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   Chapter 2 No.2

Never-Fail Blake By Arthur Stringer Characters: 29041

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

It was as a Milwaukee newsboy, at the age of twelve, that "Jimmie" Blake first found himself in any way associated with that arm of constituted authority known as the police force. A plain-clothes man, on that occasion, had given him a two-dollar bill to carry about an armful of evening papers and at the same time "tail" an itinerant pickpocket. The fortifying knowledge, two years later, that the Law was behind him when he was pushed happy and tingling through a transom to release the door-lock for a house-detective, was perhaps a foreshadowing of that pride which later welled up in his bosom at the phrase that he would always "have United Decency behind him," as the social purifiers fell into the habit of putting it.

At nineteen, as a "checker" at the Upper Kalumet Collieries, Blake had learned to remember faces. Slavic or Magyar, Swedish or Calabrian, from that daily line of over two hundred he could always pick his face and correctly call the name. His post meant a life of indolence and petty authority. His earlier work as a steamfitter had been more profitable. Yet at that work he had been a menial; it involved no transom-born thrills, no street-corner tailer's suspense. As a checker he was at least the master of other men.

His public career had actually begun as a strike breaker. The monotony of night-watchman service, followed by a year as a drummer for an Eastern firearm firm, and another year as an inspector for a Pennsylvania powder factory, had infected him with the wanderlust of his kind. It was in Chicago, on a raw day of late November, with a lake wind whipping the street dust into his eyes, that he had seen the huge canvas sign of a hiring agency's office, slapping in the storm. This sign had said:


Being twenty-six and adventurous and out of a job, he had drifted in with the rest of earth's undesirables and asked for work.

After twenty minutes of private coaching in the mysteries of railway signals, he had been "passed" by the desk examiner and sent out as one of the "scab" train crew to move perishable freight, for the Wisconsin Central was then in the throes of its first great strike. And he had gone out as a green brakeman, but he had come back as a hero, with a Tribune reporter posing him against a furniture car for a two-column photo. For the strikers had stoned his train, half killed the "scab" fireman, stalled him in the yards and cut off two thirds of his cars and shot out the cab-windows for full measure. But in the cab with an Irish engine-driver named O'Hagan, Blake had backed down through the yards again, picked up his train, crept up over the tender and along the car tops, recoupled his cars, fought his way back to the engine, and there, with the ecstatic O'Hagan at his side, had hurled back the last of the strikers trying to storm his engine steps. He even fell to "firing" as the yodeling O'Hagan got his train moving again, and then, perched on the tender coal, took pot-shots with his brand-new revolver at a last pair of strikers who were attempting to manipulate the hand-brakes.

That had been the first train to get out of the yards in seven days. Through a godlike disregard of signals, it is true, they had run into an open switch, some twenty-eight miles up the line, but they had moved their freight and won their point.

Blake, two weeks later, had made himself further valuable to that hiring agency, not above subornation of perjury, by testifying in a court of law to the sobriety of a passenger crew who had been carried drunk from their scab-manned train. So na?vely dogged was he in his stand, so quick was he in his retorts, that the agency, when the strike ended by a compromise ten days later, took him on as one of their own operatives.

Thus James Blake became a private detective. He was at first disappointed in the work. It seemed, at first, little better than his old job as watchman and checker. But the agency, after giving him a three-week try out at picket work, submitted him to the further test of a "shadowing" case. That first assignment of "tailing" kept him thirty-six hours without sleep, but he stuck to his trail, stuck to it with the blind pertinacity of a bloodhound, and at the end transcended mere animalism by buying a tip from a friendly bartender. Then, when the moment was ripe, he walked into the designated hop-joint and picked his man out of an underground bunk as impassively as a grocer takes an egg crate from a cellar shelf.

After his initial baptism of fire in the Wisconsin Central railway yards, however, Blake yearned for something more exciting, for something more sensational. His hopes rose, when, a month later, he was put on "track" work. He was at heart fond of both a good horse and a good heat. He liked the open air and the stir and movement and color of the grand-stand crowds. He liked the "ponies" with the sunlight on their satin flanks, the music of the band, the gaily appareled women. He liked, too, the off-hand deference of the men about him, from turnstile to betting shed, once his calling was known. They were all ready to curry favor with him, touts and rail-birds, dockers and owners, jockeys and gamblers and bookmakers, placating him with an occasional "sure-thing" tip from the stables, plying him with cigars and advice as to how he should place his money. There was a tacit understanding, of course, that in return for these courtesies his vision was not to be too keen nor his manner too aggressive. When he was approached by an expert "dip" with the offer of a fat reward for immunity in working the track crowds, Blake carefully weighed the matter, pro and con, equivocated, and decided he would gain most by a "fall." So he planted a barber's assistant with whom he was friendly, descended on the pickpocket in the very act of going through that bay-rum scented youth's pocket, and secured a conviction that brought a letter of thanks from the club stewards and a word or two of approval from his head office.

That head office, seeing that they had a man to be reckoned with, transferred Blake to their Eastern division, with headquarters at New York, where new men and new faces were at the moment badly needed.

They worked him hard, in that new division, but he never objected. He was sober; he was dependable; and he was dogged with the doggedness of the unimaginative. He wanted to get on, to make good, to be more than a mere "operative." And if his initial assignments gave him little but "rough-neck" work to do, he did it without audible complaint. He did bodyguard service, he handled strike breakers, he rounded up freight-car thieves, he was given occasionally "spot" and "tailing" work to do. Once, after a week of upholstered hotel lounging on a divorce case he was sent out on night detail to fight river pirates stealing from the coal-road barges.

In the meantime, being eager and unsatisfied, he studied his city. Laboriously and patiently he made himself acquainted with the ways of the underworld. He saw that all his future depended upon acquaintanceship with criminals, not only with their faces, but with their ways and their women and their weaknesses. So he started a gallery, a gallery of his own, a large and crowded gallery between walls no wider than the bones of his own skull. To this jealously guarded and ponderously sorted gallery he day by day added some new face, some new scene, some new name. Crook by crook he stored them away there, for future reference. He got to know the "habituals" and the "timers," the "gangs" and their "hang outs" and "fences." He acquired an array of confidence men and hotel beats and queer shovers and bank sneaks and wire tappers and drum snuffers. He made a mental record of dips and yeggs and till-tappers and keister-crackers, of panhandlers and dummy chuckers, of sun gazers and schlaum workers. He slowly became acquainted with their routes and their rendezvous, their tricks and ways and records. But, what was more important, he also grew into an acquaintanceship with ward politics, with the nameless Power above him and its enigmatic traditions. He got to know the Tammany heelers, the men with "pull," the lads who were to be "pounded" and the lads who were to be let alone, the men in touch with the "Senator," and the gangs with the fall money always at hand.

Blake, in those days, was a good "mixer." He was not an "office" man, and was never dubbed high-brow. He was not above his work; no one accused him of being too refined for his calling. Through a mind such as his the Law could best view the criminal, just as a solar eclipse is best viewed through smoked glass.

He could hobnob with bartenders and red-lighters, pass unnoticed through a slum, join casually in a stuss game, or loaf unmarked about a street corner. He was fond of pool and billiards, and many were the unconsidered trifles he picked up with a cue in his hand. His face, even in those early days, was heavy and inoffensive. Commonplace seemed to be the word that fitted him. He could always mix with and become one of the crowd. He would have laughed at any such foolish phrase as "protective coloration." Yet seldom, he knew, men turned back to look at him a second time. Small-eyed, beefy and well-fed, he could have passed, under his slightly tilted black boulder, as a truck driver with a day off.

What others might have denominated as "dirty work" he accepted with heavy impassivity, consoling himself with the contention that its final end was cleanness. And one of his most valuable assets, outside his stolid heartlessness, was his speaking acquaintanceship with the women of the underworld. He remained aloof from them even while he mixed with them. He never grew into a "moll-buzzer." But in his rough way he cultivated them. He even helped some of them out of their troubles-in consideration for "tips" which were to be delivered when the emergency arose. They accepted his gruffness as simple-mindedness, as blunt honesty. One or two, with their morbid imaginations touched by his seeming generosities, made wistful amatory advances which he promptly repelled. He could afford to have none of them with anything "on" him. He saw the need of keeping cool headed and clean handed, with an eye always to the main issue.

And Blake really regarded himself as clean handed. Yet deep in his nature was that obliquity, that adeptness at trickery, that facility in deceit, which made him the success he was. He could always meet a crook on his own ground. He had no extraneous sensibilities to eliminate. He mastered a secret process of opening and reading letters without detection. He became an adept at picking a lock. One of his earlier successes had depended on the cool dexterity with which he had exchanged trunk checks in a Wabash baggage car at Black Rock, allowing the "loft" thief under suspicion to carry off a dummy trunk, while he came into possession of another's belongings and enough evidence to secure his victim's conviction.

At another time, when "tailing" on a badger-game case, he equipped himself as a theatrical "bill-sniper," followed his man about without arousing suspicion, and made liberal use of his magnetized tack-hammer in the final mix up when he made his haul. He did not shirk these mix ups, for he was endowed with the bravery of the unimaginative. This very mental heaviness, holding him down to materialities, kept his contemplation of contingencies from becoming bewildering. He enjoyed the limitations of the men against whom he was pitted. Yet at times he had what he called a "coppered hunch." When, in later years, an occasional criminal of imagination became his enemy, he was often at a loss as to how to proceed. But imaginative criminals, he knew, were rare, and dilemmas such as these proved infrequent. Whatever his shift, or however unsavory his resource, he never regarded himself as on the same basis as his opponents. He had Law on his side; he was the instrument of that great power known as Justice.

As Blake's knowledge of New York and his work increased he was given less and less of the "rough-neck" work to do. He proved himself, in fact, a stolid and painstaking "investigator." As a divorce-suit shadower he was equally resourceful and equally successful. When his agency took over the bankers' protective work he was advanced to this new department, where he found himself compelled to a new term of study and a new circle of alliances. He went laboriously through records of forgers and check raisers and counterfeiters. He took up the study of all such gentry, sullenly yet methodically, like a backward scholar mastering a newly imposed branch of knowledge, thumbing frowningly through official reports, breathing heavily over portrait files and police records, plodding determinedly through counterfeit-detector manuals. For this book work, as he called it, he retained a deep-seated disgust.

The outcome of his first case, later known as the "Todaro National Ten Case," confirmed him in this attitude. Going doggedly over the counterfeit ten-dollar national bank note that had been given him after two older operatives had failed in the case, he discovered the word "Dollars" in small lettering spelt "Ddllers." Concluding that only a foreigner would make a mistake of that nature, and knowing the activity of certain bands of Italians in such counterfeiting efforts, he began his slow and scrupulous search through the purlieus of the East Side. About that search was neither movement nor romance. It was humdrum, dogged, disheartening labor, with the gradual elimination of possibilities and the gradual narrowing down of his field. But across that ever-narrowing trail the accidental little clue finally fell, and on the night of the final raid the desired plates were captured and the notorious and long-sought Todaro rounded up.

So successful was Blake during the following two years that the Washington authorities, coming in touch with him through the operations of the Secret Service, were moved to make him an offer. This offer he stolidly considered and at last stolidly accepted. He became an official with the weight of the Federal authority behind him. He became an investigator with the secrets of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving at his beck. He found himself a cog in a machinery that seemed limitless in its ramifications. He was the agent of a vast and centralized authority, an authority against which there could be no opposition. Bu

t he had to school himself to the knowledge that he was a cog, and nothing more. And two things were expected of him, efficiency and silence.

He found a secret pleasure, at first, in the thought of working from under cover, in the sense of operating always in the dark, unknown and unseen. It gave a touch of something Olympian and godlike to his movements. But as time went by the small cloud of discontent on his horizon grew darker, and widened as it blackened. He was avid of something more than power. He thirsted not only for its operation, but also for its display. He rebelled against the idea of a continually submerged personality. He nursed a keen hunger to leave some record of what he did or had done. He objected to it all as a conspiracy of obliteration, objected to it as an actor would object to playing to an empty theater. There was no one to appreciate and applaud. And an audience was necessary. He enjoyed the unctuous salute of the patrolman on his beat, the deferential door-holding of "office boys," the quick attentiveness of minor operatives. But this was not enough. He felt the normal demand to assert himself, to be known at his true worth by both his fellow workers and the world in general.

It was not until the occasion when he had run down a gang of Williamsburg counterfeiters, however, that his name was conspicuously in print. So interesting were the details of this gang's operations, so typical were their methods, that Wilkie or some official under Wilkie had handed over to a monthly known as The Counterfeit Detector a full account of the case. A New York paper has printed a somewhat distorted and romanticized copy of this, having sent a woman reporter to interview Blake-while a staff artist made a pencil drawing of the Secret Service man during the very moments the latter was smilingly denying them either a statement or a photograph. Blake knew that publicity would impair his effectiveness. Some inner small voice forewarned him that all outside recognition of his calling would take away from his value as an agent of the Secret Service. But his hunger for his rights as a man was stronger than his discretion as an official. He said nothing openly; but he allowed inferences to be drawn and the artist's pencil to put the finishing touches to the sketch.

It was here, too, that his slyness, his natural circuitiveness, operated to save him. When the inevitable protest came he was able to prove that he had said nothing and had indignantly refused a photograph. He completely cleared himself. But the hint of an interesting personality had been betrayed to the public, the name of a new sleuth had gone on record, and the infection of curiosity spread like a mulberry rash from newspaper office to newspaper office. A representative of the press, every now and then, would drop in on Blake, or chance to occupy the same smoking compartment with him on a run between Washington and New York, to ply his suavest and subtlest arts for the extraction of some final fact with which to cap an unfinished "story." Blake, in turn, became equally subtle and suave. His lips were sealed, but even silence, he found, could be made illuminative. Even reticence, on occasion, could be made to serve his personal ends. He acquired the trick of surrendering data without any shadow of actual statement.

These chickens, however, all came home to roost. Official recognition was taken of Blake's tendencies, and he was assigned to those cases where a "leak" would prove least embarrassing to the Department. He saw this and resented it. But in the meantime he had been keeping his eyes open and storing up in his cabinet of silence every unsavory rumor and fact that might prove of use in the future. He found himself, in due time, the master of an arsenal of political secrets. And when it came to a display of power he could merit the attention if not the respect of a startlingly wide circle of city officials. When a New York municipal election brought a party turn over, he chose the moment as the psychological one for a display of his power, cruising up and down the coasts of officialdom with his grim facts in tow, for all the world like a flagship followed by its fleet.

It was deemed expedient for the New York authorities to "take care" of him. A berth was made for him in the Central Office, and after a year of laborious manipulation he found himself Third Deputy Commissioner and a power in the land.

If he became a figure of note, and fattened on power, he found it no longer possible to keep as free as he wished from entangling alliances. He had by this time learned to give and take, to choose the lesser of two evils, to pay the ordained price for his triumphs. Occasionally the forces of evil had to be bribed with a promise of protection. For the surrender of dangerous plates, for example, a counterfeiter might receive immunity, or for the turning of State's evidence a guilty man might have to go scott free. At other times, to squeeze confession out of a crook, a cruelty as refined as that of the Inquisition had to be adopted. In one stubborn case the end had been achieved by depriving the victim of sleep, this Chinese torture being kept up until the needed nervous collapse. At another time the midnight cell of a suspected murderer had been "set" like a stage, with all the accessories of his crime, including even the cadaver, and when suddenly awakened the frenzied man had shrieked out his confession. But, as a rule, it was by imposing on his prisoner's better instincts, such as gang-loyalty or pity for a supposedly threatened "rag," that the point was won. In resources of this nature Blake became quite conscienceless, salving his soul with the altogether Jesuitic claim that illegal means were always justified by the legal end.

By the time he had fought his way up to the office of Second Deputy he no longer resented being known as a "rough neck" or a "flat foot." As an official, he believed in roughness; it was his right; and one touch of right made away with all wrong, very much as one grain of pepsin properly disposed might digest a carload of beef. A crook was a crook. His natural end was the cell or the chair, and the sooner he got there the better for all concerned. So Blake believed in "hammering" his victims. He was an advocate of "confrontation." He had faith in the old-fashioned "third-degree" dodges. At these, in his ponderous way, he became an adept, looking on the nervous system of his subject as a nut, to be calmly and relentlessly gnawed at until the meat of truth lay exposed, or to be cracked by the impact of some sudden great shock. Nor was the Second Deputy above resorting to the use of "plants." Sometimes he had to call in a "fixer" to manufacture evidence, that the far-off ends of justice might not be defeated. He made frequent use of women of a certain type, women whom he could intimidate as an officer or buy over as a good fellow. He had his aides in all walks of life, in clubs and offices, in pawnshops and saloons, in hotels and steamers and barber shops, in pool rooms and anarchists' cellars. He also had his visiting list, his "fences" and "stool-pigeons" and "shoo-flies."

He preferred the "outdoor" work, both because he was more at home in it and because it was more spectacular. He relished the bigger cases. He liked to step in where an underling had failed, get his teeth into the situation, shake the mystery out of it, and then obliterate the underling with a half hour of blasphemous abuse. He had scant patience with what he called the "high-collar cops." He consistently opposed the new-fangled methods, such as the Portrait Parle, and pin-maps for recording crime, and the graphic-system boards for marking the movements of criminals. All anthropometric nonsense such as Bertillon's he openly sneered at, just as he scoffed at card indexes and finger prints and other academic innovations which were debilitating the force. He had gathered his own data, at great pains, he nursed his own personal knowledge as to habitual offenders and their aliases, their methods, their convictions and records, their associates and hang outs. He carried his own gallery under his own hat, and he was proud of it. His memory was good, and he claimed always to know his man. His intuitions were strong, and if he disliked a captive, that captive was in some way guilty-and he saw to it that his man did not escape. He was relentless, once his professional pride was involved. Being without imagination, he was without pity. It was, at best, a case of dog eat dog, and the Law, the Law for which he had such reverence, happened to keep him the upper dog.

Yet he was a comparatively stupid man, an amazingly self-satisfied toiler who had chanced to specialize on crime. And even as he became more and more assured of his personal ability, more and more entrenched in his tradition of greatness, he was becoming less and less elastic, less receptive, less adaptive. Much as he tried to blink the fact, he was compelled to depend more and more on the office behind him. His personal gallery, the gallery under his hat, showed a tendency to become both obsolete and inadequate. That endless catacomb of lost souls grew too intricate for one human mind to compass. New faces, new names, new tricks tended to bewilder him. He had to depend more and more on the clerical staff and the finger-print bureau records. His position became that of a villager with a department store on his hands, of a country shopkeeper trying to operate an urban emporium. He was averse to deputizing his official labors. He was ignorant of system and science. He took on the pathos of a man who is out of his time, touched with the added poignancy of a passionate incredulity as to his predicament. He felt, at times, that there was something wrong, that the rest of the Department did not look on life and work as he did. But he could not decide just where the trouble lay. And in his uncertainty he made it a point to entrench himself by means of "politics." It became an open secret that he had a pull, that his position was impregnable. This in turn tended to coarsen his methods. It lifted him beyond the domain of competitive effort. It touched his carelessness with arrogance. It also tinged his arrogance with occasional cruelty.

He redoubled his efforts to sustain the myth which had grown up about him, the myth of his vast cleverness and personal courage. He showed a tendency for the more turbulent centers. He went among murderers without a gun. He dropped into dives, protected by nothing more than the tradition of his office. He pushed his way in through thugs, picked out his man, and told him to come to Headquarters in an hour's time-and the man usually came. His appetite for the spectacular increased. He preferred to head his own gambling raids, ax in hand. But more even than his authority he liked to parade his knowledge. He liked to be able to say: "This is Sheeny Chi's coup!" or, "That's a job that only Soup-Can Charlie could do!" When a police surgeon hit on the idea of etherizing an obdurate "dummy chucker," to determine if the prisoner could talk or not, Blake appropriated the suggestion as his own. And when the "press boys" trooped in for their daily gist of news, he asked them, as usual, not to couple his name with the incident; and they, as usual, made him the hero of the occasion.

For Never-Fail Blake had made it a point to be good to the press boys. He acquired an ability to "jolly" them without too obvious loss of dignity. He took them into his confidences, apparently, and made his disclosures personal matters, individual favors. He kept careful note of their names, their characteristics, their interests. He cultivated them, keeping as careful track of them from city to city as he did of the "big" criminals themselves. They got into the habit of going to him for their special stories. He always exacted secrecy, pretended reluctance, yet parceled out to one reporter and another those dicta to which his name could be most appropriately attached. He even surrendered a clue or two as to how his own activities and triumphs might be worked into a given story. When he perceived that those worldly wise young men of the press saw through the dodge, he became more adept, more adroit, more delicate in method. But the end was the same.

It was about this time that he invested in his first scrap-book. Into this secret granary went every seed of his printed personal history. Then came the higher records of the magazines, the illustrated articles written about "Blake, the Hamard of America," as one of them expressed it, and "Never-Fail Blake," as another put it. He was very proud of those magazine articles, he even made ponderous and painstaking efforts for their repetition, at considerable loss of dignity. Yet he adopted the pose of disclaiming responsibility, of disliking such things, of being ready to oppose them if some effective method could only be thought out. He even hinted to those about him at Headquarters that this seeming garrulity was serving a good end, claiming it to be harmless pother to "cover" more immediate trails on which he pretended to be engaged.

But the scrap-books grew in number and size. It became a task to keep up with his clippings. He developed into a personage, as much a personage as a grand-opera prima donna on tour. His successes were talked over in clubs. His name came to be known to the men in the street. His "camera eye" was now and then mentioned by the scientists. His unblemished record was referred to in an occasional editorial. When an ex-police reporter came to him, asking him to father a macaronic volume bearing the title "Criminals of America," Blake not only added his name to the title page, but advanced three hundred dollars to assist towards its launching.

The result of all this was a subtle yet unmistakable shifting of values, an achievement of public glory at the loss of official confidence. He excused his waning popularity among his co-workers on the ground of envy. It was, he held, merely the inevitable penalty for supreme success in any field. But a hint would come, now and then, that troubled him. "You think you 're a big gun, Blake," one of his underworld victims once had the temerity to cry out at him. "You think you 're the king of the Hawkshaws! But if you were on my side of the fence, you 'd last about as long as a snowball on a crownsheet!"

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