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THE AMAZING WEB

 

 

CHAPTER I

 

“WANTED: 1,2OO MEN”

 

    Al Lipke, his sleek black hair parted in the middle, his checked suit pressed to fit every curve of his well-shaped form, his lone valise unpacked and its contents placed on the bureau, took from the bellboy of the Hotel McAlpin in New York City the Chicago newspaper he had just sent out for, and dismissing the boy with the usual gratuity went over to the tiny desk at the window which looked out on Broadway. There he sat down, and unfolding the paper quickly with a brief glance at its now two-day-old dateline turned at once to the “Help Wanted” columns. Topping the very first column of the advertisements was one which made him nod his head with satisfaction. Although occupying not over sixty words, it was set off with a good bit of white space above and below, and it stood forth prominently. It ran:

 

WANTED: 1,200 MEN WITH SUITCASES, AGED from 18 to 60, any nationality or trade, to work thirty minutes at simple, easy and interesting employment one morning during coming days from 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m. No education required. No canvassing. $10.00 to each man. WATCH THIS SPACE CAREFULLY FOR FURTHER PARTICULARS.

 

Lipke tossed the Chicago paper into the empty drawer of the desk and turned once more to a New York paper he had been examining when the bellboy had knocked at the door of his room. This already was open at the classified section, and in the column devoted to theatrical employment one adver­tisement carried in it the name of the hotel Lipke was now gracing, and the date and hour in which it was being examined.

This second advertisement ran:

 

WANTED AT ONCE: PERFORMER WHO CAN DO A feat of any kind that cannot be duplicated. As high as $1,000 will be paid for one performance. Ask for Mr. Cloyd, Hotel McAlpin, Saturday, at or after 1 p.m. only.

 

A tiny onyx, clock on the dresser tinkled forth one sharp note, and almost on the heels of it the phone in the room rang sharply. The big man rose creakingly from his desk chair and answered the call.

It was the hotel clerk speaking.

“Mr. Cloyd, there’s a number of the gentlemen you’re expecting waiting downstairs to see you. It’s just one o’clock. Shall I begin to send ’em up?”

“Yes,” said Lipke. “Just send the first man up. I’ll call for ’em one at a time.”

He had hardly got seated in his chair by the window before a light tapping on the door announced that the first man was there. Lipke rose, and crossing the luxuriously carpeted floor, opened the panelled door. In the opening stood a slender, olive-skinned man, carrying a tiny black satchel. He bowed.

“Charles Carino is my name. Is this Mr. Cloyd?”

“The same. Come in, please.” Lipke closed the door back of the visitor. “You came in answer—”

“In answer to the advertisement,” said the olive-skinned man. “You wished a man who could do a feat of any kind that cannot be duplicated. Theatrical in nature, I presume?”

“Well—yes,” said Lipke undecidedly. “Theatrical—that is, perhaps.” He placed an arm-chair close by his desk. “Have a chair. What is your feat?” He dropped into his own chair.

The olive-skinned Carino was already opening his bag on a slender stand which stood, elbow high, near the wall. “First do I demonstrate,” he said firmly, “and then we talk business far more clearly.”

From his bag he took nine balls, each about an inch and a half in diameter, each finished in white and gold. He laid the bag on the floor and moved the stand a few feet toward the middle of the room. Tossing off his coat, he rolled up his sleeves. He picked up three of the balls and, scarcely seeming to pay any attention to what he was doing, talked away as he worked.

“Any amateur,” he said with a yawn, “can juggle three balls.” No sooner had the words left him, than the three balls were flashing in the air in a rising and falling cascade from one hand to the other. He suddenly picked up a fourth and in a trice the fourth was now one of the previously moving three. “Four balls is the first step that a juggler’s son learns,” Carino explained with a smile, “as he crosses from amateur work into professionalism. Five balls constitutes professionalism,” he went on. “Thus.” He picked up the fifth and tossed it into the circulating four. They were now five. They rose and fell in rhythm. “It usually takes from four to six years to master six balls,” he said. “That proves that the Great Carino has been in the game that long at least.” Almost without notice he had deftly picked up the sixth ball, and in a flash it was lost among its rapidly rising and falling fellows. Lipke was staring fascinatedly, chin in hand.

Carino went on. “As I said,” he continued, watching the six moving balls like a hawk, “ there are only a few professionals in the country who have been long enough in the game to handle six. And there are said to be only four men in America and eleven in Europe who can handle seven. If I may say so, I—” He stopped, and with a very deft motion picked up the seventh, ball from the stand and now it too became part of the eye-dazing cascade of moving spheres. He juggled in silence for a moment to get back his poise. “As for eight balls,” he said at length, “there are no living men to-day, with the possible exception of one, who can juggle eight at one time. Gorkovitch, the Russian juggler, could do eight. He died in Berlin in 1905 from a stroke of apoplexy right while he was doing it. The few of the old school who were known to do it are dead and gone, and only Charley Carino is left to—” With a cautious look at the cascade of balls, he tossed into them one of the two remaining spheres on the slender table. He was forced to make a quick and snapping motion to do it, but in the twinkling of an eye it was part of a rising and falling array that no eye could seemingly follow, much less a human brain. Carino spoke rapidly, and a bit nervously now. “As for nine balls, no living juggler in the history of juggling has ever managed nine balls at one and the same time, either by the underhand or the overhand throw, or the rotatory. No man, living or dead to-day, can do it. Except perhaps—”

He paused. Lipke continued to watch, fascinated. Carino, after one or two attempts to reach quickly out to the stand, suddenly snatched from it the remaining ball—the ninth!—and by what appeared to be a superhuman feat of deftness and nerve, swung it into the intricate pattern of living spheres he had woven.

“You now behold Charles Carino, Mr.—er—Cloyd, the only juggler in the history of juggling, living or dead, who can handle nine balls. And I’ve done it for ten full minutes at a stretch.” With a few seconds longer of the white streaks flowing from his finger-tips, he rapidly began, as jugglers do, to retire the balls one by one, swiftly, and of a sudden they dropped to eight, to six, to four, and the remarkable performance was over with a snap.

Carino turned to the stand, tossed his spheres into his tiny black bag, and dropping into the arm-chair across from Lipke spoke in a very business-like tone.

“What have you to offer, Mr. Cloyd?”

Lipke sat for a long minute staring, thinking. Finally he spoke. “Carino, you’ve got a remarkable stunt there. It may be that you have what I need. And it may be that I’ll get something just a bit nearer to my requirements. I don’t know yet. In fact, I can’t tell till—say—to-night. I’m in a position to pay you mighty well for one performance if it turns out that you’re my man. The single performance will take place in Chicago. Expenses paid both ways, of course, and—well—we’ll talk actual money later, if we get to that point.” He looked at his watch. “Now let me know where I can get in touch with you, and I may phone you to-night.”

Carino bowed. He took from his pocket a tiny card bearing the name of some uptown hotel. He took up the tiny black satchel, and with a few voluminous bows he bowed himself out, just a little bit disappointed evidently, yet appearing hopeful as well.

Lipke stepped over to the phone and lifted the receiver. “Have the clerk send up my next caller, please. Mr. Cloyd in room 918 speaking.”

He had not long to wait before a timid tapping at the door announced that applicant number two had arrived. Opening it, Lipke puzzledly surveyed in the outer corridor two persons, a shrinking, timid-appearing woman in black widow’s weeds, leading by the hand a boy of perhaps fifteen years of age. The boy possessed an enormous high forehead; he was pale to the point of sickliness; and his little blinking, sharp, watery eyes gazed upon the world through a great pair of hornshell spectacles.

Lipke stepped aside politely and bowed the two in.

“Your name, madam?”

“Mrs. Kelsey, sir.”

He wrote it down. “You came in answer to my ad., I presume?” he asked, leaning back.

“Yes, sir,” the woman replied. “You see, Floto here has just been booked up on the Orpheum circuit to go out three weeks from to-day as the Human Encyclopedia. Floto is a wonder, Mr. Cloyd. They say there never was anything like him on the stage. He has read books since he was four years old, morning, noon and night, and he has never forgotten a word of what he has read. I saw your ad., and thought that before Floto starts out on his first tour we might stage an advance performance, although—”

“Yes,” interrupted Lipke, staring at the watery-eyed, precocious youngster, whose orbs darted back and forth from his proud mother’s face to the objects in the room. “So you’re going to try and buck all comers on handing out information, Floto?” he queried curiously.

“Yes, sir,” shrilled the boy in a thin piping voice. “Maw always said I was a wonder, and these theatrical people are going to pay me two hundred dollars a week.”

Lipke studied for a moment. “You answer all and any questions propounded to you, do you, Floto?”

“Yes, sir,” came the piping answer of the boy quickly.

Lipke pondered for a moment. Then he cleared his throat.

“What’s the population of Texas, Floto?”

The boy’s answer came quick, sure and shrill, the words tumbling over each other. “Population in 1900, 3,048,710; in 1910, 3,896,542. Originally part of Republic of Mexico, revolted and established independent republican government; subsequently annexed to United States. Seceded February 1, l861. Readmitted to representation by the act of March 30, 1870.” He stopped and yawned.

Lipke appeared a little staggered. The woman across the way beamed with a maternal pride. Lipke scratched his head. Then he fired straight to the child wonder another question:

“What’s nux vomica, Floto?”

“Nux vomica,” said the child like an automaton, “is a much-used tonic. Dose for horses, 20 to 60 grains; for cattle, 15 to 50 grains; for sheep, 10 grains; for hogs, 8 grains; for dogs, 2 grains; for man, depends on the heart action as determined by a doctor.”

“How old does the whale go, Floto?” said Lipke, gritting his teeth against this watery-eyed compendium of knowledge.

“Whale, 1,000 years; elephant, 400; eagle, 100; horse, 25 to 30, rabbit, 7; rat—”

“Good enough,” said Lipke hurriedly. He thought for a moment. Then he grinned malevolently. “How would you keep flies off of hams in a grocery store, Floto?”

“Paint th’ hams with py-py-pyroligneous acid,” drawled the boy. “That’ll keep the flies off and won’t hurt the hams.”

“Well, I’ll be—” begun Lipke. He shook his head wonderingly. He drew from his vest pocket a coin. “Floto, I’ll give you three chances to answer this. I’ve got here an old United States 20-cents piece. What’s the date on it?”

“Easy,” pronounced the child wonder. “Gotta be 1875, ’76. ’77 or ’78, because those were the only years they was coined in.”

Lipke laughed a laugh of wonder and awe. He turned to the woman. “Mrs. Kelsey, I reckon you’ve got a winner in that kid on the vaudeville circuit. I’ve seen a few alleged human encyclopedias in my time, but never one like him. But he won’t quite do for my very particular special purpose.” The woman’s face fell visibly. “I have need for an act—well—do something more spectacular, I think, and while Floto here is good, he won’t quite fit in with my plans. Thanks for coming up to see me anyway.”

The woman’s face was long. She rose. “Come, Floto, We’ll be going. Sorry we can’t please the gentleman.”; Lipke nodded his head and looked at his watch. A moment later they were gone and he was again phoning down to the office.

The next visitor was tall and thin; he had the high forehead of the college professor, and the drab black clothes and black tie that never in this world characterized the clothing of the professional performer.

“Mr. Cloyd?” he asked.

“The same,” said Lipke, surveying him cautiously under half-closed lids.

“Professor Kanning,” said the man in black clothes. He smiled. “Of the New York State University, Mr. Cloyd.”

“Come in, professor,” said Lipke; the cautious look vanishing. He closed the door. The other looked about, then took a seat.

“I saw your advertisement wholly by accident in the New York paper to-day while I was coming down to the city,” he said hurriedly. “So I ran over, and not being able to lose much time this morning came on up to your room.”

“Now what was your name and business?” asked Lipke.

“Mathew G. Kanning, assistant professor of mathematics at the New York State university. I am, Mr. Cloyd, what is known as a rapid-calculator, and it was on account of this acuity that my people educated me along the lines of mathematics. It struck me that I might be able to put up a demonstration for you, for whatever purpose you’re seeking, that might prove exactly what you want.” He paused expectantly.

“Hm!” Lipke drew in a puff or two from his cigar. He pondered. “Well—what number multiplied by itself will give—er—er—35,129,329?”

Kanning laughed a low, mild laugh. “They call that, in mathematics, Mr. Cloyd, extracting the square root. The square root of 35,129,329 is 5927 even.”

Lipke nodded his head slowly. Had he had time to check it, he would have found that his visitor was correct, but multi­plication was a sore and tedious process with him. But undaunted, he snapped forth another question. “What does 4567 multiplied by itself twice equal?”

The faintest wave of intensive thought seemed to pass over the face of the Kanning mental calculator. Then came the answer, quick and sure like a rifle shot, hardly fifteen seconds after the question was propounded.

“106,519,112,263, Mr. Cloyd.”

Lipke gave vent to a dry laugh. He took out his watch. “Let’s see how many seconds it’ll take you to multiply 3962 by 4174 and divide the whole thing by 4212,” was his reply.

“Why count the seconds?” asked Kanning casually. “The correct answer is 3926 and 25/100 plus.”

Lipke leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs. “Professor Kanning, you’ve got a faculty that’s probably the most interesting one in the world, but it’s not much good in a theatrical way. At least not for my peculiar needs. But let me give you a tip. Get a good theatrical manager who can stage an act with novelties of different sorts, get him to dope out an act that won’t be all dry figures and numbers, then book up with one of the better class of booking agencies and I’ll warrant you’ll buy more silk dresses for the wife than you ever will in one of these here colleges. Try it.” He rose. It was plain that the interview was ended.

Kanning too arose. “Well, I thought I’d just drop in and see you,” he remarked without any rancour.

After he was gone, Lipke at once called up the clerk. “How many more fellows waiting?” he queried.

“Four, Mr. Cloyd.”

“Send them all up,” he directed.

Then he arranged four easy chairs near his desk and prepared with paper and pencil to do a clean-up on the day’s business. Not long after came a thunderous pounding on the door, and Lipke ushered in his visitors.

They filed in, two of them evidently knowing each other, for they were chatting together in an undertone. They dropped as by automatic mental procedure into the four easy chairs, and Lipke once more resumed his old chair by the desk. He surveyed them carefully before he spoke.

Number one, at the extreme left of the semicircle, was a tall man, appreciably pockmarked and of a dark colour, as though he might have been part Mexican. Number two was a herculean individual, a veritable ox with thick corded neck, and muscles that seemed to strain and play under his suit of generous cut. Number three was a dapper, wide-awake fellow with glistening black hair parted to the very thousandth of an inch, dressed in a loud brown suit of faultless cut. Number four, the last of the group, was a man of undoubted foreign extraction, for his blue eyes, keen and straight, and light hair, were those of the races of the Balkans. With a glance back along the four faces, Lipke spoke.

“I presume, gentlemen, that you’re all professional theatrical people, and so it’s hardly necessary for me to waste in rehearsing my proposition separately.” He paused, “As my ad. stated, I’m looking for an act of some sort that exceeds any act now in vaudeville; that is, it must be feat of brand-new kind. For one performance of that act I stand ready to pay a very fair price, in addition to transportation to a city some distance from here. I think my fee exceeds the rate paid for any act in vaudeville or the circus to-day. I want to close up today and complete all arrangements. Now, gentlemen, if you have no objections toward talking business together, may I have your names and your work, and, if feasible, even a demonstration.” He turned toward the dark-skinned man with the pockmarked face. “Your name?”

The pockmarked man was taking from a long slender leather case what proved to be a sword with sharp edge and delicate point.

“My name is Gonzalez,” he said in good English. “Manuel Gonzalez.” He took up the sword and holding it aloft showed engraved along its edge what appeared to be a scale divided into inches and half-inches, each of which was numbered.

“The longest sword-swallowing act on record is 15 inches. That’s done by Du Bois of London. Now watch, if you will, please.”

With a deft motion he slipped off his ready-tied tie, and loosened his batwing collar. He stood erect, throwing his head back. Raising the sword just above his face he placed its point in his open mouth and lowered it gently, slowly, cautiously, down, down, down. At last the fascinating downward progress of the steel weapon stopped. Gonzalez closed his lips gently on the flat sides of the blade. He pointed. Even from where he sat, Lipke could plainly see that the lips were closed together on the engraved mark which said 17 inches. He nodded, and the sword was swiftly withdrawn. Gonzalez proceeded to button up his collar and replace his bow tie.

Lipke with a glance at his watch turned to the huge ox-like Teuton.

“And you?”

“Hugo Daumstaddter,” he said. “Der only strong man by vaudeville—vot can lift two horses vit one hand. So!” He took from a flat newspaper package a large glossy coloured photograph showing a man, with muscles bulging, clad in a gaudy trunk with red and blue stripes and silver stars, lifting up a wooden beam from each end of which, in a specially constructed harness, hung a husky-looking draught horse whose legs stuck comically out and whose eyes popped from his equine head.

Lipke inspected the photograph very carefully, surveying the man across from him and studying every detail of the picture. Then he laid it down on his desk and turned to the next applicant, the dapper little fellow with the jet-black hair and the loud but expensive suit.

“George Murphy,” was the name by which that individual introduced himself quickly and easily, at the same time lighting a cigarette. “Known as Boko, the handcuff king. Guarantee to get out of any pair of handcuffs in America in sixty seconds, and to get out of a wooden box tied by any three selected members of an audience and dropped into a glass tank of water. Claring of ’Frisco claims to do the stunt, but everybody in the profesh knows that he uses three picked men and the double slip knot. I use a perfected method of my own. Devised it myself.”

Lipke thought for a moment, a very long moment in fact. Then he turned to the quiet, foreign-looking man with the light hair and the steely blue eyes.

“And your name and act?” he inquired.

“Gus Chevalo,” said the other in slow, precise English, “Four years with Barnum & Bailey as Crazo, the daredevil cyclist. Have just perfected the newest spectacular feat in cycle work. Hasn’t yet been shown in public. It’s the double loopless loop-the-loop on a bicycle.”

Lipke leaned forward. “The double loopless loop-the-loop on a bicycle,” he exclaimed.

“Two complete loops in mid-air without a track,” Chevalo explained proudly. “It’s the evolution supreme of the old jump-the-gap and loop-the-loop.”

Lipke stroked his smooth chin reflectively. “You say this act has never been done in public before?” he asked.

Chevalo laughed a quaint laugh. “If I fail, then the neck goes”—he made a suggestive motion—“snap!”

Lipke rested his chin in the palm of his hand for a full minute. Then he turned to the other three men. “I think I’ve got the act I want,” he pronounced. “So I’ll excuse the rest of you gentlemen so as not to take up your time. Have a cigar.”

They rose disgruntledly, and after conducting them to the doorway and bowing them out, Lipke was alone with Chevalo.

“Chevalo, tell me all about this act of yours.”

“Nothing much to tell,” said the little foreigner modestly. “I been practising on and off for four years on the stunt. Did my practising with a net under me, out at my home in the country on Long Island. Best I could do was the single loop-the-loop, until after about three thousand failures I got the secret by changing the angle of incline of the edge of the jump-off track. The double loop-the-loop’s never been done in circus history.”

“You carry your own apparatus?”

“Yes. Fits in a space 9 by 12 by 6 when taken down. Costs about two dollars a mile for transportation.”

“Chevalo, what do you expect to pull down in the circus on this act?”

“Ought to be worth four hundred a week,” said the other.

Lipke calculated a moment. “For fourteen performances a week that means slightly less than 30 dollars a performance.”

He pondered. “Chevalo, I think you’ve got the stunt I want. I want to use you in Chicago for one performance and one only. The price I offer is 1,000 dollars. Just what my idea is in using you I don’t feel at liberty to say. This much I can tell you: There will be no advance featuring, no advertising, no publicity.” He paused. “Got any photograph that will give me an idea of this act?”

Chevalo drew from a large photograph container he had brought with him a glass snapshot taken evidently by a high-grade quick-action camera. It showed a man dressed in circus tights, surrounded by all the evidences of country life such as chickens, cows and horses in the background and a white-frame cottage some distance off out of the focus, in the act itself of turning a somersault on a bicycle which at that second hung upside-down in mid-air between the ends of two white-painted platforms, one evidently the end of an incline, the other a landing platform.

“Do you guarantee if you fail that there’s no fee?” asked Lipke cautiously, looking up from the photograph.

Chevalo again laughed his quaint, quiet laugh. He pointed significantly to his neck. “The neck and spinal column guarantee it,” he commented sagely.

Lipke drew up his chair closer. After fifteen minutes of details and carefully worked-out future arrangements, Cheva­lo bowed himself out, and Lipke dropped back by the window which looked out on Broadway.

“It couldn’t be better for the purpose,” he ruminated to himself. “The rubberneck newspaper reporters ought to foot the bill for giving ’em the story they’ll get out of it. And the story—ah—it makes the scheme absolutely police proof. Neither the best news-hound on the Chicago Press nor the sharpest plain-clothes man on the Chicago police force has a chance to get wise to the connection with Archibald Chalmers. Chalmers may go to the electric chair yet—and he may not; but he’s got a good team working for him in the team of Lipke and Crosby.” And at his facetious coupling up of the names of Lipke and Crosby, he smiled a smooth, satisfied smile that to an onlooker would somehow have suggested power—the power of unscrupulousness and daring; a smile in which one corner of his mouth turned up and the other remained unchanged in its angle. And there he remained sitting, staring unseeingly down at the traffic of Broadway.

Now we are going to throw back our story to October, 1923, to the little town of Brossville, Kansas, where practised a rising young attorney, by name David Crosby. In this way we shall introduce ourselves to the more virtuous and upright half of the team which Al Lipke calls the team of Lipke and Crosby, and better yet we shall view the very events which some years later are to place Al Lipke, screened from any too-prying members of the New York detective bureau by the less notorious name of “Mr. Cloyd,” in a high-priced hotel on Broadway. In fact, we shall know in detail whether the risking of the neck of Gus Chevalo, the daredevil cyclist, in a double loopless loop-the-loop, is to save from the electric chair and its deadly 2,200 volts Archibald Chalmers, Chicago society’s popular idol, and defendant in a charge of murder in the first degree. But we must start from the beginning.

 

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