bought the pack of Camels on Monday night in the most crowded
cigar store on Broadway. It was theatre time and seven or eight men
were buying cigarettes. The clerk didn't even glance at Mr. Martin,
who put the pack in his overcoat pocket and went out. If any of the
staff at F & S had seen him buy the cigarettes, they would have been
astonished, for it was generally known that Mr. Martin did not smoke,
and never had. No one saw him.
It was just a week to the day since Mr. Martin had decided to rub
out Mrs. Ulgine Barrows. The term "rub out" pleased him because it
suggested nothing more than the correction of an error--in this case
an error of Mr. Fitweiler. Mr. Martin had spent each night of the
past week working out his plan and examining it. As he walked home
now he went over it again. For the hundredth time he resented the
element of imprecision, the margin of guesswork that entered into
the business. The project as he had worked it out was casual and bold,
the risks were considerable. Something might go wrong anywhere along
the line. And therein lay the cunning of his scheme. No one would
ever see in it the cautious, painstaking hand of Erwin Martin, head
of the filing department at F & S, of whom Mr. Fitweiler had once
said, "Man is fallible but Martin isn't." No one would see his hand,
that is, unless it were caught in the act.
Sitting in his apartment, drinking a glass of milk, Mr. Martin reviewed
his case against Mrs. Ulgine Barrows, as he had every night for seven
nights. He began at the beginning. Her quacking voice and braying
laugh had first profaned the halls of F & S on March 7, 1941 (Mr.
Martin had a head for dates). Old Roberts, the personnel chief, had
introduced her as the newly appointed special adviser to the president
of the firm, Mr. Fitweiler. The woman had appalled Mr. Martin instantly,
but he hadn't shown it. He had given her his dry hand, a look of studious
concentration, and a faint smile. "Well," she had said, looking at
the papers on his desk, "are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch?"
As Mr. Martin recalled that moment, over his milk, he squirmed slightly.
He must keep his mind on her crimes as a special adviser, not on her
peccadillos as a personality. This he found difficult to do, in spite
of entering an objection and sustaining it. The faults of the woman
as a woman kept chattering on in his mind like an unruly witness.
She had, for almost two years now, baited him. In the halls, in the
elevator, even in his own office, into which she romped now and then
like a circus horse, she was constantly shouting these silly questions
at him. "Are you lifting the oxcart out of the ditch? Are you tearing
up the pea patch? Are you hollering down the rain barrel? Are you
scraping around the bottom of the pickle barrel? Are you sitting in
the catbird seat?"
It was Joey Hart, one of Mr. Martin's two assistants, who had explained
what the gibberish meant. "She must be a Dodger fan," he had said.
"Red Barber announces the Dodger games over the radio and he uses
those expressions--picked 'em up down South." Joey had gone on to
explain one or two. "Tearing up the pea patch" meant going on a rampage;
"sitting in the catbird seat" means sitting pretty, like a batter
with three balls and no strikes on him. Mr. Martin dismissed all this
with an effort. It had been annoying, it had driven him near to distraction,
but he was too solid a man to be moved to murder by anything so childish.
It was fortunate, he reflected as he passed on to the important charges
against Mrs. Barrows, that he had stood up under it so well. He had
maintained always an outward appearance of polite tolerance. "Why,
I even believe you like the woman," Miss Paird, his other assistant,
had once said to him. He had simply smiled.
A gavel rapped in Mr. Martin's mind and the case proper was resumed.
Mrs. Ulgine Barrows stood charged with willful, blatant, and persistent
attempts to destroy the efficiency and system of F & S. It was competent,
material, and relevant to review her advent and rise to power. Mr.
Martin had got the story from Miss Paird, who seemed always able to
find things out. According to her, Mrs. Barrows had met Mr. Fitweiler
at a party, where she had rescued him from the embraces of a powerfully
built drunken man who had mistaken the president of F & S for a famous
retired Middle Western football coach. She had led him to a sofa and
somehow worked upon him a monstrous magic. The aging gentleman had
jumped to the conclusion there and then that this was a woman of singular
attainments, equipped to bring out the best in him and in the firm.
A week later he had introduced her into F & S as his special adviser.
On that day confusion got its foot in the door. After Miss Tyson,
Mr. Brundage, and Mr. Bartlett had been fired and Mr. Munson had taken
his hat and stalked out, mailing in his resignation later, old Roberts
had been emboldened to speak to Mr. Fitweiler. He mentioned that Mr.
Munson's department had been "a little disrupted" and hadn't they
perhaps better resume the old system there? Mr. Fitweiler had said
certainly not. He had the greatest faith in Mrs. Barrows' ideas. "They
require a little seasoning, a little seasoning, is all," he had added.
Mr. Roberts had given it up. Mr. Martin reviewed in detail all the
changes wrought by Mrs. Barrows. She had begun chipping at the cornices
of the firm's edifice and now she was swinging at the foundation stones
with a pickaxe.
Mr. Martin came now, in his summing up, to the afternoon of Monday,
November 2,1942-just one week ago. On that day, at 3 P.M., Mrs. Barrows
had bounced into his office. "Boo!" she had yelled. "Are you scraping
around the bottom of the pickle barrel?" Mr. Martin had looked at
her from under his green eyeshade, saying nothing. She had begun to
wander about the office, taking it in with her great, popping eyes.
"Do you really need all these filing cabinets?" she had demanded suddenly.
Mr. Martin's heart had jumped. "Each of these files," he had said,
keeping his voice even, "plays an indispensable part in the system
of F & S." She had brayed at him, "Well, don't tear up the pea patch!"
and gone to the door. From there she had bawled, "But you sure have
got a lot of fine scrap in here!" Mr. Martin could no longer doubt
that the finger was on his beloved department. Her pickaxe was on
the upswing, poised for the first blow. It had not come yet; he had
received no blue memo from the enchanted Mr. Fitweiler bearing nonsensical
instructions deriving from the obscene woman. But there was no doubt
in Mr. Martin's mind that one would be forthcoming. He must act quickly.
Already a precious week had gone by. Mr. Martin stood up in his living
room, still holding his milk glass. "Gentlemen of the jury," he said
to himself, "I demand the death penalty for this horrible person."
The next day Mr. Martin followed his routine, as usual. He polished
his glasses more often and once sharpened an already sharp pencil,
but not even Miss Paird noticed. Only once did he catch sight of his
victim; she swept past him in the hall with a patronizing "Hi!" At
five-thirty he walked home, as usual, and had a glass of milk, as
usual. He had never drunk anything stronger in his life--unless you
could count ginger ale. The late Sam Schlosser, the S of F & S, had
praised Mr. Martin at a staff meeting several years before for his
temperate habits. "Our most efficient worker neither drinks nor smokes,"
he had said. "The results speak for themselves." Mr. Fitweiler had
sat by, nodding approval.
Mr. Martin was still thinking about that red-letter day as he walked
over to the Schrafft's on Fifth Avenue near Forty-sixth Street. He
got there, as he always did, at eight o'clock. He finished his dinner
and the financial page of the Sun at a quarter to nine, as he always
did. It was his custom after dinner to take a walk. This time he walked
down Fifth Avenue at a casual pace. His gloved hands felt moist and
warm, his forehead cold. He transferred the Camels from his overcoat
to a jacket pocket. He wondered, as he did so, if they did not represent
an unnecessary note of strain. Mrs. Barrows smoked only Luckies. It
was his idea to puff a few puffs on a Camel (after the rubbing-out),
stub it out in the ashtray holding her lipstick-stained Luckies, and
thus drag a small red herring across the trail. Perhaps it was not
a good idea. It would take time. He might even choke, too loudly.
Mr. Martin had never seen the house on West Twelfth Street where Mrs.
Barrows lived, but he had a clear enough picture of it. Fortunately,
she had bragged to everybody about her ducky first-floor apartment
in the perfectly darling three-story red-brick. There would be no
doorman or other attendants; just the tenants of the second and third
floors. As he walked along, Mr. Martin realized that he would get
there before nine-thirty. He had considered walking north on Fifth
Avenue from Schrafft's to a point from which it would take him until
ten o'clock to reach the house. At that hour people were less likely
to be coming in or going out. But the procedure would have made an
awkward loop in the straight thread of his casualness and he had abandoned
it. It was impossible to figure when people would be entering or leaving
the house, anyway. There was a great risk at any hour. If he ran into
anybody, he would simply have to place the rubbing-out of Ulgine Barrows
in the inactive file forever. The same thing would hold true if there
were someone in her apartment. In that case he would just say that
he had been passing by, recognized her charming house, and thought
to drop in.
It was eighteen minutes after nine when Mr. Martin turned into Twelfth
Street. A man passed him, and a man and a woman, talking. There was
no one within fifty paces when he came to the house, halfway down
the block. He was up the steps and in the small vestibule in no time,
pressing the bell under the card that said "Mrs. Ulgine Barrows."
When the clicking in the lock started, he jumped forward against the
door. He got inside fast, closing the door behind him. A bulb in a
lantern hung from the hall ceiling on a chain seemed to give a monstrously
bright light. There was nobody on the stair, which went up ahead of
him along the left wall. A door opened down the hall in the wall on
the right. He went toward it swiftly, on tiptoe.
"Well, for God's sake, look who's here!" bawled Mrs. Barrows, and
her braying laugh rang out like the report of a shotgun. He rushed
past her like a football tackle, bumping her. "Hey, quit shoving!"
she said, closing the door behind them. They were in her living room,
which seemed to Mr. Martin to be lighted by a hundred lamps. "What's
after you?" she said. "You're as jumpy as a goat." He found he was
unable to speak. His heart was wheezing in his throat. "I--yes," he
finally brought out. She was jabbering and laughing as she started
to help him off with his coat. "No, no," he said. "I'll put it here."
He took it off and put it on a chair near the door. "Your hat and
gloves, too," she said. "You're in a lady's house." He put his hat
on top of the coat. Mrs. Barrows seemed larger than he had thought.
He kept his gloves on. "I was passing by," he said. "I recognized--is
there anyone here?" She laughed louder than ever. "No," she said,
"we're all alone. You're as white as a sheet, you funny man. Whatever
has come over you? I'll mix you a toddy." She started toward a door
across the room. "Scotch-and-soda be all right? But say, you don't
drink, do you?" She turned and gave him her amused look. Mr. Martin
pulled himself together. "Scotch-and-soda will be all right," he heard
himself say. He could hear her laughing in the kitchen.
Mr. Martin looked quickly around the living room for the weapon. He
had counted on finding one there. There were andirons and a poker
and something in a corner that looked like an Indian club. None of
them would do. It couldn't be that way. He began to pace around. He
came to a desk. On it lay a metal paper knife with an ornate handle.
Would it be sharp enough? He reached for it and knocked over a small
brass jar. Stamps spilled out of it and it fell to the Boor with a
clatter. "Hey," Mrs. Barrows yelled from the kitchen, "are you tearing
up the pea patch?" Mr. Martin gave a strange laugh. Picking up the
knife, he tried its point against his left wrist. It was blunt. It
When Mrs. Barrows reappeared, carrying two highballs, Mr. Martin,
standing there with his gloves on, became acutely conscious of the
fantasy he had wrought. Cigarettes in his pocket, a drink prepared
for him--it was all too grossly improbable. It was more than that;
it was impossible. Somewhere in the back of his mind a vague idea
stirred, sprouted. "For heaven's sake, take off those gloves," said
Mrs. Barrows. "I always wear them in the house," said Mr. Martin.
The idea began to bloom, strange and wonderful. She put the glasses
on a coffee table in front of the sofa and sat on the sofa. "Come
over here, you odd little man," she said. Mr. Martin went over and
sat beside her. It was difficult getting a cigarette out of the pack
of Camels, but he managed it. She held a match for him, laughing.
"Well," she said, handing him his drink, "this is perfectly marvellous.
You with a drink and a cigarette."
Mr. Martin puffed, not too awkwardly, and took a gulp of the highball.
"I drink and smoke all the time," he said. He clinked his glass against
hers. "Here's nuts to that old windbag, Fitweiler," he said, and gulped
again. The stuff tasted awful, but he made no grimace. "Really, Mr.
Martin," she said, her voice and posture changing, "you are insulting
our employer." Mrs. Barrows was now all special adviser to the president.
"I am preparing a bomb," said Mr. Martin, "which will blow the old
goat higher than hell." He had only had a little of the drink, which
was not strong. It couldn't be that. "Do you take dope or something?"
Mrs. Barrows asked coldly. "Heroin," said Mr. Martin. "I'll be coked
to the gills when I bump that old buzzard off." "Mr. Martin!" she
shouted, getting to her feet. "That will be all of that. You must
go at once." Mr. Martin took another swallow of his drink. He tapped
his cigarette out in the ashtray and put the pack of Camels on the
coffee table. Then he got up. She stood glaring at him. He walked
over and put on his hat and coat. "Not a word about this," he said,
and laid an index finger against his lips. All Mrs. Barrows could
bring out was "Really!" Mr. Martin put his hand on the doorknob. "I'm
sitting in the catbird seat," he said. He stuck his tongue out at
her and left. Nobody saw him go.
Mr. Martin got to his apartment, walking, well before eleven. No one
saw him go in. He had two glasses of milk after brushing his teeth,
and he felt elated. It wasn't tipsiness, because he hadn't been tipsy.
Anyway, the walk had worn off all effects of the whiskey. He got in
bed and read a magazine for a while. He was asleep before midnight.
Mr. Martin got to the office at eight-thirty the next morning, as
usual. At a quarter to nine, Ulgine Barrows, who had never before
arrived at work before ten, swept into his office. "I'm reporting
to Mr. Fitweiler now!" she shouted. "If he turns you over to the police,
it's no more than you deserve!" Mr. Martin gave her a look of shocked
surprise. "I beg your pardon?" he said. Mrs. Barrows snorted and bounced
out of the room, leaving Miss Paird and Joey Hart staring after her.
"What's the matter with that old devil now?" asked Miss Paird. "I
have no idea," said Mr. Martin, resuming his work. The other two looked
at him and then at each other. Miss Paird got up and went out. She
walked slowly past the closed door of Mr. Fitweiler's office. Mrs.
Barrows was yelling inside, but she was not braying. Miss Paird could
not hear what the woman was saying. She went back to her desk.
Forty-five minutes later, Mrs. Barrows left the president's office
and went into her own, shutting the door. It wasn't until half an
hour later that Mr. Fitweiler sent for Mr. Martin. The head of the
filing department, neat, quiet, attentive, stood in front of the old
man's desk. Mr. Fitweiler was pale and nervous. He took his glasses
off and twiddled them. He made a small, bruffing sound in his throat.
"Martin," he said, "you have been with us more than twenty years."
"Twenty-two, sir," said Mr. Martin. "In that time," pursued the president,
"your work and your--uh--manner have been exemplary." "I trust so,
sir," said Mr. Martin. "I have understood, Martin," said Mr. Fitweiler,
"that you have never taken a drink or smoked." "That is correct, sir,"
said Mr. Martin. "Ah, yes." Mr. Fitweiler polished his glasses. "You
may describe what you did after leaving the office yesterday, Martin,"
he said. Mr. Martin allowed less than a second for his bewildered
pause. "Certainly, sir," he said. "I walked home. Then I went to Schrafft's
for dinner. Afterward I walked home again. I went to bed early, sir,
and read a magazine for a while. I was asleep before eleven." "Ah,
yes," said Mr. Fitweiler again. He was silent for a moment, searching
for the proper words to say to the head of the filing department.
"Mrs. Barrows," he said finally, "Mrs. Barrows has worked hard, Martin,
very hard. It grieves me to report that she has suffered a severe
breakdown. It has taken the form of a persecution complex accompanied
by distressing hallucinations." "I am very sorry, sir," said Mr. Martin.
"Mrs. Barrows is under the delusion," continued Mr. Fitweiler, "that
you visited her last evening and behaved yourself in an--uh--unseemly
manner." He raised his hand to silence Mr. Martin's little pained
outcry. "It is the nature of these psychological diseases," Mr. Fitweiler
said, "to fix upon the least likely and most innocent party as the--uh--source
of persecution. These matters are not for the lay mind to grasp, Martin.
I've just have my psychiatrist, Dr. Fitch, on the phone. He would
not, of course, commit himself, but he made enough generalizations
to substantiate my suspicions. I suggested to Mrs. Barrows, when she
had completed her-uh--story to me this morning, that she visit Dr.
Fitch, for I suspected a condition at once. She flew, I regret to
say, into a rage, and demanded--uh--requested that I call you on the
carpet. You may not know, Martin, but Mrs. Barrows had planned a reorganization
of your department--subject to my approval, of course, subject to
my approval. This brought you, rather than anyone else, to her mind--but
again that is a phenomenon for Dr. Fitch and not for us. So, Martin,
I am afraid Mrs. Barrows' usefulness here is at an end." "I am dreadfully
sorry, sir," said Mr. Martin.
It was at this point that the door to the office blew open with the
suddenness of a gas-main explosion and Mrs. Barrows catapulted through
it. "Is the little rat denying it?" she screamed. "He can't get away
with that!" Mr. Martin got up and moved discreetly to a point beside
Mr. Fitweiler's chair. "You drank and smoked at my apartment," she
bawled at Mr. Martin, "and you know it! You called Mr. Fitweiler an
old windbag and said you were going to blow him up when you got coked
to the gills on your heroin!" She stopped yelling to catch her breath
and a new glint came into her popping eyes. "If you weren't such a
drab, ordinary little man," she said, "I'd think you'd planned it
all. Sticking your tongue out, saying you were sitting in the catbird
seat, because you thought no one would believe me when I told it!
My God, it's really too perfect!" She brayed loudly and hysterically,
and the fury was on her again. She glared at Mr. Fitweiler. "Can't
you see how he has tricked us, you old fool? Can't you see his little
game?" But Mr. Fitweiler had been surreptitiously pressing all the
buttons under the top of his desk and employees of F & S began pouring
into the room. "Stockton," said Mr. Fitweiler, "you and Fishbein will
take Mrs. Barrows to her home. Mrs. Powell, you will go with them."
Stockton, who had played a little football in high school, blocked
Mrs. Barrows as she made for Mr. Martin. It took him and Fishbein
together to force her out of the door into the hall, crowded with
stenographers and office boys. She was still screaming imprecations
at Mr. Martin, tangled and contradictory imprecations. The hubbub
finally died out down in the corridor.
"I regret that this happened," said Mr. Fitweiler. "I shall ask you
to dismiss it from your mind, Martin." "Yes, sir," said Mr. Martin,
anticipating his chief's "That will be all" by moving to the door.
"I will dismiss it." He went out and shut the door, and his step was
light and quick in the hall. When he entered his department he had
slowed down to his customary gait, and he walked quietly across the
room to the W20 file, wearing a look of studious concentration.