HENRY BROOKER’S HOME – BREAKFAST TIME. FRIDAY
“Who can that be at this hour?” complained Mrs. Brooker, as an urgent knocking disturbed the quiet of her breakfast parlour.
The butler entered.
“Mr. Dawkins would like to see you, Sir,” came the imperious tones. “He is in the study.”
“Henry!” came a disgruntled and distinctly shrill spousal voice. “…You know I don’t approve of business being brought home!”
“No dear,” acknowledged the powerful financier, whose glare made his staff cower in their well-shined boots.
“It is not what I am used to…”
“No dear,” concurred he to whom she had vowed obedience.
“It is NOT what one expects in a gentleman’s household …”
“Mama would not countenance such an interruption in HER breakfast parlour…”
“No dear.” The head of the household moved to the door. “I think, dear, I should…”
“Henry! A gentleman does NOT leave the room when a lady is speaking…!”
“I have not finished all I have to say…”
“Pray remind Mr. Dawkins,” Henry Brooker’s helpmeet frowned, “…ONCE AGAIN… he should confine business to the office…”
“My dear,” ventured he whose commanding ‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ could crush other men’s hopes “I’m sure it’s urgen…”
“Do NOT interrupt me Henry Brooker!”
“No dear,” subsided he who held rightful sway.
“IF I may be allowed to speak in my own home…?”
Her lord and master nodded, caught in a basilisk stare.
“Pray tell Mr. Dawkins – I would consider it a courtesy if he would remember a man’s home is a refuge from the stresses and strains of business! A haven where a man can relax in the domestic bliss provided by his wife – the angel of his hearth.”
“Yes, dear. I will dear,” agreed the grateful recipient of domestic bliss.
“Well what, dear?”
“Why are you standing there, Henry? Since Mr. Dawkins has seen fit to disturb us – the least you can do is have the common civility not to keep him waiting!” Henry Brooker took another step toward the door. “AND…” continued she whose price was above rubies, “…have the goodness to remember Mama arrives today for a week’s visit…” Henry Brooker tried to stop his shoulders drooping. He failed. “…So pray do me the courtesy of being home early to greet her. You know Mama will have something to say about it otherwise!”
“Yes dear. I know that,” he sighed, truthfully.
“Don’t stand there! Off you go!”
“Of course, dear.” Given permission to leave, Henry Brooker stood not upon the order of his going – but went at once.
“Dawkins!” he thundered, entering the study. “What are you doing here? You know my wi…I mean … You know I don’t like business visits at home!”
“Pray convey my apologies to Mrs. Brooker…” began Mr. Dawkins.
“Mrs. Brooker is not the issue, Dawkins!”
“I am not one of these men who kowtows to his wife – nor to her mother, Dawkins!”
“Perish the thought, Sir!”
“Sir,” interrupted Mr. Dawkins, “…I thought I should inform you at once. Last night, the Brooker 808 in the Merchant’s National Bank was broken into…”
“No!” exploded Brooker. “We haven’t even sold one of the dang things yet!” He gnawed his lower lip. “Was much taken?”
“Nothing,” said Mr. Dawkins.
“Nothing,” confirmed his secretary. “And the safe was found closed – apparently untouched!”
“The contents were neatly stacked – beside it,” came Mr. Dawkins dry tones. He was unable to keep a certain admiration out of his voice, as he added, “Propped against them was a letter. It read ‘You might like to put these somewhere – safe!’ and was signed, ‘A well-wisher’.” Mr. Dawkins shook his head slowly, “The Chairman of the bank was NOT amused, Sir! He is already threatening to divert all future business to Pierce and Hamilton…”
“That sneaky …!”
“You think Briscoe and Grant have double crossed me? Induced by that – that snake in the grass, Theodore Pierce?” fumed Henry Brooker.
“Any alternative explanations seems beyond co-incidence, Sir!” opined the secretary.
“If Theodore Pierce thinks he can make a fool of Henry Brooker,” glowered the object of the sentence, “…he’s got another thing coming! So have Briscoe and Grant…and Hannibal Heyes …” Brooker frowned, “You think it WAS Heyes?”
“I do, Sir,” confirmed Mr. Dawkins. He coughed, “I have already set in motion the plan we discussed yesterday. As we speak, the trap is springing on the gentleman calling himself Thaddeus Jones!”
“Good!” approved Brooker. “…If Hannibal Heyes wants to see his partner in one piece again, he’ll have to show up the Pierce and Hamilton 1880, Guardian B, for the piece of junk it is!”
“I have NOT, of course, informed the lowlifes hired to apprehend and hold Jones, of his true identity,” assured Mr. Dawkins. “I would not want them tempted by the reward offered on Kid Curry!”
“Certainly not!” approved Henry Brooker. “I don’t plan sharing that!” A significant cough from his secretary caused him to add, “…Except for your percentage, obviously, Dawkins.”
“Too kind, Sir!”
“Not at all, Dawkins! The labourer is worthy of his hire!” said Brooker.
“Indubitably, Sir!” As he left, the thin-faced secretary added, under his breath, “…Especially when the labourer knows where the bodies are buried!”
THE STANWYCK HOTEL – As Mr. Dawkins speaks
A shadow fell across the snowy tablecloth. Kid looked up, from an excellent breakfast, at the aquiline features of Jòzef Kowalski.
“Er…hello,” he ventured.
“Mr. …” Although Kid was the last breakfast patron and the waiter had many years since lost interest in listening to customers’ conversation, Jòzef remembered the need to be discrete. “Your friend,” he began, meaningfully, “…suggested I join him for breakfast.”
“He’s keen to see the Exhibition of Innovation,” explained Jòzef. “Today’s a Trade Day, but I have a pass. We can study the stands at leisure. He’s particularly interested in the Eastman Dry Plate Company…they are revolutionising photography!”
Kid blinked. The topic held no particular charm for him, but you never knew with Heyes. “He’s not down yet,” he said, “…The pair of you had kinda a busy night, huh? I reckon he’s sleeping in.” With one booted foot, he pushed back a chair. “Pour yourself some coffee,” he offered.
“I’ve a friend working for George Eastman, over here for the exhibition,” went on Jòzef, conversationally, taking Kid at his word and helping himself to coffee, “…and I was telling Mr…our mutual friend … about their progress.”
“Uh huh?” grunted Kid, returning his attention to breakfast.
“With a reliable dry plate,” enthused Jòzef, “… you can make cameras small enough to be hand-held, or even concealed. They are even showing some disguised as pocket watches …and hats!”
Kid’s expression showed mild interest.
“What my friend, Tom, has been working on is the mechanical shutter device.” Kid’s mild interest faded. He applied himself to his ham. “You see, there’s no point concealing a camera if you have to use a manual shutter. It has to be automated.” Jòzef cast a look at the door, clearly hoping the like-minded Heyes would appear. However, as the Engineer was the soul of courtesy and his companion was clearly not interested in the topic, he tried a variation.
“I’m looking forward to more discussion on safes. Your friend had a lot to say on the necessity of hinge side bolting.”
Kid smiled, tolerantly. He did not grudge Heyes the treat of exchanging mind-numbing minutiae with a fellow enthusiast. Besides, he had a soft spot for the man who reduced the un-squashable Alice to a model of meek maidenhood.
“It must have been marvellous for you?” enthused Jòzef, boyishly, “…Before you gave up the…” he mouthed, silently, “…bank robbing.” A return to speech with volume. “…Over the years. Working with such a – such a virtuoso!”
“Not that I approve of your past line of work.”
“Uh huh?” grunted Kid. Fair enough.
“Still, to work with a – a maestro of the subtle arts of…”
“Jòzef,” interrupted Kid. “Do me a favour, huh?”
“Don’t say this stuff in front of him!” Kid grinned, ruefully, “I reckon he already knows how good he is! No need to rub it in!” He looked at the clock. “How come you’re free to join him droolin’ over hinges an’ camera shutters? Don’t you have safes to foolproof?”
“No!” said Jòzef, a frown descending on his earnest brow. “When I heard Mr. Brooker planned to double cross Mr. …our mutual friend … I handed in my notice first thing this morning. I can’t work for a man like that! An upright citizen may have a duty to assist the law in the apprehension of criminals. But to do so for – for filthy lucre! Profiting by another man’s loss of liberty! And, after giving one’s word! Tchah!” scorned Jòzef.
Kid shifted in his seat.
“You’re not feeling upright, are you?” he checked.
“Not if you’ve …” Again Jòzef switched on his mute button, “…gone straight…” Volume on, “…Anyone can change! Our mutual friend resisted the temptation to pocket so much as a few dollars last night.”
“Did it hurt?” queried Kid.
“He did – linger – over the currency,” admitted Jòzef. “I believe he found the aroma – evocative.”
A smothered cuss, issuing from the reception area, made both men look up. Kid caught the eye of Harry Briscoe, the source of the smothered cuss. After a start of surprise, not to say astonishment, from Harry at seeing Kid Curry apparently materialise in a San Francisco dining room, a worried figure scurried across the otherwise deserted floor.
“Jo…I mean Smith!” exclaimed Harry, “You’re here!”
“Looks like it, huh?” grinned a cheerful Kid. A good breakfast went a long way to soothing down any remaining annoyance over yesterday’s – not particularly unpleasant – captivity. “You’re getting us mixed up again, Harry. I’m Jone…” Kid remembered. He frowned. “Sorry, Harry,” he apologised. “My mistake. I’m Smith.” He nodded at Jòzef, who Harry was regarding with a curious and apprehensive eye. “This is Mr. Kowalski. He’s kinda a friend of a friend, if you catch my drift. He knows who I am.” Kid grinned again, “Which … is more than I’m real sure of, right now! Jòzef, this is Harry Briscoe.”
Harry gave a tight, brief smile to the dark haired young man beside Kid, but returned at once to his most recent concern.
“I’ve…” Always generous, Harry decided to share, “…WE’VE got a big problem!” He sat down at Kid’s table. “You’ve noticed Hey…I mean Smi… I mean the other fella isn’t down?”
“I was just tellin’ Jòzef here, he had a busy night,” said Kid.
“He did it?” checked a momentarily diverted Harry. “Really?”
“You shoulda had faith, Harry,” responded Kid, not without pride.
“You shoulda told me!” complained the Bannerman.
“Nah!” smiled Kid. “You were sleepin’ like a baby when we got back, Harry. We hadn’t the heart!” Emphasising the pronoun, he asked, “What’s YOUR problem, Harry?”
“OUR problem is …the other fella isn’t sleepin’ in!” trying to keep his voice low, despite his obvious agitation. “He’s…” Harry faltered. “Here!” he said, thrusting a note at Kid, “…This was handed to me just now.
‘We have ‘Thaddeus Jones’. If HH wants him he’d better come fetch him. He’ll find the location deposited in the Wells Fargo safe, in a package labelled ‘Briscoe’. Hurry. Or ‘Thaddeus Jones’ will regret it for the next twenty years. We are not KIDDING.’
Harry hissed in Kid’s ear.
“He’s not in his room! He didn’t answer when I knocked! They – I mean fellas working for Henry Brooker…” he paused. “Did he fill you in, er…Smith? On Brooker an’ Pierce an’ Mrs. Pierce?”
“He gave me the gist,” said Kid, frowning as he re-read the note. “Are you tryin’ to tell me…?”
“We know Brooker’s a snake,” hissed Harry, “…An’, he’s a snake who’s not as smart as he thinks he is! This, in my book, makes him more dangerous – not less. He musta wanted to give Heyes an extra incentive to crack the Pierce an’ Hamilton safe. So he kidnaps you… I mean…”
By now, Kid was striding out of the dining room towards the stairs. Heyes could be safe and sound in his room. Just not feeling like disturbing himself for Harry! No need to panic!
Kid knocked on Heyes’ door.
“Thaddeus,” he called, “…Thaddeus!” Nothing. He moved his shoulder to the door. A touch on his arm prevented him.
“Allow me,” offered Jòzef. He drew a penknife from his jacket and a – now slightly bent – hairpin, from his breast pocket. Harry Briscoe gasped as the door clicked open.
Ignoring him, Kid strode into the room. He saw at once there was, after all, need to panic. Open window. Mussed up bed. A faint whiff of chloroform. No Heyes. The silver trimmed hat and his gun belt, left behind, showed he had not left of his own accord. Kid did not – panic. But his eyes took on a dangerous glitter.
“You’re tellin’ me, Harry, that because of this dang fool scheme of yours, Heyes is being held hostage…”
“Well, not exactly!” interrupted Harry. “As far as Brooker is concerned, KID CURRY is being held hostage – an’ Heyes can have him back if he cracks the Wells Fargo safe…” Nervousness made Harry babble. “Could be worse. I mean, it’s not as if Heyes won’t figure a way to… Oh!”
“You’ve remembered, huh?” snapped Kid. “The fella they’re expecting to crack this safe …and the other fella they’re holding to make this first fella co-operate – are…” he exploded, “…BOTH THE SAME FELLA?”
Harry took a step back.
“No use getting excited, Kid!” he protested. “I’m sure you’ll figure out somethin’. You watched Heyes do it often enough. How hard can crackin’ a safe be?”
“How hard can it BE?” fumed Kid.
“How hard can it BE?” indignated Jòzef, in unison. “Cracking the Pierce and Hamilton 1880, Guardian B is a virtual impossibility! Even Mr. Heyes never cracked the Guardian B!”
“He went straight!” defended Kid, instinctively.
“Of course,” came Jòzef’s kind response, for the second time in twenty-four hours.
An idea struck Kid.
“Jòzef,” he said, persuasively, “…You’re at a loose end, huh? Havin’ just walked outta your job on a point of principle?”
“Yes…” said Jòzef, apprehension dawning.
“You’d hate to see that snake Henry Brooker raking in the – what was it? Filthy lucre? From handing Heyes over to the law?”
“That’s true,” admitted Jòzef.
“Do you reckon there really is a package tellin’ us where to find Heyes in this safe?”
“Oh, yes!” said Jòzef, “…Think of it logically. Brooker wouldn’t want Heyes trapped at the Wells Fargo building. There’s no way he could take the credit – and get the reward – without it coming out he’d bribed a Bannerman detective …” Harry hung his head. “…and used unethical competitive strategies against Pierce. He’ll want Heyes to go to where Curry is held… probably somewhere in the Barbary Coast neighbourhood. When he has them both together…THEN he’ll spring his trap.”
“Can you crack the safe?” he asked.
“Probably not,” admitted Jòzef. “But…modesty aside … I have a slim chance. You and Mr. Briscoe have a chance so infinitesimally small, most non-mathematicians would refer to it, erroneously, as ‘zero’.”
“Will you – try?”
Jòzef appeared to be thinking hard.
“Both my options seem ethically hazy,” he admitted. “But, on balance of merits – I believe the morally right answer is ‘yes’. I’ll attempt it.”
“Any ideas?” prompted Kid.
“I think I can get us into the vault easily enough,” said Jòzef. “We could use some distraction upstairs to stop unexpected observers joining us.” He frowned, deep in thought.
“Er…” hesitated Kid, “…Don’t we both know a lady – in fact,” he amended, “…Don’t we both know two ladies who excel at being ‘distracting’?”
“You’re not suggesting we involve a sweet, innocent, trusting young girl and a respectable, upright, married woman in this?”
“No,” said Kid, “I was thinking of Alice and Grace.”
MRS. THEODORE PIERCE’S WELL APPOINTED DRAWING ROOM
“NO!” protested Kid Curry. As Theodore Pierce had instructed his servants not to admit Jòzef Kowalski, he was the one to call on Grace and Alice to request their ‘distraction’ skills. “No! Forget it, Alice!”
“Well, Alice,” said Grace, raising one exquisitely arched eyebrow. “If YOU were in Mr. Curry’s boots, requesting SUCH a favour from a lady, wouldn’t you think you OWED her a tiny favour in return?”
“I did Alice a favour! Yesterday! And the day before!” pointed out Kid.
“It’s only a tiny thing!” fluttered Alice.
“Joining in some charade to persuade your father we’re in love…” ejaculated Kid, “Is NOT a tiny thing! It’s a great big thing – and I’m NOT doing it!”
“Don’t you see,” glowed Alice, giving Kid the full effect of two beseeching eyes of cerulean blue, “…You are so appallingly ineligible …so impossibly inappropriate … so irreparably disreputable …so hugely, hideously, horrendously, horrifically, heinously…”
“Hey!” protested Kid.
“I know you want to persuade Mr. Curry, Alice, but no need to lay on the compliments TOO thick,” smiled Grace.
“Compared to YOU,” Alice cut to the chase, “…Daddy would have to agree Jòzef is a perfect match. He’d be so relieved I wasn’t about to run off with a villainous, vicious, verminous…” Alice realised Grace might have a point on the best way of persuading men. She shut up and switched on a dazzling smile. “Please,” she cooed, touching Kid’s hand.
Alice switched off the smile and glowered dangerously.
“Do it! Or you’ll be sorry!”
“What do you think Jòzef would say to this little plan?” asked Kid.
“If you mention one WORD to him…I’ll, I’ll…” Suddenly the fuming wildcat disappeared and Kid saw genuine distress on Alice’s face. “Please don’t say a word, Jed. He’s already furious with me. But, I have to do something! I can’t wait fourteen months! I just can’t!”
“Alice!” protested Kid, embarrassed.
“Besides…suppose he met someone else! Hundreds of women out there must be desperate to get their hands on him! Throwing out lures! Trying to seduce him away!”
“Are we thinking of the same fella?” checked Kid. “On the lanky side. Likes to talk about math?”
“He’s wonderful!” stated Alice, simply. “And, if I can’t marry him soon – I shall…” her lip wobbled, “…I shall just …” Wobble, wobble, wobble. Sniff.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” wavered Kid. He shot an appeal for help at Grace.
“I’m sure Alice would play her part SO much better if she was – happy,” urged Grace. She took Kid’s hand. “I know you hate to see a woman upset, Jed!” A second pair of blue eyes appealed. “I remember how kind you were…”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” This time it was capitulation. “As long as we agree if your father goes mad and gives his consent – I leave on the first train for Bolivia!”
“Oh! Thank you, Jed!” beamed Alice, kissing his cheek. “I’ll go slip into something more – distracting!”
“You look fine, Alice!” said Kid.
“Of course I do! But one has to consider – lingerie – and stockings!” explained Alice, as she bounced to the door. “If you want to keep eyes away from the door of a vault it pays to plan ahead!” She threw him a last – pitying – look, before whisking away. “How you ever made a successful bank robber is a mystery to me, Jed!”
Grace smiled at Kid.
“I will NOT ask for a return favour today,” she said. A beat. “You can owe me one!”
“OWE you one! After you had me kidnapped! This is payback!”
“I paid you back already!”
“How?” asked Kid.
“I hired Mary and Sue to make you comfortable,” Grace reminded him. Kid met her eyes. Various details of the – payback – danced across his mind. He flushed. “All square?” checked Grace. Kid, at bottom an honest man, nodded.
Kid glanced around at the lush surroundings.
“You’ve done well for yourself, Grace,” he acknowledged. She accepted this with a gracious inclination of her head. Kid took an – appreciative – look at the beautiful woman before him. He leaned forward and took her hand. “It’s good to see you again, Grace,” he said, warmly. A nostalgic glow entered his eyes, “Do you ever remember our time together, Grace?” he asked – with an appealing boyish grin, “…The night before we reached Laredo?”
“How could I forget?” asked Grace, with a wistful smile.
“Do you remember how madly in love with you I fell?”
Grace wondered if what she was experiencing was ‘déjà vu’.
“Before you go any further,” she forestalled him, “The answer is ‘no’. You can check with Heyes if you want the extended version.”
“I wasn’t going to ask!” protested an offended Kid.
“Oh!” said a slightly disconcerted Grace, “No offence?” A beat. “I hope that’s down to scruples and not to any lack of ‘distracting’ qualities on my part. Do I need to follow Alice and change my stockings, to have a chance of keeping male attention away from the vault?”
Kid checked the silk clad ankles.
“Nope,” he said. “They’ll do the job just fine!”
THE WELLS FARGO BUILDING
“Mr. Herries, Sir,” tapping politely, the silver haired Under Manager of the San Francisco Wells Fargo operations popped his head around his boss’s door.
“Winterbourne!” blustered the much younger, but much more pompous Mr. Herries. “Can’t you see I’m engaged with…” he gave what can only be described as a simper, “…with Mrs. Pierce? She has called for …” he preened, “…investment advice.”
“I’m sorry,” said the mild-mannered Mr. Winterbourne. “But, Mr. Kowalski is here from Hamilton & Pierce…” Suffice it to say, Jòzef’s recent dismissal from one manufacturer following paternal wrath and short employment in the rival Brooker establishment was not exciting enough news to be the talk of the Wells and Fargo Building. “He wants to take measurements in the vault…to decide the best placement of…”
“I said – I’m busy!”
“Shall I send him away?”
Mr Herries looked at the – not unfamiliar – figure of Jòzef in the outer office. He presented the appearance of a man sent out on a routine and none too exciting job. Jòzef glanced up from his apparent absentminded extending and closing of a retractable tape measure. He gave a civil nod to Mr. Herries. Grace turned in her chair. She received the polite bow due to an employer’s wife. She acknowledged this with a gracious, but admirably nonchalant smile and returned her attention to Mr. Herries.
“No! Just take him down!” Mr. Herries ordered.
“Strictly speaking, Sir,” ventured the conscientious Mr. Winterbourne, “…according to our protocols two management grade staff should be present at the opening of the vault.”
His boss hesitated.
“Oh! Must you go?” pouted Grace, at the would-be gallant Mr. Herries. “I was just beginning to understand debentures…” She fluttered, “You’re SO clever, Mr. Herries! You explain things SO well!” A dove soft hand was laid on the manager’s. “I’m usually so stupid about money! Theo can never make me understand things. Not the way you have, today!” Grace was not so crude as to use the cliché ‘my husband doesn’t understand me’, with its implicit half promise of opportunities to come. If, however, Mr. Herries chose to interpret the admiring glances thrown from beneath the curling lashes in that way – well! A woman can hardly be blamed for what goes on in a man’s mind. “I was hoping,” cooed Grace, “…if I still had questions …we might discuss them over lunch?” She allowed eyes to glow with anticipation, before lowering her lids modestly. “But…” a waver of disappointment in the voice, “…if you’re busy, Mr. Herries, I’ll leave.” The tiniest hint of a pout, “I know business has to come first.” A – possibly frustrated – sigh. Another, meaning, look. “My husband’s business takes up so much of HIS time.”
Mr. Herries shifted in his seat and crossed his legs.
“I think we can waive protocol, Winterbourne,” he said. “It’s not as if we don’t know Mr. Kowalski.” He cleared his throat. “Close the door on your way out. Tell Powlett – I don’t want to be disturbed.”
“It’s a pleasure to see you, Jòzef,” smiled the fatherly Mr. Winterbourne, collecting his keys. “How’s your family?”
“Fine, thank you, Sir. This is Mr. Smith,” added Jòzef, casually, as they exited the office. The curly haired, apparently unarmed, young man in the regrettable blue suit touched his hat politely. He did his best to look meek. “He joined us recently.”
“Are you on the Design side too, Mr. Smith?” asked the kindly old man, leading the way. Kid opened his mouth to confirm this. “Will I be listening to you and Jòzef arguing the relative merits of alternative tempering techniques,” enquired Mr. Winterbourne, chattily. “Many are the discussions I’ve listened to between Jòzef and Mr. Collins. Are you a hot process supporter …?”
“No!” said Kid, quickly. “I’m not! I mean, I’m not on the design side!” He resisted the temptation to glance at the ethereally beautiful blonde – presumably wearing the finest of French silk stockings below her skirts – being served by a decidedly open-mouthed clerk at one of the counters.
“Mr. Smith’s experience is more in the area of – bank security,” explained Jòzef. “Mainly in the mid West.”
“Really?” Mr. Winterbourne unfastened the centre bolt of the vault. He bent, stiffly, toward the lower fastening. “I hope you’ll approve of our security arrangements, Mr. Smith. Oh!” A hand went to the small of his back. “…If I gave you the keys, would you be so kind? I’m not as supple as I used to be.”
“No problem!” smiled Kid, opening bolts. “…So far, these security arrangements have my complete approval, Sir.” Jòzef flashed a warning look. Kid’s role was ‘follow my lead – unless lovely, but naïve, Mr. Winterbourne gets suspicious’.
The three men entered the vault. The safe gleamed in the centre of the room.
“It’s a Model Centurion A!” exclaimed Jòzef. Kid glanced at the suddenly crestfallen lean face.
Mr. Winterbourne looked at Jòzef in surprise.
“Of course it is! Mr. Pierce offered us a free trial a fortnight ago. Surely you remember?”
“That’s what I said,” recovered Jòzef. “It’s the Model Centurion A. What a pleasure to see it in use!” Kid, used to the silver-tongued Heyes, could not call it a sterling deception. But, it was a brave effort and, it was enough to return Mr. Winterbourne to cheerful rambling.
“Mr. Collins explained the advantages of this new model very thoroughly.” He smiled, “I have to say though, Jòzef, the Guardian B always seemed more than adequate to me! I’d be surprised if Mr. Herries upgrades…” he tailed off, as he watched the two young men.
Kid was itching for Jòzef to have a try at the safe, but the engineer had told him to display no interest in this initially. This sounded like something Heyes might say, so Kid played along. After all, Jòzef’s working knowledge of the organisation and its staff had got them inside the vault in a delightfully civilised way. Now Kid held one end of a retractable tape measure, while Jòzef scribbled dimensions in a small notebook.
“Why are you measuring the floor?” asked Mr. Winterbourne. Kid stiffened. However, the enquiry was puzzled rather than suspicious.
“There’s been talk of providing metal panels to reinforce the floor,” said Jòzef, glancing up from his figures. This was not a lie. Jòzef had a problem lying. Admittedly, this ‘talk’ had taken place between himself and Kid half an hour ago. But, it had – ‘been’. “The diagonal, if you would be so good, Mr. Smith,” requested Jòzef, in a tone one degree removed from bored.
“Re-inforcing the floor?” Mr. Winterbourne gave a ‘what will they think of next?’ shrug.
“A precaution against tunnelling,” explained Jòzef. “The alcove in the left wall, Mr. Smith. A potential weak spot. And – bear in mind that corner is definitely an obtuse angle!”
“Tunnelling?” said Mr. Winterbourne.
“Mr. Smith here has personal experience of a bank being tunnelled under!” replied Jòzef. Kid nodded, then returned to tape measure placement.
“Fancy!” said the old gentleman. A beat. Note making. It was not interesting to watch. “I admit, Mr. Smith, these days, I take more interest in my garden than advances in safe technology.”
“How are your roses?” asked Jòzef, politely.
“Oh, well! That tea rose hybrid I was telling you about…”
“…the rambler only took a highly commended. I mean to take two cuttings and try one in horse…”
“I think that’s all the measurements, Mr. Smith,” said Jòzef.
“…and one in a bone based fertiliser…”
“A controlled experiment!” approved Jòzef. “Good thinking, Sir.” With no change in the matter of fact tone, he added, “Could you open the safe for me, Mr. Winterbourne. I need to check the lubricating discs on the angled bolts.”
The charming old gentleman moved to the dial.
“I believe there’s nothing to beat horse manure. But, friends have received most respectable results from…” There was the first familiar click. Kid held his breath. Was he about to see a safe – lulled – open?
Meanwhile, in the main area of the bank, the security men on duty checked the clock. One sighed, reluctantly peeled his eyes off the feminine customer on which they had lingered and moved to conduct a regular routine inspection of the outer vault area. His colleague continued to – linger.
“Oh! Oh!” The – distractingly – pretty girl clumsily caught her foot in the hem of her skirt. She slipped on the polished tiles in front of the security man headed to the vault. Two small hands clutched at him. Too late. Despite his efforts to catch her, she tumbled to the floor in a flounce of muslin and froth of underlying lace.
“Are you alright, ma-am?” he asked, reaching to help her up.
“Are you alright, ma-am?” unisoned the clerk who had served her and been unable to take his eyes off the lissom one ever since. He scurried out from his pen.
“Are you alright, ma-am?” chimed in the second security man, striding over to assist in any blonde handling required.
“Oh! I feel so silly!” exclaimed Alice. The blue eyes moved apologetically from one admiring masculine face to the next. The honey coloured lashes lowered with a modest flutter. “You must all think me such a fool!” came a wavering little voice.
“Not at all, ma-am!”
“No!” came three truthful male voices. ‘Fool’ was not top of their descriptors when looking at Alice prop herself on one elbow, with her skirts askew.
“Let’s get you on your feet, ma-am,” offered the first security man.
“Thank you…” fluted Alice, “Oh! OW!” She fell as heavily as one so elfin could against him.
“My – my ankle!” wavered the completely uninjured decoy. An appealing flutter – with just a hint of damp sparkle in the cornflower eyes. “I don’t think I can put my foot to the floor!”
“If we get you to one of the appointment offices, ma-am,” offered the young clerk, “You could be comfortable there. I could run for a doctor!”
“Oh, no!” demurred Alice. “No doctor! I hate to cause a fuss! Ow!” She indulged in a little more leaning of her fragrant softness against the unprotesting security man. “Perhaps…” the beseeching little voice could have earned Alice a standing ovation as ‘tragic heroine’ in any theatre in the land, “…perhaps I could sit in one of the offices for a while? Oh!” Another gentle pressing, “If you’d be so kind as to give me your arm?”
“I think we can do better than that, ma-am!” said Security Guard number two. Ignoring a furious glare from his colleague, he swept the damsel in distress up in his arms.
“Oh!” breathed Alice, with a modest – and distracting – flush, “…you’re so strong!” Fluttering, “I’m not too heavy?”
“Can hardly feel you, ma-am!” he declared.
Alice snuggled closer to correct this lack of sensation on his part.
“Perhaps this gentleman,” she fluttered, coyly at the disgruntled first Security Guard, “…would be so very, very kind as to bring my reticule?”
After a moment of masculine confusion, the guard robbed of the lissom blonde burden decided this could only refer to the ridiculously – or should that be reticulously – impractical, though highly decorative, bag still laying on the floor. He picked it up with a – well, the best word would be mushy – smile at Alice.
“And…” went on the ethereal one, with an enchanting lift of her lip in entreaty towards the smitten young clerk, “…this gentlemen could open the door?”
Youthful – and mushy – head nodding. No one raised the question whether three grown men were needed to settle one small girl in an armchair.
“…And some folk swear by – would you believe it – tea leaves, placed around the stem base…”
The dial of the Model Centurion A gave another enticing click. Kid decided he might have to tell Heyes they had done it the hard way all these years. Clearly getting someone talking about his roses and then slipping in a casual request WAS a viable alternative. The bony hand ceased to turn the dial. It dropped to Mr. Winterbourne’s side, he turned. Kid froze.
“…Though, there might be something in it? After all, if tea refreshes us…could it refresh soil?”
Kid had to admire the way not a twitch of impatience crossed the young, bony face.
“Natural vegetable nutrients?” Jòzef mused. “…It’s not an area I know much about, Sir. But, farmers rotate crops to put nutrients back in the earth. There could be something in tea that suits roses.”
Mr. Winterbourne gave him a kind smile and returned his hand to the dial. Then, absentminded and adorably trusting as he was, it dawned on this delightful old gentleman what he was doing. He paused. Puzzlement furrowed the avuncular brow.
“Why do you need the safe open, Jòzef? If … you’re here to measure up for floor reinforcements?”
Jòzef still gave off the signals of a man who found this question much less interesting than Mr. Winterbourne’s horticultural hobby. His eyes scarcely rose from his notebook.
“Just taking a look at the new self lubricating carbon discs, Mr. Winterbourne. Killing two birds with one stone. I know they WILL perform better than the old bearing based components – just want to check the temperature of the vault isn’t affecting them. I have heard that keeping the roots wrapped in hay during the colder …”
“You see…” worried Mr. Winterbourne, “…strictly speaking, there should definitely be more than one Wells and Fargo management grade employee present if the safe is to be opened. The rules are most clear.”
“We can wait while you ask Mr. Herries to step down,” said Jòzef, “…How engaged could he be with Mrs. Pierce?”
Nice, thought Kid. A bluff. It might work.
“Oh…” hesitated Mr. Winterbourne. “…I don’t like to interrupt Mr. Herries when he asks not to be disturbed. He can be so…” He bit his lower lip. “He and Mrs. Pierce did seem very…” The two young men watched him dither, metaphorically crossing their fingers. They saw an idea strike the genial old banker. Their shoulders drooped. Not metaphorically. They actually drooped. “I could ask one of the Security Guards to pop down!” smiled Mr. Winterbourne. “It’s not the letter of the rule – but it’d fulfil the spirit!” He glanced at his pocket watch. “I’m surprised one hasn’t been on his round already!” Mr. Winterbourne made for the door. “Would you excuse me please, Mr. Smith?” he requested, civilly.
With the utmost reluctance, although it was digging into small of his back, Kid produced the gun tucked into his waistband below the Alice-condemned jacket.
“I’m real sorry, Mr. Winterbourne, ” he said, truthfully, “…But we must insist you stay and open the safe.”
“Perhaps …” a pity-inducing, brave cough worthy of Camille, from the armchair. Though, why a fake twisted ankle should affect the lungs, only a mind as convoluted as Alice’s could explain. “…Perhaps I might have a glass of water?”
“Of course!” nodded the young clerk, eagerly.
“Or…” Alice forestalled his exit. Another heroically uncomplaining cough. “…Perhaps a cup of tea? Not that I want to be any trouble!”
“No trouble at all ma-am?” the besotted youngster assured her.
“Earl Grey,” fluttered Alice. “…Please make sure the pot is china … Silver taints the flavour…”
“Earl Grey,” nodded the clerk.
“Milk in last…I don’t like it with lemon…”
“Make sure the water boils for at least thirty seconds… Don’t forget to warm the pot…”
“Warm the pot…” more nodding.
“And – a THIN porcelain cup please. THIN. No sugar…” An angelic smile. “…Daddy always says I’m sweet enough!”
“Reckon he’s right there, ma-am,” chipped in Security Guard one, still under the spell of the ethereal one.
“Oh!” Alice lowered her lids and flushed adorably, “…You mustn’t!” Too kind!”
“It’s not what you think, Mr. Winterbourne,” said Jòzef.
“…We don’t want to steal anything,” agreed Kid, “…Only take a package we know is in there. It’s real important.”
Mr. Winterbourne’s eyes were glued to the blond man holding the gun.
“We don’t even have to TAKE the package,” offered Jòzef. “We could just copy what’s in it! Leave it behind. No one need ever know! You wouldn’t get into any trouble …”
“Jòzef,” reproached Mr. Winterbourne, “…how could you?” He glanced at Kid’s face and gulped. “Is – is he going to shoot me?”
Kid reminded himself Heyes needed him and forced his voice to stay cold with an edge of danger.
“Open the safe – and, no one gets hurt, no one gets shot. Like Jòzef said, no need for anyone even to know.”
Mr. Winterbourne clenched his hands and took a deep breath.
“No!” he said. “I will not betray my employers’ trust.” He shut his eyes and braced himself to be shot. Nothing. He opened one eye. The gun was still levelled. Kid was glowering. The glower was actually more frustration and uncomfortable guilt than ‘menace’, but Mr. Winterbourne did not know that. He gave a squeak of fright and shut his eyes again.
“You ARE only bluffing? Like we agreed?” checked Jòzef, anxious at the sudden air of danger emanating from the notorious gunslinger.
“Jòzef!” exploded Kid, as Mr. Winterbourne first frowned and then visibly relaxed opening his eyes. The ex-outlaw threw an exasperated look at the earnest engineer. “When this is over,” he said, “…remind me to explain the rules of ‘bluffing’! Not bleatin’ ‘we’re only bluffing’ …is one of ’em! Sheesh!”
“Sorry!” the sub-standard partner substitute hung his head.
“Can you see any swelling?” asked Alice, extending a silk clad ankle and hitching up her skirt a few inches between two sets of riveted eyes. A beat. “Well?”
“Huh? Oh – er – it’s kinda hard to tell ma-am.”
She stretched out a second silken limb.
“Does it look any different to this one?”
“Do you think…” innocent blue eyes sought wise masculine counsel, “…I should take off my stocking? Then you could see if there is any bruising.”
“If you think that’s best, ma-am,” came one hopeful male voice.
“If one of you were to be so very, very kind as to fetch a bowl of water and a cloth… you could bathe it,” suggested she who hated to cause trouble.
“Good idea,” agreed Security Guard two, tearing his eyes away from the tiny flexing foot drawing graceful circles in the air. He considered stocking removal… He considered bathing… “I’ll be right back!” he decided.
“How long is this likely to take?” fumed Kid, watching Jòzef alternately calculating hard and then drawing chalk lines on the sides of the safe. “What the Sam Hill are you doing anyhow?”
“I’m re-calculating placement of manufacturer’s drill points from first principles AND from memory, since each model is carefully differentiated,” said Jòzef, evenly. “I am doing this WITHOUT a diagram and working from the exterior rather than the interior of the safe. I happen to believe I am doing this at least four times more rapidly than any other man currently within the City limits could manage! However,” he flashed a look at Kid. “If you want to give me the gun, I’ll cover Mr. Winterbourne and you can have the log tables and slide rule – see if you can do any better?”
“Just… just hurry up!” said Kid.
“Oh!” gasped Alice, lowering her skirt, “I forgot to ask you to turn your back first! Am I not silly? What must you think?”
“Not at all, ma-am!” managed security man one, wiping the ‘Wow!’ off his face. “My fault!” he lied, chivalrously. He turned his back. “Carry on, ma-am.” A beat. A gossamer fine something stroked sensuously over his hand so softly it just skimmed and stirred the fine hairs. He looked down to see a stocking; the top embroidered with tiny, if not exactly shrinking, violets.
“All done,” cooed Alice. “You can look now!”
Kid watched the progress of the drill. Despite the cobalt-vanadium alloy shaft and a special-purpose tungsten-carbide tip, it was painfully slow.
“Jòzef,” ventured Mr. Winterbourne, “…I know you’re doing your best…but, how long is this likely to take?” Jòzef gave him a little smile and shrugged. “You see – I’ll have to go soon.”
“We can’t let you leave, Mr. Winterbourne, you know that,” said Kid, not unkindly.
“No, you don’t understand.” The old man blushed, “…I’ll have to – you know – GO! It’s…” another blush. The elderly voice shook with embarrassment. “It’s my prostate. You won’t understand at your age… ” Mr. Winterbourne ground to a halt. He was a picture of misery.
The two younger men exchanged a glance.
“Open the safe, Sir,” pleaded Kid, “…I promise we’re not going to steal anything!”
“I can’t!” said Mr. Winterbourne, “…It’s not that I don’t believe you. I just couldn’t live with myself!” He gulped, “I’ll try and wait.”
Frustrated Kid turned on Jòzef.
“Can’t you at least TRY turnin’ tumblers?” he fumed. “Even with this – self-randomising device – it’s gotta be quicker?”
“I wouldn’t stand a chance,” responded Jòzef, equally frustrated. “The only way I’d get into a Centurion A through dial manipulation, is if the client were foolish enough not to change the combination after delivery.”
Both young men were suddenly aware of a change in Mr. Winterbourne. He blushed scarlet. He hung his head.
“I can’t see any bruising,” said Security Guard one, gazing at the lily-white ankle propped on a small table. “Can you see any bruising, Hank?”
“Nope,” said Security Guard two. There cannot have been any bruising, because both men were really, REALLY, looking.
Alice sipped the tea passed to her by the enraptured young clerk.
“Would you think me very forward if I asked one of you to massage it a little?” she simpered, modestly.
After a beat – and something approaching a pile-up – Security Guard two captured the ankle.
“Oh! What gentle hands you have!” cooed the distracting one. Seeing Security Guard one looking disgruntled, she allowed another expression of Camille like brave suffering to flicker across her lovely face. “But… the table is a little hard under my heel. Would it be immodest of me to rest my foot in your lap?”
The young clerk blinked. He had never seen the security staff move as fast!
“Mr. Winterbourne!” exploded Jòzef, “Don’t tell me you didn’t change the combination?”
“The safe was only here for a month’s trial,” came an apologetic voice.
“Even so! It’s one of the first rules!” reprimanded Jòzef.
“Er… Jòzef …” Kid attempted to interrupt the righteous wrath.
“I’m sorry! I just …It seemed so – so complicated,” bleated Mr. Winterbourne.
“Mr. Collins must have explained it! Surely? Didn’t he leave instructions?”
“Er… Jòzef …” Kid again.
“Yes,” admitted Mr. Winterbourne. “But…” he met the dark eyes, “…he doesn’t take the time you do Jòzef. I didn’t like to say…”
“Well,” said Jòzef. “I’ll take you through it step by step right now! Make this safe properly secure! Now… have a combination in mind … one you’ll remember. Do NOT tell me!”
“JÒZEF!” thundered Kid. Two sets of eyes looked at the close to exploding ex-outlaw. “OPEN THE DANG SAFE!”
“Oh! Sorry!” apologised Jòzef. He bent to the dial.
Alice stared at her small naked foot nestled in a uniformed male lap. She flexed it a few times.
“Will that make the swelling go down, do you think?” she asked, innocent eyes wide.
“Bound to eventually, ma-am,” gulped the owner of the lap.
Jòzef finished noting the address of Heyes’ captivity, returned the package to the safe and closed it.
“All being well, I’ll come back tomorrow and take you through a combination change,” he offered. A thought struck him, as he wiped away his chalk marks. “Oh! Unless…” he looked at Mr. Winterbourne, “…are you going to report us?”
The elderly banker hesitated. He looked at the closed safe. It still contained every dollar and every deposit it had five minutes ago.
“I won’t tell any lies,” he temporised, “…But, let’s say I’m hoping no one asks me exactly the right question.”
“Suppose someone asks about the drill mark?” grunted Kid, returning the gun to his waistband.
“I think I could equivocate,” mused Mr. Winterbourne.
A second idea occurred to Jòzef. Digging deep into an inside pocket, he drew out a small label. A couple of figures were scribbled. The label was stuck over the small indentation left by the drill.
Mr. Winterbourne peered at it and read, “‘Calibration Due Date…August 1882.’ Perfect!” he admired. “No one will take any notice of that!”
“Don’t I know it,” sighed the Engineer.
Through her office window, Alice saw a blond and a most beloved dark figure leaving the bank. She smiled, sipped her tea and prepared – after just a little more foot flexing – for a miraculous recovery.
“Piece of cake, ma-am? At once, ma-am!” nodded the besotted young clerk.
The ethereal one gave a start. She had not realised she had said it out loud.