Dreams of Empire
Mr. J. C. Bingler mopped leisurely at the last trace of gravy with a piece of toast, his rabbity face calm with the pleasure that an animal feels with a comfortably filled stomach. He burped casually, stretched in indolent ease, sipped at the last of his weak tea.
He peered myopically from the dim interior of the booth, happy that he had eaten before the evening rush of diners arrived. He could hear the clatter of dishes from the kitchen, and the muted buzz of voices from the few diners. He shifted a bit, felt the weight of the hat-box against his rubber-shod feet, from underneath the seat where he had shoved it when first entering.
He spooned a bit of vanilla ice cream into his mouth, then went utterly rigid as the voice in the booth behind him became suddenly loud enough for him to understand the words.
“Oh, dear!” said Mr. Bingler weakly, horrifiedly.
“I tell you,” he heard the voice go on, “that Harvey Wilson has got to die! There’s no time to waste: he’s got to die tonight!”
Mr. Bingler gulped soundlessly, scrooched down into the corner of the booth as far as his small body would go. Horror at the casual brutality with which the words had been said tightened his mouth into a round ‘O’ of astonishment.
“I don’t like it, I tell you!” a second voice said whiningly. “It’s too risky!”
“Risky, hell!” The first voice stopped long enough to permit a short brittle laugh, “I’ve got the whole setup planned, and there can’t be a slip.” There was the snap of a struck match, and cigar smoke drifted over the top of the booth. “Listen,” the voice continued, “Trotter gets out of the pen day after tomorrow. His letter didn’t say much, but residing between the lines told me plenty. He knows who I am, and he figures on blackmailing me white. Then when I can’t pay any more, he’ll squeal to the cops. No, if Wilson dies, you and I can collect a half million; and I can take care of Trotter later.”
“I still don’t like it; if things go wrong, I’ll be left holding the sack!”
“Shut up?” The first voice was steely with a driving ruthlessness, “You’ll do as I say, or I’ll see you occupy the same cell that Trotter is vacating.”
Mr. J. C. Bingler straightened a bit as the voice dropped to a low mutter. He pressed his ear against the booth panel, endeavoring to hear further, but was unable to make out another word.
He spooned more ice cream, ate it untastingly, his small body quaveringly tense with horror and excitement. Never in his most idyllic dreams of detecting had he thought that he would come face to face with a master villain plotting the sudden demise of another human.
“Gosh!” said Mr. Bingler wonderingly, amazedly, soundlessly.
He huddled there in the dimness of the booth, a small man with white hair a tousle, his rabbity nose twitching with perturbation, his mind a chaos of conflicting thoughts.
* * * * *
He knew that he should go to the cops with his information; but he knew, too, that the fragment of conversation he had heard was not enough for the police to act upon. In fact, now that he gave the matter deliberate consideration, he could see that he could do little more than accuse two men of plotting a murder.
Mr. Bingler fumbled under the seat for his hatbox, slid out of the booth, careful not to peer into the adjoining booth. He didn’t want to disclose the fact that he had overheard the conversation; but would take a good look at the arch villain and his henchman on his way to the cashier.
He shrugged into his raincoat, set his aged derby squarely on his small head, caught up his furled umbrella. Then with the hatbox swinging casually from his right hand, he swung around, went toward the cashier’s desk. He flicked his eyes in an all-inclusive glance into the neighboring booth, ready to make a plunge for safety should its occupants detect his thoughts.
“Oh, dear!” said Mr. Bingler, and scowled petulantly.
For the booth was empty of human occupants. While Mr. Bingler’s mind had been occupied with the conversation he had overheard, the two plotting killers had quietly decamped from the vicinity.
Mr. Bingler gazed helplessly around the restaurant, seeing only the orderly bustle of the evening service. He went slowly toward the front, caught sight of the two men just entering the taxi from in front of the restaurant. In that one glimpse, he could make out no details, and a shiver of apprehension raced up his spine that the two might get away without his catching a full view of their faces.
Mr. Bingler scuttled toward the door at an abnormal speed for him.
“Somet’ing wrong, Mr. Bingler?” Tony Angenelli asked from behind the register.
Mr. Bingler stopped dejectedly at the door, seeing only the rear of the taxi as it whirled into the traffic. He came back to the register, carefully counted out thirty cents and tax.
“Did you know those two men who had the booth next to mine?” he asked hopefully.
“Sure!” Tony rang the register, dropped in the change. “One man he’sa name’ Reeves; the other I no know.”
“They come here very often?” Mr. Bingler felt the warm glow of corning success in his scrawny chest.
Tony shook his head. “No,” he said easily, “Meester Reeves he come once or twice a week; this is first time I see other.” He frowned. “Whatsa mat’, Mr. Bingler, isa somet’ing wrong?”
Mr. Bingler laughed, shook his small head in what he hoped was an air of carefree nonchalance.
“Not a thing, Tony,” he said, “I was just curious.”
He went toward the door, conscious of the Italian’s gaze on his back, feeling the triumphant glow burning brighter in his breast. He stood for a moment in the coming dusk, breathing deeply of the heavy air, the smiling lift of his mouth giving his face the look of a slightly puzzled gnome.
Then he set off down the street, his rubbers patting a steady rhythm on the sidewalk, the umbrella swinging jauntily in the crook of his elbow, Mr. J. C. Bingler was in his element, lifted above the mundane routine of an unfeeling world. He was confronted by a mystery that promised to be a lulu, a mystery in which master villains laughed fiendishly and plotted brutal murders — a mystery that was just waiting for Mr. Bingler’s detective talents to solve.
Poor Mr. J. C. Bingler and his dreams of Empire.
* * * * *
The Home Detective Course
Mr. Bingler entered the apartment that had been his home for years, racked his umbrella, hung his hat and boxed his derby, then set his gleaming rubbers beside the hall tree. Catching up the hat-box with its new derby, he went toward the bedroom, switching on the lights as he went. He scowled pleasantly as he went, his troubled mind wrestling with his problem. Placing the hatbox on the neat counterpane of his bed, he removed his clothes, hung them carefully in the single closet.
· END OF PART 1 ·
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