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"Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective" from Illustrated Detective Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Illustrated Detective Magazine
Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective
by Ellis Parker Butler

Climbing the low stone wall, the stealthy figure in the black raincoat glided across Harbor Road and down the crude steps to the porch-like forward deck of the fifth in the row of houseboats. His thin fingers inserted a skeleton key into the lock; he pushed the door open cautiously and stepped inside. Instantly an odor of fresh clams, stale clams, hard clams, soft clams, and clam chowder bit his nose so violently that he staggered back, but he recovered himself. Switching on a pocket flash, he held his nose while he hastily surveyed the baskets of clams that stood on the floor.

For five days this mysterious figure had lurked in hiding in the village of Mud Cove, intent on what he considered the private administration of justice, but what Old Cap Cuff, the veteran detective, would have called a crime -- a dastardly crime, than which there is none worse. For five days he had lurked in the bushes watching the building and grounds of the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives -- that inspiring edifice for elimination of crime in all of its forms -- and now he had perfected his plans in all of their deadly detail. The time had now come to put them into execution -- and the first step depended on nothing less vital than clams, freshly dug clams.

The mysterious intruder on the houseboat, staggering under the odors which assailed him, held his breath and after some deliberation picked up a certain bushel basket of clams. He tiptoed out of the boat and across Harbor Road and in the silence of the night boosted the basket of clams over the stone wall and lay down in the bushes beside it.

The home of Oliver Spotts, where he lived with his maiden sister Lotta, was one of five houseboats that sat in the mud, with their noses against Harbor Road and their sterns toward the bay, and over the door of each houseboat was the name of the owner. Some said "Clams," some said "Clams -- Boats for Rent," but over Oliver Spotts' door the sign was "Oliver Spotts -- Clams -- Gardens Dug -- Janitoring Done -- Near-Detective." In the two small rooms at the stern Oliver Spotts and his sister were sleeping peacefully, but at five o'clock an alarm clock resounded and Lotta Spotts hastened out of bed and into a kimono and hurried into the forward room to make preparations for breakfast.

Ollie! Ollie! Get right up! There's been a crime. Clams have been stole!

"Ollie! Ollie!" she cried agitatedly as her eyes fell on the row of baskets. "Get right up! There's been a crime. Clams has been stole! The front door's open! We been robbed!"

"My goodness! exclaimed Oliver Spotts, appearing in the doorway. Even in his nightshirt he had the appearance of a serious-minded bantam rooster -- an exceedingly gentle one -- and he said, "Tut! Tut! Tut! Just seems like them criminals won't stop at nothing! Stealing clams right under a detective's nose, almost! It ain't reasonable!"

"Reasonable or not, I ain't going to have clams stole," said Lotta Spotts vigorously. "You get your clothes on and get them clams back. A whole bushel took, basket and all! Show what kind of a detective you are, now that you've got the chance."

"Well, now, Lotty," Oliver Spotts said meekly, "I ain't a full and complete detective yet. I'll do the best I can, but you got to remember I ain't but a near-detective yet."

"You get your clothes on," ordered Miss Spotts, "detective or near-detective, and don't stand there like a bare-legged goomp. It was that blue-painted basket the rascal stole -- best one we got. And them clams we dug fresh last night. Stealing clams from a detective!"

"Maybe it was so dark he couldn't read the sign," suggested Mr. Spotts, but Miss Spotts snorted.

"Whole bushel of clams!" she complained. "I've got half a mind not to let you take the test today! It's just clams, clams, clams, and no end to it! You get dressed!"

"Lotty," pleaded Oliver Spotts, "I got to take that test today. Old Cap Cuff said yesterday I was better'n I'd ever been. I almost passed, that's what he said."

"Get your legs into something," ordered Miss Spotts, and Oliver closed his door. Lotta Spotts would stand just so much nonsense and no more.

The test Oliver Spotts felt he must take was one he had taken hundreds of times already, but he had not yet passed it, and it began to look as if he never would. It was the Freshman Test -- the test that freshmen in the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives had to pass before they could be promoted into the sophomore class. Old Cap Cuff, himself, had dictated the test:

Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective

"Freshman Disguise Test: Freshman must disguise himself as a clam-digger and appear before Captain Cuff with one bushel of clams. If student is recognized by Captain Cuff, he will not be promoted. The clams to become the property of the college."

One reason Old Cap Cuff had established his College for Detectives at Mud Cove was because he was so fond of clams. He was an enormously big man, with hands like hams, and he could eat clams for breakfast, dinner and supper. He also felt that clams -- clam broth, clam chowder and steamed clams -- were the cheapest food he could feed his students, and no freshman ever passed the clam-digger disguise test until he had tried many times. This made cheap clams. When Oliver Spotts had put on his pants and shirt, his closest search of the houseboat discovered not the slightest clue to the miscreant who had stolen the blue basket of clams, and it was evident that this was one of those mysterious and difficult cases that puzzle the best detective brains.

"Well, Oliver," Miss Spotts said when Mr. Spotts had crept all over the floor looking for clues, "I guess you might as well go take your test and get that done with, so's you can give your mind to this crime free and unobstructed. Them whiskers is in the cash register."

A few biographical words now about Old Cap Cuff -- for an intelligent understanding of the strange mystery about to be unfolded.

When he resigned as head of the Detective Bureau of the City of New York, two great ambitions consumed his declining days. One was the establishment in his hometown of the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives, the other was to write a series of popular detective novels. In his first ambition he was more successful than in his second.

When he sat down to write the novels, he found he could not write a word. He was not a writer. It was then he conceived the idea of a "ghost" -- and hired Mortimer Quince, forger, check raiser and all-round crook, to write the Old Cap Cuff stories, which were destined to become so famous. Published under Old Cap Cuff's name, these became so tremendous a success that one hundred and twenty of them were written and millions of copies sold. For writing these stories Old Cap Cuff paid Mortimer Quince one hundred dollars each, and with this the author-crook was apparently well satisfied. On the whole, therefore, life was treating Cap Cuff kindly -- for which it is to be presumed he was duly grateful.

Fully disguised, Mr. Spotts put a bushel basket of clams in his pushcart and started up the road toward the college. He did not see a stealthy figure shadowing him behind the walls and hedges as he went. Perhaps it was as well that he did not. At the gate of the college he saluted the gatekeeper and pushed his cart to the front door. He lifted out the basket of clams and no sooner rang the bell than the door was opened by Emmaline, the colored cook.

"Cap'n Cuff! Cap'n Cuff!" she called. "Here's Mistah Spotts wif some mo' clams. Does you want to come an' see if you knows who he is?"

"Coming! Coming!" Captain Cuff answered, and a moment later he was frowning at Mr. Spotts. "It won't do, Spotts," he said harshly; "I knew you the minute I saw you. Emmaline, take these clams."

"Could I take the test again today, Cap'n?" pleaded Mr. Spotts.

"No." said Cap Cuff, "we've got enough clams. Ah -- I mean I'm too busy getting ready for tonight's party. Tomorrow, Spotts. And don't look so blue! You'll pass some time. Get in there to your classes."

Never had Mr. Spotts been so disappointed; he felt almost discouraged. This time, he felt, he had been excellently disguised for neither hook of the beard had come off his ears as one usually did. He began to fear he would never get out of the freshman class, but as he saw the preparations for the party he cheered up.

That evening both he and his sister Lotta were on hand when the reception began. They sat side by side on chairs from which they could most conveniently reach the refreshments; they were sitting there when the guests began to leave.

One of these guests, a comparative newcomer in Mud Cove, was a man well past middle age, reputed to be of immense wealth. Phelim Dale was his name and he had bought the old Enderbury property at the top of the hill. Here he lived in the midst of his collection of rare manuscripts and books, for he was a collector. There were those jealous critics who said he was a collector without a heart or a conscience. More than once he had tried to persuade Old Cap Cuff to sell him the rare first edition of the first Old Cap Cuff dime novel, only to be sternly refused. "Over my dead body, sir!" was always the answer in tones which admitted of no argument.

Now, as Old Cap Cuff shook hands with Phelim Dale, he did not notice that Isobel Dale, old Phelan's beautiful daughter, was strangely pale and agitated as she watched them. The lovely girl was twisting her hands nervously and her lips trembled, but she hid her agitation as she bade Old Cap Cuff good night.

If Old Cap Cuff could have overheard the conversation which occurred between her and her father outside the building just after they had left his hospitality he would have been very much perplexed -- even startled. "Oh, pa, pa!" beseeched the beautiful girl, "I entreat you not to do it! Think before it is too late!"

"I have!" was the gruff answer.

"But not enough! Think some more! Wickedness always carries its own punishment. And what you plan --"

"What I plan is my own affair!" answered Phelim Dale sternly. "I am going to act this very night. And I will succeed, or die in the attempt!"

"A burglar!" moaned the unhappy girl. "My own Pa a burglar!" But fortunately, or unfortunately, there were none who heard her.

"A swell little dame and a grand old gent," Old Cap Cuff said to his guests as the Dales left him, but the words died in his mouth. His eyes had seen a keen white face pressed against the glass of one of the windows. He did not know that it was the face of the miscreant who had burglarized the Spotts houseboat in the dead of night, and made off with the blue basket of clams. If he had known he might have been even more concerned.

"It's Quince!" cried Old Cap Cuff. "Mortimer Quince! Quick -- after him!" He did not himself run to the door. As hastily as his great bulk permitted, he hurried into his adjacent office and slammed the doors of his safe and twirled the combination-knobs. Then he dropped into a chair and mopped his brow.

Old Cap Cuff well knew why Mortimer Quince peered in at the window. The scoundrel was after the first edition of the Old Cap Cuff novels! And he meant to have it at all costs, for he was a determined rascal.

About the time that the hundredth Cap Cuff book was published. Old Cap was in Mortimer Quince's room one day, and there he picked up a copy of the first of the series. What was said was later disputed. Old Cap Cuff claimed he said, "I'd like to have this," and that Quince said, "You can have it." Quince said that Old Cap Cuff said, "I'd like to read this," and that he replied, "I'll lend it to you."

It was when a dealer said, "I would pay $10,000 for a first edition of the first Cap Cuff dime novel," that Mortimer Quince wrote and demanded the book back. Demand and refusal followed until Mortimer Quince wrote, "I'll have that book if I die in the attempt. Take warning!" And now the pale face at the window!

"All that night, Old Cap Cuff sat in a chair in front of his safe, for it was in the safe he kept the prized first edition. He had opened it only to get out two bottles needed for the punch for the reception.

Toward morning he fell asleep. And it was while he slept that there occurred a deed so diabolical in its cunning as to shock the most hardened reader of the Cap Cuff detective stories.

From the lawn outside a white face pressed against the window. Truth compels the statement that it was not the same face which Cap Cuff had sighted earlier. After a moment the window opened softly, for it was not locked, and into the room there stepped a grizzled man in a dinner jacket. The lower part of his face was concealed by a white silk handkerchief above which his eyes showed a saturnine gleam of determination as they took in the figure of the great detective snoring in his chair.

Grasping the chair, he twisted it around so as to allow free access to the safe. The door was not locked for Cap Cuff had mistakenly assumed that his own presence in the room was sufficient protection. Stooping down, the intruder rummaged for a moment in the drawers of the safe, and when he straightened up he held a thin paper volume, which he scrutinized with a smile of gloating triumph, as well he might -- for it was the first edition of the first famous Cap Cuff novel.

Making his way again to the safe, he softly closed the door, shifted the chair containing Cap Cuff back to its original position, and retreated to the window. It was while he was clambering over the sill that the silk handkerchief covering his face caught in the curtain, and was torn aside -- revealing the pale features of Phelim Dale.

The events of that historic night could shift now in several directions, but for purposes of continuity perhaps we had better follow for a moment the erring path into which the cupidity of Phelim Dale had led that misguided gentleman. When his high-powered roadster had taken him to his big house on the hill he softly opened the front door, took off his shoes, and stole up to his room. There he removed his garments, and turning on the reading lamp over his bed, he resumed his perusal of the Cap Cuff first edition. He was still reading when weariness overpowered him, and he fell asleep with the light burning.

Almost at once, a dainty figure in lavender silk pajamas crept into the room, and stooped over the bed. It was Isobel Dale. When she straightened up the Cap Cuff first edition was inside her pajama coat. On her beautiful face was a look of stern, righteous indignation.

The first beams of dawn were appearing in the east when the huge automatic which Cap Cuff held in his lap fell to the floor. The clatter awoke him. His chair was against the safe door; but some instinct made him stoop and open it. It was then that he uttered a cry of dismay. The first edition of "Old Cap Cuff, Detective" was gone.

At about the same moment, Lotta Spotts' alarm clock on the Spotts' houseboat rang noisily and she jumped out of bed.

"Oliver, get up! she called.

There was much to be done. The day was Friday, when Oliver Spotts peddled clams in Mud Cove, and clams must be dug while the tide was out.

"You get right up," she ordered. "We got to dig clams, and you've got to peddle, and -- goodness knows -- you'll want to take that everlasting test again, and you've got your gardening to do at the college, and you ain't detected a bit to see who stole them clams from us. Have you got a clue yet?"

"No; I ain't," said Oliver. "There ain't no clues."

"I declare, you ain't even a near-detective, seems to me. If I was a detective and didn't have no clues, seems to me I'd make some. Get your pants on."

"Clues ain't made," said Oliver. "They've got to be found, like clams." But in fifteen minutes he was in his shirt and overalls and had eaten his breakfast. With his sister, armed with clam-forks, he went out onto the mud flats to dig clams. Their feet were in old canvas shoes, straw hats were on their heads. Three trips they made back to the clam boat with sacks of clams before the tide was too high for digging. Complaining, as was her custom, Lotta Spotts helped Oliver into his clam-digger disguise. The pushcart was filled with clams, and a bushel basket filled with the choicest clams was put atop.

"Now, mind you keep your eyes open for clues," said Miss Spotts severely. "And, for goodness sake, keep them beard hooks onto your ears. I'm getting sick and tired feeding them college folks clams. And shout out good and loud when you start to peddle. Wipe your nose -- ain't you got a handkerchief?"

"Yes'm," said Oliver Spotts through the pale lavender beard, and he had hardly wiped his nose when a limousine came to a stop dangerously close to the pushcart. From the window Phelim Dale's beautiful daughter, Isobel, leaned.

"You're Mr. Spotts," she said. "I want you to deliver a peck of clams at our house -- Phelim Dale's house. This morning. Will you?"

"Why, yes'm," said Mr. Spotts, temporarily removing the lavender beard. "I got to take my Freshman test first. I can get to your house by noon."

"That will do nicely," said Miss Dale. "Home, George."

"Why didn't she take them with her?" asked Miss Spotts sourly when the limousine had departed.

"Automobile's upholstered," Oliver said. "She don't want it all smelled up, likely."

"Humph!" snorted Miss Lotta. "Stuck up and high-toned, if you ask me. Go on -- get along with you. I'd a made her take 'em."

As Isobel Dale rode homeward her heart was lighter than it had been for many hours. She dearly loved her father, but even her love could not blind her to the knowledge that it is wrong to steal first editions. It is true that there are some collectors who will go to any lengths to gain possession of what they covet, and Phelim Dale had yielded to just such a temptation. Isobel's one desire now was to get rid of the book before its presence in the house was known and scandal descended upon the Dales. And she saw a way to accomplish this.

The murder of Old Cap Cuff meant nothing to him. He had a very mean nature.

As Oliver Spotts pushed his heavy cart up the hill, a skulking figure dogged his steps, keeping well out of sight. It was none other than Mortimer Quince, the rascally author who had overheard Isobel Dale ordering a peck of clams, and who now saw a method to enter the Cornelius Cuff college building, which was sure to be well guarded. He laughed villainously and felt in his hip pocket to make sure that a certain evil bottle was there. He did not pause when Oliver Spotts entered the college grounds, but went up the hill and hid in a copse opposite the Phelim Dale gate. Crouching there, he examined his automatic to see that it was in working order. It was! He was a desperate man. He meant to have the first edition if he had to kill. He had a very mean nature.

Leaving his cart just inside the college gates Oliver Spotts carried the bushel basket of clams to the front door and rang the bell. The door, after a brief delay, opened and Emmaline stood there.

"Cap'n Cuff! Cap'n Cuff!" she called. "Mistah Spotts is here again wif some mo' clams. Does you want to see if you knows who he is or does you don't?"

"All right! All right!" exclaimed Old Cap Cuff distractedly. "Bring some more clams, Spotts -- I mean, you can take the test again this afternoon, Spotts. I don't know what I'm saying! There goes the bell -- we're having assembly. A crime has been committed, Spotts -- a dastardly crime!"

The six professors of the college and the forty-nine students were already assembled and Old Cap Cuff mounted the rostrum and in vigorous language told of the missing first edition.

"Taken from my safe under my very nose!" he shouted, pounding the desk with his huge fist. "An outrage! An insult! A burglary from the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives, itself! A burglary under the noses of forty-nine near-detectives!" he cried, and then he added, as his eyes fell on Oliver Spotts, "Fifty! Fifty, counting Spotts. And I want that first edition back. I'll pay five hundred dollars to the man who brings it back."

The big room was in instant confusion, the forty-nine students and six professors rushing to the disguise cabinets to choose disguises, and to the arms cabinet to select weapons. Oliver Spotts went out to his pushcart. He was already in disguise.

It was high noon before he reached the Phelim Dale gate and he was perspiring copiously in the oilskin slicker, the nor'wester hat and the heavy rubber boots. For a moment he removed the lavender beard to get air; then he replaced it and measured out a peck of clams and started up the winding path to the Dale kitchen door. He was half way to the kitchen when a long arm shot out of a clump of bushes and clasped him around the neck. At the same moment a hand pressed a wad of cotton against his nose.

"Don't hurt him," a girl's voice urged as the Dale chauffeur and gardener drew Oliver Spotts into the bushes, and Isobel Dale took from her bosom the missing first edition of the Old Cap Cuff novel and pushed it into one of the side pockets of Mr. Spotts' slicker. Her lovely face was illumined by the thought that disgrace would not now fall upon her father, that she had saved him. While the gardener kept Mr. Spotts under the influence of the chloroform, the chauffeur ran to get the pushcart. Into this the unconscious form of Mr. Spotts was loaded and the chauffeur wheeled the cart down to the road and gave it a shove that sent it across the road and landed it against a copse. It was in this copse that the rascally Mortimer Quince was concealed, ready and even eager to do more of his nefarious work.

The swift journey down the path and across the road brought Mr. Spotts back to consciousness. For an instant he looked up at the bright blue sky, wondering where he was, and then a stealthy hand pressed to his nose a wad of cotton and Mr. Spotts smelled a sweetly sickening odor and gently passed into unconsciousness again.

Mortimer Quince lost no time. Drawing the pushcart into the copse, he pulled off Mr. Spotts' boots and put them on his own feet, got into Mr. Spotts' oil-skin slicker, put the nor'wester hat on his head, and hooked the lavender beard over his ears. He then threw a sheet of canvas over Mr. Spotts, and from the bushes drew forth a blue basket of clams. It was the same blue basket and the same clams that had been stolen. Setting the blue basket on the canvas between Mr. Spotts' feet, the rascally Mortimer Quince pushed the cart out of the copse and down the Hill Road to the gate of the Cornelius College for Detectives.

Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective

The place seemed deserted, even the watchman having joined the students and the professors in the hunt for the missing first edition. Mortimer Quince pushed the cart into the grounds and into the thicket of lilac and Weigela bushes at the side of the porch. He gave Mr. Spotts a fresh sniff of chloroform, took the blue bushel basket of clams from the cart, and rang the bell of the front door. The door was opened by Emmaline, whose eyes brightened as she saw the clams.

"Cap'n Cuff!" she called. "Cap'n Cuff! Here's Mistah Spotts wif some mo' clams," and Old Cap Cuff came to her.

"No good," he said gruffly, "Anybody'd know you, Spotts. Emmaline, take these clams to the kitchen --"

But he staggered back, for Mortimer Quince jerked the beard from his face and thrust a gleaming automatic at Old Cap Cuff's heart.

"Yeah, you knew me, didn't you?" Mortimer Quince sneered. "Put up those hands and keep them up! And now, you infernal old rascal, give me that first edition or I'll blow you full of holes!"

Emmaline screamed and dropped the basket of clams and fell to the floor in a faint. The face of Old Cap Cuff went as white as paper, except his nose, which remained red.

"Don't shoot!" he begged. "Wait, Mortimer Quince! I haven't got the book -- I swear it! It's gone. I thought you took it."

Mortimer Quince's eyes narrowed but he saw that Old Cap Cuff was telling the truth.

Keeping the pistol pointed at Old Cap Cuff he backed out of the door. Once outside he ran to the clump of bushes. Oliver Spotts had just raised his head, pushing off the canvas that covered it, when he felt a wad of cotton again pressed to his nose and smelled a sweetly sickening odor and fell back into unconsciousness once more.

When he next recovered consciousness, which was not much later, Mr. Spotts lay still, expecting to have a wad of cotton pressed to his nose and to smell a sweetly sickening odor, but he was fooled. Nothing happened. He sat up and pushed off the canvas coverlet and saw the complete Clam-Digger Disguise piled on his feet. He got out of the cart cautiously and stood, half dazed. His wits were dulled and fuzzy, and he felt in a fog, but he put on the boots and the slicker and the nor'wester hat and hooked the beard over his ears. He staggered to the door of the college and rang the bell.

Instantly the door was thrown open and he was faced by Old Cap Cuff, who thrust two huge automatics into his face.

'Ah, ha! This time I'm ready for you, Mortimer Quince,' cried old Cap Cuff triumphantly.

"Ah, ha! Ah, ha! This time I'm ready for you, Mortimer Quince!" cried Old Cap Cuff.

For a moment Oliver Spotts was too amazed to speak.

"For th' land's sakes!" he ejaculated weakly; "I passed the test! And if there ain't my stolen blue basket and my bushel of clams!"

He picked up the lavender beard that Old Cap Cuff had thrown to the floor. As his hand was thrusting it into the pocket of his slicker his fingers touched something that felt queer. Oliver Spotts drew the object from his pocket. But Old Cap Cuff reached for it and wrenched it from him, for it was no less than the missing Cap Cuff first edition.

"Spotts! Spotts!" exclaimed the great detective, with emotion. "Spotts, you've saved my life. You get the reward."

As the knowledge that he had passed the Freshman Test, recovered the stolen clams, returned the missing first edition, won five hundred dollars reward, and was now a sophomore in the Cornelius Cuff College for Detectives, all in one minute, became clear to Mr. Spotts, a flood of joy swept through him, and he breathed hard.

Oliver Spotts, Near-Detective



Saturday, October 07 at 1:14:21am USA Central
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