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Book I


Washington, D.C.


Chapter I




D. Appleton Hepplegarth, Chief of the famous United States Bureau of Crime Prevention, troubledly scanned the opening of the highly confidential letter he had just written, without aid of any secretary or stenographer from whom its contents could ever possibly leak to the outside world. Bearing at its top the single embossed heading U.S.B.C.P., with underneath but the simple words, Washington, D.C. but gleaming brilliantly in the splotch of bright morning sunshine lying on the foolscap-sized sheet, and typed in green ink, the letter, with its single-spaced lines only, began:


To Noah Quindry,

Proprietor and Owner of Quindry’s

World-Colossal Motorcade Circus,

[Address to be obtained just before mailing]

Dear Sir:

I regret to inform you, in utter confidence, that you are transporting, amongst your various show-people ranging from tent-erectors to performers, to freaks, to drivers, a firebug—a firebug with homicidal tendencies. And whose continued presence on and with your show threatens, ever, the safety of your show-people, not to mention your audiences.

Sooner or later, it is practically certain that he will set fire to your show-tent, at some moment when it is jammed with a huge audience; or your collection of trailers when closely bunched, with disastrous effects, even though perhaps delightful for him.

The reason we know this hidden circumstance concerning your show is—


D. Appleton Hepplegarth looked up quickly as a low buzzing at the side of his desk indicated that his special phone, leading from his confidential secretary’s desk in room adjoining, was being rung. His blue eyes troubledly took in the dark blue plush-carpeted room, with its several leather-seated mahogany armchairs standing about, and even the end of the long mahogany glass-covered desk at which he himself sat, fronting the great window that looked out directly towards the Pentagon Building, and even the White House itself beyond. He could even see, in the gilt-framed panel-mirror across the room, D. Appleton Hepplegarth himself, in impeccable pin-striped blue suit, about 45 years in age, with blue foulard tie, and hair thinning a bit on his round head.

He raised the receiver of that special phone.

“Yes?” he said.

A woman’s voice—the voice of an elderly, mature, secretary-like woman—spoke immediately.

“I thought you’d be glad to learn, Mr. Hepplegarth,” she said, “that I finally succeeded in obtaining a Carnival Review—but right up this very street. Yes, a fact! It seems the newsstand man there has a regular customer for it—some retired showman—and graciously consented to sell his copy to me. So—”

“Ah, good! Those trade-publications are hard to get hold of—when you need one in a hurry. Well, dig up the route then, Miss Browntower, and calculate ever so carefully—I mean, both as to the necessity of my sending this private letter registered—yes, with signatures along the way—but particularly its having to travel partially on various jerkwater lines.”

“At once, Mr. Hepplegarth. And I’ll bring in the name of the town the minute I figure it out.”

The woman hung up. So did D. Appleton Hepplegarth. And went immediately on with this highly confidential communication he’d taken such good care to write out all by himself.


The reason we know this hidden circumstance concerning your show is, sir, that a certain humble tent erector who traveled with it for 4 weeks—but who quit somewhat suddenly night before last, was one of our trusted operatives here. I may as well tell you that he had been delegated to get with your show and to find out whether your much-advertised clown “Screamo” could possibly be the banker, Saul Fenster who disappeared, some years ago, with a million dollars. And who’d been heard to declare, at various times in his life, that he’d always wanted nothing so much in life as to be a clown in a small travelling circus! It was only after “Screamo” was killed up in town, by a runaway team, and his body lay in the town morgue waiting some kind of disposition, that our operative was finally able to ascertain, by an old appendectomy scar known to be on Fenster, plus the name SAUL tattooed in 3 colors across Screamo’s chest, that he was Fenster. Except that our operative also, alas, at same time, discovered that—

However, getting down to fundamentals, the real reason we know that a firebug—with homicidal proclivities—is on your show, is that—


Now came a low, tremulous knock on the polished panel door across the way.

Hepplegarth arose quickly, crossed the room on the half inch thick carpet, opened the door.

An old man with silver spectacles out on long nose, dressed in a black alpaca office coat, stood there, carrying in his wrinkled fingers a thick, fat, self-assertive sort of a book,

“Here, Mr. Hepplegarth,” he said, “is the work you called for.”

Hepplegarth took it eagerly. Checked it, visually, to see that it was the work he had called up for, from the Bureau Library on floor below. And which it was! For it bore the title THE PSYCHIATRY OF CRIME, by Xanrof Radice M.D. and Stefan de Stefano, M.D.

“Thanks a lot, Sylvester,” he said, to the bearer. “I wanted only to check a certain statement in this work, that already however is fairly well registered on my mind.”

The old librarian nodded deferentially, turned, and left. Hepplegarth closed the door. Went back to his desk. Opened the thick, all comprehensive book, which seemingly and apparently held all the knowledge in the Universe, in its own specific field. Came almost, in a trice, to what he sought—and which read:


The exceedingly intricate—and to considerable extent hypothetical—“psychological reasons” why men who snatch slippers off of women—and run off with same!—and also sometimes steal individual rubbers, from line-ups of rubbers and galoshes—are pyromaniacs, have just been set forth. But it is not generally recognized that men who steal, persistently and consistently, any given item, possessing small or perhaps zero value, that has many, many differentiating forms, are in the identically same psychiatrical category, i.e. firebugs—so called—without inhibitions toward taking life. Yes, the same scientific explanation rendered on pages 45, 46, 47, 48 and 49, applies—though with modifying elaborations. Why we, in our criminological and psychiatric practice, once came up with a “firebug” who stole—mailboxes! Yes, mailboxes—which per se have very little value—but the variety of which are, to say the least, infinite, when one considers the ramifications of that object.

The only method of differentiating the “psychiatric filcher”—or “collectionist”, as he likes to term himself!—from the genuine filcher—or “abstractor”, as he would term himself—is that the psychiatrical one can render only the motive for his discovered actions, “I had to do it.” While one genuine—innocent, that is, of criminal intent—can explain his own “collectionism”.

That is positively the legalistic differentiation. Were a man able to explain his filching, or collectionism, he would not then be a homicidal pyromaniac. He would then—


“Set forth,” nodded Hepplegarth, satisfiedly, “with admirable assurance, by the two men, Xanrof Radice and Stefan de Stefano, who’ve had more experience in that line than 18 ordinary—okay. Now back to my own quotation—of same!”

And setting down the thick book, he picked up the letter, and went on with it.


—getting down to fundamentals, the real reason we know that a firebug—with homicidal proclivities —is with your show, is that you have a man thereon —identity, however, unknown to this writer, and naturally to yourself—who has a habit of purloining —filching—abstracting—removing—collecting–call it what you wish!—the single letter “U” out of words containing same, whether same words are on placards, signs, fences, lithographs, printed documents—or what. This is allied, scientifically, with slipper stealing, in which the perpetrator is always a potential arsonist. So much so that eventually—

Yes, my dear sir, during the 4 weeks my man was with your show he encountered, personally, not less than 20 instances where, along the line of the show, the letter “U” got secretly abstracted by someone from a lithograph, document, placard, sign—whatnot —with, alas, in one case—the final one so far as my operative is concerned—the tattooed skin on a corpse! Yes, the “U” in “SAUL”, tattooed on Screamo’s chest, was abstracted after he was killed. For when my operative, after at least 2 score of your people had previously viewed that body in the town morgue, went so far as to pull down the sheet that covered it, he found the tattooed name had already been subjected to a knife or razor blade, and a square of skin—one containing the tri-colored “U” in the name—had been removed entirely! And—

Now don’t indignantly say, sir, that it must be somebody other than on your show in view of the fact that probably two score of town folks also gazed, individually, on that corpse; for all the 20 instances cited by my operative occurred along the line of the show, in countless towns. This establishes, to 101-percent, that the party is a performer, exhibitor, erector or even driver in the show.

Now the first instance that came to the attention of my operative was—


At this point in Hepplegarth’s reading of his own letter, a premonitory polite knock sounded on an almost invisible door next the gilt-framed panel mirror. It swung almost immediately open, revealing a woman of about 50, in prim-cut black velvet dress, with greyed topknot on head, and eyeglasses. She came over to his desk. And, waiting for his nod, said quizzically:

“Well, I estimated ever so carefully, Mr. Hepplegarth, as per the show-itinerary shown in the Carnival Review. And with due allowance for the letter having to be signed for at every transfer point—and so-called jerkwater lines, and personal delivery at the end—the town will be one named—Lantern Wave. Same state, yes, as we estimated. Yes, Lantern Wave.”

“Good—heavens!” the chief of the U.S.B.C.P. was ejaculating. “Lantern—Wave? It couldn’t have been more hicky if it had been named—Whistle Stop! Lantern—Wave? I suppose it’s grown a little bit since, once, it was probably a lonely crossroads, where a train would stop if a lantern were waved. Good—heavens! Have we such places in America, Miss Browntower?”

“We must have, sir, as otherwise a show called the World-Colossal Motorcade Show couldn’t get business!”

“Lantern—Wave!” he was repeating. “Well, well, well! Well, thanks for working out all this info. I’ll write that in on the envelope. And as soon as I buzz for you, I want you to take the communication over to the P.O. in person, and get it aboard the necessary trains. Registered, and ever’thing.”

“Right, sir. I’ll be ready.”

She turned and dignifiedly went out. And he resumed the reading of his highly confidential letter:


Now the first instance that came to the attention of my operative was some month or so back, shortly after he joined your show; an incident where an old painted cheesecloth “banner” that was lying across the depot front in some town—lying there from the time, apparently, of some earlier local festivities, for it had read WELCOME, UNITARIANS!—and which banner had been intact the day the circus came there—wound up flapping in the wind minus its “U”, which got cut out of it, probably at box-top height, the night of the show.

Yes, he was there when they were belatedly taking down the banner—but the incident didn’t possess any particular significance at the moment, not even the fact of the long, straight cuts on each side of the gap representing the missing letter, and the jagged stretch along the top, which could have indicated it had been cut out, from perhaps box-top-raised height, by someone using a long pair of editorial scissors.

Even that night, when something else odd happened, the two incidents still held no significance to my operative, the last one being put down by him, at the time, as a prank—the two together as coincidence.

For he had laid out on a portable table in the trailer he was occupying alone with apparatus, one of the new printed Government tax-refund applications, headed by lettering reading TAX REFUND APPLICATION. And had stepped out for a few moments.

When he got back into the trailer, the “U” in “REFUND” had been neatly cut out—presumably by a small manicure scissors.

He would have relegated all this to the limbo of unrememberable things had it not been for the strange discovery he made 3 nights later.

And which was the finding, in an alley back of the lot, of a discarded brass physician’s sign from which a “U” had been actually chiseled out, by a chisel and hacksaw. The sign had originally read SAMUEL BLEET, M.D.: it had been in use, he found subsequently, by some town physician, who’d died a week before; had been obviously removed and thrown away: the taking of the “U” was not therefore strictly legal theft.

4 days later, while the show was stopping at a town called Terrytown, he spotted a lithograph, pasted on a boarding across from the entrance, advertising an old motion-picture named Union Station. The “U” of ‘Union” had been stripped off, revealing even an older lithograph underneath, by making four intersecting knife cuts about it.

Thus things went on, such bewildering instances being found by my operative as—


The bell of one of the 4 phones on D. Appleton Hepplegarth’s huge desk rang sharply. He swung forward. And with unerring knowledge raised one instantly—knowing absolutely its special sound.

“U-S-C-P-B—Chief, talking,” he said. Knowing that only some operative with a right to call that number would be on the circuit.

The minute he heard, however, just the words “Hi, Chief,” he cried:

“Why, Pete—I’ve just been finishing that letter I said I would send—yes, anent all those things you discovered in—”

“Don’t tell me, Chief,” said the voice on the phone dryly, “that you could encase ’em all—in one letter?”

“Can only about present the highspots,” admitted D. Appleton Hepplegarth. “Good thing you weren’t travelling with the circus another 4 weeks before the 4 you did. For that letter-filching stuff’s doubtlessly been going on for Lord knows how long. And—however,” he sighed, “nobody will be able to say I didn’t warn the man who owns the show—not that—”

He stopped.

“—not that what, Chief?”

“Not that he can necessarily find out who this piece of psychiatrically-twisted dynamite is who’s roosting in his show.”

“Right. Ever’body in that show, it seemed to me, were hitting on all fours. But then—”

The other stopped.

“Yes? Then?”

“Well, you know how ’tis, Chief, with lunatics? Paranoiacs, as an example. Such, for instance, can be crazy as hell—their eyes looking just as sane as yours or mine—yet they can be a positive menace to all about ’em, and—”

“You—telling me? Say, I was just about to send one to the electric chair a year ago, when they discovered, by godfrey, he was looney as hell. A one-delusion paranoiac, yes. The only loose screw being that he was certain the Martians had landed here—had obtained Earthling clothing by burglarizing of some big Hart, Shaffner and Marx storage warehouse, and were circulating all about here on Earth, and particularly about him—”

“Whooie! He had a screw loose and how! Well, same thing probably goes for the duck who steals these U-letters—and who would, if you ask me, cut a throat to get a good one! I mean, you probably couldn’t tell him from mama’s boy. Nor—but about all I wanted to say, Chief, was that I came across a Carnival Review a little while ago, and have worked out that you should reach that quaint old duck who owns that show, at a town called Lantern Wave, where—”

“Thanks, Pete. But we just dug that up here, ourselves.”

“Oh, good. Well g’bye, Chief.”

And the willing helper on other end hung up.

And D. Appleton Hepplegarth went on to what was now but the conclusion of his letter. And which wound up:


Thus things went on, such bewildering instances being found by my operative as the U vanishing from a wooden road-sign standing on a disused road off one side of the circus lot, a sign first reading “U-Turn ONLY, Here!” except that the “U” got sawed out of it by a hacksaw; in another case, the “U” was filched right out of a beautifully hand-lettered alphabet done by that young tent-erector who is travelling with your show, and practicing drafting on the side; while he was out of his trailer a few minutes, with the strip of bristol board carrying the hand-lettered alphabet laid out on his drawing board, on his trunk, someone came in, and removed—probably by safety razor blade?—the “U” right out of his alphabet—no other letter: he didn’t want to annoy you with the facts, but did show my operative the denuded alphabet. Again, a certain paper-covered copy of Fu Manchu, that had been knocking about the show till almost in tatters, was found finally on the ground with the “U” in Fu chopped out of its front cover; in another case, a whole board got removed from an old fence about a block off the lot, wherein each board had carried a single white-painted letter, the whole reading KEEP OUT UNDER PENALTY; after the show had been there but 4 hours, the particular board carrying the “U” vanished entirely. In one instance, a girl equestrienne wearing one of those Woolworth Stores silk scarfs known as the Mother Goose Rhyme scarfs, with, in some cases, a picture of Miss Moffett sitting on a tuffet, and two lines—“Little Miss Moffet”—yes, you’ve guessed it: the “U” in TUFFET was scissored out, at a time when she went on to do her act, and left her scarf hanging alongside the area arena-entrance. Thus, in general, these U-stealing episodes. Clear on up till the night when my operative, examining the chest of your dead clown Screamo in the town morgue, after two dozen and four or so of your outfit had called there, found fresh and extremely recent removal of a single square of skin, carrying the “U” in the three-color tattooed “SAUL”.

That settled things for him! He would undoubtedly have taken it all up with you, but being called off the job by me because of his discovery about Screamo, he told all the circumstances to me—this morning.

Now, my dear Mr. Circus Proprietor, inasmuch as this sort of crime lies in the field of compulsion—not motivation—it is more or less inevitable, I’d say—at least according to the findings of Doctors Radice and deStefano—that some fine night, when your tent is particularly full of people, including countless innocent children, this devil—or devilress—for it can be a woman, remember—will set fire to that tent, perhaps at many spots—and will create a holocaust slaughtering hundreds of innocents. Or even may, at such time, send one of your trailer groupings up in smoke.

Consider yourself, therefore, sir, officially and legally warned, and notified about the situation at your show: the carbon of this letter, now in my desk safe, and the registry receipt for it, will constitute the legal evidence that you have been so notified. If anything happens, sir, full responsibility lies upon you, up to possibility of being tried for manslaughter.

Apprehensively yours,

D. Appleton Hepplegarth


“We-ell,” said Hepplegarth, reaching the end of his long letter, “that’s—that! And discharges all responsibility—so far as this office goes. It won’t be difficult at all, I’d say, for that circus proprietor to rig up some damned ingenious trap—to catch that fellow. Even to checking—in case the trap remains unsprung!—the time it does, against the absences of various show people from off the show. And then saying ‘Eenie, meenie, miney, mo’ till he figures out the suspicious one. And once, just once, he can rivet guilt on one single person, he can put to ’em the damning question—”

He was folding up his letter, as he talked, reaching forward then to the gilt clock on his desk, and abstracting out from under it a single long envelope that he had already prepared—all, that is, but for a single town name, and which he proceeded now to write in: Lantern Wave. And now he was blotting it, sealing his letter up in it, continuing to talk as he sealed.

“—put to him the damning question: ‘A-a-all right, my fine U-stealing bucko—talk—and talk fast. Before you go into a warm, comfortable criminal insane asylum for the rest of your insane days. Why—why have you been putting on a consistent campaign, here in my show, to steal, purloin, and abstract, from words, names, and titles, by use of scissors, chisels, knives, and razor blades, the letter U—whether in brass, wood, cloth, paper, silk, or—or human skin—whether huge, medium-sized, or tiny—whether painted, stenciled, lithographed, printed, written, or handlettered—why? Why? Why?”

He reached out sideways and depressed an inset button at the end of his desk, which would bring his secretary for the mailing of this hyper-important letter.

“There’s only one tiny flaw in this whole affair,” he said, a bit dubiously. “And that’s that this—this U-purloiner may not be insane—may, for reasons completely unguessable, have a-a-all the answers! In which case—hm? Hm? Have a-all the ans—well all I can say is that I’d sure like to be around the night the $6400 question is hurled at that U-purloiner. And he has to lay ever’thing on the line—or—else! I sure would like to be present at the Big Scene—and how!”


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