May 23, 1910
JOHN LE BRUN STROLLED INTO Gramercy Park, smiling at the sudden softening of city noise. In the past five years, as automobile and truck traffic replaced the rhythmic clip-clop of hooves and the soft squeal of wooden wheels, the mechanical din on thoroughfares such as Park and Lexington Avenues had become truly annoying to the man who spent most of his life in the “sleepy South.” After more than a few days on Manhattan Island, he invariably sought out isolated, bosky squares, to remind him of Brunswick, Georgia, his relaxed, refined hometown. He tipped his hat to an elderly couple descending the steps of one of the dignified brownstone residences.
Le Brun had retired from the position of sheriff of the southern seaport in 1906, but a series of opportunities had allowed him to open a lucrative detective agency in New York City. This, and the fact that his wife, Lordis, had been anchored to Manhattan by a solemn promise until only a month earlier, fostered train trips to and from Georgia approximately four times a year.
The periodic shuttling was not in the slightest perturbing to the Southern gentleman; for most of his life he had longed to live where libraries, museums, bookstores, and theaters abounded. He was less enamored of the proliferation of American men’s clubs, slavishly based on the London mania, but he was quite proud of the fact that the Player’s Club had made him an honorary member. Housed in the converted Gramercy Park residence of departed god of the American stage Edwin Booth, the all-male club was the gathering place of the creative arts elite. The club also accepted accomplished men of other professions who enjoyed rubbing shoulders and hoisting drinks with actors, singers, writers, painters, poets, and the like.
After being vetted by the club’s doorman, John descended to the bar, where he encountered one of his favorite members. Henry Fisk Carlton was the author of popular American historical books. Upon spying Le Brun, Carlton flung his arms wide.
“John! What a wonderful happenstance!” He crooked his fingers to encourage Le Brun’s advance. Tugging on the sleeve of his drinking companion, whom John did not recognize, Henry drew him from the bar. “Cleveland, this is Mr. John Le Brun, the preferred detective of the New York rich and the solver of several impossibly thorny murders.”
Before John could soften the introduction with a bit of self-effacement, the historian said, “And this is Cleveland Moffett, editor of the Sunday Herald.”
“Until recently,” the man disclosed, nodding stiffly from the waist. “At liberty right now.” John noted that he parted his hair high on his head and slightly to the left and that he did not trim his bushy eyebrows. Beneath the twin caterpillars, his fixed stare and protruding lower lip gave him a hawkish demeanor. His starched collar was so wide that he seemed to be wearing a neck brace.
“But more appropriate to the wonderful happenstance,” Carlton continued, “Mr. Moffett is the author of several celebrated mystery shorts. Have you read ‘The Mysterious Card’?”
John shifted uncomfortably at the situation his friend Henry had put him in. “I’m sorry. I can’t say that—”
“I’m surprised, given your omnivorous reading habits,” Carlton declared. To Moffett he said, “But then again, John lives in Georgia, and The Black Cat is published in Boston, is it not?”
“Correct,” said the mystery writer.
“A corker of a periodical,” Henry Carlton assured. “At any rate, Cleveland’s unique angle is not revealing the answer to whatever puzzle he poses. The printed speculations and public clamor for solutions have made him quite a literary celebrity.” As an afterthought, Carlton said, “Like Frank Stockton’s ‘The Lady or the Tiger,’ which you surely have read.”
“More than once,” John responded. “The first time was at least a couple decades ago, in The Century. But Stockton did not withhold his solution.”
“He most certainly did!” Carlton insisted. “He went to his grave without revealing whether the princess signaled for the young man to open the arena door that exposed her rival or the man-eating tiger.”
Cleveland Moffett’s eyes narrowed, and the corner of his mouth curled into a slight smile. “I was under the same impression as Henry. What makes you believe Stockton revealed the answer to his puzzle?”
“It’s right in the story, as are the solutions to all well-written mysteries,” Le Brun replied. “If memory serves, Stockton’s openin’ line is somethin’ like ‘In an ancient time, there lived a semi-barbaric king.’ Everythin’ in that first sentence comes right out of fairy tales, epics, and legends. Everythin’ but the unusual word ‘semi-barbaric,’ which makes the adjective vitally important. The story is very short, yet ‘semi-barbaric’ and ‘barbaric’ are used at least ten times. The king’s daughter, who has paid to know behind which doors stand the tiger and the lady, is point-blank told to be ‘barbaric.’ Such a woman would not allow her assumed rival for the young man’s affection to win the day. She nods to the door on the right, behind which waits the tiger.”
“You’re absolutely convinced that he will die,” Moffett said.
John caught the eye of the bartender. “Bourbon and water, if you please.” Then he returned his focus to the writer of mysteries. “No, that I cannot determine.” Before his response could settle in, he added, “Because the author does not tell me if the young man was clever enough to understand that the practices of a land come from the attitudes of the person in charge. Therefore, the child of a man who is barbaric will learn the way of her immediate world from her father’s lap.”
“Hmmph!” exclaimed Henry Carlton.
John concluded, “That’s the reason behind the sayin’ ‘If you want to kill a snake, chop off its head.’ I live in a port town, with many warehouses. Over the years, I’ve observed that if the owner is nasty, the workforce becomes nasty all the way down the peckin’ order; if he’s kindly, the workers tend to reflect his behavior. Stockton’s imaginary land is barbaric all the way down.”
“Well, it’s a pleasure to meet such a thoughtful man, whether you’re right or not,” said Cleveland Moffett, offering his hand. “I shall have to re-read Stockton’s story very carefully.”
THE HEADQUARTERS OF the John Le Brun Detective Agency was well concealed. It was located on a West Side Midtown block containing several street-level businesses that promoted themselves with large, sometimes-garish signage. The agency, run with no outside advertising, also served as the parlor of Mr. and Mrs. Martin McMahon. Mary McMahon was the manager of the operation, with all other employees working part-time as demand warranted. The investigators were almost all retired New York policemen who enjoyed a periodic infusion of extra cash from investigating the backgrounds of would-be fiancés of the daughters of wealthy families, exposing cheating husbands and wives, guarding the guests and presents at weddings, or protecting masquerade ball attendees from the starving masses who waited for them with rotten produce on hotel sidewalks.
Le Brun climbed the front stoop of the McMahons’ three-story tenement. The backfire of a passing motorized van caused him to pivot toward the street, drop into a crouch, and reach under his suit jacket tails, where his revolver was holstered. He realized a moment later what had caused the sharp report, straightened up, and continued to the double doors.
When he entered the parlor, John saw from her amused expression that Mary must have witnessed his skittishness from one of the two front windows. He had hired Mary for her sharp mind and eyes and her inquisitive nature, which caused her to check on the busy street beyond the panes of glass far more than surrounding inhabitants were wont to do. Irish lace hung inside the windows, offering ample spaces to allow Mary to use her keen vision even as the lace protected those outside from seeing her.
“Listen, John, I don’t know that it will bring any money into our till,” Mary said as Le Brun hung his hat on the coat tree next to the parlor door, “but I was over at Maeve McGillicuddy’s this morning and I saw something peculiar.”
“Do tell,” John said, inviting the rest of her tale. He knew that Mary was not the long-winded type, given to holding attention with protracted, one-sided conversations. However, her observational powers and penchant for detail sometimes turned a short report into a novella.
“She lives a block south, on Thirty-seventh. The shade side, same as us. So it’s easy to observe not only what goes on across the street but often a distance into certain shops and businesses. We were having a nice cup of tea by her front window, and I look out and see a delivery wagon pull up in front of the print shop directly across. The wagon is from Aycliffe & Easterman. Do you know the company?”
John sat at the dining table. “Can’t say as I do.”
“They sell the finest papers, for personal stationery, top business correspondence, and the like. Beautiful stuff to the eye and the touch. We often get requests for our services written on Aycliffe & Easterman paper.”
“I see,” John said, expecting that by now Mary would have offered him a “nice cup of tea.”
“I understand what makes their paper so rich is the finely shredded rag content. But the print shop is a dank hole in the wall. Down five steps below the pavement. So I ask Maeve how often she sees this wagon delivering to the place.”
“And she says ‘often,’” John said.
“‘Regular,’ is the word. Her exact words were, ‘I think that wagon is there every Monday morning.’ Maeve’s not as concerned as I am with people who aren’t neighbors.” Mary straightened the crucifix hanging between the two front windows. “But I myself seen . . . saw . . . at least two reams carried in. Not in small boxes but long, wide ones. Made the deliveryman walk bow-legged, they did.”
John had apprehended Mary’s suspicion since her mention of the quality of Aycliffe & Easterman paper. “So, you suspect the print shop owner is—”
“A coneyman,” Mary finished his sentence, using the New York slang for counterfeiter. “Printing the queer,” she added, using more of the criminal parlance she had picked up from their policeman associates. “He ain’t printing handbills with paper that size and quality, I’ll tell you. I figure it’s sheets of paper money.”
“Why don’t I take a look-see?” John said, rising from the chair.
“It’s 413 West Thirty-seventh,” Mary told him, grinning at the ready willingness of her respected employer to follow up on her observation. “Although we don’t stand to make a dime if I’m right.”
“But we would prevent losin’ far more than a dime if we were to accept this shop’s fake currency in the future,” John noted as he grabbed his derby.
“Right you are, right you are!” Mary chirped.
THE PRINT SHOP was indeed “a dank hole in the wall.” A display window bore the legend “Erik Apfelbaum/Printing and Engraving.” The glass expanse was backed by black curtains, which had been drawn apart. John entered the business expecting to hear the steady thump of an electric printing press. Instead, the sounds of several male voices speaking in low tones issued through another black curtain, which hung lintel to floor across an open doorway and completely blocked the view of the space beyond. Several samples of print work had been tacked to the wooden wall behind the service counter.
Le Brun tapped the counter bell. The voices grew silent. A heavyset man who John judged to be in his early forties appeared. He wore an apron impregnated with the ink of many printing sessions. His face bore the ancestry of eastern Germany. His fingertips were lightly stained a peacock green.
“May I help you?” he asked.
John rested his elbow on the counter, reminding himself to swap his Southern drawl for a Yankee accent. “Perhaps. I recently purchased a warehouse over in Jersey City, and I’d like to make my services and rates known around Manhattan.” He stretched out his hands. “I’m thinking about posters so big. At least five hundred. Maybe a thousand, if the price is right.”
“Dry glue on the back?”
“Printed in how many colors?”
“Black print and red borders.”
“Do you need any illustration or design work?” asked the man behind the counter, jotting notes on a piece of scrap paper.
“Just words,” John replied. “Your top- and bottom-end charges for five hundred will do for comparison right now.”
As he spoke, Le Brun heard two male voices speaking in short, low exchanges just behind the black doorway curtain. A moment later, the men passed through the opening. Both were somber-faced, in their thirties, and dressed in ready-made suits of reasonable quality. John noted that they held identical black leather document clutches, about twice the size of normal wallets, identically stuffed. One, who was on the thin side and about John’s height, had reddish hair and sported a military-style moustache. The other was a bit shorter than John’s five-foot-eight stature and wore wire-frame eyeglasses, well supported by the full cheeks of a round face. Both men moved through the front of the shop with speed, pointedly avoiding eye contact with Le Brun and the shop proprietor.
The man behind the counter offered a base quote, then began detailing particulars and add-on charges.
“That’s good enough for now, thank you,” John said. “You’ll probably see me again.” Before the printer could renew his pitch, Le Brun turned and exited the shop, climbing the steps to street level.
The pair of men strode away at a good pace. John matched them, keeping two hundred feet back. His quarry, walking abreast, turned south on Eighth Avenue. When they reached the corner of the nearly completed Pennsylvania Station at Thirty-third Street, the two turned west, strolling along the two-block length of the ancient Greek revival wall, chatting amiably. The man with the flaring moustache tipped his hat to his companion and continued south toward the central Manhattan post office, which John knew would soon be demolished and replaced by a monumental structure that would complement Pennsylvania Station.
The full-cheeked fellow continued to the temporary ticketing and waiting areas of the Pennsylvania Railroad, not far beyond where the trains emerged from a double tunnel under the Hudson River. John shadowed him until the man queued up at one of the ticket windows. The detective took his place in the same line, allowing a young man who carried a bouquet of flowers to separate them. John stepped slightly to the side to be able to watch the bespectacled man’s actions. As the object of his focus finished the transaction and moved toward a set of iron stairs, Le Brun pivoted and presented his back. The young man completed his purchase, and John advanced to the window. He flashed his detective’s credentials at the ticket vendor and said, “The man with the spectacles who just left your counter paid you with paper currency.”
“Yes, sir. A five-dollar bill. He paid for one way to Newark.”
John calculated that the man would have gotten more than four dollars in coinage. “I’d like to purchase that bill.”
“Here it is.” The ticketing agent pulled the bill from his till.
John extracted two two-and-half-dollar gold pieces and set them on the counter. “An even exchange, and I thank you.”
Le Brun headed out onto the street, not wanting to be seen by the man whom he strongly suspected of being a “passer.” He imagined the character with the fancy moustache was at that moment purchasing sheets of postage stamps, which could easily be resold to larcenous businessmen for up to 80 percent of their value. He judged that the two men’s oversized wallets could comfortably hold one hundred identical bills, totaling enough together to purchase a new automobile. If the print shop owner used one passer each to cover Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and New Jersey, $3,000 in bad currency could be put into circulation in a week or less—what it took a competent New York lawyer an entire year to earn. The amount was the proverbial drop in the bucket in one of the major metropolises of the world, yet John knew that as much as 3 percent of paper money in national circulation was counterfeit. Many drops from many dirty buckets could gradually pollute an entire system, causing inflation and enough suspicion among citizens that gold and silver might need to return as the standard species of commerce.
The fault lay in the national monetary system, a failing that Le Brun had railed against many times, especially to the rich and influential that his agency served and with whom he occasionally shared a drink and a conversation. The United States needed centralized mints and standardized paper money. Back when John was a boy and thousands of small banks existed, each one issued its own currency. During the Civil War, somewhere between one-third and half of all the paper money was false. In response, the federal government established national banks, which were chartered to print money backed by U.S. bonds. But with hundreds of banks participating in the program across the country and in U.S. territories, it was impossible for the average individual to know all the designs and to be able to declare any single example counterfeit.
The $5 bill John stared at was ostensibly issued by the Vineland National Bank of Vineland, New Jersey. It depicted several scenes showing Christopher Columbus in the New World. The obverse side was sharply printed in black and shades of gray, with national charter and series numbers in red. On the reverse side, the border work was in peacock green. It was the same color as the stains on the print shop owner’s fingertips. The bill had been folded several times and crumpled but showed no true signs of wear. Clucking at his observations, John tucked it into his inside suit jacket pocket.
“Good on you, Mary McMahon. Now, where precisely is the New York office of the Secret Service?”