November 18, 1911
Jim Porter was a big man, thick through the gut and neck, with the florid complexion of a person whose heart is beating far too hard to get blood through his fat body. His doctor repeatedly told him that he had to lose weight or suffer the consequences, but Porter liked food far too much to worry about some potential problem when he was in his sixties or seventies.
He ate most every morning at a small restaurant across from the post office branch where he was the manager. The place was cozy, just six tables, and the husband/wife team that owned it took good care of their customers. For Jim Porter, this meant serving him his bacon extra soft. He was just bringing two pieces speared on a fork to his mouth when the restaurant's front door opened to the tinkling chime of its attached bell. He recognized the first man right away. They had known each other since they were schoolboys. Billy McCallister was a detective now with the Denver Police, and many figured he'd be running the whole department before too long. Behind him and coming in the rear were two men Porter didn't know, and like they were bookends for the two strangers was Billy's partner, Jack Gaylord.
Billy scanned the room and focused in on the heavyset postal worker. Knowing he'd done nothing wrong, Porter was nonplused and finished shoving the limp strips of bacon into his mouth.
"Morning, Jim," the police detective said, removing his hat and taking a seat opposite his old friend.
"Billy," Porter said between bites. "What can I do for you?"
One of the strangers took out official credentials and held them out for Porter's inspection. Porter's eyes widened when he read them, and he suddenly wished he were anyplace other than there. "As you can see," the stranger said, "I'm from the Postmaster General's Office in Washington, D.C. My name is Bob Northrop. And what you can do for us is help end a crime spree."
While the two cops looked like police-big, grim-faced, and competent-and Northrop had the look of a bureaucrat out of his element but still filled with purpose, it was the fourth man that held Porter's attention. The other three had taken the last chairs at the table, so the stranger stood behind them with his hands clasped in front of him, his long fingers holding his hat by the brim. He wore a suit of good quality and cut and a black overcoat so long it almost swept the ground like a cape. He had bright blond hair and blue eyes with a world-weariness in them that gave him a timeless look. Once Porter had seen those eyes, he recognized that the innocent pose was a disguise and that this man was far more than he seemed.
"Crime spree?" Porter repeated, unsettled and needing to refocus on the conversation.
Detective McCallister replied, "Yes, a crime spree. At least four robberies so far, and, if Mr. Bell is right, a fifth took place last night. Oh, sorry. Jim, this is Isaac Bell of the Van Dorn Agency."
Bell leaned forward with his hand outstretched. "Nice to meet you," he said affably.
Porter wasn't fooled. Bell was probably a nice enough fellow, but there was an edge to him that he did not share with the outside world. Bell was doubtless a dangerous man, but also one who hid it behind polish and poise.
Porter suddenly understood what was happening, and some of his normal flush waned as his face went a little pale. He tossed his napkin on the table and was about to rise.
"Hold on a second," McCallister said.
"You're implying my branch was robbed last night. Right? That's why you're here now. We have to go check right away."
"No, Mr. Porter," Bell said, and the postmaster froze. "There's an accomplice coming today. It will make everyone's job easier if we can catch him in the act rather than having to make a deal with the actual thief."
Porter looked to his friend for confirmation. McCallister nodded. Porter relaxed back into his chair.
"There's no rush just yet," Bell continued. "We want everything to look as normal as possible when the accomplice comes to pick up the three trunks he shipped to you yesterday."
Porter knew exactly which three the private detective meant. Two were about the bulk of large suitcases and quite heavy for their size. The other was a monogrammed steamer trunk that looked like it had been around the world several times. "You know who owns them, then?"
"Yes," Bell said. "I watched him mail them yesterday. I had already briefed Mr. Northrop from the Postmaster General's Office and Detective McCallister on my idea of putting an end to the crooks' activities."
McCallister checked the time on a silver half hunter he had chained to his vest pocket. He turned to Bell. "We still have twenty minutes before the branch is to open. I'm sure you told Mr. Northrop here how you broke the case, but do you mind telling me the story from the beginning?"
Bell nodded. "Certainly. The thieves started in Des Moines, where they hit a hotel storage room, before they moved to Omaha, where another hotel was robbed. Next came a railroad depot in Topeka. That's where I was brought in on the case. The railroad's owner is a friend of my boss. During my initial investigation, research informed me of the earlier robberies in Iowa and Nebraska. Next up was a robbery in Cheyenne. This time, they hit another railroad storage depot, though not the same line as my boss's friend.
"Two incidents don't constitute a pattern for me-nor do three, usually-but this was the fourth job, and I thought I had it figured out. At Cheyenne, I pieced together that the towns these thieves were hitting were getting progressively more westward, so Denver seemed like the logical next step. But the timing of the hits was a mystery. The two hotels appeared to have been robbed sometime four weeks ago. The thing was, the guests didn't realize items had been removed from their stored luggage until days or weeks after the fact. I figure the thieves had cleared out of town long before anyone was onto them. But the railroad jobs were detected the day after the robbery, which didn't give our thieves much time to move on."
Bell paused. He was a natural storyteller and he held the four men rapt. "But the real mystery was how they managed to rob four locked rooms without leaving a bit of evidence that the locks had been tampered with. In addition, the hotel strong rooms were near enough to the reception desk that anyone loitering nearby would be seen and the area around the two depots was guarded by railroad bulls."
"The yard dicks never saw anything?" McCallister's partner, Gaylord, asked.
"And they circled the building all night," Bell told him. "The final piece of the puzzle was this."
Bell pulled a sheet of paper from his pocket. It was a garish advertisement for a traveling circus and showed the ringmaster, in top hat and with arms thrown wide, while in the background the artist had drawn roaring lions and a string of elephants performing a trick, all backgrounded by the inside of a brightly colored big top tent with a pair of trapeze artists swinging between the poles. The men all recognized it, for not three days earlier thousands of these flyers had been plastered all over the city because the Fraunhofer & Fraunhofer Circus was soon arriving for their last show of the season before they moved on to their winter-over headquarters outside of Los Angeles.
"Are you saying . . . ?" This from the postal manager, Porter.
"Sure am. Once I realized that this circus had either just played or was about to play the towns where the robberies took place, it all fell into place. I got lucky and caught up with the show in Fort Collins and managed to watch their final performance and stick around to observe them dismantling everything."
"And you were able to finger the perpetrators by just catching the act?" McCallister seemed incredulous.
"Gentlemen, I have to go," Jim Porter said. "I need to open the branch before the other employees show up for work." He reached into his pocket for money to settle his bill, and since he'd eaten his normal breakfast, he knew the exact charge.
Bell shook his hand once again. "Mr. Porter, all you need to do this morning is to act as though nothing unusual is happening. You needn't tell your staff anything at all. Our mark will come in shortly, no doubt. We are going to watch for him here. We will enter afterward, looking like customers, and accost the thief red-handed."
The man was sweaty and appeared unwell, but Bell suspected that he habitually looked that way. Porter nodded gamely. "Okay."
Bell and Northrop, the man from Washington, moved to a window table once Porter had left. The two police detectives stayed in the back of the little dining room and would take their cue from Isaac Bell.
As he suspected, the wait was a short one. Five minutes after the post office opened for the day, Bell watched a man in a black cape and high black hat make his way down the sidewalk. The day, like most of the month of November, was unseasonably warm, which was no doubt the reason the circus remained on tour this late in the year.
A truck with a chain drive briefly obscured Bell's line of sight, but when it rumbled down the street, trailing dark exhaust, he saw his man again. Like he'd observed at the circus, the man moved with silken ease, as though his joints were fluid. Bell had only really seen him at a distance, but he recognized the jet-black mustache.
The man paused to talk to a drayman, who was feeding his horse stumps of carrots. His wagon was a simple flatbed. Bell surmised that the man had hired the horse and driver and they were setting a time to meet so the man could load up his three pieces of luggage and be on his way. If Bell's guess was right, he wouldn't bother rejoining the circus here in Denver. Bell believed that all the jobs leading up to this one had been practice runs, to hone the plan until it could be executed with military precision. Today was the big score, the one that would be such a payoff that only retirement afterward made sense.
The two men parted company. The driver returned to feeding his draft horse while the man from the circus mounted the three granite steps to the post office. Bell gave it another minute, then waved to McCallister and Gaylord. Bell touched something under his left arm to make certain it was there and then left the restaurant, its little chime on the door tinkling, the D.C. postal inspector at his arm.
Bell crossed the cobbled street, mounted the curb, and climbed the three steps. Through a decorative clear fringe on the otherwise-frosted glass door insert, Bell saw the man from the circus hand over his receipt for the three trunks. There was no sign of Porter, so Bell assumed he was in the back. The clerk who took the ticket acted as though this were any other transaction. The branch manager had kept mum on the impending arrest.
Bell opened the door and started a conversation midpoint with Northrop. ". . . told me it was going to cost twenty-five dollars to fix it and I told him I could buy a new one for that price and left his shop."
"Good for you." Northrop was a veteran of postal stings and played his part even though they hadn't rehearsed anything.
Like many who are forced to wait in a line, the two men let their conversation lapse. Bell smiled at a woman in line ahead of them and got a smile back. Their quarry hadn't turned, instead waited a little way off for his trunks to be brought through from inside the iron-barred cage where they'd spent the night. Moments later, the two detectives also entered the big post office branch. Gaylord got into one of the three lines while McCallister busied himself at a counter filling out an address on an envelope.
The handcart used to move larger items throughout the branch had a wheel badly in need of oil. Its squeak echoed off the tall coffered ceiling. Bell watched his man, sensing the anticipation coming off of him in waves, though outwardly he was the picture of studied nonchalance. Up close, he was handsome enough to star in one of Bell's wife's motion pictures. The clerk was struggling with the trolley because of its weight, and his shoes kept sliding on the polished floor, but eventually he got it through the gate separating postal employees from their customers.
The circus performer was about to place a possessive hand on one of the smaller trunks when Bell said in a clear voice, "Stop."
Everyone in the branch turned to face him. The man cast a distrustful look Bell's way.
"Aren't you Rudolfo Latang, the magician?"
The man seemed to release a breath and let his shoulders relax. He smiled charmingly. "I am. Yes." His accent was European but hard to pin down.
He turned back to his luggage to forestall further conversation, but Bell plowed on, playing the act a while longer. "I caught your show in Cheyenne over the weekend. You are one amazing performer. Sawing a woman in half like that. Darnedest thing I ever saw. But I think I figured out how you did it."
Latang looked over his shoulder and said tersely, "I doubt that."
Bell dropped his hayseed persona and said. "Let's just see. Detectives?" At that, McCallister and Gaylord held up their shields and moved in close to the magician, shooing a few customers back so they had control over the suspect and no potential hostages could be taken if he tried something desperate.
"What is the meaning of this?" Latang blustered.
"Depredation of the U.S. mail," Bob Northrop said, holding up his badge and sweeping back his coat so Latang could see the Smith & Wesson .38 caliber six-shooter on his hip.
A look of genuine confusion crossed the magician's face. "Depredation?"
"It means," Bell said, "you've stolen mail from the United States Post Office."
"I've done nothing of the sort. I am here to pick up my trunks."
Bell gave a disappointed tsk. "I find it odd that as a man who travels with a circus, with its own train cars, as well as trucks and autos, that you would mail items to yourself at some expense, given the weight."