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THE STEELTOWN STRANGLER
THE DISCOVERY OF ONE, BIG BILL
AMOS KITTREDGE, warden of Northern Penitentiary, gazed thoughtfully from the heavily barred window of the Records Room into the great cobbled courtyard of the prison, where a quarter of a thousand grey-clad convicts were engaged, under burly blue-uniformed guards, in setting-up exercises.
The kindly faced man, with the grey in his thinning hair, and the old-fashioned batwing collar, was quite alone, for seldom was this room used for other than observation outside that interior courtyard. The late morning sun of the first day of September, splitting through the heavy vertical bars on the window, cast thick black vertical shadows on the light-coloured summer suit of the man who silently watched, and who found himself wondering this morning whether those who lived on one side of a barred window in life were any more prisoners than those on the other. Like himself, for instance!
He wondered also, as he gazed at that quarter of a thousand men—some sullen—some grim—some smiling—but all going through their exercises as though they were one machine—he wondered why penitentiaries, throughout America, steadily increased in number, and why more wings were continually being added to those already existing. Certainly penology was a failure. At reforming men. In fact he saw, right now, out there, a dozen who were repeaters—who had brought themselves back to the very hell from which they had legally escaped. Indeed, Kittredge reflected, the ones who, for the most part, assuredly did not come back were those who had escaped—who perforce followed the road of righteousness thereafter lest their finger-prints, taken because of some slight infraction of the laws somewhere, might betray them—and bring them back.
There was a tap on the side of the open door of the room. The warden, turning quickly, saw a blue-eyed blonde girl smiling in at him. The girl was not only his secretary, but his daughter. She was the only girl allowed in the prison.
“Father,” she said quietly, “Big Bill Branahan, the detective, from the Sheriff’s office at Chicago, is in your private office waiting to see you.”
“Big Bill?” echoed the warden. “He didn’t come down all that way, I take it, to see me?”
“No, Father. He brought in another man, for the Sheriff’s office. A ‘special,’ of course, like all those he brings. A ten-year man. A sickly fellow—who will have to be sent straight to the hospital. But Big Bill wants to see you before he goes back to the city.”
“All right, Fern. I’ll see him at once.” The girl, evidently wanting some record card, crossed the room to a filing-case, and the warden left by the door through which she had come. The door gave only on to a long, long interior corridor, which led to his private office. Presently he was entering that room which fronted on the narrow street that ran past the executive doors of Northern Penitentiary.
Big Bill, a huge man with a red face, cold dead eyes, and thin lips, sat in the capacious armchair at the side of the warden’s glass-topped desk. His eyes were roving idly over the huge map of the United States that covered almost the entire wall opposite.
“Hello there, Branahan,” Kittredge said. “I hear you’ve just brought me another?”
“Yes, Warden. Fellow, this time, that the Sheriff was afraid might die on him. So he got rid of him before some enterprising reporter claimed we killed him to stop his mouth. Now he can die on you.”
“Well,” said the warden dispassionately, “he’d be better off, perhaps, if he did—than to put in ten years here—go out—and come back.”
“But he’d be ‘reformed,’ wouldn’t he?” said Big Bill. “If he put in his ten—and went out of here?”
“About the only ones, Branahan, who really ever reform are some of those who escape. Though even one-third of them are recidivists. When it comes to penology, I am a pessimist. Got your receipt—for your man?”
“Yes, half a dozen signatures, warden. Including Miss Fern’s. But before going on back to Chi, I wanted to talk with you.”
“Sure, sure!” Kittredge sank down in his swivel chair though leaning, at the same tune, to cock an ear towards the railroad tracks, a block up the street, to listen for the sound of the Southbound Flyer. Which he did not hear, and, glancing at his watch, saw that his timepiece this morning was wrong by a half-hour.
He leaned back in his chair.
“Yes, Branahan, and what can I do for you?”
His daughter’s light feet came back through the corridor now. She entered the room, smiling, a card in her hand.
“Can you do without a Cerberus for a little while, Father?” she asked. “I’d like to run up-street.”
“Run ahead, my dear. We’ve nothing to steal here but prisoners. And unfortunately their guards would have something to say about that! Just put up the sign in your sanctum—to knock on my door.”
She went out by a door next to the huge map, showing a glimpse of her sanctum sanctorum, with its door leading to the corridor, as she did. The two men were alone again. Her slim form, tripping down the stone steps outside, was visible to her father as Branahan commenced speaking.
“I want to find out first,” said Branahan, “whether that new mileage expense scale on returning an escaped prisoner is in force here yet—so far as you’re concerned.”
“Oh, yes,” the warden nodded. “We’ve been fully notified. It’s in force now, and will remain so doubtlessly—at least for a while. You mean, of course, the ten-cents-per-mile travel— plus railroad expenses—for any qualified officer of the law going and bringing back an escaped prisoner?”
“Or,” sepulchrally put in Big Bill, “for the officer bringing in an escaped prisoner—then going back home?”
“Yes, of course,” the warden said undecidedly, a bit puzzled.
“And I suppose,” pressed on Big Bill, “that the $100 special escape reward money is over and above those expenses—at least in the case of that fellow No. 4444—easy number, that, to remember!—who escaped when that rule was in effect?”
The warden looked a bit startled.
“Why, sure—sure, Branahan. That’s in force on him. Natu-rally. But you don’t mean to tell me that you have a clue to where No. 4444 is today—enough to warrant investing travel money?”
“Believe it or not, Sheriff, I know where he is today! And while I can always use $100 like nobody’s business, I can also say ten cents a mile is easy money—but that twenty cents a mile, for sticking a prisoner, with shackles on his legs, and handcuffs on his wrists, in a compartment costing five cents a mile, is easier money yet! And so the total reward for No. 4444, so far as I’m concerned, amounts to—well, $100—plus my mileage take.”
“I thought you always travelled by the jalopy out there?” the warden said, a bit ironically.
“Not when I’m going to get it back from the State! Then I travel on the cushions—de luxe—and eat in the diner. The best they got.”
“I see,” the warden nodded. “And you really believe— you’ve located 4444?” Branahan nodded quietly.
“And I suppose,” the warden, said, “ that you’re not likely to tip off your hand till you—er—bring him in?”
“Right, Warden! It’s amazing how local sheriffs can pop up the last minute, and take a grab out of a man’s hand—catch the reward—and one of their men get the trip. And the mileage!”
“But you know I,” began the warden, “wouldn’t spill anyth— However,” he added, “I don’t blame you. Well, do you mind telling me—what 4444’s doing?”
“Not at all!” said Big Bill. “But do you mind, Warden, giving me your interpretation of his strange case—his being sent here for murder?”
“My interpretation?” The warden threw up his hands. “Goodness, Branahan, I can’t interpret his case. As much as you should be able. For you, after all, were one of the three officers who took him into custody after his crime, and tried, so far as I understand, to work out his motives, but to no success. Indeed, all I know is what you’d know. That he had checked in, that morning—whatever it was—four years back, an obvious stranger, in that cheap rooming house hotel on Wells Street, in Chicago. Under just the name ‘John Jones’—the same name as he was later convicted under, so far as that goes. And went to bed. And towards evening, called the woman proprietor of the place to have some restaurant up the street send him up a meal. And how—”
“Yeah, I know,” said Big Bill. “But go on—with the interpretation.”
“Interpretation?” murmured the warden. “The only interpretation I can give are the mere facts. Which were that when the restaurant waiter, a somewhat striking-looking fellow, as I understand it, and unmistakable as to his specific race, brought up the meal, they heard a shot. Came in. And the waiter lay dead on the floor. They—with yourself and the arresting party—arrested this fellow Jones. A cut-and-dried case. His only defence at his trial was that he hated the particular race of this waiter—and so shot him wantonly. He got life, and was sent here. A silent, grim, but model prisoner—and escaped two years later—which was two years ago.”
“You never got nothing out of him when he was here?”
“No—oh, no. I did talk with him. But he stuck to his story he gave on the stand. That it was a wanton killing—due to his hatred of the waiter’s race.”
“Did you ever find out what his past was?”
“No. His past was as much of an enigma to me as his eyes. Which—at least to me, personally—were both mocking and—and, well, inscrutable. Even his will, drawn here at the time we drew the wills of every man in the place, gave nothing. Since he signed it only John Jones—legal enough, to be sure, in this and certain other states, since his finger-print was attached— and sarcastically sardonic, as it was!”
“What was all that?” queried Big Bill.
“You must have been busy,” chided the warden drily, “arresting people the day the little story about his will—his, that is, and four other freak ones—appeared in your papers up in Chicago. From one of the three inmate lawyers who drew it, and various others, it leaked subsequently to a reporter—and there it was!” Kittredge paused, and added ruefully: “Well, there was nothing to it—even a feature news-story, if you ask me. You see, since many of these men in here were destined to die here—and had property, some of ’em—we just up and had everyone who would, or could, make a will. John Jones’s, however, was the most bitter of ’em all, if you ask me. He willed all he had in the world—and which, he gladly informed us, was nothing!—to the descendants of his victim—the female ones, if he died a natural death—the male ones if he died a violent or accidental death.” The warden shook his head helplessly. “The victim, as even you’ll recall, I’m sure, had no descendants—was a bachelor, if you’ll hark back—and so you see John Jones—”
“—was just taking you for a ride,” laughed Big Bill. He changed the tack of his observations. “Never found any physical defect, did you, to explain his being apparently exempt from induction into the Army? For the war and the draft were going on hot and heavy, you know, at the time of his arrest, and—”
“No,” put in the warden. “Except that, in telling me the same as he told you police—namely, about having accidentally and fortunately—as he put it—destroyed his draft classification card a few days before his arrest—that—and he got plenty scornful on this subject—that he wasn’t ‘such a fool’ as to be a ‘draft dodger.’ And, if you ask me, he plainly was too smart to have been one. In fact, since there were no physical defects that would have set him in 4-F, I’m inclined to believe he was definitely exempted through being classified under occupational deferment of some sort.”
“Good!” commented Big Bill. “That confirms it all right. Did you ever find out anything about any of his friends?”
“No living ones—no. He mentioned in the course of our conversation that he’d had various friends—a doctor—but dead; a professor—but dead; an electrical linesman—or maybe it was an electrical wirer-man he called it?—but dead.” The warden paused. “Well—have you found out what his past was?”
“Only, Warden, in a very indecisive sense! That is, I have found out what his game was—the game for which, I mean, he was—or is—fitted.”
“You did? How?”
“I’ll tell you how, Warden. Since my doing so don’t threaten that nice lucrative trip I expect to get.” He paused. “You see, I had occasion, recently, to occupy, for a few days, the room in that hotel where that killing took place. To watch a guy in a room acrost the inside court from it. And I kidded the landlady a bit about how the paper in the drawers was so old it was yellow. She come back at me and said why wouldn’t it be—that she hadn’t put none in since she’d put it in clean for the fellow that pulled off that killing in that room. Well, that interested me. For, bein’ bored, I commenced to wonder if something he’d read—in the drawer paper—had gone to his head. A thing that hadn’t struck me at all before when I’d been in the party that pinched him. It takes bein’ bored a bit to send a man out over new speculations. How ever, I found nothing in the drawer paper. But, fishing about, I came on a sheet of yellow paper that had been stuck underneath the drawer paper by him. And—”
“By him? How do you know that—after four long years? There must have been a hundred fly-by-nights in that cheap hotel room since?”
“Sure—sure. But on this here paper he’d written, in thick indel’ble pencil, and sort o’ facetiously, I guess, ‘John Jones, Esquire’—and I found, later, it tallied with his sig on the register. But here’s the point. On this paper was a diagram. In the same pencil.”
(Actually, there's more to Chapter One, but there's a graphic in it
and anyway, you get the idea by now.)
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