The Closing Net/Part 1/Chapter 8

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Let me tell you, my friend, that as I walked away from Ivan's house I was not singing pæans of praise. I had got more than twice the value of what I went after, it is true, but I had also got something else, and that was the undying enmity of the most dangerous criminal in Europe.

As long as Chu-Chu was alive my own life was worth about two sous. From the moment that I left Ivan's house Chu-Chu's immediate and pressing business would be to settle his account with me. I had not the slightest doubt that so far as his private affairs were concerned everything would have to wait while he gave himself to a sincere and painstaking stalk of myself. I had not only deprived him of a fortune but I had disgraced and ruined him with Ivan. In fact, I was not at all sure but that he might kill Ivan with his naked hands before leaving the house, merely because the Pole had witnessed his humiliation. Thinking it over, I was sorry that I had not left Ivan his pistol, as in that case he might have disposed of Chu-Chu on his own account. You see, Chu-Chu's quarrel with an outsider was a menace to the whole mob, as many men in my position would have gone straight to the prefect of police and furnished information which might have led to the capture of Monsieur de Maxeville.

Why didn't I do that very thing? It is a little hard to explain. In the first place, anybody who has been for years a criminal hates the thought of being mixed up with the police. There are too many old crimes that may be brought to light. Then, my release from the clutch of the law was irregular; an unofficial pardon that would hardly bear the scrutiny of the public. Still again, I did not see how I could impeach Chu-Chu without implicating Ivan and his crowd, and I felt that if I was once marked for the hereafter by that perfect organisation I might just as well go down and hop off a bridge into the Seine. But last of all, I had made up my mind that the best—in fact, the only thing for me to do—was to turn all of my talent to killing Chu-Chu before Chu-Chu killed me. I would have killed him in Ivan's house if I had felt that it was possible to do so without a general rumpus. As it was, at the first shot the servants would have come running in, armed, no doubt, for Ivan's servants were all members of the gang. He had told me on the night of Léontine's dinner that his entire house hold belonged to his mob.

No, it was better as it was, dangerous as my position might be. As things now stood I felt pretty sure that I had only Chu-Chu to reckon with. Ivan would sit tight and offer up prayers that each of us might kill the other. His work was merely executive, and he detested violence as much as might the big trust magnate who sits cool and respectable in his office and robs from the masses. Only Ivan was on rather a higher plane, as he confined himself to relieving the too-rich of their plethora of wealth.

If I had still been an active member of the Under-World this feud with Chu-Chu would not have bothered me a scrap. Although I had always managed to keep on good terms with, my colleagues, such blood-quarrels had come under my observation several times, and in most cases they had reached their issue quietly and without "scandal," as one might say. Chu-Chu and I turned loose in Paris on the warpath for each other's scalps were on perfectly even terms; in fact, the advantage was, if anything, with me, as I could play a greater number of rôles than he, and, more important than that, I was not driven by sheer hate and malignity. My game would be played entirely with the head, while it was possible with Chu-Chu that emotion might lead him into taking chances.

But the trouble was that Chu-Chu belonged to the Under-World, which I had left. A man going about his business in a respectable state of Society has about as much chance of protecting himself against the preformed attack of a dangerous criminal as a stag in a deer-park would have of escaping a hunter out for its head. I knew mighty well that if I wanted to kill Chu-Chu before Chu-Chu got a chance to kill me I would have to take a dive under the surface of Society. Otherwise the odds would be those of a man swimming against a tiger-shark. So I determined to slip back into the Under-World long enough to do for Chu-Chu.

This may sound cold-blooded and ferocious to you, my friend, but you must remember that I had been a criminal for all of my life. As I have told you before, I was never one of those thugs who walk into a house with a loaded gun, ready to take life if interrupted. But I had never placed a very high value on my own life, nor on that of any other criminal. As I saw it, the law was always "off" on game of my breed. The law does not bother itself very much when it stubs its toes on a dead thief, and is generally quite content when crooks turn to and slaughter each other. And the crooks have rather accepted this liberal point of view.

Although it was known to only a few people in the Under-World that M. de Maxeville and Chu-Chu le Tondeur were the same, I thought it possible that an inquest over his corpse would bring this to light and prevent much investigation for his assassin. Whether it did or not, I certainly did not intend to sit down and twirl my thumbs and wait for Chu-Chu to bag me. Although I had reformed, my principles had not yet mounted to this lofty plane.

One thing was pretty sure, and that was that Chu-Chu would make no attempt upon my life until he had tried to swap his gems back for the pearls. At least, I did not think that he would. Chu-Chu was known to be an avaricious man and he knew that I wanted that particular pearl necklace and would be willing to sacrifice the added value of the gems to get it. I had little doubt but that I would hear from him in regard to the matter before the day was over.

Well, the game was on now and all that I could do was to play it out. On leaving Ivan's house I had turned down a street which led to the garage where I stabled our six-cylinder show-car, for John and I were to take out a client later. The garage was a big, new establishment, near the Pare Monceau and accommodated two or three hundred cars. When I got there I found that my tyres were a little soft and told a mécanicien to give me some air. He was doing this, and I standing by waiting, when I heard a voice that struck me as familiar. I looked up over the top of the tonneau, then ducked down again, for there, six paces away, stood Ivan's chauffeur; the same man who had gone with us the night that Léontine and I entered John's house, and at his elbow, his back turned to me, was Chu-Chu.

The chauffeur was talking. I heard him say:

"We will go by Pontoise, M'sieu. It is less direct, but it saves the time that would be lost in crossing Paris and the road is better. From Pontoise there is a little route to Beauvais which is now in good condition and cuts off a good deal of distance. After Beauvais we stick to the route nationale."

Chu-Chu growled something that I did not hear, but there was no need. Pontoise, Beauvais, and after that the route nationale. It was plain enough. Chu-Chu was off for Boulogne or Calais.

The car came down that minute on one of the big lifts and the two got aboard, I crouching down and pretending to examine my chain. Out went the other car, which I recognised as Ivan's 16-24 two-seated road-car. Chu-Chu was driving. I looked after it and took the number.

Thought I to myself, "Now what the deuce is he up to? England?" I had never heard of Chu-Chu's having done any work over there. Then it struck me that his errand might have something to do with Léontine. It was possible that he had given the pearls that morning to Léontine, but this idea I put out of my mind. Léontine would know where they came from, and I did not believe that in the face of my threat she would dare to dispose of them. It must be something else.

I shoved the gauge into my fuel tank and found that I had but fifteen litres, for big cars going on the road buy their essence outside of Paris, as you know, to save the octroi duty.

"Fill the reservoir," I said to the mécanicien. "I am taking out some clients and do not want to bother to stop outside."

While the man was getting the petrol I did some rapid thinking. I did not believe that Chu-Chu was going after the pearls. But, then, what was he up to?

Another idea struck me. What if Chu-Chu's errand was not to get the pearls but to dispose of them? What if he had turned the pearls in to Ivan and the two had come to an understanding and decided to insist on Léontine's getting rid of them, taking the chances on getting the gems from me later by methods of their own? It was possible that they might be confident that I would keep the gems on my person, and even at that moment Ivan's bloodhounds might be on my trail. A moment's thought and I was sure that this was the actual situation.

I went quickly to the office of the garage. Prince Kharkoff, I knew, lived near the Parc Monceau, and it was most probable that he garaged in this same establishment.

"What time did the car of M. le Prince Kharkoff go out?" I asked.

"At ten o clock, M. Clamart," said the manager. "M. le Prince is off for London."

"Thank you," said I, and went back to hurry the mécanicien.

For with this information it seemed to me that the whole business was clear. Kharkoff's car was a big, heavy, limousine affair, and not capable of much speed. Kharkoff would probably stop at St. Germain for déjeuner, and this would consume an hour and a half at least, for the Russian was a high-liver. After déjeuner they would take the road to Boulogne, probably stopping at Abbeville for tea, and reaching Boulogne in good time to take the boat which left for Folkestone at seven. Chu-Chu would push right through, and contrive in some way to get a word with Léontine, handing over to her the pearls, with strict instructions from Ivan that she dispose of them. After that, he would return with all speed to Paris and take up my trail. The game was being undoubtedly played to the full limit and to win the pearls, the gems and the life of a dangerous renegade.

All of this hit me, like a ton of brick, as the true solution. I had been a fool, I thought, to figure for a second on Chu-Chu's condescending to make a dicker with a rank outsider who had handled him as I had done. To begin with, no doubt his ferocious hate was so intense that he would rather have lost the gems and flung the pearls into the Seine than to have had me square myself with the Cuttynges. Ivan, too, had been humiliated in a manner impossible for his self-respect as the chief of a big criminal system to endure. Neither one could stomach it, and they had joined forces again to play the game out to the bitter end.

All of this, my friend, had flashed through my mind, even as I went to the office to learn when the Prince's car had gone out. Sooner, in fact. The problem and its possible solution had occurred to me as Chu-Chu rolled out of the garage when I had told the mécanicien to fill up my tank. In the Under-World the odds are heavy on the man who strikes first. So far this policy had won for me, and I determined to stick to it. As matters stood I felt that I was a doomed individual. If Ivan had marked me for the morgue, I was a goner. But, at any rate, I did not intend to mark time and wait for the blow to fall. My word, but I was sorry that I hadn't followed my play through, and sent them both to glory when I had had the chance!

But Chu-Chu had not yet pulled out of the woods. My plan, at the moment, was nothing more nor less than to catch and kill him on the road to Boulogne.

Ivan's little car was a good one, but she was no match for my big six. I decided to overhaul Chu-Chu on the road somewhere beyond Amiens, and, as I passed, to shoot him dead as he sat at the wheel. If the mécanicien showed fight, I would kill him, too. Sounds pretty thick, doesn't it? That's because we are in peaceful old France. If it were Arizona you'd think nothing about it.

"All ready, m'sieu," said the garage man; and I came out of my trance.

I got my motoring ulster and a face-mask out of the locker, then climbed into the car and rolled out, turning toward the Avenue de la Grande Armée. At the office I stopped and put the gems in the safe, locking them up in an inner drawer, and putting the key in my pocket.

"I've got some business that may keep me out all day," said I to Gustave. "If M. Cuttynge comes up, tell him that I have just learned of something important, and ask him to make another rendezvous with M. Caldwell. If I have not returned by seven, don't wait."

Out I went and jumped into the car and rolled off, leaving Gustave to stare after me, disgusted that I should go without a mécanicien. My mind was working fast as I sped along. Plan after plan went through my head. It struck me that perhaps the best way would be to pass Chu-Chu when he was travelling fast and crowd him into the ditch. This would not be difficult with a big heavy car like mine; and in such an "accident" the driver is usually killed while the man beside him is apt to escape. If neither was injured, I could always go back and finish Chu-Chu with my pistol. Then I thought of even a better plan. Why not get on ahead, then lay my car across the road so that they would have to stop, and hold Chu-Chu up and go through him for the pearls? Once having got them, I could rush back to Paris, turn over the pearls and the gems to John, with instructions to give the latter to the police, and get out of the country as quick as possible. I did not believe that Ivan or Chu-Chu would follow me up if I went to America, though it was possible that Chu-Chu might.

Sounds as if I began to weaken as I went along, doesn't it? Well, perhaps I did. The odds against me were too awful heavy, and life is sweet, after all. The strain was beginning to tell, too, and I knew that this would get steadily worse. A fight in the open is all right; but to feel that you are being watched and dogged and shadowed by a big human octopus, to be struck down at the first unguarded moment, is pretty awful. I don't pretend to any more nerve than the average man who has lived the most of his active life in the Under-World. Besides, I never was a killer.

Out I went through St. Germain to avoid the pavée, and turned off for Pontoise, taking a good road gait but not pushing her any. It was a beautiful day in the early summer, and as I filled my lungs with the sweet perfume of the forest it struck me as being mighty rough that I should be crowded out just when life seemed to be opening up all anew and full of promise. If only they could have left me in peace. I thought of Edith's sweet face and wondered what she would say if she knew how things had turned out. At any rate, living or dead, she would know that I had stuck to my word and taken the consequences without flinching, and this thought did me a lot of good. After all, my life had been lived at the expense of Society, and Society had a right to collect her debt before taking me back. A curious thing, this life. No act ever seems to go for nothing, good or bad. I began to get mighty thoughtful as I rolled along through that splendid old forest of St. Germain. A deep sadness settled on me. After all, I thought, what's the use of trying to escape your destiny. Very likely God made thieves and murderers to prey on the rest of mankind just as he made wolves and panthers to prey on deer. About half of the living creatures in the world prey on the other half. It's hard to see the use of a criminal, except to himself and others of his class, but it struck me that maybe Chu-Chu had run over the limit and that I was intended as an instrument to put a check on him. That was a cheerful way to look at it, anyway.

I passed through Pontoise and held on for Beauvais by the little route that Ivan's man had spoken of at the garage. It was a pity, I thought, that I could not have caught them up here, for there was nobody on the road. By this time I had my plan all made. I determined to pass Chu-Chu at high speed and literally crowd him off the road. This would be dangerous to me, of course, as it's a risky job to mix up the direction of a big car running at a high speed, but I would be prepared and ought to be able to stick to the track. As you know, these French roads are drained by ditches at least a foot deep and a foot wide, running off at right-angles and spaced only ten or a dozen metres apart. Shoved into one of those while running fast, Chu-Chu's chances were all for getting piled up. What happened after that would depend on circumstances. I gave up the idea of stopping him by laying my own car across the road. In the first place there was the danger that he might recognise me, even in my mask and ulster. Also, it was possible that somebody might come along and interfere with the rest of the game.

At Beauvais I struck the route nationale and hit up my speed, and in a few minutes the big six was tearing along like a comet. Very few people were on the road, but presently I sighted a cloud of dust ahead and over-hauled a big limousine car with a trunk on behind and a lot of small luggage on top.

"Kharkoff!" I said to myself, and sure enough it was. I cut loose the siren and the car swerved out to the right, and as I tore past I caught a glimpse of the Prince inside and Léontine. They could not have recognised me, my face being covered with the mask, but I hoped that Chu-Chu was far enough ahead to enable me to finish my business with him before they came up, and this seemed probable as the little car was light and fast.

I passed through Amiens, then hit up the speed again. Then, just outside the town I sighted a small car spinning up a hill on ahead. Getting closer I saw that there were two men aboard it. They were travelling fast, but I slowed a bit, as the place was too populated for my purpose.

Five kilometres spun past and we were in a big, open country with a clear road and few houses, these for the most part scattered farms, with here and there some peasants working in the fields. I took a long breath.

"Now for it," I said to myself. "I'll get him on the next long down-grade."