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Book One








Ezra Jenkins, waiting restlessly on the little unroofed train-boarding platform for the Wiscon City Limited, looked up suddenly from the disturbing letter he was re-reading for the 19th time.

For he thought he heard from afar the faint whistle of that train which was to take him, and his green carpet-bag valise, to America’s “Berlin.”

For thus could Wiscon City again be freely called in America—and was being called—now that World War II was over and part of the past.

The paragraph Ezra had just completed had contained only 4 lines. Four lines which, all in all, ran:

Unless, Ezra, you twist Fate itself by the tail—and do it reasonably soon to boot!—you are going to commence serving 10 years in Chippewa Penitentiary of this state.

Having moved, during that 19th reading, down the platform a couple of feet, so that a tall crated mail-order cheval-mirror, shipped to someone in the vicinity, and now waiting pick-up from the platform, would cut the bright afternoon October sunlight off the letter, Ezra, looking up, was now quite in position to view himself in that tall glass and estimate exactly how he would look, years from now, dressed in prison costume. What his eyes saw in that glass was, of course, just a huskily-built sun-burned and red-handed farm youth of 29—dressed in a too tightly fitting brown homespun suit, the coat—too square in lapels—and too short in length—illy shrouding a hickory shirt with too large black-and-white checks, the soft shirt collar itself held together by a bright red tie, the pants of the suit too tight—and also too short—but the bottoms fortunately held fast within the tops of yellow cowhide thong-laced boots coming halfway up the wearer’s shins. And—atop the reflection’s head—a purple derby hat, so short of rim as almost to be rimless, which was too tight for that head because the yellow hair had been uncut recently. What Ezra’s mind, however, saw in that mirror was a badly bleached-out individual of 39, with head closely shaven, and dressed in a striped suit with—of all things—a ball and chain on one—And uneasily, as that high-pitched hollow shriek echoed in his ear, he swung his eyes away from the mirror and took what might prove—who could tell?—to be his last look—for 10 years or so!—towards “home.”

Just a cluster of houses a full half-mile off, quite visible from where he stood because of the hollow in which they lay, and distributed equally on each side of a single dirt-paved main street which itself was but an extension of the very road which terminated at this lonely station platform. Most prominent amongst them all was the bright red-painted frame depot that had been left entirely behind when the railroad had straightened its right-of-way—though not left behind electrically—no!—since the semaphore, lying down the track beyond Ezra, now had its bright scarlet “Stop” fin pointed straight out, proclaiming that one passenger had bought one ticket—and wished to depart hence and herefrom. Far to the right of depot and houses all, could be seen, glistening brightly in the afternoon sunlight, the tiny lake which had given the town its name—and which name now lay lettered, in faded gold letters, on the black sign reared high between two posts rising from the platform—above Ezra’s head in fact—and reading




From that familiar sight, however, Ezra tore his gaze, and prepared to rivet it instead once more on the letter still in his hands.

The letter which Ezra now commenced all over again had been typewritten, in single-spaced lines and in curiously tiny elite type, upon 3 sheets—almost foolscap in size—of most expensive bond paper, and the heading on the uppermost sheet was richly embossed—not printed. That heading read, in fact




Buschweiser Beer Building

Wiscon City, Wisconsin

and the letter itself began:

Mr. Ezra Jenkins,

Wauwaukauchee Lake, Wisconsin.

Dear Ezra:

Here and now I am going to have to hand you some very bad news: To-wit:

Unless, Ezra, you twist Fate itself by the tail—and do it reasonably soon to boot!—you are going to commence serving 10 years in Chippewa Penitentiary of this state.

The foregoing statement being based upon two things:

1. My knowledge of the law.

2. A stormy visit I just had—Sunday though it was!—with the Sauer Kraut King himself!

But wait—the foregoing isn’t all.

In addition to giving up 10 years of your life—7½, with time off for good behavior—you are going to lose completely the lucrative sale of a piece of farmland which you may never again succeed in selling for years to come—let alone at the exceedingly fat price offered. For the $20,000 you and your brother are to get—or, to be exact, $10,000 apiece—is twice its real value. (Incidentally, you were right: the Sauer Kraut King was not figuring to pack sauer kraut on your land!)

But wait—even the foregoing is not all!

For on top of what I’ve already stated, Ezra, you are going to personally catch a damage suit from the Sauer Kraut King, while you’re making shoes in prison, that can wipe your entire half of that property out. Will wipe it out, in fact—for the King, I am constrained to say, will win it hands down.

And, Ezra, there is only one way to avert all this.

You will have to find X-Y-Z—X-Y-Z as, at least, he was christened!—X-Y as perhaps he calls himself?—or X, as you call him.

You will have to find him. Immediately and at once. Within 5 days, in fact, counting Monday, the day of your receipt of this letter, as day No. 1.

You will have to find X-Y-Z, moreover, without recourse to either the police or to ANY private detective agency. For mighty good reasons. Which I’ll go into later in this letter.

I know, of course, that X-Y-Z has, in a sense, vanished here in this huge metropolis of Wiscon City, so often spoken of as “The Berlin of America”—vanished into thin air. Failing to respond, with any letter or letters, to certain personal ads requesting him to do so. And apparently leaving no clues. For certainly a man who is fairminded, as you say he was, and who has faithfully promised to post his own brother a letter every night—who, with a modicum of religiousness in his being, even took an oath to do exactly that—who even maintained that daily procedure faithfully up to the moment he became non est—but who subsequently to becoming so, failed utterly to live up to both his promises and his oath, is as near “vanished” as anything I know!

My first immediate offhand impression, of course, when I gave your letter its first reading, was that X-Y-Z’s disappearance might be connected in some wise with the fact of some bitterness, or disgruntlement, on his part because of Uncle Sam, during the recent war, promptly grabbing your and X-Y-Z’s farm—for “the duration”!—and all because of that so-ample crop of growing Ascorbia-β herb whose derived alkaloid just so happens, amongst many other qualities, to possess the power of making blue-eyed plane pilots see further in darkness than ordinary. Disgruntled that is, Ezra, not because Uncle Sam paid over for the farm only the running taxes on the place, but because he, when you and X-Y-Z volunteered, accepted you both, only to compel you to stay right on there—for “the duration”—at private’s salaries of $21 per month each—growing that herb whose knowledge of its so-difficult growing you and X-Y-Z inherited from your herb-minded father. But you tell me that X-Y-Z is not, and never was, disgruntled, any more than were you yourself, because of never even getting to set a foot in an Army camp, or a thigh in a uniform trousers leg!—much less of catching sight of even an ocean coastline! And you must certainly know. And so we get back to the hard fact again—that he’s vanished from this city—and without adequate motive to do so.

But other men, Ezra, have vanished into thin air, and have been found. Alive or dead.

For thus must you find him. Alive or dead. It doesn’t matter which—so far as your problem goes. A dead X-Y-Z will be as much of a solution of it as a live one.

But Ezra Jenkins’ reading of that letter was interrupted this time by a long weird whistle that was, he knew, a train whistle—the Limited bound south from Duluth, Minnesota. Hastily he thrust the letter into the breast-pocket of his tight coat, and took up his green carpet-bag valise. Just, in fact, as the train hove into view around the upper bend. With a frustrated, petulant scream of its brakes, it commenced to slow down. Though before it reluctantly slid, like a great skidding lion, up to the very platform, a curious occurrence took place. For a small white bantam hen, with a single red-brown leg, screaming and cackling, fled from the bushes across the track—followed a second later by a huge bounding black cat—and both shot across the very nose of the engine and on to the safe platform itself in the nick of time to escape being turned into feathers and fur.

And as the engine stood steaming and chugging and sweating in front of the lower end of the platform, and the brakeman climbed out with his signal flags on to solid land, and Ezra himself seized hold of the handrail at the front end of the second daycoach as, in fact, he put one foot on the lower step of the coach, he was thinking intently of the fowl pursued by that sheer and utterly black cat. And saying, to himself:

“My God—of—of all the jinxes! A white banty—with a red leg—crossing my path to Wiscon City at the very second I’ve set foot on that path! Something,” he added dolorously to himself, “tells me I’m not just going down there to pull off a quiet search for a vanished X—but that I’m going to—to America’s Berlin—to eat trouble.”

“Oll-l a-bo-o-rd for Vees-con-Cit-ee,” shouted the brakeman, and signalled the engineer with his green flag.


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