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   Chapter 22 THE ENTERING WEDGE

Phantom Wires: A Novel By Arthur Stringer Characters: 5007

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


It was at least four o'clock in the afternoon-as the janitor of the building later reported to the police-when a Postal-Union lineman, carrying a well-worn case of tools, made his way up through the halls and stairways of one of those many Italian apartment houses just south of Washington Square and west of Broadway.

This lineman worked on the roof, apparently, for some twenty minutes. Then he came down again, chatted for a while with the janitor in the basement, and giving him a cigar, borrowed an eight-foot step-ladder, for the purpose of scaling some twelve feet of brick wall, where the adjoining office building towered its additional story above the apartment-house roof.

If the janitor had been less averse to mounting his five flights of stairway, or less indifferent as to the nature of the work which took the busy telegraph official up to his roof, he might, that afternoon, have witnessed both a delicate and an interesting electrical operation.

For once up on the second roof, and sure that he was under no immediate observation, the lineman in question carefully unpacked his bag of tools. His first efforts were directed toward the steel transom which covered the trapdoor opening out on the roof. This, he discovered with a grunt of disappointment, resisted even his short, curved steel lever, pointed at one end, like a gigantic tack-drawer. Restoring this lever to the bottom of his leather tool-bag, he made his way to the southeast corner of the building, where a tangle of insulated wires, issuing from the roof beneath his feet, merged into one compact cable, which, in turn, entered and was protected by a heavy lead pipe, leading, obviously, to the street below, and thence to the cable galleries of Broadway itself.

It took him but a minute or two to cut away a section of this protecting pipe. In doing so, he exposed to view the many wires making up an astonishingly substantial cable, for so meager an office building. He then turned back to his tool-case and lifted therefrom, first a Bunnell sounder, and then a Wheatstone bridge, of the post-office pattern, a coil of KK wire, a pair of lineman's pliers, and a handful or two of other tools. Still remaining in the bottom of his bag might have been found two small rubber bags filled with nitroglycerine, a cake of yellow soap, a brace and bit, a half-dozen diamond-pointed drills, a box of timers, and a coil fuse, three tempered-steel chisels, a tiny sperm-oil lantern and the steel "jimmy" which had al

ready been tested against the obdurate transom.

Then, skilfully relaxing the metallic cable strands, he as carefully graduated his current and attached his sounder, first to one wire and then to another. Each time that the little Bunnell sounder was galvanized into articulate life he bent his ear and listened to the busy cluttering of the dots and dashes, as the reports of races, as the weights and names of jockeys, and lists of entries and statements of odds and conditions went speeding into the busy keys of the big poolroom below, where men and women waited with white and straining faces, and sorrowed and rejoiced as the ever-fluctuant goddess of chance brought them ill luck or success.

But Durkin paid little attention to these flying messages winging cityward from race-tracks so many miles away. What he was in search of was the private wire leading from Penfield's own office, whereon instructions and information were secretly hurried about the city to his dozen and one fellow-operators. It was from this wire that Durkin hoped, without "bleeding" the circuit, to catch some thread of fact which might make the task before him more lucid and direct.

He worked for an hour, connecting and disconnecting, testing and listening and testing still again, before the right wire fell under his thumb. Then he listened intently, with a little start, for he knew he was reading an operator whose bluff, heavy, staccato "send" was as familiar to his long-practiced ear as a well-known face would be to his watching eyes.

It was MacNutt himself who was "sending." His first intercepted message was an order, to some confederate unknown, to have a carriage call for him at eight. That, Durkin told himself, was worth knowing. His second despatch was a warning to a certain "Al" Mackenzie not to fail to meet Penfield in Albany, Sunday, at midnight. The third message was brief, and seemed to be an answer to a question which had escaped the interloper.

"Yes, got her here, and here she stays. Things will happen tonight."

"Ah!" ejaculated Durkin, as he wiped his moist forehead, while the running dots and dashes resolved themselves into the two intelligible sentences.

Then he looked about him, at the leaden sky, at the roofs and walls and windows of the crowded and careless city, as a sabreur about to enter the arena might look about him on life for perhaps the last time.

"Yes," he said, with a meditative stare at the transom before him, "things will happen tonight."

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