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The Case of the Canny Killer
“The Nipper” Speaks Again!
Noah Turnbo, electrical construction and transmission superintendent of the Tippingdale Steel Plant, slammed the desk telephone over which he had been talking viciously down on its cradle base.
And reason enough—for the news he had just that moment received was the straw that broke the elephant’s collarbone!
Angrily, morosely, he gazed about his commodious private office, now fitted up with its cool summertime furnishings consisting of woven grass rug and comfortable wicker furniture; then flung his gaze frustratedly toward the one broad window which, its sill now filled with green potted plants all greedily drinking in the bright sunshine of 10:30 of an August morning, looked out over the mills and towering chimneys of the great steel plant. Then he brought his gaze fiercely back to his flattop desk, and saw reflected upward from its plate-glass top a man of 57, gray-haired. and wearing a dark tweed coat and a soft-collared dark shirt that was a perfect compromise between the garb of executive and worker.
But now, hearing a gentle apologetic squeak at the door of his office which led to his secretary’s room outside, Noah Turnbo’s troubled face lighted up with relief. For a stocky head, covered with flaming red hair, was peeping in. And Turnbo eagerly called out:
“Come in, Red! Come in. You’re the very man I want to see! Just got a report, no more than 10 seconds ago, from the trackwalker on the Slagville line. And damn it to hell and gone, Red, ‘The Nipper’ slipped over something new on us sometime between last night and this morning!”
Over the wide and somewhat flat face that was peering into the office swept a look of complete surprise. Its lower jaw fell open, displaying two rows of irregular tobacco-stained teeth, and its brown eyes widened into unbelieving circles. A freckled hand came forth, and pushed back from a low narrow forehead a tangle of bright red hair. “The—the hell you say, Mr. Turnbo,” was the answer. “What—when—”
“Are you coming in—or are you staying out?” asked Noah Turnbo dryly.
The owner of the red hair entered diffidently, and closed the door behind him. “Red” McAfee, foreman of the electrical line gang, was a stockily built individual of no more than 30. He wore a brown suit and a liverish brown flannel shirt equipped with bright flat pearl buttons, but unadorned by any necktie, and the hat clutched in his fingers was a much begrimed and much begreased gray slouch hat.
“You—you don’t mean t’ tell me, Mr. Turnbo,” he was saying, “that ‘The Nipper’ is startin’ in now to monkey with our 22,000-volt lines? Surely he wouldn’t—”
“Sit down,” ordered Turnbo peremptorily. “There’s: no thinking about it, I tell you. I know it for a fact.” Red McAfee was dropping helplessly into the wicker visitor’s chair next to the desk. The bright and generous light from the nearby window brought out vividly the slight jaundice-like tinge to his skin, betokening a man possessed of a liver that was not all it should be; perhaps even explaining the line gang foreman’s undoubted genius at inundating a crew of lazy workers with curse words such as had never been heard before on land or sea! “However,” Turnbo now went on grimly, “what the devil would a mere 22,000 volts be to a man who was monkeying with 25 years in the penitentiary? For that, don’t forget, Red, was the penalty decreed in this state, during World War II, for sabotage in any plant making United States military or naval material. We still, today, roll some destroyer steel—and even now, 21/2 years after the close of the war, the law has never been repealed. So what’s 22,000 volts to such a—”
He shrugged his shoulders like a man who had completely made his point. Which he plainly had, judging by Red McAfee’s acquiescent nod.
“But,” Turnbo put in suddenly, “you want to know, of course, what ‘The Nipper’ pulled off last night. Well, the trackwalker on that Slagville line reports that all three insulators on Pole No. 147, out there in the country, are neatly shot away, and that the three transmission cables are sagging right onto the crossarm. And ’twas no damnfool kid, either, shooting with a .22 rifle for nightbirds—for one of the slugs, lying at the base of the pole, is a high-powered, steel-jacketed .45. Why, if that rainstorm that was scheduled—but fortunately has by-passed us far east of here—had come up by this morning, there’d have been such a beautiful imitation of a short-circuit across that wet piece of wood that we’d have had to close down the cement plant there at Slagville right in the midst of its present 24-hour-a-day operations, just in order to fix up that one little piece of vandalism. For you know as well as I that those cables are improperly spaced—strung, to boot, over crossarms that are really too short—by whatever Scotch-brained idiot laid out that line in the long, long ago. If ’twasn’t so, we wouldn’t have been using these special extra corrugation long-surface-travel porcelain insulators we use today. However,” Turnbo broke off, “the weather’s dry, so there’s no leakage—the Slagville plant is running now night and day, on a huge rush-order plus its backlog—so we’ll just let her keep running till she’s cleaned up. Which will be in a few days more or less—probably less. And then only will we shut her down—to fix up last night’s piece of vandalism. Unless, of course, rain, in the meantime, plays hell with—”
“Aw, there’ll be no rain,” declared Red emphatically. “That threatened rain las’ night was the only chanct we had of any.”
“I believe you.” Turnbo lapsed into dour silence. “Well, it seems now ‘The Nipper’s’ got a new toy to play with, or at. And now I suppose—by God, Red, it’s a queer industrial situation we’re up against here. I get so damned mad sometimes that I actually hate myself—when I think of how one lone devil of a human being can delay and impede and hamper the whole output of a big mill through nothing but his wirecutters and his mere skill in selecting the vital spots of our great nervous system—the electrical network—to tamper with.”
The line gang foreman nodded silently, but made no attempt to answer.
“One could understand it,” Turnbo went on helplessly, “happening back in the combined days of Re-armament and the War—when ’twould have really counted for something with America’s enemies of that time. But today, with peace and all?—however, that very fact, plus the absence of the other facts, sets the real motive for us. Which plainly is—
“But,” Turnbo broke off fiercely, “we’ve got to get The Nipper somehow. Not because of the 25-year sentence we can dish him out—and which would do us no good whatsoever—but to eliminate him from our picture. For his nippings can be translated into ‘tons production lost’—and ‘tons productions lost,’ continuing at the present rate—”
“Yeah, I know,” acknowledged Red lugubriously. “It can mean the sack for you. If—”
“If!” laughed Turnbo mirthlessly. “Will mean—and within 60 days from now. For when I was re-hired last, Red, the contract, fixed up there by the directors in the Eastern office, was cooked up by some technological efficiency expert, and specified that I was automatically out once the electrical transmission efficiency curve dropped to a certain slant. Against that contract, President Seth Hiatt couldn’t do a thing for me. And I—well, I wouldn’t like to go, Red—at my age. For with an invalid wife—two daughters in college—we-ell—”
“Well, I got a pers’nal stake in your stayin’ here,” declared Red fiercely. “For I never yet saw the time when a new transmission super, in a plant, didn’t mean a new line gang foreman. Always did. Always will! So it looks ’s though your problem’s mine—and for both of us it’d be solved 101-p’cent sweet if we not only got hold of John Henry Nipper by his behind, but got his sig on the dotted line, to boot, that he and no inefficiency has played hell with things around here. Which sig we ain’t no more chanct of getting, I guess, than a pork chop has of jumpin’ out of its fryin’ pan. So, barrin’ that, we got at least to elim’nate him.”
“But, good heavens, Red, we’ve eliminated every possible man now that—”
“Yeah!” said Red combatively. “Well, I know one Englishman on the gang who ain’t been—”
“Well,” interrupted Turnbo, “the time has come for expert advice. For this is a strange sabotage problem, Red. It’s entirely off the beam, as that sort of thing goes. And it needs analysis, from angles that you and I probably don’t see. And—well, there’s a technical expert of—ah—sorts who’s going to be in Tippingdale here this morning on business—though between trains only. A chap who lives, at least for the present, in Paris, and is here in the U.S.A. representing the interests of some rich woman living there who has a yen to adopt a small Chinese boy. American born, however, so that the boy can come and go freely back with her between countries. Yes, she has a yen to adopt one such. One about the age of our little plant messenger Archimedes Kee. And I mean the boy’s real age of 10 or 12 that we blink at—not his phoney age that we book him up here under, so that he can work and help his father out.”
Turnbo was reflectively silent. Then, with a look at his watch, drove on.
“Well,” he resumed, “this fellow, while in State City, yesterday, heard of our little plant messenger. Yes, at the Technological Club there, to which he had visiting rights. Heard how bright Archimedes was, and all that. And phoned me by long-distance from there last evening about the boy. And he is going to stop off here this morning—it seems he’s on his way back to Paris now to report to the wealthy woman—well, he’s going to stop off, and see whether old Mr. Town-Laundryman Jim Kee will part with the boy. Which, of course, old Jim never will do, Red. Never! But I encouraged this fellow to believe he might be able to get the boy, see? After he’d told me that he’d done considerable work in sabotage analysis. I encouraged him so he’d at least stop off here, and I could thus get his specialized advice. And he’s promised to come right over here after he’s interviewed Jim Kee and left the laundry, and give me—well, ‘between trains’ would make it 20 minutes—no more. Not a bad bargain, eh, for some mere telephonic affability on my part and—”
“Aw,” deprecated Red, in obvious disgust, “what kind of techyn-cal abil’ty—I mean what kind of exper’ence or—or his’try—could a guy have what would give him the slightest slant on what we’re up ag’in’ here? This guy’s prob’ly a squirt, wet behind the ears yet, who’s ladling out bull about himself—maybe once run errants for a guy who was chief clerk to some guy who was assistant to some sab’tage spec’list. Mark my works, Mr. Turnbo, we’ll be wantin’ to kick him—instead o’ to kiss him. We’ll—”
But here an interruption took place, consisting of the entry into the room of a tall skinny-necked woman, with a topknot on the back of her head, and a black velvet dress, who served as Turnbo’s secretary. Virla Longuay was, at least according to a certain picture-story in Life, the only woman in America who now worked in a steel mill! In her hand was a thin, dark-green-bound book with gold-stamped letters.
“Pardon me, Mr. Turnbo,” she said, “but there’s a—a—an author outside who wants to see you on a matter he won’t discuss with me—but he gave me this to give you in lieu of a card.”
She came forward and laid the book on Turnbo’s desk.
The gold stamping on its cover read:
A Statistical and Analytical Study of
the Phenomenon, as Occurring in
British and United States
MANIFEX SALTMARSH, Ph.D.
“Would you care,” Noah Turnbo’s secretary was now asking, “to see this man?”
Turnbo, after staring dumbfoundedly at the book, came slowly back to himself and looked up.
“Would I care to see a specialist in sabotage who has a Doctor of Philosophy degree and an official book on the subject to his credit? Would I—here, Red, take a glance over this book. This is the man I was just talking to you about! Yes, Miss Longuay, send Mr. Manifex Saltmarsh ri-i-ight in.”
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