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THE SIX FROM NOWHERE
Eli Kettlebone, elderly Chief of Police of the tiny town of Whistle Stop, jerked from the rickety ancient typewriter standing on the kitchen table in front of him, the special criminological report he had just finished.
It was, at this moment, some 8 minutes after 2 in the afternoon in Whistle Stop, which was in the very heart of America’s mid-West.
Stroking his short grey beard, that contrasted with the checkered hickory shirt he wore, crossed with its flaming red galluses, Eli Kettlebone prepared to read his report for errors or accidental misstatements. But first tilted back on his head the flamboyant gilt-braided blue police Chief’s hat which he’d purchased four years ago from Montgomery Ward and Company for $4.98, and drew a short ways down on his long nose the silverbowed and silver-rimmed spectacles through which his grey eyes would have to peer.
And now fixed, geometrically anyway, for comfort, at this now warming-up moment of this sunny summer afternoon, he began the reading of his report. Which embraced a single foolscap sheet, typed in double-spaced lines on one full side, and on half the other. In language which was quite correct as to grammar and phraseology—since Eli had gone to State Agricultural College eons and eras ago—it began:
I find it unhappily necessarily to apprise you that a concerted effort by the world of professional criminaldom is under way to acquire from you the copy of the pulp-paper magazine, Detective Narratives, which you state you purchased, short of a week ago, at the general store at Bear Gap.
This is conclusively brought out through the single fingerprint left on your small safe, when it was blown here, night before last, during your brief absence from your trailer, but nothing taken, thanks to the fact that the said safe was empty, and the magazine in question was then—but we won’t rehearse what both of us already know.
For the Federal Bureau of Fingerprints, Columbus, Ohio, were kind enough to inform me early today, by long-distance, that the pattern-formula I worked out from the print, and telegraphed to them, is that of one, Gonwyck Schwaaa, a safe-burglar, released about a month ago from long confinement in Leavenworth Penitentiary, but whereabouts now unknown. (His criminal history—such as, at least, they have—states that he is known to have had dealings in his life with a certain vicious New York Chinese tong, known as the Tong of the Lean Grey Rats, to the presumed extent of doing some of their dirty work requiring white man’s touch or skill. Not that your affair has anything whatsoever to do with the Chinese or tongdom: I merely mention the foregoing, that’s all.)
But since the safecracker in your case is Gonwyck Schwaaa, then that establishes the pockmarked man, with the deviating eye, who—
Eli Kettlebone stopped reading, as the door across the room creaked open. He raised his eyes from the paper, swinging them sidewise from the view through the multi-paned kitchen window out on the white picket-fenced yard, with an occasional chicken scratching across the vista, leftwards across the soft-wood floored kitchen, to the door, off one side of which was a woodburning range with cut sapling lengths piled on one side, and on the other a sink with iron handpump.
A man, seated in a wheelchair, was rolling into the kitchen. He was a man of about Eli’s own age, clad in faded grey bathrobe, and with flowing grey mustaches hanging each side of his mouth, and grey eyes of identical color as Eli’s, but gazing out through goldrimmed spectacles instead of silver ones. On his knees was a magazine, the back cover, containing some kind of an advertisement, upward.
A vigorous shove on the side wheels, and he rolled across the room to Eli’s chair. Eli greeted him.
“Ah, there, Broth—ah—Captain,” he said. “Did you finish all the stories?”
“I did indeed, Eli—ah—Chief,” said Isaac Kettlebone. Revealing by his pronunciation and choice of words that he too had in his day gone to State Agricultural College. “And so help me, I don’t think I ever encountered such trashy ones as it contains.”
“But sound, I take it, since—”
“Oh yes, yes, Eli. Yes, sound. In what is known as motiving and motivation, both. The publishers evidently employ editors who don’t let their authors get away with downright silly things!”
“Yes, I see. And the ads? Did you—”
“Trashy, too! Cheap perfumes—cheap mail-order courses for yokels!—clubs for the lovelorn—pep-pills for fading manhoods!—art studies of the female figure divine!—calls for song-poem writers and their loose change!—systems to melt fat off of human hippopotami—the only two halfway ethical ads in the thing are one advertising the identical course in criminological investigation that you and I took—”
Eli made a moue.
“—and the other the house that sells the apparatus we have on hand,” Isaac pursued. “Naturally,” he commented, “such ads would be in a magazine going to detective story readers—they’re all embryonic detectives, you know.”
“Yes, of course. Well, thanks a lot, Isaac, for all your trouble. I’m just completing my report for—yes—and I’m glad to have your analysis of that particular remaining angle, which was not, I’d say, properly covered by—by Lieutenant Kettlebone’s examination of same! Since—however, I set down in the report here, all complete, that I was now having the magazine read by a man who had a profound instinct for story soundness. And that if I found no occasion to add any emendatory p.s.’s at the bottom, that meant the magazine is completely okay in that respect.”
“Did you cover, in your report, all my careful physical examination of the magazine—for stigmata?”
“What do you think, Isaac? However—let’s see if I know ’em all. First, nary pin-point holes in any of the pages, to mark out a hidden word-message. Right?”
“Right! Not a single lone one. I held every page against the high-power lights.”
“And no pin-scratched words—to mark a code message?”
“Nary a one! I ran the huge super-power magnifying glass over every line in the thing!”
“Including even, I take it, the simple rubber-stamped business announcement on the upper top white margin of the front cover?”
“Of course, Eli—of course! Though what anybody could delineate, in way of a code-message, from the single simple words: ‘Sold by Silas Weatherby’s General Store, Bear Gap’ would be beyond me. Besides, that never got on to the magazine till, with others, it reached Bear Gap.”
“Quite true, Isaac. Quite true. But one can never tell, can one, at just what point a thing suddenly becomes significant to someone else? Or—but whether or no, that simple piece of rubber stamping is serving beautifully to establish for Crookdom that that’s the copy that went to Bear Gap!—and, therefore, the one they want! And—but getting back to your examination of the copy for physical stigmata. Now your ultra-violet light examination?”
“Shows not a deviation,” said Isaac proudly, “from the single color given consistently off from the printed text, such as would be made by, say, an invisible ink underlining a word, or anything. Or written between any of the lines. Monotonously the same hue, the text. F-19, in short. Oh, I examined every one of the 96 pages. I’d even say the magazine was printed from Froman’s Free-Flowing Printing Ink. Not that it matters.”
“No, of course not. Well say, I put this following fact down on trust. But—we’d better check on it, don’t you think? The cover’s not peelable apart, do you think?”
“Heavens, no! I examined it well. Even to taking a slight cutting from it, and applying water, acid, whatnot, to separate it if it were remotely separatable. No, it’s pure standard cover-paper, even a bit on the light side. 24-pound paper—almost too thin.”
“No text-pages glued together, I hope,” said Eli warily.
“Heavens to Betsy, no!” said the man in the wheel chair. “I read stories both for sense—and for continuity of folios. No pages missing, either!”
“Well that’s fine, Isaac. Thank you so much. I call the thing really covered now, by scientific criminology.”
The man in the wheelchair rolled forward a further foot or so, laid the magazine on the kitchen table, as it had lain on his knees, and revolving his chair rolled off and out of the room. And Eli bent his attention to his report again. Taking it up a few lines back from where he’d broken off:
But since the safecracker in your case is Gonwyck Schwaaa, then that establishes the pockmarked man, with the deviating eye, who called upon you 2 days earlier, on the pretext of wanting to buy your business, but trying desperately to “borrow” the magazine in question to “read on the train”, as Bulleid Gann, strong-arm man, closest friend and associate of the safe-burglar Schwaaa. Such points of description, of closest associates of Schwaaa, being set down on his criminal-history card there at Columbus. And vouchsafed me freely, of course, as a police-chief. And thus, in turn, the flashily attired bald-headed man, with the apparently huge diamond ring, who called on you exactly one day before the safe-burglary, and, as a presumed former “safe salesman” expressed much interest in your safe—your safe in which the caller of the previous day had seen the magazine he couldn’t borrow safely locked up in front of his eyes!—well, that flashily-attired bald-headed man would be Bulleid Gann’s closest associate, Baldy the Flash, famous slicker and con-man.
Thus, you see, 3 known criminals have visited your place. Unsuccessfully, to be sure—
Now the door across the room opened again.
A boy of about 14 stood in the doorway, clad in blue overalls, with bare feet, and with ragged-brimmed wide straw hat on his head. “Is the report finished yet, Fath—ah—Chief?” he asked plaintively.
“Finished, yes, Son—ah—Officer Kettlebone. But being re-read by me. I suggest your sending in daught—hrmph—Lieutenant Kettlebone, in five minutes. To do the vital and necessary post-office work on it. Then you and I will go fishing.”
“Very good, Chief!” The boy saluted with two fingers. “I’ll have the worms ready.” The door closed.
Chief Eli Kettlebone resumed his report, back a line or two.
Thus, you see, 3 known criminals have visited your place. Unsuccessfully, to be sure. Unless perchance we call successful the earlier one who confirmed you definitely had the magazine, and the next one who established the exact type of safe you had, so that the kind of work that would have to be done on it could be figured out by the third.
This truly confirms the words that Nelly Blithers, our town telephone operator heard, when the man we now know is Baldy the Flash was called at the Mansion House from an open callbox phone at Chicago, and the phrase “our million-dollar proposition” was used.
People dallying with “million dollar propositions” don’t just stop dallying, remember!
The next attempt to “visit” you will be, of course—
But first, let me state I had the magazine read first of all, from cover to cover, by my daughter. Who found it, I regret to say, “right smart interesting”. I then had my brother, Isaac Kettlebone, who is particularly skilled in this line of work, examine it for so-called criminological “stigmata”. There are, however, no pin-pricks in any page, or covers, no pin-scratched words, invisible writing, glued-together pages, missing pages, or inserted documents, letters or currency bills. And am having it now read by him from an entirely different viewpoint than my daughter’s—he has an instinct for story soundness. If this letter reaches you unamended, then it means he found the stories 100 percent sound, within their own categories. Though probably trashy. You bought the magazine, only you say, because of its cover—that is, of seeing it to be the work of a man who’d worked for you years ago? And desiring, chiefly, to drop it off at another town, a couple of weeks later, to someone who had worked with him in your outfit also years ago? Well, the cover, I’d say also, is pretty trashy, too. From all the—
The door across the room opened again. A woman of about 50, in grey calico, with grey topknot atop head, came a few feet in.
“Eli—Kettlebone!” she said. “Are you still working with that—”
“ ‘Chief ’ Kettlebone, Captain Kettlebone.”
“Now—Eli! My name was Elvira 2 days after I was born, and it’s going to remain that way. You may have the whole rest of this family nomenclaturally systematized, but I’m—”
“All right, Elvira!” said Eli, confronting truly superior authority.
“Aren’t you,” she asked, though partly solicitously, “giving that customer too much—for his money?”
“Not him, Elvira. Not him! He’s the—the cream of the human crop! He’s—
“I see, Eli. Well, I’m going over to the grocery now. But I won’t get any meat. So you be sure you catch a good mess of fish in the creek, when you and Bud go down there.”
“Will do, Elvira!”
She vanished. And Eli Kettlebone resumed the reading of his report. Again, a line back.
Well the cover, I’d say also, is pretty trashy, too. From all the—
Oh, by the way, the Amalgamated Pulp Chain, of New York, publishers of the magazine, tell me, on the long-distance phone, that they printed 177,000 copies of that last issue of Detective Narratives. I pity crookdom if it is trying to gather in an issue which, say, reflects on them in some way, and have to use three expert men to locate every copy—and blow all the safes in Christendom to boot! And—
But as I started to say, the next attempt of course, Sir, will be to buy the copy from you. The buyers, you may rest assured, will be perfectly and beautifully “fronted”, after those aborted criminal attempts to get the magazine—that is to say, they will be impervious to all ordinary checkups that can be made—that’s what we mean, in criminological parlance, being “fronted”; they will be costumed to proper degree—will have the phony credentials to back them up for what they are—they just can’t afford a failure, see? So watch your general step before you make any move to even try and arrest any—against charges like false arrest, or what. For they may employ stooges that will “ring true”. In short their “front”, I assure you, will be unpierceable.
You are of course at liberty to do, in the whole matter, what you wish.
My personal advice—off the record—is to get what you can, for the fool magazine, and wash your hands of it. After all, you’re not supposed to be the keeper of every fool magazine that happens to tumble into your lap, or—
But how much—could you get?
I don’t know! It all depends on how badly they want it. Or think they do! The words “million dollar proposition” doesn’t mean “million dollars” to or for you. For them, maybe. But not you.
Having made complete and painstaking examination here of your old second-hand safe, with its torn-off door, and now jagged hinges, for fingerprints inside and outside, and obtained that one vital one of Gonwyck Schwaaa, safe-burglar—the fellow must have thrust a hand, after he’d removed his rubber gloves, inside it to see if there was a false back, or false bottom or something, to the thing!—well, having obtained all that’s obtainable from it, I have now had it carted over to our local junk yard. For my testimony as to its condition serves, in law, you see, as equal to the exhibition in court of the item in itself.
My fee for all the work done, Sir, will be $35. You can remit here,
Chief of Police,
Now Eli, reaching forward, raised a small brass cowbell on the kitchen table. Rang it lustily. Feet outside tripping down a stairway were audible. Now the door opened, and a pretty girl of about 16 came in. She wore a pink checkered print dress, with flaring short sleeves. She had brown eyes, and wavy chestnut hair. She approached his desk, and saluted, semi-humorously.
“Lieutenant Kettlewell reporting, Pa—ah—Chief.”
“Oh yes, Dau—ah—Lieutenant. Yes. Well, Lieutenant, our examination of the magazine along criminological lines is now completed. Despatch all this now at once—to the right address—yes, consult the itinerary provided us. Seal magazine and report together, report clipped to front cover. And mail it first-class, with full registration, with a good smoking high value on it. To protect it, yes. And make it ‘Deliver to Addressee Only’, and ‘Return Receipt Requested’. Even slap an additional 30 cents postage on it, and make it also ‘Special Delivery’. For, Dau—Lieutenant, if you can get it aboard that westbound train due in an hour, it could be delivered to the addressee this very evening. That would be Service—with a huge S! So do that. I’m leaving now, to go down to the creek with Bud, and see if we can’t surprise your mother—she thinks we’re going to catch a mess of flicker-tails—but we aim to snake us a good big cat—if heaven’s with us. And—but wait!—in case I’m at my sister’s, in Toad Crossing, day after tomorrow, when the check for the work comes in, deposit it at the bank here. ’Twill be $35.”
“Yes, Chief. But may I ask how do you know that, delivering your report and all, and turning the subject- matter and all back—that the check will ever come?”
“Not—come?” said Eli Kettlebone aghast, but amused. “Sa-ay, that is one check—of all the checks in the world—that will come. For the recipient of this report is unequivocally the most honest person in the whole U.S.A., bar none. And will pay his bills, to the last farthing. And last but not least—”
“Yes, Father? Last but not least?”
“He’s also a man who will make crookdom pay through their dirty noses—if they want this copy of Detective Narratives, for this month, this year. Through their very crook noses, yes sir—and condrat ’em!”
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