The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 13

Penn Service

THEIR day had been so fully occupied that none of the three had found time to seek that purveyor of plentiful information, the newspaper. Indeed, now that he thought of it, Drayton could not recall having seen any newsboy or news stands, and on consulting his friends they, too, denied any such memory. Yet that papers were still published in the city was certain. Mercy had carried one in the golden Court of Justice. Bertram had accounted for his knowledge of the date by reference to a “borrowed” newspaper.

Drayton went to the house phone and made his request. Something seemed wrong with the wire. While he could perfectly hear the girl at the other end, that young lady appeared unable to catch his meaning. Suddenly she cut him off, and though he snapped the receiver hook impatiently, it produced no further response.

“Ring for a boy, Bobby,” suggested Trenmore. As he said it, however, there came a rapping at the door. Trenmore opened it and there stood a dignified gentleman who bowed courteously and stepped inside.

“I am the assistant manager,” he explained. “There was some trouble over the phone just now. The management desires, of course, that guests of Penn Service shall receive every attention. What were you trying to make that stupid operator understand?”

“Nothing very difficult,” smiled Drayton. “I asked for an evening paper.”

“I beg your pardon. A— what?”

“A paper — a newspaper,” retorted the lawyer impatiently. “But, my dear sir! Surely you can’t mean to make such an extraordinary request! Or — perhaps you have a special permit?”

A dazed silence ensued. “Are you telling me,” burst forth Terence, “that in this God-forsaken place you need a permit to read the news of the day?”

“Every one knows,” protested the manager placatingly, “that only Servants or their families are permitted to read the newspaper issued for their benefit.”

Trenmore made a violent forward movement, and Drayton, after one glance at the giant’s darkening countenance, hastily pushed the manager into the hall, assured him that their request was withdrawn and closed the door.

Not five minutes later, Cleverest was again announced. He followed the phone call so closely that Drayton had hardly hung up the receiver before he was at the door. He entered with a frown and a very pale face.

“See here,” he began without greeting or preamble, “are you people trying to commit suicide? How can you expect protection if you persist in running foul of every law in the city?”

“Why the excitement?” queried Drayton coolly.

“The excitement, as you call it, is of your making. How dare you attempt to pry among the secret affairs of Penn Service?”

Drayton shook his head. “Can’t imagine what you mean. We’ve not been out of this suite since the Loveliest brought us back to the hotel.”

“That may be. But you were trying to bribe the manager to supply you with a copy of the Penn Bulletin!”

Enlightenment dawned in the minds of his three hearers.

“And is that all?” asked Trenmore scornfully. “As for bribe, we never offered the lad a cent. Did he claim we tried to bribe him?”

“He hinted at it. He met me at the door, and by Jove, it was a good thing he did! He was on his way to report you at the Temple!”

“Is it a capital crime, then, to wish to read a paper?”

Still frowning, Cleverest sank into a chair.

“What you need is a little common or kindergarten instruction. A bit more and you’ll have us all in the pit for conspiracy. To begin, then, are you aware that no one in this city, barring those born in Penn Service or the officials under their control, is allowed to read any literature more informing than a sign post, an instruction pamphlet or a telephone directory? The only books, the only papers, the only manuscripts in existence are circulated and confined strictly to the Temple and the Temple people. The Supreme Servant himself is the only man having access to the more important documents and books, although there is a lesser library open to officials who care for study.

“Furthermore, the City of Philadelphia having reached a state of perfection under the beneficent power of Penn, his Servants have made it their business to keep it so. Advance or retrogression would be alike objectionable. That is obvious and logical. Everything is most exquisitely standardized. To change so much as a syllable of the language, a style in garments, the architecture or interior arrangement of a building, is rightly regarded as a capital offense. No man, saving the Servants or their emissaries, is allowed to pass outside city limits. No stranger in my time or knowledge has ever crossed them from without. You yourselves are the sole exceptions.”

“But,” puzzled Drayton, “how does Penn Service keep the city in subjection? We come from a place of far different customs and spirit, where innumerable armed troops would be required for such a business. You have only the usual police.”

The man laughed. “There is a fear more restraining than the fear of bullets. Penn, the mighty All-Father, stands behind his Servants and justifies their acts.” The Superlative spoke reverently, but it was a threadbare reverence through which gleamed more than a hint of mockery. “Do you recall,” he continued, “that great Red Bell which hangs beneath the golden Dome of Justice? There is a saying in this city, ‘When the Bell strikes, we die.’ It is named the Threat of Penn. The people believe implicitly that should the Servants become incensed and strike that Bell, the city, the people, the very earth itself would dissolve into air like thin smoke! I myself can’t tell you how this supersti — I should say, this faith originated. But it is a very deep-rooted and convenient one. Have you any other questions?”

“One more, and it is this. During the day I have heard Penn Service referred to as sacred. Last night the judge spoke of the ‘sacred precincts.’ What we called City Hall you call the Temple. Just now you referred to ‘Penn, the mighty All-Father.’ Is Penn Service a religious organization?”

The other stared. “Religious? That is a word I have never before heard. Penn is the All-Father. The Numbers worship and pray to him. Immobile and benevolent he stands, high above our petty affairs, speaking to none save his Servants. Through his wisdom they, the twelve great Servants of Penn, are the Supreme and only power — the Masters of his City!”

Drayton sighed deeply. “We are indebted to you, sir, for your frankness. In future we will certainly try to keep out of trouble.”

“I trust you will.” Cleverest rose to take his departure. “I’ve set my heart on upsetting Lovely’s little game. By the way, where is that other chap — Bertram, you call him?”

“He went out. He’ll be back soon. We had thought of entering Bertram for Quickest — that is, if you have no objection?”

The Superlative looked startled, then smiled oddly.

“Oh, no possible objection, of course. Good day to you all. And to you, dearest lady! I shall be first at your side when you reach the Temple to-morrow.”

Speaking of Bertram, however, had recalled something to Viola. “Just a moment, Mr. Cleverest. I beg your pardon. Cleverest, then. Terry, have you that watch?”

“Did I lose it here?” Cleverest’s eyes lighted as Trenmore extended the expensive timepiece.

“It fell from your pocket perhaps?” suggested Viola demurely.

“I am a thousand times obliged to you, Miss Trenmore. That watch was given me by my uncle, Mr. Justice Supreme. The old gentleman would never have forgiven me if I had lost it.”

“So, he’s the nephew of Mr. Justice Supreme, is he?” murmured Viola, when the Superlative had at last departed. “Now I wonder if that relationship is the card he has up his sleeve?”

“Viola, if you’ve an inkling of further mystery, save it till I’m rested from what we’ve had,” protested her brother. “Let’s ring for the servant the way we’ll be having our suppers. I think we do need them!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30