Friday, October 17, 2014

“Steel Trap”

"Steel Trap"

by Horace P. Sternwall  

Edited by Dan Leo, LL.D., Assistant Professor of Remedial English Composition, Olney Community College; author of Sternwall: The Forgotten Giant; A Biography for Younger Readers; the Olney Community College Press.

Original illustrations by rhoda penmarq.

“Come in,” said the army doctor. “Sit down, uh, Mortimer –”

“That’s me, sir. Mortimer. How ya doin’?”

“Um, I’m fine, Mortimer. How are you?”

“Never better, sir. Never better. Fit as a fiddle.”

“Well, the results of your physical seem to show that you’re in pretty good shape. A trifle underweight maybe.”

“I don’t really like to eat too much, Doc. You know why?”

“No, Mortimer. Why?”

“’Cause I got to keep my edge.”

“Your edge?”

“That’s right, Doc. My edge. I got to stay sharp in my line of work. That’s why I don’t drink nor smoke, neither. I got to stay sharp.”

“And your line of work is –”

“Elevator operator, sir. Hotel St Crispian. You ever stop there?”

“Uh, no, I don’t think so.”

“I didn’t think you ever did, Doc. Ya know why?”

Mortimer waited patiently for the doctor to reply, and after a half a minute the doctor did reply.

“No, Mortimer. Why?”

“‘Cause I woulda remembered you, Doc,” said Mortimer. “That’s why. Because like a steel trap my mind is. I remember every person ever stepped into my elevator.”

“Every one?”

“Every goddam one, sir, doctor, captain – what you want me to call you?”

“You can call me Captain Katz, Mortimer.”

“Captain then. Steel trap my mind is. Now – for all I know you might’ve checked into the St Crispian when I was off duty, checked out when I was off-duty. Gone up and down the elevator while you was staying at the hotel and always when I was off-duty. It’s possible. It ain’t probable but it’s possible.”

“I’ve never stayed at the St Crispian, Mortimer.”

“That’s what I figured, Doc. Captain. Sir. There ain’t many people get in and out of that hotel I don’t know about. I ain’t saying there ain’t been nobody but I am saying they been few and far between. And I ain’t just blowing my own horn here. You ask anybody. You ask Raoul, you ask Roland, you ask Mr. Bernstein, you ask Mr. Nolan.”

“And who are all these –”

“You ask Mr. Brown. You ask Miss Charlton. Go ahead, ask them, I got nothing to hide.”

“Okay. Well. If I may ask you a few questions, Mortimer.”

“Ask away, Doc. I mean Captain. I got nothing to hide. An open book am I.”

“Well, it says here that you’re requested a deferment from the draft.”

“That is correct, your honor.”


“That is correct, Captain.”

“And the reason you give is ‘war work’?”

“That is also correct, Captain, sir.”

“But – your work is operating a hotel elevator?”

“I can see you have been paying attention, sir. Taking notes. That’s good.”

“Well, okay. May I just ask you this, Mortimer: how is it that you consider operating a hotel elevator to be ‘war work’?”

“You really want to know, Doc?”

“Yes. I would, Mortimer.”

“This is just between you and me and the walls of this office, right?”

“This is confidential, yes, Mortimer.”

“It’s the fivers, sir, Doc, your honor.”

“The what?”

“The fivers.”

“The fivers?”

“That’s right, sir. Fivers. Fifth columnists.”

“Oh. Fifth columnists.”

“That’s right, sir. Them fifth columnists. They come in sometimes. You can’t keep ‘em out. It ain’t the hotel’s fault. They look like anybody else. Like you. Like me. Well, maybe not like me, but some of ‘em look like you. Some of them.”

“Fifth columnists?”

“That is right, your honor. You know what a fifth columnist is, right?”

“Well, a fifth columnist is someone who is secretly working for one of our country’s enemies.”

“That is correct, sir. Bingo. I see you have done your homework.”

“But, Mortimer, I still don’t quite see what your ‘war work’ consists of.”

“My job, sir, is to keep an eye out for these fivers.”

“Keep an eye out.”

“That is correct, your honor. I keep an eye out for the fivers, and when I spy them I make a mental note of it.”

“A mental note.”

“I don’t write nothing down, Captain, sir. It’s all in here.” Mortimer tapped the side of his skull. “In here. The steel trap.”

“So what you’re saying is – and, please, correct me if I’m wrong, Mortimer – is that in your work as a hotel elevator operator you’re able to, shall we say, spy on our country’s enemies? And that this is your ‘war work’?”

“That is correct, sir. This is why I need you to give me an exemption from the draft. Hey, I am more than willing to go into the army. More than willing. But answer me this, your honor: I goes into the army, then who’s gonna keep an eye out for fivers what check into the St Crispian? Who? Jackson? Jackson wouldn’t know a fiver from a fruitcake. Julius? Hey, don’t get me wrong, Julius is a good man, he taught me everything I know about operating an elevator, but, all due respect, Julius is getting old. Thirty-five years he’s been on the job, and you ask me he’s lost his edge. So. Let me ask you something, your honor. I ask you this: I go in the army, who they gonna get to replace me? Some kid what don’t know nothing, or else some old guy don’t even know that much? Who they gonna get to spot the fivers?”

Again Mortimer paused, waiting for an answer. When the doctor said nothing Mortimer asked his question again.

“Who they gonna get, Doc?”

“I don’t know, Mortimer,” said the doctor, quickly.

“They gonna get nobody, that’s who, your honor. And then next thing you know that hotel is a hotbed of fivers.”

“Like – German agents?”


“Yes. Nazis.”

“Possibly, sir. Possibly Germans and Nazis. But they ain’t what I’m worried about.”


“No, sir. It ain’t the Nazis that we got to worry about.”


“No, sir. It ain’t the Nazis and it ain’t the Japs. It ain’t the Eyeties and it ain’t the Bulgarians neither.”


“It’s the people from out there.”

“Out there?”

“It’s them people who fly in from the other dimension. Dimension X.”

“Dimension X?”

“That is correct, your honor. I first read about Dimension X in a magazine in this article written by a personal friend of mine lives at the hotel, fella name of Fred Flynn. You ever hear of him?”

“Fred – “

“Flynn. Fred Flynn. He wrote this magazine article, left it on one of them coffee tables in the lobby. ‘Invaders from Dimension X’ was the name of the article. And it was all about these fivers from this other dimension come to New York to take over.”

“I see.”

“My job, your honor, the way I see it, is keep an eye out for these fivers, from Dimension X.”

“Keep an eye out for them.”

“Keep an eye out for ‘em, keep an eye on ‘em. And if I hear they’re up to something I will report it to the proper authorities. In my case I guess that would be Mr. Nolan.”

“And who is Mr. Nolan?”

“He’s the house dick.”

Captain Katz said nothing for a long moment. There was a packet of Old Golds on his desk. He picked up the cigarettes, took one out, tapped it several times on the desk, and then lit it with the Zippo lighter that had been sitting on the desk next to the cigarettes.

“Well,” said Mr. Brown, “I hear you had an appointment at the draft board today, Mortimer.”

“That is correct, Mr. Brown.”

Mortimer pulled his lever that closed the cast-iron grillwork doors of the elevator.

“And so how did it go? Are we to lose you to the army, my boy?”

“No, sir, thank God that will not be the case, on account of I got a deferment, sir.”

“Oh, really, Mortimer? What is it? Flat feet? Heart murmur?”

“No, Mr. Brown, my feet ain’t flat and my heart don’t murmur.”

“So why the deferment?”

“War work, Mr. Brown.”

“War work?”

“War work, Mr. Brown. More than that I ain’t at liberty to say. Usual floor, sir?”

“Uh, yes, usual floor, Mortimer. Thank you.”

Mortimer pulled the lever that started the car, with its usual sudden lurch.

They rode in silence up to Mr. Brown’s floor, the seventh, and Mortimer opened the elevator doors.

“War work, Mr. Brown,” he said. “War work.”

Mr. Brown stepped out of the car.

“By the way, Mr. Brown?”

“Yes, Mortimer?”

“You see anything unusual around the hotel, anything at all, especially if I ain’t on duty at the time, I want you to feel free to tell me about it.”

“Anything unusual?”

“Anything at all, Mr. Brown. Feel free to come to me.”

Mr. Brown had nothing to say to this, or at least nothing he could say at the moment.

Mortimer pulled the big lever that closed the elevator’s doors.


(This is a slightly revised version of a story originally published in a more luxuriously-illustrated form in New Tales of the Hotel St Crispian. We will return next week with an all-new and thrilling chapter of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train to Heaven™!)

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