Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 17

Keeban by Edwin Balmer
Chiefly Devoted to a Gas Called KX

XVIICHIEFLY DEVOTED TO A GAS CALLED KX.

A good many persons of both sexes have put into writing the mental confusion usually concomitant to the process of "coming to." The descriptions which I've happened to read were done by good writers, certainly; but the writers don't impress me now as people who'd been personally hit on the head. At least, they lacked treatment under the hand of a pluperfect, postgraduate performer upon the medulla oblongata.

The trouble with those descriptions is that they are too advanced and intricate. The subject generally is seized with some figurative image, which is quite all right from my experience; but whereas others seem to have come to consciousness through flights of fancy similar to stanzas in "Spoon River Anthology" or Carl Sandberg's best, I woke up repeating to myself the simplest of verse. In fact:

"Will you walk into my parlor?
Said the spider to the fly;
It's the prettiest little parlor,
That ever you did spy."

The psycho-analyst says that the subconscious, which is always with us, working, never is actually foolish; it is interpretive, if you have the insight to understand it. Well, this was my subconscious expression. It was interpretive, true enough.

Now the spider, in my complex, was not that old woman; Doris was doing the spider in my dream.

Upon becoming aware that, though I lay on the edge of a red-plush parlor, I was not physically a fly, I felt over myself to find what was missing.

There should be something hard and heavy and extremely important under my coat in my right inside pocket. That region was soft and pliable now. Plates were lacking; that was it,—nice, new, counterfeit plates which I'd procured from under Doris Janvier's lingerie in that Pullman on the Century and which I'd put in my pocket to return to her here at Number 120 Cheron Street with an idea of evangelizing her out of using them.

Phrases and periods from that talk I'd prepared for her came into my mind and mixed into the parade of other ideas which followed the spider-and-fly act. They gave me a laugh, anyway.

I lay, looked and listened. After a few minutes, I sat up. Apparently I had the house to myself. Also I had my watch and other personal possessions, everything except those plates.

I took a chance on rising; and still nobody disturbed me. Possibly I might have poked all over that house but I felt no overmastering impulse. The door and that street, on the other side of the pane with these nice, prim, old-fashioned curtains, looked very good to me. I got out and shut the door behind me. Over by the bridge I found a patrolman and asked him to take me to the nearest police station.

That was the place where I sketched to interested ears the essentials of what I'd done since leaving Chicago. I gave them all,—how I'd suspected her before she took the train, how I helped her get away at Cleveland; how I'd carried on the plates and went to return them, trusting to the patent leather platitudes I'd prepared to turn her to the paths of rectitude.

I gave them, with that last particularly, the laugh of their lives. They wanted to know if I actually expected she would meet me alone in a parlor to talk ethics with me.

They might have at least arrested me; but they didn't even do that. They did detail an officer to accompany me; but he felt himself distinctly as one charged to keep me from further harm. They rushed a squad over to Number 120 Cheron Street, of course, and surrounded the house properly before closing in. But nobody, not even the old woman, was there. The house was empty and so eminently proper to all appearances that, for a while, a theory prevailed that I had invented my whole story.

Then they began hearing from Dibley and confirmed the first part; about two days later, there was plenty of proof of the rest. The prints from those missing Janvier plates began making their début at the banks all over New York; Philadelphia reported a few; soon Boston was heard from.

They were so good that some of the experts at the banks wired Washington for a check on serial numbers before throwing Janvier's work out. Naturally, all this made me popular.

I didn't care about returning home; I didn't drop into our New York office. I stayed in my room, mostly, where old "Iron Age" Dibley, among others, visited me.

He informed me that Doris and George and Felice all completed their get-away at Cleveland; and he didn't feel himself in the least to blame for that. No; he'd shifted any chagrin, which he might have felt, right on to me. Doris undoubtedly had come on afterwards, counting upon my chronic fatuity to respond to feeding by her telegrams; undoubtedly—to Dibley's mind—she personally arranged the medulla oblongata performance for me.

Of course, I'd felt that; but when old "Iron Age" got gloating over it, he cheered me into a question or two. Had she? Was I sure?

Well, I'd certainly indicated to the police that I was; and no one developed any further ideas upon the subject. Number 120 Cheron Street was deserted of Doris and her crowd as the Flamingo Feather after the ball. The issue of those new Janvier tens and hundreds seemed to shift to the south; Atlanta reported rather more than its share; Nashville and Memphis broke into the column of complaints and New Orleans was not overlooked.

I was about convinced that my friends of the Flamingo and Cheron Street had shifted base again when I received, through the mails at the hotel, a note in Jerry's handwriting.

"Steve: Here's your chance," I read. "Get to T. M. Teverson at once and talk to him; or Sencort. Prevent any meeting in Sencort Directors' room. Make this absolutely sure. Examine pipe, particularly. J."

Jerry's writing and his manner with me, beyond doubt. He was still alive then and, if that postmark meant anything, he was in New York City at ten o'clock last night.

Of course, I'd never seen Keeban's writing. It might be identical with Jerry's; Keeban might try this with me for some scheme of his own. But I didn't think it. In the first place, this started with such an understanding of me.

"Steve: Here's your chance!"

Now Jerry, alive and looking on at me from somewhere in New York, naturally would start with that thought for me. He'd be feeling, from the first moment I'd stuck with him after he was accused and when I continued to stick through that affair of the Scofields', how I'd had a steady run of results against me. He'd have heard how, out of that Flamingo Feather ball, I'd gone deeper into disrepute; and he'd been thinking just that for me: "Here's your chance, Steve." He meant, of course, my chance to rehabilitate my reputation somewhat.

"Get to T. M. Teverson at once!" That meant to get to the big man of the moment in New York. Officially, he was first vice-president of the Sencort Trust; but unofficially he was a sort of financial vice-regent of Europe for the time being. You see, that was the instant of the particular crisis in international affairs when the Sencort Trust took the load, and "carried" two of the major powers, along with seven or eight of the minors, for the sake of the peace of the world and to postpone, for a while anyway, the rush of the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse over the rest of Europe.

Teverson personally was packing tremendous responsibilities; and naturally every one, whose impulse in difficulty is to slip out from under and loot and destroy, was keen to take a pot shot at him.

Jerry's note must mean that he'd run on the trail of an especially capable plot which involved the employment of pipes running into the directors' room at the Sencort Trust. Suggestive, that mention of pipes; and he had emphasized the need to see Teverson at once.

I had the note just after breakfast; and the Times this morning told that Lord Strathon, for England, and F. L. Géroud, for France, were arriving on the Majestic for immediate conference with the Sencort committee about loans and reparations. That meeting, this morning, undoubtedly was booked for the directors' room at the Sencort Trust,—a big bag, sure enough, for whoever was going gunning through the pipes this morning.

I'd no time to lose, so I rushed to Wall Street and up in the old Trust Building to Teverson's office. He was down meeting the Majestic, which was just docking; so I sent in my card to Sencort.

Now I knew the old man slightly; he had, among a thousand other flyers, his venture in beans, netting himself something too. Also, Fanneal and Company had supplied on some foreign-food contracts he'd financed; so I was sure he'd know my name.

He did; he sent out word he couldn't see me and told the girl to explain that he was expecting Lord Strathon and M. Géroud momentarily.

"Tell him that's why I have to see him now," I urged the girl.

She brought out word that the Sencort Trust would not let the contracts on the supplies to be bought with proceeds of the new loans; and, if they did, I'd have to see him later.

I said to that girl, "You read the papers?"

Of course she did; and, when I asked, she granted that she'd seen considerable mention of me, recently.

"That's good," I said. "Will you ask Mr. Sencort if he has, too? And, if he has, assure him I've called on nothing connected with my usual business, but something else of direct importance to him."

"Rising out of your—" she hesitated and then said—"your counterfeiter's connection, Mr. Fanneal?"

"Rising from it," I told her, "but not stopping there. Now I leave it to you to get me in to see Mr. Sencort."

I saw, by this time, she was curious, if not a little impressed. It's queer how a short and conspicuously unsuccessful connection with crime produces an effect which a lifetime in a creditable business can not do,—at least not the bean business. That girl disappeared and when she was back again, it was to ask me into Mr. Sencort's office.

The old man was at his desk and alone, and I saw at once that the girl had gone the distance for me with him; I had much to make good, so I went to it immediately.

"I've come to ask you not to have any meetings in your directors' room to-day."

Of course he asked why; and I told him, "I've word, which I feel sure is reliable, that there is a plot against your meeting."

"Hmm!" said Sencort, evidently disappointed. "Much obliged for your trouble."

Plainly, he wasn't interested.

I said,"You'll not meet in that room this morning?"

He was looking at papers on his desk. "Why not? I've had it examined. I've been warned before, Fanneal; so we've already taken precautions. These threats never amount to anything. Much obliged to you, however."

"You've examined the pipes in that room?" I asked.

"Pipes?" he repeated. There's always something about definiteness which claims the attention. He pressed a button on his desk.

The girl, who had got me in, reappeared. "Ask Reed and Weston whether they've particularly examined the pipes in the directors' room," he said; and when the girl was gone, he nodded to me. "Sit down, Fanneal."

Some one rang him on the 'phone, just then; and when he was through talking, the girl gave word: "Not particularly, Mr. Sencort, They're going over them now."

Again she left us alone.

"Rather rotten situation in Europe," I commented conversationally.

"Hmm," Sencort grunted, chewing his cigar, with as little interest in my reactions on the European trouble as in my warning to him. He gave me the impression that, having read about my performance with those counterfeit plates, he was willing to refresh his memory upon the sort of citizen who did that sort of thing.

His girl reentered and reported, "Mr. Teverson is here with Lord Strathon and M. Géroud, sir."

Sencort nodded. "Heard from Reed?"

"He's outside, sir."

"Send him in."

Reed proved to be a tall, keen-looking chap, evidently alert and undoubtedly dependable. He was one of the bank detectives, not in uniform.

"We've gone over the whole room again, sir; and also the rooms adjoining. Everything is in order," he reported.

"Particularly the pipes?" Sencort asked.

"There's nothing wrong with the pipes, sir."

"Very well," Sencort dismissed him; and then he looked at me. "Much obliged, Fanneal," he thanked me again.

Of course, he was dismissing me, but I held my ground. "The warning which reached me, Mr. Sencort, did not advise mere examination of the room," I insisted. "It said to prevent its use. I must urge you, whatever you think, not to meet in that room."

"Fanneal, if I governed my movements according to cautions of well-meaning friends, I'd have put myself and family and friends in a steel safe thirty years ago. Reed says that room is clear; it is on the fifth floor, so attack from the street is impossible. Here's Teverson now."

Another hint for me, but I stuck, and just then Teverson came in to see what was so absorbing in here, and old Sencort, in explaining why he was preferring a chat with me to a conference with M. Géroud and Lord Strathon at that hour, of course dragged in the mad idea I'd brought along. But Teverson wasn't amused by it at all.

"Reed and Weston have both examined the room," Sencort repeated, "and found all in order."

"All was in order over at Ed Costrelman's the other night, not only before but after the—the occurrence," Teverson mentioned in a thoughtful sort of brooding manner which sparked up old Sencort.

"What occurrence?" he came back loudly; of course Teverson had the door shut after him.

"Good Lord," said Teverson, "didn't you know that Ed Costrelman's dead?"

"Certainly," said Sencort. "I also know that his butler is dead and most of his party was sick but have recovered; from something wrong in the wine or vermuth. What has that to do with us? We're not serving liqueur at directors' meeting."

"It wasn't in the wine or vermuth," Teverson came back calmly. "It wasn't in the food either; everything they'd drunk or tasted has been analyzed. Everything, I tell you, was in order."

"What was it, then?" Sencort went at him, still with more impatience than interest. "Simultaneous, group indigestion?

"A poison, a definite, lethal agent, reached Costrelman and the butler—Swan—in fatal amount and the rest in less quantity. The postmortem on Ed and Swan was completed this morning; there was definite, characteristic destruction of motor nerve centers."

"Characteristic of what?" This was old Sencort—yielding, pliable nature, he had, you see—at Teverson again.

"A cheerful little chemical composition which the infernal-machine and poison squad of the secret service call KX."

"What?"

"In your school days, how did you designate algebraically an unknown quantity?" Teverson asked old Sencort, evidently knowing that the way to handle the old boy was by going to the good old Socratic.

"By the later letters of the alphabet," Sencort grunted.

"That is the X in the name of this; it means they haven't an iota of information on one ingredient, except by its effect; by K, they mean they can halfway guess at the other; it seems to be the masterpiece of an Austrian chemist known as Stenewisc who hides himself most successfully somewhere on the East Side here. If he'd been born in the Borgias' time, he'd have been Lucretia's favorite; for his stuff killed Costrelman and Swan and almost killed half a dozen more without giving the slightest warning till the physical seizure came, and without leaving an external trace."

"Poison to kill has to get into one," Sencort came back, not giving up yet. "If it wasn't in the food or in the drink, where was it?"

"What," returned Teverson, sticking to the Socratic, "goes into one's body beside food and drink?"

"Air's all I can think of."

"All I can," Teverson admitted. "And, with that in mind, I believe I'll have a look around our directors' room myself, if you'll hold up our meeting for a few minutes."

"Damn foolishness," acceded Sencort graciously.

"Pipes were what I was particularly warned against," I said to Teverson.

"Come along," he invited me; so I went with him to the fifth floor, passed Weston and Reed on guard outside to see that nobody carted in time bombs since they'd last reported the room clear, and we stepped into the regular, long-tabled, black-walnut panelled mausoleum sort of room which directors picked for their deliberations a generation or so ago.

There it was, with two windows to the street and both closed; it was winter, you see, and Sencort wasn't the only near octogenarian to rally round that walnut. It had electric lights and nothing else but a steam radiator, carpet and chairs and five old etchings on the walls. Everything was clear; nothing was wrong in the drawers or under the tables or chairs or even under the carpet. Reed had carefully tested the radiators and steam pipes. They were absolutely in order.

But I kept poking about the room and, behind an etching, I found the capped head of an old gas pipe which evidently brought illuminating gas to the room in the days before electric lighting.

It was capped, I say, and looked quite all right, but I happened to put my fingers behind the cap. Then I called Teverson; and he felt, and called Reed.

"What do you think of that?" he asked.

That was a slot—rather a series of slots—cut through the pipe behind the cap on the right wall. You couldn't see them from the front; you hardly could see them when you pressed cheek to the wall but you could feel them top, bottom and sides of the pipe cut through, leaving just enough metal to hold the cap in place; and freshly cut; for the edges were sharp to your fingers and shining to your eyes. But of course every scrap and shaving of the metal had been cleaned away. The pipe behind the cap back of an etching on the opposite wall was exactly like this.

"It was to come that way, I guess," I said carefully to Teverson.

"Was?" he repeated as carefully. "What makes you think it isn't yet to come? Not in the middle of our meeting now, but to whoever is here, which means you and me." But he did not move away; instead, he walked to the window and stood there looking down. I glanced down too and into Wall Street and got a glimpse of that part which seemed particularly to bear a message for us this morning—that strip between Morgan's offices and the sub-treasury where people were peacefully passing and feeling absolutely secure that summer noon, not so long ago, when without warning at all that infernal no-one-yet-knows-what went off and did what nobody about Wall Street will ever forget.

Of course, what had strewed the street had been gathered up and the pavement repaired and flushed and swept and the buildings restored long ago; yet this neighborhood wasn't precisely the best spot to disregard a threat of terrorism,—especially when you've found ancestral gas pipes freshly chiselled for no use you wish to put them to.

"We've expected trouble from radicals about this stage in our foreign financing, Fanneal," Teverson said to me. "We've guarded Géroud and Strathon from the minute they passed quarantine; we've double-guarded these premises with special men who are watching every stranger who comes in to-day; we've taken every precaution—or thought we had. That's why Sencort was so sure nothing could happen."

He stepped nearer to the window and I realized that he was not standing there merely to think, but he was intentionally showing himself to convince any watcher that the room was occupied. He turned about and went on, "No one knows where the other ends of these pipes are now; of course they haven't been used for decades. They might stop anywhere or they might have been led on indefinitely. If what killed Costrelman came through the air—and it seems certain it did—and if those pipes are conveyors for more of it, they could have pumped it in and nobody suspected till somebody fell over; it might be coming now on us. Do you feel any movement of air from that pipe?"

"I can't be sure," I said.

"Come out now," said Teverson, pulling at me absolutely unnecessarily; he didn't have to put up any argument. "I may be a damn fool, as Sencort suggests, but then I've rather a longer life expectancy—away from slotted gas pipes—than he. Besides, I'm beginning to feel some of this is personal against me. I was invited to Costrelman's dinner and was expected, though I didn't get there. . . . Weston, get help at once and try to cover the places where these pipes may run to; they may be entirely outside the building, of course. Jump! Reed, post men here to see no one uses this room or room next to it to-day. Leave the electric lights burning as if the room was being used and send some one, on the run, to that animal store the other side of Broadway in a cellar, Thames Street, I think, and buy four or five guinea pigs; if he gets back with them in fifteen minutes, cover your head, hold your breath, and put them inside this door; close it. If he doesn't get back that soon, don't even go near the door. Wait here, Fanneal." He left me in an office near by and himself rushed away.

"Now you tell me," he went at me three minutes later, "how much you know about this?"