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Behind That Curtain

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Behind That Curtain


  by Earl Derr Biggers

  Published 1928.


  The Man from Scotland Yard

  BILL RANKIN sat motionless before his typewriter, grimly seeking a lead for the interview he was about to write. A black shadow shot past his elbow and materialized with a soft thud on his desk. Bill's heart leaped into his throat and choked him.

  But it was only Egbert, the office cat. Pretty lonesome round here, seemed to be Egbert's idea. How about a bit of play? Rankin glared at the cat with deep disgust. Absurd to be so upset by a mere Egbert, but when one has been talking with a great man for over an hour and the subject of the talk has been murder, one is apt to be a trifle jumpy.

  He reached out and pushed Egbert to the floor. "Go away," he said. "What do you mean, scaring me out of a year's growth? Can't you see I'm busy?"

  His dignity offended, Egbert stalked off through the desert of typewriter tables and empty chairs. Bill Rankin watched him disappear at last through the door leading into the hallway. The hour was five thirty; the street ten stories below was filled with homegoing throngs, but up here in the city room of the Globe a momentary quiet reigned. Alone of all the green-shaded lamps in the room, the one above Rankin's typewriter was alight, shedding a ghastly radiance on the blank sheet of paper in his machine. Even the copy desk was deserted. In his cubby-hole at the rear sat the Globe's city editor, the only other human thing in sight. And he was not, if you believed the young men who worked for him, so very human at that.

  Bill Rankin turned back to his interview. For a brief moment he sat wrapped in thought; then his long, capable fingers sought the keys. He wrote:

  "The flights of genius and miracles of science which solve most of the crimes in detective stories have no real part in detective work. This is the verdict of Sir Frederic Bruce, former head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard.

  "Sir Frederic, who is stopping over for two weeks in San Francisco during the course of a trip around the world, is qualified to give an expert opinion. For nearly seventeen years he acted as Deputy-Commissioner at the head of the most famous detective organization in existence, and though he has now retired, his interest in crime detection is as keen as ever. Sir Frederic is a big man, with a kindly twinkle in his gray eyes, but occasionally those eyes have a steely look that made this reporter nervous. If we had killed the old Earl of Featherstonehaugh on his rare Persian rug, we would not care to have Sir Frederic on our trail. For the great detective is that type of Scotchman who is a stranger to defeat. He would never abandon the scent.

  "'I read a great deal of detective fiction,' Sir Frederic said. 'It amuses me, but there is usually nothing for a detective to learn from it. Except for the fingerprint system and work in the chemical laboratory on stains, scientific research has furnished little assistance to crime detection. Murder mysteries and other difficult criminal cases are solved by intelligence, hard work and luck, with little help from the delicate scientific devices so dear to the authors of -'"

  Suddenly Bill Rankin stopped writing and sat erect in his uncomfortable chair. There was a familiar ring to the ideas he was setting down on paper; he had heard them before, and recently. Opinions identical with these, expressed not in the polished English of Sir Frederic, but in a quite different idiom - Ah yes. He smiled, recalling that pudgy little man he had interviewed three days ago in the lobby of the Stewart Hotel.

  The reporter rose from his chair and, lighting a cigarette, began to pace the floor. He spoke aloud: "Of course - and I never thought of it. A corking feature story staring me right in the face, and I was blind - blind. I must be losing my grip." He looked anxiously at the clock, tossed aside his cigarette and resumed his chair. Completing the sentence which he had interrupted midway, he continued:

  "Sir Frederic was asked what he considered the greatest piece of detective work within his knowledge.

  "'I can not answer that because of the important part played by chance,' he replied. 'As I have just said, most criminal cases are solved by varying proportions of hard work, intelligence and luck, and I am sorry I must add that of these three, luck is the greatest by far.

  "'Hard, methodical work, however, has brought results in many instances. For example, it unraveled the famous Crippen mystery. The first intimation we had of something wrong in that case came when we heard that the woman treasurer of a music-hall -'"

  Bill Rankin wrote on, with lightning speed now, for he was eager to finish. The thing he was doing had suddenly become a minor matter. A far better story was running through his head. His fingers flew over the keys; when he paused, at rare intervals, it was to turn an inquiring gaze on the clock.

  He ripped the final sheet of paper from his machine, snatched up the story, and hurried toward the city editor's nook. The lone man in charge of the Copy desk, just returned from a bitter argument with the composing-room foreman, watched him sourly as he passed, and grimly sharpened a blue pencil.

  "Wha's 'at?" inquired the city editor, as Bill Rankin threw the story down before him.

  "Interview with Sir Frederic Bruce," Bill reminded him.

  "Oh, you found him, did you?"

  "We all found him. The room was full of reporters."

  "Where was he?"

  "He's putting up at Barry Kirk's bungalow. Kirk knew his son in London. I tried the hotels until my feet ached."

  The editor snorted. "The more fool you. No Englishman ever stops at a hotel if he can wangle board and room from somebody. You've been sent out to find enough lecturing British authors to know that."

  "The interview's blah," said Rankin. "Every paper in town will have it. But while I was writing it, an idea for a feature hit me hard. It'll be a humdinger - if I can only put it over on Sir Frederic. I thought I'd go back up there and see what I can do."

  "A feature?" The editor frowned. "If you happen on a bit of news in the course of your literary work, you'll let me know, won't you? Here I am, trying to get out a newspaper, and all I get from you fellows is an avalanche of pretty little essays. I suspect you're all hoping that some day you'll be tapped for the Atlantic Monthly."

  "But this feature's good," Rankin protested. "I must hurry along -"

  "Just a minute. I'm only your editor, of course. I don't want to pry into your plans -"

  Rankin laughed. He was an able man, and privileged. "I'm sorry, sir, but I can't stop to explain now. Some one may beat me to it yet. Gleason of the Herald was up there to-day and he'll get the same hunch as sure as fate. So if you don't mind -"

  The editor shrugged. "All right - go to it. Hurry up to the Kirk Building. And don't let this sudden attack of energy die there. Hurry back, too."

  "Yes, sir," agreed the reporter. "Of course, I'll need a bit of dinner -"

  "I never eat," growled his charming employer.

  Bill Rankin sped across the city room. His fellow reporters were drifting in now from their afternoon assignments, and the place was coming to life. Near the door, Egbert, black as the night from pole to pole, crossed Rankin's path with haughty, aloof manner and dignified stride.

  Descending to the street, the reporter stood for a moment undecided. The Kirk Building was not far away; he could walk there - but time was precious. Suppose he arrived to be met by the news that Sir Frederic was dressing for dinner. With this famous and correct Englishman, the act would be a sacred rite not to be lightly interrupted by panting pressmen. No, he must reach Sir Frederic before the detective reached for his black pearl studs. He hailed a passing taxi.

  As the car drew up to the curb, a red-cheeked boy, one of the Globe's younger reporters, emerged from the crowd and with a deep bow, held open the taxi door.

bsp; "To the Royal Opera, my good man," he shouted, "and an extra gold sovereign for you if we pass the Duke's car on the way."

  Rankin pushed the facetious one aside. "Don't interfere with your betters, my lad," he remarked, and added, to the driver: "The Kirk Building, on California Street."

  The taxi swung out into Market Street, followed the intricate car tracks for a few blocks, and turned off into Montgomery. In another moment they were in the financial district of San Francisco, now wrapped in its accustomed evening calm. The huge buildings of trust companies, investment houses and banks stood solemn and solid in the dusk; across the doorways of many, forbidding bronze gates were already shut. Gilded signs met Rankin's eye - "The Yokohama Bank"; on another window, "The Shanghai Trading Company"; one may not forget the Orient in the city by the Gate. Presently the taxi drew up before a twenty-story office building, and Rankin alighted.

  The Kirk Building was architecturally perfect, in the excellent taste that had marked the family ever since the first Dawson Kirk had made his millions and gone his way. Now it was the particular hobby of young Barry Kirk, who lived in bachelor splendor in the spacious but breezy bungalow on its roof. Its pure white lobby was immaculate; its elevator girls trim and pretty in neat uniforms; its elevator starter resplendent as an Admiral of the Fleet. At this hour the fever of the day was ended and cleaning women knelt reverently on the marble floor. One elevator was still running, and into this Bill Rankin stepped.

  "All the way," he said to the girl.

  He alighted at the twentieth floor, the final stop. A narrow stair led to Barry Kirk's bungalow, and the reporter ascended two steps at a time. Pausing before an imposing door, he rang. The door opened and Paradise, Kirk's English butler, stood like a bishop barring Rankin's path.

  "Ah - er - I'm back," panted Rankin.

  "So I see, sir." Very like a bishop indeed, with that great shock of snow-white hair. His manner was not cordial. Earlier that day he had admitted many reporters, but with misgivings.

  "I must see Sir Frederic at once. Is he in?"

  "Sir Frederic is in the offices, on the floor below. I fancy he is busy, but I will announce you -"

  "No - please don't trouble," said Rankin quickly. Running down to the twentieth floor, he noted a door with Barry Kirk's name on the frosted glass. As he moved toward it, it opened suddenly, and a young woman came out.

  Rankin stopped in his tracks. A remarkably pretty young woman - that much was obvious even in the dim light on the twentieth floor. One of those greatly preferred blonds, with a slender figure trim in a green dress of some knitted material. Not precisely tall, but -

  What was this? The young woman was weeping. Silently, without fuss, but indubitably weeping. Tears not alone of grief, but, if Rankin was any judge, of anger and exasperation, too. With a startled glance at the reporter, she hastily crossed the hall and disappeared through a door that bore the sign "Calcutta Importers, Inc."

  Bill Rankin pushed on into Barry Kirk's office. He entered a sort of reception-room, but a door beyond stood open, and the newspaper man went confidently forward. In the second room, Sir Frederic Bruce, former head of the C.I.D., sat at a big, flat-topped desk. He swung around, and his gray eyes were stern and dangerous.

  "Oh," he said. "It's you."

  "I must apologize for intruding on you again, Sir Frederic," Bill Rankin began. "But - I - er - may I sit down?"

  "Certainly." The great detective slowly gathered up some papers on the desk.

  "The fact is -" Rankin's confidence was ebbing. An inner voice told him that this was not the genial gentleman of the afternoon interview in the bungalow up-stairs. Not the gracious visitor to San Francisco, but Sir Frederic Bruce of Scotland Yard, unbending, cold and awe-inspiring. "The fact is," continued the reporter lamely, "an idea has struck me."

  "Really?" Those eyes - they looked right through you.

  "What you told us this afternoon, Sir Frederic - Your opinion of the value of scientific devices in the detection of crime, as against luck and hard work -" Rankin paused. He seemed unable to finish his sentences. "I was reminded, when I came to write my story, that oddly enough I had heard that same opinion only a few days ago."

  "Yes? Well, I made no claim to originality." Sir Frederic threw his papers into a drawer.

  "Oh, I haven't come to complain about it," smiled Rankin, regaining a trace of his jaunty spirit. "Under ordinary conditions, it wouldn't mean anything, but I heard your ideas from the lips of a rather unusual man, Sir Frederic. A humble worker in your own field, a detective who has evolved his theories far from Scotland Yard. I heard them from Detective-Sergeant Charlie Chan, of the Honolulu police."

  Sir Frederic's bushy eyebrows rose. "Really? Then I must applaud the judgment of Sergeant Chan - whoever he may be."

  "Chan is a detective who has done some good work in the islands. He happens to be in San Francisco at the moment, on his way home. Came to the mainland on a simple errand, which developed into quite a case before he had finished with it. I believe he acquitted himself with credit. He's not very impressive to look at, but -"

  Sir Frederic interrupted. "A Chinese, I take it?"

  "Yes, sir."

  The great man nodded. "And why not? A Chinese should make an excellent detective. The patience of the East, you know."

  "Precisely," agreed Bill Rankin. "He's got that. And modesty -"

  Sir Frederic shook his head. "Not such a valuable asset, modesty. Self-assurance, a deep faith in one's self - they help. But Sergeant Chan is modest?"

  "Is he? 'Falling hurts least those who fly low' - that's the way he put it to me. And Sergeant Chan flies so low he skims the daisies."

  Sir Frederic rose and stepped to the window. He gazed down at the spatter of lights flung like a handful of stars over the darkening town. For a moment he said nothing. Then he turned to the reporter.

  "A modest detective," he said, with a grim smile. "That's a novelty, at any rate. I should like very much to meet this Sergeant Chan."

  Bill Rankin sighed with relief. His task was unbelievably easy, after all.

  "That's exactly what I came here to suggest," he said briskly. "I'd like to bring you and Charlie Chan together - hear you go over your methods and experiences - you know, just a real good talk. I was wondering if you would do us the great honor to join Mr. Chan and me at lunch to-morrow?"

  The former head of the C.I.D. hesitated. "Thank you very much. But I am more or less in Mr. Kirk's hands. He is giving a dinner to-morrow night, and I believe he said something about luncheon to-morrow, too. Much as I should like to accept at once, decidedly we must consult Mr. Kirk."

  "Well, let's find him. Where is he?" Bill Rankin was all business.

  "I fancy he is up in the bungalow." Sir Frederic turned and, swinging shut the door of a big wall safe, swiftly twirled the knob.

  "You did that just like an American business man, Sir Frederic," Rankin smiled.

  The detective nodded. "Mr. Kirk has kindly allowed me to use his office while I am his guest."

  "Ah - then you're not altogether on a pleasure trip," said Bill Rankin quickly.

  The gray eyes hardened. "Absolutely - a pleasure trip. But there are certain matters - private business - I am writing my Memoirs -"

  "Ah yes - of course," apologized the reporter.

  The door opened, and a cleaning woman entered. Sir Frederic turned to her. "Good evening," he said. "You understand that no papers on this desk - or in it - are to be interfered with in any way?"

  "Oh, yes, sir," the woman answered.

  "Very good. Now, Mr. - er - Mr. -"

  "Rankin, Sir Frederic."

  "Of course. There is a stairs in this rear room leading up to the bungalow. If you will come with me -"

  They entered the third and last room of the office suite, and Bill Rankin followed the huge figure of the Englishman aloft. The stairs ended in a dark passageway on the floor above. Throwing open the nearest door, Sir Frederic flooded the place with light, and Bill R
ankin stepped into the great living-room of the bungalow. Paradise was alone in the room; he received the reporter with cold disdain. Barry Kirk, it appeared, was dressing for dinner, and the butler went reluctantly to inform him of the newspaper man's unseemly presence.

  Kirk appeared at once, in his shirt-sleeves and with the ends of a white tie dangling about his neck. He was a handsome, lean young man in the late twenties, whose manner spoke of sophistication, and spoke true. For he had traveled to the far corners of the earth seeking to discover what the Kirk fortune would purchase there, and life held no surprises for him any more.

  "Ah yes - Mr. Rankin of the Globe," he said pleasantly. "What can I do for you?"

  Paradise hastened forward to officiate with the tie, and over the servant's shoulder Bill Rankin explained his mission. Kirk nodded.

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