from Munsey's Magazine
by Ellis Parker Butler
The chief looked up as O'Brien entered the office. He turned from the cashier of the Woodmere National Bank and gave O'Brien a curt nod.
"Just lock that door, Jack," he said to O'Brien, and then, to the cashier: "This is our man -- the one I was telling you about. Tell him what you told me, will you, Carter?" He went on without waiting for the cashier to speak. "Mr. Carter has something here he thinks we ought to look into, Jack," he said, "and I guess he's right. You don't know anything about this man Gatson who has rented the Foley house up there on Forest Avenue, do you?"
"No, boss," said O'Brien, seating himself and putting his hat on the chief's desk. "I didn't know he had."
"You haven't seen him?"
"Not that I know of," replied O'Brien. "What about it?"
"Well, you know the Foley house, anyway," said the chief.
"Oh, sure -- the big red brick with all the bushes in the yard."
"Well, Foley is in Europe with his family," the chief went on, "and this man Gatson has rented the place furnished. He's living there. That's right, Carter?"
"Yes -- he moved in last week," confirmed the cashier.
"Well, if you know the house, Jack," said the chief, "you know that Carter here lives next door, on the west. But that's not the point, exactly."
"Except," explained the cashier, "that it was one of the things that got me nervous -- this man Gatson living next door to me. If he's thinking of robbing our bank --"
"That's the idea," said the chief. "This Gatson might have picked that Foley house so he could keep an eye on Carter, and get used to his hours and his goings and comings. It seems Gatson came down to the bank and opened an account. He said he expected to live in Woodmere from now on, and wanted a bank to draw checks on. That was all right -- just the usual thing; but here's what got Carter suspicious. This man Gatson, talking in a chatty way, told Carter he used to work for the Imperial Bank Note Engraving Company over in New York. He said he was an engraver. As a matter of fact, he never did work there."
"No, sir -- he never did," agreed the cashier.
"Because," said the chief, "before Mr. Carter came out here to take this cashiership in the Woodmere National, he was bookkeeper for the Imperial Bank Note concern. How long did you say you were there, Carter?"
"Eighteen years," said Carter, "Talking with this Gatson man, I chatted along and got him to say when he was with the Imperial concern. It was when I was there, and we had no such man in our employ. Gatson never did work for the Imperial -- I'll swear to that!"
"So, you see!" said the chief. "Now, what Mr. Carter would like to know is what that man is up to; and I'd like to know it, too. It looks queer to me. If he's a crook, we don't want him to pull off anything here in Woodmere -- that's sure."
"I suggested to the chief that if he could investigate a little --" said the cashier.
"Yes, and that's why I sent for you, Jack," said the chief. "There's nothing troubling you much just now, is there?"
"No, I'm free enough," said O'Brien. "I've got time enough. Does this fellow sport a car?"
"Yes, a big blue-black limousine," said the cashier. "He seems to have plenty of money. He has a runabout, too, but his wife uses that."
"Does her own driving?" O'Brien asked.
"I was thinking," O'Brien said, "that I might get in there as chauffeur. I may be able to do that, but I'll have to work it mighty carefully. If this fellow Gatson is planning a bank job, his chauffeur may be one of the gang. What sort of man is he?"
"Big man, very impressive," said the cashier. "He weighs all of two hundred and twenty pounds, I'd say, and he's a glib talker. He likes to talk about his car and about his servants and about his wife -- or pretends he likes to."
"What's his wife like?" asked O'Brien.
"Well, that's another thing -- she don't seem to fit in, somehow," said Carter. "She don't seem to be his type at all. She's a thin little woman, and rather a keen sport. Gatson told me she was a wonderfully fine housekeeper, but my wife says she's never at home, She gets away from the house in the morning, in that car of hers, and she don't come back until dinner. She's taken quite a shine to that little Italian druggist's wife -- Bissisi's wife. They go out in the car together a lot."
"Bissisi is the fellow who bought out Granton's place," said the chief. "He's living next door to this Gatson fellow."
"I know him," said O'Brien. "Nice little fellow he is, too, but his wife struck me as rather flashy."
"Well, there it is, Jack," said the chief. "That's all there is to it, so far. There may be nothing in it. This Gatson may be another of these hot air flingers, and he may have spilled that about the Imperial Bank Note Company just to be saying something. He may have known some one who did work there, and he may have been trying to make a hit with Carter by talking something he thought Carter might be interested in."
"But why should he?" asked the cashier. "If he's straight, why should he lie at all? If he's not up to some crooked game, why should he lie to a bank cashier, of all people?"
"That's it," said the chief. "There you have it, Jack."
"It won't hurt to look into it a little, anyway, chief," remarked O'Brien, reaching for his hat. "You can leave it to me. There won't be any bank robbery, if that's what he's up to."
"Just keep me in touch, Jack," said the chief.
"Surest thing!" replied O'Brien, and unlocked the door and went out.
The chief of the Inster County police had but one detective at his command, and that one was Jack O'Brien. For his purposes, the chief could have had no better man. Forty years old, if he was a day, but so thin and wiry that in a tweed cap and sporty clothes he could pass as a young fellow of twenty, Jack O'Brien kept himself submerged among the loafers who shook craps, took occasional jobs, and hung around street corners. That he was connected with the police of Inster County few indeed knew.
Like many of the newspaper men of small towns, Jack O'Brien had been told again and again that he was wasting his talents, and that he ought to go to the big city, but -- also like those same newspapermen -- Jack knew what he liked. He liked the sort of detective work this big suburban county called on him to do.
Inster County, so near New York, contained eighteen or twenty goodly suburban villages, some ranking as towns. A man might live in one of these communities all his life and never be known in the next.
With native cleverness O'Brien had figured that the least conspicuous man in the world is the man in debt -- the man who owes quite a little money, but in small sums and to many people. Such a man, with creditors on every side, is rather expected to dodge and slink and hurry down this street or up that street when he sees an acquaintance.
For this reason Jack O'Brien borrowed endlessly. He was constantly asking some one to lend him a couple of dollars. He was delighted when he heard any one speak of him as "that lazy bum." He knew then that he was successfully keeping in character.
By this means, too, he was justified in taking all sorts of very temporary jobs. It was known everywhere that Jack had about reached the limit of his borrowing, and that it was work or starve with him now. Thus, too, he was justified in passing from one town in the county to another.
"Where's Jack?" some one would ask.
"Oh, that bum?" would be the scornful reply. "He couldn't borry any more off'n the folks in this town, so he's gone over to Woodmere to try to pull their legs awhile. Why? What you want to know for?"
"Feller wants his grass cut."
The money O'Brien borrowed he put in a bank, and of the lenders he kept a careful account. In the eight years he had been the secret police force of Inster County, he had actually borrowed nine thousand dollars, and the sum was constantly being increased. Those who lent him money never expected to get it back, but when a lender actually needed the money Jack would return it. This seldom happened, however, and it amused O'Brien to borrow as often as he could. He had a smiling theory that it would be possible to amass a competency -- say one hundred thousand dollars -- in these small loans from those who would never expect, when making the loans, to have the money returned.
Having left the town hall by the back gate, behind the lockup, Jack O'Brien strolled down the main street, looking at the gutter, with his hands in his pockets, his hat over one eye, and a cigarette in the corner of his mouth. Now and then he stopped and turned over some scrap of paper in the gutter, pushing it with his toe. When he saw a half smoked cigarette, he picked it up and put it in his pocket.
At the bank corner he ran into four or five young loafers.
"Say, Red," he said, "how about staking me to a couple of dollars until I get a job of work?"
"Yes! Like Kelly you'll get a job of work! I ain't got no two dollars, anyway."
"How 'bout you, Randall? Come on -- be a good fellow, and let me have a couple of dollars!"
"Yeh -- a couple of dollars! How about that couple of dollars you got off me Saturday? Where's them dollars?"
"Ah, pshaw!" said O'Brien, in seeming dejection. "You're a fine open-hearted bunch, you are! I ain't got a cent."
"Go rustle yourself a job, then, Jack," Red advised. "We ain't no banks."
As O'Brien had expected and planned, Carter, the cashier of the bank, passed just then. O'Brien turned to him.
"Say, listen, Mr. Carter," he whined. "I got to get a job. You don't know anybody could give me a job for a couple of days, do you?"
The cashier looked at O'Brien with evident surprise.
"Say, listen," said O'Brien, taking Carter's sleeve. "How about this new guy up there in the Foley house? You got a pull with him, ain't you? How about getting me a job with him?"
Carter kept a steady face.
"He might need someone, at that," he said. "I don't mind telephoning him, if he's at home. Come in the bank a minute."
Safe in the bank's office, O'Brien dropped his pose.
"That's all right, Mr. Carter," he said. "Let it slide. Did you see who was standing by the lamppost out there? That was this Gatson's chauffeur. He heard me, and that's all I wanted. So let it go this way -- you've thought it over, and you don't care to recommend me to any of the bank's customers. You've lent me a dollar instead."
"Just as you say, O'Brien."
O'Brien left the bank with a dollar in his hand and joined the group on the corner again.
"That cheap skate threw me down," he said; "but I got a dollar off him, anyway. Say, does any of you know anything about this new man that's in Foley's house? I got a hunch I ought to get a job there."
"Sure you ought!" laughed Red. "He don't know you, Jack."
Gatson's chauffeur -- he was not yet in uniform, but he was soon to be -- turned.
"What kind of work can you do, bo?" he asked.
"Me? Any kind," said O'Brien.
"Can you shove a lawn mower?"
"Best thing I do!"
"You're on, then," said the chauffeur. "Are you ready now?"
"Never was no readier."
"Jump in that car, then," said the chauffeur. "We'll go!"
O'Brien opened the car door and slid into the heavily upholstered seat. The chauffeur took his own seat, and swung the car away from the curb and on toward the hill.
"Say, listen to me," he said, slowing the car, when they had gone a short distance. "You work this right and this will be a steady job, and not so hard, either. I'm supposed to cut that grass, see? I don't do it. It's not in my line, cutting grass. I'm not one of these farm hands, see? I'm a city chauffeur. I don't herd chickens or manicure the radishes. I drive a car. So this will be like this -- I'm trying to work this lawn mower, and I don't know how to do it, and you come passing by and lean over the fence. You start to tell me how, and I say, 'All right, bo! If you know so much about it, you come in and do this little job.' So you come in and push the grass cutter; and tonight, when the boss shows up, I tell him he's got to hire you, because I don't know anything about cutting hay, see? You cop a job, because the boss don't care any more for money than you do for dead leaves."
"Listens all right to me," said O'Brien.
Near the Foley house of mystery he got out of the car and sat at the side of the street until he heard the clank of a lawn mower as it was dragged over a sill. O'Brien arose then and strolled to the Foley fence. In a few minutes he was pushing the lawn mower back and forth across the lawn.
"Whatever you are, you're no fool," was what O'Brien thought as Gatson questioned him before hiring him as yard man.
The big man had raised no particular objection when the chauffeur informed him that cutting the lawn was not a chauffeur's job. To hire another man for such work seemed to be a matter of small importance to Gatson, but the questions he asked O'Brien were keen and searching, and went farther afield than do the questions usually asked of a prospective man of all work, The big man asked if Jack could drive a car in case of necessity, and questioned him regarding his birth, his age, how long he had lived in the village, and how many people he knew.
"Clever!" thought O'Brien. "I look like a bum, and you think you may be able to use me in your business. Very good, Mr. G.! That suits me. The more you use me, the more I'll know!"
He answered accordingly.
"Do you know this Italian next door?" Gatson asked.
When O'Brien answered that he did know Vincent Bissisi, Gatson asked what sort of woman Bissisi's wife was.
"He doesn't know that I know his wife is training with the lady," Jack thought, and he replied that he guessed Mrs. Bissisi was all right.
"And what do you know about this man on the other side of me -- this banker?" Gatson asked.
O'Brien grinned inwardly.
"Tightwad, like all them bankers," said O'Brien; "but a good enough fellow, I guess. You ought to get along with him O. K., if you don't want him to lend you money."
"I like this little Italian Bissisi," said Gatson. "He seems a live wire. I don't know about Carter; he seems standoffish. Is he one of the old families?"
"Him? No!" scoffed O'Brien. "This town never saw a Carter until he came here to run this bank. He's no more old family than I am. He's stuffy because he's got a swell job."
"It's of no importance one way or the other," said Gatson. "It is only that I expect to live here, and I'd like friendly neighbors. How does Bissisi stand here? Would it -- would I lose caste if I associated with him?"
"What do you mean, caste?" asked O'Brien.
"Would the better people of the town consider that I was making the wrong friends?"
"Well, he's new here," said O'Brien. "I don't think it would boost you much. This burg is sort of old style -- it don't take to new-come foreigners. Bissisi will have to live here a couple of hundred years or so before he stacks up just right, I guess -- if that's what you mean."
"That's exactly what I do mean," said Gatson, frowning. "You'd say, then, that -- well, put it this way -- you'd say it would be better for my wife and me to associate with the Carters rather than with the Bissisi family, if we want to stay here in Woodmere?"
"Sure I would!" replied O'Brien.
"That's what I wanted to know," said Gatson, and he gave O'Brien some general suggestions regarding the work to be done about the place. "I may have to ask you some other questions, O'Brien," he added. "I know how easily newcomers can make mistakes in these old towns."
"Anything I know you can know, boss," said O'Brien.
Gatson said that that would be satisfactory, and went into the house.
It was three days before O'Brien found a chance to see the chief of police.
"How are you making out?" the chief asked him.
"Chief," said O'Brien earnestly, "Carter sure did have a sound hunch! That house is a mystery house, if ever there was one! There's something going on there -- something dead wrong; but if you asked me what it was, I'd have to say I don't know any more about it than you do. It has me guessing. I don't know yet whether --"
He stopped to grin and shake his head.
"As bad as that?" asked the chief.
"I've been there three days now," said O'Brien, "and I've had both eyes and both ears wide open every minute. All I can say is that there's more crookedness there than I ever smelled in one place, and yet I can't say who the crook is. I haven't the slightest idea. All I know is that there's some big mystery in that house. I don't know whether Gatson is the big crook or merely the biggest boob I ever met. I can't make out his wife at all. I can't figure out that chauffeur. Why, blame it, chief, I can't even make up my mind about the cook or the parlor maid! One minute I think they're all crooks, and the next minute I don't know what to think."
"What's so queer about it?" the chief asked.
"Well, that's the trouble," replied O'Brien. "It's all queer, but I can't put my finger on a single thing that is queer. Let me put it to you this way, chief -- you know what an ordinary house is, with an ordinary family in it? Here's a man and his wife, say, and they have an outfit of servants, just as these Gatsons have -- a chauffeur, a yard man, a cook, one girl who is kitchen maid and parlor maid, and another who is waitress and chambermaid. A household like that just goes ahead and lives its life. There's nothing queer about it. Maybe the two maids have a fuss now and then, or they're sore at each other because the chauffeur is making up to the wrong one, or the cook grumbles about something, or the man and his wife talk about the car, or a book, or where they'll go that night. You know what I mean, chief -- they just live along like folks; but nothing like that up there! Boss, they're all waiting for something to happen. They're all waiting for something big to happen. It's like a funeral -- or not like a funeral, either. It's as if they all knew there was a ton of dynamite under that house, and they were expecting it to explode any minute. They're holding their breath -- that's about the size of it."
"You mean they're all in on whatever is going to happen?"
"No, I don't mean that, either," said O'Brien. "I tell you I don't know what I mean. It looks to me now -- if anything is going to be pulled off -- as if Gatson himself was the one who isn't in it at all. Honestly, he seems the most innocent of the lot."
"More innocent than the cook?" the chief asked laughingly.
"Now, take that very cook," replied O'Brien, leaning forward. "She's Irish, and she's a peach of a cook, but I can't make her out. Naturally, I tried to make friends up there, to find out something. You know how those big Irish cook ladies are -- terrible talkers, a lot of them; but this one is a clam! She talks, but she don't say anything. She makes conversation."
O'Brien hit his knee a whack.
"That's it!" he cried triumphantly. "That's what I mean -- one of the things -- they're all making conversation every minute of the day. There isn't one of them that ever says anything naturally, unless it's Gatson himself once in a while. They're all concealing things -- trying not to let you guess what they've got in their minds."
"Well, then," suggested the chief, "that shows they're all one bunch of crooks, don't it? You're up there, an outsider, and they're all trying to keep the real goods from you."
"Yes, but why need they have taken me in among them?" asked O'Brien. "Take Joe, that chauffeur, for instance. He's the worst of the lot, and he's the man who hired me. He practically picked me up and took me there, as if he needed me in his business, so to speak; but he's a clam like the rest. He won't say a word. I give him plenty of chances, too. I've taken the talkative line up there. I talk all the time -- one of these tireless talkers,"
"Making conversation, hey?" smiled the chief. "Like the rest of them?"
"Well, there may be something in that, too," said O'Brien thoughtfully. "Maybe I do make more conversation than is natural. Maybe I'd better try a different curve."
"You handle it the way you think is best," said the chief.
"Yes, that's my idea, too," agreed O'Brien. "I've got to feel my way. It's big, whatever it is. Do you know what my notion is now, chief, if bank robbery is what's in the wind? Gatson isn't the big gun -- he's a blind. Joe, the chauffeur, is the big breeze."
"That might be so, too," said the chief.
"Unless Gatson is the brain and Joe is the brawn," said O'Brien.
"That happens sometimes," said the chief.
It was another three days before Jack O'Brien reported to the chief again.
"Well, chief, I'm getting somewhere," he said this time. "I've had a sign that the doings up there are queer. I shouldn't wonder if I got some sort of a straight hunch soon now. Gatson has shown a tip of a finger, if no more."
"How's that?" the chief asked.
"Like this," explained O'Brien. "I keep my eyes open day and night up there. Last night, about midnight, I got out of my room over the garage. There are two rooms up there; I have one and Joe has the other. Joe was down below, tinkering the car -- the big car -- and I knew that that car did not need any tinkering. I slipped down the stairs and hid in the bushes out there, because I figured that Joe was not tinkering that car for nothing. Sure enough, in about half an hour the cook -- Maggie -- came out. She slithered up to the garage door and gave it a gentle tap, and Joe let her in. He closed the door instantly.
"Here's where I learn something," I said.
"I was just starting out of the bushes, to get my ear against the door, when Gatson himself came from the house -- barefooted, mind you! He came along as gently as he could, chicken stepping over the sharp gravel of the driveway; and when he was close to the garage he stopped and looked and listened. I couldn't see him very well, because it was so dark, but he knew his ground. He tiptoed to the east side of the garage, and slipped in there without making a breath of sound. It's like this -- his garage is on the east edge of the Foley lot, and Bissisi's is on the west edge of the other lot, and Gatson edged in between the two garages. There was just enough room for him, and no more. That's clear enough, isn't it? He was there to hear what Joe had to say to Maggie. He must have been keeping an eye on Maggie, and must have seen her slip out."
"Sounds reasonable," agreed the chief.
"Yes, but what would a cook have to say to a chauffeur that the boss would be wanting to hear?" asked O'Brien. "That's what gets me. I'll swear I can't make head or tail of it yet, chief, unless there's real crooked work in hand up there."
"Well, here's a thing I can't make anything out of," said O'Brien. "See if you can. Night before last the boss and his wife had a row. They had a regular cat-and-dog squabble. He was tearing around shouting, and she was snapping back and laying down the law, and all over Mrs. Bissisi. The boss wasn't going to have her associate with Mrs. Bissisi any more -- the woman wasn't their class. They had it hot and heavy, the first real human stuff I've heard in that house, and then what do you think?"
"What?" asked the chief.
"The lady won. The Bissisis, both of them, are coming over tonight to play mah jong. Can you beat it, after the boss shouting he wouldn't have that little Italian in the house on any terms? Today the boss went down and bought a fifty-dollar mah jong set, and he's going to let the Bissisi couple teach them to play. Do you know how it begins to look to me, chief? It begins to look as if Joe, the chauffeur, was the crook, and as if Maggie was in it with him, and that Gatson and his wife are just poor simps who have half a notion that Joe and the cook are trying to put something over on them, but are not sure. They certainly have me puzzled!"
"There's nothing you can do but hang on as you are doing," said the chief. "Keep your eyes and ears open. Something may break, sooner or later."
O'Brien said that was his opinion also, and he returned to his duties as general utility man for Mr. Gatson. Before the week was out, he had two matters to report that were of real importance.
"Chief," he said, when he was closeted with his superior, "things are beginning to move up there. They're crooks, sure enough, and I think I know what kind of crooks. A bad lot! I think they count on bumping me off when the time comes, chief."
"No! You don't mean it? Murder you?"
"Yes, sir -- just that," said O'Brien. "Let me tell you the whole thing, and then you can tell me what you think about it. Did I tell you that one of the maids there -- the one who waits on table -- is called Marie? No? Well, she is. She's a Frenchy, and a mighty good looker, with black hair and black eyes, and as bright as tacks. As I looked at it, she was probably the easiest one to learn things from of that whole lot up there at the mystery house; so I've been sort of making up to her, chief -- joshing with her, and telling her she was a peach, and so on. I thought she might fall for me, and then, if we got thick enough, she might spill something about what was doing. I thought I had her almost eating out of my hand, chief, when what do I run across?"
O'Brien reached into his pocket and drew out a sheet of paper.
"I copied this," he said, handing it to the chief. "Here's how I got the chance. On Thursday this Marie has her afternoon off, and about noon she went out, all rigged up to kill. I'm out in the yard, mowing the lawn, and up comes that thunderstorm you probably noticed, with rain in buckets and the wind a regular hurricane. I dropped the mower and beat it for the kitchen, and I'm there about a minute when Maggie, the cook lady, came hurrying in. She's been upstairs closing windows, and she says she can't lower the window in this Marie's room, because it's jammed against the screen or something, and will I go up and shut the window? So I beat it up to the third floor and closed the window. Then I thought I would have a quick look around, and I began going through Marie's things. Under the edge of the matting I found this, written out on a sheet of paper. Read it, chief!"
The chief frowned as he read what O'Brien had copied:
The yardman is a young fellow named Jack O'Brien. Joe picked him up in the village and got Gatson to hire him. In the village O'Brien is known as a shiftless loafer, disliking work, and never holding a job long. As a matter of fact, he is the confidential investigator employed by the Inster County police. Since he has been here he has been reporting to his chief at regular intervals. We do not consider him dangerous, and could get rid of him easily, but it is probably better to allow him to remain, as a more dangerous man might be put on the job if O'Brien was withdrawn. Will keep a sharp eye on him. If he seems liable to be a nuisance when things reach a more vital stage, we can then get him out of the way.
The chief studied this awhile. Then he turned to O'Brien.
"Was this in Marie's handwriting?" he asked.
"No, chief," said O'Brien. "That's one thing about it. It was in Joe's hand -- Joe, the chauffeur."
"A sort of report he has made to Marie, huh?"
"Yes, and that puzzles me. Why should he? Is she the head of that gang? She has brains enough, I'll say!"
"What's the other thing that turned up?" the chief inquired.
"The first was a wooden case, and the rest was more wooden cases," said O'Brien. "The first one came to the house, and the truckman couldn't handle it; so he called to Joe, and Joe called me, and the three of us carried it into the house. Mrs. Gatson was home, and she went into a sort of fit of happiness because that case had come safely. It was a big box, about five feet square. When Joe and I opened it, it had engravings in it -- framed engravings, ready to hang on a wall."
"Engravings! Gatson told Carter, the cashier, that he was an engraver."
"Yes. Well, these were no engravings that Gatson had done, except a few of them. These were landscapes and things like that, and by a lot of people. Mrs. Gatson said they were worth a lot of money -- thousands of dollars, she said. It was a collection Gatson had got together. She said he was an engraver, and appreciated such things; but there were three or four of those frames had a different sort of engraving in them -- stock certificates, boss, and bonds of different sorts, marked 'specimen.' Mrs. Gatson said those were the things Gatson had engraved. That had been his business; but he was out of it now, she told us, and was going in for art. He was going to make engravings of landscapes, just for the fun of it."
"Some folks do," said the chief.
"Yes, but listen to this, chief," said O'Brien. "Do you want to know what was engraved on those specimen bonds and stock certificates, in the little line that tells where they were engraved? 'Imperial Bank Note Engraving Company, New York' -- the concern Mr. Carter used to work for -- the concern Carter says Gatson never did work for. Does that look fishy, or doesn't it? What do you make of it? Is Carter trying to put something over, or don't he know what he is talking about, or what?"
"I can clear that up in a minute," said the chief, reaching for his telephone. "I can ask the Imperial people about Gatson, and about Carter, too."
"All right," said O'Brien; "but hear the rest of this first -- about the second lot of cases. They came the next day, and Gatson had me and Joe open them in the cellar. What do you think, was in those cases, chief? A complete engraving outfit and a press to do the printing on, with ink, tools, and the whole business. Gatson has a carpenter up there now, building a sort of workshop in the cellar, to do his engraving and printing in. Now go ahead and ask those Imperial people about Gatson and Carter."
The chief looked up the number, got the Imperial Bank Note Engraving Company on the wire, and asked for the president. In a minute or two he reached that official and asked his questions.
"No, I don't care to say who this is," he said, in answer to a question which the president gave him in return. "It's important -- I'll say that. How about Carter?"
The chief listened to what was evidently a longish report on the cashier of the Woodmere National. As he listened, he jotted a word on his pad from time to time.
"And Gatson -- how about him? Did he work for your concern?"
Again the chief listened.
"Well, Jack," he said when he had hung up, "I don't know that this gets you anywhere much. Carter is all right. The Imperial Bank Note concern says he merits the fullest confidence. He's clean as a whistle and straight as a string, and anything he says is certain to be the truth. They say we can believe every word Carter ever says."
"And what about Gatson?"
"That's the queer part," said the chief. "They said exactly the same thing about Gatson. Gatson is as clean as a whistle and as straight as a string, too, and anything he says is the truth. He was working for the Imperial while Carter was there. What do you make of that?"
"I don't make anything of it," said O'Brien. "I've got to think it over, boss. What have you got to say about that Marie report? Am I going to be pulled off this case when it comes to a climax, as that report to her said?"
The chief leaned over and patted O'Brien's shoulder.
"Not for a minute, Jack!" he declared. "You're going to stick on this job till the finish. I don't know what's happening up there at your mystery house, but you're going to stay on the job until you find out."
As a matter of fact, nothing seemed to be happening at the mystery house. As the days passed, the air of mystery at first observed by O'Brien seemed to evaporate. The servants, forming acquaintances in the village, had more to talk about, and their conversation became more natural and less like that of people who are merely making talk. Gatson, now that he had his engraving outfit set up in his little shop in the cellar, had more to occupy his time and more to talk about. He seemed to find great satisfaction in playing with his inks and gravers, and spent a good part of each night, after his wife had retired, in his cellar room.
Mrs. Gatson had apparently given up Woodmere society as almost too difficult for her climbing abilities, and had taken Mrs. Bissisi as her best friend and closest companion. The Bissisi couple were constant guests. They came to dinner frequently, and hardly missed an evening of mah jong, playing until eleven o'clock. There was no gambling, the play being for points only, but the two men kept a record. It was a sort of tournament.
Gatson, too, was beginning to be known around town. Some citizens met him, and knew him well enough to speak to him when they saw him.
"I don't know," O'Brien said doubtfully, after a few weeks of this. "When I get away from that place, chief, I feel as if the whole business was nothing but a wild-goose chase. I feel as if I was a fool to hang around there. The minute I get off the place I can't see why I should spend another day on the job, but the minute I go back I sort of sense something. I don't know how to say it, but there's a wrong feel to things. Everything runs all right. The cook cooks, and the chauffeur chauffs, and the lady of the house ladies it like any one else, but yet they don't! As I said, chief, I don't know how to put it into words, but it's as if the cook wasn't only a cook but a cook plus something. She does everything a cook ought to do, and she doesn't do anything else, as far as I can put it into words, but just the same she does! She listens. They all listen all the time; and yet I can't get at anything."
"You're not asleep on the job, are you, Jack?" the chief asked.
"Me? Not for a minute!" declared O'Brien. "Say, don't I remember that report on me that Marie had under the matting? Don't I remember the cook sneaking out to the garage to have a secret talk with Joe? And the boss stealing out after her and hiding alongside the garage? I'm not asleep, boss; but I can't see any bank robbers in the bunch now -- no, sir! Do you want me to tell you what I do think?"
"You're supposed to do that, ain't you?"
"Well, it sounds so wild I hate to say it until I get more facts," said O'Brien; "but what I think is that Gatson and that whole gang are a bunch of counterfeiters. I think it's a big deal they have on hand -- so big that they can take a lot of time to get it in proper shape. What do you know about Bissisi?" he asked suddenly.
"Bissisi? Nothing. Why?"
"Is he bootlegging or anything? Here's what came to my mind -- how about this Gatson being a counterfeiter getting ready to turn out a big lot of false money and getting close to this Bissisi to use him as a distributor?"
"Might be something in that," said the chief.
"Yes. What if Bissisi is the head of a big gang of bootleggers or smugglers?" suggested O'Brien, "which would give him an outlet for a lot of phony money? Or maybe just an Italian who knows a lot of crooked Italians who wouldn't be above passing bad money? And how about Gatson getting ready to turn out the money there in his cellar, while he's making friends with Bissisi and feeling him out -- this wife of Gatson's making the proper friendly connection through Mrs. Bissisi? Does that sound reasonable at all?"
"Yes, it does," the chief admitted. "I don't know but what you've hit it, Jack. Can you keep some sort of an eye on that cellar outfit of Gatson's?"
"It's not so easy," O'Brien said. "I'm up there in the garage at night, and the house is kept locked. He does his work at night."
"How about having one of the servants admit you?"
"Oh, they're all in the gang -- I'd bet on that."
"How about concealing yourself in the house?"
"No good. Here's this Joe fellow sleeping over the garage, and he keeps an eye like a hawk's on me all the time."
"Then what can you do, Jack?"
"Just hang around and keep my own eyes open," admitted O'Brien. "It does seem a waste of time; but if you're willing, I shouldn't complain."
"I'm willing," said the chief. "I put you on the job, and I'll keep you there -- you've got my promise for that."
"And maybe something will break before long. Let's hope so," said O'Brien.
He went back to the mystery house, thinking over the case as he went, and walked up the graveled drive to the garage. Joe was out with the car, and the garage door stood open. O'Brien walked in and took down his overalls, which hung on a peg. He slipped his legs into them and pulled the straps over his shoulders.
Then he noticed an envelope in the pocket of the overalls. He took it out and looked at it curiously, for he had left no such thing in the pocket, he was sure. It bore his name. He tore it open and found a check, made out to him. With the check was a short note from Mr. Gatson, informing him briefly that because of other arrangements his services would no longer be needed.
O'Brien seated himself on a box and studied the situation. He was fired, and that meant that he could no longer study the mystery house at such close range. Once out of this job as yardman, he would have much more trouble in keeping in touch with affairs in the mystery house.
Why had he received this notice to quit? Did Gatson suspect him, or was the threat in Joe's memorandum to Marie being carried out? O'Brien folded the letter in his hand and walked to the kitchen.
Maggie was there, preparing vegetables for dinner. She looked up, as O'Brien entered, and gave him a word of friendly greeting.
"Mag," Jack said, "I'm fired!"
"You -- fired? Go away with you, Mr. O'Brien!" the cook exclaimed. "What should they be throwing you out for?"
"Don't know," said O'Brien. "He don't say. Just says I'm fired."
"Who says so?"
"The boss -- Gatson."
"Have ye talked to Joe about it yet?" the cook asked, after a moment of thought.
"No -- why should I?" asked O'Brien. "What's Joe got to do with it?"
"Maybe something and maybe nothing," the cook replied. "I've nothing more to say about it. What should I know about it, Mr. O'Brien? What were you fired for?"
"Nothing," said O'Brien. "He just let me go, the boss did."
"See Joe," again advised the cook. "I dunno -- maybe he could hold your job for you."
As soon as Joe returned with the car, O'Brien told him.
"Say, is that so?" Joe exclaimed. "Ain't that a shame?"
He seated himself on the box in the garage and thought, frowning as he did so.
"I don't see anything else for it, Jack," he said at length. "I guess it means some other job for you. Gatson told you to go, did he?"
"He left this letter sticking in the pocket of these overalls," O'Brien said, showing the chauffeur the letter of dismissal.
"In the pocket of the overalls?" repeated Joe, as he took the brief letter from O'Brien and studied it. "Well, that's queer, too, ain't it? Why would he do that? Where were the overalls -- hanging here in the garage? And he slipped this in the pocket, did he?"
"While I was down in the village," said O'Brien.
The fact that the notice of dismissal had been slipped into the pocket of the yard man's overalls seemed to worry the chauffeur far more than the fact that O'Brien had received his walking papers.
"If I'm fired, I'm fired -- that's all there is to the thing, isn't it?" O'Brien asked. "What does it matter where Gatson left the letter?"
"It's not usual -- that's all," said Joe. "It's not the way things are done. If he was handing you a birthday surprise, he might do it that way; but what's the idea of sticking a bounce notice in your pocket and taking the chance you'll find it?"
"You think it means something?"
"I don't know what it means," Joe answered. "I can't make head or tail of it. Hang around a little while, will you? I've got to think what he meant by this."
"Why do you have to bother about it, when it's my affair?" O'Brien asked, his eyes on Joe's face.
"Hey? Oh, well --" Joe began, getting himself in hand instantly after his brief moment of surprise at the question. "Oh, well, if you take it that way, you can clear out and be hanged to you! What do I care for you, anyway? If you have to get fresh when I'm trying to figure out how to save your job for you --"
"Get off it! Get off it!" O'Brien interrupted roughly. "What's the use of putting up all this bluff? You know well enough who I am,"
"Sure I do! You were a bum on a corner when I picked you up."
"No, I don't mean that, either," said O'Brien. "I mean what was on a paper I found under the matting in Marie's room the day we had the big thunderstorm."
"I don't know anything about any paper," Joe said. "What were you doing in her room, anyway? You're a fresh guy! If that's the way you act, the sooner you get away from this place the better. Beat it! Get your junk down from upstairs and beat it!"
He pulled his cap over his eyes, turned his back on O'Brien, and swaggered toward the kitchen. Jack climbed the short stairs to the room over the garage, and threw together his few belongings. He did not bother to go through the chauffeur's belongings -- he had done that frequently. He tied his few possessions in a bundle and came down the stairs.
As he turned from the stairs to the car room he saw Marie. She was standing waiting for him, and she touched her lips with her forefinger, signaling to him to be silent.
"Queek!" she whispered. "Say nothing -- listen to me. Joe, he has gone to the house. He is eat his meal. He say to us you got the grand bounce, yes?"
"I'm fired, Marie," said O'Brien.
"Before Joe come back I want to tell you -- I am your friend, Shack. You believe me, yes?"
She put her hand on his arm and looked into his face. Her eyes said that she was telling the truth.
"All right! What about it, then?" O'Brien asked.
"For a long time I am know you are mouche -- detective -- from this town, Shack. 'Who is it, this nice Shack what come here?' I say to myself. Because I like you verr-ee much, Shack. 'He is a plain bum,' Joe say to me. 'No, sir-r!' I say to him. 'My heart does not love a plain bum. My heart knows better. Shack is not one plain bum. Find out for me who is this Shack my heart loves!'"
She smiled at O'Brien.
"That's all right, Marie," Jack said. "I'm strong for you, too. I never liked a girl as much as I like you."
"So that is how he finds out you are detective, Shack," said Marie, patting his arm. "It is because I ask him to find out what you are."
"And I'll say he must be some little finder," O'Brien told her.
Marie shrugged her shoulders.
"Oh, that!" she said carelessly. "That is easy; but, Shack -- you like me?"
"Yes, I do," said O'Brien. "I sure do, Marie!"
"My heart tol' me so," said Marie. "I am so glad! You like me verr-ee much?"
"Well, I'll tell you the truth right here and now, lady," O'Brien said, taking her elbows in his hands. "If I hadn't been here on the business you seem to know all about, I would have been making love to you like a steam engine. You're the only girl in the world for me, if you know what I mean, Marie. I don't know what game this is you're mixed up in; but if you'll get out of it, I'll show you some real lovemaking, and no mistake. I don't care what you've been. If you'll cut this gang, I'll get down on my knees to you right now!"
Marie stood on her tiptoes and kissed him.
"My nice Shack!" she exclaimed fervently. "But no!"
"You won't quit this place?"
"But no, Shack," she said earnestly. "That I cannot do. By and by --"
"Never mind about by and by," O'Brien told her. "I don't know what this gang is up to, but I don't like the looks of it at all. You come on and get away from it. Listen, lady -- if you're afraid of them, I'll see that you don't need to be afraid of anything. Chuck them and get on my side of this thing -- why don't you? You know what I was here for?"
"But surely!" she replied, smiling.
"All right, Marie! Come across and tell me what is doing here, and let me wind this thing up right now, and I'll see that you get the finest protection in the world. I won't let anybody touch a hair of your head; and then we can go somewhere and walk up an aisle to a wedding march. How about it?"
"No -- listen to me, Shack," she replied. "Be a good boy to me, and let me finish this one leetle job. When this one little job is finish, I will promise I have no more jobs. I will listen to those grand wedding march with you. Be my good Shack, and tell your Marie what your chief is going to do."
"Hey! What are you pulling now?" O'Brien demanded. "Do you mean you want me to tip you off to whatever my chief plans to do about this Gatson and the rest of the gang?"
"Yes," said Marie simply.
"Say, do you think I'm that kind of guy?" O'Brien demanded.
"No," Marie answered, but she smiled at him.
"What do you mean, then?"
"Because I love you," she explained; "and because you love me."
"Nothing doing!" O'Brien declared flatly. "Nix on that stuff, Marie! I don't know what is doing here, and I do like you to beat the band, but there'll be nothing of that kind doing -- not with Jack O'Brien! No, lady -- you've guessed wrong. That will be all of that for the present. You can go your way, and I'll go mine, and when this thing is over we'll have another little talk. We'll see how you feel about it then; but I can't throw down the chief even for you, Marie."
"But you are only one," she coaxed. "What can you do, all alone?"
"I don't know what I can do," O'Brien told her. "I can do the best I can, anyway, and I rather think your gang won't be pulling off much of anything around here when it knows I know what I know. That's enough for me. I'm not so crazy to put you in the pen, or any of them; but you can give your folks this tip -- I'm on to them!"
"For me, Shack," Marie asked, in a final effort to gain at least part of her point, "would you do nothing? Would you go away and forget this house for a while? For your Marie, Shack?"
"Not that, either, Marie," he told her. "I'll do what I can do; and I might as well warn you that this talk was just about all I needed to make me sure there's something crooked going to be pulled from this house. I'm sorry, Marie, but I've got to report this talk to my chief, too."
Instead of protesting, as O'Brien had expected, Marie laughed. She patted him on the cheeks. Then she stood on tiptoe again to kiss him, and turned and tripped out of the garage.
O'Brien followed her with his eyes.
"I ask the world, can you beat that?" he exclaimed.
It seemed best to O'Brien, now that he had been sent away from the mystery house, to "show" again on the corner of the main street before going to report to the chief as he had threatened to Marie. Whatever might happen, it was always well to maintain his standing as a man of no standing.
He spent half an hour with his friends on the corner, reviling a man like Gatson, who would fire a man from a job without cause. When he finally slipped into the chief's office by the back way, his fellows knew that he was on the loose again, and that he was sore at his late employer, as every man who loses a job for any reason whatever ought to be.
The chief received him with a grin.
"Out of a job, I hear, Jack," he said.
"Out of a -- say, news does travel in this town, don't it?" O'Brien exclaimed. "Well, it's a fact -- I'm fired," he declared. "But now I do know something, chief -- there's something doing, something queer, up at that mystery house."
"You mean, I suppose," said the chief, smiling, "that the fact that that Marie girl tried to coax you to spill our secrets to her leaves no doubt in your mind that the house is not what it should be."
For a moment O'Brien stared at the chief, open-mouthed.
"Look here, chief!" he said, when his amazement had cooled. "How did that get to you so quickly? Have you got another man on this job?"
"No -- no other man," smiled the chief.
"Another person, then -- a woman?"
"No -- no other person at all, O'Brien," the chief assured him, still smiling.
"Then how --"
"Who could tell me the facts better than your Marie?" asked the chief. He smiled at the amazement shown on O'Brien's face, and then leaned over and patted him on the knee. "Now don't get excited, Jack," he said. "Don't get your dander up before you know what is what. This Marie girl did telephone, but she only proved that we were right -- you and Carter and I. There is something phony about that house. Lock that door, will you?"
Jack locked the door and returned to his chair by the chief's desk.
"It's this way," the chief explained in a low voice. "The Federal officials are after a counterfeiting gang, and they got a tip that this Gatson and his wife and the girl Emma up there are the gang, or part of the gang. Something -- this Marie did not say what -- aroused their suspicions, and they were on the heels of Gatson for some time before he decided to set up his housekeeping here in Woodmere. They planted some of their clever operatives in each of the employment agencies that Gatson was liable to ask to supply him with household help. So that's the answer to Joe the chauffeur, Maggie the cook, and your Marie. They're Federal operatives, and they're planted there to watch Gatson's doings."
"Thank Heaven!" O'Brien exclaimed.
"I meant Marie," said Jack frankly. "I've fallen for that girl, chief. It's a load off my mind to know she isn't a crook!" He rubbed his ear thoughtfully. "I guess this means I'm off the case, too, don't it, chief, if the Federal people are looking after Gatson?"
"It may mean that," replied the chief; "but it don't mean it yet. You'll keep the best eye you can on the place until further notice, anyway. This Marie telephoned what I've told you, but what do we know about her as yet? She may not be what she says she is. If she isn't, and if she tried to bribe you, as she admits -- whether with love or money -- we want to keep an eye on that house until we see what comes out of the place."
"That's good sense, too," agreed O'Brien. "I don't know just how I'm going to get in very close there now, though. If we had another man, we could feed in there as yard man --"
He paused. Some one was rapping on the chief's door.
"Go into the next room there for a minute or two, Jack," the chief said. "I'll see who this is."
O'Brien tiptoed into the next room, and the chief went to the door and unlocked it. He opened the door slightly. Mr. Gatson was standing there.
"I want a few minutes with you, chief," Gatson said.
"Sure! Come right in!" answered the chief.
Gatson entered the office. He waited until the chief was seated again, and then took the chair that Jack O'Brien had just left. He placed his hat on the desk and leaned forward.
"I sent your man O'Brien back to you today," he said, his eyes on the chief's.
Before saying more he reached into his coat pocket and drew out a fold of papers, which he laid on the desk.
"Just look those over, "will you?" he asked.
"I see!" said the chief, when he had examined the papers.
"I thought it might be best to explain to you," said Gatson, "for it might avoid an unnecessary mix-up. I would not have sent your man O'Brien back to you, except that I wasn't just sure of him. I didn't know what he might do. He's young, you know, and he seemed to have a pretty loose hand from you. He might have balled things up, especially as he has fallen in love with the girl Marie."
"Who is --"
"A Federal operative," said Gatson. "So are Joe and Maggie; but they're careful. They won't bother me. I can keep them busy enough suspecting me; but this O'Brien, with his suspicions of those Federal operatives, might have queered things. I thought I had better show you my cards -- all of them."
"And you don't mind, do you, if I show your hand to O'Brien?"
"No harm in it, then," said Gatson.
The chief went to the door and called Jack.
"You tell him," said the chief, when Jack stood before them. "Mr. Gatson has come down here to tell us something, Jack. He says our hunch that everything was not what it seemed to be up there at the mystery house was correct. It wasn't. Now, Mr. Gatson --"
"McWhorter is the name," said the big man who had borne the name of Gatson. "It's a short story. I'm an operative for the Unlimited Steel Corporation, and I have been with them a good many years. A big concern like that has plenty of use for a good detective. A while ago a new trouble came up -- the auditors discovered that some one was counterfeiting our stocks and bonds. You know we have over a billion of them out, so it would not have done to have it known that there were even a few counterfeits in circulation. The market for our securities might have broken heavily, for people would have been afraid of them. We believe in protecting our stockholders and bondholders; so I was commissioned to find the counterfeiter."
"And you came here?"
"Yes, after I had worked in Pittsburgh and Buffalo on clues that did not lead to anything. One trouble was that the Federal people were also after a counterfeiter -- a fellow who has been making bogus twenty-dollar bills -- and they got suspicious of me. I let myself in for that. I gave hints enough that I was an engraver, and none too scrupulous what sort of work I did. So there you have it, gentlemen. I and my wife, who was Jenny Brith before she married me, and our maid Emma, who was Jane Scaglione, one of the best operatives in America, are here looking up this bond counterfeiter, and these Federal operatives are here looking me up. That's all there is to it."
"So that every one in that house was a detective!" exclaimed O'Brien.
"Every living soul," said Gatson, smiling. "And, gentlemen, I'm sorry to say that in one man, who has been in Woodmere longer than I have been, you are considerably deceived."
"That's Bissisi, I'll bet you!" exclaimed O'Brien instantly.
"You guessed it the first time," smiled Gatson-McWhorter.
"He's the counterfeiter?" cried O'Brien.
"He's the man I've been investigating," smiled Gatson; "but, unfortunately, I have just learned that he is not a counterfeiter. Mr. Bissisi is the estimable private detective known in real life as Rocco Primavera, and he is here for the Imperial Oil Company, whose stocks and bonds have also been counterfeited."
"Then who is the counterfeiter?" the chief inquired.
Mr. Gatson-McWhorter rose.
"I wish I knew," he said. "I'm leaving this village tomorrow to try another clue. There seems to be nothing but ordinary citizens here."
"Ordinary citizens and detectives," smiled the chief.
"Ordinary citizens and detectives and Marie!" thought Jack O'Brien.