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Carroll John Daly
© 2017 Steeger Properties, LLC. Published by arrangement with Steeger Properties, LLC, agent for the Estate of Carroll John Daly.
“The False Clara Burkhart” originally appeared in the July 1926 issue of Black Mask magazine.
No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without permission in writing from the publisher.
“Race Williams” is a trademark of the Estate of Carroll John Daly. “Black Mask” is a trademark of Steeger Properties, LLC, and registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Three times I called for him to come in, and the shadow of his dark hair, streaked with gray, would bob in and out of the partly open door. It was hard to tell if he were a little deaf, or if he expected me to bite his head off the moment he got it fully inside.
My final shout turned the trick and he sort of oozed through the doorway without opening the door wide. He was much taller than I expected when he straightened up, and though the rain beat against the window in great gusts, it was a cane that he had curled over his left arm.
Tall, yes, but not broad; a long drawn-out, serious affair, with mild brown eyes that blinked bewilderingly at me through heavy shelled glasses. His dark blue suit was expensive enough, but looked as if it had been bought in a hurry or that he had shrunk considerably since ordering it. He looked at me, slipped open the door again and read the lettering on it aloud.
“Race Williams—Confidential Agent.” He switched the cane from his left arm to his right and started in to talk, addressing the vacant space between the picture of George Washington and me.
“The umbrella, now,” he carted the cane to the window, “I’ll place here. And—” this time he looked fully at me, “you are Mr. Williams—Mr. Race Williams, Confidential Agent.” He smiled then, a boyish smile, despite the deep lines about his face and the touches of gray in his hair.
“Right!” His smile was catching and I grinned over at him. I’m impatient and want things to happen quickly. But I just couldn’t jump on this party.
“I am Matthew Burkhart, the publisher. You may have heard of—of my firm.” His eyes came up quickly to mine, in a half hopeful look.
I motioned him to a chair. The name meant money.
“M. Burkhart & Co.?” I questioned doubtfully. This lad didn’t look like the head of that prosperous firm.
“That’s it, that’s it.” His head jerked up and down as if it were on a wire. “You see, I can pay you. I dislike to talk money. I’m hardly a business man, but I have able assistants. My father was the business man.” Again that boyish smile. “But you are not interested in my father.” A sudden shadow and a quivering to his lips. “I have trouble at home and I come to you, Mr.—Mr.—” He was half on his feet, slipping toward the door, when I stopped him.
“Race Williams,” I told him. “Trouble at home, you say, Mr. Burkhart. Lucky in business, unlucky in—” I stopped dead. Somehow, I felt my little joke would hurt, cut deeply, and I switched quickly. “This trouble at home, now. Let me have the facts.” I’m not strong for domestic stuff and wouldn’t touch a divorce case with a ten-foot pole. But this tall lad, who wasn’t sure of my name and called his cane an umbrella, was interesting—different than the usual frightened and nervous people who seek my services. So I listened while he assassinated time.
“I’ve lost the jewelry.” His brows knitted and his fingers played puss-in-the-corner with each other. “They are insured, of course—a hundred and fifty thousand dollars. But the value to me—you see, they belonged to my mother. Clara, I’m afraid, treasured them more for their intrinsic value and the way they set her off.”
He was beginning to mix things up, so I horned in and guided the story. The facts were strange enough—hard to believe if you didn’t set your eyes on the queer, yet somehow appealing, boylike man who told the story.
Matthew Burkhart had been married for three years. That was the “Clara” he spoke about. It was a compliment to her that he remembered her name; he had forgotten about everything else, including the watch that he was vainly trying to locate on the end of an empty chain. But the family jewels had disappeared. Clara Burkhart had worn them at a social affair over a week ago. A pearl necklace, half a dozen rings, and a diamond bracelet. But the necklace was the thing. At his mother’s death Matthew Burkhart had been offered a hundred and thirty thousand dollars for it.
The stuff was missing. Stolen, mislaid, or just chucked in the river—it was up to me to guess. “Guess” was right.
“It was the evening after the dance.” Matthew Burkhart consulted a little memorandum. “Clara asked me if I had placed the necklace in the safe deposit box at the bank, and, Mr Williams, I couldn’t recall if I had or not. But Clara told me she had given them to me and I had gone to the bank with them. So I supposed I had. I am forgetful at times. But the thing worried me, and I visited the bank. The necklace and jewelry were not there. I searched the office—ransacked the house, but there is no sign of them. They have disappeared entirely.”
I whistled softly. This was something new. A talk with his wife might help straighten matters out. But he put the dampers on that little thought.
“I don’t wish to tell her. As for the insurance company, I have said nothing to them. It’s all rather strange and childish, isn’t it, Mr. Williams? My wife has chided me about my—my poor memory. I had been very careful of things around the house. But since this unfortunate occurrence—” He paused a moment, and then shot out the one simple sentence. “I don’t like to be made fun of.”
“And you’re willing to pay big money not to be.” I looked straight over at him; was he hiding anything from me? Was this memory game finally going to turn into a well laid scheme to gyp the insurance company?
“I am willing to pay big money not to be.” He repeated the words after me. “I am forgetful about little things, Mr.—Mr Williams,” and his face brightened. “But this is something big and important. Clara no doubt told me to take them to the bank. I must have left them home, and someone has taken them. I have a notation here in my book—see.” He fumbled through his pockets for a few minutes, produced a tiny note book, and flipping back the pages handed it to me. Just a few words were written there.
“In trouble, appeal to Race Williams, Confidential Agent.”
“I don’t recall offhand just who gave it to me.” Matthew Burkhart tried to make his words indifferent, but an anxious note crept in. This memory business bothered him. Bothered me too, for that matter. Suppose I did take a fancy to play “button—button” with this lad, then what? He might forget about paying me.
“This is rather out of my line,” I told him. “Now, a private detective could probably locate the—”
“No, no.” He cut in excitedly. “No one but you. I understand, Mr. Williams. Your charges, you feel, would be above the work. Perhaps—but I think not. I had a feeling that I was watched today coming here. Nothing tangible, you understand, but eyes were on me. I don’t know, I don’t know. It’s all very strange.” And an uncertain hand rambled over his forehead.
Certainly it wasn’t my kind of a case. Perhaps it was his worried, wistful sort of smile; perhaps the check for a thousand dollars which he hurriedly scribbled and handed over to me. Anyway, I was in the thing. I can’t remember before any chap getting under my skin like this queer old young man, if you get what I mean. But there I was, patting him on the back, handing him his cane and calling it an umbrella. I did ask him if he had told anyone else about this strange disappearance of the necklace. And I did advise him to go straight to his insurance company and let them know of the loss.
The insurance company proposition he killed on the spot. He seemed frightened at even the suggestion of such a procedure.
“I’d rather lose the money than do that.” And there was nothing uncertain in his attitude. “And no one has my confidence in this matter—none.” He paused and wet his lips. “Not even my wife. I want you to locate that necklace without Clara suspecting a thing about it. I am fond of my wife. I would do anything for her, Mr. Williams—anything.” His shoulders bent forward and for a moment his dull brown eyes flashed. Consciously or unconsciously, he was leaving an impression with me. But an impression of what? And he was gone—buttoning his jacket in the button holes of his overcoat.
I whistled softly. Someone was trying to put it over on this duck. Who? His wife—this “Clara” that he would do “anything” for? And did he know more than he told me? But the one person who must hold some clue to the missing heirloom was not to be questioned. Clara, the wife.
Now, we all hate to be laughed at. That’s only human. But think of it! A one hundred and fifty thousand dollar laugh. And again, our little friend’s bad memory! A natural thing, that, in one of his type. To forget your glasses or your hat or your watch, or to post a letter. But not to know what you did with one hundred and fifty thousand dollars’ worth of jewelry! That’s another thing, indeed. Possible—certainly. But I’d like to have a look at that wife. The only evidence that he started off to the bank with the jewels, the only evidence that he intended to take them there, was the reminder his wife had given him. And it wouldn’t be the first wife who had copped off a few gee-gaws on her husband and soaked them, to pay a bridge debt or something. The amount was stupendous. But here I was, naming the guilty party before I was fairly into the case. That wouldn’t do. I pulled out my watch. Two-thirty—just time enough to run downtown and get that check certified.
Of course I’d have to get up to Matthew Burkhart’s home and look the place over—also the wife. I didn’t suggest that to him at my office, because I wanted to get down to the publishing company and see this queer lad at his business. Perhaps the necklace was in his office safe or one of his desk drawers. But to my way of thinking, the thing was simple enough. Matthew Burkhart hadn’t forgotten what he did with that necklace. I felt sure that he never took it to the bank, and what’s more, I think that he half suspected his wife of copping it, though he tried to deny that thought even to himself. Sure! he might have forgotten it. But common sense is common sense, and one hundred and fifty thousand dollars is one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
I whistled softly as I stepped briskly out of the subway and turned down Broadway. I hadn’t reached the publishing house yet, but I wanted to take a little walk. There was that uncanny feeling that I had company—that someone was getting my smoke. I felt more certain of it as I pushed through the crowd and cut across Broadway toward the Hudson River. A natural thing to be shadowed, of course, if I happen to pass through the criminal haunts. I’ve given many of the boys a free ride or two. But here I was, well down in the business section, and a lad camping on my trail.
I was thinking, too, how easy it would be to step into Matthew Burkhart’s home and scare the truth out of his wife with a few hard looks and some well put questions. This shadowing changed the outlook. A woman suddenly caught in financial trouble, or harassed by a bit of blackmail, grabs off some jewelry without much thought of the consequences. But to have someone follow her husband and then dig into my footsteps was an entirely different matter and smacked more of the professional touch. Decidedly, I’d like a look at this Mrs. Burkhart—or perhaps I was all wrong and this bird trailing behind me was connected with a vaudeville act all his own.
Twice I swung sharply back at corners, but not a figure bobbed up on me that had the familiar or the ferret-like countenance of the regulation gum-shoer. I nodded cheerfully. I like to see the game played well. After three unsuccessful attempts to rub noses with my illusive shadow I swung quickly along to the publishing house of Matthew Burkhart. I was in good hands and I was satisfied.
The M. Burkhart Publishing Company was one of the few concerns which had not moved uptown from the old stamping grounds. It was in a worn and ancient building which was sadly in need of a coat of paint, and yet more respectable and dignified for its dilapidated appearance. It looked just like a place to turn out good books. It had that musty air of secluded mystery about it, settled there in the most shabby district of New York’s former grandeur.
An elevator that had done service many years and worked on a rope took me slowly to the editorial offices. The smell of old lumber and damp walls was heavy, and I wondered if after all Matthew Burkhart was such a misfit in business. He might not have the business head, as he said, but surely he was in tune with his surroundings.
Matthew Burkhart was not hard to see. I told the middle-aged woman that peeped through a hole at me that I had an appointment and I feared that Mr. Burkhart might have forgotten. If he wanted secrecy I would give it to him. So I scribbled my message on the back of a business card, stuck it in an envelope, and sealing it, slipped it to the old dame.
No change had been made in M. Burkhart’s office since the day the building was first constructed, I guess. You simply stepped back a hundred years when you crossed the threshold.
“Mr. Smith.” The little lady snapped out the name I had given her. And Smith it was. I couldn’t think of any name that would register easier on the forgetful Mr. Burkhart. But he muddled it up before I was fairly through the doorway. His effort to appear at ease and greet me as an old friend was a pitiful failure.
“Ah! Jones, my boy.” He stepped from behind his book-covered desk and clasped my hands.
When the woman had gone I got down to business.
“I wanted to take a look about your offices and make arrangements to visit your home tonight.” I was thinking of the lad who had followed me.
“Yes—of course. We’ll call you Brown, eh? Clara will never suspect your real business.” And his hands rubbed together as he started in to talk about the publishing house.