from Detective Story
Billy Bain, the Boy Detective
by Ellis Parker Butler
On the twenty-second of July, at about ten in the morning, I was at work on the eighteenth chapter of my ninth detective story -- the first eight having had remarkable success in book form -- when my telephone bell rang. As soon as I had put the receiver to my ear I recognized the voice of Walt Magen, the head of the Magen Detective Agency. In the past I had done considerable work for Magen; in fact I had been in his pay for five or six years before I began writing detective fiction; I might be called a professional detective who has taken to literary work. Now and then Magen still used me, particularly when a gentlemanly appearing operative was needed, and I guessed that this was what he wanted now. I was right.
"How is it, old man?" Magen asked. "How about a small job? Got time for it?"
"Sorry, but -- no!" I answered and gave the truth as my reason. I had been working hard on my novel, and my wife needed a vacation, and I was planning to cut loose from everything and go down to some nice place on the south shore of Long Island and take things easy for a couple of weeks.
"Fine!" Magen said. "Then I've got just what you want. You can take the wife, and it will be all the better. Free board, swell place, excuses paid, and a good fee with a little investigating to keep you from being bored. Come down to the office and hear about it."
The result was that the next day my wife and I were installed in two handsome rooms in the noble summer residence of Roger Hetterbury – Brankmere, he calls it -- just outside one of the prettiest villages on the Great South Bay. To all appearances my wife and I were visiting guests. There was no attempt to disguise my proper self in any way. I arrived as a friend of the family, as the rather celebrated author of detective stories, and I was on an equal footing with the six or eight other guests there. Mrs. Hetterbury let it be seen that my wife was the social equal of the other ladies. I could not have wished a better setting for the investigation I had in hand. No one there knew, or even suspected, I was, or had ever been, a detective, I was sure, with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Hetterbury; and they had not known it until Walt Magen told Mr. Hetterbury. Perhaps I should make one possible exception; if there was a criminal in the place, he or she might have guessed or have known. The introduction of a writer of detective stories might have seemed too odd to be without inner meaning to one who was on guard against discovery. If the criminal was a professional, he or she might even have some acquaintance with my past record.
The matter in hand was one of theft, it appeared, and the Hetterburys had good reason to have the investigation as private as possible. One of the first persons to whom my wife and I were introduced when we arrived, was a Mrs. Bain, a young widow, who was more commonly spoken of as Jean. She was a fascinating, but rather unusual, person. She was dark, slight, large-eyed, usually silent, but given to fits of brilliant and nervous talkativeness. I was told that while not exactly engaged to marry Hetterbury's only son -- Noble Hetterbury -- the engagement was practically existent; young Hetterbury, unless something happened, surely meant to marry Jean Bain.
"And here is your case, as Magen probably told you," Hetterbury said when we were alone with his wife. "Three nights ago there was a function at the country club, and we all went -- all but Jean. Jean pleaded a headache; she said she had bathed too long, or something of the sort. The party at the country club dragged late -- too late! We reached here at two in the morning. My wife stopped at Jean's door and rapped gently, to learn how she was, while I went on to our rooms which were next to Jean's and communicated with them. Jean did not answer, but before my wife reached our rooms I saw that everything was in disorder. The dresser drawers had been opened and their contents thrown out. To be short, my wife's jewels -- all she had not worn that evening -- were gone."
"Magen gave me the list," I said.
"Yes," said Hetterbury. "He told you, too, I suppose, that when we opened the door into Jean's room we smelled chloroform? Jean was unconscious, and a square, unlabeled bottle was on the bed beside her. A towel -- one of our towels from the bathroom -- was also on the bed, and it had been saturated with chloroform. Jean, when she was no longer under the influence of the fumes, told us she knew nothing about it -- nothing whatever! If she had been chloroformed, she said, it had been done while she was asleep, and she had not awakened. Now, here is what I hate to say -- my wife recognized the bottle as one Jean had had."
"The same bottle?"
"My wife does not think it could be another. My wife is careful of the comfort of her guests; when Jean arrived my wife sent a maid to help Jean unpack, but she went herself to see that everything was comfortable in the room, and she saw the maid take the small square bottle from Jean's trunk. 'I will take that!' Jean exclaimed and took the bottle. This was not much, but it was sufficient to call my wife's attention to the bottle. After that she did not see it again until she found it on Jean's bed, as I have told you."
"You think there is a possibility that Mrs. Bain chloroformed herself, after having taken the jewels," I said.
"The last thing we want to think," said Hetterbury with evident sincerity. "We hate to so much as consider such a thing, but Jean has been peculiar about this whole thing. She has kept to her room too much since it happened; she has wept a great deal, my wife says, and when I proposed, immediately after she was able to talk that evening, that nothing whatever be said about the theft, she agreed almost too readily and too eagerly."
"What about her past?" I asked.
"Well -- she's hard up," said Mr. Hetterbury. "We know that. We know she must marry soon, or go to work at something, or live off her friends. We know she needs money; we don't know how badly."
"We did like her so much!" said Mrs. Hetterbury.
"But we really know very little about her," said Hetterburv. "Even Noble does not know any too much, I take it, he don't say much."
I asked a few questions. The other houseguests had all gone to the country club and were amply accounted for. The servants? They slept in another wing of the house, except the old gardener and the chauffeur. These two slept in the garage, in rooms on the second floor. The chauffeur had been with the party at the country club. The gardener, I learned, had been with Hetterbury nine years; he was considered absolutely honest and reliable; he was an elderly man. The butler, Hoskins, had been with Hetterbury five years. The other servants were Jane, the cook; Emily, the cook's helper; Maud and Anna, sisters, who were chambermaids; Nellie, Minna and Josefa; Mrs. Hetterbury's maid, Nora; three other maids employed by guests of the house. 'Mr. Hetterbury had no valet; he said he would not be bothered by one.
"And there it is!" said Hetterbury. "I don't say one of the servants did not do it; I don't say it was not an outside job; I don't know who did it! But you can see our dilemma; we don't like to lose twenty or twenty-five thousand dollars' worth of jewels, of course, but we would hate a lot worse to have Noble make any hideous mistake."
"And marry a thief," I said brazenly.
"Well, you have said it," said Hetterbury. "I won't unsay it. That is about what it comes to."
"Noble is your only son?" I asked. "Your only child?"
"Our only child," Mrs. Hetterbury said.
"I saw a boy on the tennis court," I said, "a youngster about ten or twelve years old."
"That is Jean Bain's son," said Mrs. Hetterbury. "Of course a mere boy would not --"
"No," I said, "but where does the mere boy sleep? Evidently he does not sleep in his mother's room?"
"He has the room next to Jean."
"Door closed?" I asked.
"That I don't know," said Mrs. Hetterbury.
"No matter; I'll see the lad myself," I said. "Oh, not in a way to arouse suspicion of course! Tomorrow I'd like to look over the house and grounds rather thoroughly. Suppose we announce that I want to use such a house as the scene of my next detective story? That will serve as an excuse. Jean Bain does not know I am an operative?"
"Not unless she has guessed."
"I see! Well, I'll sleep on it, and tomorrow I will get to work."
"You don't think anything?" asked Mrs. Hetterbury anxiously. "You don't see anything yet?"
"Too soon," I said. "But it should not be too difficult. There is usually something that points a way."
I was genuinely sorry for the two as they left me. Mrs. Hetterbury was a fine woman, splendidly gray-haired, evidently cultured and refined. I knew what it must mean to have such a doubt of her possible future daughter-in-law. And I was no less taken with Hetterbury, a clean, upstanding man. However, these affairs always bring out something unpleasant; I have been called in cases that opened hideous charnel chambers to my view; I have become somewhat callous. If Jean Bain was an adventuress, it would be to the advantage of all except Jean Bain to send her on her way.
The next morning I went over the house as I had planned. I think I made as thorough an examination as was possible, but it did not help me much. The servants could, of course, pass from their wing to that in which the Hetterbury's rooms were. I examined Jean Bain's room with especial care. There were three windows, and all had doubtless been open on the night of the theft, but they had what are called outside screens -- screens that covered the entire window. These were of bronze wire, and I could not discover that they had been tampered with. Neither had the screens in the Hetterburys' rooms, or any other screens. The massive front door and the two side doors had been closed; they could be opened only with a key, or from the inside. Mr. Hetterbury had opened the front door with his latchkey on his return from the country club, I was assured.
It is almost unnecessary to say that the theft had probably been one of three things: an outside job, one done by some professional from outside the house, without inside assistance; an inside job, one done by some one in the house; or an outside job with inside assistance. In cases of this kind my plan is usually to prove the job is an outside one -- if it is indeed one -- by eliminating the possibility of it being an inside job. I take this method because the insider almost invariably makes an amateur's mistakes and leaves astoundingly apparent proofs of his act. I have known, for example, an entirely unsuspected maid to burst into hysterical tears; she was guilty. Often the criminal tries to correct some remembered error, or do away with a clue. Having completed my survey of the premises I was sitting on the lawn watching Jean Bain and Noble Hetterbury having a game of tennis, and more than incidentally, thinking of the case, when the young son of Jean Bain came up to me, swinging an undersize golf stick.
"Hello!" he said.
"Hello yourself, young man!" I responded. "How are you feeling today?"
"Fine!" he declared.
He stood looking at me very frankly, as he might have looked at an elephant or a motorcar. He was dressed as a boy should be when stopping at a place like Brankmere -- sailor cap, white breeches, white middy, with a red silk anchor on the sleeve, socks, and well-made shoes, but his face was the face of a real boy. He had hundreds of freckles and a grin.
"I read one of your stories," he said after he had taken me in sufficiently. "It was 'Under Both Names.'"
"Good!" I said. "How did you like it?"
"Fine!" he said. "I'm going to read all of 'em. They're bully!"
"Most boys like detective stories," I said.
"I'm going to be a detective," the boy said.
"That's nice," I replied. "I should not wonder if you would make a pretty good detective when you grow up."
"I'm going to be one anyway right away," the boy said. "I'm going to be one now."
"Well, that's all right, too," I said, rather amused, for I like boys. "What are you going to detect? How are you going to go about it?"
"Won't you tell me?" he asked.
"I? Tell you?"
"Yes. You ought to know about detectives; you write stories about them."
"Well, son," I said carelessly, "a man can write about a thing and not know so awful much about it, don't you think?"
"Why?" he asked much surprised. "How can he? Wasn't you ever a detective?"
"Do I look like one?" I scoffed.
"Oh, I know!" he said. "You wouldn't say you were if you were, would you? I guess you're in disguise, ain't you? Because, if you came to Brankmere to detect something, you wouldn't tell anybody, would you? You'd -- you'd be in disguise, wouldn't you?"
I looked at the boy sharply.
"Who told you to say that?" I asked him.
"Why, nobody told me," he answered. "I just said it because it's so, ain't it? What are you detecting down here?"
"You like to ask questions, don't you?" I replied.
"Well, I guess you dassn't tell," he said philosophically. "I thought maybe you'd let me help you. Then you could put me in the book."
"The book you're going to write about him when you catch him?"
"The man that did it?"
"I don't know -- the murder, or whatever it was," Billy Bain said. "Only I guess it wasn't a murder, was it? Because everybody is alive yet. I guess it was a robbery. Only I should think a murder would make a better book."
"Look here, son," I said, immensely amused, "do you think I -- that detective story authors -- go around solving real mysteries and then write books about them?"
"Yes, sure!" he said, with all the positiveness of youth. "I know that much, I guess! Say, have you got any clues yet?"
"Stop fooling!" I laughed.
"Well, anyway," he asked, "do you know what they stole?"
"Have a good time, son!" I laughed.
"Because I do," Billy Bain said in a mysterious whisper. "It was the jewels -- it was Mrs. Hetterbury's jewels."
"Here!" I exclaimed with a start. "What do you mean by that? Why did you say that?"
"Well, if it wasn't a murder it must have been jewels -- they're what are always stole, ain't they? And -- and anyway," he added, "why don't she wear them? Why didn't she have on her pearls last night if they weren't stolen? You can't fool me! I bet that's what it was. Honest, haven't you got any clues yet?"
"You're a remarkable boy, William," I said teasingly. "Do you ask your mother as many questions as you ask me?"
For an instant he looked at me blankly. Then something like horror flashed across his face and was gone.
"Say, you don't think my mother did it, do you?" he asked scornfully, quite as if he thought I must be a mighty poor detective if I thought anything as impossible as that. "Why, you might as well say I did it! My mother -- my mother is honest!"
He looked as if he was ready to fight me.
"You have a very charming mother, I assured him, but that did not seem to satisfy him.
"How charming! That's what you say, but I guess I can see your eyes. You think my mother did it! All right you just wait and see! My mother wouldn't steal a pin; you wait, and I'll show you! You think you're a might smart detective, but I'll -- I'll --"
He was starting away, and he looked up at the house and around at the guests scattered about the lawn. I knew what was in his mind; he meant to be off on his search for the criminal, and he did not know how to begin the search.
"Here, son!" I called. "Wait a minute!" He stopped short and turned and glared at me. Suddenly, before I had the slightest warning of his intention, he leaped upon me, beating at me with his golf stick, weeping with anger, tearing at my shirt with his left hand. It was quite a row, I tell you! I tried to grasp the club with one hand, while holding him close to me with the other, but he kicked at my shins with his remarkably heavy-soled shoes and set his teeth in my wrist. Mrs. Bain screamed, and Noble Hetterbury came running toward us, but, before he could put a hand on the boy, the lad pulled away from me. He flung the golf stick at my legs, as a last bit of pleasant attention, and then leaped behind the wire backstop of the tennis court and dodged behind a bush and made off, as hard as he could run. toward the garage. Once he looked back and, seeing he was not pursued, slackened his pace.
Jean Bain was profuse in her exclamation of apology. She had never known William to behave in quite such in outrageous manner. She would punish him severely.
"Now, listen, Mrs. Bain," I said; "don't do anything of the sort. I haven't the least doubt I said something to anger the boy. I know you'll question him, but when you do you'll probably want to kiss his honest, freckled face rather than wale him with a hairbrush. So please don't make any promises of punishment. And if anything he says seems strange to you, come to me with it. The boy has misunderstood me. Remember that, please -- the boy has misunderstood me. And you can tell him that I don't even have to forgive him anything. Tell him to come around and shake hands and make it up, as man to man."
I laughed then, to let her know it was nothing important. Noble Hetterbury stood and looked puzzled, as well he might.
"Oh, that's all right then!" he said presently, much relieved, "I thought it strange, you know; Billy's a dandy kid, a bit rough now and then, but a white sport."
I did not see the boy again that day, but the next morning he came up to me and apologized. He did it awkwardly, as a boy should, and if he had been barefooted I suppose he would have dug into the grass with his bare toe. I made it as easy for him as I could, and I told him it was all right. It was evident that he wanted to get the apology over and done with and to get away, but equally evident that he had something on his mind that he wanted to talk about.
"Well, young detective," I asked him, smiling, "what is it?"
"Why, about your book." he said.
"Not the book you're writing -- the" other book, the one I read."
"What about it?" I asked.
"Why, I just wanted to ask you something. Because in that book, when 'Silk Shirt Harry', the detective, asked Amelia, the parlor maid, if she knew anything about the robbery, she went and fainted. Do they always faint when a detective asks them, and they know about the robbery?"
"No, William," I said soberly, "they do not always faint."
"Well, what do they do when they don't faint?" he asked.
"Speaking as an author, William," I said, "I should say that it depends on the girl. Yes, I should say it depends almost entirely on the girl."
"Well, would she telephone?" Billy asked me.
"She might," I admitted, and then I thought best to question him a bit. I had not questioned any of the servants, myself, and there was no telling what annoying complications the boy might have made for me if he had been bothering the servants. "Have you been talking to the servants about the jewels?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," he said promptly. "I thought that was the best thing to do, because I didn't know what else to do."
"But, son," I said, "if there happened to be a real detective working on this case don't you know you might upset all his plans by talking to the servants about a theft of which they knew nothing."
"Yes, sir," said Billy. "But you said there wasn't any theft, didn't you?"
He had me there. I could not recall whether I had said there was none, or had declined to admit that I knew of one.
"See here, you," I demanded rather sternly, "did you ask your mother about this theft idea of yours?"
"No, sir," he said; "I didn't ask her -- I told her."
"And what did she say?"
"She said there was one, but I mustn't say anything to anybody about it any more -- not to nobody except to you."
"Yes, sir. Mamma said you were probably a detective, like I thought you were, and it would be all right to say things to you. She said I could talk to you if I wanted to, because she guessed you thought maybe she had taken the things, and the more I talked the sooner you would find out you were mistaken."
"And then you went and blabbed everything to the servants?"
"No, sir; I did not! That was before mamma told me not to."
"Last night, maybe?"
"And which of the servants went and telephoned when you asked her about the theft?"
"Mrs. Hetterbury's maid? Did you hear the number she called, or what she said?"
"Yes, sir; she called up the garage. She said, 'Is that you, Eight? You had better put the side curtains on; it looks like rain.' That was all she said."
"And where were you?"
"I was under the hall settee. I was sleuthing."
Looked like rain, did it? Better put up the side curtains? And not a sign of rain either now or last night!
"Well, I'll say you are some detective, Billy!" I said lightly. "Which of the inhabitants of the garage do you think she was telephoning to, the chauffeur or the gardener?"
"Oh, it wasn't that garage!" Billy said promptly. "It was the village garage -- the one in the village, No. 1325. That's the one she called up."
Behind me I heard, quite close, the snip, snip of shears. I shifted my position ever so little and saw the old gardener snipping branches from the bush just behind me. He was so close that he could overhear our conversation easily. He was quite within his proper province -- trimming the shrubs there -- but one thing struck me as rather peculiar. The bush he was trimming was a hydrangea, and it is not the custom of any gardener I ever knew to trim hydrangeas in the summer. When he saw he was observed, the gardener moved slowly away, clipping a twig here and a twig there, dropping them into the bag he carried over his left shoulder.
"That gardener, now," I said. "What's his name?"
"Tim," said Billy.
"Tim, is it? And I suppose you've been talking about this theft business with Tim, haven't you?"
The boy did not answer. He stood looking at me, trying to hide what his eyes told quite plainly -- that he had been talking with Tim.
"I see!" I said. "Well, Billy, you're a good sport. You defend your mother when you think she is attacked; you won't blab on Tim, or any other man when you've promised not to. That's white, Billy; I like that. And, because I do like it, I'm going to tell you something. You're not to tell it, though; cross your heart you won't tell?"
"Cross my heart!" he said solemnly.
"Good! Well, you guessed right. Billy; I am a detective. And I'm here to get to the bottom of this jewel-theft business. And I'm going to make you my side partner, Billy. We'll see this thing through together -- you and I. We'll work hand in hand. Is it a go?"
Proud? That boy grew three inches in less than a minute.
"Great! Bully!" he exclaimed. "And what do you want me to do? What do you want me to do next?"
"Next?" I asked. "Why next? Don't you know what to do next?"
"No, sir," he answered promptly.
"But you were going all right before." I suggested. "You didn't need any one to tell you what to do before, did you?"
Again he stood silent. Evidently he could not truthfully answer "No" to my question, and he had probably promised not to speak of it. One great boy, I tell you!
"Never mind, son!" I said. "We'll just got to work and clean this thing up and be done with it. And how does this strike you? You go and talk to Tim; hang around him and talk to him and keep him interested and unsuspicious. Understand? And I'll go down to the village and get a cop. Then we'll arrest Tim."
"But -- but --" the boy stammered.
"But? You mean Tim did not do it?"
"Of course not! why --"
"Why, he's the one that told you I was probably a detective -- is that it? Old Tim is the one that told you to ask Nora something about the theft -- is that it? Now, come, don't look so upset! We won't arrest your Tim -- not until you give the word, Billy. Instead we will ask your mother if you can go down to the village with me."
"That's what I would do; I would look up Eight, at the village garage," Billy declared. "Have you got a gun?"
"A dandy!" I said. "I'll show you when we get away from these folks. No use frightening them, hey, Billy? They're not in the know."
In the middle of the village is a traffic post and a uniformed policeman. I stopped to ask the policeman a few questions about the village garage and those connected with it. The owner was a village man, and all the employees were, it seemed, known to the policeman and good friends of his, with one exception. The exception was the washer -- the man who washed down and polished the cars left in the garage.
"He's a queer duck," said my policeman. "Jailbird, I'd of called him when he blew into town, but he's changed some since -- got more color and got more hair, as you might say. But he sure did look like a fellow that had done about ten years where it was nice and shady, when he struck town."
"What did he call himself?" I asked.
"Joe. I don't know him by any other name."
At the garage I let Billy stay outside, and I went in and asked for a small battery, one of the sort used in electric torches, for I saw a supply in the window. Joe was washing a car, and I strolled back to a drinking fountain I saw and looked Joe over. I recognized him instantly; I had had something to do with his ten-year sojourn in that "nice shady place" -- Sing Sing, in fact. I quenched my thirst, paid for my battery, and went out. I sent Billy for that traffic cop and waited. Then we entered the garage again, and with two large guns pointing at him, Joe put his hands straight up.
"Nora gave you away," I said when I had put the bracelets on him.
"Damn her! She never was more than half square!" said Joe, whom you may know better by his other names -- "Square-Head Heath," "Ranee the Roller," or Jim Heath.
"Hetterbury had me down from Magen's, Jim," I said. "I wonder you did not clear out when you knew I was there. You must have known it, Jim. And I've always been bad medicine for you."
"She wouldn't let loose of my share of the stuff," Jim said, meaning Nora. "She's a crook. She thought she'd work me for more than her share, the cat!"
"Well, you're even, Jim," I said. "She'll do her share of time for this."
No one likes to make a fuss in a pleasant little village. We borrowed some one's car and took Jim Heath to the village lockup, and then we went for Nora and put her in the same safe place. I telegraphed Magen to send some one for them; I wanted to get my evidence in proper shape for the trial and spend the rest of my vacation comfortably with my wife at Brankmere. Before I left, the engagement of Jean Bain and Noble Hetterbury was formally announced, and Billy was in line to have a new father. That did not seem to affect him much, one way or the other, but I gave him all the credit for discovering the authors of the theft, and told him I would put him in a detective story, and he was one mighty proud boy.
A few evenings later I strolled out to the house garage and had a heart to heart chat with old Tim.
"He's a fine boy, that Billy," old Tim said. "I wisht I had him for a grandson, that I do!"
"He's all silk and a full yard wide," I admitted.
"And clever," said Tim. "Look at how he nosed out Nora and Jim Heath."
"Yes," I said. "Yes, indeed! Tim, why did you do it? Why did you steer the boy onto me and onto Nora? Who are you? What's the answer, Tim?"
The old fellow laughed.
"I'm good and changed, ain't I?" he asked with satisfaction. "You don't even remember me, do you, 'Short-paw' Granger? Yep! And you and Magen worked together on me when I was sent up for the Mortimer business. Sure! And that was enough for me! I've been straight as a string for ten years."
"Good work!" I said. "But how about this boy-detective business?"
"Well, this Jim Heath ain't only a crook, he's a mean guy, understand? You know that. So he comes down here and gets into the garage. Then he comes to me and says as how we can make a nice pull up to the house here, Nora helping us. I'm off that stuff for life, I tells him. So he says he'll go it alone with Nora, but if I peach on them it's the graveyard for me, understand? And he's ugly, Jim is. I knew he meant it. So the event comes off like he says, and then you show up, and I'm thinking maybe you'll know me, see? And it ain't beyond Nora to tell a lie or two and say I done the job, see? So I figger out that I've got to set you right about this, but I don't dare be in it at all. So I sort of talk with Billy about detectives and so on, and say as how him and me will just go to work and solve this mystery, see? So I give him the dope about you and a hint about Nora, and there you are! I guess it worked out pretty good, too." I held out my hand.
"Short-paw," I said, "shake hands! I'm proud to know you. Back in the old days you were a first-class crook, but, even with that bunch of whiskers, you're the best boy detective I ever heard of, bar none!"
The old fellow seemed pleased, but I saw that something was troubling him. It came out immediately.
"Yeh!" he said. "Yeh! That's all right, but I'm a lot better gardener than anything else. I'm good at it, I tell you. And, say, listen! Don't get no idea I'm fool enough to trim hydrangeas in midsummer; I was listening in on you, see? I know how to trim hydrangeas as well as I know how to open a safe. Yes, by Jiminy, better!"