The Sign at Six by Stewart Edward White
Chapter II. The Shadow of Mystery
Darrow walked up the one flight of steps to the story above. He found his acquaintance in, and at once broached the subject of his errand. Doctor Knox promised the matter his attention. The two men then embarked on a long discussion of Professor Schermerhorn's discovery of super-radium, and the strange series of events that had encompassed his death. Into the midst of the discussion burst McCarthy, his face red with suppressed anger.
"Can I use your phone?" he growled. "Oh, yes," said he, as he caught sight of the instrument. Without awaiting the requested permission, he jerked the receiver from its hook and placed it to his ear.
"Deader than a smelt!" he burst out. "This is a nice way to run a public business! Thanks," he nodded to Doctor Knox, and stormed out.
Darrow rose languidly.
"I'll see you again," he told Knox. "At present I'm going to follow the human cyclone. It takes more than mere telephones to wake McCarthy up like that."
He found the boss in the hall, his finger against the "down" button.
"That's three cars has passed me," he snarled, trying to peer through the ground glass that, in the Atlas Building, surrounded the shaft. "I'll tan somebody's hide. Down!" he bellowed at a shadow on the glass.
"Have a cigarette," proffered Percy Darrow. "Calm down. To the scientific eye you're out of condition for such emotions. You thicknecks are subject to apoplexy."
"Oh, shut up!" growled McCarthy. "There isn't a phone in order in this building two floors either way. I've tried 'em--and there hasn't been for twenty minutes. And I can't get a messenger to answer a call; and that ring-tailed, star-spangled ornament of a janitor won't answer his private bell. I'll get him bounced so high the blackbirds will build nests in his ear before he comes down again."
After trying vainly to stop a car on its way up or down, McCarthy stumped down a flight of stairs, followed more leisurely by the calmly unhurried Darrow. Here the same performance was repeated. A half dozen men by now had joined them. So they progressed from story to story until an elevator boy, attracted by their frantic shouts, stopped to see what was the matter. Immediately the door was slid back on its runners, McCarthy seized the astonished operator by the collar.
"Come out of that, you scum of the earth!" he roared. "Come out of that and tell me why you don't stop for your signals!"
[Illustration: McCarthy stumped down a flight of stairs.]
"I ain't seen no signals!" gasped the elevator boy.
Some one punched the button, but the little, round, annunciator disk in the car failed to illuminate.
"I wonder if there's anything in order in this miserable hole!" snarled McCarthy.
"The lights is gone out," volunteered the boy; and indeed for the first time the men now crowding into the car noticed that the incandescents were dead.
While McCarthy stormed out to spread abroad impartial threats against two public utility concerns for interfering with his business, Percy Darrow, his curiosity aroused, interviewed the janitor. Under that functionary's guidance he examined the points of entrance for the different wires used for lighting and communication; looked over the private-bell installations, and ascended again to the corridor, abstractedly dusting his fingers. There he found a group of the building's tenants, among whom he distinguished Doctor Knox.
"Same complaint, I suppose--no phones, no lights, no bells," he remarked.
"Seems to be," replied Knox. "General condition. Acts as though the main arteries had been cut outside."
"Inside bells? House phones?" suggested Darrow.
The repair men came in double-quick time and great confidence. They went to work in an assured manner, which soon slackened to a slower bewilderment. Some one disappeared, to return with a box of new batteries. The head repair man connected a group of these with a small bell in the executive office. The instrument, however, failed to respond.
"Try your ammeter," suggested Darrow, who had followed.
The delicate needle of the instrument did not quiver.
"Batteries dead!" said the repair man. "Jim, what the hotel-bill do you mean by getting dead batteries? Go back and bring a new lot, and test 'em."
In due time Jim returned.
"These test to fifteen," said he. "Go to it!"
"Test--nothing!" roared the repair man after a moment. "These are dead, too."
Percy Darrow left the ensuing argument to its own warmth. It was growing late. In the corridor a few hastily-brought lamps cast a dim light. Percy collided against Doctor Knox entering the building.
"Not fixed yet?" asked the latter in evident disappointment. "What's the matter?"
"I don't know," said Darrow slowly; "it puzzles me. It's more than an ordinary break of connections or short-circuiting through apparatus. If one could imagine a big building like this polarized in some way--anyhow, the electricity is dead. Look here." He pulled an electric flash-light from his pocket. "Bought this fresh on my way here. Tested it, of course. Now, there's nothing wonderful about these toys going back on a man; but"--he pressed the button and peered down the lens--"this is a funny coincidence." He turned the lens toward his friend. The filament was dark.