Red Masquerade by Louis Joseph Vance
Book II. The Lone Wolf's Daughter
XIII. The Turnip
In a spacious chamber beneath the eaves, hideously papered and furnished with cheerless, massive relics of the early Victorian era, the man Nogam pursued methodical preparations for bed.
Spying eyes, had there been any--and for all Nogam knew, there were--would have seen him follow step by step a programme from whose order he had departed by scarcely as much as a single gesture on any night since his first installation in the house near Queen Anne's Gate.
Loosening the waistcoat of his evening livery, he freed the heavy silver watchchain from its buttonhole, drew from its pocket an old-fashioned silver watch of that obese style which first earned the portable timepiece its nickname of "turnip," and opening its back inserted a key attached to the other end of the chain. Its winding was a laborious process, prodigiously noisy. Once finished, Nogam shut the back with a loud click, and reverently deposited the watch on the marble slab of the black walnut bureau.
Then he hung coat and waistcoat over the back of a chair which stood between the foot of his bed and the door. Sheer chance may have decreed selection of this chair for the purpose on Nogam's first night in the room; whether or no, it was not in character that, having established this precedent, Nogam should depart from it. And in any event, the coat-draped chair effectually eclipsed a possible keyhole view of the room.
Notwithstanding, Nogam pursued his bedtime rites with precisely the same deliberation and absence of perceptible self-consciousness as before. One never knew: there might be other peepholes in the walls.
His trousers, neatly folded, he laid out on the seat of the chair. Then he pulled off square-toed boots with elastic inserts in their uppers, put on a pair of worn slippers, carried the boots to the door and set them outside, closed the door, and turned the key in its lock.
If aware that, by so doing, he made his privacy just as secure as if he had fastened the door with a bent hair-pin, he gave evidence of no uneasiness in the knowledge. A clear conscience is the best of nerve tonics.
Throughout, his features preserved their mild, subdued, dull habit with which the household was familiar. Nogam off duty was in no way different from the unthinking creature of habit who performed belowstairs the prescribed functions of his office.
Having donned a nightshirt of coarse cotton, he knelt for several minutes in a devout attitude by the side of his bed, then rising opened the window, took the turnip from the bureau, and snuggled it beneath his pillow, inserted his bare shanks between the sheets, and opened at a marked place a Bible bound in black cloth.
On the table by his shoulder a battered electric standard with a frayed cord and a dingy shade remained alight long enough to permit Nogam to spell out a short chapter. Then he put the Bible aside, yawned wearily, and switched out the lamp.
Profound darkness now possessed the room, immaterially modified by the light-struck sky beyond the windows. And in this grateful obscurity Nogam permitted himself the luxury of ceasing to be Nogam. A light suddenly flashed upon his face would have discovered a keen and alert intelligence transfiguring the apathetic mask of every day. Also, it would have rendered Nogam's probable duration of life an interesting speculation.
Under cover of the darkness, furthermore, he did a number of things which Nogam, qua Nogam, would never have dreamed of doing.
His first act was to withdraw from under his pillow the turnip, his next to re-open the back of its silver case and then the inner lid--something which a deft thumbnail accomplished without a sound.
From the roomy interior of the case--whose bulky ancient works had been replaced by a wafer-thin modern movement, leaving much useful space back of the dial--sensitive fingers extracted a metal disk about the size and thickness of a silver dollar. One face of this disk was generously perforated, the other, solid, boasted a short blunt post round which several feet of extremely fine wire had been coiled.
Unwinding the wire and bending the free end into the form of a rude hook, the man attached this last to the cord of his bedside lamp at a point, located by sense of touch, where a minute section of electric light wire had been left naked by defective insulation.
Direct connection now being established with a microphone secreted in the base of the brass lamp on the study table, three floors below, and the perforated side of the microphone detector serving as an earpiece, one could hear every word uttered by the conspirators.
The man in bed contributed a broad smile to the kind darkness--sheer luxury to facial muscles cramped and constrained to the cast of Nogam for eighteen hours a day. He was now at last to reap the reward of three months of preparation and three weeks of ingenious, but necessarily spasmodic, and at all times desperately dangerous, tampering with the house wiring system.
He lay very still for a long time, listening ...