels, trained on the seated men. “Now,” said Pullman, “I’d like you to put your hands on the table until my associate here checks things out.” The lawman stepped in, removing two guns from Shaw and one from Hardy. “I think that’s it,” he said.

“Thank you,” Pullman replied. “Now, we’ll take the money and be on our way.”

Hardy was bemused. “What about us?” he asked.

“You?” It seemed almost an afterthought for Pullman. “Oh, yes. Well, I was thinking of having you arrested, but I’ve changed my mind. You can go.”

Hardy shook his head. “I don’t get this,” he said. “You aren’t taking us in?”

“I don’t think so,” said Pullman. “That would involve a lot of messy paperwork. No, we’ll settle for the cash.”

“What about the sheriff here?” said Shaw.

“I can square things with him,” Pullman replied. “He’s out of his bailiwick anyway, so I don’t intend to bother him any further?”

Shaw was as baffled as his partner. “How will you explain this to the general?” he said.

“Shouldn’t be too difficult,” Pullman answered. “We took you by surprise. You put up a fight and escaped in the gun battle, but you had to leave the loot. Okay with you, Sheriff?”

“I guess so,” the lawman replied.

“Good. How’s that, Chris?”

“Why are you doing this?” said Hardy.

Pullman grinned. “Well, you’re fellow detectives,” he said. “Call it a tradesman’s favour. ’Course, if you’d rather do ten years in the penitent –”

“No, thanks,” Hardy broke in, “I admit you got the drop on us, but I don’t aim to spend any time in prison.”

“Well then, mount up, move fast and far, and don’t look back.”

Hardy and Shaw needed no second bidding. Within two minutes, they were off in a cloud of dust. As they disappeared, Pullman addressed his three companions. “Okay, gentlemen, the party’s over. You can dispense with those badges now.”

The bogus lawman and his deputies pulled off the tin stars and threw them away. Pullman delved into the valise, hauled out a handful of fifty-dollar bills and counted out two hundred of them. “There you are, ‘sheriff’,” he chuckled. Ten thousand for you three to share and the rest for me, on account of my doing all the planning. The general’s going to come up fifty thousand short, but he can afford it. Are you happy?”

“Sure,” the imposters’ hefty leader answered. “Easiest money we ever earned. Any time you want to think up something else . . .”

“We’ll see,” said Pullman. “Right now, I’m temporarily retired. They say it’s very pleasant up in Canada at this time of year. So long.”

* * *

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26 May, 2018
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