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Mr. Bilks Encounters
the
Colors


by Hugh Pendexter


WILLIAM BILKS, who answered more quickly, if addressed as "Slinky Bill," halted at the corner and deposited his box of tools on the curb. He was attired as a workman and felt secure from any prying gaze. A policeman swung jauntily by, and took it for granted he was waiting for a car. But although Mr. Bilks frequently leaned from the curb to scrutinize the string of cars ever feeding round the curve, there seemed to be none that just suited him.

And between these little demonstrations of faked impatience his shrewd old eye was continually ranging back to the ground-floor office of Lemmet Brothers, contractors.

Lemmet Brothers were finishing a big viaduct job; and although Mr. Bilks made it a rigid rule of his professional deportment to have no confederates, there were certain channels of information at which he might occasionally quaff.

From one such he had learned that, of a Friday night, a large pay-roll remained in the Lemmet safe till Saturday morning. This to enable the paymaster to make an early start up-country and pay off the crews.

For two weeks the cracksman had stopped at this corner with his box of tools, ostensibly an honest workman bound for home. Late each afternoon, for fourteen days, he had waited here for his car and had used his eyes to excellent advantage. He knew just when Joshua Lemmet, the elder brother, would hustle down the steps for his club. He could call the minute when Frederick Lemmet, the younger, should emerge. He knew the employees would cease working shortly after the brothers had left, the man on the tall stool leading off by slamming his big books onto a shelf.

Then the young man at the drafting table would yawn and stretch his arms, and enter into conversation with the little stenographer. Within thirty minutes the shades would be drawn half-way up the windows and the office would be deserted.

There would remain the elevator men and the janitor. The former would stick to their cages; and should the latter appear as an intruder, Mr. Bilks had provided for his effacement. And this was the Friday night he had selected for relieving the paymaster of the morrow's responsibilities.

As he waited he was concerned to observe the deportment of the office staff was different from that of other nights. Although the brothers had departed, the clerks and stenographer continued steadily with their work. At last he noticed there was an addition to the force, a young woman who occupied a small desk in one corner. He decided her presence was deterring the others from any outward show of haste to get away.

Finally the bookkeeper and draftsman came down the steps. Within a minute they were followed by the stenographer. Mr. Bilks was not given to observing women, as they had no equity in his scheme of life. Yet he could not help comparing the red cheeks and blue eyes with the red and blue of the small flag pinned on the lapel of her mannish coat.

The flag was held in place by a button showing a red cross. He remembered the two were similarly decorated. The window shades remained down, and the new woman still kept her desk.

Mr. Bilks began to grow worried. He was superstitious about postponing any venture pertaining to other people's money, proceeding on the axiom one should get it while the getting's good. Postponement in this particular case meant a wait of another week.

A man, wearing clumsy shoes and liberally stained and smeared with clay, clumped up the steps and entered the office. He approached the desk, his back to the window, and remained for some minutes. On coming out, his dark face was broken by a broad grin, and he kept one swarthy hand over his breast.

"Italian from th' works," mused Mr. Bilks; asking disgustedly: "Why don't the skirt beat it?"

He was pondering over this problem when a sharp yelp of pain, the hoarse cry of several passers-by, caused him to turn just as the laborer was hurled against the curb at his feet by a recklessly driven automobile.

The car kept on and turned the corner. Mr. Bilks was enraged at such brutal indifference, and was the first to aid the unfortunate. As he dragged him onto the sidewalk, he saw the coarse shirt was stained with blood and that the left hand was clutching a small button displaying a red cross.

"Must be hot-cross bun day round here," he told himself, recalling bakers' signs along this season of the year.

"I seen him!" cried a newsboy to the crowd, now rapidly collecting. "He dropped something and ducked back to git it, and—zing!"

Crowds were abhorrent to Mr. Bilks unless he might be seeking to cast off pursuit. When stalking game they were a great nuisance. Then there was a policeman bustling forward. The cracksman withdrew to the outskirts of the gathering, chagrined that the accident should imperil his plans.

As he retreated, his wandering gaze beheld the janitor and the new woman clerk leaving the Lemmet building. The janitor hurled himself into the small mob, but the woman held back and inquired of Mr. Bilks:

"What's the matter? What's happened?"

Mr. Bilks groaned inwardly as her steady brown eyes scanned his face. Here was a witness who might rise up against him. Like the stenographer, she was wearing the tiny flag and red-cross button.

"Mutt tried to pick up a button like that there on yuh coat an' was sideswiped by a joy wagon," grunted Mr. Bilks, wishing she would move on.

The crowd parted, and she caught a glimpse of the victim.

"Oh, oh!" she irritated Mr. Bilks by crying out. "It's poor Patsy Pasquale! And he was so proud of it!" She darted forward and spoke to the officer; then back to Mr. Bilks and joyously informed: "They say it isn't serious, but they'll take him to the hospital. Why, you haven't the colors on to-day, have you? Perhaps you'd like mine."

Before he could protest that badges, buttons, or other decorative features were alien to his inclination, her slim fingers were fussing with the lapel of his rough coat. It was an extremely awkward experience for one unaccustomed to the attention of ladies, and Mr. Bilks would have felt more at ease had he stood at the bar of justice pleading to an indictment.

With a final little pat at the tiny flag, she drew back, satisfied herself it was correctly in place, nodded her head in approval, and said: "I can't give you the button. Only those who buy can wear them. Here comes the ambulance."

"F'r the love of—" grunted Mr. Bilks, slowly allowing his embarrassed figure to relax. "Say, she was some dame, too. Furst time a skirt ever pinned any flag on me." And he gingerly touched the small emblem of patriotism with a stubby finger.

With the arrival of the ambulance the crowd began to disintegrate. In another minute the janitor would be back in the hall. Fate was affording the cracksman a rare opportunity.

Banishing the accident and the young woman from his mind, Mr. Bilks entered the building and openly advanced to the main entrance of Lemmet Brothers, toolbox in hand. The door might as well have been unlocked, so quickly did it yield to his master touch.

His first move was to raise the shades so as to block the lower half of the windows. It was a dangerous move, but imperative. The young woman's excitement over the accident, or else ignorance of the office custom, had caused her to neglect this simple yet, to Mr. Bilks's scheme, vital act. He trusted the crowd would be too busy watching the ambulance to observe him.

The shades judiciously drawn, he placed his box of tools on the drafting table and passed to the door opening into Mr. Joshua's private office. With incredible celerity he unscrewed and removed the lock, and with remarkable cunning so disarranged its mechanism as to render it useless. Not till the lock had been "doctored" and made ready to stand his alibi, should any one intrude, did he give any heed to the object of his visit—the big safe.

As a finished product of the old school of craftsmen, Mr. Bilks had often lamented the coming of the yeggman and his vulgar explosives. One who held in loving remembrance the delicate technique of Red Leary could never indorse the crude modernism of safe-breaking.

Mr. Bilks looked on a strong-box as a challenge to a duel to be fought with finesse, as gentlemen of old met with rapier and scorned the clumsy effectiveness of clubs and blunderbusses.

Should he encounter a safe that could withstand his coaxing touch—and he yet had to acknowledge defeat, provided he were not interrupted—he would philosophically pass on to find another opponent.

To blow a safe, in Mr. Bilks's estimation, was as poor form as to use a blackjack on the head of a man who had defeated you at chess.

Although he had drawn the shades, he did not make the mistake of fastening the main door. If his presence were detected, the game was just begun, for then he would fall back on his second line of defense, an honest workman called into repair a defective lock.

He cocked his ears and listened. The janitor had returned and was calling out the details of the accident to the elevator men down the hall. Mr. Bilks knew he had some sixty seconds, even should the janitor discover the office door was a crack ajar.

Holding the damaged lock in one hand, he stepped to the safe and kneeled, and commenced experimenting with the combination knob. He divided his attention between the eloquent story unfolded by the clicking tumblers and the voices in the hall.

Fifty seconds passed, and he had eliminated various possible combinations when his sixth sense sent him springing noiselessly to the middle of the floor with a screw-driver poised over the lock.

"Hello! Say, what you doin' here?" demanded the janitor, staring truculently, but undecided as to the true status of the situation.

"I'm shoeing a hoss," growled Mr. Bilks, giving the man a sidelong glance.

"Fixing a lock, eh?" continued the janitor, lowering his voice and edging forward.

Mr. Bilks glared at him peevishly, essayed to make the bolt work, then rubbed his oily fingers across his forehead and complained:

"This is a fine time to send a man out on a job. What? Me al'ready to call it a day an' then git stung for this. S'pose these people too delicate to have a locksmith round during working hours. Huh!"

And he glared wrathfully at the door and then at the lock before him.

"Sent up here to fix the lock, eh?" mumbled the janitor, his slow mind now working into the rut Mr. Bilks's words had provided.

"I ain't up here for my health," rumbled Mr. Bilks. "I'm sent up here to fix a lock that's yuh job to fix." And he experimented with the lock gently and swore under his breath.

The janitor bridled.

"I ain't no call to be janitor and locksmith," he indignantly defended. "If you work overtime you git paid for it, what's more'n happens to me. Where you from?"

"Carberry 'n' Carberry," sullenly returned Mr. Bilks. "Call up Twenty-eight-one-seven Bronx an' say Peter wants the kid to bring the smallest screw-driver to the Lemmet job on the rush. Cuss this brand of lock, anyway!"

He wrenched at the mechanism savagely, stood up and turned on the desk light and examined the lock minutely, and remained utterly oblivious to the janitor's presence.

Suddenly he glanced around and demanded:

"Say, if yuh union rules won't allow yuh to phone Carberry 'n' Carberry, I s'pose I can."

"Oh, I'll phone all right," mumbled the janitor. "I was thinking I might have a screw-driver you could use."

"Fine chance on a lock of this kind," sneered Mr. Bilks.

The janitor entered the telephone-booth in the corner, and Mr. Bilks, shut off from his view, figured he had thirty seconds' leeway. He stepped softly to the safe and worked the knob rapidly. This time he learned one of the numbers. He was back at the desk when the janitor emerged from the booth informed:

"Carberry 'n' Carberry don't answer. Closed up, eh?"

Mr. Bilks glanced at the clock and jeered:

"Course they'd close up once they'd dogged me off up here to work overtime. Joe 'n' the kid and the old man are all home to supper, but my woman can wait, and I can eat cold victuals. Say, neighbor, if yuh're a mind to fetch me the smallest screw-driver yuh have, I'll see if I can use it. Prob'ly I can't, but I ain't nothing in my kit that 'll work. If they'd told me what I was going against, I'd fetched a small one."

"I got one they use on typewriters and another—"

"Typewriter one. And I'll be much obliged. I'll stand a beer soon's I'm through."

The janitor was favorably impressed by Mr. Bilks's effort to be affable, and willingly departed to his basement workshop for the necessary tool, pausing only to say:

"I'll close the door so no one will be buttin' in."

Mr. Bilks, his eyes glued on the lock, nodded absent-mindedly, while his heart thumped in triumph. Had the janitor failed to make this offer, he would have requested it.

The door had barely clicked before the cracksman was back at the safe, his educated ear registering each faint sound as he spun the knob, his mind automatically forming various possible combinations. At last he thrilled with pride and exultation as lie believed he had arranged the magic group. He gave a gentle tug, and the heavy door yielded.

Suddenly he straightened and listened intently.

All was serene in the hall. He opened the door and worked briefly on a locked drawer. This presented no serious obstacle, and he smiled a twisted smile as his narrowed gaze feasted for a second on a stack of bank-notes. Premonition again sounded the alarm, and, closing the door, he was back at work on the lock, his eyes peering cold and hard through his half-closed lids. The janitor entered.

Mr. Bilks was superstitious about his "hunches," and his bushy brows wrinkled in perplexity. He had quit the safe because of a hunch he was in danger. But the janitor was no menace.

"I've been thinkin' it ain't reg'lar you're being here like this," began the janitor as he slowly fished out a tiny screw-driver, "So I decided I oughter call up one of the Lemmets."

"Which one did yuh call?" softly asked Mr. Bilks, attacking the lock with the new screw-driver.

"Neither yet. Of course it's all right; but if I call it 'll show I'm on the job. See? Besides, it 'll learn 'em not to have work done after office hours unless they tell me ahead. The young lady, the new one, let you in, of course. If I didn't understand how to read human nature, I might 'a' thought you was a burglar."

"F'r the love of—yuh don't tell me!" gasped Mr. Bilks. "Sure; call all the Lemmets. Old Joshua's the one who sent in the order about the lock. Wish yuh'd call my boss 'way from his supper, too, while yuh're about it. Say, before yuh do anything else kindly steady the door while I fit this in. Think yuh little screw-driver's done the job."

Well pleased to have furnished the vital tool, the janitor seized the door with both hands and mumbled:

"If it works all right, there won't be any need of calling any one, mebbe."

"Whether it works or don't, we'll take time for that beer," declared Mr. Bilks.

"That's the stuff. Yuh're a born locksmith, the way yuh handle that door. Now duck down so's I can git at it over yuh head. There! More like that—an' then like this."

With the last word Mr. Bilks wrapped the bookkeeper's office coat dexterously about the janitor's head, effectually gagging him, and, with great neatness and despatch, produced a short length of cord, and tied his hands and legs almost before the astounded man knew what had happened.

Dragging his victim inside the private office, the cracksman closed the door and ironically observed:

"Janitors can't be too careful about orders. An' as for strangers—"

He paused, one hand holding the lock, the other gliding to his hip, his gray eyes staring at the door.

The door opened, and a young woman, her face buried in her hands, rushed in and collapsed at a desk. Her shoulders rose and fell spasmodically, and Mr. Bilks was horrified to discover she was weeping.

He would have felt more at his ease had she been a policeman. He gazed at her irresolute, the lure of the bank-notes urging him to make haste, the mystery of her sex and the phenomenon of her tears baffling him.

Suddenly she lifted her head and turned and saw him.

"I-I thought the janitor was here," she informed with an accompaniment of half-stifled sobs. "The elevator man said—"

"Been and gone, miss," informed Mr. Bilks. " He was helping me fix this lock."

Her eyes widened, and she softly exclaimed:

"Why, you're the man who picked up poor Patsy. He—he was hurt worse than they supposed, the hospital tells me." And again the tears rolled down her face.

"Erhum?" muttered Mr. Bilks, now feeling wretchedly uncomfortable.

"Poor man! His devotion to the flag may cost him his life."

Mr. Bilks rubbed his close-cropped head in bewilderment. What had been planned as a private achievement was resolving itself into a committee on memorial resolutions. If the janitor had held back one more minute the money would now be resting securely in the false bottom of the tool-box.

However, it was no time for sentiment. After stalking the place so cunningly and planning so adroitly, the cracksman was not inclined to let a tearful woman stand between him and the prize.

He took a step toward the long linen dust-coat belonging to the draftsman. It infuriated him to realize how this hysterical young woman's presence threatened all his clever work. He had learned the names of the workmen in Carberry & Carberry's shop, and even primed himself on the firm's telephone number. Every move had been thought out ahead, and all had gone as he had wished till this ridiculous intrusion.

He began to forget her sex in nursing his resentment.

"And he was so proud to wear the button," she sobbed. "He was proud to pay his dollar down and sign. And he's only taken out his first papers."

"Sure," muttered Mr. Bilks, beginning to believe she was crazy as well as inopportune. "Poor mutt."

Mr. Bilks mopped his brow and edged nearer the dust-coat.

She froze him in his tracks by jumping to her feet and opening a big book and crying:

"See! There's his name!"

Mr. Bilks involuntarily advanced and at the tip of her finger read:


Giovanni Pasquale ...................... $1.00


She dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief, absurdly small to Mr. Bilks's way of thinking, and ran on:

"Patsy is what the men call him. He told me he wanted to help. And now he may die—"

She began swallowing convulsively, and Mr. Bilks sought to fill in the pause by saying:

"It breaks that way sometimes, miss. The number of the car that bumped him is 28765-Vermont. Dealer's car, for it was marked X."

She wiped her eyes and stared at him admiringly.

"You have a quick eye. No one else thought to get the number. I'll jot it down. I'm glad I gave you my flag. I'm glad you're wearing it."

Mr. Bilks looked down at the forgotten patch of colors. For the moment he felt a great superiority over the Italian. Signor Pasquale had taken out his first citizen's papers only, while Mr. Bilks's forebears had been in the country several generations.

This pleasurable emotion was quickly succeeded by a feeling of resentment against the injured man. The cracksman had worn stripes several times, but never before to-day had he shown the stars on the blue field.

"The gink beat me to it," he growled under his breath.

"Maybe you'd like to join," she murmured, hope showing on her features. "It costs only a dollar."

"Say, miss, on the level, what kind of a joint—I mean, what's the game?" he hoarsely demanded.

Her brown eyes showed her surprise. She gently explained.

"I'm conducting the Red Cross Bureau here. Lemmet Brothers kindly gave me desk-room. In the safe there is nearly a thousand dollars I've taken in already."

"Nearly a thousand—" Mr. Bilks bit his tongue, then suggested: "Yuh'd better be careful, or you'll be gifting yuh money mixed with the firm's coin."

"They don't keep any here now." Her lips grimaced as she added: "The—the last dollar that went in belonged to poor Patsy. Now they say he may—die."

She dropped back into the chair and rested her head on her arm. Mr. Bilks knew it was now or never, and reached for the dust-coat, but he had never muffled disheveled brown hair resting on a round arm.

"For the love of—" he growled. "Can the weeps! Here—quit it! I'll join. Here—buck up and take my money! One bone? I'll raise yuh five. Say, miss, take a brace an' tend to biz. Here's a five-spot."

She lifted her head and blinked at the money, and smiled through her tears.

"I only hope no harm will come to you because you've felt prompted to help the cause," she prayed.

Mr. Bilks's hard visage became alarmed. He had a hunch it was time to depart. Patsy got his for bringing in a dollar. What might not happen to a man who gave up five?

With a farewell glance at the safe, he edged toward the door. Of course, another sixty seconds wouldn't add to his dangers, and a minute would be ample to— No! Let the yeggmen rob hospitals. Thank God, he was above dirty work.

"I'll be goin'," he croaked.

"I thank you so much. But you haven't fixed the lock nor signed the book!" she cried.

"T'ell with it—meaning the lock, miss. Just put down in the book, 'From S. B.' And mebbe the Italian won't die. Never see one yet yuh could kill with a ax."

He glided to the door, now glad she had come before he could make the faux pas of taking the Red Cross funds. He knew nothing of sentiment, but race memories, or something, had always held him back from what he considered to be high crimes.

To loot a complacent, boastful safe was legitimate; to take the Italian's dollar from this safe was infamy. So he softly closed the door behind him and dropped his box of tools near the entrance and effaced himself in the straggling crowd.

The girl, her face glowing because of the unexpected donation, went to the safe. She exclaimed, under her breath, in horror as the door swung open before she could work the combination. She frantically snatched open the drawer, and felt very weak under the reaction of finding the fund intact.

As she closed the door and spun the knob she heard a faint sound in the private office. Fearful, yet mastering her nerves, she advanced and flung open the door. It required some moments to distinguish what the writhing form was.

At last she had released the prisoner. The janitor staggered to his feet, wildly crying:

"The robber! The robber pretendin' to fix the lock! He's robbed the safe! Phone the p'lice!"

"No one robbed the safe!" she gasped, beginning to remember the workman's queer deportment.

"He tackled me! He's a robber!" he fumed, clawing for the desk telephone.

"Wait! See here!" she stopped him by crying. He paused till she had opened the safe and displayed the money.

"That shows he hadn't had time, because I was on the job!" exclaimed the janitor, picking up the receiver.

But she knew he had had time. She knew some strange whim, one that bordered on gentleness, had held him back.

"If they work sharp they'll pick him up!" panted the janitor as he waited for central to give him the nearest precinct. "Tough-lookin' feller with a small flag on his coat. He had it on in here. I heard you say he would wear it—"

"Don't mention the flag," she broke in, slipping her hand into the drawer of her desk. "He left it here. See! Here it is."


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.


The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.