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The Hand From the Past

The police lieutenant, tall, well-built, his face unshaved and eyes red from lack of sleep, leaned across the desk.

“You’ve helped us before. Now we need your help again. We’re up against a blank wall, with nothing to go on but this note!”

Richard Verner glanced at the slip of paper torn from a pad, with small circles and scratch marks in the corner, where someone had worked a ball-point pen to start it writing; the note itself was in clear, angular handwriting.

“We got this note,” said the lieutenant, “in this afternoon’s mail. This is the first we’ve heard of Judge Cabe since hoodlums entered the courtroom yesterday morning and shot their way out, with him as a prisoner. Since then, we’ve scoured the city, but there is no trace whatever. We’ve got to find where they’re holding him, but we don’t know where to look next. And now we get this note.”

“This is the judge’s handwriting?”

“Yes. I recognize it myself, and Mrs. Cabe is positive it’s his handwriting.”

“But it’s an odd note.”

“That’s another thing that bothers us. The hoods’ purpose was to get a hostage in return for a prisoner. That adds up. But Judge Cabe would never have written a note like that unless he was either out of his head or badly scared—and I’ve never seen him scared.”

Verner, frowning, read the note:

To Whom It May Concern:

I, John R. Cabe, do hereby order, on my authority as an Officer of the Court, that the prisoner Roger Maynard be unconditionally released no later than six o’clock p.m. Thursday, the day of receipt of this Court Order.

The prisoner is not to be tried, but is to be released in return for my own safe release.

I must warn that my captors are heavily armed, resourceful, and utterly ruthless, and if this mandamus is not obeyed by six p.m. Thursday, I shall be executed.

By order,

Judge John R. Cabe, C.S.R.

Verner looked up, frowning, glanced again at the note, and then settled back.

The lieutenant looked at the intent expression on the face of Richard Verner, then watched in amazement as Verner turned the note around, to look at it from all angles. The lieutenant glanced at his watch: 4:00 p.m. Again Verner turned the paper. The lieutenant, scowling, began to speak, then shut his mouth, swallowed, and took out his wallet.

Verner glanced briefly at the back of the note, then put the note faceup on his desk, and again turned it, to examine it from various angles.

The lieutenant, remaining silent, took a calling card from his wallet. Under a piece of clear plastic was a newspaper clipping held to the card by transparent tape. It was this newspaper article that had first attracted the lieutenant’s attention to Verner, and he had kept it as a souvenir. Across the top of the card was printed, “When Desperate, Call—” Under that, was the clipping itself:

“. . . instrumental in unraveling the mystery was Richard Verner, a new kind of specialist known as a ‘heuristician.’ Verner explained that a heuristician is a professional problem solver, who works with other experts. Nearly all problems, he said, can be cleared up by much the same techniques, provided the necessary expert knowledge is available.”

The lieutenant put the card away, and observed that Verner had the note now at about a forty-degree angle. He was no longer reading the note but was now examining the marks where the judge had scratched his ball-point pen to start writing.

Suddenly the lieutenant could stand it no longer. “Listen,” he said, “I didn’t come here to ask you to figure out what kind of pen he used. We’ve somehow got to figure out where he is being held!”

Verner reached out to snap on the intercom. “Jean?”

A pleasant feminine voice replied, “Yes, Mr. Verner?”

“Could you come in here for a minute?”

“I’ll be right there.”

Verner glanced thoughtfully at the lieutenant. “You say the judge doesn’t scare easily?”

“I’ve never seen him scared. He’s tried some cases where every trick has been used—bribed jurors, ‘bought’ experts, political pressure, grandstand scenes in the courtroom, threatening phone calls to witnesses, and finally crank letters to Judge Cabe himself. He’s never wavered. The harder the pressure, the harder he concentrates on doing his job.”

“How did he start out? That is, before he was a judge?” he asked.

“He worked his way through law school as a court reporter, to begin with.” The lieutenant glanced at his watch. It was now a little after four. “How does this help us find him? At six they kill him.”

“Is it likely that the people who abducted him would have moved him to another location? Or would he still be where they had him when he wrote this note?”

The lieutenant shook his head. “They wouldn’t have wanted to take the risk of moving him. Besides, they had this well planned, and they don’t need to move him. They won’t leave us any opening to catch them that way.”

There was a tap on the door, then Verner’s secretary, Jean Benedict, stepped into the room. Verner glanced at the lieutenant and said, “What you need is his location? The address of the place where he is?”


“But the only chance he had to get in touch with you is by this letter?”

“Such as it is, that’s all.”

Verner motioned to his secretary, who crossed the room with a swift tap of heels. Verner lifted the blotter on his desk, and put the note underneath, at a slight angle, leaving only the part showing where the pen had been started. “Read that,” he said, watching her carefully.

She leaned over the desk, tilted her head, and there was a moment of silence.

“East,” she said, frowning in concentration. “East—side . . . East-side. Now, is this ‘okay’? No, oak. Eastside . . . Oak. Total? No . . . Oh, this is at an angle, and in the old style . . . corner.” She looked up. “Some of these marks don’t mean anything. They’re just where someone started his pen. But this mark here is written twice, and it means eastside, and this means oak. This mark is at an angle to the others, but it means ‘corner.’ If this is an address, it must be ‘corner of Eastside and Oak.’”

The lieutenant stared at the paper. “Do you mean those little scratches that would fit under your thumbnail make up a message? He said, Corner of Eastside and Oak—is that right?”

Eyes wide, Jean Benedict nodded, and the lieutenant whirled and went out. She glanced at Verner. “What—?”

He lifted the blotter to show her the rest of the paper, with its handwritten message.

That night, Verner was in his office when the phone rang, and the lieutenant said, “Still there? I’ll be right over.”

He came in with a tall white-haired man, who stretched out his hand and beamed.

“I’m John Cabe. I’m grateful someone could read my hen-scratches.”

Verner smiled. “It was my secretary who read it. All I did was to realize there was something there to read.”

“But,” asked the lieutenant, “how? How did you know that? It was just a little scribble at the side, what anyone might do to start the pen flowing.”

“Yes,” said Verner, “but the longhand message didn’t fit the judge’s character, didn’t fit legal procedure as I understand it, and must not be the message he was actually trying to send. But how could he send any other message? They would have been watching. How could anyone write a message while he was being watched, without being detected? Only by using something the other person would never glance at twice, and could not recognize as a message if he did see it. Well, as a hint, there were those initials the judge must have earned a long time ago, and had written after his name. They told us what to look for.”

“C.S.R?” said the lieutenant.

The judge smiled. “Certified Shorthand Reporter.”

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