IT WAS AS A MILWAUKEE newsboy, at the age of twelve, that "Jimmie" Blake first found himself in any way associated with that arm of constituted authority known as the police force. A plain-clothes man, on that occasion, had given him a two-dollar bill to carry about an armful of evening papers and at the same time "tail" an itinerant pickpocket. The fortifying knowledge, two years later, that the Law was behind him when he was pushed happy and tingling through a transom to release the door-lock for a house-detective, was perhaps a foreshadowing of that pride which later welled up in his bosom at the phrase that he would always "have United Decency behind him," as the social purifiers fell into the habit of putting it.
At nineteen, as a "checker" at the Upper Kalumet Collieries, Blake had learned to remember faces. Slavic or Magyar, Swedish or Calabrian, from that daily line of over two hundred he could always pick his face and correctly call the name. His post meant a life of indolence and petty authority. His earlier work as a steamfitter had been more profitable. Yet at that work he had been a menial; it involved no transom-born thrills, no street-corner tailer's suspense. As a checker he was at least the master of other men.
His public career had actually begun as a strike breaker. The monotony of night-watchman service, followed by a year as a drummer for an Eastern firearm firm, and another year as an inspector for a Pennsylvania powder factory, had infected him with the wanderlust of his kind. It was in Chicago, on a raw day of late November, with a lake wind whipping the street dust into his eyes, that he had seen the huge canvas sign of a hiring agency's office, slapping in the storm. This sign had said:
Being twenty-six and adventurous and out of a job, he had drifted in with the rest of earth's undesirables and asked for work.
After twenty minutes of private coaching in the mysteries of railway signals, he had been "passed" by the desk examiner and sent out as one of the "scab" train crew to move perishable freight, for the Wisconsin Central was then in the throes of its first great strike. And he had gone out as a green brakeman, but he had come back as a hero, with a Tribune reporter posing him against a furniture car for a two-column photo. For the strikers had stoned his train, half killed the "scab" fireman, stalled him in the yards and cut off two thirds of his cars and shot out the cab-windows for full measure. But in the cab with an Irish engine-driver named O'Hagan, Blake had backed down through the yards again, picked up his train, crept up over the tender and along the car tops, recoupled his cars, fought his way back to the engine, and there, with the ecstatic O'Hagan at his side, had hurled back the last of the strikers trying to storm his engine steps. He even fell to "firing" as the yodeling O'Hagan got his train moving again, and then, perched on the tender coal, took pot-shots with his brand-new revolver at a last pair of strikers who were attempting to manipulate the hand-brakes.
That had been the first train to get out of the yards in seven days. Through a godlike disregard of signals, it is true, they had run into an open switch, some twenty-eight miles up the line, but they had moved their freight and won their point.
Blake, two weeks later, had made himself further valuable to that hiring agency, not above subornation of perjury, by testifying in a court of law to the sobriety of a passenger crew who had been carried drunk from their scab-manned train. So naïvely dogged was he in his stand, so quick was he in his retorts, that the agency, when the strike ended by a compromise ten days later, took him on as one of their own operatives.
Thus James Blake became a private detective. He was at first disappointed in the work. It seemed, at first, little better than