"The Case of the Cautious Casanova"
By Dale Harris
The old man leaned against the polished mahogany bar of the Cobalt Club holding a quiet conversation with the bartender, a handsome young black man. His hair was white, almost yellow at the ends, and hung like unruly drapery to the shoulders of his somewhat out-of-fashion formal attire. His face was tan and weathered, but there was a definite glimmer of mischievous light in the dark eyes, and always the hint of a smile from beneath his bristling mustache. He was well over six feet tall, and seemed even taller since his boots had six-inch heels.
Simon, the black bartender, smiled as he slid a new shot of neat whiskey across the counter, accepting the old man’s five-dollar tip with polished grace. “Remember, now,” He warned softly. “Four of these is the limit here.”
The dark eyes twinkled. “Tell ya what, let’s call this number one, what say?”
Simon laughed. The old man had already drank two. But Simon knew from past experience that the old man was good for twelve or more shots of the virulent amber fluid with no noticeable effect. It was a game they played. Only once had he had to call the old man a cab. The old man treated Simon like an equal. In the past three weeks they had become fast friends. He leaned on the bar.
“What brings you out tonight, Mr. Butler?”
The old man held up a hand. “Just James, my boy.”
Simon shook his head and waggled a mockingly upset finger at the old man. “Whoa, Sir. My mother would roll over in her grave if I forgot my manners that badly. “Respect your elders, son”, she’d always tell me. And, Mr. Butler, you certainly are my elder!”
The old man laughed in delight, tossing back the whiskey. “So I am, my boy, so I am.” He waved a hand around the room, his western drawl becoming more obvious with every word he spoke. “Company. When you’re my age, a feller can get mighty lonesome just sittin’ around waiting to die. So, I come here. Always something goin’ on.”
Simon surveyed the huge room. The tables across from the bar were almost filled with New York’s elite. The dance floor beyond the tables was slightly less crowded. Simon grinned. His cousin Miles’ band was playing tonight. He knew Miles was holding back, waiting on a larger crowd before ‘getting down.’
“Yessir,” the old man said, accepting his fourth whiskey. “I spent a power of time alone in my day. Enjoy company. But, I’ll tell ya, son, there’s somethin’ a-fixin’ to happen tonight. I feel it in my bones!”
“Such as –,” Simon prompted, quietly re-filling the shot glass.
“Don’t rightly know, kid.”
Simon smiled. At age 35 he was certainly no ‘kid’. Compared to Mr. Butler, maybe. He wondered absently how old the old man actually was.
Angry voices interrupted them. Two immaculately clad men entered the club, locked in a heated argument. The taller of the two locked eyes that seemed to burn from within on the shorter man’s face. Undaunted, the other met the gaze unflinchingly, and if anything, tried to outdo it. He spoke first, his voice dripping venom:
“This is the last straw, Cranston! I know that you were out with Nita last week, while I was away on business. Don’t even try to deny it!”
“I certainly shall!” Cranston’s voice was an eerie whisper. “I was in Cleveland last week, and I can prove it! It was you, Wentworth, who was seen with Margo at the opening of that dump on Twenty-fifth Street. Did you think you could get away with it? Did you think I wouldn’t know?”
“You’re hopelessly insane!” Wentworth’s eyes were wild. “I have witnesses, Cranston! Reliable ones. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time you found a way to be in two places at once!” He spat the last words into Cranston’s face.
The hawk-faced man didn’t recoil an inch. “I have more than witnesses, Wentworth!” He drew two photographs from his inside pocket. “Take a look. Burke, over at the Classic was there, covering the event for his paper. Just who are these two people?” He pointed to the picture with the third finger of his left hand. A priceless fire opal flashed on his finger. Cranston had once said he had been given the jewel by one of the Romanoffs.
Wentworth’s face went livid. “Trick photography! Listen, Cranston, Nita has confessed.”
“As has Margo!” Cranston’s whisper had become increasingly menacing.
The old man punched Simon lightly in the shoulder. “What’d I tell, ya, son?” He watched the argument with relish. “Say, who’re these two ducks?”
Simon’s jaw dropped. He recovered very quickly. “The tall man is Lamont Cranston, millionaire playboy. The other man is Richard Wentworth, former war hero and now millionaire adventurer. I’m rather surprised you didn’t recognize them. They are rather famous.”
The old man tossed back his fifth shot of neat whiskey. “Pshaw. Never read the papers. Bunch of junk, most of the time. Knew the faces. Names kinda slip the old mind.”
The argument was interrupted, briefly, when a young man with thick black hair, and a face that was totally devoid of emotion came up behind the pair. “Excuse me, please, gentlemen. Thank you.”
The old man looked at Simon. “Richard Henry Benson, millionaire adventurer. He is said to have seen most of the world, although still in his late twenties.”
“Actually, Simon, I just turned thirty Tuesday.” Benson’s voice was warm, but not even the ghost of a smile crossed his face.
The old man shook his head. “Kids!”
“The usual, Sir?”
“Please.” Benson passed Simon the money for a cup of tea, plus a twenty-dollar tip. “I picked up a taste for Earl Grey in England.” He shook hands with the old man. “And you are—“
The old man grinned. “James Butler. Ya might say I picked up a taste fer whiskey—“
“Out in the American West.” Benson finished for him.
“Yep. Also a taste for watchin’ fights. This ought to be a good ‘un.”
A flicker ran across Benson’s face. “ I—I lost my wife Alicia some years ago. I have had no heart for such matters since.” He indicated a table not far away. “When I need a refill—“
Simon nodded. Benson stiffened. He looked at Mr. Butler. “While I have no interest in this matter, I am afraid he does.” He nodded towards the two combatants as he left for his table. The old man looked towards the newcomer.
“Je-hoshaphat! I seen him once. Name’s Smitty, ain’t it?”
Simon nodded, passing the old man what was to prove to be his sixth shot. “Yes. He’s an engineer. He works for Mr. Benson there.”
The man they were discussing stood nearly seven feet tall, and weighed in at something over 340, all of it muscle. He placed huge hands on the shoulders of Cranston and Wentworth and turned them to face him. Then he smiled. “I’ll only ask you this question once, gentlemen. Why have you been trying to beat my time with Nellie Grey?”
The old man laughed. “He do have a way with words, don’t he?” He tossed back a seventh shot of whiskey.
Oddly, neither Cranston nor Wentworth seemed concerned, or even favorably impressed. Wentworth glared murderously up into the big man’s smiling moon-face. “This doesn’t concern you, you big oaf! This “Nellie” of yours is your problem, I don’t even know her.”
“Nor I.” Cranston interposed dryly.
The big man’s smile widened. “Really?”
Wentworth’s temper flared. “Yes, really! Listen, a woman of my Nita’s character,” he paused, then grudgingly waved a hand towards Cranston. “Or Lamont’s Margo, for that matter, is far beyond any tramp you might be lucky enough to dig up!”
Richard Benson winced at his table, swallowed his tea in a gulp, and went back to the bar for more. “Wrong thing to say to Smitty,” he said.
The old man nodded, tossing back an eighth shot. Smitty had Wentworth half off the ground, when a further interruption saved the day. “Excuse us, please.” The voice was deep, and well modulated. A bronzed-skin man in impeccable formal attire was coming in. A woman with red-bronze hair, flawless skin; in an azure spaghetti-strap evening gown was by his side. She was the center of attention at once. While she had the men distracted, Benson returned to his table, and the bronze man tried to play referee.
The old man whistled. “Know the man. Dr. Clark Savage, Jr. He operated on me for cataracts two years agone. Who’s the dish?”
Simon unglued his eyes from the girl long enough to answer in a far-off voice. “His cousin, Patricia Savage.”
“Whooee. Now, son, she’s right easy on the eyes!”
Loud voices interrupted. Wentworth again. The man’s temper seemed boundless. “Stay out of this, Savage! What would you know about love? We never see you with anyone except your lovely cousin, who—“
Pat Savage’s voice suddenly went low, husky, and decidedly wicked. “—Who can take care of herself, anytime she feels the least bit threatened, instead of hiding behind a bunch of big mouth losers!” She punctuated the point by producing a very large pistol and waving it under the noses of the startled men. The shocked expressions on their faces were partially due to the fact that none of them were really sure just where she had had the gun hidden.
The old man whistled softly. “Ya know, I’da thought she didn’t have room in that dress to hide a derringer let alone that hogleg!”
Pat laughed, and made the gun vanish, again without anyone knowing where. She kissed a startled Wentworth on the nose, chucked Cranston under the chin, and walked over to the bar, getting a martini and giving Simon a kiss and five bucks. She looked up at the old man and wrinkled her nose. Then she kissed him as well, and walked over to sit at the table with Benson. She shook his hand, some of the devilish character subsiding. She knew what Alicia had meant to Benson.
Clark walked to the bar and shook hands with Mr. Butler. He looked him over with a critical eye. “You seem to be in good health, James.”
The old man grinned. “An’ you must be daid. I mean, why ain’t’ you out there fightin’ for the honor of yore girl?”
Clark Savage accepted a cup of cappuccino from Simon with a smile and a ten-dollar tip. “I am a busy man. I have little time for dates.”
The old man snorted. He pointed at the drink in Clark’s hand. “That’s stuffs bad on yore nerves.”
Doc Savage smiled. He pointed to the old man’s shot of whiskey. “That stuff is bad for you, period!”
The old man poured back another shot. “Oh, I dunno. Ya got to remember that it’s right good for preserving things in. I mean’ look at me. I look right pert for a man in his late nineties, don’t I?”
Doc smiled. “You do. And yet I knew a man who was over 120 that got around better than I could.”
The old man grinned. “Do tell! What kinda liquor did he drink, you know?”
Doc smiled and sipped his cappuccino. “Herbal tea.”
The old man grunted. “Aw, you’re just saying that.”
Simon smiled and refilled his glass. “No. That happened. The old man was named Dan Thunden.”
The three men’s argument had begun anew, only to be interrupted by a pair of men who were screaming at each other as they entered. They were an odd pair. One was tall, thin, and flawlessly attired, down to spats and a cane. The other was short, and rather ape-like. His only concession to the Cobalt Club’s black tie rule was the tie itself. He wore a lime green suit, a violently colored orange shirt, and blood-red shoes with turquoise spats. His voice was squeaking in a very irritating matter as he screamed at the nattily clothed man.
“Listen, you tailor’s dummy, you spoiled my date with Sara Friday night! Get your own dates, if you can stop chasing ambulances long enough!”
Savage looked at the old man. “Oh, boy!”
Pat Savage laughed and nudged Richard Benson. “Don’t look now, Dick, but the Laurel and Hardy show just arrived!”
“I don’t think Smitty or the other two gentlemen will be amused, however,” Benson said, sipping his Earl Grey.
The well-dressed man spun with theatrical flourish, and leveled his cane between the homely man’s eyes. “Me? Spoil your so-called date? You did that, ape, the day you fell out of the tree. Besides, you can be proven, yes, missing link, proven in a court of law to have been the one, last Thursday, May 8, to have messed up my date with Arlene. Now–“
“You’re lying, you blasted shyster! Lying! Chemistry probably got loose again. Even he is a better date than a living clothes rack!”
The old man looked at Simon and Doc Savage. Savage answered in a slightly pained voice. “Chemistry is Ham’s pet ape.” He chuckled suddenly. “Monk would kill me for saying this, but the beast is almost his twin.”
The old man laughed. The two men seemed on the point of blows.
A voice interrupted him, soft as eiderdown, from a man who smiled as he spoke. It was the giant, Smitty. “Gentlemen, we ain’t concerned with you, or your petty arguments. Nor are we concerned with your tramps. In fact, you do not exist. You understand? Get out.”
The apish man whirled, opened his mouth, and shut it very fast. He reached out, took the dapper man by the arm, and left. The other man did not voice a complaint. If anything, he seemed to be trying to drag the shorter man along with him.
Pat Savage laughed. “Where’s a camera when you need one? The look on Monk’s face would have been priceless.”
Benson smiled. “When Smitty gets quiet, watch out.”
The giant turned towards Wentworth. “Did you imply, sir, that my Nellie was just a streetwalker?” His voice was silken.
Before Wentworth could reply, a new commotion was in the works. A young man skirted the men and sat down at the table next to Pat. Simon popped over with a coke, and the young man tossed him a silver dollar. He was about seventeen.
“How are you tonight, Dick?” Pat asked with a smile.
He shook his head. “I’m fine, Pat, but Bruce is, well, he’s—“
“Lost it, apparently,” Richard Benson said.
The man who had entered was attired in a tuxedo. His face was handsome, until you noticed that his eyes were intense to the point of near-insanity. The old man tossed back at least his tenth shot and looked at Clark Savage. “Who’s this duck?”
“Bruce Wayne, CEO of Wayne Enterprises. Amateur criminologist I believe. His father was a Doctor, a friend of my father.”
Wayne moved like a cat. He grabbed Smitty by the arm, and, despite the man’s size spun him around. “Get out of my way. I won’t say it again.” He had Wentworth by the collar before he could move. “Just the man I want to see. Two words, pal: Back off. Selena is my girl, not yours! Got it?” Before the fiery-tempered Wentworth could respond, Wayne dropped him and whirled on Cranston. “You too, Mr. Slick Talk. I’ve been to Mexico for three weeks, and you two have been seen out with my girl.” He pointed to Dick Grayson. “There’s my witness.”
Smitty jerked Bruce Wayne back around. His voice was still quiet. “Wayne, aren’t you. You’re the man who collared Nellie for a date when I went to Texas to see an old friend. May 6th, to be precise.”
Wayne looked at him coldly. “I have no idea what you are talking about. That evening, I had a party at my mansion. My date was Miss Selena Kyle. These two, ah, gentlemen, were there, with their usual dates. Miss Savage was there with Mr. Mayfair. Mr. Benson came alone. Kit Walker and his wife were there, as was Britt Reid of the Sentinel. I can call dozens of witnesses. Young Peter Parker was there, covering the event for The Daily Bugle, along with his young wife. His pictures were on the front page. Think, Smith! You’re supposed to have a brain in that lump you call a skull!”
Smitty swung, but in Bruce Wayne he had found an adversary he couldn’t just slap down. He was reeling himself from a well-placed right hand. Wentworth’s explosive temper went off, and his right hand with it. He staggered Cranston, who swung back. Diners were getting up from tables to move out of range. Doc Savage moved as if to dive into the fray, but the old man grabbed his arm.
“Let ‘em rip. Probably won’t last all that long, no-how.”
Simon was on a phone assuring the management that the disturbance would be handled without need of the police, since both Doc Savage and Richard Benson were on the scene. He neglected to say that neither man was trying to do anything. The old man tossed back another shot of whiskey. He changed his position slightly at the bar.
So far, Smitty had yet to get in a blow of his own. Wayne rocked him with blow after blow, but the big man wouldn’t go down. Wentworth was getting the worse of the battle between him and Cranston. Cranston seemed like a shadow, he would shrink away from blows, only to seem to grow and stretch to impossible lengths to land others. Wentworth was bleeding from a torn lip. A sudden flurry on his part had Cranston staggering, crashing into a table. A backhand blow suddenly sent part of Cranston’s face flying. Wentworth froze in disbelief. Cranston angrily tore the rest of the molded face away. He snarled.
At that moment Smitty spun with ballerina grace and caught Wayne squarely between the eyes. He dropped with an alarming crash. Dick Grayson’s hand flashed forward, something sliced through the air and clipped Smitty behind the ear. The big man fell across Wayne without a sound. Grayson stretched out a hand and caught the rebounding device. Pat slapped him on the shoulder. Richard Benson smiled.
“Neat trick, that.” He dropped an oddly shaped pistol on the table. “You made it unnecessary for me to fire on one of my own. Thank you.”
Wentworth crashed across a table, propelled by Cranston’s left fist. He landed on his face beside a torn piece of a cleverly constructed mask. He picked it up. His eyes were wild. He stared at the monkish profile of the man known as Lamont Cranston. He whipped to his feet. “So, that’s your game, whoever you are! Dating my girl, made up as me, huh? Dating Miss Lane made up as Lamont Cranston, you filthy crook!” The words were a scream.
Wentworth flashed a gun from beneath his jacket. The man known as Cranston saw the motion. A gun flashed from beneath his jacket as well. Time seemed to stand still. From the entrance the sound of two women’s screams came as one.
The guns flashed upwards. Two shots cracked. And both men looked down at empty hands. Two women rushed into the area, and into the arms of two very startled men. The men stared at each other, finally realizing what could have happened. And an old man with long white hair grinned around two smoking pistols with pearl handles.
“Gentlemen, this h’yar argument is officially over.” He spoke over his shoulder to Simon. “Set them up, what ever they usually have. Their ladies, too,” He nodded towards where Smitty was helping Bruce Wayne to his feet. “Them, too." He grinned at Doc Savage. “Not bad for an old man, eh?”
Wentworth looked at him. “I would have sworn nobody could outdraw me.”
Cranston nodded. “I’d second that bet. But, Richard, just be thankful we were wrong.” He looked at the old man. “Thanks, Mr.—?"
“Butler. James Butler, at your service.” The old man carefully put his guns away, turning the pearl handles towards each other for a cross-draw. That’s when Simon exploded.
“That’s it!” Everyone turned to look at him. “Don’t you see? That’s who he is—James Butler Hickock!”
Dick Grayson looked at Pat. “I thought he got shot in the head and died years ago?”
The old man lifted the veil of his hair. “Shot, yes. Died? Nah. Got tired of gunfightin’, went to Californy, struck gold and came back east. Still got the touch, don’t I?”
Wentworth stared at Cranston. “Your face was a mask. Yet Miss Lane is certain of you. I don’t understand.”
Cranston whispered a name into Wentworth’s ear. Wentworth looked closely at him, then nodded. “Yes. I remember you. New identity?”
Cranston smiled, somewhat painfully. “Yes and no.”
Richard Benson arose and came over the little group of people. “Gentlemen and ladies, I think I know the answer to our little dilemma.”
He stopped in front of Wentworth and Nita van Slone. “You, Richard were positive that Lamont Cranston had been out with Nita. You had witnesses, and even Miss Van Slone herself did not deny her transgression.”
He walked over to Lamont Cranston and Margo. “You, Lamont were equally certain of Richard Wentworth’s liaison with Miss Lane, even supplying photographic evidence to back up Margo’s own confession.”
He crossed to Smitty, who was taking all of this in around his third pint of ale. “Smitty, you had been told of Nellie’s dates with both of these gentlemen, and your friend Mr. Wayne there—” (Wayne was being supported by the big man, a glass of sherry in hand.) “—by Miss Gray herself, no second-hand evidence at all.
“Bruce could prove himself innocent of the charge, the evidence of those present notwithstanding, the photographs taken by the peerless Mr. Parker clearly showing his claim to be true.
“Bruce, I mean no harm by stating this, but Miss Kyle has often proven to be more than slightly unstable, requiring constant treatment for her problems.”
Wayne’s eyes blazed, but he nodded. “But remember, Richard, I know her better than any of you, probably better than her doctors. She was telling me the truth. Besides, Dick was a witness, as I have said.”
Benson’s face was as expressionless as ever. “True. You all have the word of unimpeachable witnesses to back you up. Therefore, you are all telling the absolute truth.”
Everyone stared at each other. Dick Grayson whispered to Pat Savage. “Is he a little goofy?”
She shook her head. “Not Dick Benson. I don’t understand what’s going on, but I get the sickening feeling we all will know soon enough.”
The old man cocked a suspicious eye at Richard Benson. “Kid, I been a lawman many times. When stories don’t match, some yeller dog has got to be lyin’”
Benson had the faintest of smiles. “Not in this case. And I might point out that the argument of Mr. Brooks and Mr. Mayfair was, for a change, also legitimate.”
He looked around the little group of people. “All of us here are well known.” He pointed to the old man “I’m sure Mr. Butler will be after tonight.
“Since we are well known, and we travel in certain circles, I believe that we can, indeed, verify the alibis give by each of you as true.
“Therefore, someone who knew that you would be away and for how long, has been masquerading as one of you and dating the girlfriend of another when the times of absence coincided.”
There were murmurs of understanding among the crowd. The old man picked up the torn piece of Lamont Cranson’s mask and turned it over in his hands. “So, who’s the polecat if the false-face guy h’yar is tellin’ the truth?”
Benson took the piece of mask. “Mr. Butler, Mr. Cranston is telling the truth. And he is Lamont Cranston, mask notwithstanding. You see, Mr. Butler, Mr. Cranston is not the only one among us who is a master of disguise.”
The point that Richard Benson was making suddenly made perfect sense to Patricia Savage. She glanced towards Dick Grayson. He was paying rapt attention to what Benson was saying. Good. Carefully, she eased back in her seat.
Benson could have given the dapper Mr. Ham Brooks lessons in courtroom manner, as he walked back and forth. “But there is one of us whose actions cannot be traced. For there are times he seems to drop off the edge of the world, supposedly studying in his secret laboratory, never failing to emerge with new discoveries. But when he is there he cannot be reached by anyone. Therefore he cannot prove he was ever there. He has no alibi. The culprit is—“
Clark Savage crushed the gas bulbs he had surreptitiously drawn from inside his jacket. Benson toppled over in mid-sentence. The others collapsed as well—but not Pat Savage. Knowing who the culprit had to be and what he would probably do, she had held her breath. She stood and crossed to where he stood among the fallen men.
He looked at her. “With Monja down in Hidalgo, I get lonely. No vulgar intrigue, just dinner, a movie, maybe a dance. Company. I-I can’t let it be said that I always date my own cousin. It got out of hand.”
She kissed his cheek. “I know. And I believe you. Let’s go home, Romeo.”
He winced. “I thought you might understand, Pat.”
“I do.” She said. “Believe me, Clark, I do. But I didn’t think you had it in you, you little devil!” She grinned at his flushed features.
Any comments to Mark Eidemiller or Dale Harris? Feel free to respond.