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"The Letters in the Sky" from Detective Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Detective Magazine
The Letters in the Sky
by Ellis Parker Butler

The young man who is best known as Gray Greene, but whose name is Grayson Greene, is now my good friend, and he is one of the follows I like best; but there was a short period following the moment when I first set my eyes on him when I did not like him at all. I can honestly say that during that period I disliked him intensely.

My name, if it means anything to you, is Roger Merson. When America went into the big war I was nineteen, and I managed to get into the aviation service, and I did my bit in France and came home with my share of medals and honors and crosses. I have never, as far as I know, done a dishonorable deed or a dishonest one. It was not pleasant, then, to have this man Grayson Greene come to me and tell me that I was wanted for the theft of something like a hundred thousand dollars' worth of my uncle John Bronson's bonds. It made me mad, and I told Gray Greene he was an idiot; I told him quite a few other things while I was about it, and mighty few of them would be fit to print.

'The Letters in the Sky' by Ellis Parker Butler

"I ought to warn you, Merson, that anything you say may be used against you," was what Greene gave me in reply. "It might be just as well to keep cool and hold what you have to say until you can say it calmly. If this bond robbery is not your affair, you won't make any friends by cursing me, and if it is your affair, you'll do no good by shouting at me."

"But it is asinine!" I declared. "I wouldn't steal a second mortgage bond on a decayed peanut. You don't know what you are talking about. It's nonsense!"

"That may be, too," Gray Greene said, "but I don't think so. You do know that one hundred thousand dollars in Liberty Bonds belonging to your uncle were stolen, don't you?"

"No, I don't!" I said. "I don't know they were stolen, I don't even pretend to know whether my uncle has, or ever did have, one hundred thousand dollars in Liberty Bonds or any other kind of bonds. I don't know anything about my uncle's bonds. I never did know. I never expect to know. And I don't want to know."

"No? Then perhaps you don't know that your uncle has a private secretary, a young woman named Alice Roget?"

"That I do know," I said. "I've seen her. I have even eaten in the same dining room with her. A very incriminating circumstance, I suppose?"

I said this with a sneer, for the whole thing seemed ridiculous. Gray Greene had come to me at my uncle's house at midnight, or near it. I had gone to my room, but I had not undressed except to take off one shoe and one sock. I was sitting in an easy chair, reading a book and rubbing my sore ankle, when word was brought that a man wanted to see me. I had been to the theatre and had walked home to give my sore ankle the exercise I thought it needed, and I had not been in the house long. I had gone downstairs when summoned, and had found Gray Greene there.

"You don't know, then," asked Gray Greene, "that the bonds were stolen from the hands of a messenger in front of this house?"

I was sitting in an easy chair, reading a book and rubbing my sore ankle.

"I do not!"

"Nor that the messenger was struck on the head and stunned while he was standing outside looking for the house number?"

"I do not!"

"You did not write this letter?"

He handed me the letter, and I gave it one glance and handed it back to him.

"No," he said, "keep it a moment. You say you did not write that letter? You did not forge the name at the bottom of it? No? Will you read the letter?"

I read the letter to myself. It appeared to be from my uncle to a certain firm asking them to send certain bonds to his house at nine o'clock on the evening of the day on which the letter was dated. To be exact, the letter said: "Bring my bonds to the house this evening about eight o'clock, and kindly oblige." This was signed "John Bronson."

"You know your uncle's signature, I suppose," Gray Greene said. "Does that look like it?"

"Yes, it does, as nearly as I can judge." I admitted. "I would say it was my uncle's signature."

"Look at the 'Br' in 'Bronson,'" he said, "and then look at the 'Br' in 'Bring.' They are not alike, are they?"

I looked at the letter and then at this Gray Greene man.

"I don't know in the least what you are getting at, or why you come to me about it," I said, "but if it will do you any good to have me say so, I'll admit that there is a difference."

"Anyone would notice that, I think," Gray Greene said. "And I notice, by the way, that you are wearing one shoe and one slipper. It does not happen that you have a sore, leg or sore ankle, does it?"

"It does, though!" I said.

"And it does not recall anything to your mind if I say that the messenger's last remembrance, after he was grasped around the neck and before he was hit on the head, was kicking backward with his heel and kicking his assaulter in the shin?"

"Not a thing!" I said.

"And you did not write that letter?"


"You are Roger Merson, the aviator, are you not?" he asked.

"I am, sir," I said, "but I'm, not in court, and I don't have to answer any more of your fool questions, and I'm not going to do it."

"Then let me tell you something," said the young man. "Your uncle, as you may know, is in some respects a peculiar man. You probably know that when he was much younger, a certain article was published in one of the newspapers. It had to do with a supper he gave some of his friends, and the newspaper made a sensational affair of it. His father was an extremely strict man, and he refused to have anything more to do with your uncle. He cut your uncle off without a cent because of that newspaper article."

"I've heard of that," I said.

"Then you doubtless know that since that day your uncle has had an obsession against newspapers. He never allows one in this house, and he would go to any length to prevent his name from appearing in one."

"I know that, too," I admitted.

"I am only repeating this," said Gray Greene, "in order to add that it was because your uncle dislikes newspaper publicity that he asked Walt Magen's detective agency to undertake the recovery of his bonds. I am also authorized to say that if the person now in possession of the bonds will return seventy-five thousand dollars of them, he may keep twenty-five thousand as a sort of penalty reward, to penalize your uncle for what he calls his carelessness. He will not prosecute if three-quarters of the bonds are returned to him. He does not want the matter to get into the papers."

"I see!" I said. "If I return part of these bonds I never had, I may keep the rest. Very nice indeed, but I have no bonds and I never did have any. Thank you for the information just the same!"

The young fellow, Gray Greene, looked at a chair meaningly. I had kept him standing thus long. "You have a sore ankle," he said now, "and you may prefer to be seated. I would not mind sitting myself. It may do no harm to either of us to talk about this matter a few minutes -- certainly it can do you no great harm. If you know nothing about the bonds it cannot harm you; and if you do know anything about them it is certainly as well for us to talk the matter over calmly. May we be seated?"

"If you'll tell me who you are and what ever made you come to me with this idiotic assumption that I know anything about this affair," I told him. So he seated himself and asked if he might smoke. I lighted my own pipe, which was in my pocket, already filled with tobacco. We sat facing each other, in my uncle's reception room.

"You asked me to tell you who I am." Gray Greene said, "and that is exactly what I wanted to do. I mentioned Walt Magen's detective agency. My name is Grayson Greene, and I am one of his men. Awhile back I was a writer -- I wrote detective stories; but I thought I would prefer to live them, so I went with Magen. He is one of my old friends. His detective agency is, practically, only an immense and wonderfully complete card-system. It is a record of facts and histories. His records are more complete than those of any municipal police headquarters in America. By sending out men to supplement those records when a case comes into his hands, Walt Magen is able to complete satisfactorily almost every case that comes to him. But he thinks he has in me something more than any other man in his employ can offer. He calls me his Automatic Brain."

"All right; what does that mean?" I asked him.

"It means," said Gray Greene, "that I have what he calls the 'clue sense.' Small, unimportant facts dropped into my brain seem to combine automatically, without intentional volition on my part, and thus supply me with the required solutions. Bits of information I pick up, seemingly most unrelated, appear to get together in my subconscious mind when I sleep or at other times, compare notes, and by adding two and two make, not four, but the winning number, whatever that may be."

"Very interesting, I'm sure," I said.

"More than interesting, perhaps," he said, "when I tell you that not in one single case in which my automatic brain has handed me a solution of a seeming mystery has it been wrong. It has never failed me. It never gives me a false tip. It is never mistaken. It is always right."

In this case, my automatic brain has pointed to you!

He looked at me in a way that made me distinctly uncomfortable, innocent though I was of any connection with my Uncle John's bond troubles.

"In this case," he said then, "my automatic brain has pointed to you!"

What he meant was clear enough to me, and I daresay I colored, for it is a nasty thing to be thus directly accused of crime. He meant that he was so surely convinced that I had stolen my uncle's bonds that nothing I could say would convince him that I had not. He meant that I was the thief. Then, suddenly, a thought came to me that left me uneasy. I had stolen no bonds, but evidently this young detective thought I had; he was positive. I had. And too often, perhaps, circumstantial evidence does throw the onus of guilt on an innocent man. Too often the innocent man cannot clear himself of the odor of guilt, and it remains with him through life. It sometimes, means ruin for the man.

I think it was the utter honesty of Gray Greene and his absolute belief in his "automatic brain" that made me then and there take a different tone towards him. I seemed to see that, although guiltless, my duty to myself made it necessary to prove to Grayson Greene that I was not guilty.

"As a matter of fact," I said, "day before yesterday evening, at eight o'clock --"

And there I stopped short. I remembered that at seven o'clock I had left my room, in which I had been resting my ankle since its hurt, and had gone out of the house. I had told my uncle's butler that I was going to the nearest stationery shop to find something to read. But I had not gone to a stationery shop; I had walked to the park, found a seat in a secluded spot, and on that bench I had fallen asleep and had slept until almost eleven. I had then walked home, had opened the door with my own key, and had gone to my own room without meeting man, woman, or ghost.

"As a matter of fact," I said, "day before yesterday evening, at eight o'clock, I was asleep on a bench in Central Park. So that is that, Mr. Greene. As for my ability to prove it -- I have none. You'll have to make what you must out of that fact. As to my ankle, I can only tell the truth -- you may know that I am an aviator --"

"I know that," said Gray Greene, smiling.

"It is a fact not easily concealed," I agreed. "At any rate, three days ago, after I had landed from a flight, I climbed out of my plane and hopped to the ground from the side step, backwards, and alighted on a tin can. That threw me on to the other foot, and I sprained my ankle. That is the whole story of my ankle. No one kicked me in the shin."

"Why did you walk in the park?" Greene asked.

"I'll tell you that, too," I said. "I wanted something to read, and I went out to get a book or a magazine. I mentioned that to my uncle's butler as I went out. But when I was out in the open air, the night was so glorious and my ankle felt so much better that I thought I would give it a little exercise, and probably keep it from getting stiff. That is why I walked. And I walked to the park because it is pleasanter walking there. Then I sat on a bench because I did not want to overdo the walking. I fell asleep on the bench because I had not been able to sleep the previous night on account of the pain in my ankle."

I said this all rather sarcastically and slowly, like a man explaining some very simple thing to a child, and Gray Greene smiled as I proceeded. When I had ended, he was still smiling, but back of the smile I could see the real seriousness of the man.

"That was very well said, Mr. Merson," he said, "and it sounded thoroughly convincing to me. I would like to be able to say it satisfies me. But you can see my position, can't you? I admit that you don't look like a man who would hold up and assault anyone, but just consider my position a moment. My automatic brain has sent me to you with the word that you did this thing, and my automatic brain has never made a mistake. You can see the position it puts me in. I am an outsider, as we might say. There are three of us -- you, my automatic brain, and myself. My automatic brain tells me one thing, and you tell me another; my automatic brain has never lied to me, and you are an entirely new acquaintance. It puts me in an unpleasant position, don't you think? It does seem to make it necessary for me to ask you a few more questions, doesn't it?"

"Well, fire away, then," I said.

"About money," he said. "Have you been very short of money lately? Have you had any need for a large or small sum?"

"Not a bit," I said. "I have a bank account, and it is a fairly good one -- several thousand dollars, at least. And my contract with the Broughton Chocolates people is bringing me in a good sum. They have not paid me anything yet, but I imagine I could go to them any time and get a few hundred dollars, perhaps a thousand or two. No, I am not so hard up that I need to slug a bond messenger."

"Of course, you can prove that if required," said Greene. "We will consider that you can, at least. So that removes one motive. You did not rob the messenger because you needed money. How about any hatred for your uncle? You have not quarreled with him, or had any reason to injure him by stealing his bonds or otherwise?"

"No, not a quarrel! I love the queer old fellow, and we are on the very best terms. I would not be putting up in his house if we did not get along beautifully together. I would be at an hotel, or at some house nearer my flying field."

"I see! That leaves the motive for the robbery up in the air," said Greene, "and is a rather bad jolt to Mr. Automatic Brain, isn't it? So let us come a little closer to the affair. You say you know Alice Roget fairly well, your uncle's private secretary. She probably knew your uncle had bought these bonds?"

"She might know that; probably she did know it."

"Did she, do you think, mention that fact in your presence -- either to you or to your uncle or to anyone?"

"No; I have not the slightest recollection of it."

"You were never gassed while you were in France, were you?"

"No, nothing like that," I said. "You mean I may have slugged this fellow and made off with the bonds while out of my mind? Something of that sort? Not a chance!"

"I see! And do you know anything about this Alice Roget? If she did not tell you that your uncle had these bonds, do you know anyone she might have told, either intentionally or by chance?"

This I had to give considerable thought, but the result was that I was unable to tell Greene anything at all. I did not know enough of Alice Roget's acquaintances, or her goings and comings, to say much. I asked Greene if he knew the girl, and he said he had seen her when my uncle had him come to the house for instructions. He said she did not seem the sort that would be willingly concerned in any crooked dealing.

"That leaves the matter of how the hold-up man knew of the bonds somewhat in suspense," Greene said carelessly. "I can go into that later. It might have been someone in the house, or it might have been someone in the bond dealer's offices. You don't know anyone in that bond dealer's offices?"

"To the best of my knowledge, I don't know a soul there," I said.

"Or, and I should not mention this, I suppose," said Green, "it might have been your uncle himself. I don't think that is the case, but such things have been known -- a man arranging to have himself robbed. You have no reason to think your uncle might be in need of money himself?"

I laughed at that. I told Gray Greene that my uncle was so well fixed that he could buy out a bank, I verily believed. Greene nodded that his opinion agreed with mine, and I filled my pipe again while he sat looking at the floor, considering the whole matter, I suppose, and trying to see what road to take next to get at what he needed.

"Merson," he said at length, "we don't seem to be getting anywhere, do we? You couldn't, by any possibility, help me out by saying you might have done this thing while you were asleep? You're not a sleepwalker? But, no! That would not do -- there's the letter to the bond broker. You wouldn't have forged such a letter in your sleep."

"No sir, -- nor any other time," I told, him. "And while this is all very pleasant and we seem to be having a nice little chat, I don't mind saying it is getting late. You may not know it, but I do know I had nothing to do with my uncle's bonds. So suppose we just call this little visit of yours a mistake, and you'll go home and think it over, and I'll go to bed.

"I'd like to," he said hesitatingly. "I'm dog tired, and that's a fact. I counted on a good night's rest tonight; I was up nearly all night last night. I've been to bed once tonight, you know. I turned in about nine o'clock, and I was asleep in a moment. Sound as a log! Snoring, I have no doubt. And then I awakened suddenly, because this automatic brain of mine had taken Fact A and had placed it alongside of Fact B, and the two together spelled 'Roger Merson.' And they spelled nothing else, Merson. They spell nothing else now, I'm sorry to say."

"All I can say is that your automatic thinker needs a few spelling lessons, then," I laughed.

"But it has never made an error," Greene said, as if asking me how I explained such a remarkable fact as that his automatic brain could make one now.

"Then it has come to the point where it is different," I laughed. "It has hit on the exception that proves the rule. That sort of thing, you know. Come!" I said, getting out of my chair. "This may be mighty interesting to you, but I'll admit I'm sleepy. If I had stolen those beautiful bonds, this might all be as thrilling to me as a blood-and-thunder melodrama, but I can't turn back the hands of time and be the stealer of those bonds even for you, old chap! Not even for that automatic thinker you brag about. Sorry, but you had better go back to your bed, and give the old thinker another chance. I'm not going to run away; I'll be here tomorrow morning, if you want me."

Greene got out of his chair and stood awhile looking at me. Then he said: "I'll do that, I think. I'll go home and to bed, and see what happens."

I let him out and closed the door and went to my room. I'll admit that I did not sleep immediately. I lay in the bed and thought of this bond affair, and I tried to get some line on it myself. I can imagine what an unhappy time I would have made of that night if I had really jolted that messenger on the head and taken the bonds. I even grinned as I thought of that, and I decided Grayson Greene was no fool. If I had been the thief and had to spend a night thinking it over, after he had told me my uncle would let me keep twenty-five thousand of the bonds, and nothing said, I rather believe I would have met Greene in the morning with an agreement to return those bonds. Innocent as I was, I put in a couple of lively hours of thinking.

For one thing I racked my brain to squeeze out something I knew or might know regarding Alice Roget. As far as I could see, she was the only link that fastened me to the affair at all -- she and the fact that I was in my uncle's house. But I could make nothing of it; I'm no Sherlock Holmes, to build the story of a crime from a grain of sand. If I have an automatic brain, or subconscious mind, it was not on the job that night, or had no A and B to put together to spell anything. I heard the big clock in the church across the way strike three, and I was still awake, back in northern France, and that got me to thinking of my Broughton Chocolates contract, and whether I should go on with them after the contract expired, or take the Ransom Soap contract. And that led me to the thought that I ought to telephone Pflaggs in the morning, and warn him to use my red plane instead of the blue one. I was worried a little about the blue plane, and I knew Pflaggs was a daredevil when in the air. The blue plane was all well enough for straight flying work, but it was risky to do loops and tailspins in it, and Pflaggs has a mania for fancy stunts. And I certainly did not want the fellow to kill himself; he was too valuable to me as a mechanic, and in other ways -- as, for example, being able to take my place as he had the last few days.

I had had a phone from the Broughton Chocolates people that very morning, in response to one from me, and they had said the work Pflaggs was doing was satisfactory. My contract, you understand, was a skywriting contract. It called for me to go up each day when the weather was suitable and write "Broughton Chocolates" on the sky. I do it with white smoke, in letters about a quarter of a mile long, and it is considered very good advertising. The B of "Broughton" does not fully disintegrate into undecipherable mist until the final "s" of "Chocolates" has been written in the sky, unless the wind is unusually strong. The words can be seen for miles, of course.

When I stepped backward on to that tin can and twisted my ankle, I thought I was through with skywriting for a while, for my ankle was bad enough to make my foot lever control out of the question, but, Pflaggs showed he was a friend in need and offered to take the plane up until I was all right again, and to do the skywriting. But I did feel that he was too reckless to be allowed to take up the blue plane, considering his love of stunts.

So, somewhere between three and four o'clock in the morning, I fell asleep, and the next thing I knew was that a maid was knocking on my door, telling me a gentleman was downstairs and must see me; it was very important, she said, and he insisted.

"Is his name Greene?" I asked, and she said it was; so I told her to bring him to my room. I slipped into a bathrobe and a pair of slippers and Greene came up. He apologized for getting me out of bed, but he said he had asked for me twice before that morning, and as it was eleven o'clock, and his affair was important, he had taken the liberty of insisting that I see him this time.

"It is no use," he said. "I can make nothing out of it but you. I went home when I left you, and I went to sleep easily enough, and instantly my automatic brain got to work again. It might be called a dream, if there is need to call it anything. My brain took the two clues -- my A Clue and my B Clue -- just as it did before, and brought them together, and I know I'm right. I can't go back on what my automatic brain decides so positively. If I had a million dollars, Merson, I would stake it against a cent that my subconscious mind is right in this matter. I'm sorry, but it means that if you have nothing more to tell me, I'll have to go ahead with my investigations otherwise, and it may be far more unpleasant for you. You've nothing more to say?"

"No," I said, "I'd say it if I had. I lay awake until after three last night, trying to dig up something that might point one way or another, but it was no use. Nothing came of it. I can't help you, unless, perhaps, you tell me your A and your B."

"Certainly!" he said immediately, and he dug into his pocket for the letter he had showed me -- the letter purporting to be from my uncle to his bond dealer." Here is A."

He put his finger on the word "Bring" at the beginning of the letter.

"You'll notice," he said, "that the 'Br' in 'Bring' is different from the 'Br' in 'Bronson,' where your uncle's name is forged at the bottom of the letter. The 'Bronson' is evidently intended to be an exact copy of your uncle's signature; the writer of this forgery was careless about the rest of the letter, and the 'Br' that begins the letter is written with a different 'B' and different 'r.' As a matter of fact, this little loop that connects the 'B' with the 'r' is rather peculiar; I never saw it used before."

"It is rather an odd twist," I admitted.

"I did not notice that particularly," Greene went on. "It did not mean anything to me if I did notice it; I am not a handwriting expert. My work seemed in be to investigate the people in this house I was preparing to do that in the systematic way Walt Magen's agency does all such work, and I had laid out my little campaign according to Walt's usual system when, last night, my time for sleep came. So I went home and went to bed."

"And the little subconscious mind got busy," I suggested.

"Right!" Grayson Greene said. "I went to sleep the minute I hit the pillow, and I began to dream. I was leaving Walt Magen's offices and walking up Broadway and hurrying a little. I had to dodge to one side and to the other to escape bumping into the people on the street, exactly as I had that same afternoon. And then everyone on the street looked upward, and I looked upward. A plane was completing a loop in the sky, and as I straightened out, a stream of white smoke began to flow from the plane, and in huge letters, perhaps a mile above our heads, it spelled out 'Broughton Chocolates,' just as I had seen it that same afternoon with my wide awake eyes. But here is the point, Merson -- that afternoon I had watched this skywriting with nothing but the thought that it was a clever piece of business; now what I saw were the letters 'Br' of 'Broughton.' and alongside of them and as huge were the letters 'Br' of the 'Bring' of the forced letter, and they were the same! The man who wrote on the sky wrote that forged letter!"

"Yes?" I said, fooling in my bathrobe pocket for my cigarettes.

"Yes," said Gray Greene, "and you are the man who wrote on the sky, Merson."

"Oh, no, I'm not! I don't say your automatic brain has not hit the bullseye again, Greene, but I'm not your man, as it happens. This ankle, you see, put me out of the skywriting business for a while. My mechanic, a fellow named Pflaggs, was in the air yesterday."

"Pflaggs?" repeated Grayson Greene and then his eyes sparkled. "I told you!" he declared. "I warned you that my automatic brain never made errors! What sort is Pflaggs?"

"As a mechanic," I said, "he is the best ever; as a flyer he is reckless."

"And as a penman," smiled Gray Greene, "I should say he was too consistent."



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:41am USA Central
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