Fate Meets Johnny Smiling
Johnny inspected his room and bath on the sixth floor and straightway began to worry about the bill. The shaded reading lamp by the bed impressed him mightily, as did the smoking set on its own little mahogany stand, and the coat-hangers in the closet. Johnny was accustomed to stopping in hotels where the furnishings were all but nailed down, and the little conveniences were conspicuously absent. This, he decided, was a regular place; a home for millionaires. He doubted very much whether the Thunder Bird was worth the furniture in this one room, and wondered at his own temerity in making free with it. To brace his courage he must untie the roll of money Bland had given him in Tucson and count the bank notes twice.
"By golly, I can stand one night here, any way," he reassured himself finally, and took a long breath.
Just then a bell boy tapped discreetly on the door, and when Johnny opened it he slipped in with a pitcher of ice water, which he carried to a table with the air of a loyal henchman serving his king, which means that he was thinking of tips. In the exuberance of his fresh sensation of affluence and his gratitude for the service, Johnny pulled off a five-dollar bill and gave it to the boy. The bell boy said, "Thank you, sir," and added breathlessly, "Gee, I wish I was an aviator, Mr. Jewel!"
Sir and Mister all in one breath, and to be called an aviator besides had a perceptible effect upon Johnny. He swaggered across the room that had a moment ago awed him to the point of wanting to walk on his toes. Of course he was an aviator! Hadn't he been flying in his own plane? What more did it take, for gosh sake? A pilot's license was a mere detail, alongside the night he had made that day. He should say he was an aviator!
The 'phone tinkled. A man from the Times wanted to talk with him, it seemed. Johnny gruffly told him over the house 'phone that he didn't care to be interviewed. "You boys get too fresh," he censured. "You don't stick to facts. You're going to get in trouble if you don't let up on me. I hate this publicity stuff, anyway. I wish you'd go off somewhere and die quietly and leave me alone."
"Well, just let me come up and explain," the reporter urged. "All I want is a story of your flight across country. You're mistaken if you think I'm guilty of--"
"Oh, well, if that's all you want. But I'm just about off reporters for life. You'll have to do some apologizing, believe me!"
Johnny was sprawled on the nice, white bed, with his boot heels cocked up on the expensive mahogany footboard. He had the two big, puffy pillows wadded under his head and the reading lamp lighted and throwing a rosy shadow on his tanned countenance. The smoking set was pulled close and he was reaching for a match when the reporter knocked.
"Come in," he called boredly, and fanned the smoke from before his face that he might look upon this unwelcome visitor who was going to apologize for the sins of his colleagues in Arizona.
The reporter, once he was inside, did not look apologetic, nor did he resemble a reporter, as Johnny knew them. He was a slim young man, tall enough to wear his clothes like the Apollos you see pictured in tailors' advertisements. Indeed, he much resembled those young men. He wore light gray, with the coat buttoned at the bottom and loose over his manly chest. He also wore a gray hat tilted over one temple in the approved style for illustrated catalogues. He had gray gloves crumpled in one hand and a cane in the other, and he stood with his immaculately shod feet slightly apart, gently swung the cane, and regarded Johnny with a faint smile of extreme boredom.
Johnny bore the scrutiny in silence, stifling the impulse to rise and offer Apollo a chair. Instead, he turned lazily and knocked the ash collar off his cigarette, and afterward thumped the top pillow before he resettled himself.
"Won't cost anything to sit down," he observed amiably. "Well, where's that apology?"
The slim young man laughed to himself, deposited his cane and gloves on a chair, moved his feet slightly farther apart and produced a small pad. "For the sins I may commit, I humbly apologize. Whatever it was your sagebrush scribes perpetrated I didn't write it, therefore we should not quarrel. A few details on your trip to-day will be of interest, Mr. Jewel."
Johnny grinned. "There ain't any details. We just flew till we got here, and then we lit."
"We?" The gray-clad one lifted a finely formed eyebrow.
"My mechanic and me."
"Ah." The fellow made a mark or two with his pencil and waited for more--until he perceived that more would not be forthcoming.
"And now that you have lit, what do you expect to do, may I ask?"
"Oh-h--" Johnny covered a wide yawn with his palm, "make money. What else is there to do?"
"Go broke," the reporter suggested, smiling again--with less boredom, by the way.
"Old stuff," Johnny grunted. "I aim to be different."
The fashion plate laughed almost humanly. "If half they said of you is true, you've nothing to complain about. By the way--how much of it was true? I mean how you salvaged the plane from Mexico and used it to catch horse thieves, and the Indian god stuff, and the Lochinvar--"
Johnny sat up belligerently. "Say! What are you looking for? Trouble?"
"Merely verifying rumors. A very natural professional caution, I assure you."
"Caution! Hnh! Funny way you've got of being cautious, old-timer. I'd call it a fine way of heading down-stairs without waiting for the elevator."
"I understand--perfectly. So you have no settled plans for the future, I take it? Just ready for whatever turns up that looks promising?"
Johnny grunted and looked at his watch. Hunger, which he had forgotten in the novelty of his surroundings, began to manifest itself again. He got up and gleaned his aviator's helmet from a branch of the mahogany hatrack and looked at it dubiously, wishing that it was his Big Four Stetson instead.
"What I'm ready for right now is chuck," he said pointedly. "I ain't fortune teller enough to give you any line on my future. I wish to heck I could. I'm out here to make good at flying. Money--that's what I want. Lots of it. But right now I want a square meal more than anything. So I'm afraid--"
"All right, Jewel. I cease to be a news hound and become your host, with your permission. Let me take you to a regular place, will you? I haven't had dinner yet myself."
"You ain't? Good golly! What you been doing all day?"
The reporter who had ceased to be a reporter checked a smile while he picked up gloves and cane and opened the door.
"Say! If I told you all I've been doing, old man, you'd think flying from Tucson is a snap! It's a merry life we newspaper men lead. Not."
They were at the elevator before it occurred to Johnny that he was deviating considerably from his intended line of conduct. He remembered that Bland had promised to wait for him outside the door. He was not at all certain that Bland would do so in the face of temptations,--such as hunger and thirst,--but it seemed a shabby trick to play him nevertheless. Instinct warned him that Bland could not be included in the invitation. Bland was indefinably but inexorably out of it. This fellow--and there Johnny remembered that he did not know the name of his host, and that he had but a moment ago all but threatened to throw him down six flights of winding stairs built all of steel or marble or some hard fireproof substance that would make painful tobogganing. He eyed askance the nameless one and was impressed anew by the absolute correctness of his attire. He wondered that the fellow was not ashamed to be seen in public with him.
"My name, by the way, is Lowell. Cliff Lowell." This was in the elevator. "The desk clerk will tell you as much as any one need know about me, if you feel the need of credentials." The elevator halted, and the human automaton who operated it slid open the door. "I don't often yield to these sudden impulses myself. But life is a bore--and you are different. I somehow feel as if we are going to hit it off all right together. At any rate, I am willing to gamble on the acquaintance for one evening. I take it you are in the same boat--eh?"
"Sure," said Johnny, flattered without in the least knowing what it was that warmed him toward Cliff Lowell so suddenly. "I suppose I ought to--my mechanic was to wait outside for me--"
Cliff Lowell lifted an eyebrow and smiled a little smile. "You must have a very well-trained mechanic if he really would wait outside at this time in the evening." He bowed and lifted his hat to an impressive old lady in some glittery, lacy kind of gown, and Johnny bowed also and blushed because a girl just beyond the old lady gave him a slant-eyed glance and the shadow of a smile. Ten steps farther a fierce looking man with a wide, white frontage and a high silk hat slowed his pace and cried, "Why, hello, Cliff!" in a manner not at all fierce. Between there and the entrance Johnny counted seven important looking persons who recognized his host as an acquaintance. He began to wonder at his own presumption in receiving one of Los Angeles' leading citizens as he had received Cliff Lowell. It was with a conscious effort that he maintained his attitude of sturdy independence.
Bland, it transpired, had tired of waiting for Johnny. He was nowhere to be seen, and with a parting salute from the white-gloved doorman they set out briskly for the regular place Cliff Lowell had chosen to honor with his patronage. The regular place was such a very regular place that it had disdained blatant electric signs and portents of its presence. Cliff led Johnny up a flight of narrow stairs and turned sharply to the left through a subdued kind of vestibule that gave no inkling of what lay beyond, except that a chipper young hat boy took their headgear and the cane and gloves before they went on.
Johnny Jewel, desert product that he was, nearly stampeded before Cliff had safely seated him, with the help of the head waiter, who spoke with a full French flavor. The table chosen for them stood before a long divan whereon they sat side by side and faced the room filled to overflowing with small groups of diners who seemed very much at home there and very much pleased with life and with one another. Many of them called greetings to Cliff Lowell, who responded with his bored smile, like a matinee idol who feels he needs a vacation.
Girls with improbable complexions and sophisticated eyes sent Johnny curious glances and provocative smiles when their companions were not looking. "Movie queens," Cliff Lowell explained in an undertone, "coming and going. Some of them dreaming of coronation, others about ready for the axe. It has taken them just about ten seconds to register interest in the strange male person who must be Somebody or he would not be here in high boots and flannel shirt."
Johnny flushed. "You saw the clothes I had on, and you brought me here," he retorted. "The joke's on you."
"No less than seven have given me the high sign to bring you over and introduce you," Cliff Lowell went on imperturbably. "They are frantically searching their memories at the present moment, trying to place you. They are positive that you are some star whom they have not met, and they are trying to remember what picture they ought to mention when the introduction has been successfully accomplished." He paused long enough to murmur an order to a hovering waiter whose English was almost unintelligible to Johnny because of its French.
"Should the crisis have to be met suddenly, do you wish to dodge the publicity that would follow if I told just who you are? There are certain incidents which you do not care to have recalled. I made sure of that at the hotel, you remember."
"I don't want to know anybody. I came here to eat. If I can't do that without being introduced to a lot of folks, I'll beat it and find some lunch counter that will feed me without trying to make a boob outa me. I ain't dressed to meet company, anyway. And I don't want anything from this bunch except to be left alone."
"Fair enough," Cliff sighed contentedly and leaned back at his ease. "You're wiser than you realize. Knowing this bunch wouldn't get you anywhere, except at the bottom of your pile, maybe. What you want is to steer clear of everything that will interfere with what you're after. Here come the eats--you'll know presently why I brought you here."
Waiters came, brought strange preparations of food which were a revelation to Johnny, to whom meat had meant just meat, boiled, roasted or fried, to whom salad meant two or three kinds of vegetables hashed together and served sour. Girls' glances were wasted upon him while he tasted dubiously, succumbed to each new and delicious viand, and explored farther, secretly eager for more wonders.
"I know now why you brought me here," he sighed contentedly after the coffee was served. "It wasn't to see the girls, either. Grub's got possibilities I never dreamed about."
Lowell smiled, sent a negligent nod toward a group that had just come in and recognized him, and tendered Johnny his tooled leather cigarette case.
"I never talk business until after I am fed," he observed. "But now--since you have nothing definite in view except the making of money, suppose you listen to a little proposition I am going to make you. It's rather confidential, however--"
"My ears are open," said Johnny, "and my mouth is shut. I don't have to like your proposition, but in case I don't I can forget things mighty easy."
"Good. I'll make it short, and you can take it or leave it. I am not a reporter; not the kind of reporter you mean. I gather special stuff for a big news syndicate. Big stuff, stuff the little fellows never dream of going after. I get, of course, big returns.
"My real object in seeing you to-night was not exactly the getting of a news item for any paper. I saw your name on the register, found that you had flown over here, and wanted to see you and take your measure for the job I have in mind.
"Briefly, the proposition is this: I need a flyer who can fly, knows a little of the desert, has got some nerve on the ground as well as in the air, and who can keep his mouth shut. It's harder than you may think to find one who measures up, and who is willing to avoid the limelight. They all want publicity, and publicity is what this job must shun. What I am working on now is big stuff across the border. I can get the news, all right--I am in touch with some of the big men over there--but the deuce of it is the going back and forth. This embargo business that has been framed lately is interfering with my work. I could get a passport, yes. Perfectly simple. I could go across, and I could get the news I want. But the bother of it, and the delay here and there is--well, it's a big handicap. You can see that easily.
"My idea, therefore, and I think it's a good one, is to hire you to take me over and back. It might take all your time and it might not--but I should want to have you on call, ready to go anywhere, any time, at a moment's notice. It would make a tremendous difference in the time-saving alone. You would have to--what about your mechanic?"
"What about him? I don't just get you." Johnny looked at him startled.
Lowell sat leaning one elbow lightly on the table, his slim, manicured fingers tapping silently the rhythm of some tune which he was subconsciously following. It was the only sign of nervousness he displayed, save a frequent swift scanning of faces in the room. Any diner there who observed him would have said that Cliff was retailing some current scandal which concerned an acquaintance. Any diner would have said that the good-looking boy in flyer's togs was listening with mental reservations, ready to argue a point, but nevertheless eager to hear the whole story.
"I mean, what about the mechanic? Have you any contract with him, or are you tied up with him in any way? Can you get rid of him, in other words?"
Johnny studied his little cup of coffee, his subconscious mind registering the incongruity of such a skimpy amount of coffee after such an amazingly ample meal. Consciously he was having a hurried, whispered conversation with his native honesty.
"Well--I ain't married to Bland," he stated judicially, meeting candidly the other's intent stare. "I never made any contract with him. He agreed to do certain things for me if I'd bring him here--and I brought him. On top of that, he talked about our doing certain things when we got here--it was exhibition flying and taking up joyriders--and I kinda fell in with the idea. I never said, right out in so many words, that I'd do it. I just kinda let it ride along the way he said. He sure expects me to go ahead, but--"
Lowell exhaled a mouthful of smoke and sipped his coffee as though he was relieved of some doubt. "That's all right, then. You are free to change your mind. And you're lucky that you have something to change to, if I may say what I think. There's nothing in that sort of thing any more. It would scarcely pay for the wear and tear on your machine, I imagine. You certainly could not pull down any real money doing that little stuff. Now let's see--"
He smoked and studied some mental question until Johnny grew restive and finished the demitasse at a gulp. "Let's see. Suppose we say a thousand dollars a week for you and your machine. It will be worth that to me if you make good and take me across where I want to go, whenever I want to go, and fetch me back without bringing all the border patrols buzzing around, asking why and how. That, frankly, is one point that must be taken care of. It is no crime to cross the border without a passport--if you can get across. Technically it is unlawful at the present time, but in reality it is all right, if you can get away with it. We could not walk up boldly and say, 'Listen, we want permission to fly across the line on business of our own.' They'd have to say no. That's their orders, issued to stop a lot of smuggling and that sort of thing. But we are not smugglers--at least," he qualified with a faint smile, "I am not. What I shall bring back will be legitimate news of international importance, gleaned in a legitimate way. In fact it will be of some use to the government, though the government could scarcely authorize me to gather it.
"Now as to credentials, you will do me a favor if you look me up. As to yourself, I know all about you, thanks to that adventurous spirit which brought you into the limelight and is really of tremendous value to me. Seriously now, as a sporting proposition and a chance to make money, how does it strike you?"
"Why--it looks all right, on the face of it." Johnny was trying to be extremely cautious. "I'll have to think it over, though. For one thing, I'll want to do some figuring before I can say whether the price is right. It costs money to keep an airplane in the air, Mr. Lowell. You'd be surprised to see just how much a fellow has to pay out to keep a motor in good mechanical shape. And, of course, I wouldn't look at it at any price unless I was dead sure it was straight. If you'll excuse my saying so, I ain't after dirty money. It's got to be clean."
"That's the stuff! I'm glad to hear you come right out and say so, because that's where I stand. I want you to look me up. Here's the card of the International News Syndicate--they handle nothing but big political stuff, you understand. A sort of secret service of newspaperdom. Ask them about me and about the proposition. They'll be paying you the money--not me. Ask any one else you like, only don't mention this particular matter we've been discussing. As the lawyers say, secrecy is the essence of this contract." He laughed and crooked a finger at the waiter who had served them so assiduously, got his dinner check and paid it with a banknote that, even deducting the high cost of eating in a regular place, returned him a handful of change. He tipped the waiter generously and rose.
"You'd have to keep under cover as much as possible," he continued planning, when they were again on the street. "How much attention did you attract, Mr. Jewel, when you landed?"
"Why, not any. It was about dark, and we lit in a beanfield over beyond Inglewood. We left the plane there and came in on a street car. I don't guess anybody saw us at all."
"Fine! This is playing our way from the start. If any one notices your name on the hotel register and asks you questions, you came after certain parts for your motor--any errand will do--and you expect to leave again at any time. This does not commit you to the proposition, Mr. Jewel. It is merely keeping our lines straight in case you do accept. I want you to sleep on it--but please don't talk in your sleep!" He laughed, and Johnny laughed with him and promised discretion.
The last he saw of Cliff Lowell that night, Cliff was talking with a group of important-looking men who treated him as though they had known him for a long, long while. Their manifest intimacy struck Johnny as a tacit endorsement of Cliff's character and reputation. It would seem almost an insult to go around quizzing people about a man so popular with the leading citizens, Johnny told himself. He would think the proposition over, certainly. He was not fool enough to jump headfirst into a thing like that at the first crook of a stranger's finger, but--
"Good golly! Talk about luck! Why, at a thousand dollars a week, I can pay old Sudden off in a month, doggone him. And have a thousand to the good. And if the job holds out for another month or two--"
That, if you please, is how Johnny "thought it over and did some figuring!"