News About Old Man Johnson
The neighbors on Christopher Square called him Old Man Johnson. He had a little basement shop where he dealt in second hand automobile parts. He lived in the rear of the store and the Square knew him as an inventor. It did not know what he invented, but it was accustomed to seeing a light in the store at all hours. If one looked down into the black areaway they could see the old man at work among his tools, his ragged gray beard drooping over his bench.
One day Christopher Square hummed with news concerning Old Man Johnson.
Big Harry Westley, the King of Con Men, discussed the news with Lefty Blumfeld, alias Morrison Taylor, over a table in the front room of the West Side Social Club, located at the end of the Square. Westley was large, florid and impressive. Crook-dom respected his genius. It was said that Westley could cut Central Park up into building lots and sell them for cash. He had served two jail terms, but had lost none of his nerve or pompous exterior.
Lefty Blumfeld, alias Morrison Taylor, was undersized. He was built along the lines of a gorilla. He had a low, bulging forehead and beady black eyes. His bull neck was short and thick. His hands were covered with coarse black hair. They were gnarled and pitted from laboratory work. He made nitro-glycerine for petermen and blasters when he was not out on a job himself. He had done a stretch of six years in the State penitentiary and was as rapacious and merciless as a colled cobra.
“Did you hear the news about Old Man Johnson?” Westley inquired, lighting a fat cigar with a flourish.
Blumfeld tossed off three fingers of underground rye whiskey. He dried his lips on the back of his hand.
“No. What about him?”
The big con man tilted back his chair and chuckled.
“Everyone is talking about Old Man Johnson. He sold an invention to some big company up the state. He’s been paid ten thousand dollars in advance royalties. Charlie Hill saw the check and so it’s not air. The old geezer has cleaned up. Ten grands — I guess that’s rotten.”
Blumfeld ran his finger around the inside rim of his whiskey glass.
“What’s the invention?” he asked after a pause.
Westley shook his head and shrugged.
“Search me. Nobody seems to know. Charlie Hill asked him, but Johnson said it was a secret. It must be something good or he wouldn’t have got such dough.”
Blumfeld nodded moodily.
“Yes, it must be,” he said.
Westley flicked the ash from the end of his cigar and chuckled again.
“Ten thousand dollars,” he observed reflectively, “is a lot of dough. I’ll have to wander up to Moy Ling’s after awhile and smoke a couple of pipes of scatnish. Poppy makes me dream clever schemes. I was full of hop the time I took that Florida lawyer for his currency kick. Old Man Johnson isn’t used to sudden wealth. I’ll dream out a way to separate him from his cash. When I get it I’ll buy you the best dinner in town, Lefty.”
“Like hell!” Blumfeld grunted.
Westley smiled and looked at his watch. He stood up and pulled down his waistcoat. He placed seventy-five cents on the table to pay for the liquor he had consumed and fingered his closely shaven chin.
“Well, I’ve got to be moving. Be good to yourself and be leary of the red-necks. I’ve just got about six minutes to grab a short.”
He nodded affably and moved away. Through the front windows of the club Blumfeld saw him stride briskly across the square. The nitro-glycerine expert sat stiffly still. Ten thousand dollars! He hardly knew there was so much money in the world. And it was in the possession of a doddering inventor who lived in a mean cellar!
Blumfeld’s beady eyes glittered. When he considered the magnitude of the sum he felt dazed. For a long interval he sat with expressionless face and staring eyes. After a time he got up. He took a few steps toward the door, returned and picked up the seventy-five cents Big Harry Westley had laid on the table. He shoved it into his pocket, deciding he needed it more than the waiter.
Slouching out of the club, he descended the front steps and stepped onto the cracked pavement of Christopher Square. The late September afternoon was dying in a conflagration of sunset fire. The sky was brazen with raw scarlet, amethyst and silver-and-purple. Lights were winking in the waterfront rigging, a block distant. The river was boisterous with the voice of sirens and the shrill of whistles. The wraith of evening shook out her black draperies that were pinned with stars.
Blumfeld turned east. He walked two blocks. He came in sight of the building in the cellar of which Old Man Johnson maintained his shop. He saw the inventor’s ancient sign hanging from its metal stanchion like a one-legged acrobat. Drawing close to the areaway, Blumfeld leaned over and peered down. Somewhere in the shop below an oil lamp burned. In its uncertain radiance Blumfeld observed the stooped figure of the proprietor.
Turning to the iron stairway that led steeply down into the basement, Blumfeld drew his lips back over his teeth and smiled. He descended the steps and opened the front door. He entered and closed it after him.
The shop was warm and stuffy with the odor of paint and grease. Blumfeld hardly noticed it. His quick gaze darted to the work-bench over which Old Man Johpson hung. He saw the inventor was old and feeble. The eyes of the man were blue and faded. His skin was wrinkled like yellow parchment. He wore a disreputable old pair of oil-stained trousers, a collarless flannel shirt that exposed his turkey neck and a pencil-stuffed vest held together by one button.
“You got a second hand drive shaft for a Brown and Blue taxi?” Blumfeld said, as the inventor looked up.
Old Man Johnson shook his head.
“No, I haven’t,” he said in a thin husky voice.
Blumfeld allowed his gaze to wander about the place.
“Got any gears or transmission parts?”
The inventor shook his white head again.
“No, I don’t think I have. All the parts are piled up in the corner over there. I’m going out of business, so if you find anything you can use you can have it at your own price.”
He indicated a heap of metal stacked up in one corner. Blumfeld shuffled across to it. He pawed idly over it. While he did this he plumbed the room with his beady eyes. He made a mental photograph of the way the shop was arranged, of a single window that opened on to an alley running past it, and of a door that went into what was presumably the living quarters of the inventor.
When he had observed all that interested him, Blumfeld straightened up and turned his back on the heap of metal.
“Find anything?” Old Man Johnson asked.
Blumfeld shook his head.
“No. I’ll come around next week. Maybe you’ll have a shaft picked up by then.”
The inventor smiled faintly.
“I won’t be here next week. I’m selling out. I’m going out of business. I’m leaving for Rochester on Monday. I’m an inventor and I only kept this little place here until I struck oil.”
Blumfeld allowed himself to look impressed.
“Is that right? So you struck oil. I guess that means you sold an invention. You must have knocked out large kale if you’re going to Rochester.”
The interest of his caller appeared to please the old man. He wiped his hands on a piece of cotton waste and put some tobacco in the bowl of his black pipe.
“It took me twenty years to perfect my invention,” he explained, with a touch of pride. “Many times I thought I had made it, only to discover some hidden flaw. People I told about it said it couldn’t be done and thought I was crazy to even try it. Three months ago I knew I had triumphed. I put the invention to every possible test and it made good. I applied for a patent and sent my work to a big manufacturing concern in Rochester. They tested it for two months and then agreed to purchase the right to manufacture it. They sent me ten thousand dollars and a contract. I’m going to Rochester, as I said, to take charge of the making of them.”
Blumfeld, receiving verification of Big Harry’s statement, felt satisfaction tingling keenly within him. He had almost believed that it was opium that put the words in the mouth of the big con man.
“So you got ten thousand dollars,” he murmured. “That’s a lot of money. You want to hold on to it tight. I guess you know the Square is a pretty tough place. Don’t let no one bunk the jack away from you, or stick you up for it.”
Old Man Johnson looked serious.
“Never fear, I won’t. I have it hidden where no one can find it. It’s safe.”
“That’s the eye! Hang onto it. I’m sorry you ain’t got what I’m after. Good luck to you when you get to Rochester.”
At the door Blumfeld stopped, seized by a sudden thought.
“By the way,” he said, “what was it you invented?”
The inventor picked up a file from the bench.
“It’s a secret,” he replied slowly. “It’s a secret until it’s put on the market — “
At eleven o’clock Blumfeld emerged from the east side stuss house where he had run his purloined seventy-five cents up to six dollars. A pleasant sense of success swam in his blood. His good fortune was an omen that fickle Luck smiled upon him. On such a night as this he might conquer in any deed in wdiich he figured or any endeavor he applied his hand to.
Back to Top
The Pleasant Stream of Imagination
At the corner of the street he traversed he boarded a surface car. He rode twelve blocks and transferred to a cross-town car. The second car took him as far as Harrigan Avenue, where he alighted. He continued east, treading a labyrinth of side streets that emptied like sewers along the waterfront. Where the river’s breath was damp, foul and cold, Blumfeld turned south. A few minutes later he entered Christopher Square by its west termination.
He passed the social club where he had sat and talked with Big Harry. The strains of jazz crept out through lighted windows. Evidently a dance was in progress. He wondered if it was all right to stop oft for a hooker of illicit whiskey. He decided not to and quickened his step as if to outpace temptation. When the ten thousand dollars of Old Man Johnson’s was his he could buy a hundred cases of hootch. He could fill a tub full of rye and bathe in it if he so desired.
The pleasant stream of imagination he floated down emptied him into the bayou of Broken Dreams. He shook himself as he sighted his destination. The hanging sign of the inventor loomed before him — the black areaway of the basement shop which was as dark as the inside of a pocket. Blumfeld made sure his movements were not being observed and squatted down. He looked into the shop as far as he could but saw no trace of any light.
Arising, he surveyed the Square. Music still seeped out from the club. No loiterer shuffled through the shadows. He descended the areaway stairs. The door he had opened earlier in the evening confronted him. Quick inspection told Blumfeld it was locked and bolted on the inside in such a way as to make forcing it impossible. He muttered a curse and crept down the area way. He climbed a fence and dropped down into an alley that fringed the building. He came upon the single window of the shop and drew a breath of satisfaction when he found the top pane was lowered an inch or two. It was the work of a minute to draw the lower sash up, swing quietly across the sill and step down onto the floor of the store.
So much accomplished without mishap, Blumfeld grew cautious. Old Man Johnson was an inventor. It was likely he had rigged up some device that would make known the presence of an intruder. Blumfeld knew he would have to be wary or he would stumble into a snare. He opened the blade of a large, heavy knife and felt his way to the door that opened into the living rooms beyond.
Twice he stubbed his foot on some bit of metal lying about. He reached the door without accident otherwise and felt about the frame. At first he discovered nothing, then as he dug his nails into the plaster he found the presence of a number of fine, silk-covered wires. He cut them one at a time and dropped a hand to the knob of the door.
It opened at his touch with scarce a creak.
Blumfeld passed into stark blackness perfumed with the reek of a kerosene lamp. Its odor took him carefully across the room. He discovered the location of the lamp and felt its chimney. Its warmth told him it had been extinguished only a short time.
Blumfeld turned slowly. He must learn if this room was the bedchamber of the inventor or not. He longed to kindle a match, but knew its glare would betray him if Johnson was awake. He began to step forward, laying his hand against the furniture it encountered. He touched a chair and a small table, but they told him nothing. He had no way of knowing where he was until his knees suddenly came in contact with something cold and hard and investigation caused him to expel a breath of relief. His exploring hands felt a mattress and a blanket.
While he considered the next move, Blumfeld stiffened cautiously. The bed creaked with the weight of some one turning over in it. After what seemed an eternity, a thin, husky voice came out of the staring murk.
“I have a fully loaded revolver covering you! I will — “
Blumfeld did not wait to hear the rest of it. With a snarl he flung himself forward. He crashed against a figure that fell back with a soft cry, a cry that was abruptly shut off by the grip of his fingers.
Something hard clattered to the floor with a dull, metallic ring.
Wisps of heard scratched Blumfeld’s face.
With his free hand he ripped a piece from the blanket, wadded it together and stuffed it into the man’s mouth, forcing his jaws open and digging a knee into his stomach so that no scream might awake discordant echoes.
When he had neatly gagged his victim he ended weak struggles with a vicious blow and using other strips of the blanket bound Johnson’s wrists and ankles tightly together.
Stepping away from the bed Blumfeld struck a match.
He turned up the wick of the oil lamp and lighted it. The room boasted two windows and both displayed drawn shades. It was sparsely furnished as a bedroom, containing a bureau with a mirror, table, chair and trunk. Blumfeld dropped down on the top of the trunk. He dug out the stub of a cigarette from his pocket and after kindling it looked casually at the trussed up man on the bed. He grinned when the faded blue eyes met his bravely and steadily.
“I came back,” Blumfeld said. “I came back to get them ten thousand smackers you were bragging about. If you come clean with me you won’t get hurt. If you try any funny stuff you’ll never go to Rochester. You’ll go to a place where money ain’t no use. Nod your head if you understand.”
The inventor nodded. Blumfeld picked up the revolver from the floor and pocketed it.
“Are you ready to tell me where the money is at? Nod yes or no.”
The old man inclined his head. Blumfeld crossed to him and leaned over.
“I’m going to slip the gag out of your peep. If you open your trap to yell I’ll cave in your conk!”
He removed the makeshift gag and the inventor licked his lips.
“C’mon, spit out the dope!” Blumfeld ordered impatiently.
“I will tell you nothing!” the old man said huskily. “What it took me twenty years to earn I will share with no one! No matter what you do to me no information will pass my lips! I will meet my fate unafraid! And I will know that you cannot escape the consequences of your crime! The work of my hand and the child of my brain will reach out, even from the grave, and overtake you!”
With a snarl Blumfeld jammed the gag back into the inventor’s mouth. He pushed the old man savagely back among the pillows and struck him again with his fist. For a few minutes he sat silent, his face dark with thought. At length he stood up, slapped his thigh with a exclamation and walked to the lamp. He opened the blade of his heavy knife and laid it across the mouth of the chimney, looking back at the cot with a wide grin.
“Maybe a little burning on the soles of your feet will make you loosen up! I’ll torture you before I croak you, and even if you don’t tell me what I want to know I’ll find out! I’ll turn these rooms upside down!”
He lifted the knife from the chimney and saw that its blade had turned white-hot. He wrapped his handkerchief around the handle and with a single move drew the sheets and blankets off the bed. …
Back to Top
Three days later as Blumfeld slouched out of the east side lodging-house where he roomed, a man stepped across the pavement and laid a hand on his arm. Synchronously another man stepped out of the passing crowd and caught hold of his left arm, moving it up and out.
Before Blumfeld could draw a breath, something cold encircled each wrist — a sharp click sounded.
“You are wanted, Lefty!” the first man said briefly. “Charge of bumping off Old Man Johnson, the inventor, down on Christopher Square last week!”
Blumfeld lifted his face, his lips drawn back over his yellow teeth.
“You’re crazy with the heat!” he snarled. “I haven’t been on Christopher Square in two weeks. I’ve been away. I’ve been in Chi — “
The second man smiled.
“There is no use of lying, Lefty. We have Old Man Johnson’s invention down at headquarters. It showed us who croaked him and told us who to look for. We’ve got the man — you are he!”
Blumfeld licked his lips.
“What invention are you talking about?”
His first captor exchanged a look with his companion.
“Something that’s going to stand this country on its ear when it hears about it,” he answered. “The old man invented a mirror. He had one in the bureau in his bedroom. It’s a mirror that retains the reflection of the last person who passes before it.” …
By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
* gain access to all 32 novelettes when you download BLUEBERRY PIE today