The Adventures of Detective Barney/Barney and King Lear

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VI

BAENEY AND KING LEAR


I

Barney had spent his day around the General Post Office waiting to pick up a suspect, whom he had never seen, and follow him—he did not know whither—so as to get evidence of he did not know what. He had had his instructions and a photograph; that was all; and he had not asked anything more. He was not curious. He was becoming highly professional. He did not even worry over the fact that he had failed to catch his man. And having been relieved by another member of Babbing’s staff, he was on his way home to his supper, now, with a free mind.

But if you except that he was tired and hungry and expecting a warm meal and a soft bed, he was not looking forward to his homecoming with any eager anticipation. Home, of course, should be the place where a working man may talk of himself and his day inexhaustibly, with the assurance of a sympathetic hearing. It was just this credulous ear of interest that Barney knew he would not find.

On the first day of his work with Babbing, he had told his mother that he had been engaged as an office boy—because he was afraid that she might object to his being a detective. Later, when he was forced to tell her the truth, he had wound his way into his confession with such unconvincing circumlocution, and he had so guiltily beclouded the point when he came to it, that she had accepted his story in a large silence that evidently covered a multitude of thoughts. Then he began to come home full of enthusiastic accounts of his daily exploits; and the more calmly she received them, the more amazing he made them. Once or twice, when he was romancing, she interrupted him to talk to his sister Annie. But she never expressed any doubts of his stories to the boy himself. She was a wise woman. The whole neighborhood knew her to be such; and she had gained the reputation by her ability to keep her opinion of people to herself.

Barney might never have suspected her, if he had not become a detective. In his social set, a boy is so busy concealing the guilty secrets of his conscience from his elders that he has no time to develop his own perspicacity. He is so diligent in hiding that he does not sharpen his eyes for what others have hidden. But after Babbing had lectured him, whimsically, on the necessity of knowing when a man was lying to him, he had begun to watch and study the utterances he met with. And suddenly he found that he could guess what people were thinking. In the ordinary course of growth, he would have acquired the faculty imperceptibly, by the slow process of experience. It came to him, now, in a startling illumination.

And the first thing it showed him was his own lack of credit in his mother’s mind. He discovered, beneath her silence, an incredulity like a bottomless pit, into which he had been pouring his confidences. Her proud opinion of him—which he had built up for himself on her supposed belief in his exploits—collapsed into that chasm. He had thought himself his mother’s right-hand man. He had been jealous of his sister Annie. His mother had always appeared to slight the girl in his favor, and to give him the place in her esteem to which his masculine superiority entitled him. Imagine the disillusionment of discovering that his mother had been protecting him from Annie—that she had been slighting the girl in order to preserve an appearance of equilibrium in her maternal affection—that she had assumed her partiality for him out of pity for his inferiority to his sister. Imagine the feelings of an anti-suffragist who learns that to Mother Nature the female is the more important sex.

It had taken him a week to find out where he stood and convince himself that he was not mistaken. He had sulked—and been ignored. He had boasted, and his self-assertion had been accepted in a silence that defeated him. He could not take his mother to the Babbing Bureau to convince her that he had not greatly exaggerated his importance there. And certainly there was no way in which he could bring the Babbing Bureau to her. If the hero of “The Boy Pirate” had come home to be spanked for playing hookey and telling lies to excuse his truancy, the situation might have had a parallel in Barney’s mind. Nothing less bathetic could equal it.

His mother kept a furnished lodging-house in Hudson Street, and he came up the worn sandstone steps to her blistered colonial door, with as little alacrity as if he were still a telegraph boy delivering a message. His sister Annie answered bis ring. “Oh, it ’s you,” she said; and he thought she said it disparagingly. He did not reply to her. He went down the shabby hall to the back stairs and descended them to the basement, where an odor of cooking flattered his nostrils. He heard old Con Cooney’s voice, and understood that their neighbor had dropped in again for supper. He liked Cooney—because Cooney liked him—and the presence of another man in the house seemed somehow to mitigate the feminine conspiracy to belittle him.

Mrs. Cook, having rented all her upper floors, housed her family in three rooms in the basement; and they had their meals in the big old-fashioned kitchen, on an oilcloth-covered table, beside a cookstove that stood in an arched niche of brick in the chimney wall. Barney smelled the potato cakes in the oven as he hung up his hat in the lower hall. He did not get the subtler fragrance of clam chowder till he came into the room. When old Cooney said heartily “How are ye, boy?” he answered “Fine an’ dandy,” with a smile. It was the smile of an expectant stomach.

His mother rose to get his soup plate from the warming shelf, but she merely looked her greeting in a glance of solicitude that saw him tired and hungry. Any demonstration of affection from her would have seemed hypocritical. Cooney said “That ’ll stick to yer ribs,” as she put a steaming plate of chowder before Barney. He replied “Sure, Mike,” and grinned.

It was a chowder as thick as an Irish stew—a savory suttee of indistinguishable vegetables that had been immolated at the obsequies of the clam, and now, in the ascending steam, gave up their essential souls to assist his translation into glory. Like an aromatic music, it soothed Barney with a vague strengthening of spirit that was at once insatiable and contented. He opened his moist lips to the first spoonful, and it sank to the seat of a satisfaction that was too deep to be lifted even by a sigh. He hunched himself over that seductive distillation, drinking a steady stream of spoonfuls, gazing into it hypnotically, breathing it, brooding on it, lost in it. The conversation went on above his devotional, bowed head. The others had arrived at the potato cakes. They could talk.

They were talking of Cooney’s domestic affairs. He was a widower, with two married daughters, to each of whom, on the day of her marriage, he had given a house. “Why should I be keepin’ thim waitin’ fer my fun’ral,” he said, “to get their bit o’ prope’ty? They need it more now.” It was all he had—those two houses. They represented the savings of a lifetime of trucking. He had sold his teams and his trucks to pay off the last instalment of mortgage when he retired.

He had a ruddy old face—the ruddier by contrast with the whiteness of his hair. It was a face of kindly philosophy growing senile. He had always had the name of being “kind o’ simple”; and there was this simplicity in his confessing to Mrs. Cook, at her supper table, that he was worried out of his sleep because his youngest daughter, with whom he was living, had made up her mind to give up renting rooms, to sell her house, and move into a flat. “It ’s been hard times, as ye know, m’am,” he explained, “gettin’ rooms rented hereabouts since thim subways an’ tun-nels an’ all was digged. But what w’ud I be doin’ in a flat?”

Mrs. Cook attempted to cheer him by helping him to another potato cake. It distracted him at least. He split it with his knife, spread the halves with lumps of butter and closed them together on that melting secret, to absorb it tenderly.

Barney said, in the silence: “Why don’t you get about ten ton o’ coal an’ shoot it into her cellar?”

Cooney looked up from his cake. “What good ’ud that do, d’ ye think?”

“She ’d never move out an’ leave it, would she?”

“Niver!” He laid down his knife and fork. “Boy! Ye ’re a wunnder! How did y’ iver think o’ that, now?”

Barney nodded, with his eyes on his chowder, as if to say “Oh, I know a thing er two, even if some people don't think so.” As a matter of fact, he had once heard of a man using a load of coal to anchor his wife when she talked of moving.

Annie piped up: “I don’t see that that ’d make any difference.”

“Would n’t it then,” Mrs. Cook snubbed her. “That shows all you know about it.”

Annie was used to snubs. She went to the oven for Barney’s plate of potato cakes, unresentful. His mother was pouring his tea.

“It ’ud do the trick,” Cooney said. “It w'ud that. It ’s a great contrivance. It is surely.” He added, in a lower tone, to himself and his food: “But where ’d I get the money fer it?”

Mrs. Cook put down her tea-pot with a hump. “Have you given all of it over to them girls?”

“Yes ’m,” Cooney admitted.

“Have you kep’ none of it fer yurself?”

He blinked at her, under his shaggy eyebrows, guiltily apologetic. “No’m,” he said. And to Barney, looking from one to the other, several things were clear.

It was clear that Cooney, having made himself dependent on his children, was being housed with ingratitude; that was why he looked apologetic; he was ashamed of them before her. And he had been trying to maintain some show of being independent of their bounty, by going about for his meals; that was why he had been dropping in for supper so frequently with Mrs. Cook. And his praise of her cooking had not been disinterested; that was why he looked guilty; he saw that she suspected it.

Mrs. Cook, shrewd and kindly, made no comment on the situation. She maintained a receptive silence that drew him out like a vacuum pump. In a few minutes he was giving up his story, in hints and evasions, piecemeal, out of all sequence of time and incident, and with no right understanding himself of how it had happened or who had been to blame. Barney ate and listened.

The story was new to him, though it was as old as King Lear. Cooney had deeded a house to his elder daughter when she married Lieutenant Buntz of the fire department; and they had all lived together, renting the parlor floor, the younger daughter helping to do the house-work. When this younger daughter married a machinist, Cooney could no less than give her the other house, where she too followed the custom of the street by letting her vacant floors. He had remained with the older girl, who kept him in clothes and tobacco—and pocket money for an occasional nip. She had begrudged him nothing, though she had hinted, after Kathleen’s marriage, that the sister might be doing something for him, too.

“It was Buntz’s notion, that,” old Cooney said. “He ’s nothin’ but a poor furriner, y’ understand, m’am. He ’s got no right feelin’s whativer.”

Then the hard times struck the quarter, and so many of Mrs. Buntz’s rooms were empty for a whole summer that she had no money for her dad. The winter brought some return of prosperity, but not for him. He had all he could eat and a comfortable room, but Buntz had evidently persuaded his wife that her father’s spending money ought to come from the other daughter; and they let him go shabby, with empty pockets and a cold pipe. He left them—after a quarrel with Buntz.

“He ’s a durty little furriner,” he explained to Mrs. Cook. “They ’re the currse o’ the country, as ye know, ma’m—thim furriners. They ’ve got no right to marry dacint Amuricans. There ought to be a law agin it.”

Kathleen’s man, the machinist, was the proper sort; and they had received him with a sympathy that encouraged his grievance and increased his ill-will against Buntz. But the machinist was chronically out of work, and Kathleen was no such manager as her sister; and though Cooney and the husband made themselves useful around the house, and shared their tobacco when they had any—and were convivial together when they could raise the price of a glass—old Cooney’s condition was not so much better than it had been at the Buntz’s. Affairs were soon complicated by the fact that Kathleen became exasperated at her husband’s idleness and accused him, before her father, of being willing to live on the rent of the rooms instead of working for himself. Cooney was a man of peace. He avoided taking sides in the quarrel. But he was drawn into it by the husband’s retort that the house was not hers anyway, but her father’s—and by the girl’s accusation that Cooney was encouraging the husband to loaf. Then she went to her sister and demanded that some just arrangement should be made by which one of them could board their father and the other make him an allowance; and Mrs. Buntz replied that she had always been willing to board him and would do so any time that he would come back to her. Cooney declared that he would starve first. Kathleen scolded him. He accused her of ingratitude. Things went rapidly from bad to worse. It was a cat and dog’s life entirely. And at last Kathleen, in a determined revolt against the domestic situation, put the house in an agent’s hands for sale, and started out to look for a small flat in which she could live economically on her bit of money and make it impossible for her relatives to “impose” on her any longer.

“Oh, now,” Mrs. Cook consoled the old man, “people has to squabble. It gives them somethin’ t’ occupy their minds. It makes life int’restin’—a good hot quar’l. You must n’t take it so to heart.”

“ ’Tain’t that, m’am,” he said pathetically, “but between ’em I ’ll soon be on the streets. They neither av thim wants me.”

“Well, that ’s the way o’ nature, Mr. Cooney.” She poured him the last cup of tea. “It ain’t provided that a parent should be dependin’ to his young ones. Those gurls ’ll be sweet enough to their own childurn—an’ like as not they ’ll get the same dose they ’re givin’ you. It ’s the wisdom o’ God. If we was all as crazy about our parents as they are about us, we ’d none of us be leavin’ home to marry, an’ there ’d soon be no childurn in the world at all. That ’d never do. Never. You must n’t expect it, man.”

“I don’t, m’am,” poor Cooney defended himself. “All I wanted of them was a corner be the fire, in the houses I gave thim.”

“Well, say,” Barney cut in, “if you had a couple thousan’ dollars—er so—in the bank, it ’d make a change, wouldn’t it?”

“Make a change, lad?”

“Yes. They ’d like y’ a lot more if you had somethin’ to make it worth while, eh?”

Cooney rubbed his forehead. “What ’s that? Say that ag’in.”

“It ’s because you ’ve got nuthin’ more to give them—is n’t it? That ’s why they’re so snooty?”

“Boy,” he confessed, “I suppose ’tis so, but I take shame to think it.”

“Well, then,” Barney said, “if you c’n keep yer mouth shut, I c’n put somethin’ over.”

“Barney,” his mother cried, “if you talk so to yer elders, I ’ll box yer ears.”

He turned to her impatiently. “Aw, hol’ on a shake, mom. I ’m talkin’ bus’ness. We c’n square this whole blame thing with a little plant.”

The puzzled Cooney asked: “What kind av a plant?”

“A rubber plant,” Barney answered cockily. “Gum shoe. The kind they grow down at the office. Leave it to me. I ’ll show y’ a sample to-morrah.” He held out his plate to Annie. “Gi’ me another cake,” he ordered her.

“You ’ll make yerself sick,” she said.

“I ’d sooner be sick than hungry. Hurry up.”

He explained to Cooney: “That coal would ’ve done the trick, would n’t it? Well, that was a plant. See? Leave it to me.” He swept them all with a Napoleonic eye. “An’ you ’ll keep quiet about it—all of you—er you ’ll crab the whole game.”

Annie asserted her independence feebly by taking her own time with the cakes. His mother opened her lips to reply to him—and closed them again. But what they both concealed in the backs of their minds was visible in Cooney’s admiring regard: Barney was on the way to come into his own with that family.


II

He refused to say anything more about his plant until he could complete his preparations for it, and those preparations required a word from Babbing.

He put in his request for an interview with the Chief early on the following morning; but he did not get an invitation to the private office until the afternoon, when Babbing, after his morning’s work and a milk-and-salad luncheon, was smoking the one cigar that he allowed himself daily. It was supposed, among his men, that he devoted this interval of nicotine to scheming out the various stratagems by which he solved his cases; and Barney entered the sanctum of cerebration with apologetic misgivings for the request he wished to make.

As a matter of fact, Babbing had one of those minds that never consciously apply themselves to thought—that start like an engine when the mechanical load is thrown on, and work best when the necessity is pressing. He merely smoked a cigar as a sort of siesta, while his luncheon was “settling.” And he received Barney in the best of post-prandial moods, behind a cloud of tobacco smoke, at his ease in his swivel chair, mildly quizzical. “Well, what ’s worrying you?

Barney rose, at once, to his humor. He replied, like a client: “I got a case ’at I want to see y’ about, Mr. Babbing.”

“Good. Sit down. What is it?”

Barney sat down, as part of the joke. “I want to get a bunch o’ phoney money to make a plant fer a fullah.”

“Uh-huh.” Babbing received it as if it were a request for a postage stamp, almost absent-mindedly, being engaged in flicking the ash from his cigar. “What are you going to do with it?”

Barney admired the duplicity of his Chief’s manner the more because he saw through it. “I want to—to kind o’ help him out of a hole. It ’s this way, Chief.” And he began Cooney’s story, confusedly, struggling to avoid the slang to which Babbing objected. As he got further in his narrative, he forgot about the slang, and Babbing listened to him, twinkling. The sunlight, from the window at Babbing’s back, made a luminous obscuring cloud of the tobacco smoke before the detective’s face; and when Babbing snorted and coughed, Barney supposed that it was the smoke that choked him. “So I dopes it out,” said Barney, “that if I could get a hold of a bunch o’ fake money, I could make a kind o’ plant with th’ ol’ guy, an’ have some one go an’ borry a sackful off him—some way so ’s his fam’ly ’d get hep—an’ then they ’d figger he ’d got a bar’l o’ sugar stowed away some’rs—an’ he ’d be as pop’lar ’s Santy Claus, all right, with the whole outfit. Don’t you think so, Chief?”

Babbing waved aside the tobacco smoke and leaned forward. He was smiling. “Barney,” he said, “did you ever read Shakespeare?”

“No, sir,” Barney grinned.

“I thought you were trying to rewrite him. You ’re making comedy out of King Lear.”

“King Who?”

“Never mind. I see glimmerings of intelligence in you, at last. You ’re beginning to think like a detective.”

“Yes, sir,” Barney said modestly.

“Well, let us see, now,” Babbing reflected. “Your idea is that if Cooney’s daughters thought he still had money, they ’d be more considerate of him, eh? With a lively sense of favors to come.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how long do you think they ’d be willing to wait cheerfully for those favors?”

“Well, gee—”

“And can you imagine those girls giving him money to spend if they thought he had plenty in the bank?”

“Mebbe they ’d let on they did n’t know about it?”

“Yes. That ‘maybe’ has spoiled a lot of good-looking plants. Is Cooney a convincing liar?”

Barney shook his head.

“Is he the sort of man who ’d have money in the bank and keep quiet about it?”

“I guess—”

“In fact you know he ’s not, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, then, what are you going to do about it? Your plant ’s so full of holes it would collapse in a week.”

Barney looked down at his feet. He rubbed his nose with the back of his hand. He frowned thoughtfully. “Well, I guess that ’s all there is to it.”

“No. Not altogether.” Babbing swung around to look out the window, “You ’ve started right. Have the Buntzes a telephone in the house?”

“I—I don’ know.”

“Find that out. Wait a minute. See Cooney to-night and explain to him that he has a paid-up policy for five-thousand dollars—say in the Calabrian Life. That ’s a foreign company that doesn’t exist. Their agent has a desk in 1047.” (Room 1047 was one of the unlabeled operatives’ rooms of the Babbing Detective Bureau.) “This policy has been made out in favor of Cooney’s two daughters, understand? They ’d get five thousand dollars between them when he died. But he ’s been so pinched for money that he wants to cash in the policy right away. And the agent of the Calabrian Life can only offer him fifteen hundred dollars for it. Do you get that?”

“Sure Mi— Yes, sir.”

“Good. As soon as you have Cooney ready, we ’ll telephone to Buntz’s—or have Fisher drop in there, if they have n’t a ’phone—and ask for Cooney, and let it slip that he wants to see the old man about a paid-up policy. That ’ll start the Buntzes in the direction we want them to move. Then you can have Fisher, as agent of the insurance company, write a letter to Cooney telling him that the cash value of the policy is only fifteen hundred dollars. And Cooney can consult the machinist about the letter. Understand? If the machinist comes to 1047, Fisher can take care of him. Arrange for that.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then we ’ll have Lear’s two daughters up against the proposition that if they drive their father out on the street, he ’ll have to sell his policy and they ’ll lose five thousand by it. And unless I ’m a false prophet, each one ’ll begin trying to edge the other out of the old man’s affections, so as to get the whole five thousand for herself. And Mr. Cooney will be happy as long as he can keep his secret.”

“Gee!” Barney said, “that ’s a peach.”

“Good. I ’m glad you like it. Go ahead, now, and let me see you pull it off. I ’ll ’phone Fisher to help you.”

Barney hesitated. “He won’t be able to pay us a cent, Chief—Cooney won’t.”

Babbing dropped his cigar butt in the cuspidor and reached for his desk ’phone. “Tell him I ’m doing this for him as a fellow-member of the International Brotherhood of Male Parents. I ’m a father myself. If he wants to, he can leave directions in his will that we ’re to be paid out of his life insurance after he dies. . . . Hello. Put Fisher on here.” He added to Barney, his lips twitching: “I ’d like to live long enough to interview the daughters, when they come to 1047 to claim that insurance money. Run along, now, and get busy.”

Barney ran. He found that the Buntzes had a telephone—for the convenience of their lodgers—and he helped Fisher prepare his letter as agent of the life insurance company. Fisher improved on the plant. Having an artistic conscience, he was not satisfied until he had hunted up a fraudulent insurance policy that had come into the office files in connection with a swindle long since prosecuted; and he altered the policy to insure Cooney for five thousand dollars, and he wrote his own name and office address on it as agent of the company.

“Now, young man,” he said, “there ’s a perfectly good forgery that ’ll land me in trouble if Cooney tries to borrow on it. You be careful who sees that document, and get it back to me as soon as they ’ve swallowed it.”

“Leave it to me,” Barney gloated. “It ’s a pippin. It ’ll make th’ ol’ geezer feel he ’s goin’ to die rich.”

He got an interview with Cooney after supper that evening, in a beer-sour room off Dolan’s bar; and he explained the plant to the bewildered old man over and over, till Cooney’s face was bright with understanding. “Saints in Hiven,” he kept muttering to himself, at admiring intervals. “The little divel! Look at that, wud ye! Don’t that beat the Dutch! Who ’d ’a’ thought av that! Faith, he ’s the wunder av the wurrld!”

Barney carried himself as if he were all of that. “Don’t you open yer mouth, now, to nobody,” he ordered, “er you ’ll ditch the whole frame-up. Just show the letter to ’em—when it comes to-morrah—an’ if they want to see the policy let ’em have a squint at it. I got to have it back again to-morrah night, mind.”

Cooney put the paper in his inside pocket and buttoned his coat over it, reliably. “Trust me, boy. Trust me.”

“Well, I don’t trust you much,” Barney assured him cheekily, “but the plant ’s so good, you ’ll have yer own time crabbin’ it. Go ahead,” he concluded, in Babbing’s best manner, “an’ don’t try to lie too glib; that ’s all. Let them do their own thinkin’. I ’ll see you here on my way home to supper, to-morrah, eh?”

“Ye will that.” He pulled down his hat on his eyes, like a conspirator. “Trust me, boy. Trust me. I ’m no such fool as ye ’d think.”


III

On the following evening, when Barney entered the room again, there he was in the dusk, smiling craftily, with triumph in his face. He had the policy with him, and he reported that it had already begun to do its perfect work. His daughter Kathleen had been immediately indignant with him for thinking of accepting fifteen hundred dollars for a five-thousand-dollar policy. “It ’s a robbery,” she had cried. “Don’t you do it, paw.” And when Cooney argued that he needed the money, she replied: “We may need money, but we don’t need it so bad that we ’ll sell five thousand dollars for fifteen hundred. We ’ll stick it out, together. I ain’t been feelin’ well, an’ this big house has got on my nerves, but I ’ll drop dead in my tracks before I ’ll let that old insurance company cheat us that way.”

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Mrs. Buntz was soon as indignant as her sister. She read the policy aloud—every word of it—with fine conviction.

 
They were still discussing the matter when Mrs. Buntz dropped in, coolly, to tell her father that an insurance agent had telephoned about some insurance policy, early that morning. She had been so busy all day that she had not been able to come over before. Besides, she thought there must have been some mistake.

Well, there had not been. Not any. The insurance company was trying to persuade their innocent father to take fifteen hundred dollars for a five-thousand-dollar policy. A paid-up policy in favor of his two daughters, payable after his death!

Mrs. Buntz was soon as indignant as her sister. She read the policy aloud—every word of it—with fine conviction; and she followed it with the agent’s letter, sarcastically, rather through the nose. ‘“That,” she said, “was written by a thief.”

It was she who thought to ask why they had never heard of the policy before. Cooney mumbled, “I ’d fergot about it, gurl. ’T was all paid up, years since.” Mrs. Buntz said: “There now! It ’s a good thing you have us to look after you, er you ’d be in a nice way. I was just thinkin’ to-day that when Kathleen sells her house—”

“I ’m not goin’ to sell the house,” Kathleen cut in. “As long as paw lives, he ’ll have his own roof over him—”

“I don’t see that this roof is any more his than ours is,” Mrs. Buntz maintained. “He ’s got as good a right—”

And Cooney, foreseeing another quarrel, sneaked away to keep his appointment with Barney, two hours ahead of time. He had promised to tell no one of Barney’s plot—not even Barney’s mother. But he accompanied Barney to his home, to see that “wunder av the wurrld” safely housed for the night, and he did not try to disguise the fact from Mrs. Cook that her boy was “a janius.”

“Faith, m’am,” he whispered at the door, “ ’tis beyond belief, but he ’s got thim two gurls quar’lin’ now about which one ’s to have the honor—mind ye—av boordin’ me! Not a wurrd, m’am. Not a wurrd, on yer soul. It ’ud ruin all!’’

Mrs. Cook said not a word—not even to Barney. But if Barney had rewritten King Lear, and been crowned with laurel by all the Academies of civilization, he could not have come home to a more proudly devoted household than sat down with him at the table that night to hear him talk about his doings for the day. He saw it in their faces. “Waiter,” he said to Annie, “dish up the best in the house. I don’ care what it costs. I ’ve got my salary raised. Hurry up.”