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Authors: The President Vanishes

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #General, #Presidents, #Political Kidnapping

Rex Stout (20 page)

BOOK: Rex Stout
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Tilney smiled at him. “I hear you, Wilcox. I hear you, sonny. They dragged me in because they know that devotion sometimes triumphs where vigor fails. You may be ready to fight for your future and the arena you have chosen for your combats; I am ready to die for the traditions I love and the institutions I hold sacred. There are a lot of people here and there who know that. How about it, Jim? Is that us?”

Corcoran, big and shaggy, looked down at him. “It’s me, Bronnie. I’ve taken a lot of orders in my time, but I can’t see myself taking them from army officers. Maybe our time has come. You’re a student of history. I’m not, but I know that in the past ten years many men just as good as us, in Italy and Germany and Austria, have faced as an accomplished fact one day what they had ridiculed as preposterous the day before. Maybe our time has come.”

Tilney nodded, slowly. “It may be, Jim.”

“And you are partly responsible for it. I warned you; we have got to get into the war. Of course certain people demand it for the sake of their selfish interests; others think we are morally obligated; others believe we are in danger if we don’t; still others merely hold that it is inevitable and therefore the sooner the better. I am one of the last. I warned you. Drew and Cullen are not merely in favor of war, they must have it; and of course an army always wants war, that is, its leaders do. With the President gone, Congress will not vote it; well, it’s a damned good time and a damned good excuse to send Congress where half a dozen other parliaments have been sent, to the dump heap. I made a mistake this morning. I told Wardell that the persons whose interests were being served by the President’s disappearance were those who opposed war, not those who favored it, and right now he has a squad of detectives rounding up Communists and tailing Japanese embassy men. I think I was wrong. I think I have been a jackass for three months, let charity put that limit on it. I think this business comes from a deeper plot and a more sinister purpose than any of us suspected, and if it is what it now seems to be, there is only one man in America
astute enough to conceive it and bold enough to carry it out. Old George Milton. Older than you are, Bronnie, and a hell of a lot shrewder. He knew, before anyone else dreamed it, that the time was at hand for us to take the road other nations were traveling; a year ago he began to finance the Gray Shirts. Now, in the hornet’s nest busted open by the kidnapping of the President, he thinks he sees a chance to go straight to the Army for his strong-arm, and Drew and Cullen and the others are doing it for him. Then who do you think kidnapped the President? What does it look like?”

Jim Corcoran doubled his fists and clamped his elbows against his sides—a gesture familiar to the Senate floor for twenty years—and looked around the group. “Gentlemen, I’m through. We may or we may not get into their damned war, I don’t know, but I’m through with anyone who thinks he can play tiddlywinks with the elected representatives of the people of the United States, and any game that’s theirs is not mine. We must make common cause with Wardell and the Cabinet, no matter what their views are on war. We must prevent at all costs a spectacular coup on the Congress, and if the best way to do that is to adjourn
sine die
until the President’s return, that is what we must do. We must cement this group on the principles suggested by Horner; and in that connection I request Senator Allen to leave us, and if he does not leave I demand that he be expelled forthwith. Also that Senator Reid be asked for the fullest and most circumstantial assurances that his aims are in agreement with ours.”

There was a stir. Reid smiled. Sterling said, “Good for you, Corcoran. That’s better than sniping at him.” Jackman was nodding with grim satisfaction.

Allen was silent, with a red face. Reid said, “That’s not nice of you, Jim. Who brought you the story? After all, you’re in my office. I only double-cross people when it is to my own advantage.”

Corcoran looked at Allen. “We don’t want you, Senator.” He looked around. “Do we?”

There were No’s and shaking heads from all but Reid. Allen rose to his feet, still big and slick and wary, but visibly disconcerted. His sneer, by force of habit, was successful. “Thank you, gentlemen.” He stopped in front of Bronson Tilney’s chair and looked down at him, opened his mouth and shut it again. At the door he turned. “In my opinion,
gentlemen, it’s about time for the army.” As the door was opened Reid called to his secretary, on guard:

“Allen’s leaving, Johnson. As you were.”

Tilney’s exhausted brown eyes were appraising Reid, and were met with a smile. Reid transferred the smile to the group: “I am ready to furnish whatever assurances you may require, gentlemen. I wish to be one of you, from different motives from those which activate my friend Jim Corcoran. I have an intellectual fondness for parliamentary government, and for its sake would betray my oldest friends. If I am to be questioned in detail, may I suggest that Senator Jackman be selected for the purpose? I believe that he is the only one of you who really dislikes me, and it will be an excellent exercise in urbanity.”

5

Of the long and heterogeneous list of persons who had been placed under arrest by order of Lewis Wardell, the last to be released was Lincoln Lee. This was because the others had been set free on a general order, with instructions that each be followed and reported upon periodically, whereas Lee was forced to wait until Chief Skinner of the Secret Service could make opportunity for an interview. The truth was that the Chief had not been entirely candid with Wardell when he had told him that he would have a try at getting something out of Lee before letting him go; he really had little hope of it; his main reason for the attempt was his desire to have a look at the leader of the Gray Shirts, the man who by repute was displaying in ever-widening circles the organizing genius of a great executive, the fire and eloquence and audacity of a born leader of men, the egomania of a Napoleon, the reckless frenzy of a Hitler. Skinner had taken plenty of salt with this, but he did want to give the fellow the once-over.

At two o’clock Wardell had left for the White House to confer with the Cabinet, and Skinner was in command. He was not the Skinner whom his subordinates had known and respected and obeyed for more than six years; whereas he had always been distinguished by his composure in any emergency, his quick grasp of complexities, and his uncanny
ability to pick the main thread of a knot, he was now irascible, confused, and explosive. At last a job had got on Phil Skinner’s nerves. He knew that no Chief of the Secret Service, no investigating officer anywhere in the world, had ever had so rare and sensational an opportunity to distinguish himself; he knew that none had ever had at his command so large a body of trained experts; and he, Phil Skinner, with this opportunity and this equipment, was getting nowhere. It wasn’t so much that in forty-eight hours he had failed to find the President, he knew how to be patient for victory when that was a requirement for it; what exasperated him and got him off balance was the fact that every trail they had started had petered out into nothing. None of them appeared to have either a point of departure or a destination. The moment it had been learned that Mrs. Delling had sold chloroform on Monday night to Harry Brownell, Secretary to the President, a rapid and rigorous investigation had been begun of Brownell’s past and connections, especially his activities for the past month. Result, negative. No traffic with warmongers, no discoverable mutuality of interest with Administration enemies, no flirting with intriguers or itchings of personal ambitions—an impeccable secretary; and, of course, his own denial. Then there must be something wrong with Viola Delling; but that reconnaissance, too, had failed to yield a grain of gold from the dust of her commonplace days and years. The truck, abandoned on the street with the President’s penknife lying on the floor; God knows that was a clue; it was hardly possible to believe that a chloroformed President had been removed from it and transferred to another vehicle without a single observer of any portion of the operation; but no observer could be found. There was the truck, and that was that: a dead end. Brownell bought chloroform, or didn’t; another dead end. Still another was Val Orcutt. He had been actually present at the scene of the kidnapping, actually there when it happened, and he had no more information regarding it—as to the number or identity of the criminals, what they looked like, where they came from, whether they were men or women or chimpanzees or Japs—than if he had been a thousand miles away.

Chief Skinner thought to himself for the twentieth time that there was something phony about it. Phony, or crazy. He did not suspect Val Orcutt of complicity; that made no sense either. He did not really suspect Brownell; probably the
chloroform purchase was a case of mistake in identity and the handkerchief a coincidence. But he had a feeling that there was something wrong with their stories. There was something wrong in the core of the thing, some central fact which perhaps even they did not know or had overlooked, but which would have to be dug up or all the detectives in the world would end by getting to the destination they had already reached—nowhere. Skinner even reverted to one of the ideas that had popped into his head on Tuesday afternoon, the idea which had resulted in the exploration of the White House; but he had conducted that search himself with five of his best men, with a method and thoroughness that made the resuscitation of the idea preposterous.

The Chief thought to himself, “I’m cuckoo, and I might find a better way of spending my time than sitting here on the back of my lap hunting an alibi. I might go fishing, for instance, or go out and climb trees. Some bright boys have put over a fast one, and so far they’ve just been too fast for me. I’m getting old and blind and deaf. I’m going to resign and go and live in the country, but before I can do that I’ll have to find President Stanley, because the Attorney-General will want to consult with him in his despair of finding a worthy successor for this office.”

He opened a drawer of the desk and took out a bottle of bourbon, poured an ordinary drinking glass a third full, gulped it down, and cleared his throat with an explosive rasp. Then he took up the telephone and said to the clerk who answered: “Who’s out there?… Who?… Go on … Where’s Anderson?… All right, send in Moffat and Kilpatrick and Sam Carr.” He scowled at the bottle, took another drink, and returned the bottle to the drawer.

The three men entered. The Chief pulled at his ear and looked them over. He ended with his eyes on the one in the center. “Moffat, do you know Lincoln Lee?”

Chick Moffat nodded. “I know him by sight. I saw him in here yesterday.”

“Yeah. I remember now. Wardell told me. I had forgot it was you. Since you’ve been at the State Department and the White House I haven’t seen much of you. You look to me as if you’re getting fat. Are you as good as you used to be?”

“Better.” Chick grinned. “There’s more of me. I’m not getting fat. I’m a pretty good detective. As a matter of fact, Chief, I’ve had it in mind to ask you to put me back in the
barn with the work horses. It’s not so good over at the White House, it’s too soft, and it costs too much to buy clothes.”

“The hell you say. If it’s so damn soft at the White House, where’s the man you were sent there to protect? It was a break for you that you weren’t on duty Tuesday morning.—All right. I guess you’ll do. Get this. You others too. Across the hall in Room Nine a man has got Lincoln Lee. He just brought him from jail. Go and tell him to bring him in here.—Wait. Then go to the street. Lee will be leaving here in about ten or fifteen minutes, maybe a little longer. You, Moffat, will be responsible for keeping him on the touch night and day. Carr and Kilpatrick will be under you. Make routine reports to the office. If there’s anything urgent see that it gets either to Kiefer or to me without delay.”

“Yes, sir. That all?”

Skinner nodded. The men went.

The policeman who brought Lincoln Lee in was taking no chances; he had a chain to the handcuffs and was glued to it. He came in with him and the pair stood. Lee was disheveled and unshaven, and his open coat showed his gray shirt none too clean. He had no hat. His shoulders were pulled forward by the twist the handcuffs gave his arms; but his chin was up, and his eyes were level, concentrated—always concentrated—on Chief Skinner.

Skinner said, “All right, unlock him.” The policeman looked doubtful, hesitated, then without a word removed the handcuffs and stood back dangling them from his fingers. The Chief nodded, “That’s all, you can go.”

The policeman said, “He’s been awful nice down at the coop, but I wouldn’t trust him.”

Skinner thanked him for the advice, and he went.

Lincoln Lee was bending his wrists around, first one then the other, working them back and forth. Skinner sat and watched him. So that was the personage: compact, well balanced on his legs, nervous little hands, a hard-looking head on a strong short neck. Skinner watched him, and finally said:

“What’s your right name?”

Lincoln Lee for a moment kept on looking at his wrists, rubbing them. At length he looked up and said, “You don’t need to bother about it. I don’t.”

“I was just curious.”

“I am making my name. A man makes his name. A great man makes a great name.”

“Yeah.” Skinner kept casual. “By kidnapping a President, for instance.”

“Nonsense. That was a job for a fool. You have a name, I suppose? I don’t know it.”

“Oh, excuse me. I’m Phil Skinner, Chief of the Bureau of Secret Service.”

“I see.” Lee’s mouth twisted. “Little men have little problems, and you solve them. Do you think that is service to your country? Or that it makes you a name? You have a good pair of eyes; you can see. If you wish to serve, why not serve greatness? If you love your country, our America, why do you degrade yourself in obedience to the knaves that are betraying her?”

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Skinner laughed; he needed to laugh in order to hear it, for he saw and felt the force in the man before him; it was electric, a vibration that was at your nerves like the air at your skin. He laughed. “I
will
be damned. How would you like to use my office for a recruiting station? Apparently you like it all right. Some other day, Lee. Get this. I’ve got a surprise for you. You may remember you had a talk here yesterday with Secretary Wardell. You may remember he promised to send you to an insane asylum—you know, a bughouse. I’ve talked him out of it. I have no doubt that that’s where you’ll end, but that doesn’t concern me. We’re going to turn you loose. I
think
we are.”

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