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Cross Words for Crooks by Paul Chadwick

 

A puzzle fan finds himself juggling with a tough problem.

SAM BICKLE, who is best known to patrons of the Hotel Paris as bellhop No. 36, swiveled his eyes in both directions along the tenth-floor hallway. When he had assured himself that no one was in sight, he propped his back luxuriously against a marble column beside the elevator door. With studied carelessness, he neglected to ring the signal bell. The car would stop at his floor in its own good time. Meanwhile, he looked forward to a period of peaceful recreation.

Sighing contentedly, he took a newspaper from an inside pocket and poised the stub of a pencil above one smudgy page. His forehead wrinkled as he tried to think of a five-letter word beginning with "A" and signifying "skillful." The rest of the lines were all filled in. It was that one vertical that stumped him--and he prided himself that, when it came to crossword puzzles, he was the cat's pajamas and the canary's toenails all rolled into one.

He became so absorbed in his problem, that he didn't even hear the elevator go by or notice that the bulb over the annunciator board down the hall was glowing.

It wasn't until a portentous shadow fell across his page and a porcine bulk projected itself into his horizon, that he came back to the grim realities of life.

He found himself staring into the ruddy features of "Big Jim" Shallop, hotel detective.

"Ah," said Sam, and made an inaccurate stab toward the elevator button with one quivering finger.

"Yeah," growled Shallop ominously. "That's right--ring it. I been watching you for the last five minutes. I seen you wastin' the hotel's time on another one of them dumb crossword puzzles."

Sam tried to make his voice express an arrogance he didn't feel.

"Is that all this cheap boarding house pays you for--just to snoop around and spy on the bellhops?"

"My job," said Shallop pompously, "is to protect the interests of the hotel--to see that crooks don't steal from the guests, and that employees don't steal from the management. A guy who swipes time is just as bad as any other kind of thief. I've told you before to leave them crossword puzzles alone. Now, I'm gonna speak to the boss. You'll find a pretty pink slip in your next pay envelope. You're always lookin' for funny words. The next one you'll read in this hotel will be a five--letter word beginning with 'F'--fired. Get that? And you won't need a pencil to figure it out either."

As an added insult, Shallop seized Sam's newspaper and tore the crossword puzzle in half.

"Ow!" cried Sam. "You big double-crossing ape! Just when I had it all done but one word!"

But his complaint fell upon deaf ears. Shallop was pointing dramatically toward the annunciator box.

"Go and see what that guy wants!" he ordered. "Make yourself useful the rest of the time you're here. It won't be long now."

Sam shuffled off, muttering to himself. The big pussyfooting gorilla had nothing to do but stand around looking pretty and smoking vile cigars. Yet, he was always telling Sam where to get off. Sam had to admit, though, that as a gumshoe artist, Shallop was all there. He had a way of turning up when a man least expected it. He was worse than a bad penny.

Sam slammed ice viciously into a pitcher. These darned booze hounds with their hangovers! It was guys like that and big lard pails like Shallop that made a bellhop's life hard.

When he got down to the street floor again, he hunched himself disconsolately on the bench and waited for another call. His cap was tipped forward more rakishly than the strict standards of the hotel allowed.

The gay night life of Broadway still streamed by the canopied entrance outside, but it held no thrill for Sam. At the end of the week, he'd be out of a job again, watching the bread lines grow longer, and using up shoe leather in a futile attempt to find work.

He hadn't even a good snappy crossword puzzle to cheer him in his hour of need. He looked at the checkered tiles on the floor, and imagined what puzzles a man could make there with a piece of chalk and a pencil.

It was then that he saw the two newcomers who entered the revolving door with their big leather grips. Sam leaped forward. No use letting a few last tips get away from him!

The strangers stared down the ends of their noses and released their grips with seeming reluctance. Tough-looking eggs, thought Sam. They'd be wanting ginger ale and ice water before the night was over.

But their grips were light. No booze there! Sam had got so that he could classify most of the guests who stopped at the Paris. But these two had him guessing. One was short, and dressed in gray. The other was a head taller, and had on a brown suit with a hairline white stripe. They both had eyes that squinted.

"Give us a room up top," he heard one of them tell the desk clerk. "We want to be up where it's quiet--and where we can get a look-see. This old town has grown some since we were here before."

"Yeah," said the other.

Sam couldn't see what names they signed in the register. The clerk handed them the key to Room No. 3019. That was one of the tower rooms. They couldn't get much higher unless they went up on the roof. It was the part of the hotel where all the swells liked to stay. It gave them a feeling of being high and mighty. These two had plenty of dough. They didn't even ask the price of the room.

But when Sam showed them into it, the man who tipped him, the taller of the two, handed him a dime. He wrinkled his nose at that. These two birds took a twelve-dollar-a-day room without blinking, then handed a thin dime to the guy who had carried up their luggage.

"I ain't got any change, mister," said Sam, staring at the dime in his palm and shaking his head sadly.

"A wise guy, eh?" said the tall man.

Sam beat a hasty retreat. He had enough trouble on his hands already. These two men didn't talk or act like the guests who usually took rooms in the tower.

He thought no more about them until Mr. Dennison, in Room No. 3012, ordered some more grape juice for his bridge guests. A great old guy was Mr. Dennison, one of the hotel's regular paychecks. He'd been a society beau in his time. Tonight, he was giving a card party to a bunch of swells. Sam had seen them coming in, tricked out in furs and jewels. Reporters had even interviewed Dennison just to stick advance notices in the papers.

As he came out of the Dennison suite, he noticed Shallop talking to one of the two strangers whose grips he had carried. It was the short man in the gray suit. He was gesturing toward a door which Sam knew opened on a stairway leading up to the roof. Shallop was rolling a cigar around in his mouth and looking interested. Sam couldn't help catching what was being said as he passed by.

"We heard a noise and saw him trying to get into our room," the short man was saying. "He ran through that door."

Sam hurried on. But when he reached a turn in the hallway, he paused, then retraced his steps slowly and stuck his head around a corner. Something was going on. He wasn't the sort who liked to miss a free show.

He saw Shallop open the door leading to the stairway to the roof and enter it, followed by the other man. Sam felt himself getting excited. Real detective work was going on. He gathered that the two strangers had discovered someone trying to get into their room, and had told Shallop about it.

As long as he was going to be fired, anyway, Sam reasoned that he might as well enjoy himself now. If there was a manhunt in progress, he wanted to be there to watch it. He walked resolutely back to the door of the stairway and started up.

Shallop and the gray-suited man had reached the roof now. The door was open. Sam got a glimpse of stars, and sniffed at the fresh night air. He heard Shallop's voice.

"If he's up here, we'll find him. There ain't no other way down."

Sam stuck his head through the door at the top of the stairway. He was all agog. He saw the lumbering form of Shallop and the figure of the smaller man behind him. Then the smaller man took something out of his pocket and thrust it against Shallop's back.

The detective gave an audible grunt of surprise.

"Stick 'em up," said the gray-suited man in a hard, tense voice.

"Hey!" yelled Sam.

The gray-suited man turned his head then. It almost gave Shallop a chance to grab the gun away from him--almost, but not quite. The man with the gat still had one eye cocked.

"Take care of that nosey bellhop," he said from the corner of his mouth.

Something hard was jammed into Sam's ribs then. It was the other man, the tall one, who had slipped out of the shadows beside the door.

"Raise your mitts, too," he said, "and come on up. The air's fine. You'll like it."

Sam kept his arms stiffly aloft, as did Shallop. He saw the man in the gray suit go through the detective's pockets and remove a gun, a wallet, and a bunch of keys. Then he saw him give Shallop a clip behind the ear with the blunt muzzle of his automatic. The big detective sank to his knees and fell sidewise.

The man behind Sam duplicated the blow, but not so expertly. Sam ducked his head a little. He saw red-and-blue lights dance before his eyes, and he pitched forward, but he wasn't completely out. Dimly, he saw the two men slip through the doorway to the stairs and closed the door after them. He heard the sound of a key being turned in the lock.

Then he understood the whole neat trick. They had lured Shallop up on the roof to get his keys away from him and to get him out of the way. They were crooks, and were planning to pull some sort of job. He thought of Dennison's bridge party and the bejeweled guests who were in attendance.

He sat up, rubbing the back of his head. Then he went over to see Shallop. The detective was breathing heavily. Sam tried to rouse him, but couldn't. He went back to the door and pounded on it, but it was made of metal and was locked.

He stared over the coping at the street thirty stories below. There was no fire escape, no way of getting down. The roof was empty, except for a few pipes and the huge electric sign that rose on a steel framework and blinked in and out as a lure to the teeming denizens of Broadway.

Sam gathered some rainwater in the palms of his hands and threw it into the face of Shallop. The detective groaned, and fluttered his eyelids. Another shower of cold water made him sit up groggily. The sky overhead shed a faint, reflected illumination.

"What the hell?" said Shallop.

"It's me," said Sam. "A couple of crooks socked you on the dome and took your keys away from you. What are you going to do about it?"

"What are you doing here?" countered Shallop, glaring fiercely at Sam.

"Just looking round," said Sam. "I heard you talking to one of the crooks. You fell for his slick trick, didn't you?"

Shallop broke into a torrent of profanity. He arose, groaned, felt of his head, then limped toward the door.

"It's locked," said Sam. "We couldn't break it down if we tried all night."

"We gotta," said Shallop. "They took my keys so they could crib the sparklers off Dennison's guests. I'm cooked if they get away with it."

But, try as they would, they couldn't force the door.

Overhead, the big electric sign continued to wink in and out as though in sly humor at their plight.

HOTEL PARIS

Then after a period of darkness:

HOTEL PARIS

Sam stared up at it. He began muttering to himself. Then he grabbed Shallop's arm.

"Quick," he said, "boost me up on that sign, Shallop. I got an idea."

Then he saw he wouldn't need Shallop's help, after all. There was a small ladder running up to the huge letters.

"What are you gonna do?" growled Shallop.

"Another crossword puzzle," Sam shouted back enigmatically.

The cold night wind lashed at him as he hung on dizzily. When he reached the sign, he began working with feverish energy, unscrewing bulbs and darkening letters here and there with the confident air of a man who knows what he is about.

When he climbed down from the big framework and joined Shallop on the roof again, the sound coming up through the canyon of Broadway had changed. It had a louder, more strident note. Sam looked at Shallop significantly.

It was twenty minutes later that there came a shouting and a stamping at the door leading to the stairs. Then it opened, and a cop came up on the roof. Shallop greeted him excitedly.

"Quick," he said, "a couple of crooks are pulling off a heist job here tonight."

"I know it," said the cop. "We got 'em just as they were leaving. That signal of yours was seen all up and down Broadway. They got the reserves outside. We thought there was a riot here--but I've got to hand it to you, Shallop--it was a clever trick all right. Better get it fixed, though, as soon as you can. It's stoppin' traffic all along the street."

Shallop seemed to fight within himself then. He squared his shoulders and looked the cop in the eye. His lips were firm.

"I didn't do it," he said. "It was the bellhop here. He's a crossword puzzle fan, and I've been riding him for it. When I saw him up there unscrewing the bulbs in the 'O' and T' of 'HOTEL,' and leaving the 'H--EL,' I didn't catch on to what he was doin', and thought he'd gone crazy. Then, when he began puttin' out the 'A' in 'PARIS' and all the rest of the letters except the 'P,' I saw he'd spelled 'H-EL-P'!"

As Shallop finished speaking, he reached into his pocket and took out a newspaper. He solemnly folded it to the crossword puzzle page, and handed it to Sam.

"That's to make up for the one I tore in two," he said gruffly. "Do it when you get the chance--and don't worry about your job. I'm going to tell the boss about this, and let him know that you ain't only a crossword puzzlin' fool, but the greatest crook-catchin' bellhop on little ol' Broadway."

 
 
 

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