The skating pond at Rockefeller Center was crowded. Hundreds of the idly curious gazed down at a gay scene: a scene of action and color, of skaters who whirled and spun in the center of the smooth gray surface, of others who stroked methodically about the edges of the rink. There were old people and young people and even children; there were experts and beginners, there was grim concentration on the task of skating, and there was laughter from the lips of those who had mastered a degree of the art and were no longer worried about the elementary problem of remaining upright.
This was a skating pond like no other skating pond in the world. It was backgrounded by tall, austere, and massively handsome buildings that stretched up and up and up into a clear December sky. It was bathed in the soft glow of cleverly contrived lights. At each end there was a restaurant where people sat warmly and comfortably and viewed the merrymaking through huge glass windows.
Some of the better skaters wore startling costumes: young ladies in extremely abbreviated skirts that showed attractive legs to best advantage; young men who wore black tights and close-fitting shirts. But the great majority skated in their street clothes.
Gail Foster and Alan Douglas did. They wore the same clothes in which they had been working all day.
She was only a few inches more than five feet in height. You'd look at her the first time without particular interest, and then you'd look again and say, "There's a pretty girl." She was that sort: slender and attractive and intelligent-looking. Her sports costume of dark-blue woolen skirt, twin sweaters of pale yellow, and dark-blue beret did nothing to conceal a slim but unmistakably feminine figure. She skated well; surely and smoothly and easily. She skated better than the tall man who stroked along beside her, his hands clasped in hers.
About Alan Douglas you'd say, "He's a nice-looking fellow." You wouldn't say that he was handsome, because he wasn't. But he was the sort of man you'd feel instinctively that it would be pleasant to know. His six feet of muscular body was clad in business tweeds, his attractively homely face was set with concentration on the task at hand. He wasn't a fancy skater, but he gave an impression of sureness.
They were having fun, these two. It was their skating pond, the music played for them alone, the three-quarter moon that looked down from above the towering structures of steel and concrete was, for this evening, their own personal property.
They were young, and very much in love. They had met after working hours and had dined together in one of the restaurants overlooking the rink. The conversation had been a trifle tight during dinner, as though they had agreed to avoid the subject uppermost in the minds of both. They chatted of inconsequential things, even though you'd know by just looking at them that anything that concerned either of them was of major consequence to both.
They finished with their skating and replaced skates and skating shoes with street shoes. She slipped a jaunty gray sports coat over her costume, and he got his topcoat and hat from the check room. They moved through the Promenade to Fifth Avenue, and when he would have hailed a taxi, she suggested that they walk.
They turned north on Fifth Avenue. But it was not until they were moving along the light-studded reaches of Central Park north of 59th Street that she broke the silence. She said, "Thanks, mister. It worked wonderfully."
He grinned down at her. It was an oddly twisted grin that lighted up his whole face. "You needed to be snapped out of the doldrums," he told her.
"Right. And you did a first-rate job. It was fun." "Why shouldn't it be? No one could help but enjoy my kind of skating."
"You didn't fall..."
"And when you've said that, you've said it all." He changed the subject, "Think you'll sleep tonight?"
"Yes." Then, as an afterthought, "I hope so."
He saw the shadow that crossed her sensitive, expressive face. He said, "Chin up, honey. We'll figure a way out of it somehow."
"I know." When her eyes met his he saw that the old apprehension had returned. "I wish you'd stop worrying about it, Alan. It isn't your headache."
"Wrong again. Whatever bothers you is very much my headache."
"But this ..." She was leaving her sentences hanging in the air. "There are some things that can be done, Alan--and some things that are impossible for ordinary mortals."
"But I'm not an ordinary mortal, Miss Foster. You should have learned that long ago."
"I did." Her voice was almost humble. "Perhaps that's why I love you so much."
There seemed to be no adequate answer to that one. He tried to say something and did no better than "I'm a lucky guy," and then they were silent again. They did not speak until they had swung eastward from the Avenue and reached the lobby of the remodeled building in which she lived. "Coming up?" she inquired. "I can offer you a nightcap."
"Coming up," he assented, "but not for a nightcap. What I need is a kiss."
They went up to the fourth floor in the automatic elevator. She fished a key out of her bag and unlocked the door. He stepped inside with her, closed the door, and took her in his arms.
They stayed that way for a long time. There was a fierce urgency in her kiss, in the pressure of her body against his. "That justifies everything" he said. "And now Old Doc Douglas is giving orders. You'll forget problems for tonight. You'll convince yourself that if anybody can do anything, I will." He bent and kissed her hard on the lips. " 'Night, sweetheart," he said. Then he opened the door and closed it behind him. He felt very young, very happy--and very worried. It was easy enough to talk bravely about solving a problem that had no solution, and when he was with her he felt that he might accomplish the impossible. But the minute he left he realized afresh that it couldn't be done: that the thing weighing her down was something that had to be faced with a courage that, however admirable, was nevertheless hopeless.
His own apartment was less than a mile away. He walked briskly through the chilly night. At twenty-eight he was too young to remain whipped down by doubt. He had almost everything he might reasonably expect to have at his age: the beginnings of a promising career, a fair salary, the love of a girl whom he adored. If only the cloud of trouble were not hovering over her... If only he might be privileged to make her smile with her eyes instead of with her lips alone...
The building in which he lived wasn't far from the East River. The doorman nodded, smiled, and said, "There's a gentleman waiting to see you, Mr. Douglas. He's in the lobby."
Alan said, "Thanks," and walked inside. A man rose from a leather club chair and advanced toward him. He was a compact, well-groomed man about fifty years of age. His hair was iron gray, his gaze level, his black eyes keen. A gentleman, obviously. There was the faintest suggestion of a smile on his lips.
"My name is Hamilton. Wayne Hamilton. I've been waiting to see you."
"So the doorman said." Alan instinctively liked this chap. He was clean-cut, direct, crisp. "Won't you come upstairs?"
Hamilton preceded Alan into the elevator and stepped out first when the cage stopped at the ninth floor. Alan unlocked the door of his pleasant apartment, flashed on the foyer light, and led the way into the living room. He shoved a cigarette humidor toward his visitor, opened a closet door and deposited his skates inside, and then seated himself. He said, "Well, here we are."
Wayne Hamilton was regarding the younger man shrewdly. He said directly, "I hope you're not too tired."
"For a long talk that might prove to be quite important."
Alan smiled and shrugged. "I'm a healthy animal. I never get too tired."
"Good." Hamilton's attitude was formal yet friendly. He said, "Are you easily startled?"
"I don't believe so. Why?"
"You're likely to be."
"Suppose you try me out."
"Very well." The iron-gray man met Alan's eyes squarely. He said, "Let me explain something about myself. I'm a lawyer. Tomorrow, if you're interested, you can get all the information you want concerning me. I believe I can say that you'll discover that I am what I appear to be."
"I'll take a chance on that."
"I had a very good reason," Hamilton stated, "for dropping in to see you this way instead of arranging the usual meeting--luncheon or that sort of thing. But before I begin I have a rather odd request to make."
"Go ahead." Alan was intrigued by his visitor. The man's voice was level and direct, his words close-clipped and precise. He gave the impression of driving straight toward an important goal.
"The first thing that may surprise you, Mr. Douglas, is that you are no stranger to me. No, we haven't met before. But I know all about you, right down to the last intimate detail."
"The reason I do is because I've taken the trouble to investigate. I've been investigating you for a long time. A very long time. By that you may gather that the thing that brings me here is of great importance."
"You've got me interested," stated Alan. "I didn't think I rated that much attention."
"Perhaps you do. Perhaps not." Wayne Hamilton puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. "I'm going to state a certain fact, Mr. Douglas. It will sound very complimentary, but it's not meant that way."
"I promise to discount it properly."
"The most important thing I have learned about you is that you are a man of unimpeachable integrity. You apparently have a standard of honor so high as to be considered a trifle old-fashioned."
Alan flushed. "That's one way of putting it," he said. "I usually play it pretty straight, I suppose. But that doesn't seem to be a unique virtue."
"It's more unique than you think. And to me it's of paramount importance."
"Because I want to start off with an odd proposition. My mission tonight is quite unusual. If I did not know that I could trust you implicitly, I wouldn't be here.
Before I begin I'd like to exact a promise. It is this: Permit me to start talking. I'll quit at any moment you say the word. If you let me finish, you may accept or reject the proposition that I wish to make to you. But I want your word of honor that if you say no, you'll forget this entire conversation."
Alan Douglas looked thoughtfully at his visitor. "O.K., Mr. Hamilton. That seems reasonable."
"Good. And now, Mr. Douglas, I've got to tell you a lot of things about yourself. Not that you don't know them," he smiled thinly, "but rather because I want you to understand that I might have taken infinite pains to learn things about you."
"I shall. One of the things I'll tell you is that you are engaged to a charming young lady named Gail Foster. Her father is in a jam. He's facing the possibility of a prison term for embezzling a sum of money slightly under twenty thousand dollars. She believes in her father's innocence and so do you. Frankly, I also do. But the fact remains that whether or not he has been framed, he hasn't a legal leg to stand on. The company for which he works has offered to drop the prosecution if he returns the money he is charged with embezzling. You and Miss Foster have been trying frantically to raise that money. You've recently come to a dead end. You're not admitting it to each other, but you both know it's impossible."
Alan Douglas was staring at his visitor as a youngster gazes at his first magician. The man had promised to startle him, but this was more than he could possibly have anticipated. Alan spoke as calmly as possible. He said, "I couldn't have stated it more clearly."
"I know that. And I know something else that neither of you know." Hamilton paused briefly, for effect. "There is one person who will cheerfully give you that amount of money--in return for services rendered."
Alan leaned forward. "Look," he said, "I know I'm not being kidded; you're not that kind of person. But you're talking in riddles, just the same. Who would be crazy enough to pay me twenty thousand dollars?"
"I would," said Wayne Hamilton quietly.
Alan shook his head. "Don't think I'm being rude. But I'm not accustomed to this sort of thing. How do I rate a job that pays off in that kind of money?"
Hamilton was smiling. "You're measuring up according to specifications, Douglas. This is the way I expected you to react. Can you take another jolt?"
"I wouldn't promise."
"I'll risk it." The attorney spoke sharply and impressively. "The price I'm offering you for the job I want done," he stated, "is one hundred thousand dollars!"
"Wow!" Alan rose abruptly. He said, "What in the world have I got that's worth a hundred thousand?"
"Your honesty. It's a rare thing these days to find a young man whom one can trust implicitly."
"Trust implicitly," inquired Alan, "to do what?"
"Something very unusual. I've come to you," explained Hamilton, "for two reasons. First--and I cannot emphasize this too much--because you can be trusted. Second, because you have physical courage."
Alan's face became serious and he nodded. "I figured that must enter into it some way."
"It certainly does." Wayne Hamilton made no attempt to soften the effect of his words. "This proposition I'm offering you contains a considerable element of danger."