They went down a hall, like a corridor in the Hotel de Soto, and at the end of it the butler tapped softly upon a door, and Peter was ushered into a big apartment in semi-darkness. The butler retired without a sound, closing the door behind him and Peter stood hesitating, looking about to get his bearings. From the other side of the room he heard three faint coughs, suggesting a sick man. There was a four-poster bed of some dark wood, with a canopy over it and draperies at the side, and a man in the bed, sitting propped up with pillows. There were more coughs, and then a faint whisper, “This way.” So Peter crossed over and stood about ten feet from the bed, holding his hat in his hands; he was not able to see very much of the occupant of the bed, nor was he sure it would be respectful for him to try to see.
“So you’re—(cough) what’s your name?”
“Gudge,” said Peter.
“You are the man—(cough) that knows about the Reds?”
The occupant of the bed coughed every two or three minutes thru the conversation that followed, and each time Peter noticed that he put his hand up to his mouth as if he were ashamed of the noise. Gradually Peter got used to the twilight, and could see that Nelse Ackerman was an old man with puffy, droopy cheeks and chin, and dark puffy crescents under his eyes. He was quite bald, and had on his head a skull cap of embroidered black silk, and a short, embroidered jacket over his night shirt. Beside the bed stood a table covered with glasses and bottles and pill-boxes, and also a telephone. Every few minutes this telephone would ring, and Peter would wait patiently while Mr. Ackerman settled some complex problem of business. “I’ve told them my terms,” he would say with irritation, and then be would cough; and Peter, who was sharply watching every detail of the conduct of the rich, noted that he was too polite even to cough into the telephone. “If they will pay a hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars on account, I will wait, but not a cent less,” Nelse Ackerman would say. And Peter, awe-stricken, realized that he had now reached the very top of Mount Olympus, he was at the highest point he could hope to reach until he went to heaven.
The old man fixed his dark eyes on his visitor. “Who wrote me that letter?” whispered the husky voice.
Peter had been expecting this. “What letter, sir?”
“A letter telling me to see you.”
“I don’t know anything about it, sir.”
“You mean—(cough) you didn’t write me an anonynious letter?”
“No, sir, I didn’t.”
“Then some friend of yours must have written it.”
“I dunno that. It might have been some enemy of the police.”
“Well, now, what’s this about the Reds having an agent in my home?”
“Did the letter say that?”
“Well, sir, that’s putting it too strong. I ain’t sure, it’s just an idea I’ve had. It’ll need a lot of explaining.”