The "Gum-Shoe"

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The "Gum-Shoe"  (1921) 
by Philip Curtiss

Extracted from Scribner's magazine, vol. 69 1921, pp. 169-175. Accompanying illustrations by Wallace Morgan may be omitted.


By Philip Curtiss

THERE are certain professions which have an innate fascination for even the least illusioned of us, which probably explains why I always went out of my way to talk to Frank Casey, the house detective of the Hotel St. Romulus. At any rate it could not have been Casey's personal charm, for he was a fat, red-faced man with puffy lips, while a mind more strictly literal than his I have never encountered. As for the poetry of his particular office, it consisted largely of looking intently and fiercely at certain well-dressed persons who seemed to think that the lobby of the St. Romulus was maintained solely as a free social and recreation room for their benefit, while occasionally he was called into service by a headwaiter or clerk to explain to some Latin that the customs of this country and his own were not always the same. As a romantic figure he was distinctly a disappointment, and once I almost told him so.

"Frank," I said one night, "sometime before I get too old to enjoy it, I would like to meet a detective who really looks like a detective."

Frank considered the matter coldly.

"What's the matter?" he asked. "Don't I look like a detective?"

"Yes," I replied, "you do look like a detective. That's just the trouble. I meant a detective who looked like a detective in a book. That's the kind I'd like to meet."

"So would I," replied Frank fervently.

The conversation seemed at an end, but standing alone in a hotel lobby had given Frank a vast power of soliloquy, and I waited patiently while he rocked back and forth on his heels, his eyes following the figure of a young man in a brown derby who was wandering toward the newsstand. The young man bought a copy of "The Signboard," and Frank lost interest but his eyes still roved.

"You write books," he said at last. "But you don't have long hair or a sissy necktie do you?"

The question seemed superfluous, but burly Frank Casey had a disconcerting way of thrusting his nose in your face, and demanding answer to even superfluous questions.

"Do you?" he insisted.

"I hope not," I hastened to reply.

"Well, then."

My quest did not seem to meet with much encouragement. It passed from my mind and I thought that it did from Frank's too, but I reckoned without his elephantine memory, for one night, a full year later, he hailed me at the foot of the elevator.

"Say," he said, with a ponderous jerk of his head which made the elevator-boys at me sharply, "come here, I want to talk to you."

He led me a few steps away, and then with rough confidence he vouchsafed in a low tone:

"Remember you said detectives never looked like detectives? Well, there's a fellow here I want you to meet."

Standing at the point where Frank usually stood was a tall, striking-looking man of forty in evening clothes. A silk hat was pushed back easily on his head, a yellow cane hung over his arm, and a pair of gloves were crumpled in his hand. From the languid, humorous way in which he stood watching the crowd in the lobby he might have been a typical man-about-town, but his lean, rather gaunt face, with its blond mustache, had a tanned, weather-beaten look which made him notable in that pallid company. It was the type of face which one usually at tributes to a British officer.

"Mr. Blake, shake hands with Mr. Munson," said Frank, and as we obeyed he added: "You boys ought to know each other. You'll have things to talk about."

Blake and I smiled as we studied each other, and my scrutiny, at least, was one of interest, for Blake did look like the kind of man who would have things to say. In my business clothes he made me feel dingy, and his air of cool self-possession rather awed me. I waited for him to make the advances but he waited too, and Frank had to start the thing moving.

"Would either of you like a sandwich or something?" he began hopefully.

The tall man smiled.

"I would like something," he said.

He seemed to express the will of the party, but hardly were we seated at a dark oak table in the café when a bell-boy whispered in Frank's ear, and our host stood up.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen, I've got to run off, but stick around. I'll be back. If you want anything sign my name."

With his hundreds of friends among travelling men, actors, reporters, and other casuals who flowed in and out of the St. Romulus lobby, it was seldom that worldly wise Frank was as lordly as that. The note in his voice increased my respect for this stranger who commanded such deference, but our conversation, as soon as he left us, concerned Frank himself.

"A great character—Casey," remarked Blake as the huge, waddling back disappeared through the door.

"A fine fellow," I agreed, but a certain whimsical twinkle in the eyes of my new companion told me that our conversation need not be limited to platitudes and I struck out boldly on the line which had failed with Frank.

"I can never see Casey," I suggested, "without thinking how different are most of the detectives you meet in real life from—well from what you imagine detectives would be."

A deep pair of parenthesis lines formed around my companion's mouth. He looked down at the wooden table-top and slid the glass in his hand idly about in small circles as if to see how hard he could do it without spilling its contents. I gathered that my remark was not wholly novel.

"Well," he replied in a not unkindly way, "in real life, you know, a detective is usually nothing but a high-grade roughneck, a sort of glorified policeman."

He kept his eyes on the glass in his hand and put on the brake just as the contents swirled up to the edge. Then, as if he had found out all that he wanted to know, he suddenly shoved it aside and continued:

"And, when you come down to it, that is just about the way that it should be, for detective work, like any other business, is largely a matter of acquaintance. The best man to sell bonds is the man who knows the most investors. The best man to catch crooks is the man who knows the most crooks."

He made it sound disappointing but I still clung to my cherished romance.

"Then you think the detective stories we read are impossible?"

My companion laughed.

"I wondered if that was what you had in mind."

As if he could not concentrate without doing it, he began circling his glass again.

"No," he continued, rather hesitatingly, "I wouldn't say that the stories are impossible. I wouldn't say that anything was impossible."

By the long time that he sat in silence gazing at the table-top he seemed to be giving my question a flattering amount of thought.

"The difference between a detective in a story and a detective in real life," he began at last, "is that the detective in the story goes on the principle that things are seldom what they seem, while the real detective goes on the principle that things are almost always just what they seem."

"It sounds simple," I said rather vaguely.

"If it weren't," replied Blake, "few crooks would ever be caught."

Then, suddenly, as if he had been playing a part, as if he had been holding himself in restraint, he leaned back and laughed.

"I don't want to spoil your romance," he said. "Perhaps I can show you what I mean by a little instance."

I summoned all my attention and also summoned the waiter.

"I'll have the same," said Blake, nodding, then lighting a cigarette, he asked: "Do you happen to know the motto of the Enterprise Agency?"

I shook my head.

"Well," explained Blake, "the motto of the Enterprise people is, 'Evidence where evidence exists.' That covers about the whole of detective work right there, but the more you think of it the more it means. First off it means not to go chasing half over the world looking for things that exist right under your nose; but it means something else that you don't realize at first.

"When you spoke about old Frank there," he continued, "I couldn't help thinking about a man I once knew who had all the ideas you find in the story-books—the international intrigue, the gentleman sleuth stuff. So every time I am tempted to laugh at the books I think of this case and have to believe them after all.

"You see, most detectives are honest chaps who have graduated from patrolmen, or have made investigations for lawyers, or have been private watchmen, or express-messengers. Then there are lots of foreigners, especially Italians. You have to have them at any price because they speak the language. But this boy was unusual. He went into the business deliberately, just out of pure romance. He went into it to keep life from being dull, like our old friend Sherlock. He was a college man, had travelled abroad, had done some writing for the newspapers——"

"And his name was—?" I interrupted.

Blake flushed but smiled in spite of himself.

"Well, call his name Smith, because that is easy to remember and you won't trip me up on it. Anyway Smith—how's that?—Smith, with his college clothes and his happy smile walked into the Enterprise office one morning and asked the chief for a job. Can you get it? Young Hopeful breezing into that place with a fraternity pin and a little cane and calmly saying, 'I want to be a detectuv!'

"I—well I might as well say that I was there. Anyway, you can imagine what happened. Even the stenographers got it and began tittering until the poor kid got all red and flustered, and ended up by wishing that he'd never been such a romantic ass. But he stuck to it, and after looking him over a minute and trying to keep his face straight the chief asked him into his private office and said: 'So you want to be an operative, do you?'

"Of course what did I call him? Smith had never heard that word before, but he nodded and then the chief began to do some quick thinking, for, although it and began tittering until the poor kid got all red and flustered, and ended up by wishing that he'd never been such a romantic ass. But he stuck to it, and after looking him over a minute and trying to keep his face straight the chief asked him into his private office and said: 'So you want to be an operative, do you?'

"Of course what did I call him? Smith had never heard that word before, but he nodded and then the chief began to do some quick thinking, for, although he didn't let the kid know it, he was a gift on a blank Christmas. He was exactly the kind of man the chief wanted for a case he had in hand, and exactly the kind he thought he could never get, for that office, like every other office, was filled up with Frank Caseys, only they weren't all so fat. The youngster looked to the chief too good to be true. He was almost afraid of a plant, but he asked him some questions, got some references, and the next day he took him on, after which he began to teach him Lesson Number One.

"'Now, er Smith,' he said, 'this may not be your idea of the gay and happy life of a gum-shoe, but you know that all our work does not consist in tracking murderers to their lairs or putting the Prince of Moravia back on his throne. The job I'm going to give you is like a lot of work you'll get in this business, and you can take it or leave it.'

"Then he told him about the job, which really is of a sort that you get all the time in some agencies. The client was a nice old gentleman. You'd know him in a minute if I told you. He was not a multi-millionaire but one of those solid old boys who has dinner at four o clock on Sunday afternoons, serves on all sorts of committees, subscribes to the opera and the horse show alike, and never gives a hang whether the market goes up or down, And the old gentleman had a daughter, And the daughter had a young man who wanted to marry her, and gave signs that he was going to do it, too."

Blake lit a fresh cigarette from his old one, and the parentheses around his mouth deepened again at the memory of that case.

"So there you are," he said between puffs. "Doesn't that sound like Chapter One?"

I agreed that it did and Blake went on:

"To make it better this suitor was a foreigner. At least, he was an Englishman. He was almost a stage Englishman, He was one of those young fellows that you used to see in droves in the hotel tea-rooms before the war—tall, languid, long nose, little mustache, handkerchief up his sleeve, and all the rest of it, a great ladies' man, a regular parlor-snake."

"Is this what Smith told you?" I interrupted suddenly.

Blake grinned.

"Presumably so," he answered. "Anyway that's what Smith told the chief. Of course that was the job, to go out and shadow this Englishman, for although everything about him was beautifully plausible, the old gentleman began to suspect what was in the air. He wanted to get rid of him, and he wanted to get rid of him before things had gone so far there would be a muss. Plenty of people in New York knew the Englishman but they didn't know anything about him. He had drifted into New York the way that lots of others had done—letters to somebody who gave him letters to somebody else until he was there and nobody remembered exactly where the original letters had come from. He claimed to have been an army officer and a younger son of some one important at home, but after a while people had begun to talk and the father was getting scared.

"So that was the case as the chief laid it before young Smith. He gave the names and the general facts, told him that the Englishman was visiting the family at their country-place down on Long Island, and then he put it to him straight:

"'Now, boy,' he said, 'you may have to do some things in this business that you think no gentleman would do, and if you feel that way about it you've got to remember that this is no gentleman's game. First you're to meet old Mr. So-and-So at his club on Forty-fourth Street and get acquainted. Then you're to go down there and visit. You're a guest from—well what place do you know besides New York?'

"'I was brought up in Akron,' answered the kid. 'And I went to school in Ann Arbor.'

"'Right,' said the chief. 'You can take your choice, only let me know which you choose in case some friend from your home town should have reason to call you up on urgent business. You're to fix up some reason for visiting there. Get a simple one and one that will come easy to the old gentleman, for remember that you're going to carry the work, not he. Then, when you get there, I want to give you one rule. I want you to forget that you are a detective or have ever been one, which you only have for fifteen minutes. If you think of it you will show it and somebody else will guess it. You won't have to wear any false whiskers or do any hiding behind doors. You're to fool yourself into believing that you are just what you pretend to be, a guest of the family from Akron or that other place. Act natural, eat natural, sleep natural, and make yourself agreeable without slopping over. Don't shadow this Englishman, just remember that he's there, that's all, and make up your mind about him as you would about any new fellow you meet. Without seeming to watch him think him over and get his number. Every time he mentions a name or a place or a date let it sink in and, when you get a chance, write it down. Don't try to draw him out. Let him hang himself if he's going to. As you get more names and places and dates, check them over and see if they agree, and then bring them in to me.

"'Is that all?' asks the kid.

"'No, it's not,' said the chief, looking suddenly pretty hard. 'There's one thing more and the most important of all. I told you to forget that you are a detective, but I don't want you to forget that you are working for me and that I am working for my client. My client is paying me to spot this bird, and I am paying you to do it. He may be as pleasant as a day in June and may put you under obligation to him, but no matter how noble a lord he may seem to you, don't forget that you are working for me, not him. You get that, don't you?'

"This sort of talk and the sneery way the chief said it made the kid feel kind of uncertain, and wonder whether he wanted to be a detective after all, but he thought he was in for it now, so he went away, made his appointment with the old gentleman, and two days later, when he came back, he was feeling a whole lot better. So was the chief.

"'Well,' he said, 'how do you like the work? Or are you sorry you ever learned the trade?'

"'To tell the truth,' the kid had to confess, 'so far I like it fine, only I can't make it seem like work. I haven't done anything but play golf and ride horseback and live off the fat of the land.'

"The chief grinned.

"'That was what I told you to do, wasn't it? But how about this bird you're watching?'

"At that young Smith got sort of embarrassed, but he had at least one thing to report: 'Anyway, I've found out that he really has been in the army.'

"'How do you know that?' asked the chief.

"'Well,' said the kid, 'he was telling a story at dinner last night about a soldier in his company. It was a long, long story, and the soldier talked all the time, but not once did he use the word "you" to the officer. He always addressed the man he was talking to in the third person. "The leftenant this," and "the leftenant that." Nobody who has never been in the army can keep that up without slipping.'

'That's a new one on me,' said the chief. 'Still he might have been the soldier himself and not the officer. That's fine as far as it goes but what more of him? What kind of a fellow is he?'

"At that the kid got red again and finally he burst out: 'To tell the truth, I think he's a dandy.'

"The chief couldn't help smiling a little but he gave a grunt. 'I told you he was a smooth article. He wouldn't be there if he wasn't. He's working you, boy, just as he's working the rest of the family.'

"'I don't know whether he's working me or not,' said the kid. 'But that's the way he looks to me so far.'

"'Awright,' said the chief. 'Stick to it and do a little snooping around now.'

"A couple of days later Smith reported again, and this time he had a long list of names and places in England, but the story was about the same. He couldn't find an edge in the Englishman anywhere and the chief was getting impatient.

"'You know it is costing our client good money to keep you out there, don't you?' he asked. 'From all I can make out the bird is getting ready to stay there for life, and that's what you're to keep from happening.'

"'Yes, sir,' said the kid, looking and feeling pretty rough about it. 'But to tell the truth, sir, I can't get a single thing on him from anything that has happened.'

"At that the chief looked at him hard and half shut his eyes.

"'Happened?' he said; 'can't you make something happen? Suppose things were made easy for him? Put in his way? How about a little card-game with you playing the easy-mark, or a little trip and a couple of bottles of fizz? Places do occasionally get raided, you know, if the right people have the tip. Do you get me now?'

"The kid's face must have been a study. For a long time he thought he was going to balk, but he also was awfully uncertain about himself, for he wanted to be game.

"'Yes, sir, I get you,' he said at last, but he didn't say it with much heart.

"'Very well, then,' said the chief. 'Now get back there and give us some action.'

"For three days Smith never showed up at all, and when he did come in he had made up his mind about the detective business, bag and baggage. He went up to the chief as if the chief were a waiter.

"'I think, sir,' he said, very lordly himself now, 'that my career as—as an operative is over.'

"The chief looked him over from head to foot.

"'You think what?' he howled.

"'I think,' repeated the kid, 'that my career as an operative is over. I not only think it but I know it.'

"This time the chief got the situation and he became quieter.

"'Before you go into that,' he said, 'you might give me your final report on this chap that you were sent out to lose.'

"At that the kid burst. 'My report,' he said, 'is that he is one of the cleanest, finest fellows I ever met in my life.' He was looking at the chief now just as hard as the chief was looking at him, and something was going to crack. 'He told me his whole story last night. The facts are there on that paper. You may not believe it but I believe every word of it. My report is that if your client could get that man for a son-in-law he would be lucky. I came here to be a detective, not a blackmailer. That's my report, sir. Now is there any reason why I should not resign?'

"'None whatever,' answered the chief, 'except that we want to keep you.'

Blake lighted another of his interminable cigarettes which he had been smoking all during his story. He watched the first puffs of smoke reminiscently and then he went on:

"For a long time both of them sat there without saying a word but at last the chief asked:

"'Young man, did you ever see the motto of this agency?'

"Of course Smith had, for it was on all the letter-heads, but the chief told him just the same:

"'The motto of this agency is "evidence where evidence exists," and among other things that means only where evidence exists. Pleasant or unpleasant, it is our business to dig up the facts, but we have never yet had to go into the business of manufacturing them.'

"The chief," explained Blake, "was not exactly a man for the heart-to-heart business and he did a good deal of hemming and hawing, but he was trying to be square.

"'Young man,' he said to Smith, 'I want you to stay with us because I think that you are the man I have been looking for ever since I have been in the game. I have given you rather a raw deal but I had to do it. Every agency in the country needs a man of your education and standing, but there's not one in five that has got him. There are plenty of so-called gentlemen who will take money from us, but a man of education who goes into this business in nine cases out of ten is merely a parasite, a failure at everything else. All he wants is a soft living and easy money. He is not a detective, he is a sneak. He will lie about his friends if we pay him to do it, and a man who will lie about anything is no use to us. You have got to learn the tricks of the trade. We can teach those to any scoundrel, but if a man hasn't got a love of truth in him we can't teach it to him. I gave you plenty of chance to fake, but I have checked you up from day to day and if you had faked one fact you would have been through before now.'

"The kid looked at him with his mouth wide open, and the chief let him look just to give it a chance to sink in.

"'As to this particular case,' he said finally, 'you've told me just what I thought from the start, and I may as well tell you now that it wasn't necessary to send you clear out to Long Island to get what I wanted. I got all the dope on our British friend the day after I wired to London for it.'

"'But—but,' asked the kid, 'what is the dope about him?'

"'Exactly what you said it was,' said the chief. 'He's straight as a die. And I'll tell you this. There are people in England who are more worried about his marrying our client's daughter than our client is about her marrying him.'

"'As for that,' said Smith, 'I don't think she meant to marry him, anyway.'

"The chief gave him a look. 'What makes you think that?' he asked.

"'Oh,' stammered the kid, 'just things she said from time to time.'

"'To you?' roared the chief.

"'Yes, to me,' confessed the kid, and at that the chief lay back and threw up his hands.

"'Smith,' he said, 'I wouldn't have missed you for money. It's all right once, but don't think it's part of your work to have a love-affair every time I send you out on a dress-suit party.'"

Blake emptied his glass and looked at me smiling.

"So that," he said, "is my one real detective story."

"But," I said, puzzled, you haven't finished it. Did Smith himself marry the girl, or did the Englishman, or what?"

Blake laughed.

"If I could tell you that, I wouldn't have to call him Smith."

I was disappointed but I could hardly pursue it.

"Well, anyway," I insisted, "how did the chief get his own line on the Englishman? How was he able to check Smith up from day to day?"

"Oh, that," replied Blake. "That was routine. Of course when he sent out Smith, the chief planted one of his roughnecks, one of your glorified policemen, to watch him."

As if the words were a signal, at that moment the fat, red face and immense shoulders of old Frank came towering into the room, but I had to hurry.

You might as well tell me," I begged. "You were Smith, weren't you?"

Blake laughed at my persistence and then relented.

"No," he replied, "I wasn't Smith. I was the glorified policeman."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1964, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 50 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.