Thieves' Wit_ An Everyday Detective Story
An Everyday Detective Story
BY HULBERT FOOTNER
A. L. BURT COMPANY
Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with George H. Doran Company
By George H. Doran Company
Printed in the United States of America
My first case!—with what an agreeable thrilla professional man repeats the words to himself.With most men I believe it is as it was withme, not the case that he intrigues for and expects toget but something quite different, that drops out ofHeaven unexpected and undeserved like most ofthe good things of life.
Every now and then in an expansive moment Itell the story of my case, or part of it, whereuponsomething like the following invariably succeeds:
"Why don't you write it down?"
"I never learned the trade of writing."
"But detective stories are so popular!"
"Yes, because the detective is a romantic figure,a hero, gifted with almost superhuman keennessand infallibility. Nobody ever accused me of beingromantic. I am only an ordinary fellow who plugsaway like any other business man. Every day I amup against it; I fall down; some crook turns a trickon me. What kind of a story would that make?"
"But that's what people want nowadays, the realthing, stories of the streets day by day."
Well, I have succumbed. Here goes for betteror for worse.
Before beginning I should explain that though itwas my first case I was no longer in the first bloomof youth. I was along in the thirties before I gotmy start and had lost a deal of hair from mycranium. This enabled me to pass for ten yearsolder if I wished to, and still with the assistance ofmy friend Oscar Nilson the wig-maker I could makea presentable figure of youth and innocence.
During my earlier days I had been a clerk in arailway freight office, a poor slave with only mydreams to keep me going. My father had nosympathy with my aspirations to be a detective. Hewas a close-mouthed and a close-fisted man. Butwhen he died, after having been kept on scantyrations for years, the old lady and I found ourselvesquite comfortably off.
I promptly shook the dust of the freight officefrom my feet and set about carrying some of thedreams into effect. I rented a little office onFortieth street (twenty dollars a month), furnished itdiscreetly, and had my name painted in neatcharacters on the frosted glass of the door:"B. Enderby"—no more. Lord! how proud I was of theoutfit.
I bought a fire-proof document file for cases, andhad some note-paper and cards printed in the sameneat style:
You see I wished to avoid the sensational. I wasnot looking for any common divorce evidence business.Since I had enough to exist on, I was determinedto wait for important, high-priced, kid-glovecases.
And I waited—more than a year in fact. But itwas a delightful time! Fellows were always droppingin to smoke and chin. My little office becamelike our club. You see I had missed all this whenI was a boy. Any youngster who has ever beenspeeded up in a big clerical office will understandhow good it was. Meanwhile I studied crime inall its aspects.
I worked, too, at another ambition which I sharedwith a few million of my fellow-creatures, viz.: towrite a successful play. I started a dozen andfinished one. I thought it was a wonder of brilliancythen. I have learned better. In pursuance of thisaim I had to attend the theatre a good deal, andfrom the top gallery I learned something aboutactors and actresses if not how to write a great play.
I mention the play-writing for it was that whichbrought me my first case. I used to haunt theoffice of a certain prominent play-broker who wasalways promising to read my play and never did. Oneafternoon in the up-stairs corridor of the buildingwhere she had her offices I came face to face withthe famous Irma Hamerton.
Nowadays Irma is merely a tradition of lovelinessand grace. Theatregoers of this date have nothinglike her to rejoice their eyes. Then, to us humblefellows she stood for the rarest essence of life, theideal, the unattainable—call it what you like. Tall,slender and dark, with a voice that played on yourheartstrings, she was one of the fortunate ones ofearth. She had always been a star, always an idolof the public. Not only did I and my gang nevermiss a show in which she appeared, but we would situp half the night afterwards talking about her.None of us naturally had ever dreamed of seeingher face to face.
We met at a corner of the corridor, and almostcollided. I forgot my manners entirely. My eyesalmost popped out of my head. I wished to fix thatmoment in my life forever. Imagine my confusionwhen I saw that she was crying, that gloriouscreature!—actually the tears were running down her softcheeks like any common woman's. Do you wonderthat a kind of convulsion took place inside me?
Seeing me, she quickly turned her head, but it wastoo late, I had already seen them stealing likediamonds down her cheeks. I stared at her like aclown, and like a clown I blurted out without thinking:
"Oh, what's the matter?"
She didn't answer me, of course. She merelyhurried faster down the hall, and turned the nextcorner.
When I realised what I had done I felt like buttingmy silly head through one of the glass partitionsthat lined the corridor. I called myself all the namesin my vocabulary. I clean forgot my own errand inthe building, and went back to my office mutteringto myself in the streets like a lunatic.
I was glad no one dropped in. In my mind I wentover the scene of the meeting a hundred times Isuppose, and made up what I ought to have said anddone, more ridiculous I expect than what hadhappened. What bothered me was that she would thinkI was just a common fresh guy. I couldn't restunder that. So I started to write her a note. I wrotehalf a dozen and tore them up. The one I sentran like this:—I blush to think of it now—
MISS IRMA HAMERTON,
The undersigned met you in the corridor of theManhattan Theatre Building this afternoon aboutthree. You seemed to be in distress, and I was sosurprised I forgot myself and addressed you. I begthat you will accept my apology for the seemingrudeness. I have seen you in all your plays, manyof them several times over, and I have received somuch pleasure from your acting, and I respect youso highly that it is very painful to me to think thatI may have added to your distress by my rudeness.I assure you that it was only clumsiness, and notintentional rudeness.
The instant after I had posted this letter I wouldhave given half I possessed to get it back again. Itsuddenly occurred to me that it would only makematters worse. Either it would seem like animpertinent attempt to pry into her private affairs, ora bold move to follow up my original rudeness. Areal gentleman would not have said anything aboutthe tears, I told myself. My cheeks got hot, but itwas too late to recall the letter. I was thoroughlymiserable. I did not tell any of my friends whathad happened.
That night I went alone to see her play. Lostin her part of course and hidden under her makeupshe betrayed nothing. There was always a suggestionof sadness about her, even in comedy. Whenthat lovely deep voice trembled, a correspondingshiver went up and down your spine.
I thought about her all the way home. Mydetective instinct was aroused. I tried to figure outwhat could be her trouble. There are only fourkinds of really desperate trouble: ill-health, death,loss of money, and unrequited love. To look at herin the daylight without make-up was enough todispose of the first. It was said that she had no closerelatives, therefore she couldn't have lost anyrecently. As for money, surely with her earningcapacity she had no need to trouble about that.Finally, how could it be an affair of the heart? Wasthere a man alive who would not have cast himselfat her feet if she had turned a warm glance in hisdirection? Rich, successful and adored as she was,I had to give it up.
About five o'clock the next afternoon the surpriseof my life was administered to me. I received alarge, square, buff-coloured envelope with a brownborder, and written upon with brown ink in immense,angular characters. On opening it my hand trembledwith a delicious foreboding of what was inside,meanwhile better sense was telling me not to be afool. It contained a card on which was written:
"Miss Irma Hamerton will be glad to see Mr. B. Enderbyif it will be convenient for him to call atthe Hotel Rotterdam at noon on Thursday."
For a moment I stared at it, dazed. Then I wentup in the air. I did a sort of war-dance around theoffice. Finally I rushed out to the most fashionableoutfitters to get a new suit before closing time.Thursday was the next day.
I had never been inside that exclusive ofexclusive hotels, the Rotterdam. I confess thatmy knees were a little infirm as I went through theswing doors, and passed before the nonchalant,indifferent eyes of the handsome footmen in blueliveries. "Ahh, they're only overgrown bell-hops!" Itold myself encouragingly, and fixed the Marquisbehind the desk with a haughty stare.
Walking in a dream I presently found myselfbeing shown into a corner room high up in thebuilding. I was left there alone, and I had a chance tolook around. I had never seen anything like it,except on the stage. It was decorated in what Ithink they call the Empire style, with walls of whitepanelled wood, picked out with gold, and pretty,curiously shaped furniture. Everywhere there weregreat bunches of pink roses, picked that morning,you could see, with petals still moist. It smelledlike Heaven might.
That was all I had time to take in when the dooropened, and she entered. She was wearing a pinklacy sort of thing that went with the roses. Shedidn't mind me, of course. She was merely politeand casual. But just the same I could see that shewas deeply troubled about something. Troublemakes a woman's eyes big. Makes a beautifulwoman twice as beautiful.
She went to the point as straight as a bullet.
"I suppose you are wondering why I sent for you?"
I confessed that I was.
"It was the heading on your letter paper. Whatdo you mean by 'confidential investigator'—adetective?"
"Something a little better than an ordinarydetective, I hope."
She switched to another track. "Why did youwrite to me?"
This took me by surprise. "There was noreason—except what the letter said," I stammered.
Several other questions followed, by which I sawshe was trying to get a line on me. I offered herreferences. She accepted them inattentively.
"It doesn't matter so much what other peoplethink of you," she said. "I have to make up mymind about you for myself. Tell me more aboutyourself."
"I'm not much of a hand at the brass instruments,"I said. "Please ask me questions."
This seemed to please her. After some furtherinquiries she said simply: "I wrote to you becauseit seemed to me from your letter that you had a goodheart. I need that perhaps more than detectiveskill. I live in a blaze of publicity. I amsurrounded by flatterers. The pushing, thick-skinnedsort of people force themselves close to me, and thekind that I like avoid me, I fear. I am not sure ofwhom I can trust. I am very sure that if I put mybusiness in the hands