But when he finally spoke it was otherwise. He took another step forward, asking uncertainly:
“You are Mr. Rush?”
“Yeah.” The detective’s voice was hoarse with a choking harshness that seemed to corroborate the heavy-cold testimony of his eyes. He put his feet down on the floor and jerked a fat, red hand at a chair. “Sit down, sir.”
The man in gray sat down, tentatively upright on the chair’s front edge.
“Now what can I do for you?” Alec Rush croaked amiably.
“I wan t— I wish — I would like —” and further than that the man in gray said nothing.
“Maybe you’d better just tell me what’s wrong,” the detective suggested. “Then I’ll know what you want of me.” He smiled.
There was kindliness in Alec Rush’s smile, and it was not easily resisted. True, his smile was a horrible grimace out of a nightmare, but that was its charm. When your gentle-countenanced man smiles there is small gain: his smile expresses little more than his reposed face. But when Alec Rush distorted his ogre’s mask so that jovial friendliness peeped incongruously from his savage red eyes, from his brutal metal-studded mouth — then that was a heartening, a winning thing.
“Yes, I daresay that would be better.” The man in gray sat back in his chair, more comfortably, less transiently. “Yesterday on Fayette Street, I met — a young woman I know. I hadn’t — we hadn’t met for several months. That isn’t really pertinent, however. But after we separated — we had talked for a few minutes — I saw a man. That is, he came out of a doorway and went down the street in the same direction she had taken, and I got the idea he was following her. She turned into Liberty Street and he did likewise. Countless people walk along that same route, and the idea that he was following her seemed fantastic, so much so that I dismissed it and went on about my business.
“But I couldn’t get the notion out of my head. It seemed to me there had been something peculiarly intent in his carriage, and no matter how much I told myself the notion was absurd, it persisted in worrying me. So last night, having nothing especial to do, I drove out to the neighbourhood of — of the young woman’s house. And I saw the same man again. He was standing on a corner two blocks from her house. It was the same man — I’m certain of it. I tried to watch him, but while I was finding a place for my car he disappeared and I did not see him again. Those are the circumstances. Now will you look into it, learn if he is actually following her, and why?”
“Sure,” the detective agreed hoarsely, “but didn’t you say anything to the lady or to any of her family?”
The man in gray fidgeted in his chair and looked at the stringy dun carpet.
“No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to disturb her, frighten her, and still don’t. After all, it may be no more than a meaningless coincidence, and — and — well — I don’t — That’s impossible! What I had in mind was for you to find out what is wrong, if anything, and remedy it without my appearing in the matter at all.”
“Maybe, but, mind you, I’m not saying I will. I’d want to know more first.”
“More? You mean more —”
“More about you and her.”
“But there is nothing about us!” the man in gray protested. “It is exactly as I have told you. I might add that the young woman is — is married, and that until yesterday I had not seen her since her marriage.”