murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Super Thief


by A. D. Cade

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Red Mask Detective Stories | Mar. 1941 | Vol. 1 | No. 1

Est. Read Time: 24 mins

Ruthless thieves had murdered his mother and sent his sister to the hospital. Now, John Torringon wanted revenge!




The inspector in charge of the Homicide Bureau said gently, “I know how you feel, Mr. Torrington. But don’t do it — you’re an actor and a good one, but that doesn’t make you a good detective. Every man to his own trade. Maybe we’ll have some news for you soon — we can’t solve every case.”

“And mine’s one of those you can’t solve, is that it?”

“It’s a tough one — — you’ve got to admit that. All the information your sister was able to give us was that there were two masked men, one shorter than the other that they grabbed about sixty thousand dollar’s’ worth of jewelry, including a valuable diamond necklace, all insured, and — “

Torrington spoke low and through gritted teeth: “Hell with the jewelry! I’m not thinking of the jewelry. It’s just that scum like that have no right to live!”

Torrington’s mother had died of the shock and the beating administered by the callous thieves who had entered her home during the night; his sister was in the hospital as a result.

“How about the clue that one of them had only four fingers on his left hand? Didn’t that help you any?”

Torrington himself had only four fingers on his right hand — a souvenir of an accident when he was a boy. The inspector’s eyes rested on the hand absently.

He said, “There’s only one four-fingered crook I know — Nick Trout. He was in the hospital when the crime was committed.”

“Sure of that?”

“Absolutely. That’s where we found him when we went looking, two days after the crime — and he’d been there for two weeks. He’s out now. Hospital records corroborate it; nurses, interns, orderly, all back it up. He was on his back with pneumonia. It’s not his kind of a job anyhow. He goes in mostly for robbing other thieves-finds out when one of them has made a haul and comes down on him — takes it away.”

Torrington stirred, suddenly interested. “When can I see this Nick Trout? I’ve got to see him at once.”

The inspector studied him fixedly. He said, “Bird dog, hey? We might be able to bring him down here tomorrow morning — say ten o’clock. If he’s still in circulation.”



At ten sharp, John Torrington was there. In the Detective Bureau, Inspector Sheldon introduced Nick Trout, a slender man with an unusually fine complexion and light blue eyes.

“You can use the room next door if you wish to talk privately,” Sheldon suggested.

They went into the next room.

Trout was puzzled and defiant. He said, “Hey, what’s this all about? Anytime anybody steals anything in this man’s town, the cops run to me to ask questions.”

“Sit down!” Torrington’s tone was brusque. He got a chair for himself and placed it opposite Trout. He said, “Let’s see your left hand!”

Silently Trout extended it.

“Four fingers!” the actor said thoughtfully.

Trout flared up at that. “I know what you mean, Mister! Listen: I was on my back and fightin’ pneumonia when that job was done. Cripes, do I have to get blamed for everything?”

But he was half-smiling, a look of amusement in those cold blue eyes of his; he met Torrington’s boring glance without flinching.

“Don’t you believe me, Mister?”

“My name is John Torrington. If I didn’t believe you,” — -Torrington’s voice was as cold as the other’s eyes — “I’d strangle you with my bare hands — right here in this room!”

He glared at Trout; Trout frowned but said nothing.

“Whenever you begin getting an idea this is funny,” the actor gritted, “remember it cost my mother her life!”

And the look on Torrington’s face was such that even Trout, hard character though he was, finally turned away.

Trout said, “Let’s get down to cases. What d’ya want me to do?”

“It’s worth ten thousand dollars in cash to me, to find out who the men were that did it!”

There was no mistaking the greedy gleam in the jewel-thief’s eyes. “Ten grand, hey? How would I know it’s on the level?”

“I’ll give it to you in writing.”Torrington took out a memorandum book, scribbled rapidly, tore out the sheet and handed it to Trout.

Trout read the memo slowly. He slipped it into his pocket. “Okay, Mr. Torrington. If them guys can be got — if they was regulars — — I’ll get them. Got no use for guys like that anyhow — only a coupla women in the house they didn’t have to get rough.”

“I’m not a welcher, Trout. Now, keep in touch with me. You’ll find me at the Friars almost every night.” He gave Trout the address. “I’m depending on you — I’ll make it worth your while. Play square with me, that’s all I ask.”

“I gotta play square with you … you’re a friend of the inspector’s, aintcha? My flat is at 302 East 116th Street — you see how fast the cops got me when they wanted me.” He went out.

Torrington went into Sheldon’s office and told him what he had done.

“Well” — — Sheldon looked thoughtful — -“he’s a damn good bird-dog — he might lead you to them all right. Then again — and this is a lot more likely — he won’t. We’ve never been able to get him to sing, and we’ve put the heat on him plenty. Maybe the ten grand might do the trick, but I don’t think so. I think he’ll give you the double-cross — grab the stuff for himself, if he locates it — rather than squeal”

Torrington said slowly, “Glad you told me — I won’t let him out of my sight. He’s starting on the job tomorrow — I’ll stick closer to him than his shadow.”

The inspector appraised John Torrington’s well-known features and six feet of good-looking masculinity with a quizzical smile. “You couldn’t shadow him for a block without his spotting you!

“And don’t let him kid you about his starting tomorrow — he’s starting tonight! He knows just where to go.”



The inspector was mistaken.

At seven o’clock in the evening, the shabby-looking elderly man saw Nick Trout enter the house at 302 East 116th Street, and although he waited outside of the house until after midnight Trout did not come out again.

But the next morning at ten, Trout issued forth, looking as spruce as a salesman in a swell clothing shop. Behind him and on the other side of the street, a fireman in uniform strolled along. Trout went down in the subway, walked across town, and went upstairs in a building on Second Avenue near Seventh Street. He came down, grabbed a cab like a business man in a hurry, and Torrington had a job then to find another cab and follow him quickly enough not to lose him. Trout got out in front of a poolroom on Christopher Street, went inside. He came out almost an hour later.

Torrington caught sight of him at once, and followed him to the subway. Trout got off at the Fulton Street station, and walked straight to a building in the jewelry district on John Street. Torrington followed him to the second floor, and lingered on the stairs, watching as Trout paused in front of one door and studied it. Trout hesitated, turned and threw a quick look at Torrington, who seemed to be on his way upstairs. Then, without going in, Trout descended to the street again.

An hour later came the disappointment. Trout entered a hotel — and disappeared! Torrington waited for two hours; during that time he wandered through the hotel lobby half a dozen times, and finally discovered the door on the side street, through which Trout must have exited unseen.

Trout did not go home that night, and his door was still locked the following morning at seven, when John knocked. Baffled then, the actor called Inspector Sheldon on the telephone, and Sheldon sent out his emissary to bring Nick in. The officer came back with the report that no one in the neighborhood, and none of Nick’s intimates, knew where he had gone.

“I told you he’d give you the old double-cross,” Sheldon said cynically. “They just don’t squeal — it isn’t safe. Not even for a super-thief like Nick Trout, who preys on lesser thieves. They hate a squealer!”

Torrington thought of the office door on the second floor of the house on John Street, at which Trout had gazed with so much interest. He went back to his apartment and changed his costume. It required every bit of skill John possessed — it was one thing to dress up and fix up to appear on the stage, and quite another to make up for the street, where his disguise would have to stand the light of day.

But he got through, finally, and went to John Street by subway. He climbed two flights of stairs and stood in front of the door that had attracted Nick Trout. The name on it was “Prentice & Co.” Under it was the inscription, “Diamonds and Precious Stones.”

He went downstairs to look it up, but there was no “Prentice & Co.” in the telephone book. A new firm?



The man inside the one-room office cast a quick look at the farmer standing on the threshold, and rose from the chair on which he had been lounging with an open lack of enthusiasm, and a curt, “Well — what can I do for you?”

“Dunno! Mebbe you kin do something, mebbe not! All depends!” The farmer stared at the jeweler, noted particularly his hands. There were the usual five fingers on each.

“Oh, it all depends! Well, what is it that depends — what can I do for you, Silas?” The jeweler’s frown of annoyance changed suddenly into a grin. He said, “I’m not the guy who sold you the Brooklyn Bridge, Si — that was another guy named Elmer.”

Impassively the visitor took a step inside and closed the door behind him. He scratched a hairy neck with a dirty finger, and squinted through his spectacles. “Beats me,” he murmured, “what makes you city slickers think you’re so durned smart!”

“Okay, okay — no offense!” The jeweler sat down again.

“Nobody ain’t sold me no bridge and no city hall, Mister — I know my way about.”

“I’ll bet you do — -I’ll bet you’ve seen all the sights, too — and that’s more than I’ve done. How do you like this town, pal?”

“You couldn’t sell it to me for a dime! Say, have you got a diamond ring for a bargain? This size?” He held out a piece of string.

Prentice took it from him. “For your wife or your sweetie?”

“For my wife. Looka here, Mister — I won’t be intrested in nothin’ that ain’t real handsome. When I got married — Goshamighty, it rained cats and dogs — and I had to borrer five dollars for to buy a plain gold band. Yes siree — and couldn’t pay it back for nigh two years! Wal — now that I kin afford it, I’m flggerin’ some of that oil comin’ outa my farm oughta pay for a surprise for Lucy! Yes siree! I might buy two rings — pervidin’ you’ll sell them at a bargain.”

The gray eyes behind the spectacles read the self — condemnation the jeweler was heaping on himself as he came forward.

The jeweler asked, “What did you say your name was?”

“I didn’t say — yit! Don’t matter anyhow — money talks, I reckon! Name’s Bunting — — Ed Bunting!”

“Mine is Prentice,” said the jeweler quietly. He extended his hand, and after a moment’s hesitation, the farmer took it. “To tell you the truth, Mr. Bunting, I feel a little ashamed of myself-took you for just an ordinary dirt farmer.”

“Jest what I am.”

“A man who feels the way you do about his wife … no, sir … if you’re an ordinary farmer, what must the unusual farmers be like? Don’t blame you for feeling the way you do about Mrs. Bunting. When you didn’t have it, she didn’t make any complaint, I’ll bet. All the more reason to be generous with her when you can afford it.”

“Reckon that’s puttin’ into words jest how I feel.” Bunting permitted his antagonism to evaporate under the jeweler’s sincere admiration. “We ain’t had no easy times, Lucy and me — dry spells that burnt up the crops, and wet ones that drowned ‘em — and dust storms. Say, you city folks don’t know how easy you got it! Wal — reckon I’ll look at a few rings now.”

Silently Prentice took off his glasses and wiped them with an air. Then, with reverence, he took a blue plush box out of the small safe in the office.

“Here’s a beauty! Three carats — a flawless blue diamond — platinum setting — there’s real class! Here, take a peep through this magnifying glass!

It you find a flaw, you can have it for nothing. No yellow in that one — not a streak. Blue diamonds like this one are the kind the Four Hundred wear.”

The farmer examined the ring without much enthusiasm. It was not part of the loot taken from the Torrington home.

“Don’t give a durn about no Four Hundred — it’s what Lucy likes,” he grumbled.

“Well, she’ll like this one, all right. It’s the right size, too.”

The prospective customer verified the measurement himself. “Seems like it’s the right size,” he admitted grudgingly. “How much?”

“Eight hundred and twenty-five dollars! It cost me eight hundred — all I’m making is twenty-five dollars!”

“Give ye six hundred!”

“Eight hundred!”

“Six fifty — won’t give ye a dollar. more’n that!”

“Seven hundred — take it or leave it! I’m losing money on it.”

The farmer said, “I’ll take it — don’t think I don’t know you’re robbin’ me. But the durned thing does look right handsome. You want check or cash?”

“Well now” — -Prentice’s smile was deprecatory — “this being our first transaction — and after all, I don’t know you . . .”

“That’s all right — don’t make no difi’rence to me.”

Bunting drew forth a large, greenish-black wallet, shabby but well filled., Prentice’s eyes glittered at sight of it.

“Here you are — seven hundred dollars!”

The farmer put the money into Prentice’s hand, returned the wallet to his inside pocket, and dropped the plush box into a side pocket. He buttoned his coat and started for the door. “Reckon I’ll look ‘round a little — — ain’t a-goin’ home with jest one ring — no, sir. Now I’m started, I’m aimin’ to bring Lucy a handful of them gewgaws to play ‘round with.”

Prentice swallowed and drew a long breath.



“What’s your hurry, Mr. Bunting? Sit down — here, have a smoke.” He handed the farmer a cigar; the farmer put it to his nose, then said, “Thank ye,” as Prentice lighted it for him. “I should have known you’re the kind of man who has the money and doesn’t care about appearances,” Prentice said.

The farmer sat down. Probably a waste of time, he thought; there was no basis on which to believe that this jeweler knew anything about the Torrington crime except that Nick Trout had been interested in the sign on the door. The ring he had just bought was not worth the money; he had overpaid. However …

“Ain’t got no million dollars, and don’t go thinkin’ it,” the farmer stated. “What I got I aim to hold on to.”

“Of course, of course. But take that ring, as an example: you could convert it into cash any time you had a mind to. Listen: I’ve got something I want to show you — mind, I don’t want to sell it to you — I want to show it to you — that’s all! I have it at home. A diamond necklace that will make you dizzy just looking at it!”

The farmer was dizzy, all right. It took all his artistry to suppress the surge of excitement, hatred, eagerness, that swept him. He succeeded in looking only mildly interested.

“I allus thought necklaces was made outa pearls,” he said.

“Oh, there are pearl necklaces, and there are diamond necklaces. But no one buys pearls who can afford diamonds. Now this necklace I’m talking about — my own wife is wearing it — being in the business, you can believe that I’m giving her only what’s real classy. Of course, that necklace costs money.”

“I was thinkin’ of rings,” Bunting protested.

“Aw, rings! Everybody has rings in your neck of the country — I’ll bet on it. But who do you know owns a diamond necklace? Another thing: you can always get your money back on a buy like that.”

“Full amount — not the full amount?”

“Oh no, not the whole amount — but pretty near it. A necklace like that is like an investment. Anyhow, I’m not asking you to buy it — just want you to see it. Give you something to talk about when you get back home.”

Prentice fell into a reverie, and the farmer waited.

“Tell you what” — Prentice roused — “you come home with me and fill up on some real home cooking. Let’s go now — the hell with business — let’s get acquainted.”

Indecisively Bunting scratched his neck — scratching his neck seemed to stimulate his mental processes. “Wal, I dunno — “

“Now, now — I won’t take no for an answer. If I were visiting your town and happened to run into you, would you let me get away without at least one visit? Wait here a minute — I’ve got to go down the hall to tell a man something.”

He went out, and Torrington began to wonder what crooked, devious scheme the jeweler was hatching. It might all be on the up and up, and even if it were an attempt to swindle a too-trusting farmer, there might be no connection with the Torrington robbery.

Somehow, however, Torrington sensed danger. This was a small office, Prentice had seen a well-filled wallet, and he seemed to be a pretty smooth article. If the necklace he wanted to show

Torrington was the one which had belonged to Torrington’s mother, then Prentice was either one of the murderers, or a fence. Murder may become a habit. He was going to Prentice’s home … a micky finn, a blow from a blackjack, even a bullet, were all little contingencies not to be dismissed from consideration. Prentice might feel that it was unnecessary to trade jewelry for money when he could have both.

Of course, it was quite possible the necklace might not be the one. Nevertheless, Torrington stepped to the telephone and dialed Police Headquarters. Sheldon was out, but he talked to an assistant in Sheldon’s office.



The Prentices lived in a furnished apartment on the ground floor of a house in West 91st Street. Apparently Prentice had telephoned they were coming. A shapely blonde maid opened the door, and in the living room, Mrs. Prentice greeted Bunting effusively.

“Why, Mr. Bunting — you’re not giving us any trouble at all. I’m the one that’s obliged to you — for bringing my husband home so early. And anyhow — anyone coming from a farm — my dad was a farmer, you know.”

She was a female benison as she hovered over Prentice, her large, calcimined face exuding hospitality, her greenish-brown eyes literally beaming. No make-believe beam, either, reflected Torrington. The thought of that wallet made her amiability both spontaneous and real.

The maid brought cocktails, and then Prentice disappeared for a few minutes. He came back with the necklace.

He said, “There it is, Bunting — what do you think of it?” And held it up.

It would have surprised him to know that his guest knew more about that necklace than he did. It would have surprised him if he could have read Torrington’s mind that instant, and seen the red rage that swept the actor’s brain, that curved his fingers into claws which literally itched to grip the jeweler’s throat.

But looking at the farmer, Prentice saw nothing unusual.

After he had given his prospective customer a chance to see the necklace, Prentice dropped it carelessly into his pocket. He said, “We’ll look at it some more later — let’s see what Clara’s got for us.”

They sat down at the table, and the blonde maid brought in the fruit cocktail. There was something about that blonde maid which attracted Torrington’s eye, and watching him as his eyes followed her, Prentice winked at his wife.

When the soup came, Bunting hitched his chair forward, arranged his napkin under his chin, and picked up the wrong spoon.

Watching covertly, the actor saw Prentice cast a droll look at his mate — and stare in surprise. Torrington’s glance flashed to Mrs. Prentice. She was staring at him, and the blood left her face, leaving it mottled. Torrington could not understand what had frightened her.

She was looking at his hands; Prentice’s gaze followed his wife’s.

Then Torrington realized. What a fool he’d been! His hands were smooth and white, certainly not the hands of a farmer. He had forgotten about them in making up.

But his swift glance at Prentice, at the panic in the jeweler’s face, told him something else — something that flashed through his mind with the recollection that Nick Trout had only four fingers on one hand — his left hand, to be sure, whereas Torrington’s four fingers were on his right hand. But these crooks might be thinking he was Nick Trout — Trout had a reputation — not many knew him personally, but every crook had heard of him, according to Inspector Sheldon.

They thought he was Nick Trout!

Something was impending; Torrington could tell by the sudden stillness. Poor actors, both these crooks — they couldn’t hide their fear. Clara Prentice’s face had become alrnost green under her paint.

Prentice rose and the farmer looked up alertly. Prentice managed a smile, a poor attempt. He said, “Excuse me — I’ll get a couple of cigars.”

“Cigars with the entree?” Torrington put down his spoon, grinned broadly, spoke normally. “You shouldn’t — it isn’t being done in the best circles, Prentice. But I don’t think you’re going after Cigars — I’ve got a notion you’re going for a gun!”

His hand darted into his pocket; when it appeared, a black muzzle pointed at Prentice. Without even waiting to be told, Prentice raised both hands high.

“Attaboy!” approved the actor. “Sit down — and keep your hands on the table. You too, Mrs. Prentice — if you please!”

She obeyed. Then he saw it! A finger was missing from her left hand! The short robber who had broken into the Torrington home that terrible night! Mrs. Prentice in male attire!

Torrington looked at her with hatred. He gritted, “You must look wonderful in men’s clothes, you fat beauty!”

“Listen — listen, Nick — I’ll give you the necklace,” Prentice chattered. “It’s in my pocket — you can have it!”

He was sure Torrington was Nick Trout. Evidently he had heard of the super-thief, but had never seen him. The actor glared at him.

A subtle expectancy in the attitude of the precious couple puzzled Torrington. Some sixth sense warned him of danger.

He watched them narrowly.

Then a voice behind him ordered sharply, “Drop that rod — -put your hands up!”



Torrington dared a swift glance over his shoulder. There stood the maid, two feet away, pointing a gun at him. She could not possibly miss. He dropped his weapon and elevated his hands.

Stupid of him. Anybody working in an establishment of thieves like this one was worth watching. He had completely overlooked danger from the blonde maid. That one glance told him that she was dressed for the street and the look in her light blue eyes convinced him that she could not be trifled with.

“Step to your right!” she commanded curtly. “Move — move!”

He obeyed, and she walked over and picked his weapon from the floor. Then she turned her attention to Prentice.

“Get out that necklace and put it on the table!”

Apparently the order astonished him, but he obeyed promptly. She took the necklace and thrust it into her blouse.

“Now be good everybody — -stay right where you are! Anybody let’s out a yip is asking for the undertaker!”

Mrs. Prentice shrieked suddenly, “Betty — wait for us! We’ll go along with you!” And she made one impetuous step, overturning a chair in her haste.

The look in the maid’s eyes became feral and deadly. “You stay where you are, you fat fool! And don’t do that again unless you’re tired of living. I’d just as lief put a slug in you as not!”

The ingratitude and disloyalty made Mrs. Prentice jump. She cried out, “You double-crosser! You — “

Betty took one long stride toward her, and instantly Mrs. Prentice froze into frightened silence.

Betty asked, low, “What did you say?” and waited, her finger crooked on the trigger. “Open your mug once more and I’ll blast it!”

Slowly she moved backward toward the door, she cautioned ominously, “the first one pokes his nose outa that door gets a chunk of lead!”

Reaching behind her, she turned the knob, stepped back and vanished, closing the door softly.

At once Prentice started after her. He paused and asked Torrington, “You aren’t gonna let her get away, are you, Nick?”

He rushed toward the door without waiting for a reply.

With two long bounds the actor overtook him. He smashed Prentice to the floor with a solid punch.

Slowly Prentice sat up. He seemed dazed. Through bleeding lips he protested, “You got any idea what that necklace is worth, Nick? I wanted to get it and split with you. Maybe we can still catch her!”

“Don’t worry about her,” said Torrington. “I’m not Nick Trout, you swine.”

“You aren’t?” The crook’s bloody face held a bewildered expression. “I thought you were Four-finger Nick. What are you — a dick?”

There was a banging on the door; then it opened wide. Betty came in. Behind her was the propelling power of a strong — armed plainclothesman; behind him came two others. Betty’s blond wig was awry, disclosing a shock of brown hair, darker in color than the wig.

One of the officers explained, “She tried to pull a gat, Mr. Torrington, so we had to muss her up a bit. Only she isn’t a ‘she’ — she’s a ‘he’!”

Torrington stared at the maid. “Nick Trout! You damned weasel!” He growled, “What a female impersonator!”

Nick said pridefully, “Say, didja think you were the only good actor in this town, Torrington?” He added, “You never thought I could put on an act like that, did you? Know when I got wise you was following me? I saw you on the stairs in that John Street building — that fireman’s uniform didn’t fool me for a minit. But I fooled you, didn’t I?”

One of the officers put handcuffs on him.

Torrington took off his spectacles and walked over to Prentice. He said, “I’ll take that seven hundred I gave you for the ring — and here’s your ring.”

“Nothing doing — got to leave everything as is.” A detective interposed between them.

Prentice said, “It’s his money — I’m willing to give it to him.”

“Can’t allow it,” the detective insisted. He looked quizzically at Torrington. “Pretty good disguise, all right. Takes an actor.”

“Didn’t fool me,” Trout bragged. “I knew who he was as soon as he came in.”

“You didn’t, did you?” Torrington’s grim glance rested on Prentice. “I’m John Torrington, the man whose mother you murdered, you murderous rat!”

“Take it easy, Mr. Torrington,” a detective said soothingly. Another put a detaining hand on Torrington’s shoulder.

Prentice wilted, shrank back. He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Oh, yes you do,” Trout broke in unexpectedly. “Heard you two shootin’ your mouths off about it.” His voice rose to a very creditable falsetto. “You shouldn’t talk secrets in front of your help.”

The jeweler glared bitterly at his wife. “You sure pick your maids good, don’t you?”

“Like you pick your guests,” she shrilled back at him.

Nick stood there grinning malevolently at them. He didn’t have their reason for worrying. All he could be accused of was trying to rob a couple of other crooks — and he might beat the rap by turning state’s evidence.