He hesitated under the blueglow of the mercury streetlight. Carefully, he gathered the sleeping youngster tighter in his arms and looked down at the innocent baby face and wispy yellow hair of the boy with a glance of infinite sadness.
He stood a moment longer in the deserted street as if not quite sure what he should do. He was young and shabbily dressed. It was a warm summer night and he wore no hat. His hair was jet black and curly and his face was pale and wore a haunted look.
Suddenly he made up his mind and walked down the street to a brick apartment building. He stepped inside the open vestibule door, and hurriedly scanned the many white name cards over the mail boxes. He saw that the Millers lived on the second floor and at once started on his way upstairs.
There was a moment of waiting after he pressed the Miller doorbell. He stood with the still-sleeping child in the hallway's dim light. Then the door opened and a blond, tanned young man in trousers and white undershirt appeared, a questioning look in his sleepy tormented eyes.
He held out the little boy. "Here's your kid," he said quietly, "he's all right." His eyes searched the startled face of the young father. Miller took the boy in his arms with something like a sob, then he gave a quick frightened glance at the man and ran back into the apartment with his precious bundle.
By that time the young man was hurrying back down the stairs in a confused state of emotions. He stepped out of the apartment and started off down the street when everything suddenly happened. Figures came out of the shadows, bright lights blinded his eyes, hands gripped him cruelly.
"Don't try to resist," a hard voice warned him. "It's the police."
The trip to headquarters took only a few minutes. Reporters crowded around the car as the two detectives elbowed their way across the sidewalk and into the big, gloomy building.
At last he found himself in a big office with three men. And the one who'd warned him first addressed him across the wide desk in the same hard tones. "I'm Inspector Winters. You'd better begin to talk. It'll make it easier for-all of us. Especially you."
The young man with the curly, black hair licked his lips. "You think that I kidnapped that boy. But you're making a mistake."
The Inspector had a broad face, a slash mouth. Now he smiled. "That isn't even original." He pulled out a form and poised a pen. "Name and address?"
"Joe Manetti, 284 West 79th Street." His tone was flat and hopeless. The Inspector nodded. "Occupation?"
"Musician. But I'm not working at it now." "Married?"
Joe nodded. "Yes. But my wife left me. She's somewhere on the West Coast."
The Inspector took it all down. Then he cocked his head at him and said, "What was your motive? I mean, first taking the child, and then bringing him back that way."
Joe took a deep breath. "I didn't kidnap the boy. I just brought him back."
The Inspector regarded his two associates, who had taken stands on either side of the dark young man. Then he stared at the prisoner with a not-unkind expression. "Let's not talk in riddles. What's your story?" Joe made a simple gesture. "I was out driving. I drive a lot. I like to get away from my apartment. I parked in a supermarket lot to get some groceries. When I came back, I found the kid on the front seat of the car. And there was a note saying that it was the Miller boy."
The Inspector shook his head in sad disbelief. "What did you do with the note?"
"I unpinned it from his shirt," Joe said. "The kid was restless and crying. So I gave him some milk. Later I tore up the note."
"Just to make sure this isn't all imagination," the Inspector said, reaching for another sheet, "we'll want the store name, location, and what time you were there."
"Okay," the Inspector said wearily. "Now we've got to establish where you were at the time the kid was taken. Where were you at approximately eleven-thirty this morning?"
Joe bowed his head. "I don't know. Out driving somewhere." "That's not much help, is it?" Sarcasm was edging its way back into the Inspector's tone. "The boy was picked up from in front of the apartment building between eleven-twenty and eleven-thirty-five. Unless you can prove you were somewhere else then, I think you're in bad trouble."
The young man looked up again. "I don't see how I'll be able to prove anything," he said. "I get spells when I can't stand it in my place. I take the car and I drive. Anywhere! I just drive until I feel better."
"Where did you go today?"
"Out toward the north. I drove quite a distance into the country and then I came back again."
"I see," the Inspector said. "And there was no one with you? You didn't meet anyone you knew? Or stop at any gas station or restaurant?" "I had plenty of gas and I don't eat much these days." His tone was dejected.
The questions continued and the answers were just as hopeless as in the beginning. After a long time the Inspector took him by the arm, and led him to the door. In the corridor a uniformed officer took him in charge and led him to a regular cell.
At ten the next morning he was back in the Inspector's office sitting across the desk from the man with the big face again.
The Inspector leaned forward. "I'd like you to go over your story once more, Manetti. Everything from when you got up yesterday morning.
The dark-haired young man slumped wearily in his chair and recited the same story over in a weary, agonized voice so low that the Inspector strained to hear what was being said.
"I've told you the truth," he said at the end.
The Inspector lit a cigarette. "Maybe you have. But it looks to me as if you're going to have to face trial for kidnapping."
Just then there was a knock on the office door and a policeman entered along with another man in a different, gray uniform.
The policeman addressed the Inspector. "This party has something
he wants to tell you, sir."
"Is it important?" The Inspector showed irritation.
The small man in the gray uniform stepped forward and spoke for himself. "I think it is, sir." He glanced at Joe Manetri with a friendly smile. "This young man didn't kidnap the Miller boy."
The sentence caused a second of pin-dropping silence in the room. The Inspector showed astonishment. "What's that you say?"
"I read the story in the morning papers and saw Mr. Manetti's Picture and I knew it was him right away," the little man in gray said proudly.
"Knew it was who?" the Inspector demanded with fading patience. "The young fellow who didn't wait for his change at the expressway toll station where I was on duty. He gave me a dollar and before I could hand him his change he'd driven off. Seemed to be in some sort of daze. I yelled after him, but that didn't work. But that's him, all right, and it was eleven-thirty. I know because my relief is due then and I was waiting for him. So he couldn't have been way out there and here in the city picking up that kid at the same time."
The Inspector frowned. "Why didn't you report all these things before?"
The little man shrugged. "Until I saw the paper I didn't know it was so important."
The Inspector looked at Joe Manetti and a smile of encouragement crossed the big face. "Looks like you're in the clear, young man." The young man with the pale face and black, curly hair showed no special sign of relief. "I told you I was telling the truth," he said.
' Some time later the Inspector saw him to the door of the headquarters building. It was an unusual gesture for the big man and he carried it out with a shade of awkwardness. But when he held out his hand and took Joe Manetti's in it, his grip was firm and the handshake a very friendly one.
"There was one thing I couldn't understand," he said, studying the young man with concerned eyes. "In fact I still can't see it. Why didn't you bring the kid directly to us?"
Joe Manetti hesitated to answer. He looked away from the Inspector, his gaze settling on the busy street where youngsters played amid the traffic. "I doubt if you'd be able to follow my thinking, Inspector," he said quietly.
The Inspector said, "Give me a chance."
"Okay," the young man said with a deep sigh. "I wanted to see the face of a father who had lost his kid and then got it back." And he walked slowly down the steps without looking back and lost himself in the crowded street.
Dan Ross is one o f the world's most prolific writers ofpopular fiction. This native of Saint John, N.B., under a host ofpseudonyms, has written well over a hundred novels and over five hundred stories. We asked Dan Ross to submit from his voluminous files a favorite story of his. 'Always a Motive' was the result, a story which, according to the writer, " has been widely printed and reprinted over the world. "