Queen of the flaming dia.., p.5
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       Queen of the Flaming Diamond, p.5

           Leroy Yerxa
 
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diamonds. A fortune that could easilyeclipse the yield of Africa's richest diamond fields.--ED.]

  * * * * *

  Jim Drake knew all he wanted to for the time being. He turned towardthe unlighted marquee of the Owl Limb.

  "Looks as though the police closed the place up," Puffy said soberly."Gonna stay sober tonight?"

  "Do you know where that check room girl lives; the one you call Mary?"Drake asked.

  Puffy's face sobered.

  "She's married and has three kids," he said. "I don't know where anymarried women live."

  Jim chuckled. He twisted the car into the traffic again, and with aswift U-turn, headed the coupe toward home.

  "Just the same I need information from a married woman," he said. "Andyou're getting out at the next corner in a perhaps futile effort tofind Mary."

  "And if her husband doesn't meet me at the door with a shotgun," Puffyasked, "what do I ask her?"

  Jim shot an appraising look toward the deserted corner ahead, whippedthe coupe up beside a traffic officer and opened the door.

  "From now on," he said, "we are interested in Lardner. He's a busy manthese days. Mary ought to know where her boss is. Women like that havean idea of everything that is going on. Find out where Lardner wentand meet me at the apartment as soon as you can."

  Puffy was already on the sidewalk.

  "Leave it to me, Cinderella," he said. "I get the idea. If you can'tfollow the fox, you're gonna follow the wolf and let him lead you toher."

  Drake nodded and smiled after the sturdy figure with a growingrespect.

  "Move along there!" The gruff voice came from his side. "Can't beholding traffic all night for you."

  Drake turned, saw the officer grinning at him, and shot into thetraffic.

  * * * * *

  The door of the apartment was ajar. The puzzled expression on JimDrake's face changed to one of worried interest. He pushed the dooropen swiftly, and silently. The lights were out. A sound came from thedirection of the window and straining he thought he saw the curtainblow in slightly. On tiptoe he went swiftly around the side of the bigroom. The chair by the bed had been moved and he struck his shin on itin the dark.

  The room flashed white as he pressed the electric button. Hot angerpassed through his body. Every piece of furniture in the room had beentipped upside down. Linings were torn from the chairs. His clothingwas heaped in an ugly pile in the middle of the floor. Drawers werepulled out and emptied.

  The fur! He ran swiftly to the closet, twisted the handle and breatheda sigh of relief. The cedar chest was broken and splintered around thelock, but the cover hadn't been lifted. He inserted the key quicklyand drew out the fur cape. Its rich depth felt more precious than everin his fingers. Here in his hands was the link to his first real loveaffair.

  A footstep sounded faintly behind him. His heart was in his throat.Drake whipped around and sprang to his feet. He stared straight intothe barrel of a wicked automatic. Lifting his eyes slowly, he studiedthe man who held the weapon.

  The stranger's face was hard as stone, almost barbaric. His bronzeskin stretched tightly over firm, high cheek bones. The mouth was openslightly in a determined way. Teeth that flashed like an uneven row ofpearls seemed half savage, yet not unfriendly.

  "You will come toward me slowly," the man's voice was cultured, yethesitant, as though he hadn't spoken English for many years. "A falsemove will destroy you."

  He backed away toward the center of the room.

  "How ... where?" Drake stammered.

  "You forgot to examine the bath," the gunman said. "You are not apainstaking young man, Jim Drake."

  Jim started. The man knew his name, held a gun on him that threatenedimmediate death, and yet his voice was friendly, ever courteous.

  "I have nothing here that you want," Drake said.

  * * * * *

  He stood in the middle of the room now. The stranger reached downcarefully with one hand, still holding his aim. He twisted a chairupright and sat down. For the first time Drake had a chance to lookhim over more carefully. His eyes were the same deep black as SylviaFanton's. Cold and yet somehow gentle.

  "You are holding in your hand what I need more than anything in theworld." The man relaxed but the gun didn't waver. Drake sat downopposite him on the edge of the bed.

  "The fur?" he asked.

  "The fox fur." The gun settled on the strange intruder's knee and heleaned forward eagerly. "Give it to me at once. If I leave with itnow, you will be troubled no more. This is as our mistress demands."

  Then Sylvia Fanton had sent him. He must be one of the henchmen shehad spoken of. At once Drake felt relieved. He pushed the fur awayfrom him slowly, hating to part with it. The man stood up, took itwith his free hand and held it tightly.

  "You are very wise," he said slowly.

  He started to back toward the window.

  "Wait," Drake was on his feet, "Sylvia promised to return in themorning. Why...?"

  A look of compassion spread across the gunman's face.

  "Sylvia Fanton is no more," he said pityingly. "You had but a briefglimpse of an earthly woman who is the most perfect creation on earth.Now she has completed her mission and will return to her people."

  "Then you did get the diamond?" Drake was sorry at once that he hadspoken. The man's eyes turned icy.

  "We have done what we came to do," he said shortly. "We appreciate thepart you played in our success. More than that, I am not at liberty todiscuss. Please do not follow me as I leave."

  Then, carefully,

  "Make no mistake, Mr. Drake. Our queen came very close to desertingher sacred trust. If you were to see her again, you would not enjoythe same close association. There is no place in her life for you, oryou would be going with me instead of staying here at the point of agun."

  Drake moved forward hesitantly, and then stopped with the gesture of aman who knows he is beaten.

  "Okay," he admitted. "You've got me on the spot. But remember this:George Lardner thinks more of that diamond than he does his life. He'sgoing to leave a trail of blood in every country of the world, buthe'll get it if you don't kill him first."

  The gunman's face was a mask of hatred.

  "Do not underestimate the power Lardner is fighting," he said grimly."There will be blood, yes. It will be Lardner's blood. He has a debtto pay, and it is not our wish that you be involved when payment ismade. Our leader whom you know as Sylvia Fanton has one message foryou. Goodbye."

  He tossed a small envelope of paper at Jim's feet and was gone throughthe window as silently as a floating cloud.

  * * * * *

  Jim stood speechless for a second, then he went toward the window andlooked down the long line shadow of the fire escape. There was no onein sight. A small dog darted along the edge of the alley far below. Orwas it a dog? His bewildered mind told him the animal was more like afox in its quick, sly movements.

  Drake picked up the slip of paper in shaking fingers. He opened it andstared at the neat longhand message:

  _We were very close to love, Jim Drake. Love is not good for a womanwho has my obligations._

  The outer door rattled noisily. Drake took a second quick look at thenote and stuffed it into his pocket. Puffy Adams stormed in andstopped abruptly with a shocked look in his eyes.

  "Been havin' a party?" he asked whimsically. "Looks like the guestscame on a whirlwind."

  Drake was silent. He started to rearrange the room mechanically. Duffycollected the clothing from the floor and replaced it in the closet.The boss would talk when he got ready.

  From the chair by the cocktail table, Drake said suddenly, "What aboutLardner? Did Mary know where he went?"

  Puffy, his job completed, slumped across the bed.

  "That guy Lardner is off on another trip." He started to slip hisshoes off, thought better of it, and tied the laces again. "Mary sayshe gave the employees all a
month's pay and said he'd be back in timeto keep them in cash next month."

  Through a cloud of pipe smoke, Drake was placing more pieces into thejigsaw of Sylvia Fanton's life.

  "Any idea where he's going?" he asked.

  Puffy shook his head.

  "Not the slightest," he admitted. "Mary says her boss is tighter thana bum's pocketbook when it comes to information."

  Drake had enough pipe smoke. He put it away carefully and stood up.

  "I see you didn't get the shoes off after all," he said a littleslyly. "Going somewhere?"

  Puffy arose, took a suitcase from the closet shelf and started tossingclothing into it.

  "I think so," he said grimly. "If I'm half as good a stooge as I thinkI am, we'll be needing overcoats before we get back."

  Drake was already waiting at the door when his companion lifted theheavy bag to his shoulder and prepared to follow.

  "Got your long underwear?" he asked soothingly. "We're going to theairport first, but after that I've got a hunch we'll go diamondprospecting somewhere east of Hudson Bay."

  Puffy shivered.

  "Cinderella Drake hunts the silver slipper." His voice was doubtful,his eyes were twinkling. "If you find it up there, you'll freeze yourfoot trying the damned thing on."

  * * * * *

  The Municipal Airport was deserted, save for a small group of menwaiting just outside the main lobby. They were obviously the membersof a dance band. Instruments were packed and waiting on the baggagetruck outside as Drake and Puffy entered. Drake went straight to theticket window. The man behind the ticket cage looked up with a smileas he approached. His eyes were tired and questioning.

  "Yes, sir?" in quiet friendliness.

  Drake tossed a roll of bills on the counter.

  "We're thinking of taking the night plane to Winnipeg," he saidindecisively. "Any empty berths?"

  The clerk grinned.

  "Fortunately for you," he said, "there aren't any priority passengerstonight. The Winnipeg job has been full of flyers headed for theCanadian border for the past two weeks. Nothing of importance tonight.Five berths available."

  Drake looked around curiously.

  "Have you a passenger named George Lardner?" he asked.

  The clerk took down a small file and thumbed through it. He shook hishead.

  "No. Had you planned to meet him here?"

  Drake smiled.

  "We had a date," he admitted. "George Lardner is headed for the samedestination. He'll no doubt catch a later plane and meet us inWinnipeg."

  The clerk was penning figures rapidly across the ticket.

  "You won't lack for entertainment," he laughed in a low voice. "Thatgang at the door call themselves Harry's Rhythm Rascals. Headed for adance job up there."

  "I'd rather have a quiet berth," Drake admitted. "Need sleep more thanI need rhythm."

  The clerk collected the two fares and said sleepily,

  "Your plane will take off in twenty minutes, sir. May as well getaboard. The berths are made up."

  "Thanks." Drake pocketed the tickets and motioned for Adams to follow.As they passed Harry's Rhythm Rascals, Drake watched one of the menturn slowly and follow him.

  "That guy must be the tuba player," Puffy said quickly. "He sure looksas though he'd been pushed around."

  The luggage was disposed of and in ten minutes Drake was lying quietlyunder the dome of the plane. A sudden throb of motors came from upahead. With half closed eyes he wondered, if at the end of this madjourney, Sylvia Fanton might be waiting for him. George Lardnerwouldn't be far away. Although the plane trip had started like a wildgoose chase, at least he was headed in the general direction oftrouble, and the grandest girl he had ever met. Turning restlessly onone side, he was aware that the bumpy ground was no longer under theplane and the three great motors were purring smoothly as they driftedahead through the starlit night.

  * * * * *

  "Jim!--Jim!" Drake opened one eye with effort, remembered that he wasin a plane bound for Winnipeg, and sat up. Through the parted curtainhe could see the dark earth underneath sprinkled occasionally with ahandful of twinkling lights. Puffy Adams was leaning over the berth,his body clad in oversized pajamas, eyes wide with excitement.

  "The orchestra!" Puffy was muttering. "They ain't! They're Lardner'sgunmen! Lardner's on board!" He babbled on.

  "Wait a minute!" Drake was wide awake now. He helped Adams into theberth, holding a warning finger over his lips. "Now," he said firmly,"one thing at a time."

  "Those punks that called themselves Harry's Rhythm Rascals. They got aplane full of tommy guns. They can't play but _one_ tune on those."

  Drake's eyes narrowed.

  "How did you find out?"

  "I couldn't sleep," Puffy said. "Went up front to get a glass of waterand find that pretty hostess to keep me company."

  "So?"

  Puffy gulped.

  "So she isn't aboard the plane. We landed somewhere last night rightafter we took off. I didn't think nothin' of it. Ain't used to theseairplanes. Well, when I was up front I heard two of these punkstalkin' in their berths."

  He opened the curtain slightly and looked both ways along the narrowaisle.

  "This whole damned plane is full of Lardner's men. They were laughingat the trick they pulled on the airlines. Seems they forced the pilotto land, threw out both pilots and the hostess. Lardner was waiting atthe private field and he came aboard."

  "You're sure Lardner's on this plane?" Drake asked. "You didn't dreamall this?"

  "Listen, Cinderella." Puffy was himself again. "This sky bird isheadquarters for every ex-con in Chicago. I don't know why they didn'tthrow us off with the hostess, but I sure wish they had."

  A hard smile twisted Drake's lips.

  "I think," he said, "that we're going to see Sylvia Fanton much soonerthan I had planned. Unless we do some fast thinking we may not see heralive."

  * * * * *

  They sat quietly as Drake studied the country under the plane. Hetried to discover some landmark listed on the map. There was nothingbut scarred, snowcapped mountain peaks. A sprinkling of toothpickpines relieved the monotony of blinding snow, here and there.Gradually, as the plane droned on, even these were left behind.Ahead--only the white wastes.

  From somewhere forward in the plane came a hard chuckle of laughter.

  "Our hosts are coming to life," Drake said. "It's now or never." Hepushed bare feet into the aisle and dropped, stretching his armsoverhead with a yawn.

  "As soon as I'm out of sight," he whispered, "get back to your berthand dress. I'll see you in the cabin ahead. Act as though you knownothing. Understand?"

  Puffy grinned sadly.

  "That'll be easy," he answered, "but I've been around those violinsthat talk death before. Don't like a tommy gun unless it's in my ownhands."

  "Okay," Drake said grimly. "Keep your mouth shut and you may get yourwish."

  He slipped into his shoes, dressing quickly, went toward the tiny washroom halfway up the aisle. One of Lardner's men was making a hurriedexit. They met, heads down, with a jarring blow. The gunman started toswear loudly, caught himself and said in a mock pleasant voice,

  "Good morning. Say, ain't this a darb of a trip?"

  Drake nodded.

  "Guess I'll splash a little water over my face if you're done."

  The man's heavy face lighted in an embarrassed smile. He steppedhurriedly to one side.

  "Oh--oh sure. The sink's all yours."

  Once inside, Drake locked the door quickly. He washed the sleepinessfrom his eyes. So the laugh was on him after all. Lardner was incontrol of the ship, and headed for the lost Flaming Diamond. Where,Drake wondered, did he and Puffy Adams fit into the picture?

  Suddenly there was a difference in the tune the motors were humming.The plane slanted down at an abrupt angle and Drake pitched forwardagainst the wall. Struggling up, he heard a sharp knock at the
door.

  "Better strap yourself into a seat," a strange voice carried throughthe wall, muffled and far away.

  He turned the lock quickly, lurched out, and felt an automatic in thesmall of his back.

  "Hey!" Drake feigned surprise. "What the hell?"

  "Never mind, buddy," the man gave him a sharp push toward the cabin,"get yourself strapped in. We ain't got time to tell stories."

  A sharp prod of the gun settled the argument. Silently Drake wentforward. Puffy was already in his seat, his face an expressionlessmask.

  "Remember," he whispered, "keep your chin stiff and wait for a break.The fun has really started."

  * * * * *

  The plane had dropped and leveled off. Lardner's men seemed to haveforgotten their captives in the excitement. They sat with faces gluedto the windows, watching curiously as George Lardner at the controlsbrought them down in ever tightening circles toward the valley below.

  Adams nudged his companion.

  "Look at 'em," he whispered. "The rattiest looking bunch of bums I'veever seen. What in hell does Lardner need so many guns
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