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Ex Libris

First published in Fantastic Adventures, February 1943

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-08-08
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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Fantastic Adventures, February 1943, with "The Great Train Robbery"


He saw two worlds at once!

He was the meekest little guy you ever saw,
but he had a wonderful and frightening power.

THE copy girl had just snatched the last sheet on the foreign news summary I'd completed for the bulldog edition, and I was leaning back lazily to catch an uninterrupted smoke, when the telephone at my elbow jangled.

Margie, the old crow at the reception desk, was on the wire.

"Pete," she said, "there's a man on his way in to see you."

"That's nice," I said sweetly. "Did you make sure he had the right directions? You wouldn't want any strangers to get lost on their way in to see me. After all, they couldn't bother me if that happened." I waited for Margie's indignant snort, then finished, "Do you get a cut from all the salesmen and pests you let by that gate, cutie?"

I hung up just in time to see one of the office boys leading my visitor toward my desk.

Sighing, I took my feet down from the scarred desk top, and squinted over my bifocals to get a better gander at my mysterious stranger.

He was a little guy, and thin. He wore an unpressed flannel suit which looked as if it had been tailored to be worn simultaneously by anyone he cared to invite in. Back on his head was a stained gray fedora badly in need of cleaning and blocking. A Will Rogers' cowlick of blond hair stuck out under the fedora and covered half his forehead. The rest of his face was a pug nose, round, blandly naive eyes, and a big, friendly mouth.

The office boy paused ten feet from my desk, pointed to me and mumbled something to my little visitor, who marched on alone from there. He stopped beside my desk and looked down at me, grinning amiably.

I looked up, but didn't grin. Then his first words caught me under the solar.

"Hello," he said. "Who are you?"

For a minute I was too floored to do anything but gape.

"It doesn't matter, really," he assured me during my breathless interval. "It doesn't matter as long as you're important."

"Thank you," I finally said. "Thank you very much. Now, if you won't mind my asking, just who in the hell are you, and how in the name of everything nasty did you get in here?"

My visitor continued to grin.

"Those things don't matter, either," he said.

"That's nice," I told him. "That's very nice. I'm very glad that nothing matters. Now please get the hell out of here before something does."

My visitor kept grinning.

"Don't you want to know?" he asked. I looked at him a minute. Looked at him and tried to decide if this was a gag or what.

"Look," I said at last. "I'll bite, once. But if this is a riddle, get ready to run for your life." I took a deep breath. "All right, know what?"

"About the train robbery," the little guy answered. He seemed pleased with himself.

"What train robbery?" I asked patiently.

"The Capitol Limited," he said.

"It's been robbed?"

He nodded his head vigorously. "That's right. I robbed it."

I LOOKED at him. "You robbed the Capitol Limited, and now you've come to tell me, eh?" I paused. "When did you rob it?"

He thought a minute. "About forty-five minutes ago," he said.

"The Capitol Limited is just about two hours out of Washington right now," I told him. "Washington is quite a distance from here. You must be thinking of another train."

He shook his head. "Oh, no. I know what train I robbed. It was the Capitol Limited."

"I'm glad you're sure," I told him solemnly. "That would be a terrible thing to be mixed up on."

"I'm sure," he said.

"That's good," I told him. "Now get out of here before I lose my mind and my temper and my job."

He seemed surprised.

"But I thought—" he started.

"You imagined," I said. "That's quite a different word."

"I thought you'd be willing to ransom it," he said worriedly, not grinning any more.

My patience was getting thin. "Ransom what?" I snapped.

"The Capitol Limited, the train I robbed."

I pushed back from the desk. "Presuming that you robbed the Capitol Limited," I snarled, "how would that fit in with my ransoming it? Ransom comes when something is kidnapped."

A look of relief spread across his face. He grinned again.

"That's it. That's what I mean. I stole it, kidnapped it!"

Suddenly I wasn't quite so irritated by this little guy. Here was an angle, a fresh one. Any loon can say he held up the Capitol Limited, but it takes an ace screwylouie to claim that he stole the entire train while it was in transit. In the newspaper game you get jaded, and as a consequence your respect for new angles and fresh ideas is something amounting to reverence.

I began to see a feature in this little lunatic.

"Pull up a chair," I invited him cordially, "and tell me all about it."

He shook his head, still grinning. "I haven't got a lot of time," he said. "Will you ransom it, or won't you?"

I was stalling for time, thinking of some angles to slant my feature around this dream world superman, and wondering if he'd be talked into posing for photos.

"Let me get this straight," I said. "You have stolen the Capitol Limited in broad daylight, right off the tracks, so to speak, and now you're holding it for ransom. Is that right?"

He nodded vigorously.

"Where did you hide it?" I demanded.

He smiled. "That would be telling. Then I couldn't get ransom."

I nodded solemnly. "That's right," I said. "That's the smart way to look at it. Your secret is your secret. How much ransom are you holding it for?"

The little guy stopped grinning and grew serious. He seemed to be doing a bit of mental calculating, and his lips moved as he thought. Then he took a deep breath and looked me in the eye.

"Five dollars," he said. "I can't take a cent less."

I gagged a little over this. It was the most staggering anti- climax I'd ever encountered. Finally I recovered.

"Isn't that a little high?" I demanded.

"I was going to ask ten," he said doggedly.

"And if you get five bucks you'll put the train back on the tracks and let it proceed to Washington unmolested?" I asked.

The little guy nodded. "I won't touch it again," he promised.

"How soon can you put it back where you got it?" I demanded.

"Right away," he said. "Anyway, in five or ten minutes."

I WAS more certain than ever that we had a feature here. I was ready to do anything to hold him for more talk and some piks. I pulled out my wallet, extracted a fiver.

"Okay," I said. "You win. You've got us where we can't squawk. Here's the dough."

He took the five faster than Lincoln could blink, stuffing it into his trousers pocket.

I stood up. "Look," I told him. "You wait right here a minute. I'll be back in a few seconds. I've a couple of people I want to introduce to you."

He smiled, and I moved past him and rapidly down the aisle into the photog room. I found Legs O'Rourke busy doing nothing in there. I told him what I wanted and he agreed. I went back to where my little chum was still waiting by my desk.

"Come with me," I said. "I want you to do me a favor." I steered him gently by the arm back into the photog room.

O'Rourke had set up a tripod.

"I want a picture of you receiving the five dollars ransom from me," I told my little loony.

Somewhat suspiciously he reached into his pocket and pulled out the crumpled bill. I took it from him, while we both lined up in front of O'Rourke's camera, enacting the handover scene.

"Both grin toward me," O'Rourke said.

We did, and a flash bulb popped.

"Got it," said O'Rourke.

I took my screwylouie chum by the arm and steered him back to my desk again. He'd put the five bucks back in his jeans.

"You haven't told me who you are, yet," I said.

The little guy grinned and opened his mouth.

"Harrigan!" a voice screeched above the city room din. It was the dulcet coo of my editor, Hangman Hogan. I jumped.

"Just a minute," I told the little guy. "I'll be right back."

I left him standing by my desk and hurried up front. Hogan wondered profanely about the lack of any Mediterranean news in my foreign war digest for the bulldog. It was fully five minutes before I was able to get away from his desk.

When I got back to my own desk, the little guy was gone.

I grabbed up the telephone.

"Margie," I demanded of our crow receptionist, "did that little guy you sent in to see me leave by your portals?"

"No," she snapped, and cut me off.

I looked all over the city room. I peered out into the hall half a dozen times from side exits. There wasn't a sign of my little halfwit.

When I got back to my desk I was boiling. There was my feature and my five dollars shot to hell. There was nothing to do but get back to work. Moodily, I began packing out a digest of the Mediterranean situation for the next edition.

FOUR hours later the bulletin came through. Just a little squib which was slated to be placed on page eighteen. It said that the Capitol Limited arrived in Washington exactly one hour and fifteen minutes overdue. Reasons for delay, the bulletin went on to state, were unexplained, presumably because of wartime censorship.

I sat there staring at the squib for fully five minutes. Staring and marveling at the infinite sense of coincidence which prompts the babblings of lunatics.

Shortly before I was through, Legs O'Rourke came up to my desk. He was frowning, and he had the wet print of a pix in his paws.

"What the hell!" he demanded, tossing the print on my desk.

I picked it up and looked at it. Then my eyes went wide. I blinked. It was the shot he'd taken of my little pal and me. The shot in which I was handing the five dollars "ransom" money to the nut. It was nice photography. Crystal clear. It showed me grinning into the camera and holding out a five dollar bill, without a sign of the little guy's presence there!

I looked up at O'Rourke.

"How in the—" he began.

"You tell me," I said. "You took the shot. You took the pik in which I handed him the fiver. His paw was on the other end of the bill when the flash popped, and now there isn't a sign of him in the picture. Go ahead, you explain it."

"He musta ducked quick," O'Rourke declared.

"Plenty quick," I said, unconvinced.

O'Rourke snatched up the print from my desk. He started away, paused, and spoke over his shoulder nastily at me.

"I don't see's how you think that was a funny gag!" he snorted angrily.

I didn't answer. There wasn't anything to say. I just sat there thinking. The little guy must have ducked as the shutter clicked. Ducked plenty fast....

FOR maybe a week the little guy was on my mind, then I forgot all about him. Hell, in the newspaper racket you run into a lot of screwy things, and eventually get so's you can shrug them off without batting an eye.

It was almost two weeks after the Capitol Limited gag that I saw him again. This time I ran into him. On a street corner, while I was on my way to lunch.

He was leaning against the side of a building, smiling to himself with his eyes half closed and baking in the sun. He wore the same double-sized flannel suit, the same battered, greasy gray fedora, and his cowlick was over his forehead. He didn't look very different. A little more unpressed, maybe.

I went up and tapped him on the shoulder.

He straightened out and opened his eyes, blinking. Then he recognized me.

"Hello," he grinned.

"You're quite a guy," I said. "Running out on me like that."

"Didn't know you wanted me to stay."

I skipped that. "Incidentally," I told him. "You remember that picture of the two of us?"

He thought a minute. "Sure," he decided.

"It didn't turn out so well," I told him.

"I didn't think it would," he admitted. "I just never seem to photograph well."

"You just duck fast," I said.

"Huh?" He acted as if he didn't get it. I skipped it.

"How's business?" I asked.

"Pretty good," he said.

"Still in the same racket, I suppose," I said.

He nodded, leaning back against the wall and closing his eyes half shut again.

"What are you holding for ransom now?" I persisted.

He opened his eyes. "Would you be interested?" he asked.

"That depends," I countered, "oh how recent it is, and how important."

He grinned. "The Capitol Limited was worth it, wasn't it?"

"I see you got it back pretty quickly," I said.

"After an hour and fifteen minutes," the little guy declared. Obviously, he read the newspapers.

"What are you holding for ransom now?" I asked again.

He grinned. "An airplane," he said.

"What kind?" I asked.

"A bomber. A German bomber."

I shook my head seriously. "I wouldn't be interested."

"It has two generals in it," he said. "They were flying to Egypt."

"Were they now?" I asked solemnly. Then: "I'm still not interested. You can keep 'em."

He sighed. "I guess I wasted time and effort in that job," he admitted. "I don't get any response at all."

"Not in this country you won't," I told him.

He grinned. "No. I guess not," he admitted. "I'll have to charge that off, somehow."

"You keep a list of the things you take?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," he told me, suddenly serious.

"Then you must heist, ah, take quite a lot," I deduced.

He nodded. "Oh, of course." Then he asked: "Like to ransom an American airplane?"

"Maybe," I admitted. "How much is it?"

"Two dollars," he said.

"Who's in it?"

"A couple of flyers. Americans, of course."

I PULLED out my wallet. After all, the loony could use two bucks, and I considered him pretty amusing by now.

"It's a deal," I told him, slipping him two bucks.

He pocketed the money. "Thanks," he said.

A bus drew up to a stop at the corner on which we were standing.

"You got a name?" I asked him.

The bus door opened and a stream of passengers spewed out all around us. I moved aside to let them pass, and the little guy stepped back for the same reason.

When the minor traffic stream had ebbed, the little guy wasn't around any more.

I looked up and down both streets of the intersection and couldn't see hide nor hair of him. I felt a little foolish, and went into the restaurant for lunch.

When I came out, I took a look around for him again, with no luck, of course. On my way to the parking lot to get my car I stopped at the newsstand to scan the afternoon sheets' bulldogs.

Two front page stories caught my eye. They weren't streamered, either of them. But they were prominently displayed in either sub corner.


(C.P., delayed).—German sources admitted for the first time today that a special flight of two Nazi tank Generals to the Egyptian front has been overdue and missing more than six days.

That was the first story to catch my eye. You can imagine my reactions, and imagine them still more strongly as I read the head and lead of the second one.


(A.N.S.).—Alive, though unconscious for over forty-eight hours, two American airmen and their almost unscathed craft were found by a party of searchers north of Arnville, today, They had both "blacked out" in high altitude tests over mountain territory two days ago, and remembered nothing from the time of their crash.

That was the second story. And I was burning by the time I'd finished it. For I suddenly knew that my "loony" was as crazy as I was. The blank-blank fraud was working a magnificent pseudo- nuts racket and profiting on it by amusing jerks such as myself.

All he did, obviously, was scan the papers, find a sucker, and invent his yarn!

I almost drove through the gate at the parking lot when I got my car out, I was that sore. All I could think of was the seven bucks the grinning little con man had heisted from me.

I was still frothing as I drove back to the office. Frothing and admitting to myself that I'd been slicked through a cunning play for sympathy. You couldn't help but feel sorry for a grinning little nut who imagined he could steal the world—just so long as you didn't know he was as sane as Solomon.

When I parked in front of the Daily Star building, I was still a walking charade of indignation as I climbed out and went into the lobby. In the elevator I was so damned sore I missed my floor and had to walk down a flight.

FOR half an hour it was almost impossible to get back to work even in spite of Hangman Hogan's thunderings about slow copy. I was still fuming over the little guy's wonderful racket, and my seven bucks.

And that was just about the time when he waltzed into my office again, grinning just like the first time, and heading for my desk!

I could only glare at him in astonishment as he marched up to me. Glare and get hotter and hotter under the skin at the realization that he obviously considered me a prize sucker.

"Hello!" he grinned.

"You, you—" I spluttered.

He didn't seem to notice my emotional state.

"How would you like to ransom something really good?" he asked.

I found my voice, and surprisingly enough was able to control it.

"No thanks," I said. "I'd prefer ordering a special job, then ransoming it."

"You would?" he blinked happily.

"Yes," I said, still rigidly under control. "I want you to go outside and steal the first big object you see. Then come back and I'll have the ransom money ready."

"All right," he grinned. He turned away and walked toward the door.

I reached for the telephone. I could get a couple of cops from the Confidence Division over to the office inside of five minutes. They'd be waiting for my little chum when he came back for his "ransom." Then, suddenly I put the telephone back.

It was just beginning to occur to me what a sweet thing the little grafter had here. Confidence Detail coppers couldn't touch him. He wasn't committing any crime. He was just telling atrocious lies and playing nuts. He didn't demand the money he called "ransom." He just looked pathetic or amusing enough to get it. And hell, if someone wanted to give it to him, that was no crime of his.

Maybe I could scare him with a pair of cops on a soliciting charge. But even at that, he wasn't actually soliciting. Not normally, at any rate.

I suddenly felt a grudging respect for the little guy. He really had something different there. My sense of humor was even returning a little. After all, he had hoodwinked me neatly. But seven bucks was seven bucks. There was a principle to the issue.

For two or three minutes I sat there trying to figure out what to do when he came back.

THEN I had it. I'd just grin, tell him I knew him for what he was, and had deliberately sent him running out of the building on a goose chase just to partially even up our score. He'd feel bad enough about it, if—as he undoubtedly was—he was figuring on the neat five bucks or so he'd make on this latest act of his.

That was, after all, just about the only thing I could do.

The little guy came back into the office a couple of minutes later, breathless and beaming. He'd evidently hurried back for the easy touch he figured was coming up.

He stopped in front of my desk.

"Did you find something to snatch?" I asked.

He nodded breathlessly, managing a grin.

"That's good, then," I said. "How much is the ransom this trip?"

"Five dollars." He got his breath back for that.

"Five bucks, eh?"

He nodded, holding out his hand. Wow, what an ass he must have thought me. It wasn't very flattering.

"Put your hand back in your pocket, chum," I said. "You aren't getting a penny more from me. I'm wise."

He looked bewildered. Nice actor. Bewildered and a little bit pathetically hurt.

"But this wasn't an ordinary job," he protested. "It was an order you gave me."

"I've changed my mind," I said.

"Now beat it, pal. Beat it, and don't bother me any more with your racket, understand?"

"But you said you'd pay—" he began.

"You heard me, chum," I said. "Scram."

"It was a special job. It was a—"

"I don't care if you swiped the Unter den Linden, which isn't a bad idea at that," I told him. "I'm wise to you. W-i-s-e, get it? So run along and sell your act elsewhere."

The little guy's expression had changed completely. He looked, believe it or not, indignant!

"All right," he said. "All right."

He turned and left, and that was the last I ever saw of him. The last I ever saw of him in spite of the fact that I've looked all over hell for him for the last six months, ever since that parting.

Yes, you heard me. I've been looking for him. And so have the cops, to whom I gave his description. No, not for confidence game charges, but for larceny. That's right, l-a-r-c-e-n-y.

You see, when I told him to go outside and snatch the first thing he saw, he must have done so. At least I'd swear it couldn't have been anyone but the little guy. Because the first thing he'd have seen on stepping outside that afternoon would have been my car, parked right in front of the Daily Star building.

And when I left work that evening my car was gone, vanished. I know the little guy stole it. And what makes it worse, is that I know a measly five bucks would have "ransomed" it. And as for the little guy, as each day passes without a sign of my car, I'm beginning to wonder more and more about him!