The Girl At The Switchboard
"When you come right down to it," mused Bill Quinn, "women came as near to winning the late but unlamented war as did any other single factor.
"The Food Administration placarded their statement that 'Food Will Win the War' broadcast throughout the country, and that was followed by a whole flock of other claimants, particularly after the armistice was signed. But there were really only two elements that played a leading role in the final victory--men and guns. And women backed these to the limit of their powerful ability--saving food, buying bonds, doing extra work, wearing a smile when their hearts were torn, and going 'way out of their usual sphere in hundreds of cases--and making good in practically every one of them.
"So far as we know, the Allied side presented no analogy to Mollie Pitcher or the other heroines of past conflicts, for war has made such forward steps that personal heroism on the part of women is almost impossible. Of course, we had Botchkareva and her 'Regiment of Death,' not to mention Edith Cavell, but the list is not a long one.
"When it is finally completed, however, there are a few names which the public hasn't yet heard which will stand well toward the front. For example, there was Virginia Lang--"
"Was she the girl at the switchboard that you mentioned in connection with the von Ewald case?" I interrupted.
"That's the one," said Quinn, "and, what's more, she played a leading role in that melodrama, a play in which they didn't use property guns or cartridges."
Miss Lang [continued Quinn] was one of the few women I ever heard of that practically solved a Secret Service case "on her own." Of course, in the past, the different governmental detective services have found it to their advantage to go outside the male sex for assistance.
There have been instances where women in the employ of the Treasury Department rendered valuable service in trailing smugglers--the matter of the Deauville diamonds is a case in point--and even the Secret Service hasn't been above using women to assist in running counterfeiters to earth, while the archives of the State Department would reveal more than one interesting record of feminine co-operation in connection with underground diplomacy.
But in all these cases the women were employed to handle the work and they were only doing what they were paid for, while Virginia Lang--
Well, in the first place, she was one of the girls in charge of the switchboard at the Rennoc in New York. You know the place--that big apartment hotel on Riverside Drive where the lobby is only a shade less imposing than the bell-boys and it costs you a month's salary to speak to the superintendent. They never have janitors in a place like that.
Virginia herself--I came to know her fairly well in the winter of nineteen seventeen, after Dave Carroll had gone to the front--was well qualified by nature to be the heroine of any story. Rather above the average in size, she had luckily taken advantage of her physique to round out her strength with a gymnasium course. But in spite of being a big woman, she had the charm and personality which are more often found in those less tall. When you couple this with a head of wonderful hair, a practically perfect figure, eyes into which a man could look and, looking, lose himself, lips which would have caused a lip stick to blush and--Oh, what's the use? Words only caricature a beautiful woman, and, besides, if you haven't gotten the effect already, there's nothing that I could tell you that would help any.
In the spring of nineteen sixteen, when the von Ewald chase was at its height, Miss Lang was employed at the Rennoc switchboard and it speaks well for her character when I can tell you that not one of the bachelor tenants ever tried a second time to put anything over. Virginia's eyes could snap when they wanted to and Virginia's lips could frame a cutting retort as readily as a pleasant phrase.
In a place like the Rennoc, run as an apartment hotel, the guests change quite frequently, and it was some task to keep track of all of them, particularly when there were three girls working in the daytime, though only one was on at night. They took it by turns--each one working one week in four at night and the other three holding down the job from eight to six. So, as it happened, Virginia did not see Dave Carroll until he had been there nearly a month. He blew in from Washington early one evening and straightway absented himself from the hotel until sometime around seven the following morning, following the schedule right through, every night.
Did you ever know Carroll? He and I worked together on the Farron case out in St. Louis, the one where a bookmaker at the races tipped us off to the biggest counterfeiting scheme ever attempted in this country, and after that he took part in a number of other affairs, including the one which prevented the Haitian revolution in nineteen thirteen.
Dave wasn't what you would call good-looking, though he did have a way with women. The first night that he came downstairs--after a good day's sleep--and spotted Virginia Lang on the switchboard, he could have been pardoned for wandering over and trying to engage her in a conversation. But the only rise he got was from her eyebrows. They went up in that "I-am-sure-I-have-never-met-you" manner which is guaranteed to be cold water to the most ardent male, and the only reply she vouchsafed was "What number did you wish?" "You appear to have mine," Dave laughed, and then asked for Rector 2800, the private branch which connected with the Service headquarters.
When he came out of the booth he was careful to confine himself to "Thank you" and the payment of his toll. But there was something about him that made Virginia Lang feel he was "different"--a word which, with women, may mean anything--or nothing. Then she returned to the reading of her detective story, a type of literature to which she was much addicted.
Carroll, as you have probably surmised, was one of the more than twoscore Government operatives sent to New York to work on the von Ewald case. His was a night shift, with roving orders to wander round the section in the neighborhood of Columbus Circle and stand ready to get anywhere in the upper section of the city in a hurry in case anything broke. But, beyond reporting to headquarters regularly every hour, the assignment was not exactly eventful.
The only thing that was known about von Ewald at that time was that a person using such a name--or alias--was in charge of the German intrigues against American neutrality. Already nearly a score of bomb outrages, attempts to destroy shipping, plots against munition plants, and the like had been laid at his door, but the elusive Hun had yet to be spotted. Indeed, there were many men in the Service who doubted the existence of such a person, and of these Carroll was one.
But he shrugged his shoulders and stoically determined to bear the monotony of strolling along Broadway and up, past the Plaza, to Fifth Avenue and back again every night--a program which was varied only by an occasional séance at Reisenweber's or Pabst's, for that was in the days before the one-half of one per cent represented the apotheosis of liquid refreshment.
It was while he was walking silently along Fifty-ninth Street, on the north side, close to the Park, a few nights after his brush with Virginia Lang, that Carroll caught the first definite information about the case that anyone had obtained.
He hadn't noted the men until he was almost upon them, for the night was dark and the operative's rubber heels made no sound upon the pavement. Possibly he wouldn't have noticed them then if it hadn't been for a phrase or two of whispered German that floated out through the shrubbery.
"He will stay at Conner's" was what reached Carroll's ears. "That will be our chance--a rare opportunity to strike two blows at once, one at our enemy and the other at this smug, self-satisfied nation which is content to make money out of the slaughter of Germany's sons. Once he is in the hotel, the rest will be easy."
"How?" inquired a second voice.
"A bomb, so arranged to explode with the slightest additional pressure, in a--"
"Careful," growled a third man. "Eight fifty-nine would hardly care to have his plans spread all over New York. This cursed shrubbery is so dense that there is no telling who may be near. Come!"
And Carroll, crouched on the outside of the fence which separates the street from the Park, knew that seconds were precious if he was to get any further information. A quick glance down the street showed him that the nearest gate was too far away to permit of entrance in that manner. So, slipping his automatic into the side pocket of his coat he leaped upward and grasped the top of the iron fence. On the other side he could hear the quick scuffle of feet as the Germans, alarmed, began to retreat rapidly.
A quick upward heave, a purchase with his feet, and he was over, his revolver in his hand the instant he lighted on the other side.
"Halt!" he called, more from force of habit than from anything else, for he had no idea that any of the trio would stop.
But evidently one of them did, for from behind the shelter of a near-by bush came the quick spat of a revolver and a tongue of flame shot toward him. The bullet, however, sung harmlessly past and he replied with a fusillade of shots that ripped through the bush and brought a shower of German curses from the other side. Then another of the conspirators opened fire from a point at right angles to the first, and the ruse was successful, for it diverted Carroll's attention long enough to permit the escape of the first man, and the operative was still flat on the ground, edging his way cautiously forward when the Park police arrived, the vanguard of a curious crowd attracted by the shots.
"What's the trouble?" demanded the "sparrow cop."
"None at all," replied Dave, as he slipped the still warm revolver into his pocket and brushed some dirt from his sleeve. "Guy tried to hold me up, that's all, and I took a pot shot at him. Cut it! Secret Service!" and he cautiously flashed his badge in the light of the electric torch which the park policeman held.
"Huh!" grunted the guard, as he made his way to the bush from behind which Carroll had been attacked. "You evidently winged him. There's blood on the grass here, but no sign of the bird himself. Want any report to headquarters?" he added, in an undertone.
"Not a word," said Carroll. "I'm working this end of the game and I want to finish it without assistance. It's the only thing that's happened in a month to break the monotony and there's no use declaring anyone else in on it. By the way, do you know of any place in town known as Conner's?"
"Conner's? Never heard of it. Sounds as though it might be a dive in the Bowery. Plenty of queer places down there."
"No, it's hardly likely to be in that section of the city," Dave stated. "Farther uptown, I think. But it's a new one on me."
"On me, too," agreed the guard, "and I thought I knew the town like a book."
When he reported to headquarters a few moments later, Carroll told the chief over the wire of his brush with the trio of Germans, as well as what he had heard. There was more than a quiver of excitement in the voice from the other end of the wire, for this was the first actual proof of the existence of the mysterious "No. 859."
"Still believe von Ewald is a myth?" inquired the Chief.
"Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say that," was the answer, "because the bullet that just missed me was pretty material. Evidently some one is planning these bomb outrages and it's up to us to nab him--if only for the sake of the Service."
"Did you catch the name of the man to whom your friends were alluding?" asked the chief.
"No, they just referred to him as 'he.'"
"That might mean any one of a number of people," mused the chief. "Sir Cecil Spring-Rice is in town, you know. Stopping at the Waldorf. Then there's the head of the French Mission at the Vanderbilt with a bunch of people, and Lord Wimbledon, who's spent five million dollars for horses in the West, stopping at the same place you are. You might keep an eye on him and I'll send Kramer and Fleming up to trail the other two."
"Did you ever hear of the place they called Conner's, Chief?"
"No, but that doesn't mean anything. It may be a code word--a prearranged name to camouflage the hotel in the event anyone were listening in."
"Possibly," replied Carroll, just before he hung up, "but somehow I have a hunch that it wasn't. I'll get back on the job and let you know if anything further develops."
His adventure for the night appeared to have ended, for he climbed into bed the following morning without having been disturbed, but lay awake for an hour or more--obsessed with the idea that he really held the clue to the whole affair, but unable to figure out just what it was.
Where was it that they intended to place the bomb? Why would they arrange it so as to explode upon pressure, rather than concussion or by a time fuse? Where was Conner's? Who was the man they were plotting against?
These were some of the questions which raced through his brain, and he awoke in the late afternoon still haunted by the thought that he really ought to know more than he did.
That night at dinner he noted, almost subconsciously, that he was served by a new waiter, a fact that rather annoyed him because he had been particularly pleased at the service rendered by the other man.
"Where's Felix?" he inquired, as the new attendant brought his soup.
"He isn't on to-night, sir," was the reply. "He had an accident and won't be here for a couple of days."
"Yes, sir," was the laconic answer.
"No, sir. He--he hurt his hand," and the waiter disappeared without another word. Carroll thought nothing more of it at the time, but later, over his coffee and a good cigar, a sudden idea struck him. Could it be that Felix was one of the men whom he had surprised the night before, the one he had fired at and hit? No, that was too much of a coincidence. But then Felix was manifestly of foreign origin, and, while he claimed to be Swiss, there was a distinct Teutonic rasp to his words upon occasion.
Signaling to his waiter, Dave inquired whether he knew where Felix lived. "I'd like to know if there is anything that I can do for him," he gave as his reason for asking.
"I haven't the slightest idea," came the answer, and Carroll was aware that the man was lying, for his demeanor was sullen rather than subservient and the customary "sir" was noticeable by its absence.
Once in the lobby, Dave noticed that the pretty telephone operator was again at the switchboard, and the idea occurred to him that he might find out Felix's address from the hotel manager or head waiter.
"I understand that my waiter has been hurt in an accident," the operative explained to the goddess of the wires, "and I'd like to find out where he lives. Who would be likely to know?"
"The head waiter ought to be able to tell you," was the reply, accompanied by the flash of what Carroll swore to be the whitest teeth he had ever seen. "Just a moment and I will get him on the wire for you." Then, after a pause, "Booth Number Five, please."
But Carroll got no satisfaction from that source, either. The head waiter maintained that he knew nothing of Felix's whereabouts and hung up the receiver in a manner which was distinctly final, not to say impolite. The very air of mystery that surrounded the missing man was sufficient to incline him to the belief that, after all, there might be something to the idea that Felix was the man he had shot at the night before. In that event, it was practically certain that Lord Wimbledon was the object of the Germans' attention--but that didn't solve the question of where the bomb was to be placed, nor the location of "Conner's."
"Just the same," he muttered, half aloud, "I'm going to stick around here to-night."
"Why that momentous decision?" came a voice almost at his elbow, a voice which startled and charmed him with its inflection.
Looking up, he caught the eyes of the pretty telephone girl, laughing at him.
"Talking to yourself is a bad habit," she warned him with a smile which seemed to hold an apology for her brusqueness of the night before, "particularly in your business."
"My business?" echoed Dave. "What do you know about that?"
"Not a thing in the world--except," and here her voice dropped to a whisper--"except that you are a government detective and that you've discovered something about Lord Wimbledon, probably some plot against His Lordship."
"Where--how--what in the world made you think that?" stammered Carroll, almost gasping for breath.
"Very simple," replied the girl. "Quite elementary, as Sherlock Holmes used to say. You called the headquarters number every night when you came down--the other girls tipped me off to that, for they know that I'm fond of detective stories. Then everybody around here knows that Felix, the waiter that you inquired about, is really German, though he pretends to be Swiss, and that he, the head waiter, and the pastry cook are thick as thieves."
"You'd hardly expect me to say 'Yes,' would you? Particularly as I am supposed to be a government operative."
"Now I know you are," smiled the girl. "Very few people use the word 'operative.' They'd say 'detective' or 'agent.' But don't worry, I won't give you away."
"Please don't," laughed Carroll, half banteringly, half in earnest, for it would never do to have it leak out that a girl had not only discovered his identity, but his mission. Then, as an after-thought, "Do you happen to know of any hotel or place here in town known as 'Conner's'?" he asked.
"Why, of course," was the reply, amazing in its directness. "The manager's name--" But then she halted abruptly, picked up a plug, and said, "What number, please?" into the receiver.
Carroll sensed that there was a reason for her stopping in the middle of her sentence and, looking around, found the pussy-footed head waiter beside him, apparently waiting for a call. Silently damning the custom that made it obligatory for waiters to move without making a sound, Carroll wandered off across the lobby, determined to take a stroll around the block before settling down to his night's vigil. A stop at the information desk, however, rewarded him with the news that Lord Wimbledon was giving a dinner in his apartments the following evening to the British ambassador--that being all the hotel knew officially about his Grace's movements.
"I'll take care to have half a dozen extra men on the job," Carroll assured himself, "for that's undoubtedly the time they would pick if they could get away with it. A single bomb then would do a pretty bit of damage."
The evening brought no further developments, but shortly after midnight he determined to call the Rennoc, in the hope that the pretty telephone girl was still on duty and that she might finish telling him what she knew of Conner's.
"Hotel Rennoc," came a voice which he recognized instantly.
"This is Dave Carroll speaking," said the operative. "Can you tell me now what it was you started to say about Conner's?"
"Not now," came the whispered reply. Then, in a louder voice, "Just a moment, please, and I'll see if he's registered." During the pause which followed Dave realized that the girl must be aware that she was watched by some one. Was it the silent-moving head waiter?
"No, he hasn't arrived yet," was the next phrase that came over the wires, clearly and distinctly, followed by instructions, couched in a much lower tone, "Meet me, Drive entrance, one-five sure," and then a click as the plug was withdrawn.
It was precisely five minutes past one when Carroll paused in front of the Riverside Drive doorway to the Rennoc, considering it the part of discretion to keep on the opposite side of the driveway. A moment later a woman, alone, left the hotel, glanced around quickly, and then crossed to where he was standing.
"Follow me up the street," she directed in an undertone as she passed. "Michel has been watching like a hawk."
Dave knew that Michel was the head waiter, and out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow slip out of another of the hotel doorways, farther down the Drive, and start toward them. But when he looked around a couple of blocks farther up the drive, there was no one behind them.
"Why all the mystery?" he inquired, as he stepped alongside the girl.
"Something's afoot in the Rennoc," she replied, "and they think I suspect what it is and have told you about it. Michel hasn't taken his eyes off me all evening. I heard him boast one night that he could read lips, so I didn't dare tell you anything when you called up, even though he was across the lobby. Conner's, the place you asked about, is the Rennoc. Spell it backward. Conner is the manager--hence the name of the hotel."
"Then," said Carroll, "that means that they've got a plan under way to bomb Lord Wimbledon and probably the British ambassador at that dinner to-morrow evening. I overheard one of them say last night that a bomb, arranged to explode at the slightest pressure, would be placed in the--" and then he stopped.
"In the cake!" gasped the girl, as if by intuition. But her next words showed that her deduction had a more solid foundation. "This is to be a birthday dinner, in honor of Lord Percy Somebody who's in Lord Wimbledon's party, as well as in honor of Lord Cecil. The pastry cook, who's almost certainly mixed up in the plot, has plenty of opportunity to put the bomb there, where it would never be suspected. The instant they cut the cake--"
But her voice trailed off in midair as something solid came down on her head with a crash. At the same moment Dave was sent reeling by a blow from a blackjack, a blow which sent him spinning across the curb and into the street. He was dimly aware that two men were leaping toward him and that a third was attacking the telephone girl.
Panting, gasping, fighting for time in which to clear his head of the effects of the first blow, Carroll fought cautiously, but desperately, realizing that his opponents desired to avoid gun-play for fear of attracting the police. A straight left to the jaw caught one of the men coming in and knocked him sprawling, but the second, whom Carroll recognized as Michel, was more wary. He dodged and feinted with the skill of a professional boxer, and then launched an uppercut which went home on the point of Dave's jaw.
It was at that moment that the operative became aware of another participant in the fray--a figure in white with what appeared to be a halo of gold around her head. The thought flashed through his mind that he must be dreaming, but he had sense enough left to leap aside when a feminine voice called "Look out!" and the arc light glinted off the blade of a knife as it passed perilously close to his ribs. Then the figure in white brought something down on Michel's head and, wheeling, seized the wrist of the third man in a grip of iron.
Ten seconds later the entire trio was helpless and Carroll was blowing a police whistle for assistance.
"There was really nothing to it at all," protested the telephone girl, during the ride in the patrol. "They made the mistake of trying to let Felix, with his wounded hand, take care of me. I didn't have two years of gym work and a complete course in jiu jitsu for nothing, and that blackjack came in mighty handy a moment or two later. All Felix succeeded in doing was to knock my hat off, and I shed my coat the instant I had attended to him."
"That's why I thought you were a goddess in white," murmured Dave.
"No goddess at all, just a girl from the switchboard who was glad to have a chance at the brutes. Anyhow, that few minutes beats any book I ever read for action!"
Dave's hand stole out in the darkness as they jolted forward, and when it found what it was seeking, "Girl," he said, "do you realize that I don't even know your name?"
"Lang," said a voice in the dark. "My friends call me Virginia."
"After what you just did for me, I think we ought to be at least good friends," laughed Carroll, and the thrill of the fight which has just passed was as nothing when she answered:
"At least that ... Dave!"
Quinn paused for a moment to repack his pipe and I took advantage of the interruption to ask what happened at the Wimbledon dinner the following night.
"Not a thing in the world," replied Quinn. "Everything went off like clockwork--everything but the bomb. As the Podunk Gazette would say, 'A very pleasant time was had by all.' But you may be sure that they were careful to examine the cake and the other dishes before they were sampled by the guests. Michel, Felix, and the cook were treated to a good dose of the third degree at headquarters, but without results. They wouldn't even admit that they knew any such person as 'Number Eight-fifty-nine' or von Ewald. Two of them got off with light sentences for assault and battery. The pastry cook, however, went to the pen when they found a quantity of high explosives in his room."
"And Miss Lang?"
"If you care to look up the marriage licenses for October, nineteen sixteen, you'll find that one was issued in the names of David Carroll and Virginia Lang. She's the wife of a captain now, for Dave left the Service the following year and went to France to finish his fight with the Hun. I saw him not long ago and the only thing that's worrying him is where he is going to find his quota of excitement, for he says that there is nothing left in the Service but chasing counterfeiters and guarding the resident, and he can't stand the idea of staying in the army and drawing his pay for wearing a uniform."