Amazing Stories January 1950
“THE DEVIL, YOU SAY?”
IT WAS two o'clock in the morning when I decided that my attendance at a meeting of The International Newspapermen's Society for the Prevention of Thirst was a matter of moral necessity. This noble Brotherhood, steeped in tradition and by now as immortal as the institution of the public press, has always been a haven, a refuge and an inspiration to weary souls in the newspaper profession. Its gatherings at Ada's Bar & Grill—Open 24 Hours A Day have made more than a few dismiss their woes for a while.
I had just covered a terrifically drab story which depended nine tenths upon the typewriter for its effect, and both brain and throat had grown quite dry in consequence. The extra block and a half over to Ada's was a completely natural detour.
As usual at this time of day, the only customers were newspapermen.
Joe Barnes of the Herald was there, also Marv Kepner and Frank Monteverdi of the Express. Warren Jackson, the Globe's drama critic, sat musing over a cigar, and Mack Sargent, who got paid for being the News' sports man, seemed to be fascinated by improvising multiple beer rings on the table cloth.
The only one I was surprised to see was Dick Lewis, a featured columnist for the Express who'd lately hit the syndicates. He usually didn't drop in to Ada's more than two or three times a month, and then he never added much to the conversation.
Not that he wasn't likable. As a matter of fact, Dick always put a certain color into the get-togethers, by reason of being such a clam. It gave him a secretive or "Mystery-Man" appearance, and that's always stimulating to gab-fests which occasionally verge towards the monotonous.
He sat in one of the corner booths, looking as though he didn't give a damn about anything. A little different this time, a little lower at the mouth. Having looked into mirrors many times myself, I'd come to recognize the old half-closed eyelids that didn't result from mere tiredness. Dick sat there considering his half-empty stein and stifling only a small percentage of burps. Clearly he had been there some time and had considered a great many such half-empty steins.
I drew up a chair, tossed off an all-inclusive nod of greeting and listened for a few seconds to Frank's story of how he had scooped everybody in the city on the Lusitania disaster, only to get knocked senseless by an automobile ten seconds before he could get to a phone. The story died in the mid-section, and we all sat for a half hour or so quaffing cool ones, hiccoughing and apologizing.
One of the wonderful things about beer is that a little bit, sipped with the proper speed, can give one the courage to do and say things one would ordinarily not have the courage to even dream of doing and saying. I had absorbed, presto, sufficient of the miracle drug by the time the clock got to three A. M., to do something I guess I'd wanted to do in the back of my mind for a long time. My voice was loud and clear and charged with insinuation. Everybody looked up.
"Dammit, Lewis," I said, pointing directly at him, "in order to be a member in good standing of this Society, you've just got to say something interesting. A guy simply doesn't look as inscrutable as you do without having something on his mind. You've listened to our stories. Now how about one of your own?"
"Yeah," joined Monteverdi, "Ed's right. You might call it your dues."
Jackson looked pleased and put in: "See here, Lewis, you're a newsman aren't you? Surely you have one half way diverting story."
"If it's personal," I said, "so much the better. I mean, after all, we're a Brotherhood here."
And that started it. Pretty soon we were all glaring at poor Dick, looking resentful and defiant.
He then surprised us. He threw down the last of his drink, ordered three more, stared us each in the face one by one and said:
"Okay. All right. You're all just drunk enough to listen without calling for the boys in white, though you'll still think I'm the damndest liar in the state. All right, I admit it. I do have something on my mind. Something you won't believe worth beans. And let me tell you something else. I'm quitting this screwball racket, so I don't care what you think."
He drained another stein-full.
"I'm going to tell you why as of tomorrow I start looking for some nice quiet job in a boiler factory. Or maybe as a missionary."
And this is the story Dick Lewis told that night. He was either mighty drunk or crazy as a coot, because you could tell he believed every word he said.
I'm not so sure about any of it, myself. All I know for certain is that he actually did quit the game just as he said he would, and since that night I haven't even heard his name.
WHEN MY father died he left me a hundred and twenty-two dollars, his collection of plastic-coated insects and complete ownership of the Danville Daily Courier. He'd owned and edited the Courier for fifty-five years and although it never made any money for him, he loved it with all his heart. I sometimes used to think that it was the most precious thing in life to him. For whenever there wasn't any news—which was all the time—he'd pour out his inner thoughts, his history, his whole soul into the columns. It was a lot more than just a small town newspaper to Dad: it was his life.
I cut my first teeth on the old hand press and spent most of my time in the office and back room. Pop used to say to me, "You weren't born, lad, you appeared one day out of a bottle of printer's ink." Corny, but I must have believed him, because I grew up loving it all.
What we lived on those days was a mystery to me. Not enough issues of the Courier were sold even to pay for the paper stock. Nobody bought it because there was never anything to read of any interest—aside from Dad's personal column, which was understandably limited in its appeal. For similar reasons, no one ever advertised. He couldn't afford any of the press services or syndicates, and Danville wasn't homebody enough a town to give much of a darn how Mrs. Piddle's milk cows were coming along.
I don't even know how he managed to pay the few hands around the place. But Dad didn't seem to worry, so I never gave the low circulation figures a great deal of thought.
That is, I didn't until it was my turn to take over.
After the first month I began to think about it a lot. I remember sitting in the office alone one night, wondering just how the hell Dad ever did it. And I don't mind saying, I cussed his hide for not ever telling me. He was a queer old duck and maybe this was meant as a test or something.
If so, I had flunked out on the first round.
I sat there staring dumbly at the expense account and wondering, in a half stupid way, how such a pretty color as red ever got mixed up with so black a thing as being broke.
I wondered what earthly good a newspaper was to Danville. It was a town unusual only because of its concentrated monotony: nothing ever happened. Which is news just once, not once a day. Everybody was happy, nobody was starving; everlasting duties were tended to with a complete lack of reluctance. If every place in the world had been like Danville, old Heraclitus wouldn't have been given a second thought. It hadn't had so much as a drunken brawl since 1800.
So I figured it all out that night. I'd take the sheets of paper in front of me and pitch them into the waste basket. Within an hour I'd call up everyone who worked with me, including the delivery boys, and tell them that the Danville Daily Courier had seen its day. Those people with subscriptions, I thought, would have to try to find me. I had about ten dollars left and owed twenty times that in rent and credit.
I suppose you just don't decide to close up business and actually close it up—right down to firing all the help—in an hour's time. But that's what I was going to do. I didn't take anything into consideration except the fact that I had to go somewhere and get a job quick, or I'd end up being the first person in Danville's history to die of starvation. So I figured to lock up the office, go home and get my things together and leave the next afternoon for some nearby city.
I knew that if I didn't act that fast, if I stayed and tried to sell the office and the house, I'd never get out of Danville. You don't carry out flash decisions if you wait around to weigh their consequences. You've got to act. So that's what I started to do.
But I didn't get far. About the time I had it all nicely resolved and justified, I was scared out of my shoes by a polite sort of cough, right next to me. It was after midnight and subconsciously I realized that this was neither the time nor the place for polite coughs—at least ones I didn't make. Especially since I hadn't heard anyone come in.
An old boy who must have been crowding ninety stood in front of the desk, staring at me. And I stared right back. He was dressed in the sporty style of the eighteen nineties, with whiskers all over his face and a little black derby which canted jauntily over his left eye.
"Mr. Lewis?" he said, hopping on the side of the desk and taking off his white gloves, finger by finger. "Mr. Richard Lewis?"
"Yes, that's right" is what I said.
"The son of Elmer Lewis?"
I nodded, and I'll bet my mouth was wide open. He took out a big cigar and lit it.
"If I may be so rude," I finally managed to get out, "who the hell are you and how did you get in here?"
His eyes twinkled and immediately I was sorry for having been so abrupt. I don't know why, but I added, "After all, y'know, it's pretty late."
The old geezer just sat there smiling and puffing smoke into the air.
"Did you want to see me about something, Mr.—"
"Call me Jones, my boy, call me Jones. Yes, as a matter of fact, I do have some business with you. Y'see, I knew your father quite well once upon a time—might say he and I were very close friends. Business partners too, you might say. Yes. Business partners. Tell me, Richard, did you ever know your father to be unhappy?"
It was an odd conversation, but Mr. Jones was far too friendly and ingratiating to get anything but courtesy out of me. I answered him honestly.
"No, Dad was always about the happiest person I've ever seen. Except when Mother died, of course."
Jones shifted and waved his cane in the air.
"Of course, of course. But aside from that. Did he have any grievances about life, any particular concern over the fact that his newspaper was never very, shall we say, successful? In a word, Richard, was your father content to the day he died?"
"Yes, I'd say he was. At least I never heard him complain. Dad never wanted anything but a chance to putter around the office, write his column and collect bugs."
At this he whacked the desk and grinned until all I could see was teeth.
"Ah, that's very good, m'boy, very good. Times haven't been like they were in the old days. I'd begun to wonder if I was as good as I made out to be. Why, do you know that Elmer was my first customer since that time Dan'l Webster made such a fool of me! Oh, that was rich. You've got to hand it to those New Hampshire lawyers, you've just got to hand it to them."
He sat chuckling and puffing out smoke, and, looking squarely at the situation, I began to get a very uncomfortable sensation along the back of my spine.
"Your dad wasn't any slouch, though, let me tell you, Dick. That part of the deal is over. He got what he wanted out of his life on Earth and now he's—what's that wonderful little expression somebody started a few centuries ago?—on yes, he's paying the fiddler. But things were almost as bad then as they are now, I mean as far as signed, paid up contracts go. Oh, I tell you, you humans are getting altogether too shrewd for your own good. What with wars and crime and politicians and the like, I scarcely have anything to do these days. No fun in merely shoveling 'em in."
A long, gassy sigh.
"Yes sir, Elmer was on to me all right. He played his cards mighty clever. Included you, Dick m'boy. So all I have to do is make you happy and, well then, the deal's closed."
By this time I felt pretty much like jumping out the window, but shot nerves or not, I was able to say.
"Look, Grandpa, I don't know what in hell you're talking about. I'm in no mood for this sort of thing and don't particularly care to be. If you were a friend of Pop's I'm glad to see you and all that, but if you came here for hospitality I'm afraid you're out of luck. I'm leaving town tomorrow. If you'd like, I'll walk you to a nice clean hotel."
"Ah," he said, pushing me back into my chair with his cane, "you don't understand. Lad, I've not had much practice lately and may be a trifle on the rusty side, but you must give me my dues. Let me see—if I remember correctly, the monthly cash stipend was not included and therefore was not passed on to you."
"The hundred and fifty a month your father got, I mean. I see you know nothing of it. Cautious one, Elmer. Take it easy, son, take it easy. Your troubles are over."
This was too much. I got up and almost shouted at him.
"I've got enough troubles already, without a loony old bird like you busting in on me. Do we take you to a hotel, or do you start traveling?"
He just sat there and laughed like a jackass, poking me with his cane and flicking cigar ashes all over the floor.
"Dick m'boy, it's a pity you don't want out of life what your father did. In a way, that would have simplified things. As it is, I'm going to have to get out the old bag of tricks and go to work. Answer one more question and you may go your way."
I said "All right, make it snappy, Pop. I'm getting tired of this game."
"Am I right in assuming that your principal unhappiness lies in the fact that your newspaper is not selling as you would like it to, and that this is due to the categorical fact that nothing newsworthy ever takes place in this town?"
"Yeah, that's right on the button. Now—"
"Very well, Dick. That's what I wanted to know. I advise you to go home now and get a good night's sleep."
"Exactly what I plan to do. It's been charming, Mr. Jones. I don't mind saying I think you're a nosy galoot with squirrels in the head. Anyway, do you want to go to a hotel?"
He jumped down off the desk and started to walk with me towards the front door.
"No thank you, Richard lad; I have much work to do. I tell you, stop worrying. Things are going to be rosy for you and, if you watch your step, you'll have no fiddler to pay. And now, good night."
Jones then dug me in the ribs with his cane and strode off, whistling "There'll Be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight."
He was headed straight for the Lit-the Creek bridge, which gradually opened off into flap pastures and a few farm houses. Nothing lay beyond that except the graveyard.
I supposed he didn't know where he was going, but I was too confused and tired to care much. When I looked again there wasn't hide nor hair of Mr. Jones.
He was promptly forgotten. Almost, anyway. When you're broke and owe everybody in town, you're able to forget just about anything. Except, of course, that you're broke and owe everybody in town.
I locked up the office and started for home. The fire and fury were gone: I couldn't get up the gall to phone everyone and do all the things I'd planned to do.
So, miserable as a wet dog, I trudged a few blocks to the house, smoked a half dozen cigarettes and went to bed, hoping I'd have the guts to get on that train the next day.
I WOKE up early feeling like a fish left out in the sun too long. It was six o'clock and, like always at this time, I wished that I had a wife or a mistress to get me a big breakfast. Instead I hobbled downstairs and knew exactly what Mother Hubbard felt like. I fixed a lousy cup of coffee and sat down to a glorious dish of corn flakes. I knew that train was mighty far away and that in a little while I'd go to the office, reach in the filler box and help set up another stinking issue of The Daily Courier. Then would come the creditors and the long line of bushwa. Even the corn flakes tasted rancid.
Then I heard a distinct thud against the front door. It struck me as being odd, because there had never before been any thuds at that particular front door, which made precisely that sound.
I opened it, looked around and finally at my feet. There, folded magnificently and encircled with a piece of string, was a newspaper.
Since the Courier was the only paper Danville had ever known, and since I never read the thing anyway, it all looked very peculiar. Besides, none of my delivery boys ever folded in such a neat, professional manner.
There wasn't anybody in sight, but I noticed, before I picked it up, that there was a paper on the doorstep of every house and store around. Then people started coming out and noticing the bundles, so I gathered it up and went back inside. Maybe I scratched my head. I know I felt like it.
There was a little card attached to the string. It read:
If You Desire To Begin Or Re-begin Your Subscription, Send Checks Or Cash To The Office Of The Danville Daily Courier. Rates Are Listed Conveniently Within.
That was a laugh, but I didn't. Something was screwy somewhere. In the first place, there weren't supposed to be any morning deliveries. I, Ernie Meyer and Fred Scarborough (my staff) started the edition around eight o'clock, and it didn't get delivered until six that night. Also, since no one was in the office after I left and nothing whatsoever had been done on the next day's issue—let alone the fancy printing on that card, which could have been done only on a large press —well, I got an awfully queer feeling in the pit of my stomach.
When I opened up the paper I about yelled out loud. It looked like the biggest, most expensive high-falutin' city paper ever put together. The legend still read Danville Daily Courier, but I'd have felt better if it had said The Tribune.
Immediately upon reading the double-inch headlines, I sat down and started to sweat. There, in black, bold letters were the words:
MAYOR'S WIFE GIVES BIRTH TO BABY HIPPOPOTAMUS
At three A.M. this morning, Mayor and Mrs. Fletcher Lindquist were very much startled to find themselves the parents of a healthy, 15 pound baby hippo. Most surprising is the fact that nowhere in the lineage of either the Mayor or his wife is there record of a hippopotamus strain. Mrs. Lindquist's great, grandfather, reports show, was a raving lunatic from the age of twenty-three to the time of his death, fifty years later, but it is biologically unsound to assume that such ancestral proclivities would necessarily introduce into later generations so unusual a result.
Therefore, Danville's enterprising, precedent-setting Mayor Lindquist may be said to have proved his first campaign promise, to wit, "I will make many changes!"
Continued on page 15
I don't have to recount what I did or thought at all this. I merely sat there and numbly turned to page fifteen.
Displaying his usual cool and well-studied philosophy, the Mayor announced that, in view of the fact that the Lindquists' expected baby was to have been called either Edgar Bernhardt or Louisa Ann, and inasmuch as the hippopotamus was male in sex, the name Edgar Bernhardt would be employed as planned.
When queried, the Mayor said simply, "I do not propose that our son be victim to unjudicious slander and stigmatic probings. Edgar will lead a healthy, normal life." He added brusquely: "I have great plans for the boy!"
Both Mrs. Lindquist and the attending physician, Dr. Forrest Peterson, refrained from comment, although Dr. Peterson was observed in a corner from time to time, mumbling and striking his forehead.
I turned back to the front page, feeling not at all well. There, 3 inches by 5 inches, was a photograph of Mrs. Fletcher Lindquist, holding in her arms (honest to God!) a pint-sized hippopotamus.
I flipped feverishly to the second sheet, and saw:
FARMER BURL ILLING COMPLAINS OF MYSTERIOUS APPEARANCE OF DRAGONS IN BACK YARD.
And then I threw the damn paper as far as I could and began pinching myself. It only hurt; I didn't wake up. I closed my eyes and looked again, but there it was, right, where I'd heaved it.
I suppose I should have, but I didn't for a moment get the idea I was nuts. A real live newspaper had been delivered at my door. I owned the only newspaper in town and called it The Danville Daily Courier. This paper was also called The Danville Daily Courier. I hadn't put together an issue since the day before. This one was dated today. The only worthwhile news my paper had ever turned out was a weather report. This one had stuff that would cause the Associated Press to drop its teeth.
Somebody, I concluded, was nuts.
And then I slowly remembered Mr. Jones. That screwy Mr. Jones, that loony old bird-brain.
He'd broken into the office after I'd left and somehow put together this fantastic issue. Where he got the photograph I didn't know, but that didn't bother me. It was the only answer. Sure—who else would have done such a thing? Thought he'd help me by making up a lot of tall tales and peddling them to everyone in town.
I got sore as hell. So this was how he was going to "help" me! If he'd been there at the moment I would have broken every bone in his scrawny old body. My God, I thought, how'll I get out of this. What would I say when the Mayor and Illing and Lord knows how many others got wind of it?
Dark thoughts of me, connected to a long rail, coated from head to toe with a lot of tar and a lot of feathers, floated clearly before my eyes. Or me at the stake, with hungry flames lapping up... Who could blame them? Some big time magazine or tabloid would get a copy—they'd never miss a story like this. And then Danville would be the laughing stock of the nation, maybe the world. At the very best, I'd be sued blue.
I took one last look at that paper on the floor and lit out for the office. I was going to tear that old jerk limb from limb—I was going to make some real news.
HALFWAY there the figure of Fred Scarborough rushed by me a mile a minute. He didn't even turn around. I started to call, but then Ernie Meyer came vaulting down the street. I tried to dodge, but the next thing I knew Ernie and I were sitting on top of each other. In his eyes was an insane look of fear and confusion.
"Ernie," I said, "what the devil's the matter with you? Has this town gone crazy or have I?"
"Don't know about that, Mr. Lewis," he panted, "but I'm headin' for the hills."
He got up and started to take off again. I grabbed him and shook him till his teeth rattled.
"What is the matter with you? Where's everybody running? Is there a fire?"
"Look, Mr. Lewis, I worked for your dad. It was a quiet life and I got paid regular. Elmer was a little odd, but that didn't bother me none, because I got paid regular, see. But things is happening at the office now that I don't have to put up with, 'cause, Mr. Lewis, I don't get paid at all. And when an old man dressed like my grandfather starts a lot of brand new presses running all by himself and, on top of that, chases me and Fred out with a pitchfork, well, Mr. Lewis, I'm quittin'. I resign. Goodbye, Mr. Lewis. Things like this just ain't ever happened in Danville before."
Ernie departed in a hurry, and I got madder at Mr. Jones.
When I opened the door to the office, I wished I was either in bed or had a drink. All the old hand-setters and presses were gone. Instead there was a huge, funny looking machine, popping and smoking and depositing freshly folded newspapers into a big bin. Mr. Jones, with his derby still on his head, sat at my desk pounding furiously at the typewriter and chuckling like a lunatic. He ripped a sheet out and started to insert another, when he saw me.
"Ah, Dick m'boy! How are you this morning? I must say, you don't look very well. Sit down, won't you. I'll be finished in a second."
Back he went to his writing. All I could do was sit down and open and close my mouth.
"Well," he said, taking the sheets and poking them through a little slot in the machine, "Well, there's tomorrow's edition, all—how does it go?—all put to bed. They'll go wild over that. Just think, Reverend Piltzer's daughter was found tonight with a smoking pistol in her hand, still, standing over the body of her—"
I woke up.
"Of course, it's not front page stuff. Makes nice filler for page eight, though."
"I'm going to kill you. So help me, I'm going to murder you right now! Do you realize what you've done? Oh Lord, don't you know that half the people in Danville are going to shoot me, burn me, sue me and ride me out on a rail? Don't you—but they won't. No sir, I'll tell them everything. And you're going to stick right here to back me up. Of all the—"
"Why, what's the matter, Dick? Aren't you happy? Look at all the news your paper is getting."
"Hap—Happy? You completely ruin me and ask if I'm happy! Go bar the door, Jones; they'll be here any second."
He looked hurt and scratched the end of his nose with his cane.
"I don’t quite understand, Richard. Who will be here? Out of town reporters?"
I nodded weakly, too sick to talk.
"Oh no, they won't arrive until tomorrow. You see, they're just getting this morning's issue. Why are you so distraught? Ah, I know what will cheer you up. Take a look at the mail box."
I don't know why, but that's what I did. I knew the mail wasn't supposed to arrive until later, and vaguely I wanted to ask what had happened to all the old equipment. But I just went over and looked at the mail box, like Mr. Jones had suggested. I opened the first letter. Three dollars dropped out. Letter number two, another three bucks. Automatically I opened letter after letter, until the floor was covered with currency. Then I imagine I looked up piteously at Mr. J.
"Subscriptions, m'boy, subscriptions. I hurried the delivery a bit, so you'd be pleased. But that's just a start. Wait'll tomorrow, Dick, This office will be knee-deep in money!"
At this point I finally did begin to think I was crazy.
"What is all this about, Jones? Please tell me, or call the little white wagon. Am I going soggy in the brain?"
"Come, come! Not a bit of it! I've merely fulfilled my promise. Last night you told me that you were unhappy because the Courier wasn't selling. Now, as you can see, it is selling. And not only to Danville. No sir, the whole world will want subscriptions to your paper, Richard, before I'm through."
"But you don't understand, Jones. You just can't make up a lot of news and expect to get by with it. It's been tried a hundred different times. People are going to catch on. And you and me, we're going to be jailed sure as the devil. Do you see now what you've done?"
He looked at me quizzically and burst out laughing.
"Why, Dick, you don't understand yet, do you! Come now, surely you're not such a dunce. Tell me, exactly what do you think?"
"Merely that an old man stepped into my life last night and that my life has been a nightmare ever since."
"But beyond that. Who am I and why am I here?"
"Oh, I don't know, Mr. Jones. You're probably just a friend of Dad's and thought you could help me out by this crazy scheme. I can't even get angry with you anymore. Things were going to hell without you—maybe I can get a job on the prison newspaper."
"Just a queer old friend of Elmer's, eh? And you think I did no more than 'make up' those headlines. You don't wonder about this press—" he waved his cane toward the large machine which had supplanted the roll-your-own— "or how the papers got delivered or why they look so professional? Is that press your imagination?"
I looked over at the machine. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Certainly it was not an ordinary press. But it was real enough. Actual papers were popping out of it at the rate of two or three a second. And then I thought of that photograph.
"My God, Jones, do you mean to tell me that you're—"
"Precisely, my lad, precisely. A bit rusty, as I said, but with many a unique kick left."
He kicked his heels together and smiled broadly.
"Now, you can be of no help here whatever. So, since you look a bit peaked around the face, it is my suggestion that you go home and rest for a few days."
"That news... those things in the paper, you mean they were—"
"Absolutely factual. Everything that is printed in The Danville Daily Courier" he said gaily "is the, er, the gospel truth. Go home, Dick: I'll attend to the reporters and editors and the like. When you're feeling better, come back and we'll work together. Perhaps you'll have a few ideas."
He put another sheet in the typewriter, rested his bushy chin on the head of the cane for a moment, twinkled his eyes and then began typing like mad.
I staggered out of the office and headed straight for Barney's Grill. All it had was beer, but that would have to do. I had to get drunk: I knew that.
When I got to Barney's, the place was crowded. I ordered a beer and then almost dropped it when the waiter said to me:
"You certainly were right on the ball, Mr. Lewis, you and your paper. Who'd a'ever thought the Mayor's wife would have a hippopotamus? Yes sir, right on the ball. I sent in my subscription an hour ago!"
Then Mrs. Olaf Jaspers, a quiet old lady who always had her coffee and doughnut at Barney's before going to work at the hospital said:
"Oh, it was certainly a sight, to see. Miz Lindquist is just as proud. Fancy, a hippopotamus!"
I quickly gulped the beer.
"You mean you actually saw it, Mrs. Jaspers?"
"Oh my yes," she answered. "I was there all the time. We can't any of us figure it out. but it was the cutest thing you ever did see. Who was that old fellow that took the picture, Richard? A new man?"
Everyone began talking to me then, and my head swam around and around.
"Mighty quick of you, Lewis! You've got my subscription for two years!"
"Poor Burl never did catch those pesky dragons. Ate up every one of his turnips, too."
"You're a real editor, Mr. Lewis. We'll all going to take the Courier from now on. Imagine; all these funny things happen and you're right there to get all the news!"
I bought a case of beer, excused myself, went home and got blind drunk.
IT WAS NICE to wake up the next morning, because, even though my head split I felt sure this was every bit a dream. The hope sank fast when I saw all the beer bottles lying on the floor. With an empty feeling down below, I crawled to the front door and opened it.
The paper lay there, folded beautifully. I saw people running down the streets, lickity split, toward Main Street.
Thinking was an impossibility. I made for the boy's room, changed clothes, fixed some breakfast and only then had the courage to unfold the issue. The headlines cried: EXTRA!! Underneath, almost as large:
S. S. QUEEN MARY DISCOVERED ON MAIN STREET
An unusual discovery today made Danville, U. S. A., a center of world-wide attention. The renowned steam ship, the S. S. Queen Mary, thought previously to be headed for Italy enroute from Southampton, appeared suddenly in the middle of Main Street in Danville, between Geary and Orchard Ave.
Imbedded deep in the cement so that it remains upright, the monstrous vessel is proving a dangerous traffic hazard, causing many motorists to go an entire mile out of their way.
Citizens of Danville view the phenomenon with jaundiced eyes, generally considering it a great nuisance.
Empty whiskey bottles were found strewn about the various decks, and all of the crew and passengers remain under the influence of heavy intoxication.
In the words of the Captain, J. E. Cromerlin:
"I din' have a thing to do with it. It wash that damned navigator, all his fault."
Officials of the steam ship line are coming from London and New York to investigate the situation.
Continued on page 20
That's what it said, and, so help me, there was another photograph, big and clear as life.
I ran outside, and headed for Main Street. But the minute I turned the corner, I saw it.
There, exactly as the paper had said, was the Queen Mary, as quiescent and natural as though she'd been in dock. People were gathered all around the giant ship, jabbering and yelling.
In a dazed sort of way, I got interested and joined them.
Lydia Murphy, a school teacher, was describing the nautical terms to her class, a gang of kids who seemed happy to get out of school.
Arley Taylor, a fellow who used to play checkers with Dad, walked over to me.
"Now, ain't that something, Dick! I ask ya, ain't that something!"
"That, Arley," I agreed, "is something."
I saw Mr. Jones standing on the corner, swinging his cane and puffing his cigar. I galloped over to him.
"Look, Jones, I believe you. Okay, you're the devil. But you just can't do this. First a hippopotamus, now the world's biggest ocean liner in the middle of the street— You're driving me nuts!"
"Why, hello Dick. Say, you ought to see those subscriptions now! I'd say we have five thousand dollars worth. They're beginning to come in from the cities now. Just you wait, boy, you'll have a newspaper that'll beat 'em all!"
Arguing didn't faze him. I saw then and there that Mr. Jones wouldn't be stopped. So I cussed a few times and started off. Only I was stopped short by an expensive looking blonde, with horn-rimmed glasses and a notebook.
"Mr. Richard Lewis, editor of the Danville Courier?" she said.
"My name is Elissa Traskers. I represent the New York Mirror. May we go somewhere to talk?"
I mumbled "Okay," and took one more look at the ship.
Far up on the deck I could see a guy in a uniform chasing what couldn't have been anything' else but a young lady without much clothes on.
When two big rats jumped out of the lowest port hole and scampered down the street, I turned around sharply and almost dragged the blonde the entire way to my house.
Once inside, I closed the door and locked it. My nerves were on the way out.
"Mr. Lewis, why did you do that?" asked the blonde.
"Because I like to lock doors, I love to lock doors. They fascinate me."
"I see. Now then, Mr. Lewis, we'd like a full account, in your own words, of all these strange happenings."
She crossed a tan leg and that didn't help much to calm me down.
"Miss Traskers," I said, "I'll tell you just once, and then I want you to go away. I'm not a well man.
"My father, Elmer Lewis, was a drifter and a floater all his life, until he met the devil. Then he decided what would really make him happy. So he asked the devil to set him up in a small town with a small town newspaper. He asked for a monthly cash stipened. He got all this, so for fifty years he sat around happy as a fool, editing a paper which didn't sell and collecting lousy little bugs—"
The blonde baby looked worried, because I must have sounded somewhat unnatural. But maybe the business with the boat had convinced her that unusual things do, occasionally, happen.
"Mr. Lewis," she said sweetly, "before you go on, may I offer you a drink?"
And she produced from her purse a small, silver flask. It had scotch in it. With the elan of the damned, I got a couple of glasses and divided the contents of the flask into each.
"Quite all right. Now, enough kidding, Mr. Lewis. I must turn in a report to my paper."
"I'm not kidding, honey. For fifty-five years my dad did this, and my mother stuck right by him. The only thing out of the ordinary they ever had was me."
The scotch tasted wonderful. I began to like Miss Traskers a lot.
"All this cost Pop his soul, but he was philosophic and I guess that didn't matter much to him. Anyway, he tricked the devil into including me into the bargain. So after he died and left the paper to me, and I started to go broke, Mr. Jones appeared and decided to help me out."
"To help you out?"
"Yeah. All this news is his work. Before he's done he'll send the whole world off its rocker, just so I can get subscriptions."
She'd stopped taking it down a long time ago.
"I'd think you were a damned liar, Mr. Lewis—"
"Call me Dick."
"—if I hadn't seen the Queen Mary sitting out there. Frankly, Mr. Lew— Dick, if you're telling the truth, something's got to be done."
"You're darn right it does, Elissa. But what? The old boy is having too much fun now to be stopped. He told me himself that he hasn't had anything to do like this for centuries."
"Besides," she said, "how did I get here so quickly? The ship was discovered only this morning, yet I can't remember—"
"Oh, don't worry about it, kid. From now on anything is likely to happen."
Something did. I went over and kissed her, for no apparent reason except that she was a pretty girl and I was feeling rotten. She didn't seem to mind.
Right on cue, the doorbell rang.
"Who is it?" I shouted.
"We're from the Associated Press. We want to see Mr. Richard Lewis," came a couple of voices. I could hear more footsteps coming up the front porch.
"I'm sorry," I called, "he's just come down with Yellow Fever. He can't see anybody."
But it wasn't any use. More and more steps and voices, and I could see the door being pushed inward. I grabbed Elissa's hand and we ran out the back way, ran all the way to the office.
Strangely, there weren't many people around. We walked in, and there, of course, was Mr. Jones at the typewriter. He looked up, saw Elissa and winked at me.
"Listen to this, boy. BANK PRESIDENT'S WIFE CLAIMS DIVORCE—EXPLAINS CAUGHT HUSBAND TRIFLING WITH THREE MERMAIDS IN BATHTUB, 'course, it's rather long, but I think we can squeeze it in. Well, well, who have you there?"
I couldn't think of anything else, so I introduced Elissa.
"Ah, from the Mirror! I got you down here this morning, didn't I?"
Elissa looked at me and I could tell she didn't think I had been trying to fool her.
"Have you turned in your report yet, Miss?"
She shook her head.
"Well, do so immediately! Why do you think I took the trouble of sending you in the first place? Never mind, I'll attend to it. Oh, we're terribly busy here. But a shapely lass like you shouldn't have to work for a living, now should she, Dick?"
And with this, Jones nudged Elissa with his cane, in a spot which caused me to say:
"Now see here, Jones—this is going too far! Do that again and I'll punch you in the snoot."
"I must say, Richard, you're just like your father. Don't lose a minute, do you!"
I reached out to grab him, but the second afterwards he was over on the other side of the room.
"Tut tut, m'boy, not a very nice way to treat your benefactor! Look at that basket there."
I looked and so did Elissa. She looked long and hard. The room was full of money and checks, and Mr. Jones danced over with a mischievous glint in his eyes.
"Bet a couple could take just what's there and live comfortably for a year on it. That is, if they were sure there would be more to come."
He sidled over to Elissa and nudged her again, and I started swinging.
Before I landed on my face, a thought came to me. It was a desperate, long-odds, crazy thought, but it seemed the answer to everything.
"Tell you what, Jones," I said, picking myself up off the floor and placing Elissa behind me, "This is a little silly after all. I think you're right. I think I've acted in a very ungrateful fashion and I want to apologize. The Courier is really selling now, and it appears that it'll make me a lot of money. All thanks to you. I'm really sorry."
He put the chair down and seemed pleased,
"Now then, that's more like it, Dick. And, er, I apologize, young lady. I was only being devilish."
Elissa was a sophisticated girl: she didn't open her mouth.
"I can see that you're busy, Mr. Jones, so if you don't mind, Elissa and I will take a little walk."
I gave him a broad wicked wink, which delighted him.
"That's fine, m'boy. I want to get this evening's edition ready. Now let's see, where was I..."
BY THIS time it was getting dark. Without saying a word, I pushed Elissa into the alley behind the shop. You could hear the press chugging away inside, so I began to talk fast.
"I like you," I said, "and maybe after all this is over, we can get together somewhere. But right now the important thing is to stop that bird."
She looked beautiful there in the shadows, but I couldn't take the time to tell her so. Vaguely I sensed that I'd somehow fallen in love with this girl whom I'd met that same day. She looked in all ways cooperative.
I did manage to ask: "You got a boyfriend?"
Again she shook that pretty blonde head, so I got right back to the business at hand.
"Jones has to be stopped. What he's done so far is fantastic, all right, but comparatively harmless. However, we've got to remember that he's the devil after all, and for sure he's up to something. Things won't stay harmless, you can count on that. Already he's forgotten about the original idea. Look at him in there, having the time of his life. This was all he needed to cut loose. Dad made the mistake of leaving the idea of my happiness up to Mr. Jones' imagination."
"All right, Dick, but what do we do?"
"Did you notice that he read aloud what's going to happen tonight, Elissa?"
"You mean about the mermaids in the bathtub?"
"Yes. Don't you get it? That hasn't happened yet. He thinks up these crazy ideas, types 'em out, gets 'em all printed and then they take place. He goes over, takes a few pictures and in some way gets the papers delivered a few minutes later, complete with the news. Don't ask me why he doesn't just snap his fingers —maybe he enjoys it this way more."
"I suppose that's, uh, sensible. What do you want me to do, Dick?"
"It's asking a lot, I suppose, but we can't let him wreck the whole world. Elissa, do you think you could divert the devil for about a half hour?"
Looking at her, I knew she could.
"I get it now. Okay, if you think it'll work. First, do me a favor?"
"Kiss me again, would you?"
I complied, and let me tell you, there was nothing crazy about that kiss. I was honestly grateful to Mr. Jones for one thing at least.
Elissa opened the front door of the office, threw back her hair and crooked a finger at the devil.
"Oh Mr. Jones!"
From the alley I could see him stop typing abruptly. More than abruptly. So would I."
"Why, my dear! Back from your walk so soon? Where is Richard?"
"I don't know—he just walked off and didn't say anything. Now I'm all alone."
The devil's eyes looked like tiny red hot coals, and he bit clean through his cigar.
"Well," he said. "Well, well, well!"
"You wouldn't like to take me out for a few drinks, would you, Mr. Jones?"
The way she moved her hips would have made me bite through my cigar, if I'd had a cigar. She was doing beautifully.
"Well, I had rather planned to—no, it can wait. Certainly, Miss Traskers, I'd be pleased, more than pleased, oh, very pleased to accompany you somewhere for a spot. Richard has probably gone home to talk to other reporters."
With this he hopped over the desk and took Elissa's arm.
"Oh, my dear girl, it has been so long, so very long. Voluntarily, I mean."
She smiled at the old goat and in a few moments they were headed straight for Barney's grill. I almost chased them when I heard him say, "And afterwards, perhaps we could take a stroll through the woods, eh?"
As soon as they were out of sight, I ran into the office, took his material out of the typewriter and inserted a new sheet.
I thought for a few moments, and then hurriedly typed:
DEVIL RETURNS HOME
The Devil, known also as Mr. Jones, cut short his latest visit to Earth because of altercations in Gehenna. Mr. Elmer Lewis, for some years a resident of the lower regions, successfully made his escape and entry into heaven, where he joined his wife, Elizabeth. The devil can do nothing to alter this, but has decided to institute a more rigorous discipline among his subjects still remaining.
And then, on another sheet I wrote:
OFFICE OF DANVILLE DAILY COURIER DISAPPEARS
The citizens of Danville were somewhat relieved this morning as they noticed the disappearance of the office of the town's only newspaper, the Courier. All the news reported in the pages of this tabloid since April 11, furthermore, was found to be totally false and misrepresentational, except the information printed in this edition. Those who paid for subscriptions have all received their money in full.
Richard Lewis, the editor, is rumored to be in New York, working for one of the large metropolitan newspapers.
The community of Danville continues a normal, happy existence, despite the lack of a news organ.
I walked over to the machine, which still ejected papers, and quickly inserted the two sheets into the slot, exactly as I'd observed Jones do.
At which point the universe blew up in my face. The entire office did a jig and then settled gently but firmly, on top of my head.
WHEN THINGS unfuzzed and I could begin to see straight, I found myself sitting at a typewriter in a very large and very strange office.
A fellow in shirt-sleeves and tortoise-shells ambled over and thumped me on the back.
"Great work, Dick," he said. "Great job on that city hall fire. C'mon, break down, ye set it yourself?"
Of course, as was becoming a habit, I stared dumbly.
"Always the dead-pan—wotta joker! So now you're in the syndicates. Some guys are just plain old lucky, I guess. Do I ever happen to be around when things like that bust out? Huh!"
He walked away, and by degrees, very carefully, I learned that I'd just scooped everybody on a big fire that had broken out in the city hall.
I was working for the Mirror, making $75.00 per week. I'd been with them only a few days, but everyone seemed very chummy.
It had worked. I'd outsmarted the devil! I'd gotten rid of him and the paper and everything. And then I remembered.
I remembered Elissa. So, come quitting time, I asked the first guy I saw:
"Where does Miss Elissa Traskers work, you know?"
The fellow's eyes lit up and he looked melancholy.
"You mean The Blonde Bomber? Whatta gal, whatta gal! Those legs, those—"
"Yeah—where does she work?"
"Second floor. Flunks for Davidson, that lucky—"
I got down to the second floor quick. There she was, as pretty as I remembered her. I walked up and said:
"Hello, honey. It worked!"
"I beg your pardon?"
She didn't have to say any more. I realized with a cold, heartless feeling, what it was I'd forgotten. I'd forgotten Elissa. Didn't even mention her on either of those sheets, didn't even mention her!
"Don't you remember, honey? You were doing me a favor, coaxing the devil to buy you a few drinks..."
It was there in her eyes. She could have been staring at an escaped orangoutang.
"Excuse me," she said, picked up her coat and trotted out of the office. And out of my life.
I tried to get in touch with her any number of times after that, but she didn't know me each time. Finally I saw it was no good. I used to sit by the window and watch her leave the building with some guy or another, sit there and wish I'd just left things like they were while Mr. Jones was having fun.
It wasn't very peaceful, but so what. I ask you, so what?
DICK SAT in his corner, looking serious as a lawyer. We'd all stopped laughing quite a while back, and he was actually so convincing that I piped up:
"Okay, what happened then? That why you want to quit newspaper work —because of her?"
He snickered out the side of his mouth and lit another cigarette.
"Yeah, that's why. Because of her. But that isn't all. You guys remember what happened to the Governor's wife last week?"
We remembered. Governor Parker's spouse had gone berserk and run down Fifth Avenue without a stitch on.
"You know who covered that story, who was right there again?"
It had been Lewis. That story was what had entrenched him solidly with the biggest syndicate in the country.
"All right. Can any of you add two and two?"
We were all silent.
"What are you talking about?" Jackson asked.
Dick threw down a beer and laughed out loud, though he didn't seem particularly amused.
"I wasn't so smart. I didn't stop the devil; I just stalled him awhile. He's back, y'understand, he's back! And this time he's going to get mad. That's why I'm quitting the newspapers. I don't know what I'll do, but whatever it is Mr. Jones is going to do his damndest to make me successful."
I was about to start the laughter, when I saw something that cut it off sharp.
I saw a very old gentleman, with derby, spats and cane, leaning against the bar and winking at me.
It didn't take me long to get home.