murder mystery, crime, & detective fiction

The Unofficial Observer


by Lieutenant Arthur J. Burks

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Real Detective Tales | June/July 1927 | Vol. 11 | No. 2

Est. Read Time: 19 mins

This is in the popular Burks manner. High-pressure thrills. Smashing action. Red-blooded excitement. Breathless suspense. And then the devastating climax.




I, Georgie Smutts, am not clever with a couple of guns, and my only claim to distinction is that I closely resemble the eight ball used in pool games, I am off in the upper story on two things. I am a nut on crime detection, about which I know very little, and am crazier still about airplanes, concerning which I know even less. It is fortunate, I presume, that I have a couple of trick eyes which make it quite impossible for me to fly, else I'd long ago have been picked up on a blotter or carried away in a small wheelbarrow after a sensational crack-up.

My spectacles are the bar between me and aviation; they are shell-rimmed affairs, which make me look like a wise owl of sorts and add to the resemblance between me and the eight ball above referred to. I weigh two hundred and ten pounds, stripped, and have a mania for sticking my snub nose into other people's business, and every time I do it something unforeseen happens.

It's this way: I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth; but a paternal uncle left me some money right after I left school, and I guess there must have been quite a bit of it, since none of my checks has ever come back marked "insufficient funds" — and I'm always writing 'em.

I have a sizeable interest in an airport in the thriving city of San Diego, and one of the De Havillands is always in readiness for my use. I don't fly it myself, unless we are so high up in the air that the real pilot has enough time to take her over and straighten her out before we hit earth after some idiotic mistake of mine; hut I always get a terrific kick out of acting as the unofficial observer in the rear cockpit, where I consider myself monarch of all I survey.

All of which rambling leads up to the fact that I believe that airplanes and crime dovetail in many ways. Crooks use 'em as well as honest men. From this I figure that there is, ready-made, a niche for a brand new kind of detective — of which, as far as I know, I am among the first. Having modestly got that off my chest I shall now proceed with the story.



At three o'clock exactly, on Friday afternoon last, just as the street door was closing after a busy day in the Merchants' County Bank, which is about eight blocks south of Broadway, in the southeastern portion of San Diego, a quietly dressed stranger stepped inside and moved nonchalantly to the public desk as though to make out a check. Since he had managed to squeeze in before the door closed, the courteous bank employees allowed him to go about his business. They closed the door, however, so that no one else could get in.

The men in the cages were arranging their piles of banknotes in orderly rows, preparatory to locking them up in the vault. A middle-aged woman, with a child by her side, stood at the desk beside the man who had just got through the doors. Her face was covered with a heavy veil, and she was dressed in black. Every once in a while she thrust a slender white hand under her veil, as though she wiped away an unseen tear.

The man who had forced the doors finished writing his check and moved to the cashier's window. As far as later investigations proved, he paid no attention to the woman in black at the desk he had just left, nor did he once look toward the door, through whose glass the street, with its passing crowds, could be plainly seen. He stepped to the window and thrust his check through with his left hand. His right hand rested on the marble rectangle outside the cage. Or, rather, the side pocket of his coat rested on the rectangle, and his right hand was hidden in the pocket.

"I don't really want to cash this check, buddy," he said conversationally; "but I do want all the money you're wallowing in back there! And I'll drill you if I don't get it!"

The cashier didn't say a word. He was tongue-tied. He hadn't strength enough even to lift his hands. The bandit continued:

"Listen, carefully, son. There are only four officials in this bank besides yourself. I'm not counting the woman and the kid. I can take care of them. Call the other four inside your cage, and if anything in your voice makes them suspicious of me. I'll drill you."

The cashier, knowing after a glance into the black eyes of the unmasked man that the bandit wouldn't hesitate to carry out his threat, immediately raised his voice in a carefully modulated call to the four employees mentioned. These came hurriedly, a bit impatient at this new delay. The bandit waited until they had all entered the cage.

"Put 'em up!" he commanded tersely. "I know you've got a gat or a sawed-off shotgun under the desk, but if any one of you makes a break for it he gets a bullet in him. Now, Mr. Cashier, take this cord and bind their hands."

All of this in an ordinary tone of voice, so that the woman in the veil hadn't even looked around. The bank officials were scared green. The cashier bound his colleagues effectively, the wrists of each behind his back. At a low word of command from the bandit the five were herded into the huge vault in rear of the bank. The woman looked up just as the bound men came into view from behind the cages. The bandit, his eyes moving all about, saw her freeze to immobility.

"Don't move, lady," he called softly. "You are in no danger as long as you obey orders."

The woman turned back to her desk. The little girl, her eyes wide with childish curiosity, spoke. "What's he doin' to all those men, auntie?"



Outside, half a block away, a young school teacher, with her half-monthly pay check in her hand, was hurrying toward the bank. She had an understanding with the officials to the effect that, if she were no more than fifteen minutes late, they would always let her into the bank to transact business, since she never left school early enough to reach the bank before closing lime. Her mind was busy with the happenings of the day, for she was a very conscientious teacher, who had dedicated her life to the kindergarten. Her thoughts were always on her little charges, waking or sleeping. She never even thought of such things as daylight robberies, living, actually and mentally, in a world of fledgling humans.

She reached the door of the bank and tapped on the glass. No one came for a moment. She pressed her nose to the door and peered in. She saw a veiled, middle-aged lady at the check desk with a little girl, and she saw a man, a gray felt hat on his head as though he were preparing to depart, standing in the wide-open door of the great vault at the rear of the bank. Evidently she was later than she had thought. She could see figures moving inside the vault, but they were indistinct because of the shadows. The man in the door turned and beckoned to the veiled woman. She nodded, took the hand of the girl, and moved past the man into the vault.

Pauline Carson, the young school teacher, tapped once more on the glass. The man in the vault door turned and saw her. With quick strides he approached the door. Pauline saw that he was a stranger, and immediately thought of bank examiners, since on her last visit the cashier had told her the examiner was due shortly. The bandit opened the door, smiled courteously at the young woman, and beckoned her inside.

"This way, madam," he said suavely.

Pauline knew instantly that something was wrong, though she hadn't the ghost of an idea what it was. She stopped dead still.

"Where are you taking me?" she demanded. "Where is the cashier?"

"He's back here," replied the bandit hurriedly. "Come on!"

Pauline allowed herself to be led to the door of the vault, inside she saw the bank officials herded together, their hands tied behind them — and the veiled woman with shaking shoulders, as though she sobbed her heart out. Of them all, the child seemed the most unconcerned. The bank robber had now dropped all pretense.

"Get inside, and you won't be hurt," he snapped. "I am a bank robber and I'm in a hurry!"

"I won't go in there! I'll promise not to yell; but I won't go in that vault. It's air-tight."

The bank robber said no further word. He drew his weapon, which up to this lime had been inside his pocket, and struck the young woman three savage blows on the temple. She sank to the floor lumpishly, and the bank robber seized her by an ankle, dragging her to the threshold of the vault. He did not enter, however, commanding instead that the woman in the veil seize the younger woman and drag her on in.

Then he closed the vault door.



At three-thirty exactly I received a call from the Chief of Police.

"I'm notifying everybody interested in crime, Smutts," he told me wildly. "The fellow got away with fifteen thousand dollars! And he killed a woman!"

I noted with a wry grin that he mentioned the loss of the fifteen thousand before he mentioned the killing. "Any description of the bandit?" I asked.

"Yes. Under thirty. Wore no mask. Evidently a drug addict. Medium height. Light complexion. For God's sake, Smutts, help us out! The papers will ruin us if this egg gets away."

"Should be a pipe to find a guy like that," I retorted with fine sarcasm. "Any idea which direction he went? What have you done so far?"

"Nobody knows. The woman he slugged gave us the description before she died. She said something about seeing a little red automobile at the curb near the bank, and it wasn't there when the police arrived on the scene, fifteen minutes after the hold-up. Motorcycle police have been hurried to all outgoing roads, Los Angeles Highway, Tijuana road, La Mesa, and the Ocean and Mission beach police have been instructed to cover their roads, moving in toward town."

I hung up the receiver. Then I got an idea. I called the taxicab company and asked if they had received a call for a taxi within the last half hour from anywhere near the Merchants' County Bank. That business of the little red automobile didn't sound exactly right to me. A good hunch, this. A call had just come in from a drug store within three blocks of the bank. They gave me the number of the cab that had been sent. I called the Chief of Police and told him.

It was now almost four o'clock, which is the regular time when our two passenger-carrying De Havillands take off for Los Angeles. I had just hung up the receiver when the roaring of the Liberties drowned out all other sounds. It is a sound one never forgets. It always thrills me. I decided to have my own 'plane convoy the two passenger carriers as far as Oceanside, just for the ride.

I signaled to my own pet pilot. The propeller was spun by a mechanic with more nerve than I'll ever have, and I saw, for the thousandth time, a sight which always makes me feel as though I were king of the world — three sweet-singing De Havillands tugging at their blocks impatiently, wagging their tails with eagerness to be off. The propellers are invisible, almost, and dust behind the 'planes goes blizzarding across the avenue behind the airport, blotting from view the passing automobiles which scurry across Dutch Flats from Ocean Beach to San Diego.

Then two things happen with startling suddenness. The dust behind the middle De Havilland clears for a moment, and I see an orange-colored taxicab drawn up at the curb. There is no one in it but the chauffeur, and he is staring at that middle De Havilland as though he had gone crazy. I note, with a suppressed shout of excitement, the number on the side of the taxicab, and turn to the middle De Havilland to see what it is all about.

Even as I turn, the De Havilland in question, with the gun full on, the engines howling protest at tire heavens, leaps the blocks and hurtles down the field like an airplane gone mad. There is only one passenger in the 'plane, and this one is crouched in the rear cockpit, his right hand, holding something sinister, pressed against the neck of the pilot.

The guns of the two other 'planes are cut instantly. In the comparative silence I see police cars, careening like ships in a storm, swing into the avenue from both ends. The chauffeur of the taxicab holds his ground, though he is about as scared a driver as I have ever seen.



I decide not to wait for the police. I am prodded into action by the beckoning hand of my pet pilot, and in a jiffy I am in the rear cockpit of my own 'plane, and we are sweeping into the teeth of the wind for the take-off. The 'plane carrying the bandit is already in the air, madly circling for altitude. My pilot knows his stuff. He lifts her nose in a savage zoom, and when he levels her off we are fifteen hundred feet high.

The 'plane ahead of us has straightened and pointed her nose in the general direction of Tijuana, which is so near that they may make the border before we can head 'em off. My 'plane is a fast baby, though, and when we settle on the tail of that bandit's 'plane we're stepping 'em a few, believe me. The wind shrieks through the struts and braces, and the ground below looks, for once, as though it were really moving. We are going around a hundred and forty, I judge.

My pilot lifts her again, then once more. He's trying to get above that other 'plane for a dive. It's no go though, that. I know. That pilot in the other 'plane is a friend of ours. I daren't crash him. If it were just the bandit now, and the loss of a De Havilland, that would be all right. They still honor my checks, even for enough to buy De Havillands at regular intervals. We are now six thousand feet up, and the leading 'plane is well below us, and we are gaining. That other pilot knows his stuff, too. Even with a gun against his neck, in the hand of a man who has shown he will use it, that pilot is still doing everything he can to delay reaching the border.

Then I remember something. That pilot was supposed to make a trip to Los, which means that he has a parachute! Why didn't I think of that before? I yell at my pilot, and the wind drives the words hack into my throat until they fetch up with a thud against the soles of my feet. Dumb! Then I jab the pilot in the back and signal for him to dive. He grins at me and lifts both hands to the edge of the cowling.

That means it's my party, and I glom onto the joy-stick in my cockpit as though I really knew how to fly. Not quite so much like a rocking chair as when the real pilot is flying, but passing fair. The left wing falls away, and I over-control, causing her to wobble — and my pilot grins.

I point her nose at the other 'plane and give her full gun. She's rather a steep dive and I don't try to bring her up, either. I'm making her shake like a terrier just in out of the rain, and her struts, braces and wires are yelling bloody murder; but I'm so excited about this chase that I open my mouth and yell for all I'm worth, and the yell, like my shout to the pilot, darts back into my throat, chokes me and makes my eyes fill with tears.

I blink 'em away and give her more power. We cross over the tail of the other 'plane just as we are above the sands of the Strand, that ribbon of concrete road which leads from Coronado southward to the Tijuana road. There is only one automobile on the road, as far as I can see.

The bandit is standing, crouched forward against the backblast of the other 'plane's propeller, and he shakes his weapon at us as we zip over. I guess he takes a shot at us, but I have the feeling that the bullet wouldn't catch us if we were flying dead away. And the bandit is probably too scared to shoot straight, even if he were on the ground and held his weapon in both hands. It's no snap to hit an airplane. I catch the eye of the other pilot and signal. The bandit catches the signal, hut he doesn't know what it means. I bring our 'plane around in a brutal, wing-menacing bank, and prepare to cross over the other 'plane's tail again.

For a moment we hung just above the tail of the other 'plane. The bandit waved his puny weapon at us savagely, and for a moment his eyes were off his own pilot. Said pilot stood up and plunged over the side. I sighed with relief when I saw the knapsack arrangement on his body. He was safe, and out of it, if his parachute opened. Personally, I'm not strong for parachute jumps. Being an eight ball I'd be as likely to jump and forget my parachute as not. So I've never gone in for jumping. Some day, maybe —

I saw the 'chute open her great wings far below the other plane. I swooped down —

And the world suddenly turned topsy-turvy!



My eyes are not too darned good, as I have said, and I dropped lower than I planned. My trucks crashed into the tail piece of the other 'plane, and in a shake we were turned on our back and going like blazes; but whether up, down, or sidewise I didn't know for a moment. I looked up and saw the earth, and the belt across my knees was cutting my thighs in two. But my pilot still was grinning, and his hands looked as though he were trying to pinch pieces out of the sides of the forward cockpit cowling.

I looked down and saw the other 'plane, and it was falling up toward us. I had sense enough to give her the gun again, and the earth looked entirely too close above our heads. I motioned my pilot and, battling with the stick for a full minute, he brought her out of it in a sort of Immelman Turn. The other 'plane, going down in wide, lazy spirals, flipped past us, and I'll be darned if the bandit in the rear cockpit wasn't grinning! I guess he thought he was getting away with something.

I prayed fervently that he would crash in such a way that there would be enough of him left to stand trial for killing Pauline Carson.

The other 'plane settled with unbelievable slowness, as we followed her down — and when she buried her nose in the sand along the ribbon-like Strand we kept on dropping! My pilot looked Lack at me. His face was white as parchment, as though he were suffering untold agony. He tried to lift his hands to the cowling, signaling for me to take the stick again — or so I thought.

I took it — and jammed the controls! We hit the sand a quarter of a mile from where the first 'plane had crashed, coming down in a heap on our left wing, which crumpled like cardboard.

Then the lights went out arid the sudden darkness was full of stars.



When I opened my trick eyes there were men in uniform all around us. I felt myself over for broken bones and found I was intact, except for a broken leg and a smashed nose. I tried to talk, and my voice sounded like the mumbling of an octogenarian — which brought home to me the fact that most of my front teeth were missing. Evidently, in the crash, I had tried to bite a piece out of the forward edge of the cowling, with indifferent success. My pilot was okeh, except for a long furrow along his temple under his helmet, where, odd as it may seem, that random bullet from the bandit's pistol had creased him.

"Listen, Ryan," I said weakly. "I have a horrible suspicion! Please look in the after cockpit of that wreck of ours and see if you can find my front teeth!"

Then I saw the bandit. He was manacled to a couple of policemen, while a third policeman was counting a flock of greenbacks from a bag he had just taken from the bandit. The bandit was talking.

"Too much dope," he said. "But I'd have got away with it if it hadn't been for that goggle-eyed bird there with all his teeth knocked out. But I kinda lost my nerve after I left the bank. Something told me I had hit that damned woman too hard, and it shook me. The dope wore off and I got scared as hell. If I hadn't been scared I'd never have got the fool idea that I could get away in one of those 'planes. You damned cops don't give a man any chance whatever."

Inquiry brought forth the information that the pilot who had jumped from the fleeing 'plane had landed without mishap, save for a broken instep when he struck the concrete roadway of the Strand. Everything seemed fine and dandy, and the doctors told me I might get out of the hospital in time to attend the trial of the bank robber. I'll get a great kick out of sitting as close to him as possible, and grinning at him toothlessly.