The Adventures of Detective Barney/The Blackmailers
THE ADVENTURES OF
The want ad—after the manner of want ads—had read simply: “Boy, over 14, intelligent, trustworthy, for confidential office work, references. Address B-67 Evening Express.”
Several scores of boys, who were neither very intelligent nor peculiarly trustworthy, exposed their disqualifications—after the manner of boys—in the written applications that they made. Of these scores, a dozen boys received typewritten requests to call next morning at room 1056, in the Cranmer Building, on Broadway, for a personal interview with “H. M. Archibald.” But of the dozen, only one knew what sort of confidential office work might be waiting for him in room 1056.
He was little Barney Cook. And he kept his information to himself.
The directory, on the wall of the building’s entrance, did not assign 1056 to any of the names on its list. The elevator boys did not know who occupied 1056. The door of 1056 had nothing on its glass panel but the painted number; and the neighboring doors were equally discreet. The “Babbing Bureau” was the nearest name in the corridor, but its doors were marked “Private. Entrance at 1070.”
Nor was there anything in the interior aspect of 1056 to enlighten any of Barney Cook’s competitors when they came there to be interviewed. It was an ordinary outer office of the golden-oak variety, with a railing of spindles separating a telephone switchboard and two typewriter desks from two public settles and a brass cuspidor. There were girls at the desks and the switchboard. The boys were on the settles or at the railing. The girls were busy, indifferent, chatty (among themselves) and very much at home. The boys, of course, were quite otherwise. They might have been suspected of having assumed a common expression of inert and anxious stupidity in order that each might conceal from all the others the required intelligence with which he hoped to win the “job.”
Barney Cook alone betrayed the workings of a mind. He sat erect—stretching his neck—at the end of a settle nearest the gate of the railing, watching the door of an inner room and scrutinizing every one who came out of it. He paid no heed to the girls; he knew that they were merely clerks. But when he saw a rough-looking man appear, with a red handkerchief around his neck, he stared excitedly. Surely the bandana was a disguise! Perhaps the black mustache was false!
Forty-eight hours earlier, in the uniform of a telegraph boy, Barney had been in the public office of the Babbing Detective Bureau; and he had been asked to deliver an envelope to the advertising department of the Evening Express as he went back. The envelope was not sealed. It did stick slightly in places—but it was not sealed. And it contained the want ad. “Confidential office work”! For the famous Walter Babbing!
Young Barney had been delivering telegrams to the Babbing Bureau for months, without ever getting past the outer office at 1070, and without so much as suspecting the existence of these operatives’ rooms and inner chambers down the hall. He had seen Babbing only once, when “the great detective” came out with one of his men while Barney was getting his book signed. Babbing stood in the doorway long enough to say: “I ’ll meet you at the station. Get the tickets. I ’ll send Jim down with my suit-case.” The operative replied: “All right, Chief.” And Barney knew that this was Walter Babbing.
He was a brisk-looking, clean-shaven, little fat man—rather “a dude” to Barney—with a quietly mild expression and vague eyes.
Barney knew nothing of the scientific theory of “protective coloring” in detectives; he did not know that the most successful among them naturally look least like anything that might be expected of their kind. He went out, with his book open in his hand, absorbed in study of the picture of Babbing that had been photographed on his instantaneous young mind.
Subsequently, he decided that he had seen Walter Babbing without any make-up, in the private appearance that he reserved for office use among his men. And he was assisted to this conclusion by his knowledge of the adventures of Nick Carter which he read on the street cars, in the subways, on the benches in the waiting room of the telegraph office, or wherever else he had leisure. And it was the influence of these Nick Carter stories that had brought him now to 1056 in his Sunday best, with his hair brushed and his shoes polished, as guiltily excited as a truant, having lied to his mother and absented himself from his work in the wild hope of getting employment—confidential and mysterious employment—in the office of the great Babbing.
He was a rather plump and sturdy youth of sixteen, with an innocent brightness of face, brown-eyed, black-haired, not easily abashed and always ready with a smile. It was a dimpled smile, too; and he understood its value. In spite of his boyish ignorance of many things outside his immediate experience—such as famous detectives, for example—he knew his world and his way about in it; he met the events of his day with a practical understanding; and when he did not understand them he disarmed them with a grin. He was confident that he could get this job in the Babbing Bureau, in competition with any of the “boobs” who were waiting to dispute it with him, unless some one among them had a “pull.” Being an experienced New Yorker, it was the fear of the pull that worried him.
He waited alertly on the edge of his settle, watching for an indication that the interviews with “H. M. Archibald” were to begin, and ready to rise and thrust himself forward as the first applicant. For a moment he did not recognize Babbing when the detective entered, from an inner office, in a spring overcoat and a fight felt hat.
He had a small black satchel in his hand. He spoke to the telephone girl. Barney heard her ask: “The Antwerp?” Babbing added: “Until three o’clock.”
He came towards the gate of the railing, and Barney rose to open it for him. Babbing did not appear to notice him, so Barney preceded him to the door and opened that also. Still Babbing did not heed. “I ’ll take your satchel, Mr. Babbing,” Barney said, authoritatively. And Babbing gave it to him in the manner of an absent mind.
The whole proceeding had been a sudden inspiration on Barney’s part, born of a desire to distinguish himself, in Babbing’s eyes, from the other prospective office boys on the settles. Now, with Babbing’s satchel in his hand, he followed the detective into a well-filled elevator, confident of Babbing’s notice; but as they dropped in the cage together, he observed that the detective was looking over his head, occupied with his own thoughts.
Barney got out before him, preceded him to the entrance of the building, and stood at a revolving door for Babbing to go first. Babbing passed him without a glance. A taxi-cab was waiting at the curb, and he crossed the sidewalk to it, with Barney at his heels. While he was speaking in a low tone to the driver, Barney opened the cab door and held it open for him to get in; and he got in, without remark. Barney put the satchel at his feet; but the feet, too, were blind; they did not move. Barney shut the door, reluctantly; and the indifferent auto slowly started up Broadway, intent upon the internal uproar of its own convulsions.
Barney did not understand that if you are a detective, confronted by an incident which you do not understand, you pretend that you do not see it, so that you may observe it without putting it on its guard. He stood looking after his wasted opportunity, for a regretful moment. Then he turned and ran towards City Hall Park, to get an express train in the subway station at the Bridge.
He knew that the Antwerp—if it was the Hotel Antwerp that was meant—was around the corner from the subway station at 42nd Street.
Barney wanted that “job.” Babbing had it, so to speak, in his pocket. And with the shrewd simplicity of youth, Barney proposed to follow and put himself in the way until he was asked, impatiently: “Well, boy, what do you want?” Then he would say what he wanted—and probably get it.
Although the subway is not so expensive as a taxi-cab, it is speedier, in the long run; and Barney was standing near the door of the Antwerp—somewhat blown but cheerfully composed—when Babbing’s car whirred around the corner and drew up to the sidewalk. Barney opened the cab door and took the satchel briskly, with a smile of recognition which the detective ignored. When the driver had been paid, Babbing turned into the hotel, apparently oblivious of his escort; and Barney followed undiscouraged, with the bag.
“Get away, kid,” he said to the bell-boy who offered to carry it. “Er I ’ll bite your ankle.”
Standing back at a respectful distance, he watched the detective get a letter and his room-key at the desk. When he went to the elevator, there was nothing for Barney to do but to go after him. In the elevator, Babbing said “Eighth,” and busied himself with his letter, which he read and pondered on. He put it in his pocket and looked Barney over, for the first time, with an abstracted eye. Barney smiled at him, ingratiatingly. The smile met with no response.
And still Barney was not discouraged. He was not apprehensive. He was not even nervous. There was nothing forbidding in the mild reserve of the detective’s face. He looked like a man of a kindly personality. He seemed easy-going and meditative. And Barney, of course, was not the first to get that impression of him. It was one of the things that explained Babbing’s success.
He led the way down the padded carpet of the corridor to his room, and unlocked the door, and threw it open for Barney to enter one of the usual hotel bedrooms of the Antwerp’s class, with the usual curly-maple furniture and elaborate curtains and thick carpeting. Barney put the satchel on the table, and waited in the center of stereotyped luxury. “When did Mr. Archibald take you on?” Babbing asked, aside, as he hung up his hat and overcoat.
“He has n’t taken me on—yet,” Barney admitted.
Babbing put on a pair of unexpected spectacles and got out a ring of keys to unlock his bag. Occupied with that, he asked: “How did you know that I was coming here?”
Barney explained that he had overheard the instructions to the telephone girl.
The detective had begun to take, from his satchel, letters, telegrams, typewritten reports, and packages of papers strapped in rubber bands, which he proceeded to sort into little piles on the table, as they came. He appeared to be giving this business his whole attention, but while his hands moved deliberately and his eyes read the notations on the papers, he pursued Barney through an examination that ran: “How did you know who I was?”
“I delivered telegrams to your office an’—”
“For what company?”
“The Western Union.”
“Why did you leave them?”
“I wanted to work fer you.”
“How did you know we wanted a boy?”
“I saw the ad.”
“How did you know it was ours?”
“I—I delivered it to the newspaper.”
“Are you in the habit of opening letters that are given you to deliver?”
“Don’t smile so much. You overdo it,” Babbing said, without looking up. And his merely professional tone of matter-of-fact advice sobered Barney as suddenly as if he had said: “I understand, of course, that you have found your smile very effective, but it does n’t deceive me. You ’re not so bland a child as you pretend, and I shall not treat you as if you were.”
Barney shifted uncomfortably on his feet. The absent-minded ease with which Babbing had plied him with questions and caught up his answers made him fearful for the approach of the moment when the detective should give him a concentrated attention and begin forcibly to ransack him and turn him inside out.
Babbing asked unexpectedly: “How tall are you?”
“About five feet,” Barney answered at a guess.
“How much do you weigh?”
“About a hundred—an’ twenty-five.”
Babbing glanced at him appraisingly, went on with his papers again, and said: “When you don’t know a thing, say so. It saves time. What ’s your name?”
“Barney. Barney Cook.”
“Where do you live?”
Barney gave the number of his home in Hudson Street.
“The Greenwich village quarter?”
“What does your father do?”
“He ’s dead. He was a policeman. He was killed.”
“What was his name?”
“Robert E. Cook.”
“When was he killed? How long ago?”
“About eight years.”
Babbing was still at his papers. “Is your mother living?”
“What does she do?”
“Looks after me an’ my sister.”
“What does she do for a living?”
“She rents furnished rooms. Her an’ Annie. That ’s my sister.”
“What does she do with your father’s pension?”
“She puts it all in the bank.”
“She does n’t own the house?”
“Who owns it?”
“You went to the parochial school?”
Babbing had found a typewritten report for which he had evidently been looking. As he crossed the room to the telephone, he asked: “Do you smoke cigarettes?”
Babbing took down the receiver from its hook. “When did you quit?”
Barney hesitated guiltily a moment. Then he answered: “This morning.”
“Give me room eight-twenty,” Babbing said, into the ’phone. He added, to Barney: “You can’t work for me, if you’re going to smoke. It will spoil your nerve.” And while Barney, dumb with incredulous hope, was still staring at the implication of that warning, Babbing said: “Hello. This is eight-fourteen. Can you get in to see me for a few minutes? . . . Yes. . . . Have you received that uniform yet? . . . Bring it in with you.”
He hung up the receiver but kept his hand on it. “Sit down,” he said to Barney. He continued, to the telephone: “Get me one-seven-three-one Desbrosses. . . . Hello. . . . Archibald. Babbing. . . . You have an application there—in answer to our want ad—from a boy named Barney Cook. Have you looked up any of his references? . . . He says he delivered telegrams to us for the Western Union. His father was Robert Emmet Cook, a patrolman, killed about eight years ago. His mother lives in Hudson Street, where she rents furnished rooms. Run it out. ’Phone me right away, about the telegraph company and the police.” He turned abruptly, to scrutinize Barney over his spectacles. And Barney, seeing himself engaged if his references proved satisfactory, did not attempt to suppress his triumphant grin.
“Well,” Babbing said, “you don’t look much like a plant,—”
“No, sir,” Barney admitted, not knowing in the least what was meant. He rose, at the end of a successful interview.
“Sit down,” Babbing said, “your troubles have just begun. Come in!”
That last was in response to a knock at the door; and a man entered on the invitation, nonchalantly, with his hat on, carrying what proved to be a suit of black clothes on his arm. He was a large, dark, breezy-looking, informal sort of individual, about thirty-five; and Barney at once misplaced him as a Broadway type of “rounder” and race-track “sport.” He ignored Barney and proceeded to drape the clothes over the foot of the bed, as if he had come merely to bring the suit. Barney did not guess that because of his presence the man did not speak to Babbing—until Babbing, by a question, indicated that it was all right to talk.
“Any one been to see him to-day?” Babbing asked.
“Not a soul,” he answered. “He ’s been out, this morning, but he did n’t connect.”
“Snider has picked up some more telegrams.” Babbing held out the report to him. “In cipher.”
“Got their code yet?”
“No. If we had that, we ’d have everything. We can figure out a word here and there. The names are easy. But that ’s as far as we can get.”
They stood together beside the table, their feet in a patch of sunlight, their backs to Barney, interested in a page of the report which Babbing was showing to his operative. “ ‘Kacaderm,’ for instance. That ’s ‘Murdock.’ He ’s one of the men they ’ve been bleeding, out there. They take the consonants ‘m-r-d-c-k,’ reverse them ‘k-c-d-r-m,’ and fill in vowels. But they do that only with the proper names. For instance, this last one: ‘Thunder command wind kacaderm.’ That can’t be solved by reversing consonants.”
The operative studied the page. “Search me,” he said. “Has Acker worked on it?”
“Yes. It was he that puzzled out the names. It ’s not a cryptogram. They have some simple method of writing one whole word for another. There ’s no use wasting time on it. We ’ll have to make our plant to catch him writing a message.”
Babbing took off his spectacles and began to walk up and down the room, twirling them by the ear bows. The operative sat on the side of the bed, leaning forward, with his hands clasped between his knees. He removed his derby and gazed thoughtfully into it, as if he hoped to find an idea there. It remained empty.
Babbing stopped in front of Barney. “Young man,” he said, “I ’m going to send you into the next room with a telegram. There ’s a man in there—registered as Marshall Cooper. Remember the name. You ’ll give the telegram to him and say ‘Any answer?’ Watch him. It will be a cipher telegram that will look as if it had been received downstairs. See what he does to make it out. He ’ll probably want to answer it; and if he does, you may have a chance to see how he makes up the answer. He has a writing table over at this window—here. If he sits down at it, he ’ll have his back to you. Try to see what he does. Don’t try to do it by watching him quietly. He ’d notice that. Move around and look at the pictures. Don’t try to whistle—or anything of that fool sort. Try to act as you would if you were a bell-boy.” He had taken the suit of clothes from the foot of the bed. “Go in the bathroom and try these on.”
Afterward, when Barney thought of this moment, it seemed to him romantic and exciting beyond all his wildest young adventurous hopes. It seemed to him that he must have jumped to his feet with delight. As a matter of fact, he rose very soberly and took the clothes. His mind was busy with Babbing’s directions which he was conning over and repeating to himself, so that he might be sure to make no mistakes. He was troubled about his ability to do what was expected of him. And he went into the bathroom and took off his Sunday twilled serge, and put on the black uniform of an Antwerp bell-boy mechanically, without thinking of himself as engaged in a Nick Carter exploit. Besides, the trousers were too long in the legs, and he had to pull them up until they were uncomfortable.
He heard Babbing answering the telephone, but he did not suspect that the detective was receiving a confirmatory report, from his office, upon Robert Emmet Cook’s record at Police Headquarters and Barney Cook’s service with the Western Union. Barney was not listening to what was going on around him, nor thinking of it. His thoughts were in Marshall Cooper’s room. He was dramatising a scene with that gentleman.
The voices of Babbing and his operative conferred together imperturbably:
“How are we going to send him a cipher telegram. Chief, if we don’t know his code?”
“I ’m going to repeat the one he got last night from Chicago. ‘Thunder command wind kacaderm.’ He has n’t answered it?”
“Unless by letter. And they would n’t get that till to-night.”
Babbing said: “He ’ll not go to the telegraph desk asking questions, because he won’t care to identify himself to the man there. That ’s why he goes out to send his messages.”
“Suppose he does n’t let the kid into the room at all.”
“Well, he opens the door. The boy gives him the telegram and asks ‘Any answer’? He reads it and sees it ’s the same message that he had last night. That ’ll make him forget the boy. He ’ll be trying to figure out what has happened. And the boy can stand at the door and watch him. It ’s worth trying anyway. Go and get the telegram ready, Jim.”
“What is it, again?”
“ ‘Thunder command wind kacaderm.’ Unsigned.”
“ ‘Thunder—command—wind—kacaderm.’ ”
“Have you the envelopes?”
“Yep. Billy has everything in there.”
“Don’t seal it till I ’ve looked it over.”
“All right. Chief.”
The operative—whose name was Corcoran—departed with the unbustling celerity of a man accustomed to quick and noiseless movement. Babbing went to the bathroom door. “That ’s not so bad,” he said of Barney’s uniform. “Turn around.” He settled the coat collar with a tug and a friendly pat. “Wipe off your shoes with a towel. The halls of the Antwerp aren’t as dusty as all that.” Barney looked up smiling, and found the detective’s eyes kindly, amused, encouraging. “I ought to send you out to get a new pair,” Babbing said, “but there is n’t time. Come in here, now, and let ’s go over this again. I have an improvement to suggest.”
He went to the window and stood looking out. Barney waited in the center of the room, excitedly alert. “You ’re a bell-boy recently employed here,” ^said. “The man at the telegraph desk has said to you: ‘Take this up to Mr. Cooper, room eight-eighteen, and see that he gets it, this time. It ’s a repeat.’ That ’s not according to Hoyle, but it will have to do. Cooper won’t know any better, anyway. So when you deliver the telegram at Cooper’s door, you say: “I was to be sure that you got this, this time. It ’s a repeat.’ Step inside when you give him the message, so that he can’t shut the door. And then watch him, as I told you before.”
He stopped. He eyed Barney skeptically. “You couldn’t possibly be as innocent as you look, could you? Because you ’ll have to do some quick lying, you know, if he suspects anything.”
Barney looked sheepish.
“Here,” Babbing said, suddenly. He took a letter from the table and gave it to the boy. “Go into the bathroom. No. The door opens in. I ’ll go in the bathroom, and you can come to the door and deliver this telegram. Let ’s see how you do it.” And he went into the bathroom and shut the door on himself.
Barney turned the letter over in his hands. He frowned a moment at the door. Then he went up to it and rapped. There was no answer. He knocked more loudly. A voice, disconcertingly gruff, asked, “What is it?”
“A telegram, sir,” Barney answered.
“Put it under the door.”
Barney smiled to himself—the cunning smile of a child in a game. “They said I was to see that you got it, this time. It ’s a repeat.”
The door was opened a few grudging inches. “What ’s that?”
“They said I was to see that Mr. Cooper got it, this time. It ’s a repeat.”
“Well, I ’m Mr. Cooper. Give it here.” He put his hand out, still blocking the half-opened door. Barney gave him the letter. The door shut in his face.
Barney blinked at the panels. Then he knocked again sharply. Babbing opened the door.
“Well, what is it?”
“They did n’t give me a receipt form,” Barney said. “Will you sign the envelope an’ give it back to me?”
“Have you a pencil?”
“No, sir,” Barney said.
“Well, wait there till I find one.”
Barney tried the door slyly. It opened. He edged in, over the threshold. “If you want to send an answer, sir,” he said, ”I can take it.”
Babbing caught him by the ”cowlick” that adorned his ingenuous young forehead. “Get out of here,” he laughed, “or I ’ll have you arrested.” And Barney, as startled as if he had been wakened from a dream, grinned confusedly. “That ’s all right,” Babbing said. “If you do it as well as that.”
“Was I all right?” Barney cried, exulting. “Was I?” He knew that he was; he could see it in Babbing’s face; but he wanted to hear it. And he spoke in the voice of a boy playing with a boy.
Babbing changed his expression. “Yes, but this ‘Nick Carter’ stuff,” he said, pointing to Barney’s coat on a hook, “you must n’t destroy your mind with that sort of thing. That must stop with your cigarettes.”
It returned Barney instantly to the hypocritical schoolroom manner of a pupil reproved by his teacher. “Yes, sir,” he promised.
“Well, we ’ll see.” Babbing was non-committal and unenthusiastic. “You 've a lot to learn, yet.”
Barney asked, shyly: “What ’s he been doin’?”
Babbing turned back to the bedroom. “That ’s my business, not yours. You do what you ’re told—in my office—and don’t ask questions. And don’t discuss cases. That ’s another thing to learn. . . . Come in,” he called to Corcoran’s knock.
The operative came in, taking a telegraph envelope from his pocket. He gave it to Babbing, cheerfully silent. The detective put on his glasses and scrutinized it. He took out the telegram and read it. He compared the “time received” with his watch. “That looks convincing,” he said. He moistened a finger tip and delicately wetted the gummed flap.
“We can give it a couple of minutes to dry.” He handed it to Barney. He went through his pockets for silver. “These are tips you 've received. A dollar on account of salary. He may ask you for change. . . . Now don’t be over-anxious. If this does n’t work, we ’ll find some other way. If he gets suspicious and telephones to the desk—or anything of that sort—just get in here as quickly as you can, and we ’ll protect you. Sit down a minute.” He turned to the papers on his table. “Jim,” he said, “you remember the disappearance case we had in Dayton—the little girl.”
“Our theory worked out all right. They ’ve got a confession from the nigger and found the body in the bushes where he buried it. Here ’s Wally’s report.”.
Corcoran took the paper and sat down to read it. “I hope they’ll hang the black—” he said piously.
Babbing consulted his watch. “Mr. Bellboy,” he said at last, “you have a telegram for Mr. Cooper in eight-eighteen. Go ahead and deliver it.”
Barney had a sensation of peculiar heaviness in the knees as he walked stiffly to the door. (“They said I was to see that you got it, this time.”) Outside, he paused to close the door with unnecessary gentleness and make sure that the corridor was empty. (“It ’s a repeat.”) Where was 818? He saw 819 across the hall to his left. He put a finger down the back of his neck, and eased his collar. He cleared his throat of nervousness. He walked boldly to 818, raised his small knuckles to a panel, and knocked.
There was no answer. He had put up his hand to knock again, when the door opened and a tall man in slippers and bathrobe asked, “Well?”
“A telegram for Mr. Cooper,” Barney said steadily. “They tol’ me to see that he got it, this time. It ’s a repeat.”
Cooper stood back. “Come in.” His voice was pitched low. “What did you say?”
Barney came across the threshold and Cooper closed the door on him. “It ’s a repeat,” Barney said, “an’ they told me to see that you got it, this time.” He held out the telegram.
Cooper took it nervously. He was a gaunt-featured, long-nosed, lean man, with deep lines from his nostrils to the corners of his thin lips. There was a little patch of lather drying on one cheek-bone, and Barney understood that he had been shaving. He wiped his hand on his bathrobe before he took the telegram, and he fumbled over it. Barney found himself suddenly cool and confident. He noticed that Cooper’s hands were very thin and very hairy; and he looked at them and then slowly looked Cooper over with a curious feeling of contempt. It was the contempt that accounts for half the daring of spies and detectives. People are so easily deceived, so easily outwitted. Their attention is so easily caught with one hand while the other goes unwatched. Barney was learning his trade.
“Why!” Cooper said. “I got this last night.”
“May be you did n’ answer it,” Barney suggested. “It ’s a repeat.”
He puzzled over it. “Well,” he said, “I—” His voice faded out in the tone of abstraction. He turned and shuffled across the room to his writing desk, his eyes on the telegram. Unconscious of Barney’s craning watchfulness, he took a small cloth-bound volume from an upper drawer of the little escritoire and turned the printed pages, comparing the words in the message with words in the book. The code book!
“If you want to send an answer,” Barney said boldly, moving down towards him, “I could take it.”
He did not reply. He sat down to the desk and took a pencil and wrote, and consulted the book carefully with his pencil point on the page, and came back again to the message, and returned to find another page in the book. “No, that ’s all right,” he said, finally. He tore the telegram and retore it into tiny pieces. “There ’s no answer.” He made as if to throw the torn paper into the waste basket, and then he checked himself. “Wait a minute,” he said, rising; and Barney understood that he was to have a tip.
Cooper shuffled off to the bathroom in his slippers.
Barney, as pale as a thief, darted to the secretary and crammed the little code book into his pocket.
When Cooper returned to the room, the bell-boy was standing near the door looking up at a framed engraving. He took the dime that Cooper gave him, and said stiffly, “Thanks,” but without raising his guilty eyes. As he went out, he glanced back and saw that Cooper was returning to the bathroom. Gee!
He was so obviously—so breathlessly—excited when he burst in upon the detectives that Corcoran came to his feet at sight of him. “What ’s the matter?”
Babbing jerked off his spectacles. “What has happened?”
“I go-got it,” Barney stammered, tugging at the book that stuck in his pocket.
“His— his book.”
“What!” Corcoran grabbed him roughly by the shoulder and snatched the volume from his hand. He glanced at its brown cloth cover. “What?” he cried. And that second “What” expressed the extreme of incredulous disgust. He held out the book to Babbing who had not moved from his seat at the table. “He ’s swiped the man’s dictionary!”
Babbing looked at it. It was a “pocket Webster,” a cheap abridged edition, on cheap paper. “Where did you get this?” he asked; and there was no kindly personality showing in the cold malevolence of his flat eyes.
“On his desk. I—”
“Why did you bring it?”
“Oh, hell!” Corcoran muttered. “This kid business!”
“That’ll do!” Babbing flared out at him. “I ’m in charge of this case.”
They glared at each other, as if they were old enemies, with old jealousies concealed and long injustices unforgiven. Corcoran turned with a shrug and sat down on the bed. Babbing rounded on the boy again.
“Why did you bring this?”
“Well, gee,” Barney defended himself. “As soon as he got the telegram, he beat it to his desk an’ yanked this book out of a drawer, an’ began to hunt the words up in it, an’—”
“Wait a minute. Corcoran get on watch out there. If you hear anything, come back for this boy. Take him in to Cooper and tell him you ’re the house detective—that you caught the boy with this book and he confessed he ’d stolen it from eight-eighteen. Give it back and ask him not to prosecute—because it would hurt the hotel. He won’t anyway. And that ’ll hold him quiet till we can get time to turn round. Otherwise, ’we ve tipped our hand.’’
Corcoran was already at the door. He went out on the final word.
“Now,” Babbing said, with perfect suavity, “take your time. Show me exactly what he did.”
“Well, look-a-here!” Barney took the book. “He got this out o’ the drawer, an’ then he sat down this way, an’ got a pencil, an’ then he wrote down the telegram—”
“Wrote it down? Where? On what?”
“On a piece o’ paper. An’ then he looks in the book, this way, an’ gets a word. An’ then he looks at the telegram. An’ then he goes back to the book an’ turns over the pages. An’ then he—”
Babbing reached the dictionary from him. “Wait.” He put on his spectacles and wrote on the back of an envelope: “Thunder command wind kacaderm.” Below that he wrote it again, reversed, and then several times with the words transposed and permuted in all possible orders. He turned to the word “thunder” in the dictionary. It was at the bottom of the first of the three narrow columns that filled the page. He studied it. He studied the words around it. He turned the page, and his eyes widened thoughtfully on the word “through” at the bottom of the third column. The line read “Through, (throo) prep. from.” And on the margin the point of a pencil had made a light indentation. He turned back to “Thunder”; and on the margin there, the pencil mark showed in a raised point.
He wrote, under the word “thunder” on his paper, the word “through.”
He turned to the word “command” in the dictionary, but after a prolonged scrutiny he wrote nothing.
He turned to “wind.” And he found, on the same page but in another column, the word “will” touched with a faint pencil mark. He sat back in his chair and his face became meditatively blank.
His eyelids constricted sharply. He wrote: “Murdock will come through.” Turning back in the dictionary to the word “command,” he found “come” standing directly beside it in the parallel column of print on the page. He looked at Barney and nodded. “Got it!” he said, grimly. “Go and bring Corcoran.”
Barney, almost running—but on his tiptoes—with the secrecy and the excitement, saw himself vindicated to the surprised Corcoran. He saw himself the hero of the occasion. He had solved the mystery! He had discovered the cipher! He signaled imperiously to Corcoran in the hall. The operative came scowling.
When they returned to the room, Babbing said: “Sit down there, boy, and keep quiet. You scuttle like a rat. . . . Jim, I 've got his method. I want you to send off some messages while I ’m translating these. Wire our Chicago office: ‘Case 11A393. Case completed. Immediately arrest Number Two on information in your files.’ Wire Indianapolis in the same words to grab Pirie. He ’s Number Three. And have Billy ’phone the office to get papers and an officer up here, at once, for our friend next door. I ’ll hold him till they come. Go ahead. I ’ll finish this.”
He settled down to his task studiously, copying out cipher telegrams, and writing between the lines the translated words as he found them in the dictionary. And in a room that was quiet and sunny, working with a little complacent pucker of the lips occasionally, or raising his eyebrows and adjusting his spectacles in a pause of doubt, he looked anything but sinister, anything but the traditional “bloodhound” on the trail in a man-hunt. There was something Pickwickian in his small rotundity. The nattiness of his business suit gave him an air of conventional unimportance.
Barney watched him fascinatedly. His plump little hands—his rather flat profile with its small beaked nose and the owlish spectacles—his dimpled chin—all reminded the boy of some one incongruous whom he could not place. When Babbing took out a white silk handkerchief to polish his glasses and buried his nose in it before he replaced it in his pocket, Barney remembered. It was a bishop who had once graced the closing exercises of the parochial school by conferring the prizes. He had given Barney a “Lives of the Saints.”
“Now, young man,” Babbing said, “get off that uniform. I ’m going in to get a statement from your Mr. Cooper. If any one rings me up, take the number. If any of the men come in here, tell them where I am. I ’m registered as A. T. Hume. Wait here till I come back.” He had taken a small blue-metal “automatic” from his hip pocket and put it in the side pocket of his coat. He gathered up his notes and the dictionary. “Don’t make the mistake again of exceeding your instructions. You 've forced our hand, already.”
“Yes, sir,” Barney said, contritely. But the door had scarcely closed before he was capering. He did a sort of disrobing dance, his face fearfully contorted with grins that were a silent equivalent of whoops of delight. And it was an interpretative dance. It expressed liberation from drudgery and the dull commonplace. It welcomed rhythmically a life of adventure, in which a boy’s natural propensity to lie should be not only unchecked but encouraged—that should give him, daily, games to play, hidings to seek, simple elders to hoodwink and masquerades to wear. He danced it, in his shirt sleeves, waving his coat—and in his shirt tails waving coat and trousers. It stopped as suddenly as it had begun, and he darted into the bathroom to be ready in case he should be called upon.
He was clothed and sober—rocking himself to an ecstatic croon in one of the Antwerp’s bedroom rockers—when he heard a thudded report in the hall. It sounded to him as if two books had been clapped together. He sat listening.
Babbing came in. “Get out of here, boy. What have you done with that uniform? Put it in my valise. Snap it shut. Hurry. Report to the office to-morrow morning at eight-thirty.” He was at the telephone. “Give me the house detective,” he said. “What? Mr. Dohn, your house detective.” He put his hand over the transmitter. “How much have you been earning?”
“Six dollars a week—with the tips.”
“You’ll start at twelve. Hurry up. Get out of here. To-morrow morning at eight-thirty.”
Barney started for the door, reluctantly.
“Hello. Dohn? This is Babbing. Get up here as quick as you can with a doctor. That Chicago swindler in eight-eighteen has shot himself. Through the mouth. He ’s blown the back of his head out. Hurry up!”
Barney, slamming the door behind him, fled down the hall, frightened, aghast, but with a high exultant inner voice still crooning triumphantly: “I ’m a de-tec-tive! I ’m a de-tec-tive!” Through the mouth! The back of his head out! Even in his horror there was a pleasurable shudder, for he had all a boy’s healthy curiosity about murder, shootings and affairs of bloodshed. “I ’m a de-tec-tive!” And he hurried to tell his mother of his new job, aware that she would cry out against it—till he explained: “I start at twelve a week.” That would settle it with her. “I ’m a detective! I ’m a detective!”