THE BLACK BOX
SANFORD QUEST, CRIMINOLOGIST
The young man from the west had arrived in New York only that afternoon, and his cousin, town born and bred, had already embarked upon the task of showing him the great city. They occupied a table in a somewhat insignificant corner of one of New York’s most famous roof-garden restaurants. The place was crowded with diners. There were many notabilities to be pointed out. The town young man was very busy.
“See that bunch of girls on the right?” he asked. “They are all from the chorus in the new musical comedy—opens to-morrow. They’ve been rehearsing every day for a month. Some show it’s going to be, too. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to get you a seat, but I’ll try. I’ve had mine for a month. The fair girl who is leaning back, laughing, now, is Elsie Havers. She’s the star…. You see the old fellow with the girl, just in a line behind? That’s Dudley Worth, the multi-millionaire, and at the next table there is Mrs. Atkinson—you remember her divorce case?”
It was all vastly interesting to the young man from the west, and he looked from table to table with ever-increasing interest.
“Say, it’s fine to be here!” he declared. “We have this sort of thing back home, but we are only twelve stories up and there is nothing to look at. Makes you kind of giddy here to look past the people, down at the city.”
The New Yorker glanced almost indifferently at the one sight which to a stranger is perhaps the most impressive in the new world. Twenty-five stories below, the cable cars clanging and clashing their way through the narrowed streets seemed like little fire-flies, children’s toys pulled by an invisible string of fire. Further afield, the flare of the city painted the murky sky. The line of the river scintillated with rising and falling stars. The tall buildings stabbed the blackness, fingers of fire. Here, midway to the clouds, was another world, a world of luxury, of brilliant toilettes, of light laughter, the popping of corks, the joy of living, with everywhere the vague perfume and flavour of femininity.
The young man from the country touched his cousin’s arm suddenly.
“Tell me,” he enquired, “who is the man at a table by himself? The waiters speak to him as though he were a little god. Is he a millionaire, or a judge, or what?”
The New Yorker turned his head. For the first time his own face showed some signs of interest. His voice dropped a little. He himself was impressed.
“You’re in luck, Alfred,” he declared. “That’s the most interesting man in New York—one of the most interesting in the world. That’s Sanford Quest.”
“You haven’t heard of Sanford Quest?”
“Never in my life.”
The young man whose privilege it was to have been born and lived all his days in New York, drank half a glassful of wine and leaned back in his chair. Words, for a few moments, were an impossibility.
“Sanford Quest,” he pronounced at last, “is the greatest master in criminology the world has ever known. He is a magician, a scientist, the Pierpont Morgan of his profession.”
“Say, do you mean that he is a detective?”
The New Yorker steadied himself with an effort. Such ignorance was hard to realise—harder still to deal with.
“Yes,” he said simply, “you could call him that—just in the same way you could call Napoleon a soldier or Lincoln a statesman. He is a detective, if you like to call him that, the master detective of the world. He has a great house in one of the backwater squares of New York, for his office. He has wireless telegraphy, private chemists, a little troop of spies, private telegraph and cable, and agents in every city of the world. If he moves against any gang, they break up. No one can really understand him. Sometimes he seems to be on the side of the law, sometimes on the side of the criminal. He takes just what cases he pleases, and a million dollars wouldn’t tempt him to touch one he doesn’t care about. Watch him go out. They say that you can almost tell the lives of the people he passes, from the way they look at him. There isn’t a crook here or in the street who doesn’t know that if Sanford Quest chose, his career would be ended.”
The country cousin was impressed at last. With staring eyes and opened mouth, he watched the man who had been sitting only a few tables away from them push back the plate on which lay his bill and rise to his feet. One of the chief maîtres d’hôtel handed him his straw hat and cane, two waiters stood behind his chair, the manager hurried forward to see that the way was clear for him. Yet there was nothing about the appearance of the man himself which seemed to suggest his demanding any of these things. He was of little over medium height, broad-shouldered, but with a body somewhat loosely built. He wore quiet grey clothes with a black tie, a pearl pin, and a neat coloured shirt. His complexion was a little pale, his features well-defined, his eyes dark and penetrating but hidden underneath rather bushy eyebrows. His deportment was quite unassuming, and he left the place as though entirely ignorant of the impression he created. The little cluster of chorus girls looked at him almost with awe. Only one of them ventured to laugh into his face as though anxious to attract his notice. Another dropped her veil significantly as he drew near. The millionaire seemed to become a smaller man as he glanced over his shoulder. The lady who had been recently divorced bent over her plate. A group of noisy young fellows talking together about a Stock Exchange deal, suddenly ceased their clamour of voices as he passed. A man sitting alone, with a drawn face, deliberately concealed himself behind a newspaper, and an aldermanic-looking gentleman who was entertaining a fluffy-haired young lady from a well-known typewriting office, looked for a moment like an errant school-boy. Not one of these people did Sanford Quest seem to see. He passed out to the elevator, tipped the man who sycophantly took him the whole of the way down without a stop, walked through the crowded hall of the hotel and entered a closed motor-car without having exchanged greetings with a soul. Yet there was scarcely a person there who could feel absolutely sure that he had not been noticed.
Sanford Quest descended, about ten minutes later, before a large and gloomy-looking house in Georgia Square. The neighbourhood was, in its way, unique. The roar and hubbub of the city broke like a restless sea only a block or so away. On every side, this square of dark, silent houses seemed to be assailed by the clamour of the encroaching city. For some reason or other, however, it remained a little oasis of old-fashioned buildings, residences, most of them, of a generation passed away. Sanford Quest entered the house with a latch-key. He glanced into two of the rooms on the ground-floor, in which telegraph and telephone operators sat at their instruments. Then, by means of a small elevator, he ascended to the top story and, using another key, entered a large apartment wrapped in gloom until, as he crossed the threshold, he touched the switches of the electric lights. One realised then that this was a man of taste. The furniture and appointments of the room were of dark oak. The panelled walls were hung with a few choice engravings. There were books and papers about, a piano in the corner. A door at the further end led into what seemed to be a sleeping-apartment. Quest drew up an easy-chair to the wide-flung window, touching a bell as he crossed the room. In a few moments the door was opened and closed noiselessly. A young woman entered with a little bundle of papers in her hand.
“Anything for me, Laura?” he asked.
“I don’t believe you will think so, Mr. Quest,” she answered calmly.
She drew a small table and a reading lamp to his side and stood quietly waiting. Her eyes followed Quest’s as he glanced through the letters, her expression matched his. She was tall, dark, good-looking in a massive way, with a splendid, almost unfeminine strength in her firm, shapely mouth and brilliant eyes. Her manner was a little brusque but her voice pleasant. She was one of those who had learnt the art of silence.
The criminologist glanced through the papers quickly and sorted them into two little heaps.
“Send these,” he directed, “to the police-station. There is nothing in them which calls for outside intervention. They are all matters which had better take their normal course. To the others simply reply that the matter they refer to does not interest me. No further enquiries?”
“Nothing, Mr. Quest.”
She left the room almost noiselessly. Quest took down a volume from the swinging book-case by his side, and drew the reading lamp a little closer to his right shoulder. Before he opened the volume, however, he looked for a few moments steadfastly out across the sea of roofs, the network of telephone and telegraph wires, to where the lights of Broadway seemed to eat their way into the sky. Around him, the night life of the great city spread itself out in waves of gilded vice and black and sordid crime. Its many voices fell upon deaf ears. Until long past midnight, he sat engrossed in a scientific volume.