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TORCHY, PRIVATE SEC. (1915)

by Sewell Ford
(1868-1946)

CHAPTER III

TORCHY TAKES A CHANCE

  SAY, I expected that after I got to be a salaried man, with a swing-chair in Mr. Robert's private office, I'd be called on only to pull the brainy stuff, calm and dignified, without any outside chasin' around. I had a soothin' idea it would be a case of puttin' in my mornin's dictatin' letters to gen'ral managers, and my afternoons to holdin' interviews with the Secretary of the Treasury, and so on. I was lookin' for plenty of high-speed domework, but nothin' more wearin' on the arms than pushin' a call button or usin' a rubber stamp.

  But somehow I can't seem to do finance, or anything else, without throwin' in a lot of extra pep. No matter how I start, first thing I know I'm mixed up with quick action, and as likely as not gettin' my clothes mussed. This last stunt, though — believe me I couldn't have got more thrills if I'd joined a circus!

  It opens innocent enough too. I was moochin' around the bondroom when I happens to glance over the transfer book and notices that a big block of our debenture 6's are listed as goin' to the Federated Tractions. And the name of the party who's about to swap the 6's for Tractions preferred is a familiar one. It's Aunty's. Uh-huh — Vee's!

  Maybe you remember how Aunty played up her skittish symptoms about them same bonds a few weeks back, the time she planned to exhibit me to Vee in my office boy job and got so badly jolted when she finds me posin' as a private sec instead? Went away real peeved, Aunty did that time. And now it looks like she was takin' it out by unloadin' her bond holdin's. It's to be some swap too, runnin' up into six figures.

  "Chee!" thinks I. "That's an income, all right, with Tractions payin' between 7 and 9, besides cuttin' a melon now and then."

  They have their gen'ral offices three floors below us, you know. Not that I wouldn't have had a line on 'em anyway; for whatever that bunch of Philadelphia live wires gets hold of is worth watchin'. Say, they'd consolidate city breathin' air if they could, and make it pay dividends. It's important to note too, that they're buyin' into Corrugated so deep. I mentions the fact casual to Mr. Robert.

  "Really," says he, liftin' his eyebrows surprised. "Federated Tractions! Are you certain?"

  "Unless our registry clerk has had a funny dream," says I. "The notice was listed yesterday. And you know how grouchy the old girl was on us."

  "H-m-m-m!" says he, drummin' his fingers nervous. "Thanks, Torchy. I must look into this."

  Seemed to worry Mr. Robert a bit; so maybe that's why I had my ears stretched wider 'n usual. It wa'n't an hour later that I runs across Izzy Budheimer down in the Arcade. He's on the Curb now, Izzy is, and by the size of the diamond horseshoe decoratin' the front of his silk shirt he must be tradin' some in wildcats. Hails me like a friend and brother, Izzy does, tries to wish a tinfoil Fumadora on me, and gives me the happy josh about bein' boosted off the gate.

  "You'll be gettin' wise to all the inside deals now, eh?" says he, winkin' foxy. "And maybe we might work off something together. Yes?"

  "Sure!" says I. "I'll come down every noon with the office secrets and let you peddle 'em around Broad street from a pushcart. G'wan, you parrot-beaked near-broker! Why, I wouldn't trust tellin' you the time of day!"

  Izzy grins like I'd paid him a compliment. "Such a joker!" says he. "But listen! Which side do the Tractions people come down on?"

  "Federated?" says I. "North corridor, just around the corner. Sleuthin' around that bunch, are you? What's doing in Tractions?"

  "How should I know?" protests Izzy, openin' his eyes innocent. "Maybe I got a customer on the general staff, ain't it?"

  "You'd be scoutin' up here at this time of day after a ten-dollar commission, wouldn't you?" says I. "And with that slump in Connecticut Gas in full blast! Can it, Izzy! I know a thing or two about Tractions myself."

  "Yes?" he whispers persuasive, almost holdin' his breath. "What do you hear, now?"

  "Don't say I told you," says I, "but they're thinkin' of puttin' in left-handed straps for south-paw passengers."

  Izzy looks pained and disgusted. He's got a serious mind, Izzy has, and if you could take a thumbprint of his brain, it would be all fractions and dollar signs.

  "I have to meet my cousin Abie Moss," says he, edgin' away. "He has a bookkeeper's job with Tractions for a month now, and I promised his aunt I would ask how he's comin'."

  "How touchin'!" says I as he moves off.

  I gazes after him curious a minute, and then follows a sudden hunch. Why not see just how much of a bluff this was about Cousin Abie? So I slips around by the cigar stand, steps behind a pillar, and keeps him in range. Three or four minutes I watched Izzy waitin' at the elevator exit, without seein' him give anyone the fraternal grip. Then he seems to quit. He drifts back towards the Arcade with the lunch crowd, and I was about to turn away when I lamps him bein' slipped a piece of paper by a short, squatly-built guy who brushes by him casual. Izzy gathers it in with never a word and strolls over to the 'phone booths, where he lets on to be huntin' a number in the directory. All he does there, though, is spread out that paper, read it through hasty, and then tear it up and chuck it in the waste basket.

  "Huh!" says I, seein' Izzy scuttle off towards Broadway. "Looks like there was a plot to the piece. I wonder?"

  And just for the fun of the thing I collected them twenty-eight pieces of yellow paper, carried 'em over to my lunch place, and spent the best part of my noon-hour piecin' 'em together. What I got was this, scribbled in lead pencil:

Grebel out. Larkin melding. Teg morf rednu.

  "Whiffo!" thinks I. "What kind of a Peruvian dialect is this?"

  Course the names was plain enough. Everybody knows Grebel and Larkin, and that they're the big wheezes in that Philly crowd. But what then? Had Grebel gone out to lunch? And was Larkin playin' penuchle? Thrillin', if true. Then comes this "Teg morf rednu" stuff. Was that Russian, or Chinese?

  "Heiney," says I, callin' the dough-faced food juggler. "Heiney," I repeats solemn, "Teg morf rednu."

  Not a smile from Heiney. He grabs the bill of fare and begins to hunt through the cheese list panicky.

  "Never mind," says I, "you won't find it there. But here's another: What do you do when you meld a hundred aces, say?"

  A look of almost human intelligence flickers into Heiney's face. "Ach!" says he. "By the table you pud 'em — so!"

  "Thanks, Heiney," says I. "That helps a little."

  So Larkin was chuckin' something on the table, was he! But this other dope, "Tea morf rednu?" Say, I'd come back to that after every bite. I wrote it out on an envelope, tried runnin' it together and splittin' it up diff'rent, and turned it upside down. Then in a flash I got it.

  When Mr. Robert sails in from the club I was waitin' for him. He'd heard a rumor that Grebel was to retire soon. Also he'd met young Larkin in the billiard room, and found that the fam'ly was goin' abroad for the summer.

  "But all that may mean nothing at all, you know," says Mr. Robert.

  "And then again," says I. "Study that out and see if it don't tally with your dope," and I produces a copy of Izzy's wireless.

  Mr. Robert wrinkles his forehead over it without any result. "What is it?" says he.

  "An inside tip on Tractions," says I, and sketches out how I'd got it.

  "Oh, I see now," says he. "That about Grebel? But what is melding? And this last — 'Tea morf rednu'? I can make no sense of that."

  "Try it backwards," says I.

  "Why — er — by Jove!" says he. "Get from under, eh? Then — then there is a slump coming. And with all that new stock issue, I'm not surprised. But that hits Miss Vee's aunt rather heavily, doesn't it? That is, if the deal has gone through."

  "Who's her lawyers?" says I. "They ought to know."

  "Of course," says Mr. Robert, reachin' for the 'phone. "Winkler, Burt & Winkler. Look up the number, will you? Eh? Broad, did you say?"

  And inside of three minutes he has explained the case and got the verdict. "They don't know," says he. "The transfer receipts were sent for her to sign last night. If she's signed them, there's nothing to be done."

  "But if she hasn't?" says I.

  "Then she mustn't," says Mr. Robert. "It would mean letting that crowd get a foothold in Corrugated, and a loss of thousands to her. See if the tape shows any recent fluctuations."

  "Bluey-ooey!" says I, runnin' over the mornin' sales hasty. "Opened at seven-eighths, then 500 at three-quarters, another block at a half, 300 at a quarter — why, it's on the toboggan!"

  "She must be found and warned at once," says Mr. Robert.

  "Am I the guy?" says I.

  "You are," says he. "And minutes may count. I'll get the address for you. It's in that ——"

  "Say," I throws over my shoulder on my way to the door, "whose aunt is this, anyway?"

  Looked like a simple matter for me to locate Aunty. And if she was out takin' her drive or anything — why, I could be explainin' to Vee while I waited. That would be tough luck, of course; but I could stand it for once.

  At their apartment hotel I finds nobody home but Celeste, the maid, all dolled up like Thursday afternoon. She hands it to me cold and haughty that Madame and Ma'mselle are out.

  "I could almost guess that from the lid you're wearin'," says I. "One of Miss Vee's, ain't it?"

  She pinks up and goes gaspy at that. "Please," she begins pleadin', "if you would not mention ——"

  "I might forget to," I breaks in, "if you'll tell me where I can find 'em quickest."

  And Celeste gets the information out rapid. They're house-partyin' at the Morley Beckhams, over at Quehassett, Long Island. "Rosemere" is the name of the joint.

  "Me for Quehassett!" says I, dashin' for the elevator.

  But, say, I needn't have lost my breath. Parts of Long Island you can get to every half-hour or so; but Quehassett ain't one of 'em. Huntin' it up on the railroad map, I discovers that it's 'way out to the deuce and gone on the north shore, and the earliest start I can get is the four o'clock local.

  Ever cruise around much on them Long Island branch lines? Say, it must be int'restin' sport, providin' you don't care whether you get there this week or next. I missed one connection by waitin' for the brakeman to call out the change. And when I'd caught another train back to the right junction I got the pleasin' bulletin that the next for Quchassett is the theater train, that comes along somewhere about midnight.

  So there I was hung up in a rummy little commuter town where the chief industry is sellin' bungalow sites on the salt marsh. Then I tackles the 'phone, which results in three snappy conversations with a grouchy butler at sixty cents a throw, but no real dope on the Beckhams or their guests.

  Well, it's near two A.M. when I fin'lly lands in Quchassett, which is no proper time to call on anybody's aunt. Everything is shut tight too; so I spreads out an evenin' edition on a baggage truck and turns in weary. I'd overlooked pullin' down the front shades to the station, though, and the next thing I knew the sun was hittin' me square in the face.

  I wanders around Quchassett until a Dago opens up a little fruitstand. He sold me some bananas and a couple of muskmelons for breakfast, and points out which road leads to Rosemere. It's down on the shore about a mile and a half, and I strolls along, eatin' fruit and enjoyin' the early mornin' air.

  Some joint Rosemere turns out to be, — acres of lawn, and rows of striped awnin's at the windows. The big iron gates was locked, with nobody in sight; so I has plenty of time to write a note to Vee, beggin' her for the love of soup, if Aunty hasn't signed the transfer papers, not to let her do it until she hears from me. My scheme was to get one of the help to take the message to Vee before she got up.

  Must have been near seven o'clock when I gets hold of one of the gardeners, tips him a dollar, and drags out of him the fact that cook says how all the folks are off on the yacht, which is gen'rally anchored off the dock. He don't know if it's there now or not. It was last night. I can tell by goin' down. The road follows that little creek.

  So I gallops down to the shore. No yacht in sight. There's a point of land juts out to the left. Maybe she's anchored behind that. Comin' down along the creek too, I'd seen an old tub of a boat tied up. Back I chases for it.

  Looked simple for me to keep on; but when I get started on a trail I never know when to stop. I was paddlin' down the creek, bound for nowhere special, when along comes a sporty-dressed young gent, wearin' puttee leggin's and a leather cap with goggles attached. He's luggin' a five-gallon can of gasoline, and strikes me for a lift down the shore a bit.

  "Keepin' your car in the Sound, are you?" says I, shovin' in towards the bank.

  "It's an aërohydro," says he.

  "Eh?" says I. "A — a which?"

  "An air boat, you know," says he. "I'm going to try her out. Bully morning for a flight, isn't it?"

  "Maybe," says I. "Get aboard. Always have to cart your gas down this way?"

  At that he grows real chatty. Seems this is a brand-new machine, just delivered the night before, and he's keepin' it a dead secret from the fam'ly, so Mother won't worry. He says that's all nonsense, though; for he's been takin' lessons on the quiet for more than a year, has earned his pilot's license, and can handle any kind of a plane.

  "Just straight driving, of course," he goes on. "I don't attempt spiral dips, or exhibition work. I've never been up more than five hundred feet. And this is such a safe type. Oh, the folks will come around to it after they've seen me up once or twice. I want to surprise 'em. There she is, up the shore. See!"

  Hanged if I hadn't missed it before, when I was lookin' for the yacht! Spidery lookin' affairs, ain't they, when you get close to, with all them slim wire guys? And the boat part is about as substantial as a pasteboard battleship. While he's pourin' in the gasoline I paddles around and inspects the thing.

  "Five hundred feet up?" says I. "Excuse me!"

  He grins good natured. "Think you wouldn't like it, eh?" says he. "Why?"

  "Too cobwebby," says I. "Why, them wings are nothin' but cloth."

  "Best quality duck, two layers," says he. "And the frame has a tensile strength of three hundred and fifty pounds to the square foot. Isn't that motor a beauty? Ninety-horse."

  "Guess I'll take my joy ridin' closer to the turf, though," says I. "Course, I've always had a batty notion I'd like to fly some time; but ——"

  "Hello!" he breaks in. "There goes the Katrina!" and he points out a big white yacht that's slippin' along through the water about half a mile off. "It's the Beckhams'," he goes on. "They're our neighbors here at Rosemere, you know. They have guests from town, and my folks are aboard. By Jove! Here's my chance to surprise 'em. I say, would you mind paddling around and giving me a shove off?"

  But I stands gawpin' out at the yacht. "The Morley Beckhams?" says I.

  "Yes, yes!" says he. "But hurry, please. I want to catch them."

  "You — you ——" But I was thinkin' too rapid to talk much. Vee and Aunty was out on that boat, and maybe at the next landin' Aunty would mail them transfers. If it was goin' to hit her alone, I might have stood it calmer; but there was Vee.

  "Say," I sputters out, "ain't there room for two?"

  "Why, ye-e-e-es," says he sort of craggy. "I've never taken up a passenger, though; but I've thought that ——"

  "Then why not now?" says I. "I want to go the worst way."

  "But a moment ago," he protests, "you ——"

  "It's different now," says I. "There's a party on that yacht I want to get word to, — Miss Hemmingway. I got to, that's all! And what's a neck more or less? I'll take the chance if you will."

  "By Jove!" says he. "I'll do it. Shove off. Here, stick your oar into the mud and push. That's it! Now climb in and give that old tub of yours a shove so she'll clear that left plane. Good work! Here's your seat, beside me. Don't get your knees in the way of that lever, please, or put your feet on that cross bar. That's my rudder control. Now! Are you ready? Then I'll start her."

  Say, I didn't have time to work up any spine chills, or even say a "Now-I-lay-me." He reaches up behind him, gives the crank a whirl, and the next thing I know we're shootin' over the water like an express train, with the spray flyin', the wind whistlin' in my ears, and eight cylinders exhaustin' direct within two feet of the back of my neck. Talk about speedin'! When you're travelin' through the water at a forty-mile-an-hour gait, and so close you can trail your fingers, you know all about it. Although it's a calm mornin', with hardly a ripple, the motion was a little bumpy. No wonder!

  Then all of a sudden I has a sinkin' sensation somewhere under my vest, the bumpin' stops, and I feels like I'd shuffled off somethin' heavy. I had — a billion tons or more! Glancin' over the side, I sees the water ten or a dozen feet below us. We were in the air. And, believe me, I reaches out for something solid to hold onto! All I could find was a two-inch upright, and I takes a fond grip on that. If it had been a telephone pole, I'd felt better.

  My sporty-dressed friend smiles encouragin' over his shoulder. I hope I smiled back; but I wouldn't swear to it. Not that I'm scared. Hush, hush! But I wasn't used to bein' shot through the air so impetuous. I takes another glance overboard. Hel-lup! Someone's pullin' Long Island Sound from under us. The water must have been fifty or sixty feet down, and gettin' more so. For a while after that I looks straight ahead. What's the use keepin' track of how high you are, anyway? You'll only bore just so big a hole in the water if you fall.

  But it's funny how soon you can get over feelin's like that. Inside of three minutes I'd quit grippin' the stanchion and was sittin' there peaceful, enjoyin' the ride. We seemed to be sailin' along on a level now, about housetop high, and so far as I could see we was as steady as if we'd been on a front veranda. There's no sway or rock to the machine at all. I'd been holdin' myself as rigid as if I'd been in a tippy canoe; but now I took a chance on shiftin' my position a little. I even leaned over the side. Nothing happened. That was comfortin'. How easy and smooth it was, glidin' along up there!

  Meanwhile we'd taken a wide sweep and was leavin' the yacht far behind.

  "Say," I shouts to my aviatin' friend, "how do we get to her?"

  But it's no use tryin' to converse with that roar in your ears. I points back to the boat. He nods and smiles.

  "Wait!" he yells at me.

  With that he pulls his plane lever and we begins to climb some more. You hardly know you're doin' it, though. Up or down don't mean anything in the air, where the goin' is all the same. Only as we gets higher the Sound narrows and Long Island stretches further and further. And, take it from me, that's the way to view scenery! Up and up we slid, just soarin' free and careless. He turns to me with another grin, to see how I'm takin' it. And this time I grins back.

  "About three hundred!" he shouts, puttin' his mouth close. "Eighty an hour too!"

  "Zippy stuff!" says I.

  Then he gives me a nudge, juggles his deflectors, and down we shoots. I never had any part of the map come at me so fast. Seemed like the Sound was just rushin' at us, and I was tryin' to guess how far into the bottom we'd go, when he pulls the lever again and we skims along just above the surface. Shootin' the chutes — say, that Coney stunt seems tame compared to this!

  In no time at all we've made a circle around the yacht and are comin' up behind her once more. We could see the people pilin' out on deck to rubber at us. In a minute more we'd be even with 'em. And how was I goin' to deliver that message to Vee? Just then I looks in my lap, where I was grippin' my straw lid between my knees, and discovers that I've lugged along one of them muskmelons in a paper bag. That gives me my hunch.

  Fishin' out the note I'd written, I slits the melon with my knife and jabs it in. Then I shows the breakfast bomb to my friend and points to the yacht. He nods. Some bean, that guy had!

  "I'll sail over her," he howls in my ear. "You can drop it on the deck."

  There was no time for gettin' ready or takin' practice shots. Up we glides into the air right over the white wake she was leavin'. The folks on her was wavin' to us. First I made out Vee, standin' on the little bridge amidships, lookin' cute and classy in white serge. Then I spots Aunty, who's tumbled out in her boudoir cap and kimono. I leans over and waves enthusiastic.

  "Hey, Vee!" I shouts. "Watch this!"

  I'd picked out the widest part of the deck forward, where there's no awnin' up, and when it was exactly underneath I lets the melon go, hard as I could shoot it. Some shot that was too! I saw it smash on the deck, watched one of the sailors stare at it stupid, and then caught a glimpse of Vee rushin' towards the spot. Course I wa'n't sure she knew me at that distance, or had heard what I said; but trust her for doin' the right thing at the right time!

  "There's Mother!" I hears my sporty friend roar out. "I say! Mother! It's Billy, you know."

  No doubt about Mother's catchin' on. Maybe she'd suspicioned, anyway; but the last I saw of her she was slumpin' into the arms of a white-haired old gent behind her.

  Another minute and we'd left the Katrina behind like she had seven anchors out. On we went and up once more, turnin' with a dizzy swoop and skimmin' past her, back towards where we started from. And just as I was wishin' he'd go faster and higher we settles down on the water, dashes in behind the dock, the motor slows up, the plane floats drag in the mud, and it's all over.

  Took the yacht near an hour to get back to us. Mother had insisted, and when she found Billy all safe and sound she fell on his neck and forgave him.

  As for me? Well, maybe I didn't have some swell report to turn in to Mr. Robert! I had him listenin' with his mouth open before I got through too.

  "Aunty was mighty suspicious first off," says I; "but after she'd used the long distance and got a line on how Tractions was waverin', she warms up quite a lot, for her. Uh-huh! Gives me a vote of thanks, and says she'll call off the deal."

  "Torchy," says Mr. Robert, "I am speechless with admiration. Your business methods are certainly advanced. I had not thought of flying as a modern requisite for a commercial career."

  "The real thing in high finance, eh?" says I. "And, say, me for the air after this! I've swallowed the bug. I know how a bloomin' seagull feels when he's on the wing; and, believe me, it's got everything else in the sport line lookin' like playin' tag with your feet tied!"

(End of chapter three.)



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