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The Ragged Stranger

(c. 1928)

by Charles MacArthur

Chapter II.

It was a sultry, stupid day, the kind on which nothing of the slightest interest ever conceivably happens. All over the city, husbands were sitting about in their pajamas, too listless to go out and get in trouble. The politicians had gone to the beaches. So had the preachers, the gunmen, the opera singers, the chorus girls and all those beside who brighten the Sabbath for desperate newspaper editors. There wasn’t a good, live story in sight.

In the city room of the Record, Editor Kearney tore his hair. Not an atom of news for his first page. He beefed at the rewrite men, as if they were responsible for the day’s deadly dearth. He called up his favorite tipsters. He paged the hospitals, the police stations, the hotels. He sifted through memoranda of stories about to break. In vain: Nothing was stirring, not even a mousie. And in four hours the paper went to press.

Of course, Benson could write a little feature story on a crimeless day, but what was that? Two hundred words, at the most. And such cold soup. As always in these circumstances, his mind’s eye beheld his bitter rival, Boone of the Journal, licking his fat chops over some easily available scoop. Very likely some interesting young woman, quite accessible to his lazy reporters, had emptied an automatic pistol in to her married admirer. The mere thought gave Kearney a chill. Doubtless she was young and pretty -- even beautiful. His imagination whisked him into the Journal offices. Such a belle, of course, would have a diary. Red hot entries danced before his eyes. He could see his competitor’s triumphant headlines:

“Clubman Slain in Love Triangle. Soul Mate Shoots Millionaire 7 Times. Shattered My Love, She Sobs.”

The torment of his imagination was such that Kearney tore about the city room for deliverance, hoping to catch some reporter loafing on the job. But all were busily at work, compounding obituary notices, calling up old ladies whose daughters, reputedly, were engaged to Dukes, rewriting Associated Press reports. Benson, his star man, was patiently engaged with a shrill and persistent Polish woman -- a Mrs. Soleski, by name. From her harsh bird-like chatter, Kearney derived that her son was missing and that she expected the Record to do something about it.

This irritated Kearney the more. Of all the pests who haunt newspaper offices and waste the time of reporters, wretches like Mrs. Soleski are the worst. They talk for hours, frequently faint, and invariably insist on precious first page space for their hard luck stories. Of course, they never get it; but the newspapers none the less are put to considerable trouble hearing their troubles, boiling them down to paragraphs entitled: “Walter Ankle, Your Mother Needs You” and fitting them into valuable columns. There is some return for this boring philanthropy in that they acquire helpful and public spirited tone by virtue of these squibs; but on the whole, results hardly justify the nuisance.

It was evident, from Mrs. Soleski’s complaints that she missed her son Joe less than she missed the ten dollars he contributed every week for his board. Inwardly, Kearney observed that he doubtless had become good and sick of the old lady and wisely had up and joined the Marines.

But this cynicism was suddenly exploded by something Mrs. Soleski chanced to say. He drew nearer, all attention, straining at a wild and beautiful possibility.

“A whole year now I ain’t seen him --”

“Yes, yes, I know --” said Benson, wearily. “It’ll all be in the paper, lady.”

He summarized briefly:

“Little fella. Light hair. Blue eyes. Garage mechanic --”

“Charlie,” Kearney interrupted softly. “I got a hunch. He sounds like a certain party on the West Side.”

Benson thought on his feet, as the saying goes. He understood at once. Diving into his desk he produced the Record’s stock photograph of the Ragged Stranger.

“Does this look like your son?” he demanded.

Mrs. Soleski peered uncertainly. Kearney and Benson stopped breathing.

“I dunno,” she said. “He never had his picture taken.”

“Does it look like him?” repeated Kearney, tense.

“He never combed his hair like that.”

Kearney damned the retouchers for their elegance. Benson hurriedly pointed out the more salient features of the picture. Mrs. Soleski, as if determined to be exasperating, couldn’t quite make up her mind.

“It might be him,” she said finally.

“I knew it!” cried Kearney, disregarding her dubious tone. “I had a hunch the minute I heard her say light hair and blue eyes. For God’s sake, get the coroner! Call him on the private wire! Right away! Duffy! Walter! Miss Farrell!”

His news editor, private stenographer and most accomplished lady reporter piled after him into the front office. This was a handsomely carpeted, beautifully furnished room, equipped with dictaphones and sound-proof walls; and quite famous in newspaper circles for its many associations. Here Ammunition Wood made his famous and exclusive confession; here Gracie Jessup, with the aid of two lyric reporters, composed the celebrated diary that boosted circulation 60,000 overnight; here Harvey Werner, “the Skyscraper Burglar” told all while he ate his first meal in a week. And here Kearney’s star reporters arranged themselves expectantly now.

Kearney installed Mrs. Soleski in the overstuffed chair.

“Well,” he addressed his Staff. “It looks like we got a break -- the biggest beat in years!”

His audience looked from Kearney to Mrs. Soleski, whose dull gray face remained expressionless.

“We’ve finally identified the Ragged Stranger!”

The announcement was a thunderbolt. There was a satisfactory air of astonishment.

“Here,” added Kearney, dramatically, “is his mother.”

“My God! Where did you find her?” exclaimed Duffy, the news editor.

“On a platter -- She walked right in here. Oh, Boy! Can you see the Journal tomorrow morning!”

“Has she identified him?” queried Duffy, cautiously.

“It’s in the bag, I tell you,” exploded Kearney, irritably. “Jesus, Fred, are you trying to throw down the story already? Now -- get this -- we want a smash - everything we got -- crack it wide open.”

“Got you, boss,” said Duffy, penitent.

“Miss Farrell, you glue right on to Mrs. What’s-her-name here, and don’t let her out of your sight till morning. We can’t take any chances on leaks. I want a good divisional out of you -- all the sob stuff you get. Two or three columns of real human interest. Mother love and so forth. A mother’s quest for her boy --”

“A mother’s quest for her boy,” scribbled Miss Farrell hastily.

“You’re a widow, aren’t you?” he demanded of Mrs. Soleski, and hurled onward without waiting for an answer. “Widow,” wrote Miss Farrell.

“Play the Record big. Bring in all the other mysteries we’ve solved. The Barrell murder -- the Kissel case -- jam ‘em up in the lead.”

Kearney’s secretary appeared:

“Coroner’s on the wire.”

Kearney seized the telephone.

“Say Dutch, grab a cab and shoot over to the office right away. I got something hot.”

Apparently the coroner was at dinner.

“I can’t help that. We need you. Shake a leg.”

Kearney had once caught Coroner Hartmann framing a murder inquest as red-handed as you please. Instead of exposing him, he cunningly extorted the unhappy official’s written resignation. This document was waved at the poor wretch if he so much as winked. When Hartmann said he would be there in ten minutes, therefore, he meant five.

“Not a word about this on the outside, do you understand?” Kearney cautioned his staff. “This has got to be absolutely exclusive. Somebody call up the morgue and see if any of those Journal snoops are around before we check up on the identification.”

“He ain’t in the morgue, is he?” Mrs. Soleski spoke for the first time.

“He better be,” murmured Benson, pulling on his coat. Aloud, he remarked that they were going to the morgue merely to look around a bit. There were a lot of missing persons over there. Mrs. Soleski received the suggestion that her son might be among them rather stolidly. She had often considered the possibility of his death, she said, and at great sacrifice had kept up his insurance. She had frequently gone without food to do this, she added, for Joe’s sake, alone; sighing that if the worst came to the worst, at least there would be enough to bury him, with something left over for her old age.

Nobody paid the slightest attention to this discourse in the excitement of ordering taxicabs and mapping out space for the proposed story. It was decided to throw out ten columns of advertising, which provoked a hot scene between Kearney and the business manager. Just as blows seemed likely, Coroner Hartmann arrived, breathless and rather cross.

“This is my birthday,” he scowled. “The boys were giving me a blowout.”

“That’s tough,” returned Kearney, unsympathetically. Well, let’s go!”

© 2003-04 The Estate of Charles G. MacArthur. All Rights Reserved.

Continue to Chapter Three or Return to Charles Gordon MacArthur Page

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