The Thief of Time

by Captain S.P. Meek

Tags: Science Fiction, Novel-Classic,

Desc: Science Fiction Story: The teller turned to the stacked pile of bills. They were gone! And no one had been near!

Harvey Winston, paying teller of the First National Bank of Chicago, stripped the band from a bundle of twenty dollar bills, counted out seventeen of them and added them to the pile on the counter before him.

“Twelve hundred and thirty-one tens,” he read from the payroll change slip before him. The paymaster of the Cramer Packing Company nodded an assent and Winston turned to the stacked bills in his rear currency rack. He picked up a handful of bundles and turned back to the grill. His gaze swept the counter where, a moment before, he had stacked the twenties, and his jaw dropped.

“You got those twenties, Mr. Trier?” he asked.

“Got them? Of course not, how could I?” replied the paymaster. “There they are...”

His voice trailed off into nothingness as he looked at the empty counter.

“I must have dropped them,” said Winston as he turned. He glanced back at the rear rack where his main stock of currency was piled. He stood paralyzed for a moment and then reached under the counter and pushed a button.

The bank resounded instantly to the clangor of gongs and huge steel grills shot into place with a clang, sealing all doors and preventing anyone from entering or leaving the bank. The guards sprang to their stations with drawn weapons and from the inner offices the bank officials came swarming out. The cashier, followed by two men, hurried to the paying teller’s cage.

“What is it, Mr. Winston?” he cried.

“I’ve been robbed!” gasped the teller.

“Who by? How?” demanded the cashier.

“I--I don’t know, sir,” stammered the teller. “I was counting out Mr. Trier’s payroll, and after I had stacked the twenties I turned to get the tens. When I turned back the twenties were gone.”

“Where had they gone?” asked the cashier.

“I don’t know, sir. Mr. Trier was as surprised as I was, and then I turned back, thinking that I had knocked them off the counter, and I saw at a glance that there was a big hole in my back racks. You can see yourself, sir.”

The cashier turned to the paymaster.

“Is this a practical joke, Mr. Trier?” he demanded sharply.

“Of course not,” replied the paymaster. “Winston’s grill was closed. It still is. Granted that I might have reached the twenties he had piled up, how could I have gone through a grill and taken the rest of the missing money without his seeing me? The money disappeared almost instantly. It was there a moment before, for I noticed when Winston took the twenties from his rack that it was full.”

“But someone must have taken it,” said the bewildered cashier. “Money doesn’t walk off of its own accord or vanish into thin air--”

A bell interrupted his speech.

“There are the police,” he said with an air of relief. “I’ll let them in.”


The smaller of the two men who had followed the cashier from his office when the alarm had sounded stepped forward and spoke quietly. His voice was low and well pitched yet it carried a note of authority and power that held his auditors’ attention while he spoke. The voice harmonized with the man. The most noticeable point about him was the inconspicuousness of his voice and manner, yet there was a glint of steel in his gray eyes that told of enormous force in him.

“I don’t believe that I would let them in for a few moments, Mr. Rogers,” he said. “I think that we are up against something a little different from the usual bank robbery.”

“But, Mr. Carnes,” protested the cashier, “we must call in the police in a case like this, and the sooner they take charge the better chance there will be of apprehending the thief.”

“Suit yourself,” replied the little man with a shrug of his shoulders. “I merely offered my advice.”

“Will you take charge, Mr. Carnes?” asked the cashier.

“I can’t supersede the local authorities in a case like this,” replied Carnes. “The secret service is primarily interested in the suppression of counterfeiting and the enforcement of certain federal statutes, but I will be glad to assist the local authorities to the best of my ability, provided they desire my help. My advice to you would be to keep out the patrolmen who are demanding admittance and get in touch with the chief of police. I would ask that his best detective together with an expert finger-print photographer be sent here before anyone else is admitted. If the patrolmen are allowed to wipe their hands over Mr. Winston’s counter they may destroy valuable evidence.”

“You are right, Mr. Carnes,” exclaimed the cashier. “Mr. Jervis, will you tell the police that there is no violence threatening and ask them to wait for a few minutes? I’ll telephone the chief of police at once.”


As the cashier hurried away to his telephone Carnes turned to his companion who had stood an interested, although silent spectator of the scene. His companion was a marked contrast to the secret service operator. He stood well over six feet in height, and his protruding jaw and shock of unruly black hair combined with his massive shoulders and chest to give him the appearance of a man who labored with his hands--until one looked at them. His hands were in strange contrast to the rest of him. Long, slim, mobile hands they were, with tapering nervous fingers--the hands of a thinker or of a musician. Telltale splotches of acid told of hours spent in a laboratory, a tale that was confirmed by the almost imperceptible stoop of his shoulders.

“Do you agree with my advice, Dr. Bird?” asked Carnes deferentially.

The noted scientist, who from his laboratory in the Bureau of Standards had sent forth many new things in the realms of chemistry and physics, and who, incidentally, had been instrumental in solving some of the most baffling mysteries which the secret service had been called upon to face, grunted.

“It didn’t do any harm,” he said, “but it is rather a waste of time. The thief wore gloves.”

“How in thunder do you know that?” demanded Carnes.

“It’s merely common sense. A man who can do what he did had at least some rudiments of intelligence, and even the feeblest-minded crooks know enough to wear gloves nowadays.”

Carnes stepped a little closer to the doctor.

“Another reason why I didn’t want patrolmen tramping around,” he said in an undertone, “is this. If Winston gave the alarm quickly enough, the thief is probably still in the building.”

“He’s a good many miles away by now,” replied Dr. Bird with a shrug of his shoulders.


Carnes’ eyes opened widely. “Why?--how?--who?” he stammered. “Have you any idea of who did it, or how it was done?”

“Possibly I have an idea,” replied Dr. Bird with a cryptic smile. “My advice to you, Carnes, is to keep away from the local authorities as much as possible. I want to be present when Winston and Trier are questioned and I may possibly wish to ask a few questions myself. Use your authority that far, but no farther. Don’t volunteer any information and especially don’t let my name get out. We’ll drop the counterfeiting case we were summoned here on for the present and look into this a little on our own hook. I will want your aid, so don’t get tied up with the police.”

“At that, we don’t want the police crossing our trail at every turn,” protested Carnes.

“They won’t,” promised the doctor. “They will never get any evidence on this case, if I am right, and neither will we--for the present. Our stunt is to lie low and wait for the next attempt of this nature and thus accumulate some evidence and some idea of where to look.”

“Will there be another attempt?” asked Carnes.

“Surely. You don’t expect a man who got away with a crime like this to quit operations just because a few flatfeet run around and make a hullabaloo about it, do you? I may be wrong in my assumption, but if I am right, the most important thing is to keep all reference to my name or position out of the press reports.”

The cashier hastened up to them.

“Detective-Captain Sturtevant will be here in a few minutes with a photographer and some other men,” he said. “Is there anything that we can do in the meantime, Mr. Carnes?”

“I would suggest that Mr. Trier and his guard and Mr. Winston go into your office,” replied Carnes. “My assistant and I would like to be present during the questioning, if there are no objections.”

“I didn’t know that you had an assistant with you,” answered the cashier.

Carnes indicated Dr. Bird.

“This gentleman is Mr. Berger, my assistant,” he said. “Do you understand?”

“Certainly. I am sure there will be no objection to your presence, Mr. Carnes,” replied the cashier as he led the way to his office.


A few minutes later Detective-Captain Sturtevant of the Chicago police was announced. He acknowledged the introductions gruffly and got down to business at once.

“What were the circumstances of the robbery?” he asked.

Winston told his story, Trier and the guard confirming it.

“Pretty thin!” snorted the detective when they had finished. He whirled suddenly on Winston.

“Where did you hide the loot?” he thundered.

“Why--uh--er--what do you mean?” gulped the teller.

“Just what I said,” replied the detective. “Where did you hide the loot?”

“I didn’t hide it anywhere,” said the teller. “It was stolen.”

“You had better think up a better one,” sneered Sturtevant. “If you think that you can make me believe that that money was stolen from you in broad daylight with two men in plain sight of you who didn’t see it, you might just as well get over it. I know that you have some hiding place where you have slipped the stuff and the quicker you come clean and spill it, the better it will be for you. Where did you hide it?”

“I didn’t hide it!” cried the teller, his voice trembling. “Mr. Trier can tell you that I didn’t touch it from the time I laid it down until I turned back.”

“That’s right,” replied the paymaster. “He turned his back on me for a moment, and when he turned back, it was gone.”

“So you’re in on it too, are you?” said Sturtevant.

“What do you mean?” demanded the paymaster hotly.

“Oh nothing, nothing at all,” replied the detective. “Of course Winston didn’t touch it and it disappeared and you never saw it go, although you were within three feet of it all the time. Did you see anything?” he demanded of the guard.

“Nothing that I am sure of,” answered the guard. “I thought that a shadow passed in front of me for an instant, but when I looked again, it was gone.”


Dr. Bird sat forward suddenly. “What did this shadow look like?” he asked.

“It wasn’t exactly a shadow,” said the guard. “It was as if a person had passed suddenly before me so quickly that I couldn’t see him. I seemed to feel that there was someone there, but I didn’t rightly see anything.”

“Did you notice anything of the sort?” demanded the doctor of Trier.

“I don’t know,” replied Trier thoughtfully. “Now that Williams has mentioned it, I did seem to feel a breath of air or a motion as though something had passed in front of me. I didn’t think of it at the time.”

“Was this shadow opaque enough to even momentarily obscure your vision?” went on the doctor.

“Not that I am conscious of. It was just a breath of air such as a person might cause by passing very rapidly.”

“What made you ask Trier if he had the money when you turned around?” asked the doctor of Winston.

“Say-y-y,” broke in the detective. “Who the devil are you, and what do you mean by breaking into my examination and stopping it?”

Carnes tossed a leather wallet on the table.

“There are my credentials,” he said in his quiet voice. “I am chief of one section of the United States Secret Service as you will see, and this is Mr. Berger, my assistant. We were in the bank, engaged on a counterfeiting case, when the robbery took place. We have had a good deal of experience along these lines and we are merely anxious to aid you.”

Sturtevant examined Carnes’ credentials carefully and returned them.

“This is a Chicago robbery,” he said, “and we have had a little experience in robberies and in apprehending robbers ourselves. I think that we can get along without your help.”

“You have had more experience with robberies than with apprehending robbers if the papers tell the truth,” said Dr. Bird with a chuckle.


The detective’s face flushed.

“That will be enough from you, Mr. Sherlock Holmes,” he said. “If you open your mouth again, I’ll arrest you as a material witness and as a possible accomplice.”

“That sounds like Chicago methods,” said Carnes quietly. “Now listen to me, Captain. My assistant and I are merely trying to assist you in this case. If you don’t desire our assistance we’ll proceed along our own lines without interfering, but in the meantime remember that this is a National Bank, and that our questions will be answered. The United States is higher than even the Chicago police force, and I am here under orders to investigate a counterfeiting case. If I desire, I can seal the doors of this bank and allow no one in or out until I have the evidence I desire. Do you understand?”

Sturtevant sprang to his feet with an oath, but the sight of the gold badge which Carnes displayed stopped him.

“Oh well,” he said ungraciously. “I suppose that no harm will come of letting Winston answer your fool questions, but I’ll warn you that I’ll report to Washington that you are interfering with the course of justice and using your authority to aid the getaway of a criminal.”

“That is your privilege,” replied Carnes quietly. “Mr. Winston, will you answer Mr. Berger’s question?”

“Why, I asked him because he was right close to the money and I thought that he might have reached through the wicket and picked it up. Then, too--”

He hesitated for a moment and Dr. Bird smiled encouragingly.

“What else?” he asked.

“Why, I can’t exactly tell. It just seemed to me that I had heard the rustle that bills make when they are pulled across a counter. When I saw them gone, I thought that he might have taken them. Then when I turned toward him, I seemed to hear the rustle of bills behind me, although I knew that I was alone in the cage. When I looked back the money was gone.”

“Did you see or hear anything like a shadow or a person moving?”

“No--yes--I don’t know. Just as I turned around it seemed to me that the rear door to my cage had moved and there may have been a shadow for an instant. I don’t know. I hadn’t thought of it before.”

“How long after that did you ring the alarm gongs?”

“Not over a second or two.”

“That’s all,” said Dr. Bird.

“If your high and mightiness has no further questions to ask, perhaps you will let me ask a few,” said Sturtevant.


“Go ahead, ask all you wish,” replied Dr. Bird with a laugh. “I have all the information I desire here for the present. I may want to ask other questions later, but just now I think we’ll be going.”

“If you find any strange finger-prints on Winston’s counter, I’ll be glad to have them compared with our files,” said Carnes.

“I am not bothering with finger-prints,” snorted the detective. “This is an open and shut case. There would be lots of Winston’s finger-prints there and no others. There isn’t the slightest doubt that this is an inside case and I have the men I want right here. Mr. Rogers, your bank is closed for to-day. Everyone in it will be searched and then all those not needed to close up will be sent away. I will get a squad of men here to go over your building and locate the hiding place. Your money is still on the premises unless these men slipped it to a confederate who got out before the alarm was given. I’ll question the guards about that. If that happened, a little sweating will get it out of them.”

“Are you going to arrest me?” demanded Trier in surprise.

“Yes, dearie,” answered the detective. “I am going to arrest you and your two little playmates if these Washington experts will allow me to. You will save a lot of time and quite a few painful experiences if you will come clean now instead of later.”

“I demand to see my lawyer and to communicate with my firm,” said the paymaster.

“Time enough for that when I am through with you,” replied the detective.

He turned to Carnes.

“Have I your gracious permission to arrest these three criminals?” he asked.

“Yes indeed, Captain,” replied Carnes sweetly. “You have my gracious permission to make just as big an ass of yourself as you wish. We’re going now.”


“By the way, Captain,” said Dr. Bird as he followed Carnes out. “When you get through playing with your prisoners and start to look for the thief, here is a tip. Look for a left-handed man who has a thorough knowledge of chemistry and especially toxicology.”

“It’s easy enough to see that he was left-handed if he pulled that money out through the grill from the positions occupied by Trier and his guard, but what the dickens led you to suspect that he is a chemist and a toxicologist?” asked Carnes as he and the doctor left the bank.

“Merely a shrewd guess, my dear Watson,” replied the doctor with a chuckle. “I am likely to be wrong, but there is a good chance that I am right. I am judging solely from the method used.”

“Have you solved the method?” demanded Carnes in amazement. “What on earth was it? The more I have thought about it, the more inclined I am to believe that Sturtevant is right and that it is an inside job. It seems to me impossible that a man could have entered in broad daylight and lifted that money in front of three men and within sight of a hundred more without some one getting a glimpse of him. He must have taken the money out in a grip or a sack or something like that, yet the bank record shows that no one but Trier entered with a grip and no one left with a package for ten minutes before Trier entered.”

“There may be something in what you say, Carnes, but I am inclined to have a different idea. I don’t think it is the usual run of bank robbery, and I would rather not hazard a guess just now. I am going back to Washington to-night. Before I go any further into the matter, I need some rather specialized knowledge that I don’t possess and I want to consult with Dr. Knolles. I’ll be back in a week or so and then we can look into that counterfeiting case after we get this disposed of.”

“What am I to do?” asked Carnes.

“Sit around the lobby of your hotel, eat three meals a day, and read the papers. If you get bored, I would recommend that you pay a visit to the Art Institute and admire the graceful lions which adorn the steps. Artistic contemplations may well improve your culture.”

“All right,” replied Carnes. “I’ll assume a pensive air and moon at the lions, but I might do better if you told me what I was looking for.”

“You are looking for knowledge, my dear Carnes,” said the doctor with a laugh. “Remember the saying of the sages: To the wise man, no knowledge is useless.”


A huge Martin bomber roared down to a landing at the Maywood airdrome, and a burly figure descended from the rear cockpit and waved his hand jovially to the waiting Carnes. The secret service man hastened over to greet his colleague.

“Have you got that truck I wired you to have ready?” demanded the doctor.

“Waiting at the entrance; but say, I’ve got some news for you.”

“It can wait. Get a detail of men and help us to unload this ship. Some of the cases are pretty heavy.”

Carnes hurried off and returned with a gang of laborers, who took from the bomber a dozen heavy packing cases of various sizes, several of them labelled either “Fragile” or “Inflammable” in large type.

“Where do they go, Doctor?” he asked when the last of them had been loaded onto the waiting truck.

“To the First National Bank,” replied Dr. Bird, “and Casey here goes with them. You know Casey, don’t you, Carnes? He is the best photographer in the Bureau.”

“Shall I go along too?” asked Carnes as he acknowledged the introduction.

“No need for it. I wired Rogers and he knows the stuff is coming and what to do with it. Unpack as soon as you get there, Casey, and start setting up as soon as the bank closes.”

“All right, Doctor,” replied Casey as he mounted the truck beside the driver.

“Where do we go, Doctor?” asked Carnes as the truck rolled off.

“To the Blackstone Hotel for a bath and some clean clothes,” replied the doctor. “And now, what is the news you have for me?”

“The news is this, Doctor. I carried out your instructions diligently and, during the daylight hours, the lions have not moved.”


Dr. Bird looked contrite.

“I beg your pardon, Carnes,” he said. “I really didn’t think when I left you so mystified how you must have felt. Believe me, I had my own reasons, excellent ones, for secrecy.”

“I have usually been able to maintain silence when asked to,” replied Carnes stiffly.

“My dear fellow, I didn’t mean to question your discretion. I know that whatever I tell you is safe, but there are angles to this affair that are so weird and improbable that I don’t dare to trust my own conclusions, let alone share them. I’ll tell you all about it soon. Did you get those tickets I wired for?”

“Of course I got them, but what have two tickets to the A. A. U. track meet this afternoon got to do with a bank robbery?”

“One trouble with you, Carnes,” replied the doctor with a judicial air, “is that you have no idea of the importance of proper relaxation. Is it possible that you have no desire to see Ladd, this new marvel who is smashing records right and left, run? He performs for the Illinois Athletic Club this afternoon, and it would not surprise me to see him lower the world’s record again. He has already lowered the record for the hundred yard dash from nine and three-fifths to eight and four-fifths. There is no telling what he will do.”

“Are we going to waste the whole afternoon just to watch a man run?” demanded Carnes in disgust.

“We will see many men run, my dear fellow, but there is only one in whom I have a deep abiding interest, and that is Mr. Ladd. Have you your binoculars with you?”

“No.”

“Then by all means beg, borrow or steal two pairs before this afternoon. We might easily miss half the fun without them. Are our seats near the starting line for the sprints?”

“Yes. The big demand was for seats near the finish line.”

“The start will be much more interesting, Carnes. I was somewhat of a minor star in track myself in my college days and it will be of the greatest interest to me to observe the starting form of this new speed artist. Now Carnes, don’t ask any more questions. I may be barking up the wrong tree and I don’t want to give you a chance to laugh at me. I’ll tell you what to watch for at the track.”


The sprinters lined up on the hundred yard mark and Dr. Bird and Carnes sat with their glasses glued to their eyes watching the slim figure in the colors of the Illinois Athletic Club, whose large “62” on his back identified him as the new star.

“On your mark!” cried the starter. “Get set!”

“Ah!” cried Dr. Bird. “Did you see that Carnes?”

The starting gun cracked and the runners were off on their short grind. Ladd leaped into the lead and rapidly distanced the field, his legs twinkling under him almost faster than the eye could follow. He was fully twenty yards in the lead when his speed suddenly lessened and the balance of the runners closed up the gap he had opened. His lead was too great for them, and he was still a good ten yards in the lead when he crossed the tape. The official time was posted as eight and nine-tenths seconds.

“Another thirty yards and he would have been beaten,” said Carnes as he lowered his glasses.

“That is the way he has won all of his races,” replied the doctor. “He piles up a huge lead at first and then loses a good deal at the finish. His speed doesn’t hold up. Never mind that, though, it is only an additional point in my favor. Did you notice his jaws just before the gun went?”

“They seemed to clench and then he swallowed, but most of them did some thing like that.”

“Watch him carefully for the next heat and see if he puts anything into his mouth. That is the important thing.”

Dr. Bird sank into a brown study and paid no attention to the next few events, but he came to attention promptly when the final heat of the hundred yard dash was called. With his glasses he watched Ladd closely as the runner trotted up to the starting line.

“There, Carnes!” he cried suddenly. “Did you see?”

“I saw him wipe his mouth,” said Carnes doubtfully.

“All right, now watch his jaws just before the gun goes.”


The final heat was a duplicate of the first preliminary. Ladd took an early lead which he held for three-fourths of the distance to the tape, then his pace slackened and he finished only a bare ten yards ahead of the next runner. The time tied his previous world’s record of eight and four-fifths seconds.

“He crunched and swallowed all right, Doctor,” said Carnes.

“That is all I wanted to be sure of. Now Carnes, here is something for you to do. Get hold of the United States Commissioner and get a John Doe warrant and go back to the hotel with it and wait for me. I may phone you at any minute and I may not. If I don’t, wait in your room until you hear from me. Don’t leave it for a minute.”

“Where are you going, Doctor?”

“I’m going down and congratulate Mr. Ladd. An old track man like me can’t let such an opportunity pass.”

“I don’t know what this is all about, Doctor,” replied Carnes, “but I know you well enough to obey orders and to keep my mouth shut until it is my turn to speak.”

Few men could resist Dr. Bird when he set out to make a favorable impression, and even a world’s champion is apt to be flattered by the attention of one of the greatest scientists of his day, especially when that scientist has made an enviable reputation as an athlete in his college days and can talk the jargon of the champion’s particular sport. Henry Ladd promptly capitulated to the charm of the doctor and allowed himself to be led away to supper at Bird’s club. The supper passed off pleasantly, and when the doctor requested an interview with the young athlete in a private room, he gladly consented. They entered the room together, remained for an hour and a half, and then came out. The smile had left Ladd’s face and he appeared nervous and distracted. The doctor talked cheerfully with him but kept a firm grip on his arm as they descended the stairs together. They entered a telephone booth where the doctor made several calls, and then descended to the street, where they entered a taxi.

“Maywood airdrome,” the doctor told the driver.

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