Half of this story can be found in the records of the Police Department; the other half belongs behind the business counter of a newspaper office.
One afternoon two weeks after Millionaire Norcross was found in his apartment murdered by a burglar, the murderer, while strolling serenely down Broadway ran plump against Detective Barney Woods.
“Is that you, Johnny Kernan?” asked Woods, who had been near-sighted in public for five years.
“No less,” cried Kernan, heartily. “If it isn’t Barney Woods, late and early of old Saint Jo! You’ll have to show me! What are you doing East? Do the green-goods circulars get out that far?”
“I’ve been in New York some years,” said Woods. “I’m on the city detective force.”
“Well, well!” said Kernan, breathing smiling joy and patting the detective’s arm.
“Come into Muller’s,” said Woods, “and let’s hunt a quiet table. I’d like to talk to you awhile.”
It lacked a few minutes to the hour of four. The tides of trade were not yet loosed, and they found a quiet corner of the café. Kernan, well dressed, slightly swaggering, self-confident, seated himself opposite the little detective, with his pale, sandy mustache, squinting eyes and ready-made cheviot suit.
“What business are you in now?” asked Woods. “You know you left Saint Jo a year before I did.”
“I’m selling shares in a copper mine,” said Kernan. “I may establish an office here. Well, well! and so old Barney is a New York detective. You always had a turn that way. You were on the police in Saint Jo after I left there, weren’t you?”
“Six months,” said Woods. “And now there’s one more question, Johnny. I’ve followed your record pretty close ever since you did that hotel job in Saratoga, and I never knew you to use your gun before. Why did you kill Norcross?”
Kernan stared for a few moments with concentrated attention at the slice of lemon in his high-ball; and then he looked at the detective with a sudden, crooked, brilliant smile.
“How did you guess it, Barney?” he asked, admiringly. “I swear I thought the job was as clean and as smooth as a peeled onion. Did I leave a string hanging out anywhere?”
Woods laid upon the table a small gold pencil intended for a watch-charm.
“It’s the one I gave you the last Christmas we were in Saint Jo. I’ve got your shaving mug yet. I found this under a corner of the rug in Norcross’s room. I warn you to be careful what you say. I’ve got it put on to you, Johnny. We were old friends once, but I must do my duty. You’ll have to go to the chair for Norcross.”
“My luck stays with me,” said he. “Who’d have thought old Barney was on my trail!” He slipped one hand inside his coat. In an instant Woods had a revolver against his side.
“Put it away,” said Kernan, wrinkling his nose. “I’m only investigating. Aha! It takes nine tailors to make a man, but one can do a man up. There’s a hole in that vest pocket. I took that pencil off my chain and slipped it in there in case of a scrap. Put up your gun, Barney, and I’ll tell you why I had to shoot Norcross. The old fool started down the hall after me, popping at the buttons on the back of my coat with a peevish little .22 and I had to stop him. The old lady was a darling. She just lay in bed and saw her $12,000 diamond necklace go without a chirp, while she begged like a panhandler to have back a little thin gold ring with a garnet worth about $3. I guess she married old Norcross for his money, all right. Don’t they hang on to the little trinkets from the Man Who Lost Out, though? There were six rings, two brooches and a chatelaine watch. Fifteen thousand would cover the lot.”
“I warned you not to talk,” said Woods.
“Oh, that’s all right,” said Kernan. “The stuff is in my suit case at the hotel. And now I’ll tell you why I’m talking. Because it’s safe. I’m talking to a man I know. You owe me a thousand dollars, Barney Woods, and even if you wanted to arrest me your hand wouldn’t make the move.”
“I haven’t forgotten,” said Woods. “You counted out twenty fifties without a word. I’ll pay it back some day. That thousand saved me and—well, they were piling my furniture out on the sidewalk when I got back to the house.”
“And so,” continued Kernan, “you being Barney Woods, born as true as steel, and bound to play a white man’s game, can’t lift a finger to arrest the man you’re indebted to. Oh, I have to study men as well as Yale locks and window fastenings in my business. Now, keep quiet while I ring for the waiter. I’ve had a thirst for a year or two that worries me a little. If I’m ever caught the lucky sleuth will have to divide honors with old boy Booze. But I never drink during business hours. After a job I can crook elbows with my old friend Barney with a clear conscience. What are you taking?”
The waiter came with the little decanters and the siphon and left them alone again.
“You’ve called the turn,” said Woods, as he rolled the little gold pencil about with a thoughtful fore-finger. “I’ve got to pass you up. I can’t lay a hand on you. If I’d a-paid that money back—but I didn’t, and that settles it. It’s a bad break I’m making, Johnny, but I can’t dodge it. You helped me once, and it calls for the same.”
“I knew it,” said Kernan, raising his glass, with a flushed smile of self-appreciation. “I can judge men. Here’s to Barney, for—’he’s a jolly good fellow.'”
“I don’t believe,” went on Woods quietly, as if he were thinking aloud, “that if accounts had been square between you and me, all the money in all the banks in New York could have bought you out of my hands to-night.”
“I know it couldn’t,” said Kernan. “That’s why I knew I was safe with you.”
“Most people,” continued the detective, “look sideways at my business. They don’t class it among the fine arts and the professions. But I’ve always taken a kind of fool pride in it. And here is where I go ‘busted.’ I guess I’m a man first and a detective afterward. I’ve got to let you go, and then I’ve got to resign from the force. I guess I can drive an express wagon. Your thousand dollars is further off than ever, Johnny.”
“Oh, you’re welcome to it,” said Kernan, with a lordly air. “I’d be willing to call the debt off, but I know you wouldn’t have it. It was a lucky day for me when you borrowed it. And now, let’s drop the subject. I’m off to the West on a morning train. I know a place out there where I can negotiate the Norcross sparks. Drink up, Barney, and forget your troubles. We’ll have a jolly time while the police are knocking their heads together over the case. I’ve got one of my Sahara thirsts on to-night. But I’m in the hands—the unofficial hands—of my old friend Barney, and I won’t even dream of a cop.”
And then, as Kernan’s ready finger kept the button and the waiter working, his weak point—a tremendous vanity and arrogant egotism, began to show itself. He recounted story after story of his successful plunderings, ingenious plots and infamous transgressions until Woods, with all his familiarity with evil-doers, felt growing within him a cold abhorrence toward the utterly vicious man who had once been his benefactor.
“I’m disposed of, of course,” said Woods, at length. “But I advise you to keep under cover for a spell. The newspapers may take up this Norcross affair. There has been an epidemic of burglaries and manslaughter in town this summer.”
The word sent Kernan into a high glow of sullen and vindictive rage.
“To h––––l with the newspapers,” he growled. “What do they spell but brag and blow and boodle in box-car letters? Suppose they do take up a case—what does it amount to? The police are easy enough to fool; but what do the newspapers do? They send a lot of pin-head reporters around to the scene; and they make for the nearest saloon and have beer while they take photos of the bartender’s oldest daughter in evening dress, to print as the fiancée of the young man in the tenth story, who thought he heard a noise below on the night of the murder. That’s about as near as the newspapers ever come to running down Mr. Burglar.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Woods, reflecting. “Some of the papers have done good work in that line. There’s the Morning Mars, for instance. It warmed up two or three trails, and got the man after the police had let ’em get cold.”
“I’ll show you,” said Kernan, rising, and expanding his chest. “I’ll show you what I think of newspapers in general, and your Morning Mars in particular.”
Three feet from their table was the telephone booth. Kernan went inside and sat at the instrument, leaving the door open. He found a number in the book, took down the receiver and made his demand upon Central. Woods sat still, looking at the sneering, cold, vigilant face waiting close to the transmitter, and listened to the words that came from the thin, truculent lips curved into a contemptuous smile.
“That the Morning Mars? … I want to speak to the managing editor… Why, tell him it’s some one who wants to talk to him about the Norcross murder.
“You the editor? … All right… I am the man who killed old Norcross… Wait! Hold the wire; I’m not the usual crank… Oh, there isn’t the slightest danger. I’ve just been discussing it with a detective friend of mine. I killed the old man at 2:30 a. m. two weeks ago to-morrow… Have a drink with you? Now, hadn’t you better leave that kind of talk to your funny man? Can’t you tell whether a man’s guying you or whether you’re being offered the biggest scoop your dull dishrag of a paper ever had? … Well, that’s so; it’s a bobtail scoop—but you can hardly expect me to ‘phone in my name and address… Why? Oh, because I heard you make a specialty of solving mysterious crimes that stump the police… No, that’s not all. I want to tell you that your rotten, lying, penny sheet is of no more use in tracking an intelligent murderer or highwayman than a blind poodle would be… What? … Oh, no, this isn’t a rival newspaper office; you’re getting it straight. I did the Norcross job, and I’ve got the jewels in my suit case at—’the name of the hotel could not be learned’—you recognize that phrase, don’t you? I thought so. You’ve used it often enough. Kind of rattles you, doesn’t it, to have the mysterious villain call up your great, big, all-powerful organ of right and justice and good government and tell you what a helpless old gas-bag you are? … Cut that out; you’re not that big a fool—no, you don’t think I’m a fraud. I can tell it by your voice… Now, listen, and I’ll give you a pointer that will prove it to you. Of course you’ve had this murder case worked over by your staff of bright young blockheads. Half of the second button on old Mrs. Norcross’s nightgown is broken off. I saw it when I took the garnet ring off her finger. I thought it was a ruby… Stop that! it won’t work.”
Kernan turned to Woods with a diabolic smile.
“I’ve got him going. He believes me now. He didn’t quite cover the transmitter with his hand when he told somebody to call up Central on another ‘phone and get our number. I’ll give him just one more dig, and then we’ll make a ‘get-away.’
“Hello! … Yes. I’m here yet. You didn’t think I’d run from such a little subsidized, turncoat rag of a newspaper, did you? … Have me inside of forty-eight hours? Say, will you quit being funny? Now, you let grown men alone and attend to your business of hunting up divorce cases and street-car accidents and printing the filth and scandal that you make your living by. Good-by, old boy—sorry I haven’t time to call on you. I’d feel perfectly safe in your sanctum asinorum. Tra-la!”
“He’s as mad as a cat that’s lost a mouse,” said Kernan, hanging up the receiver and coming out. “And now, Barney, my boy, we’ll go to a show and enjoy ourselves until a reasonable bedtime. Four hours’ sleep for me, and then the west-bound.”
The two dined in a Broadway restaurant. Kernan was pleased with himself. He spent money like a prince of fiction. And then a weird and gorgeous musical comedy engaged their attention. Afterward there was a late supper in a grillroom, with champagne, and Kernan at the height of his complacency.
Half-past three in the morning found them in a corner of an all-night café, Kernan still boasting in a vapid and rambling way, Woods thinking moodily over the end that had come to his usefulness as an upholder of the law.
But, as he pondered, his eye brightened with a speculative light.
“I wonder if it’s possible,” he said to himself, “I won-der if it’s pos-si-ble!”
And then outside the café the comparative stillness of the early morning was punctured by faint, uncertain cries that seemed mere fireflies of sound, some growing louder, some fainter, waxing and waning amid the rumble of milk wagons and infrequent cars. Shrill cries they were when near—well-known cries that conveyed many meanings to the ears of those of the slumbering millions of the great city who waked to hear them. Cries that bore upon their significant, small volume the weight of a world’s woe and laughter and delight and stress. To some, cowering beneath the protection of a night’s ephemeral cover, they brought news of the hideous, bright day; to others, wrapped in happy sleep, they announced a morning that would dawn blacker than sable night. To many of the rich they brought a besom to sweep away what had been theirs while the stars shone; to the poor they brought—another day.
All over the city the cries were starting up, keen and sonorous, heralding the chances that the slipping of one cogwheel in the machinery of time had made; apportioning to the sleepers while they lay at the mercy of fate, the vengeance, profit, grief, reward and doom that the new figure in the calendar had brought them. Shrill and yet plaintive were the cries, as if the young voices grieved that so much evil and so little good was in their irresponsible hands. Thus echoed in the streets of the helpless city the transmission of the latest decrees of the gods, the cries of the newsboys—the Clarion Call of the Press.
Woods flipped a dime to the waiter, and said: “Get me a Morning Mars.”
When the paper came he glanced at its first page, and then tore a leaf out of his memorandum book and began to write on it with the little gold pencil.
“What’s the news?” yawned Kernan.
Woods flipped over to him the piece of writing:
“The New York Morning Mars:
“Please pay to the order of John Kernan the one thousand dollars reward coming to me for his arrest and conviction.
“I kind of thought they would do that,” said Woods, “when you were jollying them so hard. Now, Johnny, you’ll come to the police station with me.”