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- The Voice on the Wire - 1/37 -


THE VOICE ON THE WIRE

CHAPTER I

WHEN THREE IS A MYSTERY

"Mr. Shirley is waiting for you in the grill-room, sir. Just step this way, sir, and down the stairs."

The large man awkwardly followed the servant to the cosey grill-room on the lower floor of the club house. He felt that every man of the little groups about the Flemish tables must be saying: "What's he doing here?"

"I wish Monty Shirley would meet me once in a while in the back room of a ginmill, where I'd feel comfortable," muttered the unhappy visitor. "This joint is too classy. But that's his game to play--"

He reached the sought-for one, however, and exclaimed eagerly: "By Jiminy, Monty. I'm glad to find you--it would have been my luck after this day, to get here too late."

He was greeted with a grip that made even his generous hand wince, as the other arose to smile a welcome.

"Hello, Captain Cronin. You're a good sight for a grouchy man's eyes! Sit down and confide the brand of your particular favorite poison to our Japanese Dionysius!"

The Captain sighed with relief, as he obeyed.

"Bar whiskey is good enough for an old timer like me. Don't tell me you have the blues--your face isn't built that way!"

"Gospel truth, Captain. I've been loafing around this club --nothing to do for a month. Bridge, handball, highballs, and yarns! I'm actually a nervous wreck because my nerves haven't had any work to do!"

"You're the healthiest invalid I've seen since the hospital days in the Civil War. But don't worry about something to do. I've some job now. It's dolled up with all them frills you like: millions, murders and mysteries! If this don't keep you awake, you'll have nightmares for the next six months. Do you want it?"

"I'm tickled to death. Spill it!"

"Monty, it's the greatest case my detective agency has had since I left the police force eleven years ago. It's too big for me, and I've come to you to do a stunt as is a stunt. You will plug it for me, won't you--just as you've always done? If I get the credit, it'll mean a fortune to me in the advertising alone."

"Haven't I handled every case for you in confidence. I'm not a fly-cop, Captain Cronin. I'm a consulting specialist, and there's no shingle hung out. Perhaps you had better take it to some one else."

Shirley pushed away his empty glass impatiently.

"There, Monty, I didn't mean to offend you. But there's such swells in this and such a foxey bunch of blacklegs, that I'm as nervous as a rookie cop on his first arrest. Don't hold a grudge against me."

Shirley lit a cigarette and resumed his good nature: "Go on, Captain. I'm so stale with dolce far niente, after the Black Pearl affair last month, that I act like an amateur myself. Make it short, though, for I'm going to the opera."

The Captain leaned over the table, his face tense with suppressed emotion. He was a grizzled veteran of the New York police force: a man who sought his quarry with the ferocity of a bull-dog, when the line of search was definitely assured. Lacking imagination and the subtler senses of criminology, Captain Cronin had built up a reputation for success and honesty in every assignment by bravery, persistence, and as in this case, the ability to cover his own deductive weakness by employing the brains of others.

Montague Shirley was as antithetical from the veteran detective as a man could well be. A noted athlete in his university, he possessed a society rating in New York, at Newport and Tuxedo, and on the Continent which was the envy of many a gilded youth born to the purple.

On leaving college, despite an ample patrimony, he had curiously enough entered the lists as a newspaper man. From the sporting page he was graduated to police news, then the city desk, at last closing his career as the genius who invented the weekly Sunday thriller, in many colors of illustration and vivacious Gallic style which interpreted into heart throbs and goose-flesh the real life romances and tragedies of the preceding six days! He had conquered the paper-and-ink world--then deep within there stirred the call for participation in the game itself.

So, dropping quietly into the apparently indolent routine of club existence, he had devoted his experience and genius to analytical criminology--a line of endeavor known only to five men in the world.

He maintained no offices. He wore no glittering badges: a police card, a fire badge, and a revolver license, renewed year after year, were the only instruments of his trade ever in evidence. Shirley took assignments only from the heads of certain agencies, by personal arrangement as informal as this from Captain Cronin. His real clients never knew of his participation, and his prey never understood that he had been the real head-hunter!

His fees--Montague Shirley, as a master craftsman deemed his artistry worthy of the hire. His every case meant a modest fortune to the detective agency and Shirley's bills were never rendered, but always paid!

So, here, the hero of the gridiron and the class re-union, the gallant of a hundred pre-matrimonial and non-maturing engagements, the veteran of a thousand drolleries and merry jousts in clubdom--unspoiled by birth, breeding and wealth, untrammeled by the juggernaut of pot-boiling and the salary-grind, had drifted into the curious profession of confidential, consulting criminal chaser.

Shirley unostentatiously signaled for an encore on the refreshments.

"You're nervous to-night, Captain. You've been doing things before you consulted me--which is against our Rule Number One, isn't it?"

The Captain gulped down his whiskey, and rubbed his forehead.

"Couldn't help it, Monty. It got too busy for me, before I realized anything unusual in the case. See what I got from a gangster before I landed here."

He turned his close-cropped head, as Montague Shirley leaned forward to observe an abrasion at the base of his skull. It was dressed with a coating of collodion.

"Brass knuckled--I see the mark of the rings. Tried for the pneumogastric nerves, to quiet you."

"Whatever he tried for he nearly got. Kelly's nightstick got his pneumonia gas jet, or whatever you call it. He's still quiet, in the station house--You know old man Van Cleft, who owns sky-scrapers down town, don't you?--Well, he's the center of this flying wedge of excitement. His family are fine people, I understand. His daughter was to be married next week. Monty, that wedding'll be postponed, and old Van Cleft won't worry over dispossess papers for his tenants for the rest of the winter. See?"

"Killed?"

"Correct. He's done, and I had a hell of a time getting the body home, before the coroner and the police reporters got on the trail."

Shirley lowered his high-ball glass, with an earnest stare.

"What was the idea?"

"Robbery, of course. His son had me on the case--'phoned from the garage where the chauffeur brought the body; after he saw the old man unconscious. Just half an hour before he had left his office in the same machine, after taking five thousand dollars in cash from his manager."

"Who was with him?"

"Now, that's getting to brass tacks. When I gets that C.Q.D. from Van Cleft, I finds the young fellow inside the ring of rubbernecks, blubbering over the old man, where he lies on the floor of the taxi--looking soused."

"He was a notorious old sport about town, Captain."

"Sure--and I thinks, it sorter serves him right. But, that's his funeral, not mine. Van Cleft, junior, says to me: 'There's the girl that was with him.'"

"Where was the girl?"

"She was sitting on a stool, near the car, a little blonde chorus chicken, shaking and twitching, while the chauffeur and the garage boss held her up. I says, 'What's this?' and Van Cleft


The Voice on the Wire - 1/37

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