Chapter 27 The Girl from Hollywood by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Federal officers, searching the hills found the camp above Jackknife Cañon. They collected a number of empty bottles bearing labels identical with those on the bottles in the cases carried by the burros, and those found in Custer Pennington’s room. That was all they discovered, except that the camp was located on the Pennington property.

The district attorney, realizing the paucity of evidence calculated to convict the prisoner on any serious charge, was inclined to drop the prosecution; but the prohibition enforcement agents, backed by a band of women, most of whom had never performed a woman’s first duty to the state and society, and therefore had ample time to meddle in affairs far beyond the scope of their intellects, seized upon the prominence of the Pennington name to gain notoriety for themselves on the score that the conviction of a member of a prominent family would have an excellent moral effect upon the community at large.

Just how they arrived at this conclusion it is difficult to discern. Similarly one might argue that if it could be proved that the Pope was a pickpocket, it would be tremendously effective in regenerating the morals of the world.

Be that as it may, the works of the righteous were not without fruit, for on the 12th of October Custer Pennington was found guilty and sentenced to six months in the county jail for having had several hundred dollars’ worth of stolen whisky in his possession. He was neither surprised nor disheartened. His only concern was for the sensibilities of his family, and these—represented at the trial in the person of his father—seemed far from overwhelmed, for the colonel was unalterably convinced of his son’s innocence.

Eva, who had remained at home with her mother, was more deeply affected than the others, though through a sense of injustice rather than of shame. Shannon, depressed by an unwarranted sense of responsibility for the wrong that Custer had suffered, and chagrined that force of circumstances should have prevented her from saving the Penningtons from a stain upon their escutcheon, found it increasingly difficult to continue her intimacy with these loved friends. Carrying in her heart the knowledge and the proof of his innocence, she regarded herself as a traitor among them, and in consequence held herself more and more aloof from their society, first upon one pretext and then upon another.

At a loss to account for her change toward them, Eva, in a moment of depression, attributed it to the disgrace of Custer’s imprisonment.

“She is ashamed to associate with the family of a—a—jailbird!” she cried.

“I don’t believe anything of the kind,” replied the colonel. “Shannon’s got too much sense, and she’s too loyal. That’s all damned poppycock!”

“I’m sure she couldn’t feel that way,” said Mrs. Pennington. “She has been just as positive in her assertions of Custer’s innocence as any of us.”

“You might as well think the same about Guy,” said the colonel. “He’s scarcely been up here since Custer’s arrest.”

“He’s very busy on a new story. Anyway, I asked him about that very thing, and offered to break the engagement if he felt our disgrace too keenly to want to marry into the family.”

The colonel drew her down to his knee.

“You silly little girl!” he said. “Do you suppose that this has made any difference in the affection that Guy or any other of our real friends feel for us? Not in the slightest. Even if Cus were guilty, they would not change. Those who did we would be better off not to know. I am rather jealous of the Pennington honor myself, but I have never felt that this affair is any reflection upon it, and you need not.”

“But I can’t help it, popsy. My brother, my dear brother, in jail with a lot of thieves and murderers and horrible people like that! It is just too awful! I lie awake at night thinking about it. I am ashamed to go to the village, for fear some one will point at me and say, ‘There goes the girl whose brother is in jail!’”

“You are taking it much too hard, dear,” said her mother. “One would think that our boy was really guilty.”

“Oh, if he really were, I should kill myself!”

The only person, other than the officious reformers, to derive any happiness from young Pennington’s fate was Slick Allen. He occupied a cell not far from Custer’s, and there were occasions when they were thrown together. Several times Allen saw fit to fling gibes at his former employer, much to the amusement of his fellows. They were usually indirect.

One day, as Custer was passing, Allen remarked in a loud tone:

“There’s a lot more of these damn fox-trottin’ dudes that put on airs, but ain’t nothin’ but common thieves!” Pennington turned and faced him.

“You remember what you got the last time you tried calling me names, Allen? Well, don’t think for a minute that just because we’re in jail I won’t hand you the same thing again some day, if you get too funny. The trouble with you, Allen, is that you are laboring under the misapprehension that you are a humorist. You’re not, and if I were you I wouldn’t make faces at the only man in this jail who knows about you, and Bartolo, and—Gracial. Don’t forget Gracial!”

Allen paled, and his eyes closed to two very narrow slits. He made no more observations concerning Pennington; but he devoted much thought to him, trying to arrive at some reasonable explanation of the man’s silence, when it was evident that he must have sufficient knowledge of the guilt of others to clear himself of the charge upon which he had been convicted.

To Allen’s hatred of Custer was now added a real fear, for he had been present when Bartolo killed Gracial. The other two witnesses had been Mexicans, and Allen had no doubt but that if Bartolo were accused, the three of them would swear that the American committed the murder.

One of the first things to do, when he was released from jail, would be to do away with Bartolo. Bartolo disposed of, the other witnesses would join with Allen to lay the guilt upon the departed. Such pleasant thoughts occupied the time and mind of Slick Allen, as did also his plans for paying one Wilson Crumb a little debt he felt due this one-time friend.

Nor was Crumb free from apprehension for the time that would see Allen’s jail sentence fulfilled. He well knew the nature of the man. It is typical of drug addicts to disregard the effect of their acts further than the immediate serving of their own interests, and the director had encompassed Allen’s arrest merely to meet the emergency of the moment. Later, as time gave him the opportunity to consider what must inevitably follow Allen’s release, he began to take thought as to means whereby he might escape the just deserts of his treachery.

He knew enough of Allen’s activities to send the man to a Federal prison for a long term, but these matters he could not divulge without equally incriminating himself. There was, however, one little item of Allen’s past which might be used against him without signal danger to Crumb, and that was the murder of Gracial. It would not be necessary for Crumb to appear in the matter at all. An anonymous letter to the police would suffice to direct suspicion of the crime toward Allen, and to insure for Crumb, if not permanent immunity, at least a period of reprieve.

With the natural predilection of the weak for avoiding or delaying the consummation of their intentions, Crumb postponed the writing of this letter of accusation. There was no cause for hurry, he argued, since Allen’s time would not expire until the 6th of the following August.

Crumb led a lonely life after the departure of Gaza. His infatuation for the girl had as closely approximated love as a creature of his type could reach. He had come to depend upon her, and to look forward to finding her at the Vista del Paso bungalow on his return from the studio. Since her departure his evenings had been unbearable, and with the passing weeks he developed a hatred for the place that constantly reminded him of his loss. He had been so confident that she would have to return to him after she had consumed the small quantity of morphine he had allotted her that only after the weeks had run into months did he realize that she had probably gone out of his life forever. How she had accomplished it he could not understand, unless she had found means of obtaining the narcotic elsewhere.

Not knowing where she had gone, he had no means of searching for her. In his own mind, however, he was convinced that she must have returned to Los Angeles. Judging others by himself, he could conceive of no existence that would be supportable beyond the limits of a large city, where the means for the gratification of his vice might be obtained.

That Gaza de Lure had successfully thrown off the fetters into which he had tricked her never for a moment entered his calculations. Finally, however, it was borne in upon him that there was little likelihood of her returning; and so depressing had become the familiar and suggestive furnishings of the Vista del Paso bungalow that he at last gave it up, stored his furniture, and took a room at a local hotel. He took with him, carefully concealed in a trunk, his supply of narcotics—which he did not find it so easy to dispose of since the departure of his accomplice.

During the first picture in which Grace Evans had worked with him, Crumb had become more and more impressed with her beauty and the subtle charm of her refinement, which appealed to him by contrast with the ordinary surroundings and personalities of the K. K. S. studio. There was a quiet restfulness about her which soothed his diseased nerves, and after Gaza’s desertion he found himself more and more seeking her society. As was his accustomed policy, his attentions were at first so slight, and increased by such barely perceptible degrees, that, taken in connection with his uniform courtesy, they gave the girl no warning of his ultimate purposes.

The matter of the test had shocked and disgusted her for the moment; but the thing having been done, and no harm coming from it, she began to consider even that with less revulsion than formerly. The purpose of it she had never been able to fathom; but if Crumb had intended it to place him insidiously upon a plane of greater intimacy with the girl, he had succeeded. That the effect was subjective rendered it none the less effective.

Added to these factors in the budding intimacy between the director and the extra girl was the factor which is always most potent in similar associations—the fear that the girl holds of offending a potent ally, and the hope of propitiating a power in which lies the potentiality of success upon the screen.

Lunches at Frank’s, dinners at the Ship, dances at the Country Club, led by easy gradations to more protracted parties at the Sunset Inn and the Green Mill. The purposes of Crumb’s shrewdly conceived and carefully executed plan were twofold. Primarily, he sought a companionship to replace that of which Gaza de Lure had robbed him. Secondarily, he needed a new tool to assist in the disposal of the considerable store of narcotics that he had succeeded in tricking Allen and his accomplices into delivering to him with the understanding that he would divide the profits of the sales with them—which, however, Crumb had no intention of doing if he could possibly avoid it.

In much the same manner that he had tricked Gaza de Lure, he tricked Grace Evans into the use of cocaine; and after that the rest was easy. Renting another and less pretentious bungalow on Circle Terrace, he installed the girl there, and transferred the trunk of narcotics to her care, retaining his room at the hotel for himself.

Grace’s fall was more easily accomplished than in the case of Gaza, and was more complete, for the former had neither the courage nor the strength of character that had enabled the other to withstand the more degrading advances of her tempter. To assume that the girl made no effort to oppose his importunings would be both unfair and unjust, for both heredity and training had endowed her with a love of honor and a horror of the sordidness of vice; but the gradual undermining of her will by the subtle inroads of narcotics rendered her powerless to withstand the final assault upon the citadel of her scruples.

One evening, toward the middle of October, they were dining together at the Winter Garden. Crumb had bought an evening paper on the street, and was glancing through it as they sat waiting for their dinner to be served. Presently he looked up at the girl seated opposite him.

“Didn’t you come from a little jerk-water place up the line, called Ganado?” he asked.

She nodded affirmatively.

“Why?”

“Here’s a guy from there been sent up for bootlegging—fellow by the name of Pennington.”

She half closed her eyes, as if in pain.

“I know,” she said. “It has been in the newspapers for the last couple of weeks.”

“Did you know him?”

“Yes—he has been out to see me since his arrest, and he called up once.”

“Did you see him?”

“No—I would be ashamed to see any decent person!”

“Decent!” snorted Crumb. “You don’t call a damned bootlegger decent, do you?”

“I don’t believe he ever did it,” said the girl. “I have known him all my life, and his family. I’m certain that he couldn’t have done it.”

A sudden light came into Crumb’s eye.

“By God!” he exclaimed, bringing his fist down upon the table.

“What is the matter?” Grace inquired.

“Well, wouldn’t that get you?” he exclaimed. “I never connected you at all!”

“What do you mean?”

“This fellow Pennington may not be guilty, but I know who is.”

“How do you know? I don’t understand you. Why do you look at me that way?”

“Well, if that isn’t the best ever!” exclaimed the man. “And here you have been handing me a long line of talk about the decent family you came from, and how it would kill them if they knew you sniffed a little coke now and then. Well, wouldn’t that get you? You certainly are a fine one to preach!”

“I don’t understand you,” said the girl. “What has this to do with me? I am not related to Mr. Pennington, but it would make no difference if I were, for I know he never did anything of the sort. The idea of a Pennington bootlegging! Why, they have more money than they need, and always have had.”

“It isn’t Pennington who ought to be in jail,” he said. “It’s your brother.”

She looked at him in surprise, and then she laughed.

“You must have been hitting it up strong to-day, Wilson,” she said.

“Oh, no, I haven’t; but it’s funny I never thought of it before. Allen told me a long while ago that a fellow by the name of Evans was handling the hootch for him. He said he got a job from the Penningtons as stableman in order to be near the camp where they had the stuff cached in the hills. He described Evans as a young blood, so I guess there isn’t any doubt about it. You have a brother—I’ve heard you speak of him.”

“I don’t believe you,” she said.

“It don’t make any difference whether you believe me or not. I could put your brother in the pen, and they’ve only got Pennington in the county jail. All they could get on him, according to this article, was having stolen goods in his possession; but your brother was in on the whole proposition. It was hidden in his hay barn. He delivered it to a fellow who came up there every week, ostensibly to get hay, and your brother collected the money. Gosh, they’d send him up for sure if I ever tipped them off to what I know!”

And thus was fashioned the power he used to force her to his will.

A week later the bungalow on Circle Terrace was engaged, and Grace Evans took up the work of peddling narcotics, which Shannon Burke had laid down a few months before. With this difference—Gaza de Lure had shared in the profits of the traffic, while Grace Evans got nothing more than her living, and what drugs she craved for her personal use.

Her life, her surroundings, every environment of this new and terrible world into which her ambition had introduced her, tended rapidly to ravish her beauty. She faded with a rapidity that was surprising even to Crumb—surprising and annoying. He had wanted her for her beauty, and now she was losing it; but still he must keep her, because of her value in his nefarious commerce.

As weeks and months went by, he no longer took pleasure in her society, and was seldom at the bungalow save when he came to demand an accounting and to collect the proceeds of her sales. Her pleas and reproaches had no other effect upon him than to arouse his anger. One day, when she clung to him, begging him not to desert her, he pushed her roughly from him so that she fell, and in falling she struck the edge of a table and hurt herself.

This happened in April. On the following day Custer Pennington, his term in the county jail expired, was liberated.