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THE WASHINGTON SQUARE ENIGMA

 

CHAPTER I

 

A PROBLEM IN FINANCE

 

To Ford Harling, seated on the cheerless wooden bench in Washington Square, Chicago, the knock of Fortune came at first as a pronounced shock. Again he spread out on his knee the noon newspaper that some passing individual had flung on the bench, and studied the wording in the first advertisement in its personal columns; again he incredulously counted the stars on the lone nickel in his possession. There was no doubt about it. In those few seconds his worldly wealth had jumped several thousand per cent.

Before his eyes there floated tantalizingly a vision of a plentiful New England boiled dinner; then a vision of seven nights more lodging in the Salvation Army hotel. Perhaps with the respite of another week the tide would turn. It could not solve the hopeless question on which he had embarked, the unhappy problem which had brought him to this huge unfriendly cheerless “London of the West,” but it meant seven more days to hunt for work. And work meant the saving of railroad fare to go back to San Francisco; the chance, at least, to slink home—unvindicated!

The advertisement, staring up at him from the personal columns, ran:

 

FIVE DOLLARS APIECE

 

PAID FOR THE LOAN OF twelve-star Libertyhead nickels, dated 1921! Look in your pockets this minute and see if you have any nickels, dated 1921, with twelve stars on the face instead of thirteen. For these nickels, which came into existence through a mistake of the designer and of which there are ten thousand in circulation in the United States, coin-collecting agencies and private collectors will pay you thirty cents apiece. I will pay you $5 spot cash for each and every one brought to the below address. I will furthermore seal each nickel in an envelope bearing the seller’s signature, and will return to all the owners in thirty days, if called for. No mail orders filed from out of town. Also rubber-neck newspaper reporters keep away. Apply any hour of the day or night at No. 7440 South Sangamon Street and ask for Rafferty.

 

 From Lake Michigan, several blocks distant, a chill November breeze came sliding across the practically deserted parklet; it brought a gust of brown leaves tumbling down as if from the cheerless gray sky above. And as though by a single unanimous move, the discouraged-looking stragglers that dotted the benches throughout the square, drew their thin coats tighter around their forms.

As for Harling, he did not heed the breeze, even though his own overcoat had been in pawn for several days. He was concentrating his wits on the peculiar problem with which he had been suddenly confronted. Beyond all doubt, he had in his possession one lone nickel, dated 1921, and bearing twelve stars on its face. That, and two pennies—one, greenish and much battered, and one, brilliantly new and cuprously shiny. Seven cents—of which five cents thereof comprised a 12-star nickel! He had it. There was no doubt about it. No more so, in fact, than that he had in his possession an advertisement inserted by one mysterious individual, Rafferty by name, offering exactly five dollars for the mere loan of that nickel.

He wrinkled up his brows. That advertisement was puzzling in the extreme. Why anyone should be willing to lend five dollars for a coin which, according to a statement that could be easily investigated, was worth but thirty cents, was beyond all surmise.

Yet that feature of the case was not causing the wrinkles on Harling’s forehead; he was pondering on the phase of the question that just then constituted a veritable problem of high finance: to reach 7440 South Sangamon Street required exactly seven cents car fare. If he spent his nickel and his two pennies to get there, he would have no nickel to exchange for the five dollars offered. If he kept the nickel, he could never reach the number 7440 in that western street without tramping for interminable hours.

His perplexed ruminations were interrupted by a passing figure which halted in front of his bench and looked down at him. Harling gazed up. In front of him stood a familiar form; a man tall and lank, clad in a soiled flannel shirt and with a crumpled brown felt hat drawn down over his flaming red hair. His clothes were undeniably shabby, and, like the other stragglers in Washington Square, his coat was buttoned tightly across his chest.

“Hello, old man,” the newcomer said, grinning down at him. “Any luck yet? Saw you hunched down here for the afternoon, and thought you looked a little more cheerful today.” He dropped down on the bench by the side of Harling.

Harling smiled wearily. Several times in the past few days he had glimpsed the red-haired down-and-outer shying through the park past his own bench, but never until now had the other essayed more than a mere friendly glance or a passing greeting as he went by.

So the younger man moved over on the bench. “Hello yourself, friend,” he ventured. “No job yet with me. How goes it with you?”

The other shrugged his shoulders: “About the same. I was just thinking as I came up this walk, that those old days of the Hoover Depression were a hell of a sight better for fellows like you and me, than this much ballyhooed Prosperity Return Era.”

“How so?” Harling asked.

“Well, in those days there were so many millions out of work that there were soup lines and bread lines and dozens of places to sleep. A guy without a dime could eat three square meals in one night. If he was willing to stand in line. But today—what? Now that all danger of a bloody Bolshevik uprising is over in America, old Mr. R.F.C. has gone out of business, the unlucky last million unemployed are forgotten—left uncared for—ignored, just as they used to be before the Great Panic. The soup lines, all closed. The free beds, discontinued. The guy without a job left to pick stuff out of backdoor garbage pails—and batter the door of a police station on the first wintry night. “For a mere million unemployed, scattered all over these United States, aren’t a menace to anything or anybody, now. Like those 20,000,000 used to be.” The redhaired man paused a moment in his sociological lecture. “But none of all that for me,” he added suddenly. “I’m thinking I’ll be pulling my freight out of this burg in a few more days. Those breezes from Lake Mich over yonder aren’t like the balmy zephyrs of Florida or California, eh?”

At his mention of California, Harling’s face took on a pronounced gleam of recognition. The redhaired man, evidently keen to notice details, caught it. “Say, you from California?” he queried. “I’ll bet you are. I caught it in your eye, then. If you are, what’d you ever come to this God-forsaken town for?”

Harling laughed bitterly. “What did I come here for? That’s easy. Because I’m a fool. Because I’m the most unlucky cuss that ever lived. Because my middle name is Sap. Because I’m—say,” he broke off, “what’s your name? Mine’s Harling—Ford Harling—of San Fran­cisco. At present of Chicago—and broke.”

The red-haired man stared curiously at him. “Red’s my name,” he returned. “I guess you could guess it, eh? Red—Saunders. Red Saunders, from nowhere and everywhere. So you’re from Frisco, eh? And broke. Well, whyfore and wherefore—if it’s any of my business? What you doing in Chi, with winter coming on and you joining the bench warmers in Washington Square?”

Harling looked the other over from head to toe. Then he spoke slowly. “You’re the first person in this square that’s ever asked me out and out what I’m doing here. I’ve noticed you before—and you look like a good fellow. And I’ve a fool notion to tell you. I’d honestly like to have someone let me know whether I’m an idiot or just unlucky. That’s all.”

“Shoot!” the other returned quickly. “I’ll tell you so damned quick it’ll take your breath away.”

Harling changed his position on the bench a trifle, dropped the precious nickel he had been scrutinizing into his trousers pocket, with the two pennies, and jammed the newspaper into his coat pocket.

“Isn’t much to it,” he said quietly. “Told you my name, didn’t I? Ford Harling. Flivver Harling, they call me at home. Worked in a real estate and loan company in Frisco last summer. On the road to a good job, too. Say what you want to about this Prosperity Return Era—it did unfreeze real estate, and liven things up in that dead field. But back to my story. Meandered out to the bay one morning to have a swim before breakfast and going to work, and struck up an acquaintance with a pretty girl on the beach. No flirtation; just friendliness, that’s all.”

He paused, thinking. “We swam out into the bay together,” he continued, “way, way out. All of a sudden she gave up. And a second later I found that I was all in myself. And we still had the whole distance back to go.”

Red Saunders scratched his head: “Go on, friend. I don’t get the drift of all this yet.”

Harling kicked a pebble off the walk with his foot. “Had to bring her in myself, that’s all. Had a terrible pull to do it—something fierce. Swallowed half the Pacific Ocean, I guess. Thought I’d never, never reach shore. When I did, I was knocked out for fair. Had to lie on the sands for a half hour after they took her away to bring her around. Then like a fool I went on to work instead of going home and going to bed. I was all upset and rattled and shaky from the experience I had been through. Kept making mistakes all morning.”

The red-haired man was now all attention. “And I’m betting you pulled some big bonehead play that’s put you here on this bench in Chicago with an empty stomach. Right or wrong?”

Harling nodded gloomily. From the elm-lined street to the east of the square, the whir of an expensive motor car sounded forth, then faded away. Whereupon he continued: “Right, my friend. At ten o’clock in the morning, the president stepped over to my window and gave me a six months’, two-thousand-dollar promissory note to file away in the vault. Note was signed by a slippery customer of the firm.

“I slid it into a big, blank envelope,” Harling went on, “intending to mark it and file it away. Then I got to thinking of the girl I had carried back to shore that morning, and forgot all about the promissory note. At eleven o’clock, a little, wizened old man with gray hair, carrying a suit case, a traveling bag and black leather case, strolled in off the street and came over to my window.

“ ‘I wonder,’ he said, ‘if you, young man, could sell me or give me a large, legal-sized envelope?’ And he added: ‘One that isn’t going to fall to pieces before it reaches Chicago.’ Still thinking about the girl, I handed him the blank envelope that I’d slipped the promissory note in. He stooped down and sealed something in it from his leather case. Then he borrowed my fountain pen and I sat watching him absent-mindedly as he addressed it in printed letters: S. P. BOND (SR). Just like that.” Harling, with his forefinger, drew out the imaginary printed letters on his knee.

“I didn’t pay any more attention to him,” Harling continued, “and he slipped out of the place. Thirty minutes afterward I discovered that the envelope I’d given him had in it the two-thousand-dollar promissory note that I’d been told to file away in the vault. I hot-footed it out on the street after him, but never a sign or sight of him.”

“And what happened after that?” asked the red-haired fellow, with what seemed to his hearer to be undue eagerness.

Harling shrugged his shoulders. “The natural thing,” he replied. “Had to tell the facts to the man above me. Called in, then, by the president for an explanation. Insinuations made that I stole that signed note to sell it back to the original drawer for a fraction of its amount. Officials held a meeting. Decided to wait a few weeks to see if this S.P. Bond, senior, of Chicago, who received the sealed envelope, would return the note when he found he had something that didn’t belong to him.

“A whole month crawled by,” Harling went on. “Nothing heard from this man Bond or from the little, wizened, gray-haired man. The president called me in finally. ‘Harling,’ he said, ‘the other officials are convinced that you sold that note back to the original drawer. You’ll have to leave us. If you bring that note back to us before the day it’s due, you can have your old position here. But it certainly looks as if you’ve put over a crooked deal with the company. We—”

“So, then, you came on to Chicago?” put in Saunders, all attention.

Harling nodded: “Stuck it out until a month ago in Frisco. Got a Chicago directory, and found that there wasn’t any S.P. Bond, senior, or junior, registered here. But when I learned that the note hadn’t shown up at the company yet, I grabbed out of the bank my lone savings of one hundred and three dollars, and came on to Chicago, determined to interview everybody in the city by the name of Bond, in order to learn if they had a relative by the name of S.P. Bond, senior, and if that fellow, in turn, could ever have received a letter from the West, or from a little, old, wizened man with gray hair.”

“And—and why are you roosting here on Washington Square with the other down-and-out chickens?” asked Saunders curiously.

Harling laughed grimly: “Because my hunt proved a fizzle; because I searched and interviewed every Bond between the covers of the new Chicago City Directory, not omitting, either, the latest Chicago phone directory as well; because I learned from everyone that he didn’t know any S.P. Bond, senior, and furthermore never had received a big envelope from the West, much less a promissory note. And in the meantime my cash on hand, my exchequer, was getting lower and lower. I interviewed the last Bond three days ago, when my money was down to a dollar. My quest is a failure. Overcoat’s in pawn. Clothes frazzled. Can’t seem to land a job—now that I desperately need one.”

Harling paused. “That’s all, my friend,” he went on. “Yours truly is stranded here in Chicago, two thousand miles from Frisco, and marked as a thief forever in the minds of a few officials in that town. And,” he added vindictively, “all because somebody is holding on to a promissory note that doesn’t belong to him, and hasn’t decency enough to return it.”

Red Saunders clapped a hand down on the other’s shoulder. “My boy, when you called yourself a fool, an idiot, a sap, I’m thinking you hit the nail square on the head. And I’m thinking that the same kind fates that keep sleepwalkers from falling off the roofs, and drunken men from being run over by fire engines, and babes from falling into coal holes sent you to me.

“Now pay attention,” he continued, “infant from San Francisco, and listen carefully to what I’m going to tell you. I’m not going to talk about radio—to reach your man, because radio costs money, and you haven’t got it—and moreover, if you were trying to locate your man on the air, he and all of his friends and relatives would probably be tuned in at that moment listening to Gracie Allen trying to locate her brother. She’s been at that for three years now, you know. No,” Red Saunders concluded, “you haven’t got any money to buy radio waves—and if you ever try to panhandle broadcasting time over at—say—WGN, you’ll find yourself out in front of Tribune Tower lying on your ear. Fact! Better folks than you have tried it. No, infant, I’m going to talk on a line a thousand times simpler than that. It’s just up to me, I guess, to show you how you’ve wasted all your time, all your money, all your worry on the wrong tack entirely. And when I’m done, I’m betting all I got in my pockets, which is probably less than you got in yours, that you’ll have discovered how to get on the track of your man—this S.P. Bond, senior!” He snapped his angers. “Now, babe in the wilds of Chicago, listen to your uncle!”

 

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