The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XIV. The Fear of Danger
Before leaving the house, Darrow summoned Jack Warford.
"Come on, old bulldog," said he. "You're to live with me a while now. The game is closing down."
"Bully," said Jack. "I'll pack a suit case."
"Have it done for you, and sent down to my place. We must hustle for the Atlas Building now."
"What's doing?" asked Jack, as they boarded a surface car.
"Absolutely nothing--for some time perhaps. But we must be ready. And the waiting will be amusing, I promise you that."
When they arrived at the Atlas Building, Darrow was surprised to find Simmons already in charge of the office.
"Thought you were on night duty," said he.
"I am," replied Simmons curtly. "But judging by what you said this morning, I considered I'd better be on the job myself."
"Good boy," approved Darrow. "I see I've made no mistake in you. Just stick it out twelve hours more, and we'll have it settled. Anything more?"
Simmons thrust a message across the table.
Darrow took it quite calmly. At this moment Hallowell entered.
"What time did this come?" asked Darrow, nodding to the reporter.
"At twelve thirty."
Darrow nodded twice with great satisfaction.
Then quite deliberately he unfolded the paper and perused its contents. Without change of expression he handed it to Hallowell. The latter read aloud:
"Now, what do you think of that!" cried Hallowell. "He doesn't even mention the name of his friend to the dear people who are to hunt him down! Fine dope!"
Darrow's face expressed a sleepy satisfaction. He stretched his arms and yawned.
"You might supply the deficiency," he suggested. "Well," he remarked to Jack, "that settles it. Everything's running like a catboat in a fair wind. He's in communication with us; he is gaining confidence in his inflated imaginary importance; we are to have a continuance of his peculiar activities; and we can put our hands on him at a moment's notice."
"What!" shouted Hallowell and Jack Warford, leaping to their feet.
"Where is he?" demanded the reporter.
"How do you know?" cried Jack.
Simmons, his head-piece laid aside, looked up at him in silent curiosity.
"It is sufficient for now that I do know," smiled Darrow. "As for how I know, that last wireless proved it to me."
All three men immediately bent over the message for a detailed perusal. After a minute's scrutiny, Hallowell looked up in disappointment.
"Too many for me," he confessed. "What is there in that?"
But Darrow shook his head.
"I play my own game," was all the explanation he would vouchsafe.
"You may as well knock off, old man," he told Simmons. "I don't think there'll be anything more doing to-night; and it doesn't matter if there is. Tell your other man to jot down anything from that sending, if any comes. Now," he turned to Hallowell, "I want to see your managing editor."
The three took the subway to City Hall Square. The managing editor received Darrow with much favor as the vehicle of a big scoop brought in far enough ahead of going to press to permit of ample time for its development.
"Now, Mr. Curtis," said Darrow to this man, "this is going to be an interesting week for you. Here's your last exclusive despatch. From to-morrow morning every paper in town will naturally get every wireless that comes in."
"H'm," observed Curtis, reading the despatch. "What next?"
"He'll fulfil his threat. To-morrow evening at six o'clock he will stop the vibrations either of light, of electricity, or of sound--probably of electricity, as he has appointed the rush hour."
"Most likely," Curtis agreed.
"Warn the people to keep out of the subways, and not to get scared. Take it easy. There's no danger. Explain why in words of one syllable."
"Now, this is what I'm here for. Up to now these manifestations have been harmless in their direct effects. But follow the hypothesis to its logical conclusion. Suppose this man can arrest the vibrations not only of light and sound, but also of the third member of the vibratory trinity. Suppose he should go one step farther; and, even for the barest fraction of time, should be able to stop the vibrations of heat!"
The managing editor half rose. As the idea in its full significance gained hold on their imaginations the three men turned to stare blankly at one another.
"That is annihilation!" Curtis whispered.
"On a wholesale scale," agreed Darrow calmly. "It means the death of every living thing from the smallest insect to the largest animal, from the microbe to the very lichens on the stones of Trinity. I agree with the way you look." He laughed a little. "But the case isn't so bad as it sounds," he went on. "If the crust of the earth were to collapse, that would be annihilation, too. But it isn't likely to happen. There are several things to think of."
"What, for the love of Pete!" gasped Curtis. "Any small efforts at muck-racking this refrigerator trust would be thankfully received."
"In the first place, as you know," explained Darrow," his power seems to be limited in certain directions. He apparently can stop vibrations only of certain defined wave-lengths at one time. It may be that he is unable to stop heat vibrations at all."
"You'll have to do better than that," growled Curtis.
"The rest is faith--on your part," replied Darrow. "For I'll guarantee that even if Monsieur X has this power, I'll stop him before he exercises it."
"Guarantee?" inquired Curtis.
"There's nothing to prevent my moving to California or Mombassa if I thought myself in any danger here," Darrow pointed out. "It would be very easy for me quietly to warn my friends and quietly do the grand sneak."
"True," muttered Curtis, rummaging on his desk for a pipe.
"The danger isn't the point--it's the fear of danger," said Darrow.
Curtis looked up, arresting the operation of crowding the tobacco into the pipe bowl.
"Suppose that throughout the length and breadth of this city the idea should be spread broadcast that at any given moment it might be destroyed. Can you imagine the effect?"
"Immediate exodus," grinned Curtis. "Immediate is a nice dignified word," he added.
"Quite so, and then?"
"What in blazes would four million city people without homes or occupations do? Where would they go? What would happen?"
"You see what I mean," went on Darrow, after the slight pause necessary to let this sink in. "The fear would bring about a general catastrophe only less serious than the fact itself. It's up to you newspaper men to see that they don't catch this fear. There'll be a hundred letters from foxy boys with just enough logic or imagination to see the possibility of cutting off the furnace; but without imagination enough to get the final effect of telling people about it. Suppress it. Unless I'm mistaken, the affair will be over in a week."
Curtis drummed thoughtfully on his desk.
"It's got to be done, and it will be done," he said at last. "I'll get to every paper in the city to-night--if it costs us our scoop."
"But won't the people who write the letters tell about it, anyway?" asked Jack. "And won't the outside papers have the same stuff?"
"Sure," agreed Curtis promptly, "but what isn't in the city press doesn't get to the mass of the public; that's a cinch. There will be some thousands or even tens of thousands who will leave; there'll be rumors a-plenty; there'll be the damnedest row since the Crusades--but the people will stick. I'm taking your word for the danger."
"Well, I'm the hostage," Darrow reminded him.
"Correct," said Curtis, reaching for the desk telephone.
Hallowell followed the visitors to the narrow hall.
"Now," said Darrow in parting, "remember what I have said. Don't mention my name nor indicate that there is anywhere an idea that the identity or whereabouts of Monsieur X is by anybody suspected."