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Title: The Ebony Bed Murder Author: Rufus Gillmore * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1800731h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2018 Most recent update: August 2018 This eBook was produced by: Walter Moore Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia Licence which may be viewed online.
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Chapter 1. - Griffin Scott
Chapter 2. - A Female Henry VIII
Chapter 3. - Dorothy Vroom
Chapter 4. - An Inexorable Zealot
Chapter 5. - The Incredible Family
Chapter 6. - A Clew
Chapter 7. - A Babbling Brook
Chapter 8. - Gentler Methods
Chapter 9. - Detective Haff Telephones
Chapter 10. - The Torn Glove
Chapter 11. - A Catalogue of Husbands
Chapter 12. - Character Will Out
Chapter 13. - The Time-Table of a Murder
Chapter 14. - Mr. Edward St. Clair
Chapter 15. - A Good Sign
Chapter 16. - Horizontal Thought
Chapter 17. - The Modern Weapon
Chapter 18. - Dichlorethyl Sulphide
Chapter 19. - The Gorilla
Chapter 20. - Reeling in a Big One
Chapter 21. - The Battle
Chapter 22. - The Man Who Was There
Chapter 23. - A Second Weapon
Chapter 24. - The Noose
Chapter 25. - Ways and Ends
ON the night of the first shocking tragedy, I pushed the bell to Griffin Scott’s duplex apartment.
White-haired Wilson received me stiffly, but admitted me to Scott’s queer workshop. Scott got up, dashed towards me in a tart temper.
“I tried gently to suggest to you that I didn’t care to talk about the Lopez murder,” he said.
“Sorry. No one else knows the inside facts.”
Two nights before, I had finally located Griffin Scott here. He dodged all my questions, fascinated me into playing chess with him; while I was under his spell, he with neat questions learned all about me.
“I’ll make it plainer to you. You’re the first one to run me down here and I prefer my privacy.”
He stood, legs apart, his eyes bristling with such irritation that mine toured his odd workshop. Leather-upholstered settee and chairs by Sheraton. Books by foreign publishers of ungainly volumes. Refectory table by some tempted Italian monastery. But desk, files and other furniture, steel, and by Yawman & Erbe. The eager reaching-out-everywhere tastes of an advertising man—hard-boiled but a writer on the sky—of a star who had turned tracker of murderers, hunter of big game. Also an advertising star’s startling faculty for invention. From the ceiling, like settings in stage flies, dangled a Steinway baby grand, a carpenters’ bench and tool chest and a fully equipped chemical laboratory. He had but to push levers in a hall switchboard to transform this office into a study, into a workshop, into a laboratory. Wires and electric juice moved the furniture without the little exhibitions of bovine temperament of piano movers.
A doubt appeared to come over his manner from his irritated scrutiny of me. “Sit down,” he ordered. “You’ve discovered my real name, haven’t you?”
“Y-es,” I said after some doubt.
His wiry-looking average height settled down a little. Long nervous fingers slipped into cinnamon-colored hair frequently trimmed. Eyes a hard blue, deep set, always moving, and the clear-cut features of an advertising man grew suddenly thoughtful.
“That’s a wallop where it hurts. When I made my Gauguindive here, I kept my uptown apartment. Even my office doesn’t know this address.”
I began to squirm. “No one’ll ever get that out of me. Whether you make up your mind to come through on the Lopez murder or not, I’ll keep your secret.”
My eyes, or tone, or something seemed to bring him to me. Under dropped eyelids, he appeared for a moment to estimate my exact weight. Then he whisked to a steel file and lifted out something. Into my lap he dropped a heavy brown file-envelope marked Lopez Case.
I fumbled the bulky legal-wallet open. The notes proved a gold mine for a writer. For a long time I bent low over them seeing nothing else. Then I arrived at Scott’s first theory of a murder so fiendishly peculiar that the murderer was allowed to poison himself. From that longsighted analysis and deduction, my eyes leaped to the man sitting in the swivel-chair behind the desk. A face as grave as Lincoln’s, though I knew he was under thirty-five. He was a natural. A genius at this thing.
What a character! I burned to linger inside his dugout, to get to know him better. Couldn’t I make him a friend?
“Shaking down another crime there?”
“Crime!” He chuckled, as he straightened up a bit from an enormous portfolio leaning from his lap against the edge of his desk. “This is our first advertising campaign for a new client. Rushed to me by my agency, as always just before closing dates. It’s up to me to initial it tonight.”
What a break! My blunder brought my eager overtures to a troubled stop, even if he did take it humorously. I was through muddling across to him; but now he startled me by saying:
“Just about the brightest move of yours was strengthening your chess game.”
“Great jazz! How did you know?”
“When you came in here, your eyes jumped first to the chess cabinet. They said, when they got around to me, that you felt all geared up to trim me tonight.”
I stared at him a bit uneasily. Then I laughed at myself. Not the faintest idea in my noddle then what was coming to me from being placed here tonight with Griffin Scott. I merely felt all sort of oiled up by his growing warmth towards me. I would have made talk, but he looked busy, so I hunched once more over the mass of material on the Lopez murder.
A moment later, he slapped down the portfolio on the glass top of his broad desk.
“Crime was right. Just another clever campaign. I shall have to wade through all the data for a sounder idea tonight.” He threw himself back in his chair, lighted a cigarette. “Dogs aren’t clever—not until whipped into it. Babies don’t get that way, until we applaud ’em. This is a sick age when so many imagine a little part-time cleverness can pole-vault them onto a short-cut to the top. For the love of salt, there’s only one all-time clever class, and that’s the criminal class. Look at ’em. All scorning the beaten tracks; all mapping out short-cuts to what they want.”
He was making talk with me; I answered quickly. “But getting away with murder here.”
“Some murders. Too often the police catch only the corpse but—”
My laugh died as he cocked his head to listen. He spoke hastily and in a low voice.
“That’s Randolph Hutchinson, the district attorney, at the door but you stand by for a spot of chess. It’ll sharpen up me for a go at this advertising.”
Stand by? It would have taken a steam-shovel to root me out of there, with Scott growing friendlier, and with an official coming who had always sent out word to me from his inside office that he was too busy to see me just then. And Hutchinson—might he not be calling here tonight to discuss some baffling murder with Scott?
When Scott introduced me, Hutchinson gave me the usual political smile and hand-hug; but his dark handsome face showed irritation and he roamed around as if preferring to talk to Scott alone.
Scott caught his eye. “I’ve asked Gillmore to stick around for revenge. He writes about the black art of murder, and he’s been reading up on chess. While you, sword-swallower of the third degree,” he whirled his chair around, “rate chess as nothing higher than Spanish torture.”
The hand Hutchinson pointed at Scott shook humorously as he turned to me. “That young Airedale can smell thoughts cooking in your mind, and as for seeing ahead at that game, he’s one damned searchlight.”
“Anything interesting, Randolph?” Scott asked, as the telephone on his desk rang.
“Just calling to keep you friendly.” Hutchinson slumped into a chair and peeled tinfoil off a cigar. “This is my first open spot of rest today, and now—”
Scott held out the receiver to him. “For you. Nasty disposition my telephone has.”
Hutchinson got up with a groan. “One day with the rattlesnake buzzing away on my desk and you’d be biting people but—wait a minute. This must be something sour or they wouldn’t be calling me here. I’ll take it on the hall phone.”
He sauntered out of the office. Scott rolled up the Kirman hearthrug that covered his great chessboard painted upon the floor. If he could have had his way he would have played upon the Piazza San Marco.
We sat on the floor at opposite ends. Tonight I trusted to impress Scott by winning a game. I sprang a carefully memorized variation of the four knights’ opening. Useless! He switched into an answer not in the books, and I couldn’t hold my mind tightly on the game. My thoughts wandered to Hutchinson out in the hall, probably receiving inside news of some crime I’d have to get either highly tabloided or thoroughly expurgated in the morning newspapers.
My game was on the rocks, going to pieces. I looked up sharply. Hutchinson was coming back with faster steps. He dashed into the workshop, his dark face flushed with big news.
“Here’s a hot one. Helen Brill Kent’s killed herself.”
I fell back, incredulous. Arms propped me up against the floor. Why should that blue-eyed, golden-haired Lillie Langtry of our time end her own life? Princes at Biarritz had slipped their equerries to take her by storm. An infatuated shah had compelled a secretly swearing ambassador to lay a smoke Persian cat in its royal basket at her feet. Personages with commanding titles and fortunes had confidently attempted to play with her low-born affections, but this dazzling young Kentucky blonde’s specialty was marriage. And often she had married—often enough to make herself a celebrity the world around. Why should she cut short a career the newspapers made glamorous with descriptions of her jewels and reports of her marriages and mixing with royalty? I scrambled to my feet to learn. Scott, already up, was asking:
“Killed herself! Where?”
“In her Park Avenue apartment. They just found her sprawled over the extravagant ermine floor-rug in her room.”
The thought of that bold and uninhibited beauty lying there rasped the low strings of horror. Scott’s swift question stilled them.
“What did she use—poison?”
Hutchinson strutted a little, swelled up with the news. “No. Banged her damned fascinating little head off with her own pearl-handled revolver. What do you think of that? Killing herself when any one of her ex-husbands would gladly have done it for her.”
“But Helen Brill Kent! Mutilating the head that won her husbands and jewels. That’s all out of focus.”
Hutchinson spun around on him hotly. “What’s the use of disputing a fact? She’s done it.”
“You didn’t see her do it. Did anyone?”
“Of course not. Even that sensational publicity hound wouldn’t shoot herself in public.”
“Her letters—what reason did she give?”
“She didn’t give any reasons. She just went and did it cold.”
Scott, his head bent forward, walked thoughtfully to his desk. I watched him eagerly. He suspected this was murder. Always I had longed hungrily to be in on a big murder right from the start. That ambitious dare-devil had boldly capitalized her good looks; as she soared from a Broadway chorus to high places, the newspapers eagerly dramatized her rise, created a spectacular international beauty. If this should be murder, here loomed the murder of the century. If Griffin Scott would only go out on it and take me along!
Scott stood with one hand lying on the portfolio of advertising on his desk. He wrenched around towards us.
“Know anyone who’ll take my damned advertising agency off my hands?”
His morose tone made Hutchinson laugh. I gloomily watched him drop into the chair behind his desk. He threw a last questioning glance at the portfolio and turned reluctantly towards Hutchinson.
“Randolph, you’ll be down there and I won’t. Now, I wish you’d quiet a doubt that’s been kicking around in my mind for years. Husband Number Four—remember the smooth polite little Marquis? Well, he helped to sell her a bed he swore belonged once to La Pompadour. I don’t believe that. For years I’ve suspected he put something over on his new American wife then. Look it over like a good fellow. Let me know whether he succeeded in swindling that smart girl with a false antique, won’t you?”
Hutchinson poured on me a look of despairing astonishment. “Listen to him fussing about old furniture, when we’re all het up over the suicide of a modern Cleopatra, will you?”
Scott chuckled, like a master of infinitesimal calculus pleasingly accused of being human. My smile felt stiff, waxy. My climbing hopes had gone into a nose-dive, cracked up. Scott, interested as he obviously was, showed that other work kept him from entering this case. Unless Hutchinson now commandeered him, I should have to get details of this shocking tragedy from the newspapers.
Hutchinson glanced at his watch, lurched towards the door. “After midnight. And another delay on my way home. I’m off.”
My eyes dropped, fell on the ruins of my chess game with Scott littering the floor. If this should be murder, didn’t Scott realize how vitally he might be needed on the scene? Then his voice jerked up my head.
“Don’t disappoint yourself, Randolph.”
His sharp tone called me out on the edge of my chair. Hutchinson stood in the doorway, his spring overcoat on over only one shoulder, and he let it hang there.
“What’s on your mind?”
Scott sank back in his chair until its back supported his neck. He surveyed Hutchinson doubtfully.
“Only a suggestion. Don’t allow the police to hurry you out with that as suicide. Find her letters first. Perhaps she mailed them.”
Hutchinson marched resentfully nearer. “A bird with her high-flying past! What’s the matter with you tonight? Sure to blow her head off when remorse caught up with her.”
Scott’s blue eyes hardened, flashed sort of an electric bite on his over-serious young face.
“What! That fearless female Henry the Eighth? She shuffle off the stage of life like a pretzel peddler? See here, Randolph. What have you got against Helen Brill Kent?”
Hutchinson wrestled with exasperated jerks into the other arm of his overcoat. “I know all about that love-pirate. Stuyvesant, her third victim, is a distant connection of mine.” His fists closed; I saw them boring into overcoat pockets. “Look here, Griffin. With the little you know, how can you possibly be so cocksure? Now, get a load of this—”
A chair shrieked. Scott was at Hutchinson’s elbow, urging him along to the door.
“I can’t let prejudice make a goat of you tonight. Let’s get down there and see what has happened.”
I watched them argue all the way across the workshop, my face growing steadily longer. I felt overlooked, left out of it. But then I began to appreciate how seldom Scott, no matter how occupied by others, overlooked anyone. He turned in the doorway and called me.
I let the Lopez case lie where it slipped and ran after them. Could I have foreseen what it meant to be inside on a tragedy such as this right from the start, I couldn’t possibly have been quite so eager. I haven’t been so eager on others since.
In District Attorney Hutchinson’s limousine, we speeded to the scene of Helen Brill Kent’s startling exit from life.
Many regarded that international beauty as a brave young woman, splendidly fearless of both men and divorce. Hutchinson snapped out the quite different judgment of many others.
On the back seat, he glanced cloudily past me at Griffin Scott; his exasperated tone flayed Helen Brill Kent; he might have been showing her up in court.
“Her father was the undertaker in a small Kentucky town. Even if he did set her like a snare behind the dry goods Emporium counter, she baited the snare and she pulled the noose. In less than a week, she noosed the town’s marriage-prize. See her tossing her golden fleece at the proprietor’s son and the next minute luring him back after her again with sidelong glances from her big blue eyes—whipsawing him into eloping with her? That infatuated boy’s neck she made the first rung of her ladder up to the rogue’s gallery of beautiful women.”
Scott moved restively. “Easy, Randolph. She couldn’t have been older than fifteen then.”
Hutchinson made a disgusted sound in his throat. “She was one sweet little adding machine, and you know it. Get the clicking calculation of her. She drops that infatuated hick inside of three months; she travels to New York on his money; she gets on public display in a chorus here before she’s sixteen. And what does she do then? Why, she scans the suckers, winging to that golden hair of hers like moths to a lighthouse. She picks another one. And then right on up, marrying every time she can to advantage; marrying money, then a title, marrying often enough to make herself known around the world. Five husbands if I’ve kept the count straight. And shaking off used husbands in the divorce courts as if they were fleas.”
Scott’s nervous white hand flashed up indignantly. “Don’t act so damned like a traded-in husband. The girl had nothing except her angelic looks. No education. No family to help her. No friends here. No money. Why, they say she walked off the ferry here carrying a battered old straw suitcase so empty that it looked positively famine-stricken. And yet with nothing except her face, her figure and a cool head, she—”
“If that isn’t you defending that scheming dip!” Into Hutchinson’s tone came the resentment of the punisher whose punishment has been questioned. “She went through life precisely like a pickpocket. She picked money, jewelry and husbands. She shucked out the money and jewelry. She tossed the husbands into the ashcan.”
Scott whirled around towards him; his blue eyes blazed. “You’d force a misogamist to speak up for her. Why treat her like an outlaw, when she never broke a law on your books? Why blame her for having no sentiment left, when you know the terrible family she sprang from? Wait a minute! Wait a minute, I’m not half through with you. Look here, Randolph. If you think she so infuriated five husbands, why so sure this is suicide? Why so positive that one of her maddened husbands hasn’t done—”
Another battle over this enigmatic woman, that would never arrive anywhere because the truth lay somewhere in between, ended abruptly. The car stopped before one of the older apartment houses on a corner of Park Avenue and a side street high up in the Fifties.
We forced our way out and through a subway mob of reporters and camera men. One sharp-faced leg-man hung on to Hutchinson, as a thistle hangs on to golf hose, all the way to the elevator. I stared back through its grilled door at the cool but determined swarm the news had mobilized. If a flash merely reporting the death of Helen Brill Kent mobilized that throng of reporters, what if Scott established this to be murder?
A world sensation! And I was to be in at the start!
Haff, a young detective swelling in his first important assignment, let us into Helen Brill Kent’s apartment. He swaggered ahead of us down a short front hall. A sharp turn to the left. Down a longer rear hall. Then we stepped softly into the bedroom in which the body had been found.
My eyes traveled fast around the largest room in the apartment. The closed door to the right probably led to her great bathroom. A dainty ciel-blue chaise longue said she liked the throne of Empire favorites. A small inlaid serpentine-front sideboard used as a desk spoke of her weakness for French antiques. Triple full-length folding mirrors hinted a vanity thoroughly businesslike.
Then my exploring eyes flew to the left. Here horror held them. They stayed hypnotized. On a sombre ebony bed lay a covered body. On an ermine floor-rug beside this bed glistened a ragged-edged pool of jellying blood. I felt touched with ice. Was this where it had happened? Where an amazingly eventful career had crashed?
We would learn now, if allowed to remain. Hurrying to us from the center of the large room came a stodgy and corpulent detective of forty-five, Detective-Sergeant Mullens, obviously demanding our reason for trespassing on his case. He appeared neckless; his squarish head was set on his thick shoulders like a snow-man’s; the puffed cheeks of his heavy face looked as fiery as though poisoned by ivy.
He shook hands warmly with Hutchinson, but coldly with Scott and quite indifferently with me, when Scott introduced me. Clearly he welcomed only one of us. I glanced in astonishment at Scott. He, I knew, had saved Sergeant Mullens from blundering badly on the Lopez case, but what now? Plainly the Sergeant hoped to scowl him off this case.
Scott, undisturbed, roamed calmly towards the bed, advising me to follow.
“Any objection to my looking around a bit?” he asked in a tone of idle curiosity.
“Go on,” Hutchinson answered instantly, but Mullens frowned at the world and made no reply.
Hutchinson questioned Mullens in a low tone. Scott drew a black satin coverlet embroidered in gold cautiously down off the torso of Helen Brill Kent.
I stared at her body and shuddered. In her admitted thirties, she still looked in her slim twenties, but death chilled her white skin into marble. Her hair still seemed flowing gold, but great empty blue eyes gazed up fixedly at the rose-tinted ceiling. Her features were classically perfect, but her chin sagged horribly in death. I began to feel queer in my middle section. I turned away hastily.
Over the foot of the bed lay her Novitzky negligee of silver tissue trimmed with ominous black fox. She wore a nightdress of flesh-colored crêpe de Chine hung with ivory Point d’Alençon lace. I couldn’t loosen my eyes from her face now that I was staring at it again, but I breathed easier when Scott bent forward and the great head of knowledge screened the gaping small head of beauty from my sight.
Hutchinson turned towards us a face bright with victory from his consultation with Mullens. He called out noisily to Scott:
“Not a letter here or in the mail—but—she shot herself through the mouth. Asking any surer evidence of suicide?”
Scott barely raised his head. “Talking, yawning or laughing, someone else might have shot her through the mouth. Any powder marks?”
It was Mullens who replied and his tone was ugly. “Sure there are powder marks. Where they ought to be. Inside her mouth.”
Without touching the body, Scott searched for them with his high-powered pocket-flashlight. I glanced over the bed about which he had kept a curiosity alive for years. It was a ghastly contraption of ebony ornately carved. Jutting out in low relief from the headboard, two cupids with untimely smiles winged their way, their hands outstretched but empty over the dead woman.
I touched Scott’s arm as he straightened up from the body. “This isn’t an authentic Pompadour bed, is it?”
“Never. That was the satinwood and figured-tapestry period in beds. The little Marquis helped to swindle her with this, just as I thought, but Helen Brill Kent was nobody’s continuous fool. Out she kicked that commission-making husband soon afterwards.”
Two of his long nimble fingers caught up feverishly the edge of a crêpe de Chine sheet. “Black sheets! A leaf from the book of Ninon de l’Enclos. But Ninon escaped a violent death and a marble slab in the mortuary.”
I repressed a shiver at the harder fortune of this modern beauty.
Scott studied several silvery hairs tipped with black that he discovered upon the coverlet, then glanced quickly beneath the bed. Under flashlight and jewelers’ microscope, he inspected the blood on the black pillow beyond the body and the hemorrhage on the ermine floor-rug. Then he moved past me to the night-stand beside the head of the bed.
“Ah, here’s an authentic piece. A true petit bureau, the sister of a Louis Quinze in the Louvre.”
He examined the rose-colored enamel water bottle and the empty revolver-case upon its old marble top. He bent close to a frosted and flower-hooded incandescent bulb attached to the center of the headboard of the bed. A beautifully designed gold chain to pull it on and off with hung down between the heads of the grinning cupids. He straightened up with a puzzled look on his severe face.
“Look. She tossed her negligee carelessly across the foot-board. She slipped into bed. You can see how her weight hollowed down the taut undersheet. What happened then—in the next few minutes? Her relaxed face tells us nothing—a dead face never does—when the light behind it goes out, no more memory than a mirror.”
But now Mullens’ voice jumped to a pitch that swung us around. He stood glaring at Hutchinson.
“Murder! With all the extra patrols on Park Avenue? With all the people inside here and out there, and the windows wide open, and no one hearin’ the least yip of a scream? Hell, someone’s makin’ you see cockeyed.” Hutchinson turned a pleased yet inquiring smile on Scott. “The Sergeant’s all set to give this out as suicide.”
Across the room leaped Scott. His manner was eager, imploring; imploring where I expected him to be commanding and peremptory, but I realized that he must know his way about here.
“Not yet, Sergeant. My word, no. Wait until we discover why—”
Mullens’ raised hand held up traffic of all other opinions until he laid down his. “It’s suicide. I’m tellin’ you. You’re in one tough jam tryin’ to make it anythin’ else. Listen. Here’s the pill that ploughed through that woman’s neck. I picked it up on the bed. Here’s the shell, off the floor near that ermine rug. Look ’em over, Mr. Hutchinson. Both .32s or I’ll go back on a beat in the sticks. And so’s this gun. Just one pill fired from it. And everyone here identifyin’ this pearl-handled toy as hers.”
Pressing three envelopes containing these into Hutchinson’s hands, he roared on before anyone could cut in.
“Now, that gun. Daytimes they kept it in the drawer of that night-stand side of her bed. Nights the maid put it out on top when she turned down the bed. Look at the empty case over there on the top now. There’s the position chalked on the floor where I picked up the gun. And try to rub this out—I’ve got her finger-prints on that gun of hers. That much picked up, I put Haff on the front door. I had all the people in here one at a time for a sweat. And you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.”
He stopped just for breath. No one could have stopped his noisy, deafening cataract of details.
“Now here’s the pusher. That skinny doll over there was feelin’ all shot. She’d eaten on six pounds that she couldn’t steam off. She was sufferin’ so from neuritis that she threatened to jump out the window—some days she couldn’t derrick the mornin’ coffee to her mouth. She’d sunk so much money in Wall Street lately that she was down close to her jewels. And then, on top of all that, along comes today. And it’s a jumpin’ off spot. It’s her birthday.”
Scott’s head twitched up from a listening pose. “Oh, Sergeant! You expect us to believe that any birthday look back could drive Helen Brill Kent to suicide?”
“You’re damned right it could. Have I got to tell you how women like her grouch on their birthdays after—”
“But you’re classing her wrong. She never looked back; she kept her eyes ahead every minute. Nothing weak or remorseful about that ambitious beauty.”
“Sez you, but you listen to me. She shot her coffee back to the kitchen three times this mornin’. Her temper got fiercer as night came along. Tonight she’s hurlin’ a birthday party to her family in her Rue-dee-Pay parlor here, but how long does she stick it out with them? One blue half-hour. She can’t stand it. Not a minute longer. So she sneaks away in here. She locks the door. Maybe she bends out one of the windows, but doesn’t like to mush up her looks. So she picks up the gun waitin’ for her right on that night-stand. And there she drops herself. On that ermine rug right side of her bed. I’m tellin’ you. This was an open-and-shut case of suicide—nothin’ but. She faced the gun and not one scream out of her.”
I blinked at Mullens. Could this be suicide after all? He made a strong case. I turned hastily to Scott.
He was lighting a cigarette. He paused, the cigarette on its way to his lips in one hand, the yellow-flaming lighter in the other. His tone was that of a diplomat feathering coming shock with satirical praise.
“A perfect pen-and-ink drawing, Sergeant; every detail, even the hungry flies on the toothsome tooth-paste inked in—only she wasn’t shot on that ermine rug. She met death in her ebony bed.”
Mullens’ eyes widened, but he shoved out his chin. “Sure, and that’s why, I s’pose, they found the body on the rug.”
Scott deliberately lighted his cigarette, then impatiently snapped the lighter shut as though choking off a flaming retort. “The higher degree of coagulation of the blood on the pillow tells us something, Sergeant. If we can learn how her body came on the floor, we may step out in the clear on this murder.”
“Murder! Didn’t you get it? I’ve got her finger-prints on her own gun.”
Scott whisked the cigarette from his lips; his eyes shone with zest. “And you expect the cunning genius who schemed this murder to sign his own name on it? Oh, Sergeant, you don’t appreciate an artist at murder.”
“An artist! If someone else croaked her, would he plant the gun as far away from her body on the floor as that?”
“Perhaps he didn’t. Where’s the smoke Persian cat that sleeps on the foot of that bed?”
“Shah? Hell, he’s in the parlor with the people found here. I s’pose you’ll be masterin’ the cat language now and claimin’ he removed the gun from her hand. And next you’ll be sayin’ that scared roll of fluff lifted the corpse from the bed to the floor.”
A stern young face with the stamp of taste upon it considered him critically. “Drowning—going down the last time clutching your straw. I suppose the only way to save you is to knock you senseless.”
“Savin’ me?” Mullens bellowed with laughter. “This time it’s you that’s way out over your head. This time I’m savin’ you.”
Scott struck the fireplace with his cigarette without turning. For the first time I saw him roused. His blue eyes sizzled.
“You act like an old hen. You scratch. You get one worm. You quit. You can’t get away with it. I won’t let you hustle this woman underground as a suicide. A murder that a Borgia might have planned! And you imagine I’ll let such a tantalizing puzzle slip through our hands.”
Mullens’ square face looked as if burning up. “I know my scullions. I’ve got my motive. I’ve got my weapon. I’ve got her finger-prints on it. I’ve got—”
“You’ve got so much that you saw what you wanted to see in one thing. Pull that out and your whole skyscraper collapses.”
“Is that so? Go on. Pull it out.”
Scott bent nearer; he launched a torpedo. “Sergeant, now how could she shoot herself without showing powder marks?”
“Who said she could? I told you—”
Scott groaned. “Don’t—for the love of salt, don’t try to tell me again those dark spots in her throat are powder marks. Put a strong light on them. Check up.”
Mullens’ eyes bulged; his jaw dropped as he evidently saw how a hasty mistake there would cave-in his entire theory. Then his jaw went up into a grin and he started towards the body.
“Come on. I’ll show you.”
“You look them over. I’ll prove those aren't powder marks by this man.” Scott nodded towards someone entering the room.
Mullens glanced at the entering Medical Examiner and then said hotly. “No, you don't. I’ll frame the questions for Doc.”
A hot fight one had to put up to force a new idea on Sergeant Mullens, I thought. Scott hastened away to Mrs. Kent’s desk as though now confident of the outcome, but so also appeared Mullens. He winked slowly at Hutchinson as much as to say, “Doc’ll show him where he gets off,” before hurrying to meet the Medical Examiner.
Medical Examiner Solovitch, short and paunchy, alert but not nervous, nodded to us all as he listened to some information Mullens gave him in a low tone. Then he shook his head and said:
“No, I can do the job better there.”
He went direct to the body. After a close survey, he began mechanically moving the head and members to determine the progress of rigor mortis at the joints. He studied his wrist watch a time and then asked without turning:
“Did this happen about ten tonight?”
Mullens again winked at Hutchinson. “We don't know. You tell us.”
“Well, call it between ten and eleven for as good a guess as you can expect me to make before an autopsy.”
While Scott roamed around, and Hutchinson and Mullens argued, and I gazed nervously out a window, Solovitch completed a more thorough examination. Then he turned towards us brushing his hands, and said in a brisk tone:
“Death caused by a shot through the mouth without injuring her teeth. The shot penetrated between the axis and atlas vertebrae of her spinal column. It fractured her spine at that point causing instantaneous death. Some hemorrhage on that pillow, but mostly internal. There’s an exit wound, so I suppose you have the bullet. No signs of a struggle; not an abrasion of the skin. Any questions?” Mullens’ manner put pressure on him as he took a step towards him. “I’ll tell you there’s questions. Someone’s tryin’ to crowd me to the curb. Take a squint at the blood on the ermine rug and on the pillow. You tell us, Doc, if she didn’t shoot herself on that rug.”
Solovitch examined both spots slowly and thoroughly while I waited anxiously for his decision. Then he turned, wiping his hands on a colored handkerchief.
“No. She was shot in bed there. The amount, character and condition of the hemorrhages indicate that beyond all question.”
Mullens swallowed and spoke with husky eagerness. “O.K., but Doc, you spotted those powder marks in her throat, didn’t you?”
Solovitch stared at him in amazement. “Powder marks?”
Mullens rushed to him. He seized the Medical Examiner by the elbow and pulled him to the body. They bent down. Mullens argued violently in a low determined tone. But Solovitch continued shaking his head.
It was murder! There were no powder marks.
The man who had kept Helen Brill Kent from being lowered into a suicide’s grave quietly resumed his examination of the shell, bullet and revolver that Hutchinson had placed in their envelopes upon the victim’s desk. Hutchinson, now looking troubled, watched every move of his with a new vigilance. Mullens kept his broad back towards us, not ready yet to show his face. Then at a nod of Solovitch’s to a low question, he sprang into action. He lurched across the room and pushed open the bathroom door.
“Come out here.”
At Mullens’ hoarse order, a short but wiry man of about forty-five, wearing the uniform of a captain of the Salvation Army, came into the room.
Mullens waved him towards the Medical Examiner and said: “Her brother, Cleveland Brill. He says he found her body on the floor and put it on the bed.”
His uniform startled me. This woman of the world with a brother a captain in the Salvation Army! Her hair was fine and golden, his a coarse red; her figure was slim and boneless, his gaunt, bony; her face was lineless and perfect, his was tightened by set purposes, gristled. Feeling and fervor seemed to be pushed back in his slightly bulging blue eyes. Solovitch addressed him with obviously assumed severity.
“What did you move this body for?”
Captain Brill answered him fearlessly in the vibrant tone of the street exhorter. “I moved her because I am a Christian and that was my Christian duty.”
“Next time you think of the law first, not your religion.”
“I shall always think first of my religion.”
Solovitch scanned his rigidly earnest face and, with a slight smile at us, ceased arguing with an unexpected zealot.
“Well, now you put the body right back precisely as you found it.”
Captain Brill hesitated a moment. Then with tight lips and out-starting eyes, he crossed the room to do as he was ordered. He hesitated again before he could bring himself to touch the body; he trembled visibly throughout the operation of moving it; and he scurried from the room as soon as permission was granted him. I watched him wondering. Did his dread and his haste to get away spring from natural human horror or guilt? I remember that at that time I couldn’t make up my mind.
The body now lay sprawled upon the floor beside the black bed in which Helen Brill Kent had expected to sleep. Her head, pointing towards the night-stand, covered the red stain upon the ermine rug. The chalked outline of the revolver appeared half way between her head and the nightstand. Far away from the position of the weapon, her right arm extended at a right angle from her body across the rug and bare floor. Her left arm stretched close beside her body.
The sight of this celebrated beauty dropped sprawling there threw a spell of horror on us. It was broken by Mullens. He evidently was a man singularly faithful to his own ideas. His voice sounded much meeker, but he shook his head doubtfully at Scott.
“It’s all off, I know, but she certainly looks as if she shot herself and flopped there.”
Scott jumped up; his voice was harsh; he gave him a fighting look. “Suicide is out. We’ve washed up.”
“All right by me, but at the same time—”
Hutchinson for the first time declared his change of mind; he interrupted Mullens with impatience.
“Now, why bring that up again? Let’s get on.”
Mullens made a wry mouth. “Sure thing. Any questions for Doc?”
He waited until Hutchinson asked a few general questions. Then muttering that he must order Haff to speed up the autopsy and phone for the fingerprint sharps, he accompanied Medical Examiner Solovitch from the room.
In a few minutes, he steamed back. He went direct to Hutchinson. “I s’pose you’ll want to look ’em over now.” Hutchinson squared broad shoulders.
“Who did you catch here?”
Mullens wiped a red face with a folded handkerchief.
“I’ve got six people penned in the parlor. Three men and three skirts. All there was at the party thrown here tonight.”
“Sergeant, which one of them did this?”
Mullens pulled an ear and looked thoughtful.
“I’ve been thinkin’ ’em over. My pick of them all would be Dorothy Vroom, the daughter of this beaut’s stage mother. She looked anxious. She asked too many questions. She acted hot to make out if I got this right as suicide but—” he counted her out with a surly fling of a thick wrist— “no use hopin’ to stick anything on her in front of you gents. Not one damned bit of use. She’s young and she looks like a Spanish dancer. You’d all fall for her looks.”
Hutchinson smiled at him broadly. “And you didn’t yourself, Sergeant?”
Mullens’ red face worked with anger. “No. And if I did, I’m sour on her now.”
It was then that Scott made his discovery. A finger across his lips drew us to him. Caution thinned his voice to a whisper.
“Someone’s trying to work a new eavesdropping stunt on you here, Sergeant. That inside telephone is wedged up.” Over his stooped back, we stared at the apartment’s room-to-room telephone resting upon a low shelf between the head of the bed and the night-stand. The small French handset lay deceptively across the cradle. Scott’s forefinger pointed out a tiny piece of dark paper. This wedged up the plunger. The weight of the handset failed to press that down. The line into this room had been cleverly kept open.
We straightened up startled. Which person here could be so anxious to overhear the decisions arrived at in this room? Who except the murderer?
Into Mullens’ smoky eyes came a glitter. He jostled out from among us.
Scott spoke to him quickly in a carrying whisper, his hands forming a megaphone. “Wait! I haven’t had time to—”
At the door, Mullens’ look thundered for silence.
A moment later, we peered over Mullens’ shoulders through a partly opened door into the bedroom across the hall.
This room was smaller. It was much less extravagantly furnished. The inside telephone, instead of being deftly tucked away out of sight, was here fastened flagrantly to the wall.
Over this leaned a young girl. A tall and slenderly rounded young girl, her hair glossily blue-black. She listened intently, almost she seemed hung by an ear to the receiver.
Mullens’ dull eyes glistened. He stepped inside. His voice broke through the silence, noisy with jubilee.
“Here! Drop that. You come and chew hard on some questions of mine now, young lady.”
A dark startled face of perhaps eighteen twisted around towards us. Shock powdered it with pallor. The small disc held at her ear slipped from her hand. It swung away, struck the plaster wall a harsh swat. For a moment, she stood staring at Mullens, her long lashes fluttering. Then her small head went back and she bravely battened down shock. Just as Mullens predicted, I found myself admiring Dorothy Vroom, but for something more than her looks. I liked the courage with which she stepped out of the room after Mullens.
Mullens’ manner said it. He had caught the girl he suspected.
Sergeant Mullens fussed back ahead of Dorothy Vroom into the room in which Helen Brill Kent had been murdered. He turned; and now his smoky eyes glinted with sweetened suspicion.
“Come in. If you had nothin’ to do with this, the body wouldn’t give you the shakes.”
At sight of the body gruesomely re-sprawled upon the floor, Dorothy Vroom had stopped horrified outside the door. A shudder shook her. At the Sergeant’s crowing insinuation, long black lashes leaped high and curled out. She straightened her tall slender figure, but she remained outside.
Scott darted past her and threw the black satin coverlet over the body.
“Thank you—lots.” She walked gamely into the room.
District Attorney Hutchinson and I followed her. Someone closed the door.
She stood, an arm along the top of a high-backed chair, her dark young face pale, but apparently steeled for an expected collision. Mullens, barrel-bodied, blustered up to her. He poked his huge square face close up to her small oval one.
“Now! Why did you shoot her?”
“Don’t be so devastating. If you’re trying to be funny—”
Mullens cleared away that notion with an ugly sweep of an arm. “Why did you do it?”
She started; a wild and desperate look came into her brown eyes. “Then you don’t think it’s suicide?”
“I’m askin’, not answerin’ questions.” He turned his broad back on her; he looked at us; his look said, “Get that? Remember how eager I told you she was to have me take this for suicide?” Then he whirled around and slapped a hard cynical look on her.
“Hot—ain’t you—to have this called suicide?”
Color painted her face with resentment, but she moved back a step. “You’re positively medieval. I simply asked you what you decided.”
“Huh!” He looked her over with disgust. “All right, then why did you wedge up the phone in here?”
I expected her to quibble; instead she answered frankly. “Isn’t that obvious enough? You wouldn’t tell us a thing. I was curious. I wanted to learn whether you considered it suicide. Wouldn’t you, if you lived where this happened?”
His inability to break her with his close face and bullying goading manner evidently exasperated him. He snapped at her viciously.
“Who’s askin’ the questions? Snap out of that. What did you hear listenin’ in?”
“Not a word. It was tantalizing. I heard only a murmur. I kept hoping it would clear up.”
He snorted. “And you think I’m that mush-headed? I’m askin’ you for the last time. What did you hear?”
“I told you. Nothing.”
Her coolness appeared suddenly to drive him mad. “Who do you think you are?” He gripped her slender shoulder fiercely with a heavy mottled hand. “You come across with the truth. Or I’ll shake it out of you.”
She gasped. She tore away his fingers with both hands. She stood glaring at him, quivering with indignation, too choked by feeling apparently to speak, but her outraged glare said plenty.
He shoved his face right up into hers again. “You heard me? I’ll shake it out of you.”
Her lips came together tightly. They seemed to close a hatch and smother down fire. With an air of restraint, she put a trifle more distance between them. Her chilling look and silence made it icy.
Once more her coolness seemed to madden him. He flung out a hand for her shoulder.
She stepped aside; her coolness vanished; her voice vibrated with rage. “Don’t be so poisonous. You keep your loathsome hands off me.”
Her girlish chin was raised: velvety brown eyes flashed black; an olive face paled with a rush of fearless reckless spirit ready for anything. The hand clenched behind her hip might have held a dagger.
Mullens’ heavy face brightened; obviously he delighted in having discovered the sensitive point at which to break her. His big hands twitched, apparently itching to lay hold of her again. But now I saw Scott deliberately drop upon a bare spot on the floor the wedged telephone handset he had been busily inspecting.
At this shell-like clatter, Mullens spun around and Scott shook his stern head slightly. Mullens scowled, but a questioning glance at Hutchinson got him nothing. He grudgingly took Scott’s advice. He shot more questions at Dorothy Vroom, but he kept his hands off her. He kept them off, although her changed attitude now shut his hands up frequently into fists. There she stood now, silent, distant as the horizon. There was no getting another word out of her. Finally, Mullens threw up his hands and passed her with a black look to Hutchinson.
“You want to question her?”
Hutchinson also now shook his head slightly. Clearly, his manner advised Mullens to let the enraged girl go and get over the fierce resentment his first grip in third-degreeing had roused in her.
At Mullens’ air-sawing growl of dismissal, she went swiftly, but with her head high. I opened the door for her. Her flashing black eyes changed to a surprised soft brown velvet as she thanked me. Then Mullens aired his grievance.
“Just one good soft-gloved sock and I’d have had the whole story but—” His knocking look rapped each one of us— “you all have to fall for her high-steppin’ looks and ways. Oh, hell!”
Scott looked disgusted. “Sergeant, you showed just about as much tact with her as a pair of boxing gloves.”
Hutchinson defended himself with a crisp gesture of annoyance. “Wait. I’ll question her hard enough, but not until I know more about this.”
“Yeah,” Mullens’ lips twisted sourly, “and that young spitfire’ll freeze up the minute you get her where you want her. Tellin’ me she heard nothin’!”
“She didn’t.” Scott’s quiet tone had a punch behind it. “If you’d waited until I looked over this telephone I could have told you she overheard nothing. From this big room, not one word. Not unless someone talked within three feet of this transmitter. It’s the ordinary mouthpiece, not more highly sensitized; no amplifiers connected with it.”
I warmed at his effort to secure justice for Dorothy Vroom, never imagining then that his earlier work with Mullens enabled him to see the hard luck coming to the one Mullens first cleated his suspicion on. To me, the notion that so frank a young girl could possibly have committed murder seemed simply idiotic, yet Mullens’ angry reply thrust cold facts into my mind not to be disregarded.
“We caught her red-handed listenin’ in, didn’t we? And you saw how hot she was to have this called suicide, didn’t you?”
“Oh, Sergeant!” Scott squelched an argument with an irritated rush at him. “Here’s a cunning masterpiece of cold-blooded murder—plotted out, perfected to the last detail—full of blind spots, not one clew, simply crowded with sweet problems—and you choking the first strangely acting bystander up against the wall for all the answers. You just don’t seem to get it. Take the corsets off your mind. Take a deep breath. Look about. Now, shut up! It’s my turn to talk. And your turn to do a little looking around here. Her bedroom door spring-locked; no other way into this fifth-floor room, except by aeroplane. No powder marks; no struggle, and who won’t fight some for life? Not one scream, yet Mrs. Kent faced the weapon and she was no dumb cluck. No window in line with the trajectory of the shot. Nothing but the body. Sweet, baffling, fascinating problems! For us to solve. The fiend who plotted this murder isn’t going to hand us the answers—or any lead to them. Let’s go. What about the famous Kent jewels?”
Scott may have edged his way in on this case, but he certainly was making himself felt now. I gazed at him with awe. Mullens looked rebuked, mastered for a short time. Hutchinson acted suddenly troubled, spoke quickly to Mullens.
“That’s right! Where’s all this female Henry the Eighth’s loot?”
Mullens groaned. “I’d forget them, now wouldn’t I?” He slid open an invisible panel in the south wall, aimed a thick finger at the combination of the wall-safe inside. “They’re all in there O.K. That’s the first thing I had old Lady Vroom, her stage mother, make sure of. But that’s all Wall Street left her.”
Scott tried the door of the safe, found it locked, walked away shaking his head. “Then Wall Street didn’t pick her as clean as usual? She managed to keep the war medals of her beauty, did she? Better see they’re moved to a safer place, Sergeant. You know her unbelievable family. One might have slaughtered her to save that much.”
“Not a chance. No one here knows a thing about her gamblin’ in stocks, except Mrs. Vroom, and she begged me to keep it quiet.”
Scott turned around sharply, walked back towards him. “Well, that’s something to think of. Why should she want that kept quiet?”
Mullens freed himself of domination with a humorous grin. “It hurt her, Mrs. Vroom said, to see money that came so hard to Helen Brill Kent go so easy.”
Scott chuckled. “It does seem to hurt others often more than it does the loser, doesn’t it?” He studied Mullens a moment, and then asked impatiently. “But who’s here? Who was found here to get after on this riddle?”
“The corpse’s father, her two brothers and her daughter, the whole damned family, and Mrs. Vroom and that young snip of a daughter of hers, Dorothy Vroom. But what makes you think this is any riddle?”
“Oh, you’ll see soon enough. It won’t be long now. When they rushed in here, they found that bed-light burning, didn’t they?”
Mullens’ eyes opened wide. “That’s right. Now, how did you guess that?”
“She wasn’t shot in her sleep. Her eyes are open. And they found that chandelier lighted, too, didn’t they?” Mullens’ big mouth fell open; he stared at Scott with disturbed amazement. “Now, who in hell told you that was lighted—after that woman had opened windows and climbed into bed?”
“Oh, it’s much too soon to tell you why I think that, Sergeant.” Scott surveyed the spacious room’s great wrought-iron chandelier that sprouted a garden of tulip-shaped yellow bulbs and nodded his head. “Yes, that matches up,” he said to himself.
Mullens soured at being left out of something. “I guess I can see as far ahead as anyone.” He muttered to himself a moment and then addressed the world. “It makes me sick the way some people jump in on a case and pretend to know everything when they haven’t one damned lead.”
“Lead? You want a real lead?” Scott’s eyes blazed at him. “Why the spring lock on a bedroom door?”
Hutchinson jumped; he looked sharply towards the door to the hall. “Is there a spring lock on that door?”
“Sure, but what of it?” Mullens confidently waved it out of the pattern. “With her queer family, you yourself would clap on an extra lock to keep them nuts from droolin’ in on you all the time.”
At this disdainful treatment of his offered lead, Scott’s manner sharpened for another set-to with him. The war of differing opinions common in the early stages of a real mystery appeared about to break out again. But now, two finger-print specialists from Police Headquarters, one carrying a camera and equipment, popped briskly into the room, and Scott dashed impatiently to Hutchinson to ask:
“Can’t we get a look at this apartment and the people here while these men are working?”
Hutchinson nodded. He waited until Mullens tipped off the finger-print experts and then made the suggestion to him.
Mullens nodded grumpily. As we all started towards the door, I saw Scott attempt to slip him a secret suggestion. In a carefully lowered tone, he said something quickly meant for the Sergeant’s ear alone. But Mullens jerked away petulantly and made it public.
“Yeah? You question them, too, do you?” He swung around testily to the finger-print sharps prowling around the big room. “While you’re about it, take the fingerprints of the corpse. And squirt some powder over the print I showed you on the gun. Someone here’s hipped with the idea that isn’t the victim’s John Hancock on the weapon.”
Mullens must have been rattled not to think of that, I thought. Wondering whose finger-prints would be found on that weapon, I followed the others from the room.
Mullens and Hutchinson led the way.
Lights burned in every room and hall to drive away shadows, but over the apartment hung the creeping hush that follows unexpected death. This was a normal Park Avenue apartment, but baffling, cold-blooded murder devilled it for me with unseen but watching evil spirits. And soon Helen Brill Kent’s incredible family and others involved were to make this a haunt of horror. I tagged along behind three men whose experience had apparently calloused them to all that.
We looked first around the smaller bedroom opposite assigned to Mrs. Vroom, Helen Brill Kent’s stage-mother, and to Dorothy Vroom. Then around the still smaller bedroom beyond on the right, belonging to Miss Ethel Cushing, Mrs. Kent’s only daughter. Mullens grunted out information and kept a jealous eye upon Scott, who merely wandered around each room. The first door upon the left in this longer rear hall swung into the pantry. Through its glass panel, we glanced at a cook and two maids in the kitchen beyond. They apparently awaited rebelliously permission to go to bed.
We turned to enter the dining room opposite. Sounds of a scuffle at the front of the apartment startled us.
We rushed up the front hall. Detective Haff, lean but cocky, shouldered the wide front door shut against outside force. With his back against it, he turned and jubilantly saluted Mullens.
“Another fresh reporter?” Mullens asked him.
The youngest detective of the Homicide Bureau, strutted confidentially nearer.
“That bunch of sweetness in there,” he nodded towards the living room, “Miss Vroom they tell me her name is, must’ve phoned out to her boy-friend. He’s outside and marked up some, and outside he stays.”
Mullens spoke out the corner of a mouth that showed a pleased grin. “That’s the stuff, Haff. Sock him or anyone else tryin’ to barge in here to her. We have our doubts about that young lady.”
“Is that so?” Astonishment for a moment seemed to darken Haff’s pleased look. “Well, she’s too good for that college cut-up anyway. And now you’ve passed the order—” he held up a bony hand and clenched it slowly with menace.
Could Dorothy Vroom’s frankness and spirit and good looks have misled me utterly regarding her? Was it possible that young girl did have something to do with the murder? And now that she realized that we recognized this as murder had guilt urged her to telephone outside for help? Startled by this unhappy doubt, I stared at Haff. And there behind him, Dorothy Vroom appeared in the wide entrance to the living room.
Her dark young face looked deeply troubled; her brown eyes anxious, as she asked Haff:
“Wasn’t that someone for me?”
He smiled all over her. “Oh, no. You just leave it to me to tip you, if anyone calls for you, lady.” He turned and winked at us.
She gazed at his back doubtfully. “You really will?”
“I sure will.”
Still looking doubtfully back, she disappeared into the living room.
I sincerely hoped that my doubt of her was misplaced. But as I followed the others back to the rear hall, Hutchinson and Mullens looked at each other in a way that indicated growing assurance of her guilt.
Through the last door on the right in the rear hall, Mullens preceded us into the dining room. From this room, as the accompanying plan shows, a broad connecting entrance afforded us a view of all people found here tonight and held.
From this dark dining room, we studied six people in the brilliantly lighted living room. Which one of these amazingly different types had murdered Helen Brill Kent? Huddled together in three chairs at the far end of a modern French salon, three men sat in whispering conference. Captain Brill of the Salvation Army sat stiffly erect in the middle. His elephantine father and his emaciated, dinner-jacketed, crafty-looking younger brother, Napoleon Brill, leaned towards him, elbows on knees, and appeared to be questioning him sharply but in guarded tones. I had a feeling that they were cunningly extracting from him everything he had learned while in the room with us where the murder had been committed.
Far away from them, at the end of the living room near us, sat the three women in dejected silence. Gaunt and dark Mrs. Vroom, the victim’s stage-mother, stared crumpled into space from a gilded armchair. On a stool against one knee sat her daughter Dorothy. One hand held her mother’s tightly, but she glanced frequently and anxiously towards the entrance. On a window-seat to their left sat Ethel Cushing with plump legs stretched out before her. I gazed at her with quick curiosity. People wondered how so beautiful a woman as Helen Brill Kent could have had such a homely daughter. Her large round face brooded over an open book. Alert on its haunches upon the white mantel at this end of the living room, in vigilant isolation from all these human beings, sat the smoke Persian cat named Shah. Gleaming orange eyes, earlier fixed upon the people in the living room, now sharply watched us in the dark dining room.
Which one a murderer? I scanned six strangely different human beings without being able to pick out the killer. Had Scott singled him out? No, his eyes travelled from one to another. But with such a depth of interest that I soon had to touch his elbow. District Attorney Hutchinson and Sergeant Mullens were moving on. Mullens stopped before the glass panel in the pantry door opposite, pointed through it into the adjoining kitchen and suggested to Hutchinson:
“Better let me send those three servants up to bed. The cook’s evidently been sopping up Jersey lightning. She looks lighted to the pent-house and they don’t know a damned thing. They were out to a cinema together; they showed me their seat stubs.”
We passed through the pantry into the small kitchen. A jug-shaped cook with glazed eyes and two trimly attired older maids, lolling around the kitchen table, glanced at us eagerly. Hutchinson asked them a few perfunctory questions, then waved them away upstairs to bed. We watched them scramble to the back-door like women to a bargain counter, but Scott’s keen eyes had spied something.
“One minute!” he called. “The spring lock on this door—isn’t this new?”
In the narrow back hall, the flushed-faced cook lurched around towards him. “New? Sure, it’s new. New as the water on my knee since I came to work in this sweatshop.”
Scott chuckled. “And how long is that? I mean how long has this lock been on here?”
“Two months, your honor. Sez she, ever since the last cook walked off in a huff with her key to the old lock. Sez I, don’t you believe a word of that two-faced slut.”
“Come along, Kittie. The gentleman is through with you.” The two maids dragged their excited companion up the stairway that mounted around the service elevator.
Scott closed the kitchen door. He bent over the new spring lock on the back door of the apartment with an interest it failed to arouse in Hutchinson and Mullens.
Hutchinson smiled skeptically at Mullens. “A couple of cooks that could have killed Mrs. Kent for saying their coffee was bad.”
Mullens grinned. “That’s it. If words was bullets, only one man, woman or child would be alive today.”
They moved on. Scott and I followed them back into the room in which murder had happened. The fingerprint specialists had completed their work, leaving an odor of burned powder. Mullens listened to their report. He swung around to Hutchinson, his eyes burning with excitement.
“What do you know about this? We may have a pinch right in reach. Those ain’t Mrs. Kent’s prints on the gun. The professor here says her right thumb shows tented arches. And the print on that gun shows meetin’ whorls. I’m slippin’ into the parlor with these sharps. I’ll get the thumb-prints of those six people. If one of them shows meetin’ whorls, this case, someone thinks so damned hard, will be right in the bag.”
Could Scott be wrong? I whipped around for a look at him, as Mullens called the two finger-print men and tramped from the room ahead of them. Scott idly started to follow them. He carelessly gave up that purpose at sight of the two white-jacketed men coming into the room bearing a stretcher.
As these men rose from dropping the stretcher beside the body of Helen Brill Kent, Scott slipped each a folded bill and evidently whispered a suggestion. The men nodded and disappeared into the bathroom. They reappeared bringing a towel and a tiny wad of cotton batting. A sagging jaw, they tied up with a towel passed under the chin and knotted over golden hair; the cotton batting they gently inserted in nostrils. Then, after a glance at Scott for approval, they moved the body with exaggerated tenderness from the floor to their stretcher and covered it. A moment later, they bore out of her luxurious room the body of an international beauty destined now to meet the knife of autopsy.
Hutchinson, who had watched all this with a faintly superior smile of amusement on his strong face, said something to Scott too quickly for me to catch.
Scott moved away without replying, as if caught at an action he would have preferred to keep secret.
And then Mullens, flaunting a number of finger-prints and a smiting manner, whiffed gustily into the room.
“You made me take my hands off her,” he said. “All right, but now I’ve got ’em right on her throat. You see these? Dorothy Vroom’s finger-prints smack on the gun that croaked Mrs. Kent.”
I felt knocked limp and faint.
“Look!” Mullens held up the smudged pieces of paper before Hutchinson. “Here’s the meetin’-whorl pattern the men cameraed on that revolver. And here’s Dorothy Vroom’s right thumb-print. You see this island here? Well, there it is there—And this bifurcation or forking line here? There it is socking you right in the eye—Now, sink your eye-tooth into that little ridge-dot—And into that one there. Not another girl’s thumb in the world has them. Signed right on the weapon. We’ve got her. It’s the clincher.”
Scott and I crowded them for a closer view of the startling evidence. I stared dully at the dirty smudges that fixed the murder of Mrs. Kent on that young girl.
There was a tingling silence. Then Scott punched Mullens with a fiery glance.
“Sergeant, you’re crazy as a June-bug. The crafty schemer who plotted this murder drop us a finger-print? He just couldn’t do it. Didn’t she explain this?”
Mullens’ heavy face parked a joyful grin. “Sure, she explained this. Catch that smart young lady without an explanation. But I had to threaten to run her in to get her thumb down here. And by the time I cornered her out in the hall, she dished out a damned raw mess of fish. She tried to make me think that when Captain Brill hoisted up the body to the bed, she picked up the revolver from the floor. She was scared blue, she was, that he might stumble over it with the body. That hard little devil worrying about a little thing like that! It’s so touching, it makes me weep.”
Scott may have started all this trouble rolling down on Dorothy Vroom, but once more I heard him speak up hotly in her defense.
“Weep? You make me weep real tears. What better explanation do you want?”
Mullens crooked up one corner of his mouth. “Hot damn, but she’s got you goin’ strong for her. Listen! Why did she plop it right down on the floor afterwards? Why didn’t she fear her mother or someone else would stumble over it? Why can’t she name just one of the five others there who saw her pick it up afterwards?”
“She could, if she was cunning enough to put this through.”
With a disgusted grunt, Mullens whipped around to Hutchinson.
“What about it? Do I make the pinch now, or you want to grill her first?”
“You go and—”
Scott’s angry movement stopped Hutchinson.
“Man alive! Why don’t you make sure first no one did see her pick it up afterwards?”
Hutchinson thought a moment.
“Right! That’s the thing to do. Before she gets to the others to back up her feeble story.” He turned briskly to Mullens. “You order Haff to send in that Salvation Army officer. And then you two both take to the sidelines and watch me take the ball. I’m taking charge here now.”
A few minutes later, Captain Brill’s wiry little figure sat rigidly erect on the edge of a low-backed, cretonne-covered armchair. His slightly bulging emotional blue eyes were fixed hard as a wrestler’s on Hutchinson. His fingers were laced together over his lap with a tightness that hinted it would be hard to pry anything out of him.
Hutchinson looked at him a moment, and then took a round-about way to the information he was after.
“Captain Brill, did your sister fear anyone—say, unruly servants or divorced husbands?”
The knotted hands unknotted. Captain Brill’s stiffness eased up visibly, though he shook his bristling red hair firmly.
“No. Helen never knew fear. It would have been far better for her, if she had.”
“Now, what do you mean by that?”
Captain Brill’s protruding eyes fired with sudden fervor. “If she had known proper fear, she might have saved her soul. What else is of real consequence, brother?”
The passion of the zealot vibrated his tone. Exhortation loomed in the rapt eager way he bent forward, but Hutchinson spoke quickly.
“Suppose you tell us in your own words exactly what happened here tonight.”
The witness raised quickly a freckled bony hand. “First I want to explain how I came to be here. I didn’t come to join in the celebration of my sister’s birthday, but because I was told that she was suffering from neuritis for her sins. I have no time for parties.” His earnest look demanded the belief of each one of us before he went on. “We gathered in the living room. About nine Helen came in there. But her sins were tormenting her too greatly for her to stay long. At half past nine, she left us and came in here to go to bed. She—”
Hutchinson with an impatient movement turned him elsewhere. “When did you hear the shot?”
“I heard a sound that I know now must have been the shot at exactly twenty minutes past ten.”
“How can you be so positive about that time?”
“I looked at the tall clock in the living room.”
“Who were in the living room with you then?”
“Only Ethel Cushing, my sister’s daughter, but—”
Hutchinson moved swiftly nearer. “You’re sure you and Miss Cushing were the only ones in the living room, when the shot was fired at this end?”
“Yes, but the others were in their own rooms, not in this room.”
Hutchinson turned away, asking carelessly. “Quite sure of that?”
Hutchinson spun around towards him. “How can that be true? Your father and brother have no rooms here.”
A quick flood of red on a thin earnest face, but his eyes refused to drop. “No. I spoke hastily. My father and brother were in the bathroom next door to here.”
“Did you see them there?”
“No, but they told me they were there and I have faith in them.”
Things began to look slightly better to me. No longer was Dorothy Vroom the sole person here to suspect. At the time of the shot, Jesse and Napoleon Brill claimed to be next door. But were they there? I recalled the furtive way they appeared to be questioning this witness after he replaced the body upon the floor and was permitted to join them in the living room. It seemed to me that suspicion might much better be directed at them that Hutchinson now concentrated upon the young girl caught listening in.
“But Dorothy Vroom—she told you she was in her own room then?”
“No. I didn’t ask her. But I’m sure she had nothing to do with this. My wretched sister took her own life.”
“Oh no, she didn’t. We have positive proof she didn’t. And now, suppose I demonstrate to you that Dorothy Vroom—”
“Don’t waste your time. I shall throw the first stone at nobody.”
Captain Brill gathered himself together rigidly and that was that. Hutchinson fenced with him and wrestled with him; bullied him; jabbed him with sarcasm; but this tight lipped martyr could not be made to consider this a case of murder; nor could he be either cajoled or driven into saying one word placing suspicion on others. With an impatient gesture, Hutchinson finally gave up.
“Well, go on with your story.”
Captain Brill’s inflexible attitude relaxed. “Ten minutes after we heard the sound that we thought was just automobile exhaust, Dorothy Vroom and her mother came into the living room. Dorothy had to go out to keep an engagement. Before she got away, my father and my brother Napoleon entered, and Nappy asked Dorothy to wait for him. She wouldn’t. So Nappy playfully snatched away her gloves. And then, before I could bring peace between them, Miss Cushing came running in and whispered something that hushed us all up tight with horror.”
“What did she whisper?”
I strained forward. My mind raced like a disconnected engine. Now, we were to hear how Helen Brill Kent’s body had been discovered.
Captain Brill moistened thin lips. He went on in the resonant tone of the street exhorter, a tone that sounded queerly over-strong pealing out of so small a man.
“She whispered that she had pounded and pounded and pounded on this door, but no answer.”
“And then, I hammered and hammered, and I couldn’t get an answer. I stooped and looked through the keyhole. All I could see was an arm. But it lay along the floor. And it didn’t move. So I called for a key and Mrs. Vroom brought hers. I opened the door. There was the terrifying swish past us out from under the bed of the cat. Then we got our nerves together and all came in. And here Helen lay stretched out on the floor.” He closed his eyes evidently to shut out horror; he opened them too soon. “At first, I hoped she had only fainted. I lifted her up on the bed. But then I saw that terrible wound in her mouth and neck and I knew the worst had happened. Her sins had made her take her own life. Before she could repent.” For an interminable moment, he regarded us—a steady look, not drooping and sad, but stiffened with severity, as if a younger sister, though foolish people might envy her worldly riches, had come to a bad end through not listening to him. Into my mind a thought bounded. How that sister and brother, governed by such contrary purposes and morals, must have clashed! One so beautiful but mercenary; the other so homely but devout. Whenever they met, eyes must have flashed; mouths must have poured out the kindling criticism and the inflaming advice that crackle into the fiercest family fights. What if such a fight had been fought between them here tonight?
Hutchinson, intently groping for further evidence against Dorothy Vroom, disregarded that possibility. But not Scott apparently. I saw him bend on Hutchinson a look of acute surprise at the turn his next question took.
Hutchinson, squaring broad shoulders, planted himself directly in front of Captain Brill. He put him under a hard look.
“Now, after you came in here and found your sister’s body, did you at any time see anybody pick up the revolver from the floor?”
I leaned forward. Would Captain Brill understand? The guilt or innocence of Dorothy Vroom hung on his answer to that shrewdly worded question. He evidently didn’t; he studied Hutchinson doubtfully, but only for a moment; then he replied with decision.
“No, sir. I saw no one pick up the revolver.”
“Or anyone at any time afterwards place the revolver back upon the floor?”
The witness studied his questioner a longer time; he answered with less decision.
“No, sir. Not that I remember.”
Hutchinson flashed a triumphant glance at Scott; he asked his next question persuasively and with his eyes aimed out a window.
“Then if Miss Dorothy Vroom says that she picked up the revolver after the crime just to save you from stumbling over it with the body, she probably isn’t telling us quite the truth, is she?”
I knew that incriminating question was coming. I felt a twinge of sorrow for the young girl about to be incriminated. But Captain Brill’s response made me start and sit up quickly. He shook his head stubbornly. His voice rang out in the still room.
“I won’t say that.”
I felt like breaking into cheers for him; but Hutchinson’s manner prodded him confidently.
“Why won’t you say that? You didn’t see her pick it up or lay it down after the crime, did you?”
“No, I didn’t but—but how could I, when my back was towards her?”
Hutchinson scowled as if he had just lost the king of the stream off his hook. “You couldn’t have kept your back towards her. Not all the time.”
“Most of the time. And—remember this. I was too shocked by my sister’s death to notice a little thing like that.”
Hutchinson raised an angry hand, also his voice. With a heckling frown, he drove him. “This is no little thing, Captain Brill, and don’t you think for one minute that it is.”
“I don’t care. I won’t say that.”
And Hutchinson couldn’t make him.
After trying to in vain, he shifted sharply to another matter. “Now I want you to tell me how you fixed the time you gave us.”
Captain Brill’s eyes widened. “As I told you, I looked at the clock. It said twenty minutes past ten.”
“Yes, yes, I didn’t mean that at all. I remember with what superb forethought you looked at the clock when you heard the shot. People always look at some clock or go out on the street and ask some passerby the minute whenever a car hiccoughs. What I want you to explain now is, how did you know it was just ten minutes after the shot when Dorothy Vroom came flying into the living room?”
His witness shook his head sternly. “I didn’t say that she came flying in there.”
“You said that she was in a great hurry to go, didn’t you?”
“No, I said that she had to go out to keep an engagement.”
“Well, we won’t quibble over words.” Hutchinson hovered over him, his manner growing friendlier, but merely cheese in a trap. “But you don’t expect me to believe that you kept your eyes on the clock all the time, do you? And so, how can you say it was ten minutes after the shot—precisely half-past ten, in fact—when Dorothy Vroom came into the living room?”
Another trap. And one likely to snare them both in an incredible explanation. But Captain Brill’s explanation was so simple and commonplace as to prove to me singularly convincing.
“I didn’t keep my eyes on the clock. And I didn’t look at it again then. I didn’t have to. Dorothy and her mother came into the room. At that moment the clock chimed the half-hour. And what Dorothy said then made me hear it. Because she said, ‘Oh, mother, I’m late. I promised faithfully to meet Bascomb at half-past ten.”
I smiled; so did Hutchinson, but his smile curled into sarcasm.
“Wonderful! Whenever your eyes grew inattentive to the clock, it got all worked up and spoke to you. But let that slide. Now, how did Dorothy act when she came into the living room then—nervous, worried, anxious to get out of the apartment?”
The witness shook his head inexorably. “I said that she had to go out and that she was late but—”
“Then she must have seemed worried and anxious.”
Captain Brill set thin lips firmly. “No. I won’t say that. I said—”
“You’ll have to admit that. If she was late, how could she help acting worried and anxious?”
“I didn’t notice that she did. And I won’t say that.”
As they fought over that point, I looked down at the floor disgusted. If this witness did act strangely as if shielding others, why should Hutchinson strive for evidence against Dorothy Vroom only? And now Scott rebelled; he got up restively and said to Hutchinson.
“Randolph, I’m going out to check the time of that clock in the living room. Mind if I ask Captain Brill a few questions before going?”
Hutchinson spread over him an annoyed look. “Go on, if you’re suffering from blood pressure.” He retired to a chair, but his hands gripped its arms, ready to catapult him back into his argument at the first open moment.
Scott sat down and stretched out his legs before him, as though his questions were of no particular moment; he bent over and with his handkerchief flicked dust off one shoe, before inquiring in a voice peculiarly soothing after Hutchinson’s exasperated tone.
“Captain Brill, rude people, I’ve heard, used to try to break up your street meetings by calling out to you to go home and convert your own sister first. Have they kept that up?”
Captain Brill lost his rigidity instantly; he looked above thankfully. “No, I have had a mercy on that.”
“I’m glad to hear that. When did you last try to convert your sister?”
“Tonight. Before she left the living room. But she wouldn’t listen to me.”
“You didn’t quarrel?”
Captain Brill hesitated a moment; then he shook his head.
“When did you last try to convert her before tonight?”
The witness ran a nervous hand into red hair that stood up stiffly. “Fourteen years ago the twentieth of last month.”
I jumped at that definite remembrance of such a distant date. So did the others. It suggested more unforgettable event on that day, but Scott reproached him lightly.
“Captain! You allowed over fourteen years to pass?”
Captain Brill winced and his face flamed. “Don’t misunderstand that. My commander ordered me to keep away from my sister.” His bony cheek twitched; he passionately defended himself. “That day my father brought me terrible news. My sister Helen planned to divorce Mr. Stuyvesant. She demanded half a million dollars from Mr. Stuyvesant for their only child.” He raised his shuddering body, held it part way up by his hands on the arms of his chair; his eyes blazed. “She meant to sell her child! Her own flesh and blood!” He let himself down weakly. For a moment he huddled there still and white. Then he sprang up and his story came on a strong, fierce current. “I ran all the way to their home on Fifth Avenue. I rushed past the scared servants. I reached her room. It was noon, but she still lazed away the day in bed. I shook her awake. I told her I had come to save her from damnation and hellfire. She made an evil face at me. She swore sinfully. But I fought for her soul. I had a strength and fervor then never given me before. I might have saved her then but—” he looked at us despairingly; his voice shook— “Mr. Stuyvesant, the man she was wronging, the very man I ran all the way up there to help; he crept up behind me; he struck me down with a chair.”
Silence came on us. We watched him drop back into his chair. A light went out in his eyes, as if turned off by a switch; passionately luminous blue eyes faded—eyes strong emotions must have burned out exhorting others to salvation; hands hung futilely over the arms of the chair—hands that had doubtless set cast-offs upon their feet and probably followed the bayonet up close with the doughnut. There he slumped, collapsed. For a moment the fire of great emotional leaders had flamed up in him. Now he was a bony little red-headed man, huddled tired out and hopeless in a cretonne-covered armchair.
I gazed at him with amazement. Could this man commit murder? Incredible. And yet, carried away by such a gust of passion as that—
Scott allowed him time to regain his poise. It was at the end of a long and respectful silence that he finally said:
“Sorry, Captain, but would you mind answering one more question?” At a listless nod, he continued. “Your sister—hadn’t she reached an age when she no longer celebrated birthdays? This party here tonight—wasn’t it one planned by others who—”
Captain Brill’s hands flew together; they knotted as they were knotted when first facing us. A row of knuckles stood out, white as new notches blazed on trees.
“Stop!” High cheek bones became white islands in a face flooding swiftly crimson. “I told you why I came here. That is all I shall tell you. I refuse to open the door to trouble in this house.”
Scott’s keen eyes bored into him, but he kept his voice persuasive. “Perhaps I understand. Others wheedled you here to convert your sister, but they stirred up trouble here tonight that you—”
Captain Brill folded his arms across his narrow chest and stopped him with a resolute look. “I have nothing more to say.”
A little thrill ran through me. Scott had uncovered battles here tonight; a skirmish of this man himself to save his sister’s soul; a fight of others that might have flamed up into murder. But he wasted no time pressing this inexorable zealot for details. He got up to go. As I hurried after him out of the room, Hutchinson began badgering Captain Brill for details.
In the living room, Scott established by his watch that the hall clock in the corner was only forty-eight seconds behind time. Then he turned quickly. From the far end of the living room, Jesse and Napoleon Brill, Mrs. Kent’s wily-looking father and younger brother, watched us as store-detectives watch shoplifters; but the two women at our end of the room seemed utterly uninterested in our actions. Shah, the cat, though one of those oriental potentates delighting to loll, still sat high on his haunches atop the mantel, like a Haroun al Raschid, his orange eyes apparently demanding how much we understood about what had happened here and what we were going to do about it.
Scott stroked his silky black-and-silver head as we passed. “Golden eyes. A true smoke Persian. No crossing with Chinchillas that change royal, pedigreed golden eyes into green.”
We moved on into the dark dining room. Scott whisked around for another glance back into the living room. “The men and the women still keep in the same two hostile groups, but what’s become of Miss Dorothy Vroom?”
I had noticed her absence and wondered. Under pressure of suspicion, could she have made the sad mistake of taking to flight?
We stepped quietly into the rear hall. Detective Haff leaped forward to seize us. He stepped back apologizing, his young blond face looking worried.
“You haven’t seen Miss Vroom?” Our denial caused him to swear viciously under his breath. “Give a broad of today a smile, and she thinks she owns you. I was sparring with another reporter. She sneaked to the phone again. And now, she’s ditched me—unless she’s in one of these rooms.” He loped down the hall.
Could that young girl have fled? Guilty or innocent, if she had, she had taken the worst step possible for her. Chilled with regret, I turned to Scott.
He listened a moment, then tip-toed across the hall. A glance through the glass panel in the pantry door and he pushed the door part way open. I looked over a trimly tweeded shoulder.
In a kitchen chair, with a cigarette idly burning itself out between long fingers, sat Dorothy Vroom. Her small dark face looked pale. Her swanlike neck dropped, as she studied the floor in obvious despair.
With one foot in another chair facing her, stood a tall blond youth of perhaps twenty. Earnestly he seemed to be urging her to do something. If she looked despairing, he appeared desperate. He took in a deep breath and bent impulsively nearer her.
“Come on. Be yourself. I have the car. We’ll drive to Greenwich. They’ll marry us there and you can laugh at them all.”
She answered without raising her brown eyes from the floor. “You don’t seem to get it, Bascomb. When I promised to go last night I felt absolutely sunk. But now that temperamental, superannuated siren is out,—gone forever. Never again can she make my life one long, endless brawl.”
Impetuously and needlessly, I nudged Scott. Then Mrs. Kent had tormented this young girl until she planned to elope?
The youth made an excessively tragic face. “Gee, but that’s a hot one! Taking me just to get off the griddle. If I didn’t know you better than that!” He smiled fondly at her. “Come on, I’ll risk it.”
She shook her drooping head slightly yet determinedly. “But I plain just can’t. Not now. Things are all straightened out here for me now. Why risk your father’s throwing you out on your own?”
He placed a superior, male hand on her shoulder. “Ravings! Come on, woman.”
She shrugged slightly under his hand. She gazed up with a wild look in her eyes and her voice trembled. “Bascomb White! I can’t. How many times must I warn you that I simply can’t—not now. If I went now they’d drag me back before—”
That was as far as their reunion was permitted to continue. Detective Haff brushed past us. With hands reaching out he rushed towards the youth whose back was towards him.
Dorothy Vroom saw Haff coming. She sprang up and threw her arms around him. When White plunged to her aid, she called to him imploringly:
“Oh, please go. Don’t—don’t make things any worse.” As Scott and I moved on, she stood with her back against the door, her brown eyes black and her tall slenderly rounded figure a barrier to pursuit by an angry but more admiring young detective.
My feelings tided high as I hastily revised conclusions forced upon me. She hadn’t telephoned out for assistance, but to call off an elopement. She hadn’t feared to meet suspicion alone; she insisted upon facing it alone. She may have turned pale when caught listening in, but now once again she showed an undaunted spirit. And as for her true feeling for this lucky young Bascomb White—
“She didn’t care for him, she said so,” I suggested to Scott. “She only fought like a tigress to save him from punishment.”
“She’s a brave young thing,” he said with enthusiasm, then shook his head ominously, “but the torment she suffered here will seem a mere fleabite compared with what’s coming to her on this case.”
As we re-entered Mrs. Kent’s room, Hutchinson was angrily waving Captain Brill out of it. Obviously, his time had been squandered pressing that inexorable zealot for details; but for us his handsome dark face took on a confident smile.
“That fake surprise party here tonight,” he said, “when we uncover what the row was about at that, there’ll be absolutely nothing to this.”
Mullens shot out a warning paw. “Yeah, but let’s not go it blind. Never for one minute do we want to forget that a certain young wire-tapper here started to run away right after the shot.”
I felt sick; then quickly better. Scott spoke up in Dorothy Vroom’s defense. He attempted to plant a fresh idea jocularly in Mullens’ hardening mind.
“Now, Sergeant! Don’t—don’t, I beg you, look on this any longer as a common shoot-and-run murder. It’s a coup de maitre, an ace of murders. What murderer sharp enough to scheme a murder without a solitary lead would foolishly plan it so he’d have to take to his heels himself?”
Mullens snorted wildly. “To hell with your psychology. You lemme catch anyone runnin’ from a crime. Five times out of five I have the crook who did the trick.”
“Oh, phooey!” Scott’s sensitive nostrils quivered in his stern face. “If that’s the notion cementing up in your witty but inelastic mind, pick it out. Don’t tell me a good detective only has to be a good sprinter. And now, set this in the cement instead. That young girl wasn’t fleeing from a murder. She was running away to get married. Here, I’ve got some news for you.”
Scott reported every word of the talk we had just overheard between Dorothy Vroom and Bascomb White.
This news was talked over and hotly debated. It sank Mullens, shaking his head, into silent thought; but Hutchinson pounced on it, fed it into an idea that he evidently had been weaving.
With his feet planted wide apart and his face bright with an idea of his own to get over, Hutchinson worked himself up into a gesturing fury.
“Would she have felt compelled to elope unless roused to a pitch fit for murder? Never! Not in a thousand Mondays. Now! What if she got into one of her brawls with Helen Brill Kent tonight? What if the spirited little spitfire took vengeance into her own hands, put Mrs. Kent once and forever out of her way? Nothing in the world more likely; that’s fiery young stuff all right! And get this: A wild row evidently sprang up at the party here tonight. They’re all hushing it up to protect someone. And that little spitfire is the one they’re protecting. If she isn’t, I’m a worn-down heel.”
Scott stood up to him; his eyes spat fire. “Don’t be so damned bigoted. How can you be so positive that young girl committed murder just from these first signs? Why, the one clever enough to scheme this murder would take care that suspicion landed on someone else, if this didn’t go over as suicide. Wait. Listen. Why in the devil do you suppose Nature handed you two ears and but one mouth? Here you are again trying to throw the ball before you catch it. Not if I can prevent you. You’ve got to prove that young girl is lying about how and when her finger-prints got on the weapon before I move out of your way.”
They fought long and hotly.
Finally with a groan Hutchinson said:
“All right. It won’t take me long to prove she had her hand on that revolver before, not after, the crime. This religious crank may have protected her. But the other male skunks in the beauty’s family never will. Wait until I have them in here.”
Griffin Scott cautiously opened the door of Mrs. Kent’s bedroom. He glanced sharply up and down the hall. He shut the door and attempted to hasten District Attorney Hutchinson into action.
“A homicidal fiend has been at work here tonight. I hope you’ll realize that before he strikes again.”
“In a moment, I’ll prove that your young friend with the pretty face handled the revolver before the crime. When we put her behind bars, there’ll be no more danger here.” Hutchinson petulantly threw up another window. He made an irritated face at the rank-flavored cigar-end Sergeant Mullens nursed along to curse the entire night with. He lighted a fresh cigar himself and again patrolled the length of the spacious bedroom.
Scott lighted nervously one cigarette from another. “A fiend shrewd enough to plan how to slaughter a temperamental beauty without a scream would never leave us fingerprints of his own on the weapon, Randolph.” He shook his head as Hutchinson, drawing deep on his new cigar, strolled heedlessly by where he stood; then he warned again. “After first blood, beware of a fiend of that sort. If pursuit doesn’t make him desperate, he grows dangerously confident. And don’t forget, all the time he’s juggling the thought that the penalty for many murders can’t be greater than for the one he’s already got away with.”
With annoyed abruptness, Hutchinson stopped in front of Sergeant Mullens. “He won’t give us any peace, until you bring in the father. Order Haff to bring in the ex-undertaker who started Helen Brill Kent out after men.”
Jesse Brill, hairless, and so jowled his entire length that the mound-builders might have laid him out in terraces, waddled into the room. If he had lost the solemnity of the undertaker, he retained the affability. He shook hands all around. Clearly, he believed that the sire of an international beauty needed no high hat in his manner.
“Son, I’ll tell you all I know,” he promised, setting his overlapping figure in the chair Hutchinson nodded towards.
The proud father astonished me; he beamed on us jovially; he might have just had a daughter born, instead of one found tragically slain.
Hutchinson greeted his over-ready promise with his fishiest look of doubt. “Well then, what happened at the party here tonight?”
“Ah, this was my wonderful daughter’s birthday. We always celebrate Beauty’s birthday.”
Hutchinson frowned at him heavily. “You may, but don’t attempt to make me think she has celebrated one lately. What broke up the party here tonight?”
“Broke up the party? Nothing, by golly! We had a wonderful reunion, one and all. Everybody talking and friendly as could be. A grand time—” he tried apparently to look suddenly sad; he failed— “until Beauty had to leave us on account of her neuritis. Not one of us dreamed anything as terrible as this was going to happen.”
Hutchinson made a furious gesture. “Drop the pomp and pish. Who raised hell here? What was the row over?”
A look of cherubic surprise, then a glib answer. “Why, son, there wasn’t any row here. It was a real love feast.”
“We know better, but whom did your daughter fear here?”
Jesse Brill raised the ponderous arm of a Nero in his dotage. “No one. Son, like me, Beauty feared nobody.”
Hutchinson moaned. “When conceit was handed out, you must have been there with a moving van. You were in here when the body was found. Now! Did you see Dorothy Vroom pick up a revolver from the floor after that?”
Jesse Brill jumped; he had no ready answer; small watery eyes winked rapidly while he evidently thought quickly.
“Did you or didn’t you?”
“I see what you’re driving at.” His tone became wheedling. “But, son, Beauty shot herself.”
“We know she didn’t. Now, out with it. Did or didn’t you see Miss Vroom pick up the revolver after the murder?”
Sly old eyes met his without a tremor of flesh or spirit. “I wouldn’t want to say. Not right away now. This terrible thing has broken me all up. I don’t know whether I’m standing on my head or my heels tonight.”
At this obvious lie, Hutchinson sniffed, looked at us and then asked only a few more perfunctory questions.
“Did your daughter leave a will?”
The father became suddenly thoughtful in a furtive way that I could not at that time understand; then he replied with assurance.
“Of course, she did. Beauty was no fool.”
“I don’t suppose you even heard the shot?”
“Son, you know I didn’t. If I had, wouldn’t her fond father have been the first one in here?”
Hutchinson walked away in disgust and I studied with amazement this incredible father. Could he have killed his own daughter? Though he hoped to make us believe otherwise, her death appeared to mean nothing to him. He seemed untouched, without feeling, this father who had forced her out on her own before she was fifteen. It seemed useless to expect anything truthful or helpful from him, but Scott took over the task.
“Where were you at the time of the shot?”
Jesse Brill started at Scott’s severe tone. “Judge, I was in the bathroom with my son, Napoleon. He was washing his hands. The running water made such a loud noise that I couldn’t hear the shot.”
“What were you doing?”
The huge body wedged in too small a chair billowed uneasily. “Me? Oh, I was sitting on the edge of the tub, talking things over with Nappy.”
“Now, Judge, you can’t expect a man to remember little things like that—not after all I’ve gone through here tonight.”
“Rot!” Scott got up, glared at him. “Your daughter murdered and you talking such tosh to us. Where’s your feeling for your dead daughter?”
An elephantine figure squirmed—squirmed as much as possible in that cramping chair. “Feeling? I guess no one feels this loss more than I do.”
Two little dabs of crimson appeared on the jowled cheeks of his full-moon face. Scott moved sternly towards him.
“If no one feels her loss more than you do, she’s well out of this. And she supported you, didn’t she?”
Scott had succeeded in penetrating heavy armor of conceit. Now in self-defense out poured a freshet of words. In a tone no longer suave and secretive, but high-pitched and revealing.
“Maybe she did dole me out a little something, but when I wanted to start a good undertaking parlor here, and asked her just for the lend of the money—now, I’m not saying a word against Beauty; she was a queen of women, the Cleopatra of today all right!—but I leave it to you, was that asking much of a daughter you gave beauty and brains and ambition and the very breath of life to? Was it now?”
Mullens and Hutchinson broke into ribald and riotous laughter. I stared at this unfeeling monster of conceit with astonishment. He actually believed that he alone and unaided had created that paragon of beauty, suffered the pangs of labor, endowed her with her trim figure, her classic profile, and the sharp mind that had made the name of Helen Brill Kent known all around the world from Clarkston, Kentucky. I couldn’t help feeling that a creature, seemingly soft but really so hard, was capable of anything in the delirium of such a delusion.
He worked himself up free from his chair. He spluttered on blindly that the ingratitude and lack of feeling were hers, not his. Scott finally pushed him, still protesting, from the room.
Hutchinson choked off a fresh laugh. “Well, we can mark that baby elephant off. He’s too soft in the head for murder.”
Scott looked at him incredulously. “Only two men in the world have ever been hard enough to work Helen Brill Kent for money. He is one of them.”
“Oh, every hard woman has her one weak spot, but I saw I was just wasting my time trying to get the truth from that inflated parasite.” Hutchinson turned to Mullens. “Bring in his younger son, Napoleon. Nothing soft about that fellow.”
Napoleon Brill, youngest member of that beauty’s astonishing family, looked like a night-club rat. He was short and emaciated. His black hair was slicked down over a small head with sharp features. He wore a dinner-jacket, so spotted that it shrieked for the cleaner, with a wilted orchid in its lapel. His small crafty eyes wandered; the thin lips of a hardened racketeer snarled at us as he flung the door shut behind him.
“Hey! How many times do you think you’re going to put me through the wringer?”
“You wash clean and once will be enough.” Hutchinson motioned him to a chair and applied a grilling look and silence to him. “Now, who raised the hell at this party here tonight? What was the trouble?”
Napoleon Brill indifferently pulled up shiny trousers above thin knee caps before glancing up to reply. “Trouble? Who said there was any trouble? Anyone who said that was a lousy liar. This was just a family party. You ought to know how tame they are.”
“If that was true, why did your sister leave you all so early?”
The witness yawned openly. “Neuritis. If you’ve ever had it, maybe you’d understand.”
“Never mind what I understand. What was the fight here over?”
Small glittering eyes that had been roaming suspiciously everywhere darted to Hutchinson, stayed on him. “There wasn’t any fight here—and you can’t make one.”
“I don’t have to make one.” Hutchinson assumed a knowing and satisfied smile; but a little finger hanging at his side trembled with rage—rage pushed back; never would he, obviously, permit that little rat to excite and gloat over the anger of the District Attorney of New York County. “We can let that ride. We know all about that. But you tell me this. Did you see Dorothy Vroom pick up the revolver from the floor after you all came into this room?”
I held my breath and watched the man I believed most likely to have murdered Mrs. Kent. Would he seize this opportunity to fix suspicion elsewhere?
Napoleon Brill threw back his head and laughed—a wise, hard, cackling laugh that displayed bright dental gold and blackened silver, that ended sharply and left a look of cunning superiority on his thin face.
“So it’s murder now, is it? And Dorothy Vroom’s the goat? Hey! You heels must be in a tough spot for a sensational slap of news.”
Hutchinson managed to hold in anger that dyed his face crimson and that might have caused an older man a stroke of apoplexy; his voice shook with just the overflow.
“Answer my question.”
“Hell, that’s easy. There wasn’t any murder. Helen shot herself.”
“Did you see Miss Vroom pick it up or didn’t you?”
“I might have, and I might not have.”
I eased back in my chair. Hutchinson was finding it far from soft establishing that Dorothy Vroom handled the weapon before, not after, the murder. Doubtless, he believed that these two witnesses, like Captain Brill, were protecting her. To me, they seemed to be craftily protecting themselves.
Hutchinson sat down, crossed his legs, and hosed this insolent witness with a look of apparently careless contempt. He asked him only a couple of more questions; the answers he hardly appeared to listen to; he treated Napoleon Brill as if he judged him too insignificant to bother with.
“Probably you’re telling us also that Miss Vroom had nothing to do with the rumpus at the party tonight.”
The witness writhed and snarled under this treatment. “Hell, you turn my supper. There wasn’t any rumpus. Be someone else. Show a little common sense.”
Hutchinson smiled with obviously real satisfaction. “Of course, you heard the shot?”
“Wrong again. You’re not going to frame anyone by me. Helen shot herself. You’ll fish nothing out of me to fix up anything different.”
Hutchinson turned with elaborate good nature to Scott. “These crooks think they’re shielding her, lying as fast as they can think. I can’t be bothered with them tonight. Tomorrow they can tramp down to my office. What I’ll do to them then will be a plenty. Do you want to ask this little ten-minute egg any questions tonight?”
Scott did, it appeared. This hard witness without an apparent drop of respect or decency, he treated in a manner that for a time puzzled me. His manner with this little rat was humble, respectful; his tone sounded carefully polite, even soothing.
“Was I right, Mr. Brill, in understanding that you didn’t hear the shot?”
Napoleon Brill started and looked at him with suspicion for a moment; then his insolence vanished.
“Yes, I missed that.”
“Do you want to tell us where you were when the shot was fired?”
“Sure, I will. I’ve got nothing to hide. It was this way. I was in the bathroom with the old man. He had the water running full strength washing his hands, so I never heard the gun. I was sitting on the edge of the tub chinning with him.”
I felt my face twitch. The alibis of father and son failed to agree; each claimed to be the one sitting on the edge of the tub. I looked for Scott to catch him up, snarl that difference into an embarrassing tangle, spoil their alibi. Instead, after a moment’s thought, he went on as if he had failed to notice that variation.
“Do you happen to know whether your sister left a will?”
“That’s likely.” Brill reflected a moment, his face growing foxily sharper; then he added with confidence: “Sure, she did.”
“What makes you so sure now?”
“Oh, I remember her saying she did.”
“Can you remember when?”
“Oh, not so long ago.”
He was lying. I knew that he was; but Scott went on as ostensibly blind and respectful as ever.
“You were your sister’s favorite, weren’t you? How did she treat you—generously?”
Napoleon Brill smiled—a smile that on his sharp-featured face looked like the smile of a hyena—and for the first time let his tongue run free.
“If you ask me, Helen was tight. I had to deliver the goods for every copper she handed me, let me tell you. Listen! There was a swell chance for me to take over a raided night club up in Harlem and stow away a barrel of money, but do you think I could make her see it? Not on a mile-and-a-quarter track. She squeezed every cent until it howled with pain before handing it out to me, if you want the truth.”
Scott looked hastily away, doubtless to hide his disgust. “But she supported you, didn’t she?”
Napoleon Brill’s small eyes became suddenly sharp and vicious looking. “No, she didn’t. She never treated me the way she ought to treat a brother. What she threw my way wouldn’t have hired a lame errand boy these days.”
Scott gazed at Hutchinson as if to make certain that he perceived this man’s true attitude towards his murdered sister. Then with a gesture he indicated that he had no more questions.
Hutchinson nodded and swung around on the witness. “You’re a pretty smart Aleck, but you’ve botched up your father’s and your own alibi all right.”
Napoleon Brill sprang to his feet. “You don’t say? How’s that?”
“You didn’t rehearse him carefully enough. Your father said he was the one sitting on the edge of the tub. And now you claim you were the one sitting there.”
“Say, you give me a headache. You’ll make nothing out of that. First the old man washed his hands while I waited. Then I washed mine while he sat on the edge of the tub and chinned. If you can make anything out of that, you’re a smarter man than I think you are.”
I downed a groan at the ease with which he had wriggled out of that break in their alibis.
Hutchinson walked to the door, threw it open, and with a look of cool contempt motioned him out. Napoleon Brill left with a pleased smile curling his thin lips. The door closed, Hutchinson turned and published judgment on him.
“A smart Aleck! I’ll bring him down a peg or two tomorrow, but to my mind, he had nothing to do with the murder.”
Scott was on his feet. “Randolph! He had a grievance; his sister didn’t give him the money he felt entitled to. He claims he was in the bathroom right next door at the time of the shot. He straightened out the alibi that his father bungled but—that little rat could have planned this murder, could have killed his sister without turning a hair.”
Hutchinson shook his head. “Too insolent. He wouldn’t have dared being so damned impertinent, if he had a hand in this. Just a weak fool wisecracking a strong front.”
“Just two men have ever been hard enough to work Helen Brill Kent for money. This man was the other one.”
Hutchinson thumped a fist emphatically in the palm of his other hand. “Rot! Just a miserable little mouth-shooting parasite with a boutonniered spine. I’ll iron him out tomorrow, but his bold front shows he has nothing to fear. I doubt if he has an atom of fear that we suspect him.”
Scott moved circuitously to the door. He pulled it open.
In the hall outside, Napoleon Brill raised himself from keyhole-height. He brazenly patted down a disturbed petal of the wilted orchid in his buttonhole. Then coolly whistling a peppery snatch of jazz he disappeared down the hall.
Griffin Scott sat exploring the contents of the drawer of Mrs. Kent’s desk. The rustling and crackling of bills, cancelled checks and correspondence ceased. He hunched over something discovered in such a tense silence that it grouped us around him.
In the open palm of one hand he held an oval-shaped winding of strong brown English twine. His eyes were on it, but his mind appeared absent weighing possibilities.
Sergeant Mullens snatched it up, as if clews belonged to him. He glanced at it and expectancy died in his eyes; he passed it indifferently to District Attorney Hutchinson.
Hutchinson’s blank look switched from it to Scott. “You feel you’ve found something?”
Scott looked up at him, nodding his stern head thoughtfully. “Not a doubt of it. Helen Brill Kent skimping—rolling up twine!”
Hutchinson reacted in accordance with training. “Why not? She had to—once.”
“The mutinous reason why she just wouldn’t after she no longer had to. And she was brought up in Kentucky, not New England. Impossible! Impossible as a woman’s hat on a man’s head.”
“Any woman’s liable to wind up and tuck away a good piece of twine.” Hutchinson tossed it into Scott’s lap. “For the law’s sake, don’t pick any more lemons. Nothing in the family row here tonight. No wringing one word of evidence against Dorothy Vroom from any of the men here. And you’re deplorably below form thinking Jesse or Napoleon Brill killed this woman. No more boggling around for me. I'm going right out after the one who murdered Mrs. Kent.”
He whirled around to Mullens. “Order Haff to send in Mrs. Vroom. A few questions to her. and if I don't root out enough to tie this tight on her daughter, throw me to the cartoonists.”
Mullens shot him an applauding glance and then hustled out for Mrs. Vroom. I sat still and gloomy, watching Hutchinson pace the floor with his head down. Would he succeed in dragging that young girl into the shadow of the electric chair? He paced, obviously plotting with all his skill. And Scott appeared entirely absorbed in his discovery.
He still ruminated over the roll of twine. But now, his curiosity evidently led him to examine it more closely. He squeezed it. He started rapidly unwinding it, rewinding the twine around his left palm and elbow.
The clink of metal on the hard floor drew Hutchinson and me beside him again. From the other end of the twine dangled a woman’s small combination shoehorn and buttonhook.
Hutchinson studied it a moment and then corner-eyed Scott with a superior glance. “Still fondly imagining you have something there?’’
“And how! Why should anyone tie a long piece of twine to a shoehorn?”
“Hasn’t that dawned on you yet? To drag along the floor for the cat to play with.”
“No. Thought of that. No one's knotting twenty feet of twine to a cat-teaser.”
“Oh well, that looks like nothing to worry about to me.”
“It may later.” Scott whisked around and screwed a warning look on Hutchinson’s back as he walked away. “If this happens to be a real lead to the killer, better dust on your iron hat and requisition one bullet-proof waistcoat. He’ll not be gentlemanly. We’ll get a brutal and probably gory reception.”
Hutchinson threw him an indifferent glance and resumed his pacing. I gazed at Scott startled. What did he see here to rate the murderer so high? What led him to feel so positive that the come-back would be savage? Short the time before we all appreciated how shrewdly Scott read character and surmised what was coming to us.
He rolled up the twine and offered it to Hutchinson, who waved it away. Mullens returned, reporting that he had ordered Haff to bring in Mrs. Vroom; Scott explained and tendered him the clew. When Mullens silently dropped it back in his hand, he replaced it in the drawer of the desk and made an entry in his notebook.
Haff knocked and entered. Dorothy Vroom, he announced, refused to allow Mrs. Vroom to come in here alone. She insisted upon accompanying her mother.
Hutchinson’s look at Scott flapped wings and crowed. “Anyone doubting that I’m worrying the right party now?” He switched around to Haff. “You tell her that’s against the rules for a primary examination,” he said, then swiftly changed his mind. “Wait. I’ll go out and talk Dutch to her myself. We’ll see who’s running things here.”
He came back. His face wore the color that battle rouses, but he came back with Mrs. Vroom alone.
And she? An astounding change, another character from the crumpled and dazed woman I had studied in the living room. Her gaunt height and thin shoulders no longer sagged; majestically erect, they suggested the grenadier-like guard over Helen Brill Kent, the inflexible duenna who had looked down an acquiline nose at triflers, whether they were millionaires, lords or princes. Strands of long inky-black hair, recently straggling over a lean but commanding face, were now brushed neatly back.
She seated herself augustly in the chair Hutchinson politely pulled forward for her, but wings charcoaled in by weeping around her dark eyes made me feel that she played her strong part tonight when just able to totter on to the stage.
“There is no occasion whatever for all these suspicions of yours. Helen shot herself,” she said in a vexed tone.
Hutchinson shook his head, then touched her with a menacing suggestion. “Unfortunately, the law compels us to ask certain questions. You have nothing to hide, have you?”
“No, we have nothing to hide, but please make your questions as few as possible.”
“I will. Now, you can tell me whether Mrs. Kent left a will?”
“No. She didn’t. Helen had a superstition that she might die, if she made her will.”
I glanced quickly at Scott. Why, I wondered, had a parasitical father and younger brother testified that Mrs. Kent left a will, when this woman, declared she had not and gave a good and lasting reason why she had not? But Scott’s blue eyes were fixed upon the witness with an intensity unbroken by this news. Hutchinson continued his courteous questioning.
“Perhaps you’ll tell us what the argument or disagreement was about at the party here tonight.”
Mrs. Vroom started, just perceptibly; she replied hastily and with too much emphasis. “There was no argument or disagreement.”
What were they all hiding? Whom were they protecting? Hutchinson paused a moment, and then overlooked her alarm.
“Would you mind telling us where you were when the shot was heard?”
“I was in my room.”
“Did you hear it?”
“No. I didn’t.”
He considered her with grave yet gentle doubt. “Right across the hall from here! And you didn’t hear the shot!”
She rose with dignified annoyance. “Come. You stand at my open window with trains rumbling by underground and motors clattering and backfiring, and see if you doubt that.”
“Oh, I’m not doubting you. Not for one minute.” Hutchinson humbly begged her to be seated again. “And your daughter was with you then?”
“No. She was in Ethel’s room.”
“I see. Next door to your room. And did she hear the shot?”
Would Mrs. Vroom understand why Hutchinson asked that question so carelessly? No; she answered it carelessly.
Honey dripped from his words. “She told you that she did?”
Too much honey, a spark in his eyes, the premature celebration of a hand, something warned her now—too late. I saw fear touch her, stiffen her attitude, flurry her face as she stared at him. Then in a puzzled, agitated manner she said:
“I don’t know whether she told me or not.”
Hutchinson stepped nearer. “But you must have heard her say that she heard the shot. How else could you know?”
She moved restlessly in apparently wretched uneasiness. “I’m not certain now that she did hear the shot. In all this confusion tonight I—” she stopped; her eyes gleamed— “I’ll go out and make sure of that.”
She had started to rise. Hutchinson’s sharp order stopped her.
He hurried to the door. He beckoned Mullens and gave him some orders in a low tone. I knew what they were.
Mullens was to take out Mrs. Vroom and bring in Dorothy Vroom; he was to take care that the mother found no opportunity to tip off the daughter.
Hutchinson swung open the door and turned towards Mrs. Vroom.
“That’s all, Mrs. Vroom. Thank you. I won’t bother you any with more questions tonight.”
She helped herself up slowly. She looked haggard and crumpled again. Her tone, as she pleaded with Hutchinson, was broken.
“Please don’t question Dorothy any more tonight. It’s so late now. And we’ve all been through so much here tonight.”
Hutchinson glanced away from the broken woman, but his voice was firm. “Sorry. We have to do these things. We don’t enjoy them any more than you do.”
She looked at him; she thought a moment; then she went out at the rapid pace of one on a mission, but Mullens caught quick hold of her elbow.
Hutchinson shut the door. He turned to Scott quickly.
“Did you get that? This Miss Dorothy Vroom heard the shot. But she let the body lie here for over ten minutes, until someone else got worried. What was she doing in those ten minutes before she started to clear out of here? Removing all the evidence she had time to, of course—that lets Mrs. Vroom out of this. No doubt now whom she’s shielding.”
Scott held up a cautioning hand. “How does that let Mrs. Vroom out? She could have killed Mrs. Kent, and yet longed to keep suspicion off her own daughter, couldn’t she?”
Hutchinson groaned. “I never saw such a man for taking the other side.”
Scott sprang eagerly to his feet. “But Randolph, I can’t stand here dumbly and see you crack up in what Huxley called ‘a Spencerian tragedy.’ You’re clipping along tonight on half-baked deductions that may be tragically exploded any minute by new facts.”
I felt myself growing cold at the unfortunate situation in which Dorothy Vroom would now find herself. If she entered here unwarned; if she admitted hearing the shot, Hutchinson could snarl her up inextricably in this murder. Scott attempted to smooth her way.
“When you question Dorothy Vroom, go easy with her, I beg you. Give the full facts a chance to come out. You don’t have to break down the door of every room you desire to enter. Your Wellman on cross examination will tell you that.”
Hutchinson strode towards him, his powerful-looking face flushed with anger. “See here! I guess I know how to handle that parcel of looks and wiles. I had a run-in with her outside.”
Half a foot taller, broader shouldered, thicker bodied, he glowered down on Griffin Scott. Sharp words, a savage argument, a battle royal impended, but at this moment the door opened and Dorothy Vroom stepped lightly and rapidly into the room well ahead of Mullens.
Her tall, slimly-rounded young figure she held as if under tight reins; a look of startled inquiry agitated her brown eyes; but she sat down in the chair Hutchinson gestured towards and looked at him with the steady brave air of one who has convinced herself that things simply cannot be as bad as feared.
Hutchinson paced to and fro in front of her. An armed sentinel, who apparently waited for silence and fear to weaken her, who stopped unexpectedly before her and snapped his first question into a face taken by surprise.
“Where were you between nine-thirty and ten-thirty tonight?”
“Why—I—in different parts of this apartment.”
Could this girl possibly be a murderess? A girl with a voice that sounded clear and true as a bell even when startled?
“Where at nine-thirty?”
His fierce voice still astonished her; but her own became unstammering and firmer. “In the living room.”
“Where at ten o’clock?”
“In the living room. I am positive.”
“Where at ten-five?”
“I don’t know.” Brown eyes, smouldering, broke into fire. “I’m not a butterfly. There’s no percentage in your trying to pin me down alive like this.”
Hutchinson walked away from her; he looked exasperated; he shot his next question over a shoulder; but he watched her sharply from the sides of his eyes. “Very well then, where were you at ten-twenty tonight?”
The time of the murder! Silence came into this room where Mrs. Kent’s body had been discovered. Her answer would settle whether she was a human being or a monster to be burned with high voltage in a chair. Hutchinson fretted her with a hard look. Mullens’ smoky eyes fed greedily as on a savory entree approaching that he had ordered and made up his mouth for. Scott, with an absent look on his stern face, gazed up at the rose-tinted ceiling; but a slightly canted head suggested that he preferred the judgment of his ears at this moment to that of his eyes. I waited for her answer with fists that clenched themselves and a sick feeling that kept me from looking at her. Then, after time taken out evidently to think, her reply came in a low uncertain tone.
“I was—in Ethel Cushing’s room, I think.”
Hutchinson pounced back to her. “Don’t you know where you were when the shot was fired?”
Uncertainty left her; she looked up at him with assurance now. “If that was when the shot was heard, I know I was in Ethel’s room.”
I gloated inwardly. She had an alibi.
Hutchinson stood before her; he nodded his head slightly to himself; clearly he had expected her to have an alibi; his tone became oilier.
“You went in there to see Miss Cushing?”
She escaped that trap. “No. She wasn’t there.”
“What took you into another girl’s room when she wasn’t there?”
“I went in there to be alone to powder my nose.”
The ugly shake of his head declared that wouldn’t go; he scowled at her. “Precisely the sort of alibi I expected from you. So you have to be alone to powder your nose?”
Her eyes flashed; she struck back. “You! Do you comb your hair—do you shave in the theatre?”
His failure to break her spirit, or perhaps Scott’s quiet chuckle, altered Hutchinson’s manner; his tone changed from rough goods to silk. “Miss Vroom, when did you tell your mother that you heard the shot? After the discovery of the body, wasn’t it?”
She was caught! She had allowed him to lead her. He spoke with assurance, as if thus informed by her mother. She agreed instantly. Hutchinson indulged himself in a smile at Scott. Then on her he swung a manner as crushing as his hundred-and-ninety pounds of hard weight could make it.
“Then you heard the shot in a room almost across the hall; then later on you stood among the family pounding frantically on this door and suffering tortures of suspense over what had happened in here, and you never so much as opened your mouth about hearing a shot until others got in here and discovered the body? What were you doing in the ten minutes between? How do you explain keeping so heartlessly, so dastardly silent?”
She looked away quickly. She clasped her hands; she sat rigidly looking out a far window. Minutes passed in silence. Hutchinson insisted that she should answer that question. The face she finally turned to him looked desperate.
“I—I just didn’t speak of it. That may not explain anything to you but—it happened.”
“Oh, that explains a plenty to me.” An ironic tone and glance mercilessly triumphed over her. “Why did you go to Miss Cushing’s room to powder your nose? Why not to your own room?”
She hesitated; she seemed to be groping in a troubled mind. “I can’t think why. I just didn’t, that’s all. Any station for repairs, I suppose.”
“Where were you when it occurred to you to powder your nose?”
“I don’t know. Probably nearer her room than mine.”
“Where had you come from?”
“I had just come from this room.”
Silence of the tingling quality. Was she going to admit being in this room around the time of the murder? I stared at her puzzled young face stupefied. And quickly Hutchinson’s attitude softened. He might have been helping a favorite child with a hard home lesson.
“Let us go back. You were in this room. You started up the hall. Now go on.”
A light came into her eyes as if his coaching had switched it on in her memory. “I remember now. I was beyond the door to Ethel’s room. I suddenly thought of an engagement I’d made to go out. I darted into her room because I was late and it was nearer.”
Hutchinson nodded amiably. “Exactly. And now how long were you in there before you heard the shot?”
“Oh, it couldn’t have been more than a few minutes.” Hutchinson permitted himself a faint smile—so faint that he evidently thought it unnecessary to turn away. “Now how many minutes would you say—one, two, three, five minutes?”
“Oh, not more than five minutes.”
He glanced lingeringly at Scott; he spun around on her as polo ponies are spun. “Then you were in this room five minutes before the murder?”
Once more her eyes flashed. “No. You foot-faulted on that fast one. I said I left this room then.”
I swallowed. He had her now. He snapped questions at her so fast that they allowed her no time to think. “Who’ll swear that you left this room at ten-fifteen?”
“I can’t think of anyone who can.”
“Who saw you either leave this room or go into Miss Cushing’s room before the crime?”
“I don’t know.”
Shrewdly, he left her no way open for escape later. “What! Not even your mother to support either of these claims of yours?”
She shook her head hopelessly. “No. Mother went into our room across the hall before I came in here.”
She sat with her long young fingers interlaced in her lap. She stared at them. She appeared singularly humble, wretched, after her recent flashes of spirit. She looked so depressed that anyone would have muted down this ordeal for her, except a man twitted with falling for her winning looks, and except a paid hound of society whose duty it was to force or beguile out guilt wherever he suspected it. “How long were you in here with Mrs. Kent?”
“Just long enough to say good night.”
Hutchinson moved back in surprise. “You only said good night? You didn’t stay to talk?”
Dorothy Vroom’s brown eyes blazed up for a moment as if recalling a hateful scene. “No. That’s the irony of it. We just exchanged a few hollow words.”
“But that sounds queer. No congratulations on her birthday? No friendly questions about how she enjoyed the day and felt at passing another milestone?”
She laughed bitterly. “It’s too precious! Any jesting words like that and she would have flown into a temper.”
“Oh, I forgot. You two didn’t get along very well together, did you?”
“No. We didn’t.”
He swooped swiftly back towards her. “Now! What did you two quarrel over tonight?”
I felt limp with regret. Was he going to extract still more against her?
But she leaped to her feet; her head went back; her voice trembled with indignation.
“I was an idiot to tell you these things. We didn’t quarrel tonight. I took care that we didn’t.”
She glared at him. She turned and looked at the door as if she meant to put an end to this by going.
“I won’t need to ask you many more questions. Sit down, please.”
“I’ll stand, thank you.”
The courage of the girl! I gazed at her with a real thrill. She faced him undaunted now. Her eyes flashed a challenge; her attitude defied him to make her tell another thing she didn’t want to.
Once more he ordered her to sit down.
Again she shook her head with spirit and remained standing.
“You’ve got another thing yet to explain. Why, before the body was found and before you spoke to anybody about hearing the shot, did you start to hurry away from here?”
“I had to run to keep an engagement. It was an important engagement. So important an engagement that I thought of nothing else.”
“Very well. Tell us all about that engagement.”
“I won’t. I refuse to drag anyone else into this.”
“I insist. Now! Tell me. At once.”
Her intrepid look at him declared that nothing could make her answer that question. She didn’t. She shook her head defiantly when he pressed it. And she paid no attention to his peremptory order to remain. With set lips and a determined manner she walked boldly out of the room. She slammed the door to behind her.
I watched her spirited exit with admiration; I turned to look at the others with sinking feelings. Her engagement was with Bascomb White. Again she protected the young man with whom she planned to elope. Him, she appeared unalterably determined to keep entirely out of this. By what intense and heedless concentration of suspicion could Hutchinson blind himself to that fact?
He celebrated victory; he drew a fresh cigar; after he lighted it, he rested a look of glorified satisfaction on its lighted end, and then on Scott.
“You heard? She was in this room. She quarreled with Mrs. Kent. She shot her. And the minute my questions began to pinch, she fled to protect herself.”
Scott jumped up; his glare was withering. “She fled to protect not herself, but Bascomb White. With one masterly blunder, you’ve driven into silence the one frank person we might have learned most from here. I have to tell you, Randolph. You acted with all the discretion of a congenital idiot.”
Hutchinson started as if stung by a wasp. “Come out of it. I’ll force that young spitfire to talk if—”
He stopped. The lights had gone out.
For a moment there was a startled hush. Then panicky quick movements. Scott’s flashlight marked out the door. Mullens beside it, clicked the light-switch twice without bringing forth light. He swore and flung open the door.
The hall outside also was dark. From the distant living room, voices came to us screaming for light.
We pushed each other along black halls to the living room. From under a massive chair, two eyes of yellow fire blazed at us. Shah! Scott’s flashlight picked out every person present—Ethel Cushing, Jesse Brill and Captain Brill.
Shaking a bit, I counted up those not here—Mrs. Vroom, Dorothy Vroom and Napoleon Brill.
Scott quieted the people here. He thrust his flashlight into my hand and spoke in a nervous tone.
“Run to the kitchen. If the fuses have been pulled out, put them back. If you can’t find them, ring up the office downstairs for others.”
I rushed to the kitchen. High up on the wall, the door of the fuse-closet hung wide open. The fuses had been ripped out; they lay scattered over the floor.
Who had pitched us all into darkness? I stooped to pick up the nearest fuses, wondering. I heard the swinging door of the pantry behind me swish open and believed Scott had arrived to hurry me. Then a brutal blow on the back of my head jolted me forward, groping towards the floor.
When I came to, my teeth were gritted together and I thought I heard someone speaking to me. The lights were on. Scott was nursing me on the kitchen floor. He snapped nervous questions at me.
“Who slugged you? Someone from inside or outside?”
I recalled the swishing of the pantry door. “Someone inside. I don’t know who. It was dark here.”
At that time I couldn’t understand his doubtful glance at me or his unusual nervousness.
He seemed in a stew to get back to Mrs. Kent’s room. When we reentered it, he jerked open the drawer of her desk in which he had replaced the winding of twine. He looked up from it at us. “It’s gone,” he said.
Scott, evidently regarding the winding of twine snatched away in the dark as gone for good, sat down at the desk and began taking account of the remaining contents of the drawer. But Hutchinson and Mullens, now clearly valuing it highly, dashed from the room apparently to recapture it.
They returned. Hutchinson’s dark face sizzled with ire. He dropped a strapping figure into the nearest chair and glared at Scott.
“No one ever saw that roll of twine. No one with the faintest idea who wrenched out the fuses, but—” he sat up; his eyes twitted Scott— “one young lady here who turned her back on me and wouldn’t answer any questions.”
Scott glanced up from a cancelled check. “Dorothy Vroom. Of course. You aren’t half as sorry as I am that you wrecked our chance of learning anything more from her.”
“Sorry!” Hutchinson’s tone grated the idea. “I’m glad I wrung out of her all I could when I did. Listen, censor. I’m going to open your eyes. Her mother swears that young devil stayed in her room across the hall with her every minute but—” a sardonic smile, over-garlicky with insinuation— “try to ride their wild, false-hearted, bucking bronco pretext that they both stuck in that room, not even unlatching the door to discover why the lights had gone out on them? Griffin, either one of them could have sneaked across the hall here and stolen that clew. Either one had plenty of time afterwards to hide it. But that young devil did it. She knew we suspected her. She had to get it back. And don’t try to tell me anything different.”
Scott studied his passionately confident face a moment. He sprang up and swung his chair through the air. He sat down directly in front of him, obviously an obstacle to his leaping to any more hasty conclusions.
“You noticed that Mr. Napoleon Brill’s crafty face no longer ornamented the living room when we arrived there?”
“I did. But that smart Aleck’s coming to his senses. He answered questions. He dropped into the unlighted dining room for a drink of water. We found the silver carafe on the sideboard. We found his half-empty glass on the dining room table, just where he said he left it. And the others saw him go in there before the lights went out.”
“Anything to prevent him from slipping out the other door of the dining room and cutting off the lights?”
Hutchinson lunged towards him. “He didn’t have to. He wasn’t suspected. Dorothy Vroom was. She knew we suspected her. She had to get that out of our hands.”
“Phooey!” Blue eyes began to smoulder in Scott’s stern young face. “Dorothy Vroom strike a blow that would knock this man clean out?” He jerked his head towards me.
Hutchinson jumped up and towered feverish-eyed over him. “Show me any gap in this case. Dorothy Vroom planned to elope to escape any more rows with Helen Brill Kent. She admits being in this room five minutes before the murder. We know that they fought like wildcats. But has she a single person to support her claim that she left this room before the murder? She has not. Not one. Wait! I haven’t finished. She confesses she heard the shot, but of course she heard it while claiming to be in another room. She started to escape, but was delayed. That gave her time to think. She saw that if she ran away then, she’d be the first one suspected. So that sharp young chit hung around. But did she speak of hearing the shot while with the others pounding wildly on this door? Not one word—not even to her own mother—not a peep out of her about that until after the body was discovered. Why did she keep it quiet? Because she had to. Because she shot Mrs. Kent in a temperamental outburst of anger.”
Scott pushed him back into his chair. “A fine string of pearls. But from a five-and-ten counter. Can’t you control your suspicions? At least until we’ve uncovered all the facts? We don’t know yet who started the row at tonight’s party here.”
Hutchinson was up again like a jack-in-the-box. “She did. Beyond all reasonable doubt. Why did she come in here, if she and Helen Brill Kent were on ugly terms? Because she started a row with Mrs. Kent at the party. Because her mother compelled her to step in here and apologize to Mrs. Kent. More hot words between two jealous temperamental beauties. This time no one around to stop them. And then—murder!”
Mullens thrust his red face between them before Scott could reply. “Sure thing! Helen Brill Kent orders her to get the hell out of here. That wild young she-cat raves on. Mrs. Kent climbs into bed and stuffs her fingers in her ears. At that insult, Dorothy Vroom simply goes cuckoo. She grabs up the gun right on the night-stand. She gives Mrs. Kent the works. And she’s still so all worked up that she jerks Mrs. Kent out of bed and shakes her. That’s it! That’s why we found her body on the floor, though she died in bed.”
They stood hunched over Scott on both sides, glowering great guns. I felt sorry for Dorothy Vroom. I hadn’t known Griffin Scott long; I had never seen him in action against such odds and certainties at a crisis. I felt he hadn’t a chance against two, not only so passionately positive, but also in control of this case.
The man who had been obliged to worm his way in on this case, now amazed me by seizing command.
“Sit down. Fan yourselves. You’re blowing your cylinder-heads off.”
He reminded me of a large-nosed, generously-outlined-and-mannered executive of big business bringing a couple of valued subordinates into line with his new policy—cool as spring in a cavern; as accustomed to authority as money; dominating in more than one way; knowing when to pour out cyclonic wrath; and knowing when to swing people to his purposes on the smooth but powerful tide of jocular good humor.
Scott called the two belligerents into a huddle with him in close-drawn chairs. The blue eyes he turned on Hutchinson sparkled with contagious merriment.
“Randolph, you’re a wonder. Sometimes, Mark Twain has nothing on you. Putting up an argument. With eleven—count ’em—suppositions, and just four lonely wabbly legs of facts to stand on. A centipede on its back, with all its legs up in the air, but roaring like a lion. How do you do it—and get away with it?” Before Hutchinson could reply, his twinkling eyes were on Mullens. “And as for you, Sergeant—I’ve often heard the police condemned for lacking imagination. But in that skyscraper you just framed with six breaths in the twinkling of an eye, you used six purely imaginative suppositions without one solitary established fact to hold ’em up. How do you do it, and draw down your salary?”
The atmosphere was cleared magically. Hutchinson and Mullens both laughed—obviously at each other.
Scott lay back in his chair and suggested casually: “You know, this case, in one way, is just the Cronk case all over again.”
Mullens shook his head in silence. Hutchinson took a good-natured exception. “Oh, no. In the Cronk murder case, no such volume of evidence against any one person. Nothing like it.”
“Possibly. But enough circumstantial evidence to make you agree to an arrest on the first night. That was certainly one knock-down and drag-out fight we three pulled then. If you’d arrested that shell-shocked lad, Wellington, then—but I guess you get what I’m driving at.”
Hutchinson colored quickly, as if recalling a narrow escape from a tragic blunder. Mullens rubbed his chin with a heavy look of acute thought, then released confidentially an opinion apparently long secretly treasured on ice.
“You know, I still have a sneakin’ idea Wellington had somethin’ to do with that homicide—you know, without his ever knowin’ he had himself.”
“You would.” Hutchinson’s superior smile travelled along to Scott. “I guess we catch your gentle hint. We know positively who committed this murder—but—we’re willing to give you time to putter around on this case and learn where you’re wrong before we make an arrest, isn’t that right, Sergeant?”
Mullens grinned with pleasure at extending patronage to one others might consider endowed with superior intelligence.
“Sure. Back right in here. Take all the time you want. Only this time I’m tellin’ you—your front lamps ain’t lighted.”
I sat back and drew an amazed breath. The neat way Scott had saved Dorothy Vroom and prevented hasty action by these two positive men! The brain-stuff of these big advertising men! Why weren’t more of them on our diplomatic staff?
Scott’s white long-fingered hand stirred the cinnamon-colored hair on his great head. “What about the five husbands Helen Brill Kent dropped overboard? I have a strong feeling that more people were in this apartment tonight than the six the Sergeant found here. What if one of her infuriated ex-husbands dropped in here tonight and—”
Hutchinson’s gesture made it needless for Scott to finish. “Oh, we won’t overlook them.” His look shifted to Mullens. “Of course, you’ll check up on them, on the cook who walked off with the back door key, and particularly on that young Bascomb White that Dorothy Vroom might have eloped with tonight, if murder hadn’t made that move unnecessary.”
Mullens nodded with a wise look. “You and me know positively who we’ll soon collar for this crime, but everyone of them’ll have our department’s Grade-A attention.”
Hutchinson covered one of those wrenching early-morning yawns that threaten to dislocate the jaw. “And while you’re about it, I wish you’d order everyone here, including the servants, down to my office at nine sharp tomorrow morning. I can’t get there that early, but after the way they’ve all held out on us, they can sit, and wait, and worry. But how about one thing, Sergeant? Didn’t Helen Brill Kent have a personal maid?”
“The hardest sock we have to take on this case, Mr. Hutchinson. They fired the last one two months ago.”
“Too bad! That certainly puts a crimp in our domestic research.”
I saw Scott start as if touched electrically by a new idea, but Hutchinson now glanced at his watch and sprang to his feet.
“Half-past three in the morning! And this beauty’s homely lump of a daughter yet to be examined. I guess I’ll put off questioning her until tomorrow.”
Scott got up slowly. “Your living but nevertheless sainted wife is probably sound asleep now, Randolph. Don’t disturb her—not yet.”
“I get you but—” Hutchinson stifled another yawn as he wheeled to Mullens— “this Ethel Cushing, you questioned her hard enough, didn’t you?”
“Yeah. She doesn’t know what it’s all about. A rush of words to the face, but nothin’ behind ’em.”
Scott laid a quick hand on Hutchinson’s elbow. “If she’s a talker, she’s a gift from heaven after all these padlocked mouths.”
Hutchinson shook his head resignedly. “All right, slave driver. I’ll have her in, but if I find I’m wasting time on her and steal away, you and the Sergeant’ll have to carry on.”
The furtive grin on the corners of Mullens’ mouth hinted that we were in for punishment. And then it was on us in the form of this young girl who sadly failed to duplicate Helen Brill Kent’s celebrated beauty.
At eighteen, Ethel Cushing proved no taller than her famous mother, but so much heavier that she looked chubby. And as different in every other way. Light brown hair instead of golden; coarse and straight instead of refined and naturally curly; bobbed but hanging scraggily around an apple-shaped face instead of a snug golden cap on a perfect Grecian-profiled oval. She couldn’t be bothered with plucking her eyebrows; they grew wide as a path. She possessed the big brown eyes that shine tiresomely, instead of brightening up now and then with an idea. A gabbler of useless details, she appeared to have had little time left to think of clothes.
Hutchinson smiled as at a spoiled child. “Tell us all about tonight.”
She pushed straggling strands of hair off her face, and began before fairly down in the chair Hutchinson indicated.
“All the way down here on the train from Syracuse this afternoon I was thinking of my poor mother. I never even dreamed this terrible thing was going to happen. You see, it was her birthday. And I hadn’t been able to get her anything.” She looked down mournfully at the floor a moment, then brightly up. “But as I was saying, all the way here on the train I was thinking, ‘This is dear mother’s natal day, and what can I do now about it?’ But right in the station—our train came into the Grand Central—I spied a lovely florist’s shop, and I thought, ‘Why not get—’ ”
Hutchinson threw Scott an agonized glance, but interrupted politely. “Miss Cushing, this is all most interesting, but would you mind jumping to the party here tonight?”
“But I was coming to that.” She pouted, then hurried on. “I had money for a taxi and at first I thought of taking one, because of the perfectly sweet bunch of violets I purchased for mother. Things get so terribly rumpled in the street cars!—but then I said, ‘Why waste money on a taxi when a Madison Avenue car will take you within one short block of—’ ”
Hutchinson got up and walked. “Let me help you. Now, you’re in this apartment; you’ve presented the violets to your mother; she’s delighted with them and it’s nine-thirty—what happened then?”
“Oh, at nine-thirty?” Her apple-shaped face clouded, then suddenly brightened. “But I arrived here at quarter past nine. You see the train was only half an hour late—it didn’t take me long at the florist’s—there was a car right across the street—and a nice motorman who waited for me—but you wanted me to jump to what happened here, didn’t you?” She pursed her lips for the fraction of a second, then flowed on. “Well, mother seemed real pleased with the violets, just as you thought she would—but coming up in the elevator I just happened to remember how much she preferred roses—and that reminds me—I forgot to tell you that the florist at the station strongly advised me—”
“Just a moment, Miss Cushing.” Hutchinson jerked out his watch. “I’m sorry. I find I must go but—” his eyes passed to Scott; banter frisked in them— “you keep right on and tell the others everything. Don’t overlook a single detail.”
He fled. Mullens with a grunt of indelicate delight also rolled to his feet. “Excuse me, miss, but there’s something I’ve got to tell him.” He lumbered hastily out of the room stifling crude gurgles in his throat.
I too felt that we were squandering time listening to this jay-talker. I glanced at my watch and then at Scott, but he shook his head angrily. I had to smile at him. He had dropped work to come here for a short time. Now daylight grayed the windows but a steam shovel would have been required to remove him.
“Go on, Miss Cushing, if you please,” he said.
He didn’t have to press her. She plunged on.
“Where was I?” she asked and then answered herself. “Oh yes, back there at the station the florist—he was one of those men who just force you to buy what you don’t want to buy—he said I’d better take violets because they’d just come in—the roses weren’t so fresh—so there I was in the elevator with violets when mother I knew preferred—”
She babbled on, Scott listening intently, not yet asking her a question. I settled deeper into my chair. My neck throbbed below where I had been struck; my head felt heavy. She bored me; I no longer listened.
Scott touched my shoulder. I woke and blinked around the room. Miss Cushing’s chair was empty.
I leaped to my feet. “Sorry. I must have dozed off but—you didn’t get anything from that babbling brook, did you?”
“I did.” A happy gleam made the blue eyes dance in his impassive face. “A family row of the bitterest sort started here tonight. But come on. I’ll tell you about it on the way.”
We hastened out of an apartment still completely lighted up. Haff sprawled sound asleep in a chair in the rear hall. Whispering male voices in the living room dropped abruptly into silence as we passed. As we walked north on Park Avenue, Scott in a low but agitated tone broke the news to me.
“Jesse and Napoleon Brill started the trouble. Those two leeches bunkoed Captain Brill into going there with them for support. They served notice on Mrs. Kent that in the future she would have to come across with four times their previous allowances. And they insisted upon her making room for them to come to live with her. Their greed and conceit simply ran away with them; they rioted for everything at once. That formed their idea of a surprise party that amounted to something. But they picked a hard woman and a bad day. Helen Brill Kent handed them a surprise with a real wallop in it. She took away those parasites’ bread tickets. She kicked them out.”
I gasped. “What! Why, that would drive those greedy beggars simply frantic.”
“Exactly.” Scott’s tone vibrated with excitement. “Can’t you see those lifelong grafters spluttering back, raving at her in the living room? And that little golden-haired but unconquerable woman showing them that she could be just as steely with them as with five husbands? That was her ultimatum. She must have delivered it the way the Empress Catherine of Russia delivered an ultimatum to her court. For when they dared to talk back, she lashed out at them. She specified precisely what she thought of them with a rare and practiced choice of words. Then she walked angrily to her room and snapped on the spring lock.”
I could see those two frantic grafters suddenly flung on their own resources, raging wildly around the apartment, nursing supposed wrongs that would rouse them to any action. And then, within an hour, before they had time to cool down, this murder!
I held down a shudder, then a happy thought stirred me. “Well, this shifts the suspicion from Dorothy Vroom.” Scott shook his stern head solemnly. “Oh no, it doesn’t. While Mrs. Kent was about it, she made a clean sweep. She threw the women out, too, including Mrs. Vroom and Ethel Cushing. Now, that was coming to those two riotous male parasites. But why did Mrs. Kent turn out Mrs. Vroom? There’s a hard nut to crack with our mental teeth overnight.”
About four in the afternoon of the day after the murder, I finally ran down Griffin Scott in the salonlike living room of the Kent apartment on Park Avenue.
He nosed along an antique Chinese rug; absorbed, inquisitive as a vacuum cleaner.
I apologized for my late appearance. “That savage sock on my head made me sleep like a log in a swamp.”
Scott glanced up to reply, but the actions of Shah, Helen Brill Kent’s smoke Persian cat, drew away his eyes.
Shah squatted watching him from a distance with aristocratic curiosity. Now he stepped daintily up to Scott. With twitching white whiskers he scented Scott’s aura estimatingly. Gliding with kingly hauteur out from under his caressing hand, Shah’s orange-colored eyes rated every chair in the big room before he leaped up with the grace of a tiger into the most comfortable. He washed himself. He stretched out in languorous royal ease for sleep, as if now his own vigilance might be safely relaxed.
Scott’s blue eyes, glistening with admiration, moved on to me. “Shah lived in Mrs. Kent’s room before the murder. No one could tempt him out of it. Now, no one can tempt him into it.”
My hand touched ruefully the sore welt on the back of my head. “If His Royal Highness feels safer out here, I don’t. But what happened this morning? Did District Attorney Hutchinson at his office thumbscrew anything new out of the people discovered here last night?”
Scott sprang with exasperation to his feet. “No. Not a thing. Hutchinson blazed away at them like an electric torch, but last night’s evasions all over again. Jesse and Napoleon Brill even had the cool nerve to deny totally the trouble that they started with Mrs. Kent here.”
“The slimy eels! Vicious and in a temper for murder here last night.”
“Yes, cut off from their graft on her, they must have frothed around this apartment like mad dogs. They could have killed her, but no choking a single truth out of them until something lends us a firm grip on their throats.” He paused a moment. “So I’ve asked Mrs. Vroom to step in here for a few questions.”
I looked up at him sharply. “Mrs. Vroom! Say, those two male grafters are heirs. They’d gain everything in one haul through Mrs. Kent’s death. While with no will made, Mrs. Vroom would gain nothing. In fact, she’d lose everything.”
“Maybe, but I could bear learning why Mrs. Kent threw the Vrooms overboard last night along with the others. Mrs. Vroom receives little credit for the way Helen Brill Kent shot up in the world like an express elevator in a skyscraper. What if more credit for that belongs to Mrs. Vroom than most people give her? I could stand discovering just how the stage mother felt towards her golden-haired idol before the murder—and now.”
I felt a bit chilled by the direction his suspicions were pushing. “But Dorothy Vroom may refuse to let you question her mother alone. She tried her best to prevent Hutchinson.”
“Very likely. But have you never heard of a man courting the mother who was really after the daughter?”
Scott left me, walked away, chuckling. I stared blankly at his ominous back. Did he, as well as Hutchinson and Mullens, believe that Dorothy Vroom shot Mrs. Kent? Incredible! I had heard him stand up stoutly for her against both of them. And yet, here he was employing strategy to make her show her hand and to—
The sound of flitting feet whisked me nervously around. Dorothy Vroom dashed into the living room ahead of her mother. Her tall lithe young figure swept towards Scott at a troubled speed; her brown eyes looked deeply agitated; her breathing was rapid; she reached Scott lengths ahead of crumpled, grenadier-like Mrs. Vroom.
“Mother promised to talk to you, but I can’t allow her,” she said. “We have to pack. We want to move out of here at once.”
I groaned at their staggering intention while under suspicion. Scott spoke quickly:
“Haff, the detective here, won’t let you.”
“He won’t?” She appeared stumped for a time, then said with a sharp return of spirit. “Well, anyway, I can’t permit you to hector my mother with any more questions. She’s been heckled with quite enough of them for any one woman for one day.”
Scott’s immediate nod of agreement caused me to look at him with stupid astonishment for a moment. Was he abandoning his purpose? He was quick with sympathy.
“Of course she has. Very thoughtless of me. I shouldn’t have thought of questioning your mother any more today.” He bowed and stepped back; he swung around to leave; but now I saw him linger to say with an appearance of impulsive enthusiasm.
“Before I go, there’s one thing I must tell you. I want you both to know it. Since meeting your mother, I begin to understand how Helen Brill Kent rose so swiftly.”
They stared at him, as if awarded unusual and wholly unexpected credit. Dorothy Vroom looked surprised, then doubtful. But Mrs. Vroom popped instantly out from behind her daughter; she began to talk earnestly and with revealing emotion.
“I gave Helen Brill Kent the best part of my life. I gave her everything—devotion, slavery that I ought to have known enough to give to my own daughter—and see what she’s done to us both for all that.”
Dorothy slipped a slender arm around her trembling mother’s waist. “Omit me, mother. Simply tell them what you did for her, and how she paid you back.”
A clearer light came into the older woman’s dazed eyes; she took her daughter’s advice for the first time, I imagined. We stood waiting to hear how she had guided a raw young country girl up the ladder to international fame.
Mrs. Vroom dabbed a bit of white cambric at her circled eyes. She swirled free from her daughter’s arm and command. She flounced out of a bewildered present into former clearer pages of history. Obviously, once again she felt herself freezing away from American and European doors libertines with more money than sense, cracking the starch of lofty-mannered satyrs with titles, answering short astonished emissaries of princes. Crumpled? Now, she carried herself like a haughty lady-in-waiting on guard over the privacy of Queen Elizabeth.
“I was the leading contralto in the light opera that allowed Helen Brill Kent to make her first appearance in the chorus. She was the loveliest little thing New York ever saw behind footlights—a spray of goldenrod, that’s just what she looked like—but oh, such a completely bedevilled little fool about her power over men!”
She made a furious gesture—one Cleopatra’s brother might have made over the absurd early notions of his ambitious sister.
“I tried to stop her running around wild with college boys and wasters. I attempted to make something of her voice. I just about wore myself out, trying to teach her dance steps. Against my husband’s growls and sarcastic predictions, I made a wise old owl of a stage-mother out of myself years younger than I ever ought to have. But she!—she went and ruined everything. She ran away with a college boy. Tom Cushing! That night-club balloon!” A gust of disgust stormed across her thin dark face.
“When she came crawling back to me, she had no husband; she had a baby instead. Her gas-filled Apollo had sailed off. The bloom was off the peach and I told her a few things. Her voice would never get her out of rooming-houses; her feet would never prance her into front ranks. Now, she was just a silly little Broadway mark-down with an encumbrance but—with her beauty, something could be done for her, if she just showed a bit of sense.
“I made her drop the young flitabouts and wait for a grown-up, settled-down man. When she married Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant, I felt as if I’d rescued a baby from the surf. She had a Fifth Avenue mansion and a quarter of a million settled on her. I tried to separate from her then. My own child, Dorothy, was getting too little of my time and my husband was growing snarlingly jealous. But Helen—she just wouldn’t have that and she had me fascinated, simply hypnotized. She hung on to me. And so, she ended by costing me my husband. You see, he bolted without me.”
The room became still. We saw the price she had paid for her devotion. She dabbed furtively at her eyes again, then her angular dark face hardened.
“After that blow I had to choke down my pride, take my child, and go to live with Helen. But not until after she laid both hands on my shoulders and swore that she would never give Dorothy and me any cause to regret that.” She paused as if held by an inner picture. Then her voice suddenly seemed to tear loose.
“From that day I schemed and fought for her. I gave her my best judgment on every man. I battled off the brutal ones. I froze away the powerful men that she didn’t wish to seem prudish with. I cut off clean her silly escapades. I never told her half the dirty work I did for her. But she knew. That fiendish, ungrateful stony-heart knew. Damn her. She knew. I know she knew. And this is how she paid me.”
Mrs. Vroom looked around wildly; a thin arm shot out in a frantic gesture; her contralto voice leaped to a height of hysterical indignation where it cracked.
“Twenty years of that. The best part of my life. And she dared to throw us out like dust swept up from the floor.”
Her tall spare figure shook; her ringed eyes blazed; with her contorted face, she looked like a woman released from lifelong suppression who had suddenly turned into a maniac. Dorothy put an arm around her and soothed her into a chair. I gazed at her, wondering if murder were ever justified and what punishment a jury hearing that story would vote against her. Scott stole solemnly away and whipped up an apparently intense interest in a French artist’s full-length portrait of Helen Brill Kent in her youth, in which she looked too sweet and innocent ever to know what a hard thought or a mean action was like. After a long time, he turned.
“Mrs. Vroom, what could Mrs. Kent have planned to do that could make her treat you so unpardonably?”
She bent beyond her daughter standing beside her; she glared at Scott out of a fury just beginning to be pacified; she snapped at him:
“Plan! She had no plan, except to get rid of us.”
“She must have. To treat you so ruthlessly.”
“Don’t tell me. I was a fool thinking she would never do to me what she did to all the others.”
Scott dropped his eyes from her with evident disappointment, then he asked sternly:
“But how did Mrs. Kent defend herself when you protested?”
“At first I felt too upset to protest. When I got my mad up and went to her room, she wouldn’t let me in.”
“But Mrs. Vroom! You’re not a woman to let such a wrong pass in silence.”
“I never had a chance to fight it out with her. Before I could, we found the body. She was gone.”
Scott regarded her incredulously. Dorothy plunged earnestly to her mother’s defense.
“This is precisely what happened here last night. After Mrs. Kent left this room in a tempest and locked her door, her father and two brothers marched out first to argue with her. They came right back; they said she refused to allow them in her room. Then her father rushed out to her alone; but he came back looking wilder than ever. Then Nappy dashed out; he returned snarling that she had simply gone cuckoo. By this time, mother had pulled herself together enough to go and talk to her; but mother also was right back in this room within two or three minutes. Mrs. Kent was flying high, in one of her up-and-up tempers. She wouldn’t let even my mother into her room.”
Scott spoke to Mrs. Vroom, not to Dorothy. “But she did let your daughter in. And your daughter admits that she was not on exactly the pleasantest terms with her.”
Mrs. Vroom replied wildly, disregarding her daughter’s silencing look. “Not until I shouted that she simply had to see Dorothy, because Dorothy was leaving here. And not until I swore that Dorothy wouldn’t say a word about her throwing us out.”
Had Dorothy Vroom been able to live up to that promise? Spirited young girl that she was, had she parted from Mrs. Kent as quickly and as amicably as she said, without discharging one word of protest against the infuriating injustice done her mother? I gazed at her believing this almost as impossible as that she could have taken justice into her own hands and shot Helen Brill Kent. Scott turned away from them both with a pained look. Sharply, he turned back.
“Mrs. Vroom, precisely where were you at ten-twenty last night when this thing happened?”
Mrs. Vroom started to spring up; Dorothy held her down in her chair. “I was in my own room just—just where I told you I was.”
Scott’s eyes, I noticed, were fixed not upon her, but upon Dorothy. He couldn’t help but observe the daughter’s slight start of surprise. The next moment Dorothy plunged in front of her mother. She faced Scott defiantly.
“Not another question.”
Brown eyes fierily and intrepidly on guard over her mother studied his stern face. “Why?”
“I’m obliged to ask your mother certain other questions.”
“Then I’ll answer them.”
I had a queer feeling. Scott had achieved his purpose. Apparently to protect her mother, Dorothy Vroom agreed to answer his questions. Would he now attempt to intrigue from her evidence against her mother? Was that necessary in order to learn what he evidently was determined to learn?
He pretended to permit her to answer for her mother with reluctance. Before he put his first question, the tall blond boyish figure of Bascomb White rushed into the living room. He swung straight towards Dorothy; evidently to him she was the only one in the room.
Emotion suddenly twitched her dark face; a young mouth hastily assumed oddly stern lines. “I’m not going, Base. I told you last night that it was all off.”
He caught hold of her elbow confidently. “But I’ve got the Rolls down at the door. To City Hall and a license in a jiffy.”
She snapped her elbow from his hand. “I’ve changed my fickle mind for good, Base. You’d better understand that.”
They gazed at each other, these two young people whose elopement last night had been prevented by murder here. His young face glowed with assurance; the hardness left hers; she quickly became nonchalant; but beneath her nonchalance, she seemed deeply agitated; her hands fluttered; her breathing continued fast.
Her eyes wandered thoughtfully away from his. With an annoyed toss of her young head, she evidently sought to ridicule him out of his purpose.
“It’s too delicious! Your intentions, I know, are highly noble but—”
A swiftly clouding face interrupted her masterfully. “Wait a minute. I’ll show you how my dad’ll stand behind me and you too. He’s never turned me down on anything yet.”
He dashed out into the hall. He reappeared in the entrance. In his hands the hall telephone. In his manner the sublime confidence that a fond father cannot help but second his son’s choice among womankind. He asked for a number. In gay command he called to Dorothy:
“Now, listen in on this. You’re going to hear something good.”
We all listened, the others doubtless hoping, as I did, that this unfortunate kink in the chain of young love might be straightened out and wondering why she now so determinedly turned away the youth she had been willing to elope with before the murder. We heard Bascomb White recall the marvelous young artist he had often mentioned to his father, and rave over the good looks and gifts of the girl he now meant to marry until he was roared down by a voice that rasped raucously out of the receiver. We watched surprise and injured pride splash crimson over his young face. We saw him edge away into the hall with the telephone to argue and then heard him fight for his choice.
A face flaming as if burned by the August sun reappeared through the entrance. A voice hoarse with argument and anger spoke to Dorothy.
“Dad wants to talk to you first. But don’t you talk to him unless you want to.”
Dorothy Vroom ran to him. With set lips, she snatched the receiver from his hand. She listened a moment. Then her voice, chilling and distant, went over the wire:
“I won’t. Now, don’t get excited. You can feel absolutely certain I won’t. . . . I shall tell him quite frankly that it was only your money that thrilled me and that now I know the lowdown on how you would treat us. . . . Oh, you don’t need to tell me that.”
She hung up. She cut off talk we heard still crackling in over the wire. She placed the telephone with over-precise care down upon the floor. She spoke to Bascomb White as she passed him.
“Sorry, Basc., but it’s obviously good-bye. Better luck next time. Try a blonde. They’re not so changeable.”
He jumped free from amazement. He reached out a hand to stop her as she flew past—too late. “You little quitter! Come out to the door with me.”
For an interminable moment they glared with young impatience at each other, then she answered in a frigid, strangely harsh tone, turning away, “No, thank you. Mother will do the honors.”
“If you don’t, it’s all off.”
She switched around and stared at him in astonishment. Then she delivered a final blow with a laugh that to me sounded strained.
“It’s most decidedly all off already, only it doesn’t seem to penetrate.”
For a moment their looks locked. Then he allowed Mrs. Vroom to coax him from the room.
A silence with a beating pulse in it while we watched him go. Then I looked sharply at Dorothy Vroom. She loved him; why had she so deliberately broken with him? Once more she had protected him, fairly driven him off the scene. Why? Because she herself expected to become more hopelessly involved in this murder? Could there be any other reason?
There could be no doubt that she loved Bascomb White deeply enough to make sacrifices for him. As she walked slowly to a chair, she for the first time noticed her hands. They grappled each other. Quickly she separated them and hid them behind her back. She sat down and managed a smile at Scott—a ghostly smile, just a glimpse of white teeth between lips paler than usual in an olive face. “Those questions. Please hurry them.”
Scott’s eyes were on her with an odd unreadable feeling behind them. It seemed to mix respect, admiration and regret. Would he take advantage of her inner turmoil to hound evidence out of her against her mother? His voice sounded friendly but firm.
“You tell us that you left Mrs. Kent’s room at ten-fifteen, went to Miss Cushing’s room to powder your nose and remained there five minutes before you heard the shot. Wasn’t five minutes a long time to spend just powdering your nose?”
She started. “Not for many girls.”
“But for you?”
He shook his great head gently, but in a way that clearly reserved protest. “Well then, where were you between ten-twenty, the time of the shot, and ten-thirty, when you came in here to go out?”
She hesitated, then she answered rapidly. “I was in Ethel’s room until I came in here to go out.”
“But that increases your time in there to fifteen minutes. You don’t expect me to believe that you spent all that time improving a face that Nature has treated rather generously?”
She didn’t reply. She became still and thoughtful. She sat gazing at the cut-steel buckle of a smartly pointed pump, as though feeling new explanations had suddenly become necessary.
He pressed on heartlessly yet still in a carefully gentle tone. “You had to go to the room you and your mother occupied for your hat and coat, didn’t you?”
“Then, you see, you didn’t come right in here from Ethel Cushing’s room.”
She sat motionless, but color streamed into sight on her pale face.
He drew a chair near her; he sat down; his voice became even gentler, though his look continued stern.
“Two of the statements you made to us, really now you mustn’t ask me to believe. Why should you remain in that room fifteen minutes? And why stay in there ten minutes after hearing the shot without even putting your head outside the door to learn what had happened? Don’t you see that’s too heroic a command of curiosity for me to believe? Don’t you think you’d better tell me the truth?”
Looking down, she said more to herself than to him. “I suppose I’ll have to.” She drew long tapering feet under her chair; she looked up with spirited decision.
“I did go to Ethel’s room. I was in there when the shot was fired. And I remained in there most of the time I said I did but—” she hesitated and blushed—“not all the time.” A pair of troubled brown eyes wandered around the room, then she sat up sharply and went on.
“When I heard the shot, I did start to open the door to discover what had happened, but a thought stopped me. I thought one of the men had gone mad and shot Mrs. Kent. After the ungrateful absolutely heartless way Mrs. Kent treated my mother, I felt she deserved that. Why should I spy on a man who dared to do what I felt like doing?” She sprang up; her eyes flashing, she boldly challenged him to question an action inspired by loyalty to her mother.
“So I stood there with my hand on the doorknob listening, until I suddenly remembered that I’d promised to meet Bascom White at half past ten. I looked at my watch. I had only three minutes. I rushed to our room to get my hat and coat and say good-bye to mother but—”
She paused; she appeared to ponder the wisdom of disclosing something more; again she arrived at a spirited decision with a winged flutter up from her side of a nervous hand.
“I believe I’d better tell you this now. I didn’t go right to our room. Something stopped me. Something prevented me.”
Her breathless stare suggested an important disclosure. Scott leaped to his feet. “What? What stopped you?”
Across the still room her answer, though shaken with remembered surprise, came sharp and startling to my ears.
“A man’s voice stopped me. I heard a man in Mrs. Kent’s room!”
We stood staring at Dorothy Vroom. A man in Helen Brill Kent’s room shortly after the murder? The murderer! If she could tell us whose voice she heard there, this crime was solved. My scalp tingled. Scott seemed annoyingly slow with his next question.
She sank back into her chair. “I don’t know.”
I gulped. The murder was not solved! I knew this by her deeply dejected attitude in that gaily upholstered chair, by the way she gazed blankly ahead. Scott attempted earnestly to help her.
“Was that Captain Brill’s voice?”
Her young dark face tightened with harder thought.
“Was it Jesse Brill’s?”
She continued silently to think—lines on so vividly young a face that they seemed as out of place as wrinkles on the smooth face of an infant.
“Was it Napoleon Brill’s?”
Then Scott astonished me. No dismay; instead his eyes brightened, seemed suddenly to illuminate his stern face; he pounced nearer her; he displayed the excitement of a prospector finding his diamond mine.
“It was another man! It was a man from outside!”
I gasped. Was it possible Scott believed another man present in this apartment on the night of the murder besides the three men of the family discovered here? I gazed at him until I recalled his prediction that this was likely. Then I fidgeted until Dorothy Vroom’s reply should open up or close this startling new outlook.
The lines vanished from her face. Relief smoothed her brow; it lighted a gleam in her thoughtful brown eyes.
“You’re absolutely right. It was some other man. And that’s exactly why I couldn’t decide whose voice threatened her in that ugly tone.”
The murderer! Undoubtedly! Who else could have been in Helen Brill Kent’s room threatening her last night? My hands clenched as I waited for Scott to extract information that might bring the slayer out of the dark where he lurked into light where we could identify him.
“What was his threat?”
“He was positively savage. He shouted at her, ‘You dirty little cheater! I’ll break you of that!’ He sounded brutal and furious. He could have beaten her up.”
“Go on. What then?”
“That’s all I heard. I was in too great a hurry to listen or to think much of that then.”
Of course. A young girl on the point of eloping. How could she think long or much of anything else? I smothered my disappointment, while Scott shot innumerable questions at her futilely seeking the faintest lead to the man’s identity. Finally he grew heedless of all that gentler methods had won from her. He made an exasperated gesture; he snapped at her:
“Well then, who does your mother think he was?”
Her head went back; she was on her feet; fire flamed in her eyes. “Tell my mother I heard a strange man in Helen Brill Kent’s room! You don’t understand how furious the least breath of scandal against her pet goldfish would make her. But I’ll tell her now, before you shock her with the news.”
She went swiftly from the living room. Scott paced the floor, his head down, looking far from as pleased as I thought he should. I felt that he failed to appreciate how completely his discoveries had removed suspicion from Dorothy Vroom.
“All you’ve got to do is to tell Hutchinson and Mullens how outrageously Mrs. Kent treated Mrs. Vroom, and about the threatening man in Mrs. Kent’s room last night, and they’ll instantly see they’ve been third-degreeing the wrong person,” I suggested.
Scott stopped walking. He turned and looked at me as though I had arrived at the most preposterous conclusions. Then he whisked away towards the door.
“Come on. They made me promise to tell them anything I discovered.”
On the way to Hutchinson, I ventured another suggestion. “Probably Mrs. Kent grew lemony as she thought how largely she owed her success to Mrs. Vroom. Or perhaps she got rid of Mrs. Vroom because she resented her management.”
“Possibly. We’ll set a smart newspaperman to digging up all facts, published and unpublished, about Helen Brill Kent’s sensational career. The actual facts about the spectacular are often astonishing—and guiding.”
Scott’s whispered name secured us admittance ahead of many waiting into District Attorney Hutchinson’s private office. Sergeant Mullens sat talking vigorously to him. Apparently, they were in conference and close to action on this case.
Scott sat down and informed them of every detail discovered with a completeness and precision that amazed me. He reported even the surprise Dorothy Vroom revealed when her mother claimed to be in her room at the moment of the tragedy.
Hutchinson roamed restively up and down his office, turning impatiently now and then to register with an irritated look a silent exception. Mullens stood stodgily in front of Scott, like a magistrate hearing in chambers an appeal for a confirmed felon, his manner showing silent but conspicuous skepticism from beginning to end. At the end Hutchinson exploded.
“The sweet little liar! I told you she’d prevent you in one way or another from questioning her mother alone. She had to. She did it, Griffin, and she’s determined her mother shan’t let a thing slip out that’ll tighten our grip on her. Here! You say she seemed surprised when her mother declared herself to be in her room at ten-twenty, the time of the shot. That wasn’t surprise. That was fear. How could she be surprised? She swore last night that her mother entered her own room right across the hall before she herself went into Mrs. Kent’s room at ten-fifteen. Then why any surprise at learning her mother was still in there a few minutes later? It wasn’t surprise; it was fear that her mother spotted her running from the room after the murder. That’s the explanation, the only possible explanation.” His sweeping gesture closed the case for good.
Scott regarded him severely. “Randolph, I can give you three other explanations right off the bat why that statement of her mother’s may have surprised her.”
“I’ll warrant you can. You can take a longer leap of the imagination from a mere toe-hold than anyone living. But you can’t make a mystery of this case. It’s too damned clear and straightway. That Dorothy Vroom, she’s my oyster.”
“You’re tabascoing your oyster before it’s shelled.”
“It’s shelled. Hell’s bells, take her fresh line of bunk about hearing a man in Mrs. Kent’s room soon after the murder. What’s that put out for, except to save her own skin now she knows how rapidly the Sergeant and I are closing in on her?”
Scott shot him a look of weary astonishment. “And you haven’t been expecting to discover another man there last night!”
“Griffin! Honestly now, what do you take to get that way?”
“Something that would absolutely shatter your tightly closed mind.” Scott’s manner bristled with exasperation. “Without another man there, how explain the man with the knockout blow working there last night? Without another, how grope nearer the reason Helen Brill Kent put a spring lock on her bedroom door?”
“There you go again—subtling up the simple fact. She put that lock on there obviously to keep out an entourage that would be a credit to any violent ward.”
Scott jumped up. He broke into a temperamental outburst, the unexpected violence of which jolted me into seizing the arms of my chair and gaping at him.
“Isn’t character ever going to tell you anything? Damn it, are you always going to shut your eyes to the mainspring of human actions?” His blue eyes shooting out electric sparks; his tone crackling with released energy, he tore up and down the office. “Why was Helen Brill Kent forced to lock out the people here? Because on the still hunt again. And what had she hunted all her life—what do her history and her trophies prove that she has persistently and characteristically hunted? Not postage stamps or jungle animals, not limited editions or rare paintings, not golf cups or Sealyhams but man—man! Why nose down into the ground like a mole? How can you help seeing that here’s almost certainly a case to cherchez l’homme?”
He stopped before Hutchinson, one hand messing up outrageously his cinnamon-colored hair, at the top of a tempest. “So you still don’t see we’ll find another man there? Then you put no faith at all in that young girl’s story?”
“Not one thimblefull.” Hutchinson raised a powerful forbidding hand in a Doctor Munyon gesture. “If she identified that as the voice of one of the men found there last night, I might put some stock in it, but she didn’t dare do that. She cleverly left it to you to ring in an outsider. She elected you to put over that desperate bunk for her. She remembered that every minute before the murder two or more people were in the living room. She knows they would have seen anyone entering the front door.”
“At the top pitch of that family row, anyone could have slipped in the front door absolutely unnoticed by the excited people. And don’t blind yourself to the fact that there was a new lock on the back door. There are more ways of entering an apartment than by the front door, mole.”
Hutchinson’s handsome dark face flared with sarcasm. “Yes, and when you require an unknown to shift your crime to, you don’t need a door, a window or even an opening as small as a keyhole. I never expected you to fall so hard for a pretty face.”
Scott’s ire at this accusation was accidentally snapped at someone else. At that moment, the telephone on Hutchinson’s desk rang twice. As he stepped away to answer it, Mullens complacently chewing a toothpick while enjoying hearing his own belief strongly argued, apparently decided that he should make himself felt. He bore down on Scott to set him right.
“That doll did the trick. Don’t let her play you for a sucker. I’m tellin’ you she did, and you know me. I’m fussy.”
“You fussy!” Scott glared nippingly at him. “Yes, fussy as a tomcat.”
Mullens’ heavy face flared red as a chain-grocery storefront; he floundered for a retort smiting enough; but he was saved further mental effort by Hutchinson’s sharp call to the telephone.
“Here! Haff’s fairly steaming to talk to you from the Kent apartment. He’s evidently discovered something.”
“Sure he has.” Mullens jabbed Scott with a pointed glance as he turned. “Mr. Scott was after me to take Haff out of there, because he was soft on that young Vroom bag of tricks, but I knew what I was doin’. I knew that boy on the spot would stick something on her sooner or later.”
He seized the telephone; his smoky eyes gloated over Scott a bit sharper each time that he jubilantly answered, “Yeah,” into the receiver. Finally he issued praise.
“A fine job, my boy. Keep your mouth shut and sit tight. If you’ve got what you think you have, I’ll see the Commish jumps you up a grade.”
He slapped down the telephone. His bearing, as he turned towards us waiting expectantly, simply trumpeted.
“Ease up. The best Detective Bureau in the world comes through all by itself again. He’s got the bird who bumped her off.”
There was a hushed thoughtful moment, then Scott bounded to his side. “Sergeant! Did that rookie risk naming the murderer on a telephone in the Kent apartment?”
Mullens raised a heavy arm and ironed out error. “Sure he didn’t. We train our boys to be foxy. Haff knows better than to warn that little spitfire to run before we make a pinch. He just hinted—and hinted damned delicately—that he had the goods on someone. Ease up, Mr. Scott, and call the wrinkles off your brow. Our work’s finished, if I can read our secret code.”
But Scott, still nervous, jerked from him to Hutchinson. “We’d better drop everything. We’d better hustle up there. Just as fast as we can.”
His fretful nervousness impressed Hutchinson, if wasted on Mullens, Hutchinson sprang for his hat and coat. “Come on. My car’s down at the door.”
As we hurried after them from the office, I couldn’t help registering a complaint in a low voice to Scott.
“Can you tie that? They’ve settled their minds that Dorothy Vroom did it. They don’t think. They don’t give her a fair show. They warp and twist everything into proving that she did it.”
He nodded his stern head angrily. “Right. They don’t think; they only suspect. Most people fondly priding themselves that they’re analytical are only suspicious.”
We speeded uptown, Mullens sitting on the front seat, beside Hutchinson’s chauffeur, to wigwag right of way from traffic policemen.
Our car scorched towards the cross street where we must turn to the Kent apartment house on the other side of Park Avenue. Mullens looked ahead, swearing, hunting the traffic man on that post, then, not locating him, he sprang out on the footboard and flashing his badge, peremptorily jammed up traffic. Blaring the horn, Hutchinson’s chauffeur wheeled us around into the downtown stream of motors. He stopped us with a lurch in front of the Kent apartment house.
The ruddy, gray-haired traffic officer, called from his post, came running to Mullens from the inner court as we hurried out of the car. He looked a bit excited even for the impatient autocrat of a Park Avenue crossing. He reported in a low agitated voice to Mullens.
“I ’phoned first for an ambulance,” he said. “Then I took a closer look and ’phoned for the Med. Examiner.”
Mullens seized his arm. “What the hell are you talking about?”
The traffic man’s eyes widened. “Hasn’t anyone broke the news to you? He must have been dead when he hit the concrete.”
Mullens dropped his arm with an enraged grunt. We rushed behind them into the inner court. Mullens brushed through a ring of awed men and boys.
Face down, flattened in a gelid sprawl on the blood-splashed cement, lay the body of Detective Haff.
Between far-flung fan-shaped splashes of crimson, Sergeant Mullens dropped on his knees upon the cement courtyard. Without turning over Detective Haffs bone-mashed body, he rapidly examined it. Something flashed, unexamined and too swiftly for me to identify, from under a shattered hand into Mullens’ pocket.
He heaved to his feet, his square face black with smothered fury. He muttered, his teeth barely separating to let the words through, “I’m goin’ to get that skulkin’ killer.”
Mullens showed at his best in the quick way he turned everyone to use and organized instantly a routine investigation. He asked Hutchinson to grill the apartment-house manager and employees. He yelped the traffic officer and roundsman on the beat into a huddle with him. He snapped a few sharp questions at them; he spat orders at them drilled in by short fierce bobs of his head. Then he himself rushed away into the apartment house.
I looked around for Scott. He was not anywhere in the courtyard.
Mixing among the awed but talkative groups cluttering up the apartment-house entrance, I picked up what information I could.
Haff had hit the pavement with a frightful crunch and groan less than five minutes before we drove up. No one saw the body fall. The hysterical screeches of a florid woman, cowering against the open door of her limousine with her hands over her eyes, brought the traffic officer running from his post. This officer recognized Haff, knew he had been stationed on guard in the Kent apartment. His first questions to the hemming-in throng established the belief that Haff had fallen by accident from one of the open windows in the Kent apartment five stories above.
I watched six detectives from the Homicide Bureau stride into the courtyard. While a squad of policemen pushed a gaping mob of onlookers further away, these detectives received Mullens’ orders from the traffic officer and roundsman. The first-grade detective of the six waved the traffic officer back to his post, remained with the roundsman on guard over the body; the other detectives dashed into the apartment house to question occupants of all apartments facing upon the inner court. A platoon of police marched in; they surrounded the entire block.
Not knowing where to find Scott, I roamed uneasily from spot to spot, watched the finger-print specialists and Medical Examiner Solovitch arrive and, after fierce low-toned tips from the first-grade detective, scurry to their tasks.
One of their own men had been murdered. Faces hardened before my eyes; legs swung quicker the instant the first-grade detective muttered the news and Mullens’ orders.
Later, in the room where the first murder had been discovered, I listened to the conference that revealed the results of this determined killer-hunt.
In Mrs. Kent’s room, I came at last upon Scott and Hutchinson seated with grim faces in chairs drawn together. Then Mullens stepped in. He carefully closed the door. His slow movements; his ugly but less nervous look indicated that he had hold of something.
Hutchinson reported to Mullens immediately the meagre outcome of his section of the investigation.
“The manager and employes say Haff must have fallen from one of those windows.” He gestured towards the two wide-open windows on the inner court. “But they didn’t see a damned thing. I don’t believe he fell.”
“Fell!” Mullens in his scorn shouted. “Hell, he was pushed. And I’m hanging this on you, Mr. Scott. You kept Dorothy Vroom out of a cell to lure Haff to one of those windows and shove him out.”
I sat limp and shuddering. Then he piled this atrocious killing also on that young girl’s shoulders? I shot a startled and anxious look at Scott. What could he do to help her, if Mullens had evidence against her on this murder too?
Scott shook his stern head in a slow way that stirred up no hope in me.
Mullens thundered towards him. “Sure she did it. He was crazy as a Swede over her looks. She’s the only one here who could wile him into leaning far enough through one of those windows to be shoved out.”
“Not out of one of those windows, Sergeant.”
Scott’s quiet tone ruffled Mullens into sarcasm. “What a lot the amateur knows! What whim-whams you into thinkin’ he was pushed from anywhere else?”
“The terribly mashed condition of his body. Let me show you where Haff was pushed from.”
Scott guided us five stories higher to the roof. In the veneer of dust and soot on the low parapet directly above where the body struck, he pointed out tragic marks.
“Those marks tell the story. Someone beguiled poor Haff to bend over here. A quick shove; he went on his last journey. And it wasn’t Dorothy Vroom who pushed him over.”
“Is zat so?” Mullens straightened up and regarded him with undiminished confidence. “Now, you come with me and I’ll show you somethin’. Somethin’ I’m not pullin’ out here in the open. Then if you still say she didn’t do it, you can put it to music.”
Feeling slightly but doubtfully more hopeful, I hurried back with the others to Mrs. Kent’s room. There Mullens with all his earlier confidence burst out:
“Dorothy Vroom pulled off this trick. What in hell’s it matter where? Now, you listen to me prove that she did.” He jerked a glove from his pocket; he dangled it before Scott’s eyes. “I picked this glove out of Haff’s smashed hand. It’s hers. I’ve made her confess it’s hers.”
With a sick feeling that no one could help her now, I peered over the shoulders of Scott and Hutchinson silently examining the limp but incriminating evidence. It was a right-hand beige suede pull-on woman’s glove, size six. It had burst across the palm in a jagged tear. There was another circular tear around the thumb-seam. If Dorothy Vroom had confessed this hers, even though this formed merely more circumstantial evidence, what could Scott or anyone else do for her? This was specific; this added to all the rest, raised too much against her to stay with any general denial.
Mullens stood watching us with an ugly and determined look. He raised an avenging relentless fist. “This time I put that young hell-cat away. No one’s goin’ to soft-talk me into leavin’ a double-killer out loose on her deadly work.”
Scott looked up at him sharply from the glove. “Oh, she confessed that she pushed Haff over?”
Mullens’ look groaned at him. “Say, give the young hellcat a little credit. I’ll third-degree that out of her when I get her where there’s no interferin’. All I even wanted out of her here was her say-so that she’d lost a pair of gloves, and this was one of them.”
Scott thrust the glove back to him with a look of weary exasperation. “Oh, Sergeant! More circumstantial evidence. And you kidding yourself that can’t be made to perjure itself.”
“Well, I don’t want nothin’ better. Listen! Her glove. She says it’s hers. And clutched in the murdered man’s hand.”
“That may be her glove. But where are you, if her hand wasn’t inside it?”
“How the hell are you goin’ to try to make that out?”
“Look at it. Look at that torn palm. Look at that tear around the thumb-seam.”
“I’m lookin’. Huh! This was torn when Haff ripped it off her hand as he pitched from the roof.”
“Sergeant, you make me think of a grapefruit that thinks itself an eyewash. What stretched that palm to the bursting point? What bulged out those fingers? What could, but a bigger hand jammed into that glove?”
I hugged myself with totally unexpected relief. Mullens stood staring dumbly at that torn glove. This bit of circumstantial evidence Scott had handed a specific black-eye. Then I felt like singing. Hutchinson stalked up to Mullens; he demanded the glove for closer examination.
Hutchinson flattened it out upon the palm and fingers of his own hand. He scrutinized close to the eye its ripped palm and stretched fingers. With a judicial frown, he tossed it back to Mullens.
“Looks to me as if a man might have squeezed his hand into that. Who was here when you rushed up?”
Mullens shook his head and looked sullenly discouraged. “That’s the hell of this. The same six people here that were here the night Helen Brill Kent was croaked. This isn’t takin’ us one step further.”
“Where did the six claim to be when Haff was killed to keep him from telling us what he’d learned?”
“The three men—the father, Captain Brill and Napoleon—said they were in the livin’ room, settlin’ matters about Mrs. Kent’s funeral tomorrow, and I found them there. Miss Cushing said she was in her own room, spongin’ a dark dress to wear to it, and there she was doin’ that. Mrs. Vroom and Dorothy Vroom said they were in their own room, just talkin’, they said. They were there when I got there but—plenty of time they had to get there.”
“Nothing from the Medical Examiner or the finger-print sharps?”
“When do we ever get anything from them in a pinch like this? Finger-prints? A baby stealin’ jam knows better than to leave them behind now.”
Hutchinson looked glumly at the glove a moment, then sighed. “Well, I still think you’re after the right one, if this does look as though someone attempted to fix the second murder on her. She’s smart enough to put something on herself, that we couldn’t help seeing was put on her, to make us doubt what we’ve already got against her. Yes, and to send us after the men. But with all your flying squad on the spot so damned soon afterwards—didn’t they nose out a single person here who saw Haff falling, or saw him on the roof with anyone?”
“Not yet. Hell, this killer is beginnin’ to get me. Who’s goin’ to be next?”
Mullens dropped the torn glove out of sight into a pocket. He looked under the ebony bed, through the bathroom door, out of the open windows, as if expecting a blow from any direction now. I understood just how he felt; often I jumped and looked behind me. But soon Mullens began to scratch his head.
“What I can’t figure out is, what the hell do you suppose Haff caught someone doin’ here that coked that someone up to risk pushing him off the roof?”
That was right. The murderer must have been caught red-handed at something to kill Haff in the open to silence him. What had Haff got on him?
“Gimme what Haff knew, and I’d soon be sittin’ easy in my flat with my shoes off. Seems as if one of you brainy big shots might show some of the class now you think you have.”
His look merely flicked Hutchinson, but it lingered on Scott. And Scott accepted the challenge. He accepted it with a promptness suggesting this to be a question long ago settled in his mind.
“Sergeant, to have you think I could help you makes this just one of the proudest moments in my life. I have an idea what Haff stumbled onto here. Shall we see if there’s anything in it? You say you actually saw Helen Brill Kent’s jewels in that wall safe last night?”
“I sure did. Do you think I was goin’ to miss that chance for a look at her jools? I made Mrs. Vroom unlock the metal jewel case and show me the sparklers.”
“And they appeared worth the half million that unethical free publicity hounds have humbugged the public into believing that they’re worth?”
“Say.” Mullens paused for a slow grin. “If them were stolen, the owner’d mark ’em right up to half a million. And then the newspaper boys would raise ’em to a cool million just to be generous. But you know how it is. There was a string of pearls there, a bunch of big stones, and even a tiara, but—can you see me valuing ’em more than a hundred thousand? Can you?”
“No, Sergeant. Not when lifted on your beat. But why not get the combination and key from Mrs. Vroom? Any objection to making certain that they haven’t been stolen?”
A sharp look at Scott to make sure that he was serious. Then Mullens secured combination and key. With clumsy nervousness he opened the wall safe. It was empty.
For a long moment, we stood gazing into it, visualizing with the help of Scott’s hints, the tragedy that had happened here. Haff, evidently caught someone with a key entering or leaving this room. With the smartness of a rookie, he unquestionably alarmed this person with his sharp questions and skeptical manner. Then he made the fatal error of telephoning Mullens. The person caught obviously listened to him, cunningly won his confidence probably by confessing to having stolen the jewels; then with false meekness agreed to lead Haff to their hiding place. Once this killer had Haff on the roof, expecting to have a strange place of concealment pointed out to him, flustered by the thought of recovering the jewels all by himself, the rest was easy.
One quick push. Haff had been silenced forever.
Mullens’ smoky eyes lighted up with new fire. He shot out his prognathous jaw. He came in like a gusher.
“No one’s got away. I’m finding those jewels. I’m collaring that killer.”
As he burst away from us, Scott bounded after him. “If you find them, look out you’re more careful than Haff was. But that killer’s not to be caught the same way a second time. I guess you’ll keep alive and kicking.”
He did. Mullens called together his flying squad. He led them and us in an inch-by-inch search of the roof and every room, closet and flue in the apartment.
No trace of the jewels was uncovered. Mullens kicked like a radiator at the beginning of its long hard Winter’s work.
Early the morning after the second murder, when I glanced into Griffin Scott’s unusual workshop, he appeared deep under the autohypnosis of horizontal thinking. Scott believed that many baffling problems, slept on and supposedly worked out overnight by subconscious minds, were actually solved by the clearer and more concentrated thinking of people stretched out mornings horizontally in bed.
His stern young head pillowed on one arm, he lay facing the back of the Sheraton leather-upholstered settee. All muscles relaxed, his body entirely off his mind, he stretched flat and level-headed evidently hoping to chart a course by dead reckoning to the mysterious and brutal killer.
I tip-toed to a chair. He was up, and his head tolled a warning. “Either we pluck a fiend from the magic hat soon, or it’s the axe for Hutchinson and Mullens. See the morning papers?”
I nodded, but the way those two prejudiced men swung everything on to Dorothy Vroom’s shoulders made me feel like smashing something.
“They! With their sealed-envelope minds.”
“Don’t seal up your own mind. They’d leave us standing at the barrier in a race after a professional murderer. And where the full zest of the sport for us, if they simply yes-yessed our ideas about the scintillating, dazzling crimes of amateurs?”
He dropped into his swivel chair, mechanically lighted up his drooping-stemmed calabash. My eyes traveled across the glass top of his broad desk. The bulging portfolio of advertising that had nearly kept him off this case had disappeared. Somehow—when did this man sleep?—he had scowled out a new selling idea for his friend’s campaign, visualized it, despatched it to his agency.
A few puffs to settle down his thoughts, and then I felt afresh the fascination of being personally conducted through the maze of a murder mystery by Griffin Scott.
He pulled a typewritten paper from an inside pocket. “Three doubts will slow us up like chewing gum on our shoes until cleared up. Was Mrs. Vroom actually the success-maker of Helen Brill Kent’s career that she claims she was? Was she as damnably wronged by her golden idol as she raved herself into believing? And if another man did sneak into Mrs. Kent’s room the night she was murdered, can that man be one of her infuriated ex-husbands? Now, we can check up on these. Here’s a digest of all the facts and all the dirt about our spectacular international beauty and her jettisoned husbands. A Catalogue of the Helen Brill Kent Collection of Husbands, the jocular reporter who swept this up for me calls it. Let’s peek into her spectacular and racy past. Let’s conjure up her muttering relations by divorce, and see if we’ve been neglecting any violent enemy of hers.”
Intense curiosity craned my neck far over his shoulder to read:
The Helen Brill Kent Collection Of Husbands
No. 1: HAROLD BEASLEY KENT, only son of the proprietor of The Emporium, the big dry goods store of Clarkston, Kentucky. This son the town’s matrimonial prize. Helen Brill born in Clarkston; at fifteen, placed behind a counter in The Emporium by her father; at fifteen (within one week), she eloped with and married the proprietor’s son, bringing on the proprietor a first stroke of apoplexy; at fifteen (within three months), she abandoned this first husband and migrated to New York City on the housekeeping money. Harold pursued her there, entreated and then attempted to force her to return; failing, he later, at her request, divorced her. Grounds, desertion.
No. 2: THOMAS O. CUSHING, college boy, wild son of a Syracuse, N. Y., manufacturer. At eighteen, Helen eloped with and married him; his parents immediately cut off his allowance and refused to receive her. For one month, Helen supported her handsome new husband; then she begged for him and compelled him to accept a job as sales-clerk in a shoe store. He worked only ten minutes. That afternoon he borrowed money from former classmates and disappeared. Helen and her daughter by him, Ethel Cushing, said never to have heard from him again; last heard from by his own parents in 1909 from Shanghai, China. Helen divorced him. Grounds, desertion.
No. 3: ROBERT COURTLANDT STUYVESANT, fifty-year-old son of wealthy members of New York’s Four Hundred, likewise wealthy in his own right. When twenty-two, Helen married him after he executed an ante-nuptial settlement on her of $250,000. Later, he alleged that she refused to bear a child for him until he made over to her another $250,000. Still later, he alleged that she demanded half a million for a divorce, and another half million for their only child. He is said to have sworn furiously that he wouldn’t pay her another cent. His parents were later reported to have paid the full million for the child and a divorce after their attorneys struggled in vain with Helen to secure any reduction. The child’s name, Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant, Junior; Helen reported to have sold all rights to him, agreeing never to see him again. Stuyvesant divorced her. Grounds, cruelty.
No. 4: MARQUIS DE LA BATTAILE, thirty-two-year-old son of impoverished French family. At twenty-seven, Helen married him when in Paris alone. Soon afterwards, she alleged that his patent of nobility proved spurious and that he was “a pretty but expensive ornament.” He alleged that the income promised him by her could be neither argued nor beaten from her. Their public and private quarrels entertained all nations and made Helen internationally famous. Helen alleged that he demanded half a million dollars for a divorce, but that she refused to be blackmailed, waited until he abjectedly needed money, and then actually paid him only 3,000 francs. She divorced him. Grounds, incompatibility of temperament.
No. 5: CHILTON FULLEGARD, twenty-five-year-old son of distinguished English family; a famous wit, reckless and fascinating. When thirty-four, Helen married him upon his alleged promise to secure entree for her into the highest circles of English and Continental society. She admitted with a smile that these circles shut their doors against her, although they continued to welcome her husband. This marriage lasted only nine days. She threatened to divorce him and cite a co-respondent. He is alleged to have despatched a brother to her with all necessary evidence and a caustic message. Helen divorced him. Grounds, infidelity.
I jerked away from facts that simply ripped down my previous poster-impression of a celebrated beauty.
“The angel-faced love-pirate! The men she took and scuttled or abandoned! And women envy her career, without the faintest idea how stony-hearted she had to keep to get there.”
“Yes. No one’s bothered to expose her. Reporters brush up heaps of dirt about famous people that they seldom throw on them for fear of libel, or because they’d only be accused of low-down spite or jealousy. Who was it said that a professional beauty in order to succeed needed, ‘A brain sharp as a needle, ruthless opportunism, bargaining virtue, and the thick hide of a rhinoceros’?”
“Look at the deadly facts. It’s exactly as Mrs. Vroom said. Mrs. Vroom piloted her into her only wise marriage.”
“No doubting that any longer. She made Helen Brill Kent. And then received her reward—was thrown out like a squeezed orange. Dorothy Vroom and her mother wouldn’t have been human, if they didn’t feel like slaying Mrs. Kent.”
Hastily I shifted suspicion to others. “But the men! Five husbands done to a turn. Five sore enough to murder—”
“Four.” Scott switched his chair around facing me. “Mullens wired for information on all ex-husbands. Harold Beasley Kent, Husband Number One, goes out of the picture. He’s now Clarkston’s leading bank president, the paunchy and proud father of seven children, secretly tickled pink at having been the first husband—even for a short term—of a beauty now known around the world. And he furnished an air-tight alibi for the night of the murder.”
“But the other four?”
“Cushing, Husband Number Two, appears to have gone native. He’s sunk, living or dead, somewhere in the dregs of the Far East. No trace of him, while Number Four, the goateed outsmarted little French Marquis, and Number Five, the daredevil young Englishman, Fullegard, police agents haven’t run down to report on yet. That leaves only—”
“Stuyvesant!” My hand sprang out; I seized his arm. “The husband she wrung the fortune from to gamble on all the others. And he lives right here on this avenue.”
Scott jumped up, pocketing the paper. “Right. We’ll see if we can’t compel Stuyvesant to talk. He absolutely refused even to see the detective Mullens sent to question him yesterday.”
In a few minutes, we arrived at an apartment house upon Park Avenue in the middle-sixties. With hidden but tingling admiration, I observed the daring method Scott employed to force Mr. Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant to talk.
Scott walked importantly past the challenging uniformed sentinels in the foyer. He entered the elevator. He said: “Mr. Stuyvesant. He expects us.”
The brass-buttoned elevator man pointed coldly towards the telephone switchboard. “If you’ll send up your name, sir.”
“We’ve no time to dawdle away down here.”
A yellow-backed bill passed into a greedier palm. The cold elevator man became a trifle warmer towards us. A discreet sidelong glance over Scott from English brogue shoes to Knox felt hat, and he whisked us up to the fourth floor.
“The door straight across, sir.” A cage door clicked quickly; the cage dropped from that floor with a haste hinting difficulties at hand that we’d have to overcome ourselves.
Scott sounded the bell, and through the open door, Stuyvesant’s forbidding butler sifted us down with a haughty survey. Scott strode arrogantly past him into the spacious high-ceilinged hall of a duplex apartment. He extended his card to the protesting butler without deigning to look at him.
“Take this to Mr. Stuyvesant. And don’t loiter.”
For a frosty moment, the tall stiff-faced butler hesitated, but mainly to recover from shock. Then in a feeble effort at retort, he said:
“If you’ll wait here, sir, I will learn whether Mr. Stuyvesant will see you so early in the day.”
He consigned us with magnificent distance to a small reception room. But Scott snubbed him and continued walking impatiently up and down the lofty baronially furnished hall.
The butler strutted away from us at a stately pace; he returned with a carefully solemn face, but triumph glittered balefully in his eyes, and Scott’s card lay counted out upon the silver tray in his hand.
“Mr. Stuyvesant doesn’t know you, sir. He asks what you want to see him about at this early hour.”
Scott whipped around and stared at him. That stare was like the hot blast from the engine room of an Atlantic greyhound.
“What do I want to see him about? Something too urgent for him to keep me blinking at a hall that mixes Spanish and Petit Trianon antiques in such a perfection of rotten taste. Take that card back. Tell Mr. Stuyvesant what I think of his hall furnishings. And break the news to him that I declined to answer a single idiotic question of yours. Scoot!”
A still moment. The butler evidently debated which of two rude unrefined men he preferred to face. Then once more he disappeared.
The wild snort of an enraged man came to us muffled. At the end of the hall, the library door was flung open. A short and portly man in the intolerant seventies, with a spoiled choleric manner and a flushed face, ramped up the hall to Scott, followed by his no longer impassive butler. “What do you want?”
Scott regarded him in a cool silence. Upon such a tempestuous little man, he clearly decided that diplomacy would be squandered.
“Mr. Stuyvesant, you will have to answer questions about yourself and your former wife. If you—”
“Go away!” Stuyvesant stamped a tiny foot on the rug; his arms beat the air, frantic as clipped wings; his tanned face purpled; apoplexy hovered over him. “Don’t you dare mention that vile gold-digger here.”
Scott took his frenzy about as seriously as a hail storm in June. “Don’t waste your time. Where were you the night before last between eight-thirty and ten-thirty?”
The cool question threw Stuyvesant into sort of a convulsion. His portly body shook; his hands clutched and unclutched spasmodically; he glared around as if hunting a weapon; but beneath all this spasm, I felt that fear startled him, that an astounding doubt had risen in his mind that made him desperate and ferocious. He turned on Scott with a fierceness actually venomous.
“Get out. Get out of here with your insolent insinuations. Get out before I—”
“Oh no! Not now. I notice you have some reason for hiding where you were then.”
Stuyvesant fairly fizzed with resentment; he sputtered before his anger could break through his surprise. “I—I have nothing to hide. Get out. Get out of here with your crude insults. If I had a gun, I swear I’d—” he checked himself sharply and whirled around to the gaping butler.
“Jenkins, throw this man out of here before I—before I mutilate him.”
A vicious glare at Scott and he whizzed away up the hall. The library door banged to with a biting and echoing jar.
For a moment, while I gasped at his heedlessness, Scott stood poised to follow him. And that was the man who had struck Captain Brill down flat with a chair. Then Scott strode angrily forward, and Jenkins wavered in front of him.
The butler trembled under a face paper-white. His starch had melted; his stiff manners folded up; he looked like one ready to say and to do anything to ward off another clash in which he and his dignity would be so brutally slighted, and that he would be expected to finish. His tone to Scott shook with entreaty.
“Please, sir. No, sir. I wouldn’t. He’s not himself today, sir. You shouldn’t take what he said too seriously, sir. He’s been terribly upset lately.”
Scott’s manner swore. “Upset nothing. That’s just his spoiled blustering way. That won’t go.”
As he threatened to move on, Jenkins appeared frightened out of all dignified training and caution.
“Oh, but he has been upset, sir. Terribly upset. He’s had high words with his son. His son threatened to go and make himself known to that woman that he’s seen so frequent in the papers.”
“Well, why shouldn’t he?” As he turned towards Jenkins, Scott seemed to forget his purpose. “She’s his mother.”
The butler bent more hopefully towards him. “But perhaps you don’t know, sir. She sold him to Mr. Stuyvesant for a fortune. She promised never to see him again.”
“That may be, Jenkins, but you can’t stop a grown-up boy from making himself known to a famous mother, not when his father indulges the silly delusion of thinking himself a cyclone.”
“Begging your pardon, but I don’t think you quite understand, sir. It’s his jealousy and his fear driving him mad, sir. He was afraid his only son and heir might like that woman better than him, after he’d paid half a million dollars for him. And he dreaded she might lure him away, get him under her noxious spell, I might say, and nip him in marriage for some piratical hooker that’s a satellite of hers.”
Scott nodded with amusement, but behind his mask of amusement, I knew he must be thrilling at the importance of the news forced out. If this frantic father had gone to Helen Brill Kent to battle for his son on the night of the murder, violence was likely and murder almost certain. Had not Stuyvesant been thrown almost into a convulsion when asked merely for an alibi then?
Scott turned away slowly, as if more forgiving but without much more time to waste. “When did that all happen, Jenkins?”
“A matter of a week ago, sir.”
“And Mr. Stuyvesant spoke harshly to the woman who has piratical hookers?”
“I couldn’t say that, sir.”
Scott whirled around on him sharply. “But you can say where Mr. Stuyvesant spent the night before last between eight-thirty and ten-thirty?”
Jenkins hesitated a moment too long; and he answered with too much warmth.
“I can, sir. That, I certainly can. He was right here in this apartment. Every minute of that night.”
Scott hammered him with questions, but now Jenkins, acting worried, shut up as tight as a safe-door. Finally Scott made an impatient gesture to me and we departed.
I managed to choke down my excitement until, reaching the sidewalk, we started down Park Avenue. Then out it burst.
“Stuyvesant! The man Dorothy Vroom heard in Mrs. Kent’s room! Remember the savage threat she heard the man in there make— ‘You dirty little cheater! I’ll break you of that!’ See what happened? Helen Brill Kent refused to keep her hands off the son he’d bought from her. He went into a cyclone. He shot her.”
Scott’s silent look appeared to be meant to calm me down. He quickened his pace, but however geyserlike his hopes may have been inside, outwardly he seemed as smooth as a river.
“If we can catch Mrs. Vroom alone now, we’ll soon know what she thinks about Stuyvesant being the man there. And she can settle one other vitally important question for us—which reminds me.”
He passed to me two freshly-filed keys that fitted the locks, he explained, on the front door of the Kent apartment, and on the door of the room in which Mrs. Kent’s body had been found.
We caught Mrs. Vroom alone. In her room, she sat in a deep-bottomed wing chair, her knitting dropped into her lap, staring moodily out a window. She got up impatiently. The frown on her dark angular face demanded a reason for our intrusion.
Scott ignored her annoyed look. “Mrs. Vroom, could the man your daughter heard in Mrs. Kent’s room after the tragedy have been Mr. Stuyvesant?”
Her astonished look said that he had suggested something weirdly preposterous; she replied with heavy emphasis.
“Had Mrs. Kent heard from or seen Mr. Stuyvesant?”
“Of course not.”
“Had she heard anything from her son, young Stuyvesant?”
“Now, stop talking like a fool. She had finished with both of them. If either had started bothering her, she would have asked me to put a stop to it.”
I felt suddenly let down flat like a tent; Scott still stood.
“But your daughter heard someone in there. That might have been Mr. Stuy—”
She stopped him with an imperious gesture. “If Dorothy heard a man in Helen’s room, it was either Jesse or Nappy Brill, no one else.”
“Just a minute. They both swear under oath that Mrs. Kent refused to let them in.”
“I don’t care what they swear. Either one of the family was in Helen’s room then, or else Dorothy only thought she heard a man there.”
I gulped. Did this odd mother realize what she was doing? When she denied the possibility that Stuyvesant could be there, she waved us away from our most promising road; but when she declared that perhaps no man was there, she queered our only way to press along in defense of her daughter. If Dorothy Vroom’s own mother doubted her hearing a man in there, who else would believe that? Dazed by her heedless action, my eyes appealed to Scott. Strange! He accepted her amazing action without a visible sign of surprise. He moved on, unperturbed, to the vitally important question of keys—and with results.
“Mrs. Vroom, let me have your key to Mrs. Kent’s room, please.”
“Sergeant Mullens has it.”
He regarded her in silence, a severe silence. “You realize, I trust, that by retaining that key you’ve caused yourself and your daughter to be suspected of taking the jewels?”
She stared at him in wide-eyed terror. Then she ran to her hand-bag, fumbled out a key, and dropped it as though it burned her fingers into Scott’s extended hand.
His silent look compelled her to say something. She said with a wild fear making her dark eyes flicker. “We didn’t touch them. I had much more right to them than any of Helen’s family, but I wouldn’t take a thing that didn’t belong to me.”
I felt she was telling the truth, though I couldn’t understand why she had schemed to retain the key. Scott ignored her alarm in a way preventing my reading his opinion. He stood idly turning over and over the key to the room in which murder had been committed; he finally addressed her in a tone so light that it urged me to watch sharply for serious developments.
“Amusing inconsistency of a woman so fearless! Now, why do you fancy Helen Brill Kent ever placed an extra spring lock on her door?”
“To keep Jesse and Nappy out. Goodness knows, no one can doubt that.”
“No other reason?” Scott waited until she shook her head decisively. “Then why the spring lock on the back door at the same time?”
“That new lock we had to have. Our cook walked out in a huff. She might hand the key she took with her to a thief or a burglar.”
He nodded as though he agreed to let this reason pass, but intuitively I knew that he was adroitly maneuvering towards information of moment.
“I don’t suppose this little steel ticket of admission fits the lock on the back door?”
She looked at him as if she suspected him of being weak minded. “No. What an idiotic question! That’s the key to Helen’s room.”
Scott had learned something from that reply. I could tell that by his quick but impassive glance at me.
He started to pocket the key; a casual thought seemed to stop him. “Oh; what about the other keys? Who has them?”
“There was only one other key. The Sergeant took that one when we went through Helen’s things.”
His light manner vanished; it vanished abruptly; his eyes fixed themselves on her sternly. “Sorry. You’re utterly wrong about that, Mrs. Vroom. I’ve seen the locksmith. He showed me his books. He sold Mrs. Kent six keys.”
Silence—the silence that follows direct accusation of misstatement. Were there then six keys, six people who could have let themselves into that room that night? Astonishment descended upon Mrs. Vroom like a flurry of black weather; I watched her frown deepen as she apparently struggled to think how there could have been so many keys; her frown lifted as she arrived at an explanation.
“But of course she bought six keys. Three were for the new lock on the back door. She gave those to the servants.”
I choked down the human urge to correct a mistake. That left one key of the six still to be accounted for. Mrs. Vroom appeared to overlook that fact, but Scott, I knew, never would. I waited for him to call her attention sharply to that oversight, but he acted as if he had established all he desired to. My eyes hung on him puzzled; the moment we departed I planned to learn what he had established.
Now, he bent forward to examine a crayon sketch of Mrs. Vroom thumb-tacked on the wall over the narrower couch doubtless used by Dorothy Vroom.
He nodded approval of the few lines and smudges with which a character had been caught. “Your daughter’s work?” he asked in the low tone of deep appreciation.
A proud parent lost her severity, beamed. “She did every bit of that herself.” Mrs. Vroom’s face suddenly hardened; an ugly movement got away from her. “That’s where Helen acted meanest and cruelest. She knew we had nothing and that Dorothy would have to drop out of art school. One more year there, and her teachers promised Dorothy such wonderful things!”
Scott turned and studied her keenly. “You don’t need to worry about the future of the girl who drew that. She can earn while she learns the rest. Does she work in color, and in pen and ink?”
“In both. You never saw such an ambitious and endless worker. Gracious, let me show you.”
Mrs. Vroom tore around the room with the secretly loosened enthusiasm of a stern mother. From drawers, closets, corners and even from under Dorothy’s couch, she pulled portfolios, sketches, canvases.
I watched Scott study each piece of work for a long time, then reach eagerly for another. I waited for him to offer to help this young artist to secure work from advertising agencies. He didn’t. He spoke with glowing enthusiasm of Dorothy Vroom’s talent, but he offered neither advice nor aid.
I turned away with alarm. Only one thing could have kept him from helping a young girl now compelled suddenly to support her mother and herself. He expected her to become too hopelessly involved in this mystery to attempt to start work. Later, I was to learn how right I was in part, yet how blind to the way Scott preferred to lend a hand up to anyone.
The door was thrown open. Dorothy Vroom dashed into the room. Her excited velvety brown eyes fell upon Scott and a look of dread crept into them. They traveled to the litter of her work on the couch and she glanced with reproach at her mother.
Her slender figure stiffened; her eyes, shot with fire, flew back to Scott.
“You’re simply merciless. Can’t you let my mother have a minute’s peace?”
“Yes. Tell us everything. We’re friends of yours.”
She made a defiant gesture; she dived to the couch; she dropped on one end of it and began rapidly piling up her work.
Scott cleared a space on the other end, sat down, eyed her sternly. “I came here trusting your mother’d support your story of a man in Mrs. Kent’s room on the night of the murder. But she doesn’t.”
The young girl straightened up from casting an unfinished pen-and-ink sketch far under the couch.
“Well, what did I tell you? Mother has quaint ideas of loyalty. She always fights to the last gasp anything and everything that pre-O’Neil minds could possibly use against Helen Brill Kent’s fair name. It’s a habit. All her life she’s been her champion.”
Scott leaned towards her. “Perhaps you’ve changed your own mind about hearing a man in there then.”
“Oh no, I haven’t.” She met his eyes steadily before stooping to push a tottering pyramid of her work out of sight below.
“Perhaps you heard her son by Stuyvesant in there.”
“No. That was no young boy’s threat.”
“Or Mr. Stuyvesant himself. No one more violent and threatening.”
“That’s much more likely but—” she smiled faintly— “if he had called here, it could never in the world have been kept quiet. How tongues would have clucked! What a sensation!”
Scott bent back, his eyes aimed at her, the attitude of one throwing a bomb. “Well then, why couldn’t that have been a new candidate for the hand of Helen Brill Kent?” I jerked up my head. Scott’s theory that the murdered woman must have had another husband in sight! Could he establish that now by the women closest to her?
At his unexpected question, the pencil study of a Russian doorman’s figure dropped from Dorothy Vroom’s hand; she let it remain on the floor; she stared at Scott in frank amazement.
“Men have been shot for saying less than that.” Her eyes took on thought as they moved away. “Look! Look at mother.”
Mrs. Vroom’s eyes were raised to the ceiling; they fell with a look of scorn on Scott. “Helen marry again! And I not know it! Why, for two months she hasn’t allowed a man to call. They might meet her father and Nappy and they’d queer a saint. They might run on Ethel and fancy Helen years older than they had any right to. Now, stop insinuating things against her. Not since her neuritis set in a couple of months ago has she seen a single man. Now, let’s have an end of this.”
Her head was back; her eyes glinted danger signals. Scott got up, but his eyes rested inquiringly upon Dorothy.
She came up out of deep thought with a frank smile to answer him. “That’s simply too delicious. That’s a startling idea but—no one pelting her with orchids here. No one roping her with pearls or attempting to handcuff her with diamonds.”
I followed Scott grumpily across the hall into Mrs. Kent’s room. Now that those closest to Mrs. Kent blasted Scott’s theory that she had been enthralling a sixth husband, I looked for him to drop it. Instead, he whisked open the drawer of Mrs. Kent’s desk and once more took account of its contents.
Discouraged by the swift way our flares of light on this case burned out, I tramped up and down the floor behind him, kicking at our hard luck.
“Our Stuyvesant lead knocked flat. Your sixth-husband idea ironed flat. And Mrs. Vroom even denying that Dorothy heard an outsider in this room. If we mean to save her daughter, we’ve got to go way back and start all over again, haven’t we?”
Scott, counting some cancelled checks, offered no reassurance. I recalled the question I intended to ask him.
“I was woozy, I guess, but—what did you get at with all your questions to Mrs. Vroom about the keys?”
Scott, his count completed, swung around; his blue eyes held the glint of promising discovery.
“Mrs. Kent, it appears, was tricky, had secrets even from Mrs. Vroom. She never let Mrs. Vroom know that each of those keys unlocks both the new lock on the back door and this room’s new lock. What’s more, she kept from her to whom she gave the sixth key.”
“That key.” I flamed with a new hope. “Find it on any man here, and we’ve caught the murderer.”
The devilish stubbornness of Scott. He clung still to his theory that no one would credit. “And how build on locating that key on any man found here? Mrs. Kent could hardly have thought of marrying her father or brothers.”
In hope of discovering someone, as yet unsuspected, edging in on Mrs. Kent’s funeral, Griffin Scott the next day attended all exercises over her body, including the interment in a Brooklyn cemetery where an international beauty of earlier times, Lola Montez, was committed to earth.
To meet him, I let myself into the Kent apartment about nine that night. And there while nervously awaiting him, I became a chance looker-on at actions helping us along a bit in the solution of these murders.
The apartment was dark. Even the servants were absent. I wandered into the dining room to examine four old colored prints of English hunting scenes on the walls. The plump ruby-faced squire and other chasers of the brush entertained me for several minutes, then I switched off the dining-room lights. I was about to step out into the rear hall. The talk of people entering the apartment through the front door stopped me.
They flashed on the lights in the adjoining living room. The three Brill men, just back from the interment, came into sight. Their odd behavior meshed me in silence.
In the center of the group stood red-haired and fervent Captain Brill in his best Salvation Army uniform, dark blue with a mere piping of red around the collar. On either side buttonholing him, hung his elephantine father, Jesse Brill, and his ratlike younger brother, Napoleon. They seemed to be attempting to bend that inflexible zealot to some purpose of their own.
Napoleon Brill pulled his brother’s sleeve. “We look on you as the head of the family. Sure you ought to do this little thing for us.”
“Son, it’s your duty to Beauty and to us,” Jesse Brill added in a wheedling tone, pressing closer.
Captain Brill stood looking down at the floor; his frank tone sounded strikingly vigorous in contrast with their wily voices. “I don’t want to take charge of her property. I feel it’s tainted.” His bony resolute face swung up and earnestness vibrated his appeal. “Let’s do a Christian act. Let’s turn it all over to the Army as I shall my share.”
Screeches of anguish and scorn from both sides of him. Obviously ashamed of their avarice, he flushed and looked from his father to Napoleon. “If you won’t do that, let father serve as administrator.”
Napoleon Brill regarded him with contempt, snarled. “Hell, but you’re right. I might as well drop it down a sewer manhole as let him trap it.”
Captain Brill turned to his father.
“Then let Napoleon serve.”
The distressed squeals of a pig from that side. “Not Nappy! He owes his landlady, the boarders and even the servants where he lives.”
Captain Brill’s face flushed redder. “I can’t see it as my duty. My conscience says, ‘No.’ ”
From the dark dining room, I glared at the pair of parasites, untouched by Mrs. Kent’s murder, suspicious of each other, willing to trust the estate in Captain Brill’s hands only. But why did neither urge Captain Brill any more to take charge?
“Where you goin’?” the father asked with quick suspicion as Napoleon stole away towards the entrance.
“Can’t a man get a drink of water without your getting your fat back up?”
Napoleon Brill drawled out of the living room, but he ran past the dining room door in the rear hall at a speed that brought me flying to it. From the doorway I watched him trot down the long rear hall. Where he vanished from sight caused me to tremble with excitement. He had let himself into Mrs. Kent’s room.
He had the one unaccounted-for key! He could have entered that room when Mrs. Kent was murdered, when the jewels were stolen. I dashed into the hall to hurry away and tell Scott. I dived back again into the dark dining room to keep Napoleon Brill, now returning, from seeing me.
The next moment with his hands sunk deep in trouser-pockets and his small eyes glistening brightly, he sauntered around the living room, gloating over furniture and pictures he already clearly prized as his own. Apparently, these held his concentrated attention, yet he immediately noticed that Jesse Brill had slipped away.
“What do you suppose the old fathead’s up to now?” he asked his brother, looking towards the entrance.
I heard no answer. Jesse Brill waddled past the dining room door so rapidly that I sprang there to watch him also. But what I observed now dazed my excitement with astonishment. He also let himself into Mrs. Kent’s room!
I stood in the doorway staring down the hall. Two keys? Then both possessed keys to that lock? Had they committed both murders and stolen the jewels together? Their alibis each carefully covered the other; these alibis varied slightly at first; this slight variation, Napoleon quickly adjusted—yes, and a bit too glibly explained. The conviction rushed on me that they had worked together.
That was precisely why they now so thoroughly mistrusted each other. I tip-toed back into the dining room; I listened eagerly to the talk of the two brothers in the living room to pick up all further information possible.
Captain Brill was remonstrating with his younger brother. “You ought to have more faith in your father. There’s no happiness without faith.”
Napoleon Brill grated him with a rasping look. “Say, when I trust that hunk of pork, they’ll forget themselves and stir a little sin into synthetic gin.”
Captain Brill lectured him in a low tone until their father ambled back. Then he joined their hands and departed.
The moment the front door closed they went native.
Napoleon Brill jerked his hand out of his father’s. “The big stiff!” he burst out. “I told you he wouldn’t do a thing for us. Get wise. Leave him out of this. Why, that softy’ll be arguing that Ethel Cushing ought to come in for a cut and Stuyvesant’s kid also.”
At this possibility, Jesse Brill mopped his hairless head wildly with a soiled handkerchief. “Stuyvesant’s son’s got money enough. And Ethel’s got no right to one cent. This money didn’t come from her father.” A jeering laugh rippled his terraced figure. “Sonny, if this money’s too tainted for the Captain, would you think he’d want his Army to touch it?”
Nappy whirled around angrily on his father. “Some time when you call me ‘sonny,’ I’m going to sock you a stinger right on the button. When are you going to get busy and run old woman Vroom out of here?”
“Oh, I’ll warn them both out, now the funeral’s over.”
“Last night I asked her to lay me out a little snack. She broiled me with that fierce look of hers. She had the gall to tell me to get it myself. I won’t mouth over Dorothy hanging on here, but that fire-thrower ought to be chucked out on her ear. She even had the crust to hold me up for money to pay off the servants. They’re getting out today. And all because you strutted around here like a grand duke picking out the room you think you’re going to sleep your fat carcass in.”
The father smiled shrewdly at him. “Now, if you want to do that chucking out yourself?”
“Turn over. You’re snoring like a siren. You’re the head of the house, ain’t you?”
While I fought nausea, the father jumped and gazed at the thin back of his departing son. “Here! Where you going?”
Nappy replied without stopping. “I’m going out to lay up next to a drink. I always have to have one after being with you and the Captain long.”
Jesse Brill crammed a wet handkerchief into a pocket. “I’m going right along with you. Beauty meant more to me than to either of you. Her father really needs a drink. Wait a minute while I turn out these lights. They’re burning up our money now.”
That terraced monstrosity fairly scampered to the light-switch and then out after his unwelcoming son.
For a moment I stood in the dark recovering from the acute feeling of seasickness their vicious meanness brought on me. My convictions grew stronger. These men had worked together. With those keys in their possession, with their completely heartless lack of feeling, could anyone doubt they had committed both murders and stolen the jewels? I allowed them time to get out of the building. Then I rushed out to speed the news to Scott.
As I opened the front door he emerged from the elevator. I seized his arm, whisked him into the front hall, shut the door.
In my excitement my voice rang through the apartment. “Jesse and Napoleon Brill both have keys. There are two keys.”
He glanced nervously up the hall; he put a finger on his lips.
I told him everyone was out; I told him everything I had seen and overheard. I kept my voice down as low as I could, but it still would get away from me.
“One got the missing key from Mrs. Kent. He had a duplicate made for the other. They put over both murders and the robbery together.”
Scott patted my shoulder, but his blue eyes weighed the news. “I don’t think Mrs. Kent handed either the missing key, but they might have stolen it. Both swore up and down they didn’t have keys. Probably one spied out Mrs. Kent’s secret about the two locks. That’s it! He borrowed one of the servant’s keys. He had duplicates filed before he returned it. I’ve meant to ask the servants about their keys, but they’ve always been out.”
I fumed at time going to waste. “What’s it matter how they got keys? They could get in there. They did it.”
His eyes brightened; he touched my arm. “Come! I think I know why each sneaked away in there today. Two cancelled checks disappeared yesterday from Mrs. Kent’s desk.”
He hurried me into Mrs. Kent’s room. Twice in course of a rapid search Scott freed a murmur of delight. Once when he plucked from Mrs. Kent’s desk a will bequeathing all her property to her father, Jesse Brill. And again when he tore from the drawer of the night-stand a will bestowing all her property upon her brother, Napoleon Brill.
“Forgeries!” I pulled away from the shoulder over which I read them. “They killed her in hot blood and then cold-bloodedly went to work and forged these wills.” Scott slapped the folded wills emphatically against the open palm of one hand; his face held stern, but his blue eyes shot jazz through it.
“We’ve caught the grip on their throats we needed. Now, we’ll choke a little truth out of them.”
He sprang to the telephone on the night-stand beside the ebony bed. He called up Hutchinson, then Mullens. More cautious than poor Haff, he artfully re-discovered a spring lock on the door of this room that he must show them at once. He cut off questions.
He turned thoughtfully. “They’ll be here in twenty-five minutes. I can use that time in the basement. The janitor’s kicking about the three huge bags of waste paper I made him hold until I could look through them.”
I moved eagerly towards him. “Can’t I help?”
“No. I know Mrs. Kent’s handwriting. And if this room doesn’t scare your more sensitive nature too much I’d like you here to keep others out.”
He left me. A few moments later, I twitched around and stared at the door, but it was Scott returning.
“Sorry.” He hastened to a chair. “They’ve all come back from the funeral. And Miss Cushing is running short of handkerchiefs.” He picked up a flimsy square of pink linen and net from the chair she recently sat in when questioned. “I let this lay here to discover whether she perhaps had a key to this room. No test so personal and enlightening on the others. But the jewels, the winding of twine and the two cancelled checks have been the only things taken from this room since the night of the first murder.”
He left me marveling at his photographic memory and the shrewd way he made use of even a mislaid handkerchief. I sat down at Mrs. Kent’s desk to add today’s discoveries to my notes. But frequently I glanced with quick terror behind me. I thought I felt the ratlike eyes of Napoleon Brill fixed on me while he planned some action to protect himself.
Finally Scott came back. As he finished washing his hands and announcing that he had come upon nothing either at the funeral or in the basement, Hutchinson and Mullens stepped expectantly into the room.
Once more, I listened to a Griffin Scott report to them. It showed curt perfection of detail; but this time I noticed that Scott skipped completely his forced interview with Mr. Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant.
Hutchinson walked the room restlessly; he said he was hot to start extracting truths from the two forgers, yet he paused for a questioning look at Scott.
Scott observed and interpreted the look. “Ah! Your distant relative, Mr. Stuyvesant, has turned to you for protection from me?”
Hutchinson laughed proudly. “He couldn’t remember your name, but I knew that was you when he let out how someone got him going by insulting his taste in antiques.”
“I trust he gave you a satisfactory explanation of his equally suspicious explosion and flight.”
“He did. Unfortunately, he first pledged me to keep his explanation to myself. But at least I can hint you’d merely be wasting further time on my hot-tempered forty-second cousin, and advise you to lay off him.”
I waited for Scott’s response with the sharpest interest. Would a mere word from Hutchinson cause him to cease suspecting that violent and newly enraged ex-husband? He said nothing. His silence seemed to satisfy Hutchinson.
And then I sat up, alert with new hope. Hutchinson ordered Jesse Brill brought in with an air of lively expectation. Now, truths would be extracted from that sly old forger that would whip the burden of suspicion from Dorothy Vroom.
Solemn and standing, Hutchinson faced a suave and smiling Jesse Brill overlapping his chair. He flashed on him the forged will conveying all property to his son, Napoleon.
Jesse Brill leaped up like a hooked fish out of water. Codlike eyes squinted wildly again at the first page, pudgy fins fumbled to the signature, then clinging to the will as to a hook, he floundered around the room not unlike a blubbery and enraged codfish, shrieking the will to be a fake and a swindle and his son a dirty crook.
This smarting fury against his son, Hutchinson tapped instantly for light that would help his case in court. He readily secured details that would help to prove this will a forgery. He quickly led his witness to confess that he obtained his key from Napoleon. But by this time a cunning shrewdness jammed the brakes on the father’s indignation. No, he had not been in this room on the night of the murder; he had left his key at home. No, he didn’t know where Napoleon acquired his key, or why, or whether Napoleon had his key with him that night. And Hutchinson’s fiercest prodding failed to weaken the alibi that formed both his son’s and his own. Jesse Brill knew positively that his son wasn’t in this room on the night of the murder; he stayed with him in the bathroom next door, exactly as they had sworn all the time.
Winning not an inch of ground in this direction, Hutchinson turned to strengthening his own theory.
“Well, how about it? Do you remember now seeing Dorothy Vroom pick up the revolver from this floor after the crime?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Or put it back on the floor after the body was lifted to the bed?”
“No, son, I don’t.”
I felt a sharp twinge of dread. Hutchinson beamed on the man ready enough to give evidence against her now that his own money was in danger.
Jesse Brill ceased mopping his bare head to put a keen bargaining look on his questioner.
“Will you throw out that fake will, if I tell you something about her?” he asked.
“I will—if you’ll tell me something worth while.”
Jesse Brill dropped into the nearest chair with a sigh; he gazed down at his feet with apparent regret.
“I hoped to keep that young girl out of trouble. But now, how can I do that any longer?” He drew a long wheezy breath and moved restlessly as if in pain. “Son, I guess I’ve got to tell you. Right after the shot, we opened the bathroom door a crack. And there was Dorothy coming out of this room.”
A piece of ice slid down my backbone. What a rotten break for us! We expected this man to rescue Dorothy Vroom; he pushed her head under. This evidence piled on all they already had on her! Mullens’ red face paraded a triumphant grin. Hutchinson’s look crowed over Scott. And Scott acted as if called back by an emergency from distant thoughts, appeared annoyed at being called from them. With an angry glare at Jesse Brill he started to get up. But his thoughts clearly gained a fresh hold on him. He leaned back in his chair; he gazed up at the ceiling.
And then with boutonniered ratlike Napoleon Brill in that chair instead of his father, Hutchinson apparently clinched his case. Into the hands of that wily forger, he flourished the other will forged to convey everything to his father.
Cool as his father had been hot, apparently holding himself tightly in check, Napoleon Brill read it from opening word to signature. He looked up, his eyes snarling viciously, his teeth bared.
“The lousy wallowing old hog! Thinking he could muscle us out of ours! You going to let him get away with this?” Hutchinson snatched the will from his hand and scowled at him. “Don’t look to me for any help, after the cool way you’ve held out on us.”
Nappy wriggled a moment, and then bent eagerly towards him. “Go on. Ask me anything you want. I’m not going to be made the sucker.”
Hutchinson procured evidence from him that this will also had been forged. He worked out an insinuation that Jesse Brill had been blackmailing Mrs. Kent. But now the resentment of this witness began to trickle thin; he grew cagey. No, he hadn’t an idea what his father got on Mrs. Kent to force her to pay him blackmail; the old hippo wasn’t letting anyone in on a racket as soft as that. No, he hadn’t stolen into this room himself on the night of her murder or at any other time. What was the use of insisting that he had a key to this room—he’d know whether he had a key or not, wouldn’t he?
Hutchinson had Mullens stand him up, and pluck the key from his pocket. Napoleon Brill merely smiled—his hyenalike smile.
Sure, he’d tell where he got that key. He borrowed it from the cook one night when he wanted to slip back here and see his sister alone. Sure, the cook would remember that. He’d passed her a pint of water that he told her was gin for the use of it. Duplicates? Sure, he’d had a couple made, so he wouldn’t have to bother the cook again.
No, the old man was a dirty hog, but he was right where he said he was at the time of the murder in here. Both he and the old hippo were in the bathroom next door, just as they swore that they were.
At this point, Hutchinson lost patience at the way he quickly protected his father, when obliged to in order to protect himself. He walked away from his witness with pretended disgust.
“Good night. We got more from your father than you’ll ever come across with.”
Little rat-eyes relighted quickly with resentment. “That old hippo! How do you know he told you the truth? Shoot your questions at me and get the facts.” Hutchinson appeared to hesitate a moment, then come to a reluctant decision. I winced, guessing the direction his next question would take.
“I’ll give you one last chance. And I’ll warn you that your father has loosened up on everything. Now tell me—did you or didn’t you see Dorothy Vroom pick up the revolver in here after the murder?”
Napoleon Brill answered without hesitation, without the slightest quiver of a muscle. “No, I didn’t. The hell I’m going to risk my neck any longer for her. And now, I’ll tip you off to something you don’t know. We sprung the bathroom door out there open just a crack right after the shot. And there was she stepping out of this room.”
I sank helplessly back in my chair. Only a miracle could save Dorothy Vroom now. They had everything else against her; her admission that she was in this room, her animosity against Mrs. Kent, her thumb-print on the weapon—and now, two witnesses to testify that she came out of this room after the murder, not five minutes before, as she claimed. What could Scott, or anyone else, do for that young girl now?
In a palpitating silence, Hutchinson and Mullens smiled at each other. I writhed at how tightly Scott and I had helped to tie Dorothy Vroom to this.
But Scott at this moment hopped out of his thoughts into action.
He leaped up; his blue eyes blazed; he shot questions at Napoleon Brill that crack-crack-cracked like a strip in a machine gun.
“How do you know Dorothy Vroom came out of this room?”
“Hell, I saw her with my own eyes, didn’t I?”
“Did you see this door open?”
“What’s the idea going way back when—”
“Did you see her shut it?”
“Maybe not, but she’d have to shut it, wouldn’t—”
“Tosh! I knew you didn’t see her step out of here. What?” Scott listened impatiently to his explanation. “Now, why muck yourself in any deeper? You both swore again and again you didn’t hear the shot. Then how can you say she came out of here right after the shot?”
The witness began to squirm in his chair. “We heard later when the shot was fired, didn’t we?”
“Yes, and we hear later that your father was blackmailing your sister. Rot! The pot calling the kettle black. People always see their own vices first in others. Now, what were you blackmailing your sister with?”
Nappy Brill sat still, his mouth hung open.
Scott stared burningly straight through him. “I thought so! Now, how could you know the cook’s key would open this door?”
Silence. Awe beginning to creep into surly desperate ratlike eyes too astounded to move out of the line of fire.
“Ugh!” Scott streaked the air with a gesture of disgust. “Are you going to tell me about that, or am I going to tell you?”
A small baffled intensely curious ratlike head evidently eager to learn something, but too alarmed to speak a word.
“How did you know the key to the back door would fit this door unless you spied on the man with that key?”
Nappy Brill looked around wildly, jumped up to go.
Old army officers give orders in that ugly tone; they are obeyed. This one was.
“How did you know someone had a key, unless you caught him entering this room?”
A rat, cornered, began to fight. “Oh hell! Rave on. I don’t know what you’re rambling about.”
With the thrill of unexpected hope, I listened to Scott stick him up with other discerning penetrating questions. But like a man with his hands up in the air, Nappy Brill appeared to realize that the only way out of danger lay through deep and unbroken silence. He shut up like the door to a new tomb.
Napoleon Brill’s sullen silence ended his value. At a gesture from Hutchinson, Mullens turned him out of the room. Hutchinson and Mullens considered the situation, decided to arrest neither of the two forgers until after working up cases against the lawyers and witnesses who abetted them in forging the two wills.
Then in the room of the ebony bed and the ermine floor-rug, a discussion started that soon burst into differences of opinion as violent as those rival presidential timber set off in our Senate.
All agreed that the same killer slaughtered both victims and stole the jewels, but from that point stormy disagreement. Mullens roared for the immediate arrest of Dorothy Vroom. Hutchinson wrangled that she must be left free for a few days; she was the fiend they sought, no doubt about that, but when they caught her attempting to cash in on the jewels, they would have the strong case against her absolutely requisite against such a striking looking young girl in court; certainly, he believed now that she had her hand in the theft of the jewels, if not in the glove planted in Haff’s fingers. Twice Scott jumped out of deep silences to throw monkey wrenches into their mechanically perfected theories; most of the time he contented himself with allowing them to fight it out. His cloudy brow made me feel that he was endeavoring to bridge some gap to a decision.
But the next afternoon Griffin Scott faced a crisis so alarming that he leaped that gap. He leaped to the quick decision that eventually led straight to the uncovering of the killer.
This was the afternoon that I argued so hotly that Jesse and Napoleon Brill, one or both, shot Mrs. Kent. We entered the Kent apartment house; we were part way across the downstairs foyer; he left me to turn back and hold a short but animated talk with a stalwart Irish doorman whom I couldn’t recall seeing on duty here before.
Upstairs, in the privacy of Mrs. Kent’s room, I plunged back into my arraignment of Jesse and Napoleon Brill.
“They claim they stayed in the bathroom next door from more than twenty minutes before Mrs. Kent’s murder until ten minutes after. They must have been driven simply desperate by losing both their living allowances and their blackmail on Mrs. Kent. What would grafters such as they be scheming out together in there? What could they be scheming out except some way to make up for the money they had lost? And what way was there, except through Mrs. Kent’s death? See them putting through their scheme? They planned their alibis. They used their keys. They stole into this room. They shot Mrs. Kent to close their hands on all her money at once as heirs. And then each greedy blackmailer forged a will to get his own itching hands on it all.”
Scott, sitting with his back towards me, methodically reexamining the contents of Mrs. Kent’s desk, listened without a sign of protest. I went on, my indignation steaming.
“Look at them! They’re the only ones here smearing suspicion on anyone else. Both swear they never heard the shot right in this next room, but here they are now claiming they peeked out that door—after we got them scared—at the best possible minute to shield themselves—claiming they saw Dorothy Vroom come out of this room right after the murder. First they slyly led us to suspect they were protecting her; then they cunningly pretended they could protect her no longer. The vile blackmailers! How does that look to you? It looks like dirty work of the dirtiest kind to me. Making that young girl the goat. To save their own rotten necks.”
Scott shut the drawer with irritation and got up. “All that may have happened, but this case keeps spreading out, keeps pushing us further away. You noticed I stopped to question that doorman? He was on duty the night Mrs. Kent was murdered here; he has been in Boston since at the funeral of his mother. Now, get ready for another hot lead. This doorman knows Stuyvesant by sight, had a sister once working for him. He told me that at eight o’clock on the night Mrs. Kent was shot here, Mr. Robert Courtlandt Stuyvesant, looking wild-eyed and acting mad as a hornet, jumped out of a taxi and rushed into the entrance downstairs. He stopped abruptly inside. He smoothed his brow with his hand and thought a moment. Then he rushed out again frantically, as if to escape being seen. The doorman watched him with curiosity out of the side of an eye. Stuyvesant dashed to the corner. For half an hour he paced there, keeping a sharp watch on the entrance. At half past eight he plunged down the side-street on the other side of this house as if he had suddenly come to a decision.”
I rose on another wave of suspicion. Stuyvesant established here that night! To fight for the son he had bought from Mrs. Kent? Had his jealousy and violence found a way in here to battle with his former wife? Now that I had considered the possibility of his gaining entrance more thoroughly, that seemed too improbable.
“Mrs. Kent might have let him in the back door, but one or another of the people was in this rear hall every minute. He would have been seen. And Stuyvesant! How they would have talked over the re-appearance of that plundered victim here! He couldn’t possibly have got in here unnoticed.”
“Oh yes, he could but—you see how this case keeps spreading out like a forest fire, driving us further away, keeping us always on the outside peering in? This won’t do. Not if we hope to save a certain young girl.”
I thought of a way he could help Dorothy Vroom vitally and immediately. “Those two forgers evicted the Vrooms this morning. Dorothy Vroom stepped right out and subleased a studio apartment near Washington Square for her mother and herself. Her mother, as she hung up the telephone in the hall and told me, looked white and trembling at her daughter’s extravagance. Couldn’t you throw some advertising art work her way? I don’t think you’d ever regret giving that promising young artist a lift at the start.”
Scott turned away slowly. He ignored my suggestion. After a moment’s thought, he turned back sharply towards me.
“Step out and make sure Mrs. Vroom telephones Hutchinson and Mullens exactly where they’re removing, won’t you? That may save them a barrel of trouble.”
I did as he suggested.
When I returned, Scott ended abruptly a low-toned talk over the telephone. He appeared oddly uneasy, a bit ashamed. To whom had he been talking? I had worked myself up to ask, when Sergeant Mullens unlocked the door with ominous bumptiousness and disaster threatened us.
Mullens thrust merely his square-jawed bulldog head inside the partially opened door.
“Where’s that young fiend?” he demanded in his ugliest tone. “I ordered her to be here to answer civil questions. She’s tried her high-handed stuff on me once too often. Now, I’m going to run her in.”
I felt my face lengthen. It had been agreed not to arrest Dorothy Vroom yet, but obviously feelings of affront and resentment flamed in Mullens that burned up that agreement like a scrap of paper. I shot a startled glance at Scott.
He raised a hand. “She’s finding new quarters. They’ve been turned out of here. Don’t be rash, Sergeant. Hutchinson knows he hasn’t enough against her yet to warrant an arrest.”
“He’s got plenty.” Mullens’ face scorched with anger. “She’s been ridin’ high. Now, she’s goin’ to do some hard thinkin’ in a cell.”
He jerked his head outside; he slammed the door to, before Scott could say another word for her.
I fell limply into a chair. Reporters had but to spy Mullens taking Dorothy Vroom to any police station to open a cloudburst of pitiless publicity upon her head. I remembered the courage with which she met Mullens’ crude insinuations, and the spirited frankness with which she faced Hutchinson’s accusing questions. A feeling of rage rushed through me.
“Stupid bungler! Why can’t he wait? Why wreck a young girl’s future at the start? Why plaster her with a tragic notoriety that she can never live down?”
Scott shook his head mournfully. “He’s sore on her. And he’s sore on all of us for keeping him from making an arrest that would get his picture into the newspapers. Waste of time arguing with him. He’s got the bone in his jaw and both feet on it.”
Scott’s reply held out no hope. But now he astonished me by snatching up the telephone. He slap-banged a call through to Hutchinson; he protested against Mullens making this arrest today; he made a fervent personal plea for more time.
My admiration for him swelled when I finally heard him say, “Thank you, Randolph. Hold the line, please, until we can get the Sergeant on the hall phone. His jaw’s set. Only you can make him drop this.”
I shook off my surprise. I sprang to tell him what I thought of his quick and generous action, but he seized me by an elbow and whirled me around towards the door. “Quick! Get Mullens on the hall phone.”
When I left him in Mrs. Kent’s room, he showed the first signs of strain on this case. He had dropped into a chair. His stern young head drooped discouraged on his chest. Between his eyebrows were two deep ditches of anxious analytical thought.
When I dashed back, he was pacing the floor angrily. His blue eyes flashed on me with the clear flame of decision.
“This is a hotbed of deceit and trickery. Everyone’s lying. And Helen Brill Kent stirred up more enemies ambitious to kill her than any one person has a right to. We could spend a lifetime worming out who killed her from people on guard every minute here. And if we hope to keep Dorothy Vroom out of jail, we’ve got not a lifetime, but only a few days.”
I bent eagerly towards him. “You’ve planned to do something. What?”
“I’m wasting no more time on the outside looking in. We’ve got to get on the inside looking out.”
“Great! But how?”
“For two months Helen Brill Kent brought no friends home here through the front door. Two months ago she got rid of her personal maid. Two months ago she placed new locks on the back door and on this side. For two months she kept Mrs. Vroom absolutely in the dark about the double-use of the keys and to whom she gave the other key. For two months she suffered painfully from neuritis.” I gasped at the array of facts he had collected and strung together. “You think—another husband in sight?”
“How else explain her ultimatum to her entire entourage here, her sudden clearing house, what Napoleon Brill discovered to blackmail her with?”
I stared at him stupidly. Again that stubborn theory of his that no one would credit. Could he be right? A strong doubt caught hold of me.
“What’s the use of hunting a suitor? We’re after a killer who—”
“Suppose that suitor with the key to the back door was the man heard in her room right after the murder.”
I shook my head firmly. “Oh no. With the procession of people marching down this rear hall one after another to protest to Mrs. Kent, no one could possibly have slipped in here unnoticed.”
“Let’s see. Here! Check up on me.”
It was then that Scott flashed on me the first amazing document of this case. He had prepared a time-table of the first murder. You could look at this and fix precisely where everyone present claimed to be for every minute on the night Mrs. Kent’s body was discovered. From two hours before the crime until the arrival of the police, one hour and twenty-five minutes after the murder. Only an advertising man, forced to judge and hold under eye innumerable essentials, would have thought of laying out such a quickening survey.
My eyes danced over the huge digest he held out with both hands before me, then I stepped back and gazed at him. I mumbled my astonishment at its condensed completeness. But he pushed me into a chair at Mrs. Kent’s desk, and spread it out before me.
“Look this over. Then we’ll see whether he could get in here unseen that night.”
I bent over and studied carefully:
1. International beauty murdered in her bedroom at the end of her Park Avenue apartment far from living room.
2. Jesse and Napoleon Brill leave living room; they affirm that they went directly to bathroom adjacent to murder room, that they remained in there talking over matters of no importance from 9:56 to 10:30, and that they failed to hear shot because of running water in bathroom.
3. Mrs. Vroom and Dorothy Vroom leave living room together; Mrs. Vroom affirms that she entered own room, that she remained in there from 10:14 to 10:29, and that she failed to hear the shot because gazing out an open window above noisy passing traffic. Dorothy Vroom affirms that she entered Mrs. Kent’s room to say good-night at 10:14 and remained only one minute, that she then entered Ethel Cushing’s unoccupied room to powder her nose, that she remained in that room until 10:28, that she heard the shot while in Ethel Cushing’s room, but failed to open the door to investigate because she didn’t want to spy on someone who had probably killed Mrs. Kent, a woman she felt like killing herself.
4. 10:20, the time the shot was heard that killed Mrs. Kent. Captain Brill and Ethel affirm they heard it while in the living room, but failed to investigate, thinking sound caused by automobile exhaust.
5. Dorothy Vroom declares that at 10:21 she was in Ethel Cushing’s room alone; but Jesse and Napoleon Brill declare that at this minute they opened the bathroom door adjacent to Mrs. Kent’s room and saw Dorothy emerging from the murder room. Dorothy affirms that she did not leave Ethel Cushing’s room until 10:28 and that on her way to her mother’s room for her hat and coat she heard a strange man’s voice in Mrs. Kent’s room then.
6. Ethel Cushing declares that she pounded on Mrs. Kent’s door at this time without obtaining any response, that she became alarmed about her mother, that she ran back to the living room and whispered her alarm to Captain Brill and all the others there.
7. Captain Brill declares that at this time he pounded on the door of Mrs. Kent’s room without result, that he spied through the keyhole and saw one of his sister’s arms lying outstretched upon the floor, that he then called Mrs. Vroom to get her key to the room. These details (corroborated by all others present who huddled around Captain Brill in the hall, waiting for him to secure entrance to the murder room.
8. Captain Brill unlocked the door to Mrs. Kent’s room and discovered his sister sprawled dead upon the floor. All five others push into the room behind him.
9. Mrs. Vroom leaves the murder room with Dorothy to call a doctor. Mrs. Vroom declares that she found herself too agitated to telephone.
10. At 11:02 Dorothy telephones a doctor in place of her mother.
11. At 11:10 Doctor Ellingsworth arrives; at 11:45 the police reach the scene.
“Ready?” Scott asked sharply the moment I looked up.
Master of every detail in this broad record, he paced impatiently up and down behind me.
“Now, let’s snap through this fast. The left-angled turn of this rear hall into the shorter front hall makes it impossible for anyone in either hall to see anyone in the other hall. I’ve timed the walks. It takes twenty-eight seconds to walk from the living room through the front hall to the turn where you can see into this rear hall. It takes thirty seconds for anyone to come from the pantry door in this rear hall—where anyone entering the back door would have to start—to this door and unlock it. And anyone leaving any of these rooms in the rear hall headed for the living room would be out of sight around the turn into the front hall in twenty-nine seconds or less. Consequently, this rear hall would be clear for him to reach this room unseen until twenty-eight seconds after anyone left the living room coming this way, and from twenty-nine seconds after anyone left any of these rear rooms headed for the living room. Right?”
“Now check—and double check. Couldn’t an outsider with a key have slipped in the back door and hidden away in this room any time between 9:00 and 9:34 that night? Then the servants were all out. Then all the people found here, including Mrs. Kent, were gathered in the living room.”
“No one could possibly question that. Everyone at the other end of the apartment.”
“Couldn’t he have stolen into this room unseen between 9:39 and 9:45?—between 9:48 and 9:50?—between 9:53 and 9:55?—between 9:56 and 10:00?—between 10:03 and 10:13?—and between 10:16 and 10:20?—all of these intervals before the shot was fired at 10:20?”
I checked slowly each interval before admitting with astonishment, “I wouldn’t have believed it but—he could.”
Scott stopped pacing. He bent down over my shoulder. I could feel his breath coming hot and fast on my right ear. “And now, couldn’t he have entered or escaped by the back door unseen between 10:22 and 10:27?—and also between 10:31 and 10:34 after the shot?”
I checked feverishly twice before springing to my feet. “Great jazz! He could. He could have got in here unseen. And he could have got away after the murder.”
Scott stiffened; about him was an air of enthusiastic determination. “That’s the man. He was inside. He can put us inside. We’ve got to find him.”
“How? How get even a start? With everyone here insisting no such suitor existed?”
He seized the time-table; he flapped it back into its folds as he started towards the door. “There’s one person here who has let important information leak out to us before.” He knocked sharply on the door of Ethel Cushing’s room.
Her chubby young figure livened up with the quick delight with which talkative women welcome listeners.
“Ah! Do—do come in. I was just saying to myself, ‘I wish someone would drop in!’ ” Vivacity brightened her dull apple-shaped face; again a pouring rain of words. “You get so tired of just yourself, don’t you? I was just reading about—won’t you have some candy? There, I’ll place it half way between you two. I have such a sweet tooth myself! You know people tell me I write such interesting letters that I ought to write stories but—are those chairs comfortable? Did you say they were? But give me a good book and a box of candy and—perhaps you’d be more comfortable on the couch. But you aren’t eating any candy. I was just thinking, suppose we had prohibition on candy the way we have it on—”
Scott cut in. “Excuse me for interrupting, but our time is short. Who was that man your mother thought of marrying?”
She slapped her arms to her sides and whisked around towards him with a surprise energetic but shallow. “What man? But what makes you think mother dreamed of marrying again? Marriage is so much more of a risk for a woman than it is for a man—don’t you think so? And the men today seem so scared—”
Scott dived in, quickly but gracefully, between two words. “Yes, they do, but which of your mother’s men-friends was in her room on the night of her death?”
“Man! In mother’s room? On that night?” She sat down; she got up. “Now, who could have led you to believe anything so utterly foolish? Of course, if—”
Scott tried to stop her with a raised hand; he failed; he dived again. “But we know a man was in there. Can’t you tell us who?”
“But who could it be? Mother hasn’t a single friend like that. Grandpa and Napoleon—”
“What! No escort to the opera, to the theatre, to—”
“No. Mother was entirely through with men. I’ve heard her say that so often! Now that reminds me of something. Mother used to warn me against men. I can remember when—
“But what man called here last?”
She stared at him for a flickering second, then looked away quickly and blushed. “You don’t mean Mr. St. Clair? Now, why did I mention dear Mr. St. Clair? No, I think you must be mistaken about mother marrying again. She—”
“Who is this Mr. St. Clair?”
“Oh, just a friend. I don’t know why I ever mentioned him. First he was someone else’s friend but mother took him—”
“Where does he live?”
“I haven’t the remotest idea. But as for any man being in mother’s room—”
“What does he look like?”
“Oh, I never, never could describe him to you. He’s tall and dark and real handsome. But mother warned me against men and I—”
“You said he was first someone else’s friend—someone else here?”
Impetuously she raced on and seemed to think afterwards. “Yes, Dorothy brought him home, but mother took him away from her just like that.” She snapped stubby fingers. “Now, I’m talking gossip and I must stop it. But he had the blackest eyes I think I ever saw. And mother, she—”
“So Dorothy and your mother quarreled over him, did they?”
“Well, Dorothy pretended that she didn’t care but—they had enough to quarrel over before he came and—There! I’m not going to talk another word of gossip. I’m ashamed of myself.” She turned away, then quickly back, without stopping her talk. “I wonder why I’m always telling you things that—”
Scott spoke with sudden impatience. “Come now! Can’t you help us in any way to find this Mr. St. Clair.”
“Oh, I’d be so glad to, if I could. But how can I? Mother simply wouldn’t answer any questions about him—his first name’s Edward, and she once said he just about lived at the Riviera and the Tropical Hour, but that was her little joke, I’m sure. But as for mother having a man in her room—”
Scott got up hastily, offered polite apologies. We rushed out of the room. Pausing only to ruffle the pages of the telephone book, Scott dashed ahead of me to the elevator.
He answered my question as he jammed in and held in the bell for the elevator.
“No, he’s not in the book. And I’ve never heard his name before but—money has fallen into many new hands since the war. We know where to find him. That’s all I ask. And he evidently fluttered the hearts of two other women here, if not Dorothy Vroom’s.”
I looked at him. “I don’t believe Dorothy Vroom had any use for him whatever. Anyone can see she’s thoroughly gone on Bascomb White. And as for this Mr. Edward St. Clair, his name sounds to me like an acrobat’s or a bootlegger’s. He certainly doesn’t sound like anyone Helen Brill Kent would consider making Husband Number Six.”
Scott sprang into the elevator ahead of me without replying.
At the Riviera, we parked at a table on the edge of the space reserved for dancing and endeavored to single out the mysterious Mr. Edward St. Clair. No tall handsome young man with black eyes present. Scott questioned the passing hostess.
“Eddie St. Clair? No, not for days and days. He must be breaking a heavy sugarine into fancy steps.”
She spoke impulsively, but now her eyes went over us more sharply; suspicion came into them; she smiled knowingly, shook her head in answer to all Scott’s further questions, and escaped quickly.
I looked at Scott. “We’re throwing away our time. The man’s nothing but a gigolo. No one Helen Brill Kent would consider for Husband Number Six.”
“Perhaps. But when famous beauties are growing less attractive every year as well as more discriminating, they sometimes choose queer husbands. And don’t forget Mrs. Kent smuggled this one in behind Mrs. Vroom’s back.” He got up alertly. “At any rate, I’m set on having a look at Mr. Edward St. Clair. As the Tropical Hour’s a night club, let’s change. You come and dine with me.”
Scott took me to Pierre’s and introduced me to orchid salad. Over his portion of this exotic lettuce, he glanced up to inform me:
“Helen Brill Kent used her good looks boldly, the way celebrated beauties of history usually have, but one capturing custom kept her from ever losing a trick. Never a man did she scorn at first sight. She never squandered a smile on other women, but no matter how useless a new male seemed, she turned on the light in her big blue eyes for him.”
I laughed. “Well, that might explain how she pulled in St. Clair. But a gigolo, a mere dancing man! She’d unhook him and throw him back in the sea.”
The flaming crepes Suzette burned him free from his thoughts; he began to expand.
“The Tropical Hour won’t open its sodden eyes for hours yet. To keep you from getting mentally lopsided, I’m going to take you to watch a few rounds at the Garden. Both of us need a little brutalizing to get in training for the fierce socks we’ll probably have to take and give on this case.”
I sat back and stared at him. This man I believed all brain taking me to watch brawn in action. And looking forward to it with zest in his eyes. I had yet to learn how Scott’s own wiry body could back up his brain in a fight.
He chuckled at my astonishment. “Figure it out for yourself on the tablecloth. Prize fights and advertising keep you from toeing in intellectually.”
And then he poured black coffee into himself until I felt obliged to remonstrate.
Blue eyes sparkled like Japanese parlor fireworks in a face too severe for one so young.
“Coffee? That’s my petrol for high-flying. Balzac’s fuel. They fancied he had wings.”
He poured himself another cupful.
He appeared another man tonight. Now that he had acquired all possible information and stepped from the beaten track on a way of his own, he seemed to bubble with young and vigorous assurance. I dreaded to see this assurance collapse when we found, if we should, this Eddie St. Clair.
He lingered at the Garden until the gong sounded the end of the final bout. But we reached the Tropical Hour much too early even now for full tables and whoopee.
Scott’s inquiry about St. Clair to our tough-eyed waiter gained us nothing except suspicion. The surly waiter shoved off and examined our shoes from a distance. But soon Scott left me to go and speak to a habitue who waved to him. This friend called the scar-faced manager. Scott came back for me with a hard glint in place of the earlier gleam in his eyes.
“A gigolo, just as you thought. But a dancing fool with the gifted legs of a Vernon Castle, and he danced here the night before her murder with Mrs. Kent. Let’s go. I won’t be happy until I see him, and I have his home address.”
It was after midnight when we scrambled out of a taxi in front of a dusty brownstone-front rooming house on West Forty-fifth Street. I looked up at its chipped window-ledges and shook my head, but said nothing. Scott pushed the bell several times, then tried the door. He might have sounded that bell until dawn, if a hard faced youth with a twitching arm hadn’t stepped out and eyed us suspiciously. He directed us to the hallroom over the front door; he listened, the front door held ajar, until satisfied that we knocked there.
At Scott’s second knock on the smeared white door, a snarling answer, “Oh, crawl away and buy a cigarette yourself.”
Without replying, Scott pushed open the door; we entered a hallroom fog-blue with cigarette smoke. We stared at this Mr. Edward St. Clair who had been described to us as handsome. In soiled silk pajamas, he sprawled across a narrow room from a depressed and faded red plush armchair to a rumpled and unmade couch bed. His arms, shoulders and body were bound up; his face was so swathed with bandages that only a pair of lustrous black eyes and a full-lipped mouth remained in sight.
“What the hell!” he objected as Scott calmly closed the door behind us; then fear entered his eyes and he asked in a nervous tone with a hint of whine in it: “What do you want?”
Scott assumed an official manner and tone. “Time you came through with the dope on the Kent case.”
St. Clair inspected our evening clothes; fear left his eyes; they smiled. “Dicks? If you’re dicks, then I’m the Prince of Wales just off a horse.”
I laughed and Scott’s eyes twinkled, but his manner lost none of its severity. “It’ll take more than bandages to make an alibi for you.”
St. Clair’s manner brightened visibly. “Say! On that Kent case I’ve got an alibi you couldn’t crack on an anvil.”
St. Clair eased one foot off the couch, sat up and confronted Scott with impudent confidence. “Take this away and ponder over it. Helen was shot up some time between ten and eleven, wasn’t she? Well, for hours before then and for all the time since then, I’ve been cooped up right in this room, every meal brought in and me never leaving it. And here’s how you can check. Three ways. Doctor Wyzansky right downstairs on the first floor; the landlady who’ll tell you exactly when they brought me in here on a stretcher; and this dump’s black groom of the chambers who’s brought in all my meals. I knew Helen but—I don’t enter into that trouble front-ways, side-ways or any way.”
He spoke the truth—or he was an abler actor than Barrymore. His words flowed like those of a man who doesn’t have to quibble. So far as St. Clair was concerned, to my mind, he was completely out of this. Helen Brill Kent would never have considered marrying him. And as for his murdering her, not a chance! He had whined; his courage arrived only after he had sized us up; and he had a convincing three-ply alibi. I felt that all our time spent in running him down had been completely wasted, but Scott deliberately seated himself on the end of the couch.
His eyes gleamed with a certainty he evidently put on while watching for an opening. “Now, don’t be so sure you don’t enter this.”
At the idea that he could possibly be involved, St. Clair smiled between bandages; but in a moment fear whipped the smile out of his black eyes; he shied away from Scott.
Scott guessed the cause of his fear; he reassured him. “No. We didn’t have a thing to do with your beating up.” St. Clair whined, still doubtful. “Don’t think I’m squealing.”
“But I take it you’d like to know what it’s all about?” St. Clair bent earnestly towards him and his black eyes glistened. “Say! Tell me who did this to me and I’ll kiss you.”
Scott nodded as if he could and he might. “First tell us exactly what happened.”
St. Clair regarded Scott doubtfully; he asked with an obviously lingering fear. “It wouldn’t come back on me?”
Scott made an impatient gesture. “How could it come back on you? Would I ask you what happened, if we had anything to do with it?”
He wavered; he studied Scott, hesitating; but his curiosity soon mastered any fear he still felt. His courage swept back; he revealed what had happened.
“I went to the Riviera that afternoon and only stepped out with my own janes. I wasn’t looking for trouble. I just wasn’t interested in new janes. Understand?”
Scott nodded. “With Helen Brill Kent on your list, why should you bother with others?”
“Oh, she was just a friend. I never made a nickel out of her. In fact, she always cost me money.” St. Clair thought mournfully a moment and then went on. “About six I started home to change into soup-and-fish. Right out here on Forty-fifth near the corner of Sixth, someone blackjacked me. That’s all I know. I never saw him. I just crashed and passed out. When I come out of it, people told me a tough guy had slugged me, jumped all over me and then rubbed himself out in the crowd. No description; not a thing to help me guess why. And as I’ve never barged in on any other man’s racket, I’ve been wondering if someone just didn’t make a mistake and sock the wrong man.”
Scott shook his head solemnly. “No mistake made there. Think of someone who couldn’t do this himself, but would hire a tough guy to beat you up good.”
“What in hell do you think I’ve been doing all the days I’ve been laid up in this room?” St. Clair’s anger was hot, but it cooled fast with thought and back into his tone came he whine. “If I’ve made someone hot against me without knowing it, I don’t want to chance that again. Give me the tip-off and believe me I won’t.”
It was plain that he wouldn’t. He cowered in his bandages like an abused Russian wolfhound. I expected to see Scott get up and go in disgust, but he settled himself more comfortably on the end of the couch as if determined to force something useful out of him. He shook an accusing forefinger at St. Clair.
“You took Helen Brill Kent to the Tropical Hour the night before they beat you up. Don’t forget that.”
“Oh, what’s that got to do with this?”
“Well—you were friendly; didn’t she let you know who was interested in her?”
“She did not. She told me she was through with men—all men.”
Scott must have been keenly disappointed by this emphatic reply. It knocked his theory once again in the head. But, of course, by now he was hardened to that. He pushed on without a sign of discouragement.
“You’d taken her there often?”
“No, I hadn’t. Not for a long time. We were getting along fine—Helen and I—but suddenly a couple of months ago she had a spasm of virtue and it was all off. She wouldn’t let me any nearer than the phone and ice hung on her end of that.”
I started and looked at Scott quickly. Two months ago! That was when Helen Brill Kent placed the spring lock on the door of her room. And the new lock on the back door. And when she discharged her personal maid. If she started frosting away St. Clair at the same time, he wasn’t the man Scott was so eager to find. There must be another man. One Mrs. Kent actually thought of marrying; one she took all those steps to clear the way for. Who was that man? Could Scott now discover? If he could, we would be getting on, getting close to someone who had never come forward, who evidently had the best of reasons for not allowing himself to be thought of in connection with Mrs. Kent’s murder.
Against the door in the corner of a capsule-shaped untidy smoke-hung room, I clutched the doorknob and fought to appear calm. With hopes hopping around my head, I watched Scott sweetly galvanize into life a bandaged mummy, propped in a squeaky and mangey red-plush armchair.
“If she froze you out of her life two months ago, how came you with her the other night?”
St. Clair’s black eyes shone with the warming light of egoism. “Oh, I ran into her on the street and threw her the line that hooks ’em all. I told her she was growing fat. She said she was fed up on dieting, but didn’t care to be seen dancing in public. So we splashed into the Tropical early and gave ’em an eyeful. No one would see her there then.”
“Oh, be yourself.”
Scott leaped up; he looked afire with assurance. “You were seen. The very next night someone punished her and had you beaten up.”
St. Clair jumped and gasped, then sank into silence. The light in his eyes went down as, panic-stricken, he evidently weighed this startling coincidence; then the light went up full blast and he trumpeted with obvious reassurance.
“Say! You’re crazy—cracked wide open, cracked wide as a ditch—connecting things with no more to do with each other than her money and my hands.”
Scott bent over him. “Who spoke to her there?”
“Not a lousy person, man or woman. If anyone had, I might be crazy enough to think what you’re thinking but—”
“Who had eyes on her?”
“Everyone there, of course.” St. Clair threw back his head and laughed with jaunty vanity. “They always do when we float out on the floor together. We make a pair with some class. We showed ’em something, if we only did have one drink and a few steps. Then Helen had to hustle home—not because she saw someone there; don’t make any mistake about that!—but because neuritis gripped her arm and dancing made it worse.”
“And she let you take her home?”
“No, but—” St. Clair stopped and looked sharply at Scott, as if suffering a first twinge of doubt.
Scott stiffened, somewhat the way a sharpshooter does with his eye on the mark. “But she did let you call for her?”
“N-no, she didn’t. She—” His mouth hung open between white bandages; he twitched back in his squeaking chair and stared at Scott. His eyes dimmed as the blood evidently bolted from them to strengthen his memory. Then, heedless of the anguish movement brought him, he scrambled to his feet. His black eyes thready with fear, he begged wildly:
“Oh! Oh hell, what am I in for? Tip me off. Quick! Who is he? Who is the big shot who’s got it in for me?”
His question sounded frantic; Scott’s sounded almost as eager. “Now think—think carefully. Who could that be?”
Driven by the same necessity, but different motives, both exerted themselves to identify the man interested in Helen Brill Kent. Neither yet knew anything to help the other.
My cup of morning coffee crashed down into the saucer. In shock-troop caps, marching across the entire front page of my newspaper, I read with a groan:
UNKNOWN MAN HEARD IN
HELEN BRILL KENT’S ROOM
ON NIGHT OF HER MURDER
Who could have given this out and warned the man Griffin Scott hunted? I snatched up the newspaper and rushed to Scott’s workshop. As I entered, I was surprised to brush past Bascomb White, but I dashed straight across the workshop to Scott.
I slapped the newspaper down on his desk under his eyes. “Someone’s leaked and spoiled it all.”
He glanced up at me with a queer look in his eyes. “How?”
“They’ve warned the man you’re after.”
Annoyance marked the sharp turning away of his head. “You don’t seem to realize the pressure on Hutchinson and Mullens to make an arrest. I had to work hard on Mullens last night to get him to throw that sop to the wolfish reporters. I flattered myself that I put over a bit of a masterstroke in wangling a few days’ more freedom from arrest for Dorothy Vroom in that way. And as for warning the man she heard in Mrs. Kent’s room that we’re after him, I wouldn’t kick strenuously if this experiment with free publicity led him to step out of hiding and let us learn who he is.”
I felt myself shriveling up. This assuredly would ease up the pressure that urged Mullens to arrest Dorothy Vroom. And Scott, advertising man, naturally would pin faith on publicity to induce the man no one could name to us to step forward. But if that man murdered Mrs. Kent would mere publicity smoke him out? Never!
Yet the vital aid this disclosure lent Dorothy Vroom seemed to me sound reason for seeking it. And Scott’s reaction to my impulsive criticism had been decidedly shriveling. It seemed pleasanter to talk of something else.
“Oh, I passed Bascomb White in the hall.”
I waited, expecting him to inform me of the results of their interview. Instead, finally he turned reluctantly and uneasily towards me.
“You’ve been questioning him about the murder of Mrs. Kent?”
“Yes. He claims he didn’t enter the Kent apartment that night until over two hours after the murder, when we saw him in the kitchen with Dorothy Vroom.”
“But—he didn’t go back to college, as Dorothy Vroom advised?”
“No. He’s dropped his father and college, and gone to work. Now, don’t bother me with any more questions about him this morning.”
Scott’s swivel chair whirred; he folded up my newspaper and held it out to me without turning. I took it and gazed at his severe profile with astonishment. What made him so unusually testy this morning? Did his quick irritation spring from St. Clair’s abject inability to guess who had ordered him beaten up? That might be, but why so touchy over questions about Bascomb White? I longed to ask him, but he looked too forbidding.
Fearing my two blunders might have menaced our friendship, I walked dejectedly away and sat down. How make up for those blunders? How prove a bit more helpful on this aggravatingly baffling case? A way to trace the unknown man popped into my mind. I bent eagerly towards him.
“If we could find out who beat up St. Clair, couldn’t we squeeze out of him who paid him to do that?”
Now, Scott’s eyes rested on me with approval. He nodded and glanced at his watch.
“Couldn’t Hutchinson find out that for us?”
“He could but—” he reached for his telephone— “Mullens is already pumping police-stools about that for me. And now it’s time to check up on what he’s learned.”
I dashed back beside him. If we could discover who beat up St. Clair, we could pry out of him who resentfully ordered that punishment. If we could pry out who was frantically jealous enough to order that, we would come on the name of Helen Brill Kent’s unknown admirer. What doubt that he was the man heard threatening her in her room on the night of her murder? What doubt that he killed Mrs. Kent in the same paroxysm of jealousy? I began to feel the thrill of the hunt. I bent far over Scott’s desk to catch every word of his check up with Sergeant Mullens.
“. . . You say The Gorilla beat up St. Clair? . . . Yes, I know something about that ugly misfit of human nature but I know you can tell me much more . . . Yes . . . Yes . . . No doubt about that . . . Going to have him there to bleach as soon as that? . . . Thanks for the speed . . . Thank you Sergeant, but I’ll come down there. I’ll have my hands out to catch your pancakes hot off the griddle.”
Scott hung up. He switched around in his chair towards me. He was on the scent; his eyes snapped and excitement shortened his speech. He talked like a telegram.
“The Gorilla! A soured pugilist turned gangster. Rotten temper. No mob’ll let him play with them; independent, lone-worker, so there’s no guessing who hired him to beat up St. Clair; have to rely on the Sergeant to bleach that out of him. But Mullens is a top-notcher at prying open gangsters’ mouths. Come on. Let’s go down there.”
Whenever District Attorney Hutchinson had been present, Sergeant Mullens displayed a most belligerent manner towards Scott. His extremely affable manner towards Scott in his own meagerly furnished office opened my eyes. Here was no bulldog refusing to let go of his own ideas; fighting whenever the esteem of his special department of law enforcement seemed to him threatened. Here instead was a friendly human being with a hand out for each of us, a pleased grin on his squarish purple-hued face, and the manner of one feeling especially honored by a call from Griffin Scott.
He patted Scott on the shoulder. “Your tip-off last night sure did ease up things for us with the damned reporters.”
Scott made an impatient nervous gesture. “Good! But what about The Gorilla?”
“Listen!” Mullens stopped on his way around his desk to his seat. “There’s somethin’ in that St. Clair hunch of yours, I think. I had The Gorilla standin’ right where you are. He was cagey. They all are at first, while they’re sizin’ up how strong a hand you hold. Well, he’s protectin’ someone all right and that someone’s someone high up, a big shot, or I’m a moron.”
Scott took an eager step nearer. “Great work! Smoke anything at all out of him?”
Mullens dropped into a swivel chair behind his plain but much scarred desk; the spring of the chair whinnied as he lay back contentedly and crossed his ponderous legs.
“Nothin’ yet, but I threw the scare at him hard. He’s comin’ back here inside of fifteen minutes now and squeal on who hired him or he’s goin’ to be pulled on somethin’ I’ve got in pickle for him. And if I’m any judge of tough guys, he’ll be here on the dot and he’ll squeal.”
Scott merely nodded, but I smiled at Mullens from sheer exultation of spirit. We were off now. We were definitely after one definite person. And that one person, it seemed to me, gave every promise of proving to be the murderer. Mullens and Hutchinson could keep on believing Dorothy Vroom capable of murder. I backed Scott. Now he was on a single direct trail. Soon he would point out the killer and lift off of Dorothy Vroom’s young shoulders much sadly misguided suspicion.
Mullens’ desk-telephone rang. A few gargled words over it and he clumped to his feet. He had to leave us, but only probably for a few minutes. Would we wait? Fine! If The Gorilla slouched in, better let him sit and stew.
But half an hour dragged by and neither opened the door. Scott grew fidgety; he looked often towards the clock and the door; he answered my remarks with a silencing curtness.
And then Sergeant Mullens tramped in. He dropped heavily back in his whinnying chair without explanation or apologies. Ordinarily phlegmatic, he now appeared dully nervous. Without looking at us, he bent forward and started jabbing the point of a pencil against the much pitted top of his desk. He kept at it.
Scott sat quietly waiting. When finally forced to speak, his tone was easy, but I knew the impatience that must be surging under it.
“Sergeant, what about The Gorilla? Isn’t his time up?”
Mullens turned a sleep-walking look at the clock on the wall. “That’s right. If he was comin’, he’d have been here before this.” He renewed the senseless duel of pencil vs. desk top.
Scott lighted a cigarette. He crossed his legs and inhaled a long puff before asking: “Well—going to send out and bring him in?”
Mullens looked at him now; his manner disturbed, his heavy-lidded eyes watchful, as though forced to announce a disagreeable decision.
“No. I’m not sendin’ out for him.”
Scott uncrossed his legs hastily. “Oh, you’ve had word from him?”
“No. Can’t say that.”
Scott was at his desk, glaring across it at him. “See here, what’s changed you? You were hot enough for grilling him before you left this office.”
“Mebbe.” Mullens met his eyes uneasily, then looked away out a window. “But I’ve had time to think it over. And I have to tell you now, that’s out.” He appeared to harden his face; he turned abruptly towards Scott and his tone was resolute, final. “Take it from me, there’s nothin’ in that. Not a damned thing. And I can’t waste any more time on it.”
I looked at his thick-set lips and my hands gripped the arms of my chair. One glance at that mouth and his pushed-out chin was enough. He faced us, as obdurate as the colossus at the wheel of a coal van whom neither blaring horns, nor sarcastic remarks, nor insulting profanity can force to budge an inch to clear a traffic jam. I expected Scott to pile into him, but Scott evidently knew how this granite mind worked. Instead of wasting time in argument, he sought information, he attempted to learn why Mullens had so suddenly turned against us.
“Had your orders? Someone higher up?”
Mullens shook his head with the fixed mechanical swing of a robot. “Nothin’ to that.”
“Then what did you learn while higher up?”
“Nothin’. Not one damned thing. I had time to think it over, that’s all. You’ll have to take it or leave it.”
Scott stood studying across the desk the poison-ivy color rising on a heavy inflexible face; he evidently felt convinced that the Sergeant was acting under orders; clearly he attempted now to learn if Mullens had been ordered to block us in every way.
“Very well. Going to let me know what you have on The Gorilla?”
Mullens lumbered slowly but determinedly to his feet. “Oh, that! That’s nothin’ worth a damn.”
“What! Not even hinting what it is?”
“No. I ain’t. What the hell could you do with somethin’ I only trumped up against him?”
My heart pounded heavily on my ribs. From this road we were barred completely. Not by Mullens alone, but by some man powerful enough to make him willing to bar us and also take all the blame on himself. Who? Mullens would never disclose, if assuming all the blame.
We faded out of the picture.
In the taxi on our way back Scott sank into a silence that I hesitated to break. Finally my feelings got too strong to hold any longer.
“You step on it after a hit-and-run driver, and he gets a cop to stop you.”
Scott still gazed fixedly ahead, but after a time he replied. A new quality sounded in his voice. It sounded husky with anger rather than discouragement.
“Damn him! He may be big enough to force a salaried man like Mullens to step out in front of us, but he has no salary-grip on me. Our first good sign that we’re getting somewhere—” he stopped and chuckled, apparently at his own optimism— “only we aren’t getting there.”
Glum as penguins, we retreated to Scott’s workshop. He leaped to the telephone. He boldly requested District Attorney Hutchinson to come there.
The clear-cut features of his grave face seemed tightened up for attack. Defeat had clearly made him reckless but wily. Now, he began to show the queer streak of fighting stubbornness without which the mystery of these murders never could have been solved.
He expected, I thought, to induce Hutchinson to wring out of The Gorilla the name of the man who hired him to beat up St. Clair.
“Slim chance!” I suggested. “The man who compelled Mullens to jump around and show us his dumb back, you think he won’t work his pull to make Hutchinson turn a cold back on us also?”
He swung around. “I could survive discovering whether he’s big enough to have a pull on Hutchinson. And if he is—” a wily gleam came into Scott’s eyes—“what if we have the good luck to get Hutchinson here before he’s tampered with?”
I couldn’t see anything in that. The minute Hutchinson started pressing The Gorilla he would probably be called off. But the wily gleam in Scott’s eyes soon took on another meaning as I saw his subtle scheme for rooting out the name of the man working in hiding against us.
I shook my head. “He’s been a cunning old wizard, keeping entirely out of this so far. He’s thinking harder than we are how to keep out now.”
“Murder’s the ace of scandals. We’ll play it. We’ve got to.”
That was a bit cryptic to me then, but he tossed me an English translation of Doctor Hans Gross’ Handbuch jur Unlersuchungerichter to occupy me. He himself reduced the torture of waiting by lowering his chemical laboratory from the ceiling. He lighted a Bunsen burner. He poured a thick yellow liquid into a test tube. He studied, close up, the successive alterations heat fretted the liquid into.
Hutchinson arrived. Down went the test tube anywhere. Scott bent eagerly towards him.
“Randolph, I’m going to come right out now. The man who ordered St. Clair beaten up is the man who murdered Mrs. Kent. No longer the slightest doubt about that. Now, Mullens has pinned that beating on The Gorilla, but he sidesteps forcing that ugly customer to tell who hired him to do it. How about it? Mind trying to worm that man’s name out of The Gorilla for me?”
I looked sharp to detect whether the unknown man had worked his pull on Hutchinson yet. He evidently hadn’t. Hutchinson’s dark florid face lightened with a pleased smile; obviously he felt flattered to have Scott appeal to him for help.
“Glad to do it. You think I can squeeze more out of The Gorilla than you can?”
“Not a doubt about it. What official authority have I? That long-armed brute would have some respect for the D. A., but not one atom for me.”
They argued in low tones the value of this lead. I twitched nervously, wishing that Hutchinson would get about his task before being turned against us, but Scott kept holding him with new angles. Then the telephone rang, and Scott’s shrewd scheme for plucking out a name startled up a quick hope in me, though it roused in Hutchinson only a faint uninformed smile of amusement.
They stood equally near the instrument. Hutchinson moved instinctively towards it. But Scott already leaned across his desk at it.
“H’lo. . . . Yes, but in conference. Give me that message. . . . All right, then who is this royal highness so positive of his welcome? . . . What! . . . Say that again. . . . Oh, I’m not sore. Of course, you have to be cautious. Hang on to the line.”
I scowled. Scott had failed to spring out the name of our man. But he passed the telephone to Hutchinson with a flourish.
“Someone after you, but no learning who from your office. Wise young fox, that secretary of yours.”
“Right! Has to be with the crooks we stir up.” Hutchinson took the telephone. “Hutchinson speaking. . . . What! Me using up gas going to him? . . . Well, all right, if you’re absolutely certain he’s not one you can gently give the hint that he’d better come to me. . . . O.K. His name’ll keep, if you don’t want to mention it over the wire. . . . Oh, by the way, I’ll be back there inside of half an hour. Hustle someone out to bring in The Gorilla. I want him quick to sweat something out of. Now, start a man right off after him.”
Hutchinson hung up and turned to Scott. “I’ve got to rush back, but I know what you want me to pry out of The Gorilla. And you’ll hear from me before any moss grows on the wires.”
He hurried out. I shook my head mournfully at Scott. “Our man acts like a big shot. He calmly orders the District Attorney of New York County to come to him.”
Scott nodded thoughtfully. “That may not be our man, but Hutchinson will soon show us.”
He forgot his experiment with chemicals. He switched down the baby grand piano. The sad minors of long reveries of Chopin sounded through the workshop. I was amazed to hear him drift into Scriabin’s etudes. He glanced up from time to time at the telephone.
But instead of telephoning, Hutchinson rushed back into the workshop. He had a heavy frown on his face; he acted restless; his manner was commanding, uneasily commanding.
“Griffin, there’s nothing in that. Better drop it.”
At this second throw-down, I simply folded up inside; but Scott rose quietly from the piano. “You mean you’ve talked to The Gorilla, and he’s a dud?”
Hutchinson seldom avoided battle; he did now. He strolled past Scott; he toyed with a letter-opener on Scott’s desk as he admitted:
“No. I countermanded my order to bring him in.”
“Well, well! You’re not usually chicken minded. Of course, you’re going to let me in on why?”
Hutchinson threw down the letter-opener and swung around. “I am. Griffin, I’ve had time to consider that lead thoroughly. I’ve thought into it and all around it. I’ve come back here to tell you one thing and it’s final. The beating up of St. Clair and The Gorilla have absolutely nothing to do with this case.”
I felt suddenly chilled. Who was the man who with a word could whip both Mullens and Hutchinson around against us and make both assume all the blame? I had a cold feeling that no more would we learn about him from Hutchinson than from Mullens, but Scott stirred matters up with a jet of the steam of derision.
“Oho! Without even speaking to The Gorilla, you throw me down and jump on me. Who talked you into that?”
“No one talked me into that. I’ll have you know that I form my own judgments.” Hutchinson’s face grew scarlet; he glared at Scott as if infuriated enough to walk out on him. But after a moment’s thought, I was surprised to see him glide to Scott with the cool and conciliating manner of an attorney up against converting an enraged client to a wiser course of action. “Better take my advice, Griffin. Better come off that lead.”
Scott sat down on the edge of the piano bench; he looked up at him thoughtfully, as if seriously considering taking his advice. “You mean stop following up both The Gorilla and the man heard in Mrs. Kent’s room on the night of her murder?”
“Both. Save yourself a thundering lot of time and trouble. Take my word for it. There’s nothing for you in either.”
“You know things you don’t intend to tell me.” Scott waited, but won no answer. He sighed and appeared to make up his mind. “Well, you wouldn’t come way back here to advise that, unless it seemed the only thing for me to do.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t.” Hutchinson beamed on him; he patted him gleefully on the shoulder; his face radiated a satisfaction that lasted until he took his departure.
Scott sat on the edge of the piano bench gazing at legs stretched out before him. I stared at him sadly and thought, “There goes the ball game!” No one else remained to turn to for the name of the man so determined to keep out of this.
“You’re going to quit?” I asked.
I leaned back, dazed. I had touched off fireworks. Scott sprang up. He flashed around the workshop; he turned to glare fiercely at me between outrushes of enraged words.
“Quit! Quit! When he just strung those two crimes together for us? Ugh, but you must have been asleep. Mullens only warned us off The Gorilla. But Hutchinson—didn’t you hear my questions?—his job was to bluff us off both The Gorilla and the man heard in Mrs. Kent’s room. Quit? Now!” With a snort of anger, he shot a last disgusted glance at me. “He’s our man. I’m going to force him to talk, if it’s the last thing I do in life.”
His blue eyes blazing, he stormed up and down the work shop like a tempest tearing in through an open window. I tried to calm him down. I made him angrier.
“I’m going to smoke him out. I’m going to make him talk,” he repeated, and he did something I had never seen him do before. He closed a white long-fingered hand; he struck the hard glass top of his desk a heedless blow.
Table-pounding! His fury awed me. I walked away from him and sat down, wondering how he trusted to identify a man who so skillfully managed to keep hidden.
Scott ended his furious pacing by pouncing to his desk. His hand fell on the bell under it, stayed on it. Before Wilson could show his white hair and never-surprised face in the doorway, Scott yelled:
“Wilson, a pot of coffee—black—black as popping hell!”
The fragrance of steaming coffee, the odor that can take the sting out of the alarm clock, quieted him down into thought.
I risked asking him how he expected to pick one man out of New York’s seven millions, now that this man had so effectively silenced both Mullens and Hutchinson.
Scott sprang up in a worse fury than before. “I don’t know. Go away—please—and let me think.”
I went. In haste. Without risking another word. But before I reached the door, he called out how to find him later.
At five that afternoon, according to his instructions, I called up. Wilson informed me that I would find him in Mrs. Kent’s room.
I opened the door cautiously. Much ruffled cinnamon-colored hair, gray tweeds, and overhanging brogue oxfords, Scott lay stretched out in horizontal thought upon the Alice-blue brocade of the dainty chaise longue that had formerly enthroned Helen Brill Kent in her hours of ease.
Startled as a horse caught asleep, Scott scrambled to his feet. He still appeared wrought up, but his eyes shone with the light of discovery.
“Don’t worry about who he is any longer. He can tuck himself as deep away in the dark as he wants to. He can sulk behind others and change them into deaf-mutes. But he can’t change actions in his own past that tattle who he is.”
He pushed me into a chair; he walked nervously to and fro in front of me, making out a case.
“His actions here! Fitted together they almost spell out his name. Why do we find no letters of his to Helen Brill Kent? How happened it no one ever caught him telephoning her? Why should a man of his importance always steal in and out of here by the back door? Why did he always avoid using the elevators and the front door?”
“To avoid being seen evidently.”
“No. To avoid being seen and recognized. Tenants and elevator men all knew him. The backstairs formed his only safe way to slip unrecognized from one apartment to another here.”
I jumped up. I caught his arm and stopped him. “Oh, come now! You’ve got to show me more than that. Not in this same house!”
He wrenched from a pocket a winding of twine. I gazed at it, astonished. There was the twine tied to the combination shoehorn and buttonhook someone had cut off all lights to snatch away from us here on the night of the first murder.
“You got that back? You found it on someone in this house?”
“No. That’s a duplicate of the clew snatched away from us. That furnished them with their absolutely private method of communication. Unwind it. Drop it out any window here. You’ll find it just reaches Jason Sullivan’s apartment two floors below.”
He placed it in my hand, but I dropped it, I gasped and pulled away from him. “Whose—whose apartment?”
Panic pushed my knees. I slumped back into my chair. “Jason Sullivan!”
Slumped back in my chair, I stared up at Scott. Jason Sullivan in this! Jason Sullivan thinking of marrying Helen Brill Kent! Why be rash? Why single out that Cyclops of politics to accuse of murdering her? I jacked myself up on the arms of my chair.
“For the love of life, don’t stir up that brutal boss. Not that savage. Why pick out a man who smashed his way up from the docks with a pair of concrete hams and a oneway mind? He’s a punisher—a heedless, an absolutely ruthless punisher.”
“Well? Wasn’t St. Clair ruthlessly punished, beaten up until his bandages made him look like a mummy? Weren’t you rather mercilessly walloped out of your senses and out of his way the night he came back here to get this?” Scott stooped, picked up the winding of twine.
My hand stroked a county on the back of my neck still slightly sore. I felt an additional reason for not acting rashly. “But not Jason Sullivan—he was no woman’s man. He had a wife. She was his one weakness. And she died only a few months ago.”
“Any better explanation why he and Mrs. Kent kept their intention of marrying such an air-tight secret?”
“He’s not—he just can’t be the man.”
“Who but that boss could have whisked Hutchinson and Mullens around like tin soldiers against us?”
“I don’t care what you say. You try to tie this on him with that flimsy evidence and you’ll make an absolutely fatal mistake.”
“Right. Now, you’ve got some salt in your talk. We’ve got to tie it to him tighter than this.”
I jumped up. “Where—where are you going?”
He glanced back from the doorway. “A few questions and Mr. Jason Sullivan may knot this tighter himself.”
A moan, a shriek of warning from me. Both wasted.
I fell back in my seat scowling at the shut door. If Scott started shooting insinuating questions at Sullivan, what then? Sullivan might wave him off like a fly, ignore him as thoroughly as he had the killer a Chicago boss of the underworld sent to warn him which side he had better take in a shooting-out scrap between certain bootlegging mobs. Yes, with his removal to Park Avenue new ideas of dignity had settled upon Sullivan. But what if the body-guard others forced upon Sullivan then was still on duty? What if Scott recklessly pressed Sullivan until that body-guard blew up? I groaned. I saw Scott with his face maliciously pounded to a red pulp. I saw him perhaps keeping on until dropped in a sickening huddle on the floor by a spray of shots from a pocket. I sprang up. I ran to the door to hurry after him.
Scott was coming back at a hot pace along the hall.
I gulped with relief. “He—he wasn’t there!”
“The great jackass refused to see me.” He dashed into the room and flung to the door. “I tried to dart past the butler. But there in the hall stood his hulking son, deaf and stubborn as another wild jackass, with the one sign of life of a jackass, swishing his long fat arm towards the door.”
“Whew! You don’t know your luck. You might have been mauled by a body-guard. Now, listen to reason for a moment. You’re all wrong about this. Much more likely Stuyvesant got in here that night. He killed Mrs. Kent. He’s a connection of Hutchinson’s and Hutchinson warned you off him. Stuyvesant is the man Hutchinson is shielding, not Sullivan.”
“Hutchinson might shield Stuyvesant, but Mullens never would. Mullens is hot against Stuyvesant for refusing to see either one of his men or him.” Scott’s lips went into a straight line. “I’ll knot this tight enough on Sullivan tonight.”
“How? He won’t see you.”
“Right you are, he won’t see me. Tonight I’ll use his strategy and back doors.”
For a moment, his flaring up recklessness shocked me into silence. Then I warned him of the grave danger of doing that. But it was like arguing with a man in the delirium of fever. I won only his grudging consent to let me come with him.
That night in the unlighted gloom of Mrs. Kent’s room, I made one more effort to stop him from acting rashly.
He raised a window. I groped my way to him.
“If Jason Sullivan catches you in his apartment tonight, he can drill you with bullets and claim he thought you a burglar.”
My answer came from across the room. “Keep these lights out.” The hall door clicked.
In the room where murder had happened, I took to pacing a short stretch of the floor. I paced near windows in the lightest section of the great room. Imaginary sounds twitched me to a sharp halt. I confess that I often looked sharply over my shoulder.
Then a brightened spot on the wall across the court caused me to lean anxiously out the open window. The lights had been turned on in Jason Sullivan’s bedroom two floors beneath. Had Scott switched those on? Or somebody else? I leaned farther out. I listened intently without hearing a sound to quiet my nervousness. It was brighter, pleasanter outside; I continued leaning out. Then I remembered how Detective Haff had been pushed head first to the courtyard. I whipped back into the room and resumed my pacing.
Time crawled by, slower than a caterpillar.
Finally the door opened. Scott switched on the lights. He held up something between thumb and forefinger too small to identify. His face looked sterner, but his voice sounded gay.
“He’s our man all right. Pop your eyes on these.”
I leaped across the room. I gazed at three long silvery hairs tipped with black. “The cat’s?”
He chuckled. “Right. Shah did his part; he laid the snare. These hairs came from the trousers of a suit of evening clothes. A suit of Jason Sullivan’s. Jason Sullivan has been in this room. Shah has settled that fact absolutely for me. Any further doubt loitering in your mind?”
Solemnly, I shook my head. There was only one Shah. After every visit to this room, I had pinched off my own clothes precisely such black-and-silver hairs.
My eyes widened with wonder at what Scott, pursuing his own stubborn undeviating way, had so rapidly accomplished. He had vindicated his own despised theory that Helen Brill Kent secretly planned to marry again. And uncovered the mysterious man elected for Husband Number Six.
He had substantiated Dorothy Vroom’s claim that she heard a strange man threatening Mrs. Kent here on the night she was murdered. And identified that man. He had connected the beating up of St. Clair with this murder. And run down the fiercely jealous suitor who turned The Gorilla loose on St. Clair, but who stole up here to punish Mrs. Kent himself.
He had made out a case. He had brought to light Jason Sullivan involved in them all. And now—what?
“And now you stagger Mr. Randolph Hutchinson with a perfect case of murder against Jason Sullivan?”
“No. I certainly do not.” He regarded me with a quizzical surprise that I could not grasp the reason for until later.
He might have informed me then, but at that moment some sound, too slight for my ears, caused him to leap to the open window and lean out. His odd malicious chuckle drew me swiftly beside him.
Through an open window two stories below, a burly figure in a bathrobe bent out. Jason Sullivan in an attitude of fury glared up at us. He shook a huge and threatening fist. Then he slammed down his window.
I jerked in. I groaned and caught hold of Scott’s elbow.
“Then he knows? He saw you?”
“Yes, he turned on the lights while I was rummaging through his wardrobe. I had to hide behind his clothes. But take it easy. I discovered something he’s guarding so carefully that it must be what we vitally need. Come along and I’ll tell you about it.”
I couldn’t throw off the depression Jason Sullivan’s discovery spread over my feelings. Scott appeared to think only of his own discovery. He began to talk about it the moment we touched the sidewalk and started towards his workshop. His manner showed inner excitement that he evidently struggled to restrain in his explanation to me.
“What have we got against Jason Sullivan? Nothing except circumstantial evidence. We need something more binding to force that undisciplined savage to talk. But now we have that in sight.”
“We’ll have to get it before that undisciplined savage comes down on us,” I reminded him. “But what is it?”
His gait quickened. “When a man removes something from his clothes, takes it into his bath with him, keeps it under eye every minute, that must be something that he’s tormented by fear of losing. Hiding in his closet, I saw Jason Sullivan take something from his coat. When I heard him, splashing and rapt in his tub, I risked a look into the bathroom. There, right under his eyes every moment on the washstand lay his small morocco leather wallet. He keeps something in that I must have. Not until we have that can we make that man talk.”
I glanced at Scott. He appeared quite assured of securing something that Jason Sullivan carried always on his husky person, that he guarded vigilantly even in his bath. Scott’s lips were closed in the stubborn line that meant he was deaf to all warnings. I decided to remind him of impossibilities some time when that line wasn’t there. Now, I merely asked him with intense curiosity how Sullivan had happened to catch sight of him.
He replied carelessly, with his mind evidently absent working out some plan. “The sight of that guarded wallet made me forget the mirror in the bathroom. Sullivan suddenly stopped splashing around. His eyes met mine in the mirror. He has a nasty look. I went.”
We entered his workshop and automatically dropped down to face each other across his Gargantuan chessboard painted upon the floor. He still appeared absent-minded. I won my first game.
We bent over deep in the closing moves of the next. A queer clatter behind whirled me around, startled. On the floor lay a miniature sheet-steel barrel hardly bigger than a man’s palm. But on one end burned a candle-flame giving out a grayish-blue smoke.
My heart stopped working. I gazed at it with horror. A bomb? The smoke rose heavily, spread out long thin arms towards me. For a moment I hesitated; then I flung myself along the floor to pinch it out.
A sharp pain, as if keen knives had penetrated my eyeballs. Tears streaming from my eyes like water from a faucet. I groped blindly. I couldn’t find it to pinch out. Then I heard Scott cry:
“Shut your eyes! Hold your hands over them tight.” I did, but the two floods still poured down my arms. I rolled away on the floor, sightless, incapacitated, fearing that stinging pain was searing away my sight forever.
Too startled for clearer thought, still believing that a bomb, I coiled up expecting a terrific explosion. I heard Scott letting down his chemical laboratory, plunging here and there around the workshop. Then he wrenched away my hands and pulled a gas mask over my head. His hands pushed under my armpits. He helped me up; he rushed me to an open window; he shoved my head out.
In a few minutes the pain ceased. Through tears that had changed from a flood to a dribble, I could make out the blurred figure of Scott. He stood beside me with his gas mask off in one hand.
He lifted off mine. I shook in my shoes, but struggled to stop that. Probably to steady my shakiness, Scott began to talk quickly and lightly.
“Nothing but a common little tear-gas grenade. Its bite is far worse than its bark. Two cubic inches of that ethyl iodoacetate can make five million cubic inches of air think it’s strong stuff straight out of hell. It isn’t. The carbon monoxide you meet on the street is what this gas would like to make you think it is. Nothing to worry about. The modern weapon you ought to learn how to meet. Harmless—no after-effects. Want to see what’s happened to the toy-Vesuvius tossed in our open window?”
Tear gas! If that was only tear gas—I took in a deep breath of relief and followed him across the workshop to the grenade.
He pointed it out sunk in a pail of water in his chemical laboratory. “The fluid in that tear-maker was mixed with smokeless powder. The heat of the burning powder vaporized the chemical. See the eight little holes around the shoulder of the barrel? Those were covered with adhesive tape. The burning gas blew off the tape. If anyone ever throws one of these at you in the open, put one hand over your eyes and hurl it back with the-other. Now, feeling easier?”
I was. I could see clearly once more. No longer dreading losing my sight, I began to wonder who ordered this grim scare thrown in upon us. Into my mind flashed the picture of a man bending out a window, glaring up, shaking a huge fist at us.
“A warning to us. From Jason Sullivan,” I said.
Scott nodded. “Without a doubt. His son’s a chemist. Sorry I pulled you into all this.”
I made nothing of it. But I sincerely hoped Scott now felt convinced that Jason Sullivan permitted no one to get away with a thing.
The next night arrived before I could find Scott. He was coming out of his apartment.
“Wilson told me over the phone you were out.”
He shook his stern head sorrowfully. “I was—almost.”
A painful twinge of doubt nipped me. “You find me in your way?”
“No. But this is a private fight of mine against Sullivan. He’s likely to hit below the belt again. No scrap for me to drag you into.”
I breathed easier and let my anger out. “Your scrap! After the two nasty wallops Sullivan has handed me? I’d like to hand him one crumpling sock on the point of his jaw, even if it broke my hand.”
Scott chuckled; he took me back instantly into his workshop and into his pursuit. “I’m calling on Sullivan early tonight, when he’s sure to be out. Come along if you feel that way about it.” He jerked out a bag and began throwing things into it.
I hastened to convince him how eager I felt. “Every time today that Wilson told me you were not here, I rushed to Mrs. Kent’s room positive I’d find you there as usual.”
The bag clicked shut; he straightened up; he regarded me gravely. “Not today. I kept away from there intentionally. I’d like Mr. Sullivan to fancy his tear-gas scared me off. He’s shown us he won’t answer questions until I get something more on him forcing him to answer them. He’s guarding the something, I’m sure, in that wallet. Let’s go. I’m in a flutter to get my hands on that. I want to plan how to manage that tonight.”
We started. I glanced at Scott, itching to ask how he hoped to get away from Sullivan a wallet treasured on his person all day, and even taken into his bath to keep his eyes on. But the determined set of Scott’s clean-cut jaw didn’t encourage questions. Instead I offered what slight information I had.
“You know that Jesse and Napoleon Brill now live and fight in the room across the hall, the one they ousted Dorothy Vroom and her mother from?”
“Yes. Mullens and I spent the morning bleaching them. Each is bitter on the other for forging a will to bag the entire estate. They’re beginning to squeal on each other. Jesse tipped us off that his wily son acted as though he was attempting to collect the insurance on the stolen jewels. Napoleon hinted we’d better stop his fathead father from trying to sell all the furniture and silver to a fence he showed over the apartment. Fury’s beginning to storm the truth out of them. No weakening on their alibis yet, but Mullens is leaving them free to sting each other. No predicting what they may soon be snarling out against each other.”
I warmed with a quick hope. “Any weakening on their claim that they saw Dorothy Vroom outside the door of Mrs. Kent’s room right after the murder?”
“No. I endeavored to weaken them on that. No use.”
Regretfully, I had to stifle further questions. We turned to enter the Kent apartment house.
Once more, Scott left me standing in the foyer to return and question the stalwart Irish doorman on duty here the night of the first murder.
“Still following up Stuyvesant?” I asked when he came back.
He looked around the foyer quickly; he pursed his lips advising a lower tone; then he bent towards me and broke the news in a whisper.
“Stuyvesant has disappeared.”
I seized his arm. Stuyvesant run away! I quivered with fresh suspicion of the explosive ex-husband who obviously had dashed here to stop Helen Brill Kent from tampering with the son he had paid her a half-a-million dollars for. But tonight for some reason, Scott with a frown indicated that he didn’t care to talk before the elevator man.
Inside the dark entrance of the Kent apartment, he let out further information in a hushed tone.
“I tried to find Stuyvesant’s son. I discovered he’d been bundled aboard a one A.M. steamer to Europe the night before last.”
“After your forced interview with his father!”
“Yes. Then I tried to find Stuyvesant again. He hasn’t been seen since seeing his son off. He didn’t sail on the same boat. He was seen leaving the pier. But from that minute, no trace of him.”
“He slipped away himself on another steamer!”
“No. I think he’s hiding somewhere nearer. To escape questions. The police haven’t been notified of his disappearance. But where he’s hiding, not a hint yet.”
I broke out with further startled questions, but Scott abruptly made me sign off. He might be suspiciously and sharply following up other suspects, but still he seemed keenest after Jason Sullivan.
He switched on the hall lights and explored front and rear halls. He turned on the living-room lights and searched that and the dining room.
Shah rose lazily on four feet in the living room’s softest chair, regarded Scott with golden eyes a moment, then stretched out regally in sleep again.
The smoke Persian cat proved to be sole occupant of the apartment, except for Ethel Cushing. On the door of her room Scott knocked, and called to her not to feel alarmed if she heard him prowling around.
His unusual caution surprised me. He inspected Mrs. Kent’s room minutely before allowing me to step a foot into it.
In there, after a long survey out an opened window, he switched on the lights.
“You can leave these on tonight, if you want to. I’m making only a short call in the gas-thrower’s unlighted apartment.”
He snatched up his bag; his flashlight in his other hand, he flew, as if to avoid denying my desire to go with him.
I walked the great room of the ebony bed and ermine floor-rug. I dropped into a chair at Helen Brill Kent’s serpentine-front desk, pulled out my notebook, sought to bring my notes on this tough case up to date. But first my eyes wandered nervously, and then my feet. I found myself spying out the window Scott had left open. I jumped away in alarm.
The lights were on in Jason Sullivan’s room below! I ran to the light-switch and turned it. I hung there in the dark room, listening hard. Then with my back to the wall by the open window, I moistened my dry lips and waited, facing the hall door. Finally a key clicked into its lock.
“Who’s that?” I called in a husky tone.
Scott’s voice eased down my coiled up nerves, though it sounded stern and nervous.
“Shut that window. Let’s get out of this. Quick!”
We were on the street headed back to his workshop before he would answer a question.
“Both Sullivan and his son stole in on tip-toes through the front door. Luckily, I was in the rear hall and heard them. Their faces, as I saw them through the glass panel in the pantry door, were not pretty things to look at. Expectant—like a couple of jaguars creeping along boughs to spring.”
The picture made me gasp. “They didn’t see you?”
“But the lights in Jason Sullivan’s room! They were on a long time before you came back.”
“Probably seemed longer to you than it was. I lingered a while, hoping to prove one thing.”
The fast clip which he had set leaving there slowed up; he sank too deep in thought to reply. I walked along beside him in silence for several blocks, wondering what he desired to prove before trying to separate Sullivan from the wallet. I could think of a hundred things it would be better to prove before attempting that. It was then that I discovered my loss. I stopped walking with disgust.
“Hell! In the rush I left my notebook on Mrs. Kent’s desk. You go on. I’ll get it and rejoin you.”
“Wait!” Scott’s tone was peremptory. He insisted upon returning with me.
Not until after we arrived could I see any good reason for that. Then, disgusted with myself, I plunged past him in the hall and pushed open the door of Mrs. Kent’s room.
My nose sniffed a slight but odd odor. Onions? No, something more acrid.
“Someone has been in here who has a positive passion for garlic,” I said.
A startled glance at a small steel pan on the floor; just an astonished glimpse of the thick oily liquid, brown as sherry, in it. Then Scott almost wrenched my arm out of socket yanking me out of the room.
He slammed the door shut. “Mustard gas!” he said.
Shocked, pegged up against the wall by one slipping hand, I watched Scott take charge. His actions were as cool and quick as those of a doctor rushed to an emergency case.
Over our faces, gas masks calmly reached from his bag. My right hand was in his; he might have been idly reading my fortune as he scanned it for trace of something. He stopped and seemed momentarily interested in the doorknob under his flashlight.
My nerves stopped whirring. Calmed, reassured by his skilled unexcited manner, I boldly loosened my gas mask to speak. “I know it’s more dangerous but—between this and tear gas, give me this every time.”
He whipped around and glanced at me savagely, as if feeling he had calmed me down too much.
“Keep that on,” he ordered; then snatched off his own gas mask to snap, “If you’d stayed with that dichlorethyl sulphide longer, you’d be spouting tears so you’d never say that. Breathe it a while, and you’d be on the brassy-cough route to broncho-pneumonia. It doesn’t bark or bite. But don’t let it fool you. It bores in—through clothes, leather, skin and flesh. A single drop in your chair—eating all your meals off a mantelpiece for a month. Just a smear of it on your hand, and if not cleaned off inside of ten minutes, it would raise such a crop of spreading torturing blisters on you that in four hours you’d wish you were dead. Now, keep that mask on tight and stay here.”
Away went my rather pepped-up feeling of having come harmlessly off from a perilous adventure. And his actions convinced me that he hadn’t exaggerated the horrors to make me more cautious.
He came back down the hall with Shah, warned Ethel Cushing of the danger and passed in the cat to her. Adjusting his own gas mask carefully, he slipped through a narrowly opened door into Mrs. Kent’s room. He squeezed out with my notebook. I held out my hand for it. He refused to let me touch it until he had treated it.
A weak gone feeling. The pit of my stomach seemed to be melting. My feeling of adventure was pinched out like a candle; once more, I shuddered at what he had rescued me from.
I stammered into thanks to him; he turned away; he set me to stuffing with newspaper every opening in the doorway.
After he removed the gas masks, I stood back and read the rapidly hand-lettered warning he posted on the door.
Don’t Open This Door!
I turned and looked at him. After escape by such a narrow margin, would he persist in his plan to wrest the wallet from Jason Sullivan?
“From tear gas to mustard gas. Tonight he turned a deadly weapon on you,” I said.
He apparently scented advice against recklessness. With his bag in one hand, he straightened to all the short majesty of height Nature had allowed him; his blue eyes blazed; his voice sounded hoarse with repressed anger.
“Tomorrow night I’ll show that unlicked dockwalloper something. Meet me about ten in the workshop.”
Obviously, he flamed inside with a determination not to be stopped. I stood looking at him, merely shaking my head. He turned suddenly.
“Better go home and store up some sleep. Leave me here. I intend to stop and compel the manager to start the Sullivans de-gassing this room.”
Warning, argument would be wasted. Each new action against him of Jason Sullivan clearly only deepened his determination. I started reluctantly away up the hall.
How did he plan to get what he needed to fix murder on Sullivan? What brought him here tonight? I turned back to ask him a question he had been too deep in thought to answer before.
“What was it you risked going down there to prove tonight?”
“That Sullivan’s son, his gas-mixer, will be away from home tomorrow night. He will be. He’s down on his calendar to look wise at the international convention of chemists in Washington.”
Scott’s eyes gleamed; he looked as if he now saw a clear field to the goal lines; but my next question appeared to dim that gleam.
“Oh, you plan to drop in on Jason Sullivan from here tomorrow night and take him by surprise? And his son’s the only one to prevent that?”
“That’s what I thought. But tonight also proved one thing I suspected. Someone in the office downstairs instantly tips off Jason Sullivan every time I step into this building.”
At one end of Griffin Scott’s unique workshop, its gifted inventor hunched over a test tube in his laboratory. Under a hooded lamp at the other end, I sat and watched him. Across my lap stretched Doctor Gross’s fascinating handbook of the underworld unopened. The night and the hour had arrived. Any minute now, Scott should say the word; we should set out on our desperate attempt to learn whether Jason Sullivan guarded something in his wallet proving him to be the fiend we must find.
I tingled with the excitement and with the doubt of one about to follow a dashing leader in a wild raid on the very headquarters of the enemy.
“It’s no time to underrate Sullivan,” I suggested. “The old boy’s no bullet-headed bruiser.”
“Right. The head of a wily old fox on a body that should have been sculped for Hercules.”
Scott’s blue eyes glistened. Sullivan’s warnings, his two blasts of gas at us, seemed to have strengthened Scott’s assurance of securing something more tangible on him. But how get our eyes inside of a wallet Sullivan never allowed out of his sight?
“You expect to catch the old devil asleep?”
“I’m going to put him asleep. He’s chosen gas. Let’s see how the power-spoiled boss likes a chunk of it himself.” Scott considered me keenly a moment. “Gas doesn’t seem to intrig you, as a bus-chatterer vocalized it.”
He talked lightly, gaily, but I knew the heaving intensity of purpose this was merely the foam of; still hadn’t he overlooked something?
“Gas would be a wonderful helper, but how get it on him? How surprise him, when someone in the office is going to warn him the moment we step into that apartment house?”
“Time I showed you.”
Down flashed the test tube into a holder; up pitched the laboratory to the ceiling. He snatched up a bag and we were off.
There started a few hours I shall not soon forget.
Scott made it impossible for anyone in the office to warn Sullivan; we entered the apartment house through the servants’ entrance on the side street. We stole up into the kitchen of the Kent apartment unseen; and he allowed no lights to be turned on there to warn either Sullivan or any informer of his.
Poised beside the window opening on the inner court, the light from outside outlined a stern profile canted at its most predatory angle. His eyes were on Sullivan’s bedroom two floors below. There was something in that cant of the eagle perched high, watching for the right moment to swoop down on an enemy.
I spoke to reduce my restlessness at standing idle in the dark. “Shooting tear gas or mustard gas at him?”
“Neither. I’m using a gas I stumbled on while trying to remove the after-kick from ether. Watch how it works on him—if we have the good luck to get him under it right.”
A new ether! An anesthetic better than the marvelous gas that had smoothed the way to the triumphs of modern surgery and hushed the worst tortures of human beings. A discovery Scott dared test on Jason Sullivan? Questions eagerly tided up in me, but at this moment Scott dived for his bag on the kitchen table.
“He’s there! I want to put him under this before he opens a window.”
We dashed down backstairs. A few moments later in the dark kitchen of Sullivan’s apartment, Scott swished a gas mask into my startled hands.
“But where’s yours?” I whispered.
“I’m immune at this concentration. Now! Keep close—and don’t run into furniture.”
His flashlight showed me obstacles, marked the way to take through the dark, then he cut it off.
Feeling like a burglar liable to be shot up any moment, I groped on tiptoes after him. Every few steps, I reached out to touch his back, not caring to be left far behind.
My heart pounding mightily, we crossed the kitchen without mishap. We pawed our way through the much blacker stretch of the pantry. At the door in the hall, Scott stopped. Not knowing this, I stumbled into him. In the dark room, the slight jar seemed to me to loosen the thunderous hiss of an avalanche. My heart stopped beating. Scott clutched my arm. But after evidently listening a few moments, he wheedled open noiselessly the pantry door, and drew me into the rear hall.
A long prowl through darkness, and then we stood before just a pinhole of light. On the other side of that door breathed the fiend we were after. What was he doing? Could it be likely he didn’t hear our breath or movements? Would it be possible to gas him before he did hear them?
Scott seized my hand, closed it around his flashlight. He snapped the light on and pointed it where he wanted it.
In the darkness behind the spray of light, I held myself taut and watched him. Would we have time?
From his bag he snatched a small atomizer. He shook up the liquid in it. He stooped and eased the nozzle through the keyhole. Then he pressed the bulb of the atomizer again and again.
I barely breathed. I couldn’t remove my eyes from him. Could that mere atomizer and colorless liquid render Jason Sullivan powerless? Wouldn’t he smell the gas? Wouldn’t he feel it dulling his senses, and then throw up a window or fling open this door on us?
Before I could make up my mind what to do if the door opened, Scott kicked it open. A blinding blare of light from the room made me blink. Then a mask-muffled shout burst from me at the magic efficiency of Scott’s new gas.
In a low slipper-chair huddled the burly figure of Jason Sullivan. One huge patent-leather pump off, dropped carelessly on the floor. His husky legs crossed. Both hands limp, arrested in the act of wresting off the other pump. His powerful iron-gray head, propped peacefully upon his bulging evening-dress shirt, rose and dropped slowly, like the head of Ajeeb, as he slept and snored mightily. Gas had captured him, stopped him with one pump off and the other still on.
For a few moments, we stared at him. Then Scott shut the door and plunged to the painlessly disabled figure. From a pocket he plucked a small Morocco-leather wallet. He ruffled through a few folded papers. Then he raised one like a flag with a look of triumph.
“Here’s the goods on him! Come, help me move this mastodon to the bed.”
What was the nature of the paper Scott was so carefully pocketing? My gas mask muted my feverish questions, also action was called for.
We stretched Sullivan’s inert two hundred and twenty pounds on his bed. Scott listened to his breathing a moment, then flung windows open, gathered equipment, and we scurried out of there.
In our taxi, Scott refused to display or discuss the paper he had captured. Not until we were back inside his workshop would he draw it out into the light. He read it standing up. He passed it to me with a happy light in his eyes.
My heart doing seventy, my eyes raced through a handwritten marriage agreement signed without witnesses by Helen Brill Kent and Jason Sullivan. My look shifted with astonishment to Scott.
“What a break! What in the name of luck led him to keep this for us?”
“Before the murder, he clung to that, of course, to squelch any possible suit for breach of promise should conditions be broken. After the murder, he needed it even more vitally. He needed it to prove that his was no wretched affair with her that he was anxious to end, but that he seriously intended to marry her.”
“I know that but—a woman of her world-renowned beauty agreeing to renounce all future publicity just to catch Jason Sullivan.”
Scott looked slightly shocked at me. “What else could she do? Wall Street had stripped her of everything except her jewels. Every time she stood in front of her cheval glass, she fretted over weight coming on and suffered the nightmare of growing fat in a scrawny age.”
“I can understand her willingness to keep their engagement a secret, but look—he insisted, emphatically insisted, that she should get rid of all dependents. That includes the Vrooms.”
“Certainly. Jason Sullivan wouldn’t stand for Mrs. Vroom siding with his wife against him. And that sheared lamb and international beauty, what choice had she? Mrs. Vroom had to go with all the rest. Can you see Jason Sullivan taking over such a pair of parasites and blackmailers as Jesse and Napoleon Brill?”
“Oh, all right, but the absurdity of this postscript agreement signed only by their initials. Think of the abject submission of a world-celebrity promising never to appear in any public resort except with Jason Sullivan, a big enough man in a way, but after all only a local celeb.”
Scott snatched the agreement from my hand. “Nothing but a desperate beauty’s promise. She promised that, but did she stick to it? No, this time she tried to fool the wrong man. She slipped out to the Tropical Hour to dance with St. Clair. And brought out all the worst in a former dock-walloper. Sullivan ordered St. Clair mangled. He rushed furiously up to Mrs. Kent’s room, and Dorothy Vroom heard him there threatening Mrs. Kent. And now we have enough to force him to confess exactly what he did in that room.”
Now, we probably did have enough. But St. Clair’s name brought back the picture of the terrible punishment given him. An icy wind touched my back. I cautioned Scott.
“If Sullivan almost killed a mere poacher like St. Clair, how’s he feeling towards you now? Yes, and what’s he going to do to you?”
“What do we care? We’ve got it at last.”
He tucked the agreement carefully away in an inside pocket. He seized his bag and left the workshop to dispose of the remainder of the fluid-gas.
Scott’s fearlessness fired me with its spirit. I strode gaily up and down the workshop. Now, we would get somewhere and lift suspicion off Dorothy Vroom.
A long arm closed around me from behind. A rubber sponge was crammed into my mouth. I twisted and wrenched, but someone was too strong for me.
I worked my head around to find who held me.
Shoe-button eyes, a gourd-shaped head, a snarling animal-like glare. Not the slightest doubt why that brute was called The Gorilla.
The same man Sullivan had despatched to maul St. Clair. Sent now to get back the marriage agreement.
I tried to yell a warning to Scott. The rubber sponge swelled, blocked it. I squirmed and fought until my muscles cracked, but The Gorilla slowly worked down over my shoulders a looped telephone cord.
The Gorilla picked me up and dropped me upon the Sheraton leather-covered settee. He tied additional knots in the telephone cord wound around my arms and legs. Not satisfied with his gagging rubber sponge, he swooped down on me and taped my mouth tightly shut.
As he slouched away, I jerked my head around for another look at him. Stumpy legs, but arms so long they reached below his knees. A thick body with an outjutting drumlike chest.
His small eyes glittering, he posted himself just inside the entrance to the hall. One wide hairy hand clutched another rubber sponge. His chunky weight raised off his heels, he listened and waited.
When Scott returned, obviously he schemed to pounce on him from behind and silence him as he had me. If his tremendous strength made a baby of me, what chance had Scott?
Nervous staccato steps on the hard floor of the hall announced Scott coming back. The marriage agreement he had risked much to secure would be lost, unless I could warn him.
Frantically, I tried to force a warning through my gagged and taped mouth. No use. I writhed inwardly and outwardly. Was there no way I could warn him? An idea came and I tried it. I raised my bound legs high in the air. I brought my heels down with all my strength on the leather seat of the settee.
There were times when Griffin Scott jumped to conclusions quicker than a watch ticks. To my great relief, this proved to be one of them. He heard me. His steps stopped. I held my breath. Now, if he only guessed the danger! Now, if he would just slip out of the apartment with the agreement!
The lights in the hall went out. I breathed easier believing that he was preparing to escape. But the next moment my heart curled up. Instead of going, Scott shot a nimble hand inside the door and pushed off the lights in the workshop.
Why didn’t he go? Why didn’t he escape while he could escape? I heard The Gorilla swear and leap through the doorway. There was the scurry of lighter feet aside and I breathed again. Now, if Scott would only hurry away in the dark.
Then a sound raised gooseflesh on me. The pulleys were whirring. Scott was bringing down to the floor the extra furniture. Could it be possible he planned to stay? Could he think of tackling that brute?
I heard The Gorilla plunge wildly back into the workshop after him. The beast evidently grappled the baby grand piano instead, threw that to the floor with a ponderous thud. A snarl like that of a famished wolf. The Gorilla rushed in another direction, this time to be stopped by a chemical laboratory not there when the lights were on. The crash of shivered glass and a string of biting oaths. Now, he flung in another direction and apparently smashed into the lowered carpenter’s bench. The dark workshop rumbled with his roared threats. Then I heard clumsy creeping movements. Now, he evidently crawled cautiously around, feeling about him, searching the dark for Scott.
The grim silence froze me into cold stone. Had Scott come to his senses and gone? Was he still here? While my mind still whispered voiceless warnings to him to flee, the thump of heavy bodies tumbling to the floor made me gasp and then shudder. Now men flopped around the floor, wheezing for breath; chairs screeched; and heavier furniture groaned at being pushed out of place. My heart stopped beating. The Gorilla had his hairy hands on him, I thought. What chance now? None. Scott should have flown while he could. With a scooped-out feeling, I listened hopelessly to sounds of scuffling, sounds of short and labored breathing, sounds of muscles crackling. Then silence, except for panting breaths. No escape now. Scott was apparently caught, the agreement lost. A struggle between those two unevenly matched men could have but one result.
“Hop—hop over there! Get—get on the lights!”
Whose voice that? It gasped; it choked for lack of wind. It didn’t sound like Scott’s, but—I hopped to the door. I managed to press in the button. Then I stood goggle-eyed, wondering if I really saw what I thought I saw.
Growling, snarling, rolled up on the floor inside the Kirman hearth-rug, lay The Gorilla. An overturned chair hinted Scott’s way of tumbling him to the floor. The magnificent rug wrapped the gangster from shoulders to knees, rendered him as impotent as a strait-jacket. He lay wedged in tightly between baby grand piano and wall chess cabinet. On top of him sat Scott, panting like a dog, but fumbling a cigarette from his case.
I stood gawking at him. Then Scott, his cigarette shooting streamers of relief through the air, called me and we bound The Gorilla inside the rug with cord unwound from me.
The Gorilla attempted to work himself up to a sitting posture, but he fell back and thumped his head. He snarled at us ferociously:
“You lousy high-hats. I’ll stretch you both for the morgue.”
Scott despatching back to the ceiling extraordinarily useful extra furniture, whipped around towards him. “Now, see here, you—quit that or we’ll tape your mouth.”
“You—! You won’t hold me long.” The Gorilla’s loose mouth writhed for stronger words, but now Scott strode towards him. I saw The Gorilla’s wide mouth fall open as he stared at him. Apparently for the first time, he took in Scott’s merely average size; he blinked unbelievingly; he rolled over and hunted bewilderedly the other end of the workshop for the tougher guy he evidently imagined had won this rough and tumble with him.
Scott stepped over him and began to question him, but immediately it became certain that nothing whatever could be learned from this brute, surly and confident as he evidently was that Jason Sullivan would swiftly release and fully protect him.
“What are we going to do with him?” I asked Scott in a low tone.
He chuckled. “They won’t take him off our hands at the Zoo because he can talk. I don’t know that I object to having another jack to lift Mr. Jason Sullivan into speech. When we lodge this bruiser in safe deposit and he gets word to his boss, we’ll just fold our hands and order the big one to come to the Captain’s office.”
He called up the nearest police station. A detail of husky policemen and masculine bracelets took the place of the Kirman rug around The Gorilla. We accompanied the ugly group to the station. There Scott swore out a complaint against the prisoner for breaking and entering.
It was after three in the morning when we arrived back at the workshop, but Scott said nothing about sleep; in fact, he appeared unusually wakeful and expectant; but he stretched himself out in his chair with his feet upon an open drawer of his desk, apparently awaiting a ring on the telephone that he drew nearer.
I regarded him happily for a time and then crowed. “Now, we’ll convince Hutchinson and Mullens that Dorothy Vroom is no murderess.”
No answer. I got up and moved nearer him. Scott was snatching a nap with his clothes on ready for action—and he didn’t sleep aloud.
I stood gazing glory at him. What a slick trick he had pulled on The Gorilla! How calmly he now waited for Jason Sullivan’s next move! But if Sullivan promised action so soon, I wanted to be here. I laid myself out on the settee.
A ring at the telephone jumped me out of sound sleep. I swung my feet to the floor. I stretched a stiff neck to learn what was happening now.
Scott’s first words placed Sergeant Mullens on the other end of the wire.
“. . . Thanks for the tip, Sergeant, but you don’t have to tell me who’s back of The Gorilla. And I don’t give a damn in hell who’s stepped you in between us. . . . You’re all wet—dripping wet. I’m going to appear against The Gorilla. I’m going to put him in the pen unless— . . . Of course, you can’t keep him from getting out on bail. Let him get out. But you tip him that I’m going to drive him into the pen unless— . . . There’s just one way for the big shot to save his gentle gunman. The Big Boss has got to step here, and he’s got to answer questions. . . . You heard me. I mean that . . . and just that. Good night.”
Scott, handing Mullens the net, reeling in the Big Boss! I just sat and looked at him. He threw himself back in his chair. Disgust kinked up his stern young face.
With my head between my hands, I sat dubiously thinking things over for a long time. Scott obviously hoped to coerce Sullivan to come here, but wouldn’t this coercion lead Sullivan to order The Gorilla to get busy again?
“Have you a bolt on the front door?” I finally asked. “Next time The Gorilla will shoot first and jump on us afterwards.”
No answer. Scott turned out to be asleep again.
I stole to the front door. No bolt or chain. I moved the hall chair against the door so we might have some warning. Then I stretched out once more on the settee and listened.
When the telephone next sprang me up, sunlight streamed through the windows. Sleepily I fumbled out my watch. Eight o’clock!
This time it proved to be District Attorney Hutchinson commanded to talk reason to Scott. I pictured him, bell-wrenched from sleep, sitting up in bed with a black scowl, doing dirty work for another with a before-breakfast directness and lack of diplomacy that goaded Scott into a similar exasperated directness.
“. . . What have I got against the Big Boss? Listen and wither. I’ve got the marriage agreement between him and Mrs. Kent. I’ve got—Wait! You asked for this. Now don’t interrupt. I’ve got that marriage agreement and I’ve got a witness who heard Sullivan threatening Mrs. Kent in her room on the night she was murdered. I’ve got The Gorilla. He stopped just short of murdering St. Clair simply for dancing with Mrs. Kent. Sullivan ordered that unmerciful mangling, and then Sullivan rushed up to Mrs. Kent’s room in a murderous frenzy— . . . Of course, you can explain all that, but don’t waste your breath. He’s the man who’s got to explain that to me now. . . . No. He kicked me out of his apartment, and he insulted me by thinking The Gorilla good enough to attend to my case. Now, he steps up here and he attends to this little matter himself. . . . No. Sullivan himself, and here, or I push this. . . . No. He comes here. . . . All right, go right along and indict Dorothy Vroom. You’re keeping me from my breakfast to talk piffle. Good-by.”
My jaw sagged. Then I leaped up and sprang towards him. “How could you? How could you sacrifice the young girl I thought you were working to clear? What—what were you thinking of!”
He got up and looked at me. “I was the surgeon. Not for me to hesitate.”
He walked frigidly past me and switched off the lights. I whirled around towards him. “You think only of your wounded pride. You stand on your dignity. You swear Sullivan must come here to you. And she pays for all that.”
“Nothing of the sort. You’re deaf, dumb and blind to what I’m driving at. Hutchinson won’t indict her—not yet. And I know my Sullivan. I’ve got to bend that man to make him respect me. I’ve got to compel him to do what I say at any cost, before we can get out of him what we must get out of him to solve this mystery.”
That might appear necessary to Scott in order to force Sullivan to come clean. But to risk that young girl’s indictment! That to me seemed a monstrously cruel and unnecessary sacrifice.
“What’ll happen to her, if they decide to make you respect them? What are you going to do, if you hear nothing more from either of them?”
“Don’t drool nonsense. I’ve got Sullivan in a corner—and he knows it. The next time he’ll call me up himself. Or try something entirely new on us.”
I shook my head. After such harsh treatment, he wouldn’t hear from either, I felt positive.
In silent disagreement, we bathed and breakfasted. Time passed with no ring at the telephone, and I grew steadily unhappier and more certain that Scott had acted too rashly.
We returned to the workshop. We both jumped with fervent relief at a double ring on the telephone.
Scott held it against his cheek, his blue eyes on me. He stood with his legs apart like a boxer, ready for anything, and it was well that he was.
“. . . Sullivan threatened with pneumonia! Doctor won’t allow him to leave his room! . .”
Scott looked worried for a moment, then a wily look came into his eyes. In his glance at me suspicion bristled, but his tone over the wire to Hutchinson sounded trustful, even sympathetic, though gloved steel showed in it at the close.
“No, if that’s the case, of course I can’t expect him to come here. Yet I must have a few words with him. Wait a minute. Let me think how that can be fixed. Here’s the way. You tell Sullivan to call me up from his room just for a word or two. . . . No. . . . No, that won’t do. . . . No, I’ve given in enough, all I intend to. . . . No, he’ll have to ring me. . . .”
I smiled. Much battling over small matters this seemed to me at that time, but Scott decisively cut off further argument of Hutchinson’s, and his look at me showed zest and determination and a still lurking touch of cunning that I soon perceived the reason for.
Another double ring on the telephone. This time Jason Sullivan. I knew that by the intent eyes, and the inclined eager ear Scott bent over the receiver; but after his first amiable greeting, his ruthless unmasking of Sullivan took me completely by surprise. His voice suddenly became harsh and furious.
“. . . No, I shan’t tell you a thing over the wire. I led you to think I would just to listen to your voice. And it told me exactly what I suspected. You threatened with pneumonia! No more than I am with softening of the brain. Now, you step up here—and you step lively—or I’ll send something to the newspapers that will make you grit your teeth. . . . Boom away. That’s all I have to say to you. I’m giving you precisely thirty minutes to get here. . . .”
Scott shut off booming words coolly, but his eyes blazed at me.
“He hates like poison to come. But he’s got to.”
I pulled back and gazed at him with astonishment. “You’re out of luck, if you think Jason Sullivan’s coming here after being cut off at the telephone like that.”
The next hour and a half, I shall never forget. During that short but thunderous period, two powerful personalities met and clashed. In the battle that followed, facts burst out of concealment and certainties became established without which the mystery of these murders might never have been entirely cleared up.
Scott dropped thoughtfully into the chair behind the desk in his workshop; anxiety plaited his over-severe face.
“Sullivan will barge in that door like a steam-roller. We’ll get nothing from a big man in a little way. I shall have to sock it to him from the moment he pushes the doorbell. And never give in an inch.”
“If he comes.” I smiled faintly at his confidence. “Is the big boss who murdered Mrs. Kent and Haff, and then who coolly commanded police and district attorney to cover him likely to walk in here like a sheep to the slaughterhouse? Not that wise old bird.”
Scott switched his chair around and regarded me with impatience. “You seem to have no more idea of what actually happened in the Kent apartment than Hutchinson and Mullens. You’re certainly in for some sharp jolts of surprise, when I make Sullivan talk but—time too short to prepare you now.”
He rang hurriedly for Wilson. He detailed the cold indifferent way he desired Sullivan greeted and shown in here.
“What do you hope to compel Sullivan to tell you?” I asked eagerly as Wilson left.
“Information that will put us inside. He was there. If we can’t get certain facts out of him, we shall be totally up against it. Stick around. You’ll learn what they are.”
He dived to one of the steel file cases and secured a large pad of layout paper. He whisked back into his chair; bending over the pad on his desk, he outlined with a soft pencil a large oblong space. Inside of this he began to hand-letter swiftly, as if working against time. Now and then, his hand ceased lettering; he lifted his head for thought, the way a robin perks up his on the lawn, then his hand raced on again.
He acted far too absorbed to question; and he finished barely in time. Tearing the entire sheet off the pad, he hastily rolled it up without delaying to look it over; then he thrust it into the inside pocket of his coat.
And then a curt rasp of the bell announced Jason Sullivan at the door.
With the deflating indifference Scott had prescribed, Wilson gestured into the workshop a man of heroic size. I examined with acute interest a re-modelled dock-giant of fifty-five, who had kept sober and made himself the Big Boss, who might or might not come through with the information Scott required to get to the bottom of this mystery.
Wiry dark brown hair, gray at the edges but plentiful; coarse eyebrows, with so much forehead above them that they seemed too far down a strong face; green eyes over which the lids nearly closed—through those narrow slits his eyes studied shrewdly. The dictatorial upper half of that face apparently settled matters, gave orders; the more politic lower half evidently shook hands, told humorous stories to friends that the upper half accounted worth making friends. His nose, of good size yet seeming small in so strong a face, turned up slightly at the end, suggesting wit and good nature; his large mouth could probably be emotionally sympathetic, when it wasn’t hard; his powerful chin was softened by a little under-roll of good humor.
“Sit down.” Scott’s careless tone pulled my eyes to him. He sat gazing absently at the top of his desk; he made no move to get up or to appear busy; he just sat there, his eyes expressionless and himself apparently completely unimpressed by Sullivan.
Sullivan ignored the careless invitation. He marched past the chair Scott nodded towards to the other end of the workshop; he turned and looked the unique room over without a sign of surprise before settling in another chair.
Their eyes finally met. Sullivan snapped a rigid silence.
“You ought to know that anything I make up my mind to say to you is necessarily for your ears alone.”
Scott bent slightly but decisively forward from the waist. “I see no reason for turning out at this late date a co-worker of mine on this case.”
I felt painfully unfortunate. Neither so much as glanced at me, but here loomed the big fight and I wasn’t wanted. Clearly, I stood in the way of confidences. In deep mourning, I got up to leave.
Scott’s angry tone and violent gesture were not to be disobeyed. I did as I was ordered.
Sullivan absorbed his first check without appearing disturbed. But obviously he sought to depreciate its importance with aggressive action. He hitched his chair around and closer to Scott without getting up. Now, he faced him squarely and he said:
“Exactly what do you propose to do, if I refuse to tell you a thing?”
“Press my charge against The Gorilla up to the hilt. Put him where I can get him the minute I need him to use against you.”
Sullivan jerked back his head as if handed a bitter pill. “To hell with The Gorilla. I can let him slide. What are you dreaming you can do against me?”
“Oh, tighten up my entire case against you. Show up your doings so that I can compel action against you. In short, ease you into jail where someone ought to have deposited you long ago.”
The cool tone in which Scott threatened these things made them appear extremely easy to do. And his quiet manner suggested a firm intention of doing them. His quiet determination stirred me. Sullivan laughed as if considering it a joke, but I saw his enormous fists close, and he squinted more sharply at Scott.
“You seem a man of some sense. You don’t think for a minute that I had anything to do with the murder of Helen Brill Kent, do you?”
Scott looked out a window without replying.
Sullivan grew restless and then snorted. “What’s the matter with you? You smear me with murder and think you can get away with it? You coke yourself up into dreaming anyone could get Hutchinson to condone murder?”
Scott turned sharply towards him; his manner began to bristle. “You get no clean bill of health from me yet.”
“Boloney! You’re not half the man I thought you were.”
Scott spat at him like a wildcat. “You! You’re not one tenth the man Nature built you to be. The body of a Hercules; the head of a pin! Squatting there, showing off your muscles like the strong man in a sideshow. Ugh! Pulling that stuff in here. Stand up now, and bow to the ladies and children.”
They glared at each other like prize fighters with a grudge. I took one slow breath after another, fearing they would resort to fists and make this labored-for meeting a mere row that would get us nothing.
Sullivan, his face now rosy, finally looked away; he asked in a jeering tone, “How much do you think you know?”
Scott chuckled derisively. “You may have brains enough to tell me one thing. I already know about all you can probably tell me.”
“Then why badger me?”
“To get back at you for all your dirty work against us.”
“Well, you little son of a gun!”
Sullivan threw himself back in his chair. He rolled and he roared with laughter. Scott’s audacity evidently rushed his sense of humor. He beamed on Scott as if he had discovered a prodigy. The good-natured lower half of his face asserted itself, promised to take charge and smooth out all further disagreement; but Scott showed no intention of relying upon a fickle sense of humor; he pushed on and forced Sullivan to take him more seriously.
“Laugh away while you can. There’ll be no laughter for you after I start the landslide down on you.”
Sullivan raised a friendly hand. “Here! Let’s talk sense. You can’t get me without the District Attorney. You ought to know by this time that Hutchinson will never act on your evidence.”
“I do know that.”
Sullivan’s eyes widened; he turned sharply towards him. “Then why waste your time snapping at my heels?”
“I haven’t the slightest intention of stopping with Hutchinson.”
“Oh, I see.” Sullivan’s eyelids dropped until he scanned him between mere slits. “Well, are you perhaps inclined to wise me up how you imagine you can bring me into line?”
“I am. I’ll bring to bear on you the greatest force in this country today. One that you won’t stand the chance of a child in a mob against.”
“Oho! Public opinion? Now, I’ll tell you something. I have friends on every paper in this city. I can stop you.”
“You can’t stop advertising that I pay for.”
Sullivan started and looked at him.
“I can switch that on you overnight and show you up until you’re crying like a toothing baby for help.”
“Well, that’s certainly a curly-headed idea fresh on the campus.” Sullivan stroked his chin, meditating; then a shrewd smile appeared on his strong face. “You’ll have to show me.”
“I’ll show you.”
A roll of paper rustled the intense silence in which we sat staring at Scott. It crackled as he smoothed it out on the desk before him. He looked up from it keenly and confidently at Sullivan.
“Tomorrow morning, everybody reading this advertisement with eyes popping out of their faces. Who can get by a right-hand page-ad whose gigantic headline screams murder? No one. That just isn’t human nature. And tell me, who’s going to miss reading from first word to last tantalizing copy with the concealed punch of scandal—oh, I’m not going to accuse you or flay you and rouse defenders for you. Not by a jugful. I’m asking you simple questions that men, women and children, as they read this, will ask you with me. Libelous? I’ll take care it isn’t. Yet unique, sensational, startling enough to set the whole world talking. Now, ready to see yourself as others will see you?”
Sullivan, looking puzzled, made an impatient gesture. “Go on. Let’s see how far you think you can go and get away with it?”
Scott raised a dramatic hand. “When you read this tomorrow morning, your coffee cup’ll stop half way to your mouth. Your blood’ll feel as though cubes of ice jammed and ice-bound the stream. Now, don’t stop me until you’ve had enough of this.”
Scott lifted the crackling tissue before his eyes and read:
“TO DISCOVER THE MURDERER OF HELEN BRILL KENT
An Open Letter to Mr. Jason Sullivan
Helen Brill Kent was murdered in her Park Avenue apartment at 10:20 P.M. on May 14 last.
You refuse to answer questions. You compel resort to this public method of demanding replies to questions that simply must be answered before the mystery of this woman’s murder can be solved.
One: Where were you between 9:30 and 10:30 P.M. on May 14 last, the night Mrs. Kent was murdered?
Two: Do you admit that a marriage agreement between you and Helen Brill Kent existed at the time of her murder?
Three: Did you or did you not, have anything whatever to do with the brutal beating up of Mr. Edward St. Clair for dancing with Mrs. Kent at the Tropical Hour the night previous to her murder?
Four: What reasons have impelled you to refuse absolutely to answer these questions after we informed you that this Citizen’s Committee vitally needed replies in order to uncover said murderer by a process of elimination?
Fifth: If you agreed to marry Helen Brill Kent, as a contract in this Committee’s possession establishes beyond all reasonable doubt that you did, why have you never called at her home since her murder, and why did you omit attending both funeral services over her body?
A wave of Sullivan’s huge hand. Clearly he had heard enough.
There was a short silence, during which he sat gazing up at the ceiling with his square fingertips tented together in front of him. Then he shook his head and said in a low voice that obviously he struggled with and managed to make more and more good natured:
“Well, poker-face, you win. You’ve caught me in a tough spot. I’m afraid you might get that printed somehow, and that’s a wash I can’t have hung out. Now, I’m going to let you in on this but—”
Scott bent forward sharply. “No conditions.”
Sullivan turned slowly towards him; he studied his stern face for a long time, then he evidently attempted to storm its friendship with a big man’s engaging frankness.
“Oh hell, I guess I can trust you. Anyway, I’ve got to.” Scott’s complete mastery of Jason Sullivan aroused a veritable frenzy of hope in me. Now, this mystery would be solved. Now, Scott would uncover the fiend who perpetrated these murders. I couldn’t keep my seat; I remember that I sprang up from my chair and stood waiting for Scott’s questions to handcuff Sullivan as the murderer. But soon then I received a jolt of surprise that dropped me back in my chair.
Scott tore the advertisement into snowflakes and dropped them into the basket. He turned alertly towards Sullivan, his blue eyes aflame with expectancy.
“When you entered Mrs. Kent’s room that night, you found her already murdered, didn’t you?”
I jumped. I stared at Scott a moment in a daze. Then I sank back in my chair. Sullivan entering that room after the murder? Then Sullivan couldn’t have murdered her. I sat petrified by astonishment, but Sullivan bent towards Scott with a throaty gurgle of admiration.
“That’s right. So you guessed that, did you?”
Scott nodded. “Someone unquestionably moved the body from the bed to the floor after the murder. And of course, Hutchinson never would conspire to cover up murder for you. But even though you arrived there only after the crime, there’s one question I can rely upon you alone to settle for us.” Scott paused and smoothed his deeply lined brow. “How did someone contrive to lead Mrs. Kent to face murder without a sign of struggle or a single protesting scream? Why did she face that revolver without any natural human dread of death? Tell me, what did you notice in her room at that time that explains that incredible inconsistency?”
Sullivan leaned back; his eyes widened with astonishment at the evidently unexpected problem put up to him. Then a frown darkened his face and he fell into deep thought.
We waited in silence. Finally Sullivan stirred, shook his head, and turned to Scott. “If that’s the one question you expect me to help you on, I’m sorry. I didn’t see a solitary thing that would explain that.”
Scott covered his eyes with his hand as if suddenly growing utterly weary of difficulties. He looked old and worn as though completely let down. After a time he requested mechanically:
“Suppose you tell us the whole story.”
Jason Sullivan heaved his heroic-sized figure afoot. Evidently, he disliked intensely revealing a relation with Helen Brill Kent that muddied his hard-boiled reputation. With a scowl on a strong face, recently so jovial, and an unlighted cigar between fidgeting lips, he strode up and down Scott’s workshop.
I watched him, wondering how Scott could possibly expect to learn what he vitally needed from him. Sullivan had denied seeing anything on the scene of the murder explaining how Mrs. Kent could have faced the weapon without fear of death.
Swinging around with decision, Sullivan began abruptly to tell his story.
“I met Helen Brill Kent in the elevator. She had lived in the same Park Avenue apartment house with me for years. We often shot up or down together in the same elevator. That was all there was to it. But on the day after my wife’s funeral, she got up and held out her hand to me and said how sorry she was to hear of my misfortune.”
With his broad back to us, Sullivan stopped and gazed out a window, apparently drifting back to less troubled times. He plucked the unlighted cigar from his lips evidently in reverence of a wife present troubles roused him to value higher. He whirled around and thrust the cigar back into his mouth. His lips coiled cynically around it.
“I thought it was pretty nice of such a world-beater as Helen Brill Kent to speak about my wife, but I had my doubts. I waited for her to shine up to me again but she didn’t. We just bowed, like regular Park Avenue cold sores. We’d both made the Avenue from next-to-nothing starts. We knew how to be a hell of a lot frostier than those cold-storage fish. Them! We could have frozen them stiffer than mutton in a ship’s ice-box, if they’d ever dared to risk a first word with us!”
He shook them off his shoulders. “But I was feeling lonesome with my Mollie gone and Helen Brill Kent was no slouch to look at and just say ‘Good morning’ to. One morning she turned down the Avenue, instead of up, and in a few hops I caught up with her.
“I found that woman had a lot more than just looks. She showed more bread-buttering common sense than any woman I ever met, except my wife. She never let anyone kid her. What’s more, she never kidded herself. And she had knocked her own way up in life just as I had. We got along great—no foolish young stuff—no sparking each other up to a singeing passion—just getting to liking each other more and more.”
Reflectively, he chewed the dry cigar, obviously retasting the more pleasing portion of their relations. Then again his lips writhed cynically around it.
“We met always a long way out, where my car picked her up and we wouldn’t start talk. She was a good little sport about that. I didn’t exactly care to have people label me Husband Number Six before taking the plunge, and she was completely fed up, she said, on publicity that caught her loose livers and hot spenders, but scared away the solid citizens she said she valued now.
“Before I knew it, I was talking marriage, and to my surprise, she didn’t jump out of my car. I don’t mean to say that she leaped at my suggestion. Not at all. Nothing like that. She took the hint in a dead calm like an idea she hadn’t thought about, but might now consider. But that looked right to me. After so many marriages, how could my marrying her seem any great treat?”
A smile wrinkled the smooth hard shrewdness around his low-curtained eyes and he lingered in one of the happier spots again—as long as he could.
“Well,” he shook free and took a long breath, “I might as well get along and tell you what brought me up standing. Still, I want to make sure first that you get the undertow she had on me. Helen Brill Kent was the sort of a little gem that a man likes to have for his own and wear—nothing soft and squashy, but hard and flashy and brilliant, like a diamond—a gem that others besides you can see the value of. But she put up no kick against marrying again, and after the number of wrecks she’d been in, that started me thinking.”
His smile was gone; eyelids dropped so low over hard green eyes that they seemed to spy out of a chest open just a crack.
“Being no morning’s mush myself, I began to make conditions so as to draw her out. She agreed to them all so smoothly that I put a detective on her to learn what was what. I found she had dropped money in Wall Street. That was all right. That explained why she was willing to risk putting to sea again with me. But I learned that she had on her back the filthiest pair of leeches that ever grafted on a woman. And I was some startled, let me tell you, to discover that she was acting silly over a dancing ass young enough to be her son.
“So I had to add a couple of more conditions. She put up no kick against chucking overboard those two leeches, her father and younger brother. She seemed to come to her senses about that new-born ass. This was that ninny-headed boob, Eddie St. Clair. I couldn’t have a ladies’ pet like that seen out in public with the lady Jason Sullivan meant to marry. Give the pols. a belly laugh like that on you and you’d better quit the game—you’re out! So on him especially we came to an up-and-down understanding. She was to lay off that dancing adenoid. She was to freeze him off the wire and slam the door in his face and she certainly was never to be seen in public with him again” Sullivan jerked the unlighted cigar from his mouth, and he didn’t put it back. Obviously, it blocked the way of feelings now tiding up.
“She promised—everything. And she even signed that marriage agreement you probably thought so one-sided. But on the day she was shot, my detective agency reported that Helen had sneaked out the night before to dance with that conceited young pill at the Tropical Hour.”
He raised an enormous hand to his reddened face and looked surprised to find something in it. He dropped the chewed-up dry cigar into an ash tray and went on.
“I guess perhaps I was some wilder about her than I’ve let on. I felt hot to flash out and wreck the face of that dancing insect, but that wouldn’t do—the story of Jason Sullivan beating up a gigolo would tie a can on me for life. So I had to let The Gorilla kick in his slats and lift his face, and then I sat around and smoked cigar after cigar until I could get at that young lady.”
He took to striding savagely up and down the workshop again.
“Between half past nine and quarter past ten that night, I rushed up those back stairs twice for nothing. The servants were out all right, but I couldn’t get through to Helen’s room. Both times someone or other dawdled in the rear hall. But soon after ten-twenty, I managed to squeeze through and get in.”
He stopped at the side of Scott’s desk. He mopped his strong face; he dried manicured, but still stevedore, hands as if about to touch tragedy.
“By this time I was red-hot. I bounced into her room and shoved on the lights. There she was lying in her bed like Cleopatra in her barge. I spoke to her. She acted as if she hadn’t heard, and wouldn’t hear as long as I dared to use that tone. That riled me all the way through to the backbone. I reached for her. I jerked her out of bed. But I dropped her to the floor mighty quick. Her body was limp as a dishrag. She had a lipped wound in the back of her neck. There was thick blood in her hair. It was caking there.”
I shuddered and turned away from the gory picture. Scott stared up at that perspiring face as if seeing behind it.
As though the murdered beauty lay on the floor across the workshop, Sullivan stared glassily there. His huge hands clenched and knuckled down on the edge of Scott’s desk.
“She was gone. I didn’t need any doctor to tell me that. And there I stood like a yap with blood on my hands and no more to do with killing her than a baby in its crib. I rushed to the bathroom for the dirty dog who had done this. Nothing there but scales and perfumery. I hunted around the room like a madman for the one who had got me into this, for anything that would show who that was. Not a thing. Then I stooped down to lift Helen’s body back onto the bed. But her staring eyes simply gave me the creeps. I couldn’t do it. I left her lying on the ermine rug. I hopped out and down those back stairs as if the devil was chasing me. And that’s all I had to do with it.”
Sullivan walked slowly back to his chair and slumped into it. My eyes followed him with sympathy. Harshly as he had treated us, he had told his story frankly and he hadn’t tried to heap all the blame on the woman. He sopped up the beads of perspiration from his ruddy face, gazing at a spot on the floor between us. I shook my head and said nothing. Scott sat looking at a cigarette that had gone out. He allowed a long time to pass before he asked his first question.
“You don’t mind answering a few questions that will help us to get the one who did that?”
Sullivan sat up savagely. “Just one minute. Do you believe what I’ve told you or not?”
Scott jumped up and held out his hand. “Of course. And I’ll say this to you, without your asking it. If it’s any way possible to keep you out of this, I give you my word I’ll do that.”
“Hell, I knew you’d be big enough to do that—after I rubbed up against you. I haven’t stipulated that you hand back my marriage agreement, have I?” Sullivan scraped his chair nearer Scott, without getting up. “Now, fire away.”
Scott delayed to hand him a cigar. He picked up his own pipe but dropped it for a cigarette that wouldn’t cloud the air between them so thickly.
“You rushed up to the apartment again later, tore out the fuses, and hustled away with that winding of twine, didn’t you?”
Sullivan nodded. “Yes, I didn’t want that there. Whoever I had to swing this on—” he raised a sledgehammer fist—“in order to get back home, I’m offering my apologies to. That had to be done.”
My hand touched a still slightly sensitive space on the back of my head, but Scott continued his questions without pause.
“When you looked through the glass panel in the pantry door the first time you went up to her apartment that night, who stood in your way in the rear hall?”
“Her Salvation Army brother, Captain Brill.”
“Was he walking towards Mrs. Kent’s room?”
“Right. He was. And with a wild look in his eyes.”
I glanced hastily at Scott. Did he believe Captain Brill the fiend we were after? I couldn’t tell. And he shifted abruptly to another matter.
“What time did you make your second visit upstairs?”
“Around quarter past ten. I kept looking at my watch, because I was hot to have it out with Helen.”
“Who was in your way in the rear hall then?”
“Dorothy Vroom and her mother. They were having a fiery argument as they rushed by the pantry door. They were blazing away at each other so hotly they didn’t see me shut that door quick.”
Scott spread his time-table of the murder upon his desk and consulted it. “That was just before the murder. Did you hear what they were blazing away about?”
Sullivan closed a mighty fist and shook it fiercely. “I heard enough. I heard that young girl yell, ‘She ought to be killed for this!’ and then her mother, pawing to catch hold of her, screamed, ‘Now, don’t do anything rash. You leave her to me.’ ”
Scott jotted down these threatening words with haste. He considered Sullivan soberly. “Do you really believe that either Dorothy Vroom or her mother shot Mrs. Kent?”
“Now, you’re asking me something.” The shrewd upper half of Sullivan’s face dominated, settled to thought. “Hutchinson thinks the young girl did it. Personally, I wouldn’t put it past either one of those women. Dorothy Vroom was spitting fire and her mother clutched her shoulder, as if afraid her daughter might stick a knife in ahead of her.”
I cursed under my breath and glared at Scott. What in the name of heaven was he doing? I believed him to be working to clear Dorothy Vroom. But here he was strengthening the evidence against her. I glared at him so angrily that he felt it and glanced at me, but he kept on relentlessly.
“Dorothy Vroom says that her mother went into her own room at that time and that she herself went into Mrs. Kent’s room alone—what do you say about that?”
Sullivan’s strong voice swelled, vibrated with conviction. “I say they both went into Helen’s room. I told Hutchinson they did.”
I jumped up and leaped to Scott to pour protest into his ear. He pushed me away and bent across his desk towards Sullivan.
“We can’t be too certain of that. You actually saw them both go into Mrs. Kent’s room?”
Sullivan shot a fiery look at him. “I saw them both at the door waiting to be let in. What more do you want?”
Scott pushed me away again, unheard, and continued. “But did you see them both go into that room?”
Sullivan’s narrow eyes opened wider; now you could see more than half the black pupils, nearly three-quarters of the green irises that he generally kept hooded.
“Hell, come to think of it, I didn’t. I hurried back downstairs. I didn’t want the servants to come back and surprise me in the pantry. I’d have been in a sweet mess then—barred from keeping on to Helen’s room in front and the servants cutting off my retreat behind.”
Scott tapped his desk with a white forefinger obviously for emphasis. “Then there’s no reason in the world, is there, why afterwards Mrs. Vroom shouldn’t have crossed the hall to her own room, and why Dorothy shouldn’t have gone into Mrs. Kent’s room alone, just as each says that she did?”
Sullivan started and looked at him. “I didn’t think as fine as that.” He reflected a moment. “Yes. You’re right. After I left, they both could have done as you say. I’ll have to tell Hutchinson that they could.”
My face burning, I stole back to my chair and sat down. Scott was not working against Dorothy Vroom; he was searching for the truth. He wanted that, no matter what person it promised to hurt. And this truth had helped, not hurt, Dorothy. In pushing on into what looked like dangerous ground, he had removed one of Hutchinson’s strongest supporting witnesses against that young girl. He wasn’t satisfied. He kept on. The next moment he put a question to Sullivan that lighted up the admiration of us both.
“Mr. Sullivan,” he said in a tone suddenly becoming as stern as his face, “you stood there in the pantry, engaged to marry Helen Brill Kent. You heard those two women threaten to take her life. You saw them waiting to enter her room and get at her. Now, if you really thought they meant to murder her, how came it you neither warned her nor stuck around to protect her?”
“Well, that’s certainly a rib-tickler!” Sullivan glanced at me in evident amazement at this man’s insight into his character. He ran a ham of a hand into his gray-edged hair and a moment’s thought completely changed his opinion. “Guess I never did think they’d hurt her—not until after the murder. Why, of course I didn’t. Of course, I’d have stuck around—yes, and got busy too—if I thought so then. I never ran away from a fight in my life, I’m not built that way.” He beamed at his own pugnacity.
Scott leaned sharply towards him. “And you’ll correct Hutchinson on that point too?”
“I will. I’ll certainly do that. Before the murder, I must have considered their threats just so much steam anyone might blow off.” Sullivan’s astonishment apparently swung into admiration. He chewed the end of his cigar a moment and then bent impulsively towards Scott. “Say, how much is your cut a year? We could use you, and put you close to good pickings.”
I smiled at his eagerness to capture an unusually gifted man, but Scott took the offer with the utmost gravity, and explained how his advertising agency absolutely prevented his taking on more work. Then he asked:
“And the third time you went up, no one in the halls prevented and you succeeded in getting into Mrs. Kent’s room?”
“Let’s have the time of that visit, just as close as you can get to it.”
“Let’s see. I gave them about ten minutes to get through belly-aching and out of my way. That would make it about ten-twenty-five, as near as I can figure it—a minute or two earlier, if anything.” Through habit, Sullivan drew out his watch. “Oh, you’d like a look at my time-maker?” He carried a thin golden timepiece to Scott. “This little sun doesn’t wander two seconds a month from the time of the big sun in the sky.”
Scott pulled out a thicker platinum watch. “Here’s a time-checker that doesn’t vary half a second a month from true time.”
Scott set the watches side by side on his desk. While I fidgeted in my chair, and time was lost, and murders waited to be solved, two big boys, with heads close together, argued watch movements, clocked seconds and raced minutes.
But soon Sullivan sat again in his chair, and Scott, pulling his time-table of the first murder closer, quizzed him with added vigor.
“The time you made your third trip upstairs, after the murder—Captain Brill and Miss Cushing claim they were in the living room at the other end of the apartment—what do you say about that?”
“Nothing. I didn’t see either of them then.”
“And Jesse and Napoleon Brill—they swear and persist in swearing that they were in the bathroom next door to Mrs. Kent’s room—did you see or hear them there?”
“No. But I wouldn’t believe those cockroaches under oath.”
I nodded in full agreement with his judgment of those two parasites and forgers, and Scott also bowed his head.
“What about hearing anyone on the back stairs any of the four times you used them?”
“No. Or I wouldn’t have risked using them.”
“But couldn’t someone have stolen in that way and killed Mrs. Kent?”
I started at finding Scott still suspecting Stuyvesant. Sullivan sat back; he stared thoughtfully at Scott before he replied.
“That’s right. Someone could have. I got up there and out again often, and no one the wiser. Is that the way you figure out it was done?”
“It can’t be figured out without more help from you. How was it possible for Mrs. Kent to be shot through the mouth without seeing the revolver threatening her with murder? How could she have seen that instrument of death without fear? Until you help us to clear up that puzzle, we’re left skulking around on the outside of this mystery looking in.”
I plunged forward to the edge of my chair. Here, apparently, lay the basic problem of this mystery. With a thrill, I recalled that this was the problem Scott raised to the deaf ears of Hutchinson and Mullens on the night of the first murder. Could he now succeed in solving this problem by a witness who had already confessed himself stumped by it? There was entreaty in his tone as he bent towards Sullivan.
“You were there. You are the only one we can expect to help us to answer that inside question. Now, I’ll lead you and, I beg you, squeeze your mind hard to get what we must have.”
Scott leaned far across his desk; one hand propped up his head; an earnest and eager light burned in his blue eyes. “No one shot Mrs. Kent through an open window. That’s out. No window in line with the course of the shot. And for exactly the same reason, no one hiding in her unlighted bathroom could have fired the shot. The question then is, could anyone concealed in a dark patch of her room have pointed the revolver at her unseen from it? What about that? The killer would have had to stand between the head of the ebony bed and the wall opposite of the bathroom. Any dark patch there in which the murderer could hide?”
Sullivan looked baffled. “I don’t know. But I don’t think so. Her bed-lamp was lighted. And placed high on the headboard. It must have thrown some light clear to that wall.”
“Right. That’s out, as I thought. Now here’s a second possibility. Could someone have crouched unseen behind the night-stand and shot her?”
“That narrow night-stand? Not a chance.”
“That’s the way I felt about that. But there’s a third possibility much more likely. Suppose she faced that revolver without being able to see it. Suppose it was screened from her sight, hidden in a pocket or behind the fold of a coat.”
Scott’s manner was unconvinced, but I leaped at that explanation, and Sullivan leaned towards him.
“That would explain it, wouldn’t it?”
“Yes, but might not Mrs. Kent have actually seen the weapon aimed at her and yet feared nothing—if someone pointed it at her she never dreamed would pull the trigger?”
“Possibly.” Sullivan’s brow wrinkled with thought. “But who there that night could she have trusted that much? She’d just chucked them all out on their own, hadn’t she? Of course, after all their years together she might have trusted Mrs. Vroom but—”
Scott interrupted him. “Not Mrs. Vroom. Not after the rotten way she’d just treated her. No, I’ve had to discard that theory with the others. Now let’s consider still another possibility. Could someone have unlocked the door without making a sound, stolen three or four feet inside her room, and then shot her in bed as she turned her head, before she realized that she faced death?”
Sullivan’s face brightened. “That’s it. That’s the way it was done. Murdered before she had time to move or scream. Now, who had keys to that door?”
“Jesse and Napoleon Brill and Mrs. Vroom but—”
Scott dropped into restless thought, as if dissatisfied with this theory also. His uneasy movements and absent look roused the belief in me that he himself held still another theory. The feeling grew. I became convinced that he entertained a theory too astounding to advance before he gained some support for it. My conviction was strengthened by his renewed appeal to Sullivan.
“Think again, please, and think hard. Didn’t you see a single thing in the room suggesting how such a murder could have been cunningly contrived?”
“Not a thing.”
“On the bed, the night-stand, the floor—anywhere?”
“Put your mind on that hard.”
“But I have.” Sullivan thumped the arms of his chair with his palms. “I can’t tell you something I never saw, can I?”
With a visible breath of disappointment, Scott sat back. He studied Sullivan sharply for a time. Then I was amazed to hear him change from entreaty to ridicule. His tone cut with the sharp edge of sarcasm.
“Jason Sullivan! A man who’s worked his way up so high that I credited him with some powers of observation. In a room where he knew murder had taken place. And he observed less than a kindergarten toddler at play.”
Sullivan started and flushed. “Hell, I’d have lugged a camera along, if I’d thought you were going to question me. See here, I didn’t notice a thing—or I’d have tipped off Hutchinson long ago.”
“What a let-down from what I counted on from you!”
Scott’s tone gave up, but his eyes still lingered on Sullivan hopefully. Finally they reluctantly left him. Silence came into the workshop.
Sullivan fumbled another unlighted cigar between his lips. There hung a slight flush of shame on his strong face. Soon his enormous thumb and forefinger pinched one side of the under-roll beneath his chin into serious thought, but nothing came of it.
I swallowed and slumped back. So for lack of a little observation on Sullivan’s part, this mystery must remain unsolved? So Scott’s undeviating singleness of purpose, his persistent pressure along this one line, had proved futile? All the little steel springs inside of me seemed to uncoil at once and leave me flabby, weak as water.
I turned desperately to Scott. He hadn’t moved. He still sat behind his desk, his head sunk on his chest, gazing blankly and dejectedly down at his shoes. His stern young face wore an unusually strained look; he looked as forlorn as an old man who has found his entire estate embezzled by a trustee he trusted too completely.
Mournfully, my eyes wandered away from him. I saw Dorothy Vroom indicted, tried, possibly freed, but never freed of the deep scar on her good name. I grieved for her—and I grieved that the first murder I probed into with Scott must remain an unsolved mystery.
My eyes turned to Sullivan as a last hope. He sat with a hard look on his slightly red face, twitching a dry cigar from one position to another between completely baffled lips.
But now the shriek of Scott’s chair whisked my eyes to him. He was on his feet. His eyes flashed. He looked sterner than ever before. He looked stern enough to command the world to stop and begin turning around the other way. And he dived towards Sullivan with a violence that made me catch my breath.
“You burned match! You broken window! You cold radiator! You cracked mirror! You dead telephone!” he snapped. “You’ve wasted my time. You’ve wasted your own time. You were there. You’re no mental cripple. Now, get back into that room and use your eyes. What do you see there. What’s on the floor?”
Sullivan jumped at the aggressive utterly heedless tone. His huge fists clenched. He started to get up.
Scott pushed him back into his chair. “Stay down there. Answer my question. What did you see there?”
For an interminable moment, while I held my breath, Sullivan glared up at his peppery questioner; then a faint grin played with the corners of his large mouth and I breathed again. Visibly he choked down his shocked and obviously rioting sense of dignity; he leaped to lend a hand in an emergency. One fist opened up, cupped his chin as he evidently groped around in his memory; but he ended by shaking his head irascibly.
“I can’t remember a damned thing on the floor, except the gun and the ermine rug.”
“Rotten! Then what in the bathroom?”
“Scales. A whole army of jars and bottles. I told you all I saw there.”
“Nothing I can seem to remember.”
“Does your memory need a plumber? Weren’t those black sheets rumpled?”
“Sure, but not much. She’d just climbed into bed.”
“Look at that black pillow. What do you see?”
“Blood pooled where her head lay.”
“Better!” Scott patted his shoulder. “Now, you’re getting the pictures. What’s on top of the night-stand?”
“Nothing. Guess I never looked there.”
“Back to the bed. What about the headboard?”
“Nothing that caught my eye.”
Fire flashed from Scott’s eyes; he shook his white fist in Sullivan’s ruddy face.
“Damn you! Were you blindfolded? Can’t you see the cupids on that headboard?”
Once more Sullivan started angrily up; but again the faint grin seemed to noose him.
“That’s right. Now you curse me, I can see those cupids.” He covered his eyes with a tremendous hand. “They’re stretching out empty hands. They look silly as all hell smiling down on that bloodied pillow.”
Scott danced to and fro in front of him. “The night-stand—what do you see there now?”
“Wait a minute!” Sullivan kept his hand over his eyes; he flung up the other impatiently. “Damn it, wait a minute. I did notice something odd on that bed.”
Scott whirled around; stood poised. “What? What was it?”
“Hanging down from this side of the headboard—a black string or something.”
I gasped. Scott held on to one arm of the chair, hung far over him. “String? Isn’t that wire?”
Sullivan’s hand dropped from his eyes and he stared at Scott. “Gosh, I think it was.”
Scott flung Sullivan’s hand back over his eyes. “Look sharp. How does it hang? Limp like string?—stiff like wire?”
“Right! Stiff like wire. Yes, and it’s crinkly, like wire that’s been braided.” Down dropped Sullivan’s hand; he gazed with wide-eyed amazement at Scott. “How in hell did you guess that?”
No reply. It was some time before Sullivan learned that. He scraped his chair around. He and I smiled at each other—the understanding smile that excuses the erratic actions of a genius.
Scott, as if learning all he needed, had rushed out of the workshop the way soda spurts out of a siphon.
The next day proved a day of shocks. My first shock came when I called up Scott. Wilson informed me that Scott had swiftly packed a bag and fled, throwing back word for me not to try and find him for a day or two.
When an emergency arose in his advertising agency, Scott sometimes had to drop a case instantly. Had such an emergency popped up now, or was Scott hot on the trail of the clew he had stormed out of Jason Sullivan? Wilson didn’t know. Feeling myself that Scott raptly pursued his new clew, I called to discover what had happened since their eviction to Dorothy Vroom and her mother. Was that gifted young artist wringing a living for her mother and herself from New York, or were they genteelly starving in the studio apartment that her mother funked at as a reckless extravagance?
Dorothy Vroom opened the door. She held out both hands to me.
“Heaven sends someone for me to brag to!” Her velvety brown eyes sparkled; she gayly called her mother over a shoulder. “Mother’s just going out marketing. Come into the studio with me, and let me gush out the good news before I burst.” Her tall slenderly rounded figure tripped along ahead of me across a severely simple Washington Square studio; she cleared a Chippendale settee of drawings for me; and nodded proudly towards her approaching mother.
“Notice how a smart hat routs that parched worried look? A few more days in a home of her own and mother’ll learn how to smile again. Doesn’t she look blooming, now she has only one female to protect?”
I greeted Mrs. Vroom with amazement. Her grenadier-like carriage had eased up, her thin face softened; she looked years younger.
Dorothy Vroom’s exuberance appeared the gayety of one just out from under a heavy fear.
“Mother, make it filet Mignon,” she called to her departing mother, “and I’ll use all my lure to hold our first caller for luncheon.”
“You seem not only to have met Lady Luck, but actually to have captured the jade,” I suggested.
“Don’t mind me if I act a bit delirious. Something’s gone to my head. I don’t know whether it’s having a home we can call our own after life-sentences in another’s home—long may this flag of freedom wave!—or all this work simply dropping from the sky into my lap.”
She threw herself happily into a chair behind a drawing board.
“You won’t mind my just pecking away at some of this work? They’ve accepted this whole pile of roughs, and—generous, wonderful men!—they’ve let me do the finishes. It’s too precious—unbelievable! I’m working frantically to please them.” She raised her dark oval face and gazed dreamily out a great northern window. “But I simply can’t make out how all this work poured in on me before I called on a single advertising agency.”
I asked where it poured from with sudden suspicion. She named an advertising agency that cannot be specified here. It was Scott’s. Instead of offering windy flatteries to her gifts, he had secretly sent her sorely needed work. That was why he had acted uneasy and rather ashamed before me immediately after telephoning his agency.
“The detectives aren’t bothering you any more?” I asked hastily to escape possibly embarrassing questions.
Her gayety dulled quickly. “Sergeant Mullens drops in on me oftener than I could wish he would. Unexpectedly, as if sincerely hoping to catch me burning up blood-stained clothing. But I suppose I’ve got to endure that for a while. Let’s talk of something more—”
She stopped. She stared behind me, growing pale and stiff. I whirled around to discover whose entrance had changed her instantly back to the spirited but hardened young thing suspected of murder.
It was Mullens. He lumbered across the studio with the thick complacency of one habitually correcting blunders of the long arm of destiny.
My jaw sagged. I hastily lighted a cigarette. But Dorothy demanded boldly:
“How did you get in?”
She sighed and bent down over her work. “Well, if I’ve omitted to tell you what a pest you are before, I’m compelled to now. You simply put a blight on my work.”
Mullens winked at me. With a grim look on his high-colored face, he tramped on to the drawing board. He waited until the shadow he fixed on it caused her to look up.
“Where were you, young lady, last night at ten-thirty?”
“Out. Did you call?” She dropped her eyes to her work.
“No, but I’m callin’ a feeble bluff now. What did you drop into the East River near the end of this street?”
My face twitched, but she resumed inking in the outline of a figure.
“Nothing. Can’t I decently dispose of a lot of old tubes and brushes without bringing you down on me?”
“So that’s what you want me to think it was?”
“If you doubt it, you can fish them out.”
“Yeah, we could,” his pudgy hand poked into a pocket, “but we’ve hooked our cute fish this time. I don’t suppose you ever saw this before in your life?”
I gasped. He held out a pearl-handled revolver precisely like the one found by Mrs. Kent’s body. I pulled myself along the settee for a panicky closer look at it.
Dorothy unwillingly glanced up at it. Visibly, she took hold of herself.
“No. I can’t tell you a thing about that.”
I stared blankly at the weapon with gloom creeping up through me along every bone of my body. She nervously began blacking in the body of another figure.
Mullens rolled a sarcastic grin at her. “I thought likely you’d deny knowin’ this spittin’ tool,” he carefully pocketed the revolver, “but one of my men spotted you gettin’ rid of it, and you’ve just admitted in front of the couple of us that you did chuck somethin’ into the river there and then. With all the rest we’ve got against you, we don’t need another thing. Jam on your hat. I’m goin’ to run you in.”
Her chair scraped the floor; she looked up at him, her young face contorted. “Arrest! Me?”
“Yeah, and we should ’a’ done just that long ago.”
Her tiny ink-brush slipped from her fingers. It lay unnoticed, staining black her new smock.
“But—but what’s going to become of all my work?”
“You should worry. You won’t have to do any more work.”
Her fluttering eyes wandered. There was a ringing silence. Finally she appealed to me. “Do I have to stop all my work? Do I absolutely have to go with him?”
I thought fast. Scott was no longer here to save her. I groaned inwardly and resolved to do all I could for her. One thing she must avoid, if I was to help her at all. She simply must not antagonize Mullens.
“You’d better go,” I told her regretfully.
“All right. If you say I have to I’ll go.” She pushed the drawing board away; but didn’t rise; the tiny camels’ hair ink-brush fell, spotted the floor.
She sat staring, motionless, out the big window. She finally asked in a firmer tone: “You’ll wait until I write a note to my mother?”
She walked slowly into the adjoining room with the old hard look now settled back on her young face. Mullens trudged to a position where he could keep an eye on the outside door. I strolled up to him.
“Have a cigar?”
“I’ll smoke this later.” From force of habit he placed it inside his hat. “We don’t often see you without your side-kick.”
“Griffin Scott’s away somewhere. And this puts me in a box with you sitting on the lid. Going to book her, or take her to Mr. Hutchinson first?”
“Immaterial to me,” he grinned amiably, evidently enjoying keenly my humble manner and his own dominating position. “We have to catch the crooks and hoe up all the dirt on them. All the D. A. has to do is to try them.”
Hastily, while he still felt large, I whispered another suggestion.
He wagged his head in assent.
“K. O., if you’re boob enough to pay for both taxis.”
In one taxi, while Mullens followed us in another, I attempted to learn about the second weapon from Dorothy.
She met my eyes with an absent look. “It’s mine,” she said, “that’s all I intend to say. Please—do you mind letting me think?”
We succeeded, as I hoped, in dodging reporters. We entered the Criminal Courts Building through the White Street entrance. We took an elevator to the top floor; we crossed that other lofty bridge, that formed our Bridge of Hope, to the building across the street in which District Attorney Hutchinson’s offices were located.
Mullens deposited us in an absent assistant’s office; he hustled away to see Hutchinson first alone. Instead of awaiting his call for us, I left Dorothy in the assistant’s office; I nerved myself and sauntered into Hutchinson’s office.
Hutchinson sat behind his broad bare desk. He nodded to me with only faint surprise. Mullens threw me an annoyed glance; then he continued making his report.
“There’s the gun she really did the trick with. Carroll fished it out of the East River this morning, where she got rid of it last night. She admitted throwing somethin’ in there last night, so I picked her up. I haven’t booked her, thinkin’ you might want to talk to her first.”
Hutchinson looked at the door, as if expecting Scott to follow me in, and then at me, saying nothing.
“But I thought we already had the revolver that shot Mrs. Kent,” I protested.
Hutchinson shook his dark powerful-looking head. “The Sergeant probably has an entirely different theory about the weapon used now.”
“Sure,” Mullens lifted both arms for emphasis, “that gun by the corpse was a plant. Just pushed off the night-stand to give that a look of suicide. She slipped a cog, leavin’ her thumb-print on that, and she slipped another last night, slidin’ this into the river when she didn’t know she was watched. She’s it. Stronger than onions.”
I felt the blood rising in my face. “It’s simply idiotic thinking that young girl could kill. Then one shot’s been fired from this weapon also?”
Mullens regarded me witheringly. “What do you think she is—foolish? She had time. This gun has been carefully unloaded and cleaned.” He handed it to Hutchinson.
I appealed from him to Hutchinson. “Don’t arrest her today. Griffin Scott’s away. He had your promise not to, didn’t he?”
Hutchinson looked up from the revolver with a frown. “He did, but there’s a limit. Here! You listen to all we’ve got against her, and tell me how much longer you’d hold off for a friend.” He dropped the revolver into a desk drawer and got up. “We caught her tampering with the telephone to find out whether we still believed Mrs. Kent’s death suicide. She admits fighting hotly and frequently with Mrs. Kent. And she certainly wouldn’t feel more kindly disposed towards her for throwing her mother out on the street that night. She confesses being in Mrs. Kent’s room with her five minutes previous to her murder. But we have two witnesses to prove she came out of there not five minutes before, but one minute after the murder. And now, see how completely she snarled herself up in this.
“She made the mistake of admitting that she heard the shot, but a child in primary school could see how she has lied to squirm out of that careless error. Who believes that she heard that shot in Miss Cushing’s room, and didn’t feel enough human curiosity to open a door to find out what had happened? That alibi isn’t worth a match to blow it to hell. Why did she never say one word about hearing a shot, when the others were pounding on that door and wondering what had happened inside that room? Hell, we’ve got enough to send her to the chair, if she wasn’t so damned young and good looking that we’ll have to strain our gizzards to get the twelve sentimental asses who’ll moon at her from the jury box to stop lapping up her face and ankles. Wait a minute. You don’t know the half of it yet.
“We have her finger-prints on the revolver found near the body. She claims she handled it after the murder, not before, but how’s it happen that not one of five other living people saw her pick it up from the floor then? Who except some soft sap on a jury would give that weak explanation anything? And then she started to get out of here right after the murder. And now we find the second weapon she slipped into the river. Tell me—honestly—how much longer would you hold off on a case like this for a friend?”
I gulped at that terrible arraignment, I said everything I could think of for her, but Hutchinson’s eyes suddenly shifted from me to the door of the office.
Someone had knocked. Now, one of his young assistants stepped in before he was invited. He carefully closed the door. He swung around with an air of excitement. He said without apologies:
“There’s a woman outside. She insists on seeing you. She says she wants to confess the murder of Helen Brill Kent.”
Throaty sounds from Mullens and from me. We gazed at Hutchinson with astonishment. He piled to his feet.
“Who is she?” he asked.
Before the assistant could reply, the door banged open. Mrs. Vroom tore into the office.
Her smart new hat hung awry on one side of her head. Her dark thin face burned feverishly. Her eyes held the smouldering yet glasslike stare in them on the night of the murder of Mrs. Kent. And her voice sounded frantic.
“Where’s Dorothy? What have you done with her?”
Hutchinson hastened to her. He led her to a chair. “We haven’t done a thing to her yet. Now, you sit down here.” He nodded to his assistant who reluctantly left the office.
But Mrs. Vroom searched the office with a frenzied glance, and then pounced to her feet. She seized his arm. She cried in a frantic voice:
“You let her go. She didn’t have a thing to do with it. I did it.”
Mrs. Vroom the murderess! And Dorothy wildly attempting to deceive us to shield her mother? I stopped breathing. Hutchinson’s voice cut through a dead silence.
“You intend to confess the murder of Mrs. Kent?”
“Yes, yes, yes.”
“Then sit down there and gather yourself together.” Hutchinson released his arm from her grip. He walked slowly back behind his desk. He glanced at her and obviously allowed her more time to gain control of herself. Finally, he turned his chair around towards her.
“Now! Go on. Tell us all about it.”
She stared at him glassily; her voice sounded strangled. “I did it. That’s all. What—what more do I have to tell you?”
Hutchinson clearly saw how incapable she was yet of talking connectedly. He took her by the hand, mentally, and led her with questions.
“Why did you do it?”
“Because she turned me out on the street after I’d slaved all my life for her. Because she went back on every promise to me. Who could I turn to? What work could I get at my age?”
Hutchinson sought to calm her with a gesture. “And now, Mrs. Vroom, when did you do it—when did you enter Mrs. Kent’s room?”
“Right after my daughter, Dorothy, came out of there and went into Ethel Cushing’s room, just as she said she did.”
“Rest a minute and then tell us all the details—just how you went about it.”
Apparently she couldn’t rest; she rushed on. “I went into Helen’s room to talk it over. I couldn’t believe she meant to turn us out too. I thought she just said that to get rid of her father and Napoleon easier. But she said she did mean it. She said she was through with me too. She laughed at me for bringing up her solemn pledges to me. And she swore at me for vowing I’d make her keep them. I couldn’t stand it. I just went mad. I picked up the revolver from the floor and fired it.”
I stared at her. Was that merely a slip of the tongue? Hutchinson’s tone became sharply less soothing.
“You picked up that revolver from where?”
“From the floor—where it lay.”
“You’re positive about that—from the floor?”
“Of course, I am. Where else would I get it?”
Hutchinson studied her, frowning. “But you yourself testified that weapon was always kept on the night-stand beside her bed.”
Mrs. Vroom bent, agitated, towards him. “Yes, yes, I didn’t know what I was saying. That’s where I got it.”
“Very well, what did you do with the revolver after firing it at her?”
“I dropped it on the floor. I ran out of that room. I was sorry I let my feelings do a thing like that. I couldn’t bear seeing Helen lying there on the floor another minute.” Once more we regarded her in silence. Then Hutchinson, after a quick glance at Mullens turned to her with severity.
“You’re trying to put something over on us, Mrs. Vroom. Mrs. Kent was killed in that ebony bed.”
“She was?” The witness floundered for a moment, then she said eagerly, “But when I fired she rolled out of bed. She fell to the floor.”
“That’s interesting, when the Medical Examiner declares she died instantly in bed from that shot.” Hutchinson glanced quickly at Mullens again. “And you shot her with the revolver found beside her body?”
Mrs. Vroom nodded, nodded, nodded.
Hutchinson whisked the second weapon from a drawer. He dangled it between thumb and forefinger in the air.
“Then what’s this revolver, exactly like the one found by the body?”
Mrs. Vroom blinked at it. We heard the sharp intake of a breath. Then she sprang up and ran towards it. “That’s the other one. That’s mine.”
Hutchinson swooped it beyond reach of her shaking hand. “Yours? Where did you buy it?”
“I didn’t buy it. Mr. Stuyvesant—he gave Helen and me each one when he first came courting Helen.”
Hutchinson waved that out. “Didn’t you testify again and again there wasn’t another weapon in the apartment?”
“Yes, yes, perhaps. How could I remember that one? How could I remember something given me over twenty years ago and packed away in my trunk. Give me that.”
“No. It’s your daughter’s.”
“It isn’t. It’s mine, I tell you.”
Hutchinson ignored her tremblingly eager hand; he placed his eyes on her sharply. “It’s hers. And last night we caught her throwing it into the river.”
“Oh, no! Oh, no!” Mrs. Vroom backed away from him in a turmoil that was piteous. Her face working, she staggered back until her chair stopped her. She fell into it. Her lips moved, mumbled words. But not a word could we hear.
Hutchinson’s telephone buzzed. In the sinking silence, it was like a sound heard under water. It buzzed again.
He reached for it impatiently. He spoke into it in a weary tone that came sharply to life.
“. . . Long distance? . . . Oh, all right, plug him in, if he insists. . . . Yes. . . . What’s that you’re telling me? . . . Where’d you find them? . . . Who hid them there? . . . No, I won’t but who— . . . Yes, I’ll arrange that for you but— . . . Here! Don’t cut off yet. Give me some tip who. . . . Hullo. . . . Hullo. . . . Operator, get a jump on. Get him back, if you can. . . .”
He listened a moment. He hung up with a fierce scowl. He turned to find Mrs. Vroom bending over him. A vein in her throat throbbed as though it would burst.
“She found that revolver in my trunk. I let her unpack for me. She didn’t have a thing to do with it. I did it. Oh why won’t you believe me?”
Tears glittered in her glassy eyes. She appeared on the edge of hysteria. Hutchinson jumped up and finally succeeded in soothing her into a chair.
Then his nod and glance summoned Mullens and me to the far end of his office with him. He gave me my orders in a low tone.
“You take those two women out of my office before they get to sprinkling the floor. And you see they’re both at the Kent apartment at ten sharp tomorrow morning. If they don’t agree to that, you let me know.”
Mullens, listening in, pulled away from us in open rebellion, his poison-ivy complexion flaming.
“Nothin’ doin’. You can do what you want to with the old girl, but I’m pinching the young one.”
“You’re not. Scott’s found the jewels. Tomorrow morning, we round up all suspects for him at the Kent apartment, and he tells us things. Now, be good!”
Mullens shook his square head doggedly. “No, sir. You can do what you damned want to with the rest, but I slap her in a cell so I can be sure she goes there.”
“You’ll do nothing of the sort. I gave my word to Scott that we’d make no pinch.”
“Maybe but, hell, I haven’t given my word. And I’m not goin’ to take that risk.”
“Risk!” Hutchinson seized his arm. “You want to risk getting the Big Boss down on you? I had a long talk with Jason Sullivan this morning. He thinks Scott’s a wiz.”
More was said. I didn’t hear it. Tomorrow!
The eventful, momentous next morning. Scott arrived at the Kent apartment with a florist’s box under one arm, and accompanied by Bascomb White. A whispered question to District Attorney Hutchinson in the front hall, and he gestured young White into the living room. There the suspects had been gathered.
Hot to discover where Scott had found the jewels and who had murdered Detective Haff and Mrs. Kent, Hutchinson, Sergeant Mullens and I mobbed him in the hall.
Mullens tapped the florist’s box under his arm. “What in hell have you got in that?”
Scott put his finger over his lips; he jerked his head towards the suspects in the living room, and drove us all into the room which Dorothy Vroom and her mother formerly occupied.
“Here’s where I found the jewels.”
He unsnapped fasteners on the front flap of the deep-bottomed wing chair in which Mrs. Vroom had sat with her knitting. He lifted the flap and touched a button under the seat. An invisible compartment unlatched. He joggled open a small drawer tightly joined into the woodwork.
“And here’s where I also got my hands on the fiendishly ingenious gear used to murder Mrs. Kent.”
Our heads close as grapes on a bunch, we stared into the drawer. It was empty. Scott answered our startled questions.
“The jewels, I checked up by the list and hustled into my safe deposit box. The gear used to murder her, I’ll put ice-cubes into your blood with in Mrs. Kent’s room where it performed its deadly work.”
Mullens jostled me aside to get his red face nearer Scott’s. “But what we’re askin’ you is, who hid them here?”
Scott deliberately restored drawer and flap to place before straightening up to reply. “Now, who would you say, Sergeant? This room was occupied first by Dorothy Vroom and her mother and, after they were put out of here, by Jesse and Napoleon Brill.”
Mullens thrust a heavy jaw forward. “Dorothy Vroom. Not a doubt in a carload. Just as I’ve said from the first. But say, don’t you know who croaked the famous beauty?”
Hutchinson pushed eagerly in between them. “You know who murdered Mrs. Kent, don’t you?”
Scott nodded coolly. “I do. But just my circumstantial evidence isn’t going to satisfy you to step into court with. And it’s possible others were in on it before or after the crime. You did as I asked? You brought your stenographer?”
“Yes. I parked him in Mrs. Kent’s room but—”
“Come across there. I want to show you how cunningly her murder was contrived.”
With his back towards the night-stand and Mrs. Kent’s funereal ebony bed, Scott confronted us. He shook his stern head portentously.
“Mrs. Kent was simply pitched out of life. Not the slightest warning. She wasn’t allowed a human chance ever to know that she faced death. She may have looked straight at the revolver on this night-stand,” he jerked his right thumb behind him, “in fact, she must have to be shot through the mouth, but who fears a revolver lying harmlessly on a night-stand—with no finger on the trigger, with no person visible behind it to fire it? The fiend who schemed this murder didn’t give her a moment to expect or prepare for death.”
I swallowed, horrified. We waited, in a shivery silence, for Scott to explain how such a diabolical end of life had been devised.
“She was tricked. She was foxed into killing herself. One end of a wire noose around the thumb of the smiling further cupid carved on that headboard,” his own left thumb guided our eyes there, “the black wire run between the fingers of the ebony cupid on this side, strung down under this side of the night-stand, lined up tautly on the other side, and the other end looped around the cocked trigger of the revolver.” He shut his eyes; they then opened and took us to the ebony bed of execution. “Mrs. Kent stretched out comfortably in bed there. She turned on her side. She laughed or she yawned—no one will ever know which—as she reached up carelessly to pull off the night-lamp on the center of the headboard. Her hand pushed the wire strung across below the lamp chain. That pulled the trigger. She was blown out of life. She blew herself out of life. Without ever knowing that she was doing it.” We gazed at him shocked. The fiendish ingenuity of the murder made me shudder. It was Hutchinson who broke the gruesome silence.
“There’s just one person here clever enough to work out a killing like that. How do you expect to uncover that young devil and any others who may have been in on it?” Scott snatched up from the bed the box he had brought. “We’ve got to noose them. That’s the only way.”
He held up before us an umbrella-length pasteboard box, the sort florists deliver a single long-stem rose in. He dislodged the cover and our expectant noses dropped over it to scent an American Beauty rose. They smelt enamel. Inside we saw crammed a kinky single strand of black radio aerial. The wire that cut off the spectacular career of Helen Brill Kent! Undoubtedly.
Scott up-ended the long box. Through one end, where the stem of a rose should have penetrated, projected a tiny sinister loop of the wire. Scott tilted it up with a nervous forefinger.
“With this we either catch them by surprise or else no case. This will rouse only curiosity in those not in on the execution, but just the sight of this loop will shoot murder and dread of discovery into the minds of all who had a hand in that. Now, to make them believe no one’s watching them.”
He hid us and Hutchinson’s stenographer in the spacious bathroom. He shifted the murdered woman’s triple full-length folding mirrors until they reported through the open door to us everything happening in Mrs. Kent’s room.
With a querulous nervousness that betrayed his fear that this might not work out, he crisply outlined the remaining arrangements necessary for such a test. Detective Carroll was called in, ordered to bring the people from the living room in here one at a time and afterwards turn them into the room across the hall. Two important chairs were carefully fixed where needed. The box was set in place. Carroll was despatched for the first one on his list. Then we settled in the bathroom to watch how each one acted when his eyes first fell upon the noose. Hutchinson’s hardened, unmoved stenographer sat down; Hutchinson, Mullens and I were too excited to sit; soon curiosity pulled the hard-boiled young recorder to his feet to see better.
The hall door opened. Red-haired and devout little Captain Brill stood inside the room looking around nervously. We saw Scott study him secretly in small masked mirrors set before him while appearing to be writing at Mrs. Kent’s desk. Then he jumped up, shook hands heartily with Captain Brill and gestured towards the big cretonne-covered armchair.
“Sit down there for just a moment while I finish this writing.”
He plumped down at the desk again with his back towards the big armchair. Captain Brill marched to it. He came upon the florist’s box in its seat. He sat down and carefully set the box across his wiry knees. He waited patiently, his eyes on Scott busily writing on a block of paper and cocking his head now and then as if halted by a new thought. Finally, Brill’s eyes dropped to the box and the protruding wire. He lifted the cover; he leaned over the box to smell.
Scott got up. He took the box from his hands. “Thank you, Captain,” he said in a busy bustling tone, “on second thoughts, I don’t think I need to ask you any questions—not until later anyway.”
Captain Brill had passed the test. The loop of wire obviously meant nothing in his life.
Jesse Brill, jowled and megalomaniac father of Mrs. Kent, waddled through the door.
Scott stood up, merely half-turned, and waved towards the armchair. “Just settle down there until I finish this.” Jesse Brill found the box replaced in the chair. He bent a jovial glance at Scott. “Son, who are the flowers for? I thought for a minute Beauty was back here and—”
Scott swung a hand behind him clearly intended to crush him into silence.
Uncrushed, Jesse Brill tucked the box under one arm and sat down. He crossed mastodonic legs, but the topmost slipped off the under knee with a thud to the floor. His terraced face opened to pour out another stream of guile, but his eyes chanced to light upon the protruding wire. Holding the box in one hand, he fumbled off the cover. He still gazed, puzzled, at the wire inside when Scott plucked the box from him.
“That’s all. I find I don’t need you after all.”
That conscienceless grafter and forger entirely out of this! I scowled with perplexed disappointment. As Scott quickened his exit with the door, I fixed inquiring glances on Hutchinson and Mullens on either side of me. They displayed no disgruntled suspicion; they looked as uninterested as camels.
But now expectancy livened up their faces noticeably. Napoleon Brill faced the chair for his test.
His ferretlike eyes whisked from the box to Scott’s back with immediate suspicion. With a snap of his nipperlike fingers he perked up the wilted orchid in his buttonhole; he pushed the box off the chair; he sat down and, with a malicious look on his small sharp face, coolly whistled a bit of jazz.
His whistling failing to annoy Scott, his wandering eyes came on the projecting loop. He covertly picked up the box. Stealthily, he dislodged one corner of the cover and spied inside. He stopped whistling.
“Didn’t find what you expected in there, did you?” Scott snapped the box out of his hands.
Napoleon Brill snarled at him with vicious insolence. “What kind of a lousy trick have you got stacked up in that?”
“Get out of here. Before I waste time telling you what I think of you.” Scott held the door wide open for him.
That cool blackmailer and forger also clear of this? I felt positive he had thought murder; doubtless he planned murder; but had one of the women shot Mrs. Kent before he put it through?
I watched Mrs. Vroom approach the chair with a sharp uprush of fear. She had actual wrong to revenge. She had shown herself swept by emotional bursts of feeling rendering her heedless of everything. Her false confession might have appeared to wash her clear of suspicion but—
She glanced down at the box and twisted around nervously. Her gaunt dark face looking driven, she opened her lips to speak to Scott, but twitched them shut. While I felt a sudden tightening of tension, she looked around for another seat. But all other chairs had been carefully stacked up. For another moment, she hesitated; then she picked up the box. She sat down with it in her lap.
For several trying moments, she fidgeted about in the chair. Finally, she started, sat up, and seemed to get hold of herself. Her eyes dwelt on the loop of wire. She lifted the cover.
Scott waited until she replaced it. Then he slipped the box from her.
“Mrs. Vroom, there are questions I shall have to put to you.”
She twitched and compressed her lips.
Scott held the box behind his back and faced her. He looked severe; his tone sounded sharp; but his severity seemed to me that of a doctor with a patient.
“At the time of the shot, you say you were in your room across the hall gazing out an open window. Now—you didn’t have the lights on in your room, did you?”
She moved uneasily; she hesitated a long time before she answered that simple question.
“No. No, I didn’t. I felt completely upset. Helen had gone back on all the promises she made me. I—I wanted to be alone in the dark to think.”
“And you stood close to the window with the inside drapery back of you?”
He nodded as if this fitted into some theory; he ended with an annoyed gesture her doubtful questions.
“Not now. Now I want to know about radios. There was only one in this apartment and that was in your room, wasn’t it?”
Radio? The wire connecting Mrs. Kent’s hand with instant death had formed part of an outside aerial. I bent sharply forward to catch her answer quicker.
New lines seamed her thin face. She appeared to think, then answer reluctantly, then nervously try to rob her admission of all force.
“Y-es—but we seldom used it. Helen hated radios. That was a cheap crashing and squalling one that Dorothy bought. And the outside wire I gave Dorothy somehow turned out to be too short to help it.”
Scott stepped sharply nearer. “Too short! How did that happen?”
Mrs. Vroom caught her lower lip between her teeth, held it there some time. “I don’t know. I bought the length the janitor told me to buy, but he said I’d been cheated, that the coil of wire was a good ten feet short.”
“The janitor!” Scott’s stern countenance puckered in quick thought. “Oh, he strung it up for you?”
“In his own good time. The janitor here then was a grasping, spiteful one. He always had his hand out before you, or his tongue out behind you. And because we weren’t tipping him as heavy as at first, he let that coil lay around here for days before he would put it up.”
“Lay around where?”
A cold wind blew on my back. Guarded as Mrs. Vroom tried to be, she was getting her daughter in deeper. She admitted Dorothy Vroom possessed the only radio here; she gave her the outside aerial from which the gear of murder had apparently been cut; would she now declare Dorothy kept that coil under lock and key in her own room? Her reply allowed me to breathe easier.
“It lay around in the kitchen until I was afraid the cook would throw it out, before that lazy janitor got around to putting it up.”
“That’s all, Mrs. Vroom.” Scott acted as though he had finished, but he stopped her with her hand on the doorknob. “One more question.” He jerked the cover off the box as he ran to her; he showed her the wire inside. “Is this a strand of the outside aerial you bought for your daughter?”
She started and looked at him, as if for the first time guessing the significance of wire and the trend of his questions. She drew her spare figure up to its regal height and offered battle.
“Why do you ask me that? I don’t know.”
He swung the door open and bowed her out. She went haughtily, but with a doubtful questioning glance back.
And doubtfully I studied the floor of the bathroom myself. Mrs. Vroom evidently had successfully passed the test, but she had unintentionally made her daughter’s situation decidedly blacker.
Mullens reached past me and pulled Hutchinson’s sleeve. He pronounced his opinion of Scott’s work.
“He’s good, he is. He’s narrowed it down to the girl who did it, if he did make some of us think he wasn’t after her. Slick work! He’s connected that wire with the young lady we said did it right from the go-off.”
Startled, I pulled away from them. Could Scott be steadily establishing that Dorothy Vroom committed that fiendish murder? I tried to get rid of the thought. I felt angry with myself for having it. And yet, a clever detective should of necessity keep those he suspected from believing that he suspected them.
And then she walked quietly into the room. Scott coldly put her up against the test the others had passed. Heedlessly, she lifted the box. She sat down and it lay unnoticed in her lap. Who could believe the young girl in a chic little hat and a soft silk frock sitting in the cretonne-covered armchair a murderess? Even with that slight look of strain on her face, she might have been sitting waiting for polo to start at Meadow Brook.
Her brown eyes, meditating, seemed to be on the box without seeing it. Slender fingers toyed inattentively with the projecting loop of wires. She noticed it. She raised the cover. Her young neck curved—one side of a long graceful cloister arch—as she bent apparently to scent the fragrance of flowers. She looked up at Scott’s back as if asking what this was all about?
I breathed quick and deep with relief. That murderous contrivance obviously meant nothing to her. But why did Scott treat her so scornfully?
He jerked the box from her hands. He stood looking at her angrily; his tone was withering.
“Miss Vroom, you’ve tried to make us think that you stayed in Miss Cushing’s room from five minutes before until eight minutes after the shot. Thirteen minutes to powder a small nose! Eight minutes without the faintest human curiosity about a shot fired in this room! Do I look to you like an idiot? Now—tell me the truth.”
Her eyes met his boldly, but her slender legs drew together, clung to one another, as if her flesh shrank from danger that her brave spirit faced undaunted. She replied in a cool voice; but it trembled a little:
“Nothing can make me change that statement.”
Scott shook his stern head furiously. “I’ll make you change it. Regardless of what you say, I say you actually were outside this door immediately after the shot. I say you listened here. I say you then crossed the hall and opened the door of your mother’s room. And then, because her room was unlighted and you failed to see her in there, you jumped to the silly conclusion that your mother shot Mrs. Kent. Now, isn’t that true? Didn’t you run back to Miss Cushing’s room to keep from catching your mother coming out of here? Haven’t you lied right and left thinking to shield her?”
She bent impulsively towards him, so far forward that nothing could have saved her had that chair slipped back the fraction of an inch. Hunger showed in her eyes, the hunger for hope of one hanging on to a scrap of wreckage and desperately scanning the horizon for any sign of rescue. Her voice sounded strangled.
“I don’t under—you mean my mother was in her room all the time?”
“Of course she was in there all the time. How could you expect to see her in a dark room and the other side of the window drapery? A fine lot of trouble you’ve made for yourself and everyone else by lying to save your mother.”
For a moment she stared at him incredulously and tears glistened in her eyes. I heard a stifled gasp as she evidently saw the rescuing hand held out to her. Then she sprang up and ran rapturously towards him.
“Oh, you peach! You darling, you!”
Her arms were outstretched. She intended to kiss him. He slipped behind his chair. No one else would have shied away from that admiring tribute.
“Don’t. Stop it!” he begged, knowing of course how many other eyes were on him. He attempted frantically to put another thought in her mind. “Run along now. Explain things to your mother.”
She shook her dark head gayly. Laughing, she struggled to remove the chair Scott held between them. Suddenly she swooped over it and kissed him somewhere between face and ear.
“Sorry. I just had to.” She grew suddenly sober. “But I won’t vex you any more. I’ll do as you told me. I’ll go and confess everything to mother.”
She flew to the door. But her hand on the knob, a thought evidently halted her. She marched back accusingly.
“Bascomb White’s told me how you started him in advertising. Was it you who rained all that advertising art work on me—was it?”
Scott put a finger on his lips and looked around unhappily.
She threw him a kiss for that and Scott succeeded in shooing her back to the door, but there she turned teasingly, her young face electrically alight with happiness.
“Will you come to Bascomb’s and my wedding—if you don’t have to kiss the bride?”
“That’s a hell of a test!” Mullens muttered as Scott banged the door shut. “We had somethin’ before. Now we haven’t got a thing—not even a button to sew a shirt to.”
Mullens still muttered and Hutchinson, scowling as a volcano, erupted, but feelings in me dashed too high to hear them. Scott had cleared her! His test proved Dorothy Vroom’s innocence; his questions explained her guilty actions. And now she and Bascomb White could start again from where suspicion of murder had separated them. I glowed with admiration of Scott. He knew character. How he knew character!
Then sharply a thought startled me. If none of these was guilty, then who had perpetrated these murders? Breathlessly, I mulled over the situation. Ethel Cushing! Could that talking vacuum have planned those executions? Who else must face the test? Who else remained in the living room? Could Bascomb White possibly be the murderer?
Scott whipped around towards the bathroom and sternly shook his head for silence. Hutchinson and Mullens grudgingly stopped their criticism. I bent forward eagerly and fixed my eyes on the mirror to learn who next faced that loop of wire.
The door opened. Ethel Cushing entered the room. At sight of Scott, her apple-shaped countenance opened for chatter.
“Oh, Mr. Scott, don’t you just love the New Yorker? I’d die rather than miss one single number. It’s so bright—deeply bright—don’t you think, or what have you? Have you ever met its editor?”
To get in a word, Scott seized her elbow. “Sit down, please, over there. Give me just a few moments to write down some questions.”
She picked up the box. Her chubby figure dropped into the armchair. While still settling the box in her lap, she resumed her chatter.
“I know a girl who gets all her conversation from it. Some people think she’s bright but, tell me, isn’t that plagiarism? And now that Will Rogers—”
At the desk, Scott thrust a hand behind him that implored for silence, but she kept on.
“—Do you think Will Rogers is one man or a syndicate? I don’t see how—only one man—do you? He must get lots of ideas from the papers and people he meets. Why, he’d simply run out of thoughts, if he didn’t, and then—”
Her chatter stopped abruptly. She sat staring at the loop of wire, her vivacious face hardening. Cautiously, she drew a hand away that lay near it. While I held my breath, I saw her study with suspicion Scott’s back. Then, she leaned quickly forward and dropped the box upon the floor—as far away as she could reach. Another searching look at Scott. She stretched out a leg. She pushed the box still further away.
I felt my spine open and shut. I drew a quick breath and there was horror in it. Clearly, that loop of wire meant murder to her. My eyes leaped to Hutchinson. He watched her with the fixed intentness of a captive eagle. I turned to Mullens. His muttering had ceased; his head was lowered like a bloodhound’s on a hot scent.
Then Scott picked up the box from the floor. He turned one end towards her.
“You recognize this loop of wire, I see.”
One of her knuckles gripping the arm of her chair crackled like the snap of a whip, but she resolutely shook her head.
“It’s precisely what you think it is. I got it from the drawer in the chair across the hall. And I have your manicure scissors, the pair you notched cutting this wire.”
She managed to meet his eyes almost inquiringly, but her lips were pulled in.
Scott shook his stern head with annoyance. He twitched the cover off the box; he wrenched the wire from the box; he held it up before her. “It’s the very wire you used. Examine it, if you want to.”
She tossed her head and shook her bobbed hair away from her face. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”
Scott’s blue eyes blazed up like a dry bush. “Then you’re going to force me to show you I know exactly how you used this?”
She sat back and looked at him. Her sullen, hardened eyes mocked him; a faint smile challenged him.
I felt the quality of suspense in the air suddenly tighten. Scott flung away from her towards the ebony bed.
He arranged the revolver and case on the night-stand. He turned and looked at her for any sign of relenting. She watched him coldly, her lips as rigid as fire-tongs.
He strung the wire into place. He threw himself on the bed. He lay where Mrs. Kent had lain.
A horrible silence came on us. I longed to tear my eyes away. I couldn’t. It was like an execution.
He turned on his side. He yawned and stretched up a hand to pull off the light. He stopped with a sharp look in his eyes that caused my eyes to leap to her.
She was up on her feet. With her head down, she ran towards him.
“Wait! I’ll tell you everything.”
A moment later, I gasped. Then I plunged after Hutchinson and Mullens from the bathroom.
“Stick ’em up. Quick! Or I’ll drop you.”
Mullens’ gun was on her. There was a look on his face that said he wouldn’t hesitate to use it.
She had caught Scott on the bed. She evidently trusted to remove that one witness against her as deftly as she had removed Haff. A small black automatic gleamed in her hand.
She whirled around and saw us. Too many other witnesses apparently. Her automatic hit the ermine rug a dulled thud. She screamed and fled from the room, as we rushed towards her.
Scott sprang off the bed. He waved us back from the door. “Stay here,” he ordered. “All I want is your stenographer.”
He dashed through the doorway.
“She’s confessed everything. She was a lone worker.” Lively as a boy running to a fire, Scott had dashed from Mrs. Kent’s room after Ethel Cushing; followed by Hutchinson’s stenographer, he actually drawled back, looking all in. Ruffled, reddish-tinged hair sawed the air; canals crossed his young brow. He slumped down flat upon the chaise longue; with hands clasped behind his neck, he started in a tired voice knotting together details learned.
With the obviously brooded-over soreness of an upset theorist, Hutchinson bounded to his feet. He stalked away from us.
“I’ve had one fake confession and that’s aplenty. That intolerable bore perfect this clever murder! Impossible! Tell it to your grandmother.”
Scott twisted on his side to fix an irritated look on him. “Scoop that intolerable-bore idea right out of your mind.”
“Why?” Hutchinson snapped around. “In all my life, never before the cluck, cluck, cluck of such a dull woman.”
“Dull! She’s one of the cleverest women I’ve ever met.”
“Rot! You have the resistance of a minute steak. I’ve talked to her—or tried to.”
With a snort, Scott rolled to his feet. “Tell me anything smarter than this. A young girl, guilty of an almost perfect murder, makes herself deliberately a dull, a rambling, an intolerable bore to discourage questioners.”
The shrewd originality of the scheme startled me. It astonished and halted Hutchinson, but only for a moment.
He was a lawyer trained to win, not quit on arguments. He smacked a fist into the palm of his hand.
“Tosh! Ridiculous tosh. Any girl clever enough to do that would have betrayed her cleverness in other actions. Point out some one solitary other clever action of hers.”
“You lawyers! What scrappers you must make of your wives and families.” Scott flung to a chair nearer him. “Clever actions? Stop me, when you’ve heard enough of them. She used wire for the murder that, if ever traced at all, would be traced to Dorothy Vroom, whom she envied and hated. She hid the murderous contrivance in Dorothy Vroom’s room. She smuggled Mrs. Vroom’s key to this room out of her handbag, had a duplicate filed for herself and the key back unmissed in the handbag inside of an hour. When I examined her in this room on the night of the murder, she left her handkerchief in the chair she sat in. Days afterwards, she asked me to look and see if it wasn’t there to convince me she possessed no key to this room. When Haff caught her wiping any accidental fingerprints off the wall safe here after she’d hidden the jewels in the Vrooms’ room, she attempted to explain that away. But the moment she overheard Haff telephoning that he’d caught someone here in deep, she staggered to him; she broke down and confessed taking the jewels. Then, weeping, she led him to the roof to recover them and jump himself up a grade or two as a detective. She moaned and pointed wildly over the parapet. Haff bent over to locate the niche in which she whimpered that she had hidden the jewels. A quick push and she sent him into everlasting silence.”
Scott paused and wiped his hands. I recoiled with horror. Mullens blastingly recorded on air what he personally would see that Ethel Cushing got for that dirty trick.
“Not clever?” Scott lifted his hands high and then let them drop. “How do you imagine Dorothy Vroom’s glove came in Haff’s broken hand when we found his body down there in the courtyard? Your dull woman caught a look of doubt coming on his face, as he hesitated to bend over the parapet. She furtively peeled the worn glove off her hand; she pretended to hide it up her sleeve. Haff snatched it from her; he fell for her trick; he accused her of tearing that when she leaned over the parapet. Convinced now, he bent over the low wall, and she disposed of him.”
Scott jerked up his head, raised his voice to carry through Mullens’ muttered threats. “That shows the fiendish ingenuity with which she planned everything to the smallest detail. She dug up a weapon here none of us thought of searching for. Under Napoleon Brill’s mattress, she discovered the automatic that she just pulled on me. But for ingenious perfection of cleverness, weigh her shrewdly airtight alibi. The shot that killed Mrs. Kent boomed out at this end of the apartment. She sat in the living room at the other end, reading a book. And Captain Brill, the only trustworthy man here, sat there with her to alibi her. What about it now? That master of arts a dumb-bell?”
Hutchinson’s dark face flushed; he resorted to sarcasm. “And how, tell us, came you to question such an air-tight alibi?”
“Randolph, you’re certainly a sot for punishment. In a cold, premeditated execution such as this, an air-tight alibi is the wisest thing to view with suspicion. What murderer in cold blood is ass enough not to think of his own safety first? You know that; you’re just arguing. But if you’re after the little things that kept warming up my suspicion, here they are. She hastened the discovery of the body, no getting away from that. She was the only one to squeal on the row in the living room on the night of the murder, which jockeyed us after others. And casually but thoughtfully, she took care I knew how Mrs. Kent and Dorothy Vroom hated each other like Kilkenny cats.”
Hutchinson thundered on him; and now came to light the difficulty that evidently kept him fired up.
“A sweet job you’ve laid out for me! I’m yearning, I am to leap into court and haggle twelve pop-eyed jurymen into believing a Park Avenue young girl executed her own mother.”
A deep and jocund chuckle loosened the tension. Once more Scott chuckled before letting us in.
“Don’t fret over that. She didn’t murder her mother. She couldn’t. Mrs. Kent wasn’t her mother. As I’d have told you long ago, if you hadn’t tied me up with other questions.”
Chairs scraped the floor. The rasping sounds of startled movements. Hutchinson looked as if he’d touched an uninsulated live wire.
“Holy cat! What’s that?”
“You heard me. Mrs. Kent never was her mother. That came out in the wash.” Scott’s lifted hand stopped the bustle of protest. “Helen Brill Kent said she was going to have a child just to force Cushing, her college-boy second husband, to take the job she snapped up for him as a shoe salesman. After that pained youth bolted away from both his new job and her, she actually acquired a baby. No one knows from whom. That interesting detail died with her. But it’s easy to imagine why. Deserted and with a baby, she evidently trusted to bend Cushing’s parents to receive her. But that worked out only partially. The Cushings didn’t clamor with open arms for her to come straight up to their home in Syracuse; they kept her here. But they did send her a liberal allowance for three years, while that golden-haired beauty mapped out, with Mrs. Vroom’s able help, a more ambitious future. That allowance provided capital to catch your distant relation, Stuyvesant. And Stuyvesant capitalized her with money enough to cross the Atlantic, strut her beauty before royalty, marry a title and give the world a new international beauty to talk about.”
Hutchinson sniffed. “Mebbe. But pop your eyes on all that’s got her now.”
“Right. What goes up, comes down, including elevators, common stocks and professional beauties. I have more sensational facts about the career of that shooting star to uncover later, but while we’re speaking of Stuyvesant, what led your choleric but distant relative to hurry his son off to Europe and run away to Canada himself?”
“You did. You got him so hot he had to go up there to cool off.”
Hutchinson dropped into a chair and appeared to consider how the startling news affected his case against Ethel Cushing. But I wondered how Scott came to suspect Helen Brill Kent capable of such a raw imposture.
“You guessed Ethel Cushing wasn’t her daughter?” I asked him.
Scott looked annoyed at himself. “No, but I might have, if I’d had the brains of a trained flea. Why should Helen Brill Kent see childbirth through twice, when other celebrated beauties have always disliked to reproduce their good looks? Run your eyes down the list—Helen of Troy, Madame Recamier, Madame du Barry, Lady Hamilton, Lillie Langtry, Mrs. Brown-Potter—some bore no children, but not one dropped out of the spot-light to bear more than one child.”
Hutchinson having retired, clearly with enough to think of, Mullens, another disgruntled theorist, now took on Scott.
“Every dub knows the real reason why famous beauts never risk their shapes more’n once, but what I’m askin’ you is this: How did that she-devil get the wire down off that bed and out of here before we got here—yes, and before any of the others here spotted it?”
Scott replied in the carefully articulated but brittle tone of one growing impatient of continuous doubt.
“When Captain Brill unlocked that door, she held back and stole in here last. All the others grouped, gaping, around the body on the ermine rug. Standing behind them, she twitched the loop of wire off the cupid’s thumb just like that,” he snapped his fingers. “The recoil of the revolver, when it jumped to the floor, dislodged the loop on the other end. She had just arrived here; she still had on her hat, coat and gloves. She slipped the wire out of sight back down the sleeve of her coat. And inside of an hour, she had it tucked away in the secret drawer of the wing chair in Dorothy Vroom’s room. Answered, Sergeant?”
Mullens now doubtless intended to be jocular, but jealousy clawed into his tone, and he made the mistake of touching a recent episode that Scott evidently objected to having dragged in to be guffawed over.
“O. K., but what I’d like to hear from your kisser now is—”
Scott’s weariness vanished. He sprang up; blue eyes in his stern face sharpened with ire.
“Sergeant, how much longer are you allowing those two blackmailers and forgers, Jesse and Napoleon Brill, to walk the streets free?”
Mullens sniggered, apparently highly pleased with the effectiveness of his shot. “Oh, we’ll pinch them, and the shysters who drew up those wills too, within a day or two now.”
“Good—but aren’t you a trifle slow about putting a guard over that young girl who’s just confessed?”
Mullens’ heavy face reddened. “Didn’t you do that?” Blowing out his lips, he rushed from the room.
A moment later, his face, much redder, glared through the partly opened door. He snarled at Scott.
“A cock-eyed, low-down bust you are!”
Scott merely shrugged, but Hutchinson bounded to his feet and glared at Mullens.
“You’ve let that girl get away?”
“No. How could she get away with my men on both doors?” Mullens looked behind as if wishing someone would call him away. “The window’s wide open. I bent out and—hell, there was a crowd around her body down on the sidewalk that’s blockin’ the street. I’ve got to get down there.”
The door slammed to. There was a ringing silence. Hutchinson, shaking his head reproachfully, finally fixed a look on Scott.
“You might have thought of that for him.”
“Yes, I might have but—” Scott attempted to smooth away the lines on his forehead—“but wait until you hear the ugly facts that stung that young girl into murder. As they were poured out to me by a fine white-haired couple up in Syracuse, who still suffer secret torture at the thought that Ethel Cushing might possibly be their granddaughter. And by that cub-tigress I left in there who, having twice tasted blood, would probably always have continued at heart a habituated and hardened killer. Wait. See what you think of the egocentric beauty who made first a pet and then a public menace of that cub.”
Scott sighed and looked around, as if reluctant to bare the ugly facts establishing the motive for these singularly cold-blooded murders. Then he gripped the arms of his chair and bared the ugly truths to the floor between his feet.
“Mr. and Mrs. Cushing saw Ethel as a baby only once. From a friend’s house on Fifth Avenue, that white-haired pair stared out their bedroom window in the cold clutch of their first doubt. Down the side-street, a golden haired young angel, the Helen Brill Kent of those days, promenaded a baby carriage. In this sat a chubby baby, crowing, reaching out rapturously happy hands to everyone passing. The applause of passersby passed from the superbly healthy gurgling baby to another Marie Antoinette playing nursemaid behind her. An infatuated policeman leaped out and held up hansoms, coaches and carriages while, like royalty, they crossed Fifth Avenue to Central Park. On the Park sidewalk, Helen Brill Kent looked entranced by the audience she drew as fond mother. She hugged and kissed Ethel passionately; she acted as though she treasured her baby above everything else in the world. In short, she over-acted her part as doting mother a bit. That alone kept the Cushings from rushing out and accepting them both. If they had. The difference that might have made in a number of lives.”
Scott suddenly straightened up, stiff as a man about to dive into icy water.
“Listen to what that baby went through to make a murderess of her. Petted, pampered like the heir to a throne as long as she continued to be a source of applause and income; then suddenly turned against. An awkward young girl’s nose out of joint; her supposed mother’s up in the air, now that she had a baby of her own and the Stuyvesant millions. Slaps instead of caresses; pushed vixenishly out of the mother’s way; locked in dark closets where she learned to sulk and hate. A latent tiger instinct—no one knows the character of the child’s actual parents—developing in a young girl everyone now treated with contempt instead of endearment.”
Scott regarded us fiercely for a silent moment. “You get that destroying, incensing change? Well, that was nothing to what came when Mrs. Kent returned from Europe with a title but a sadly depleted income. That haughty beauty certainly showed her Arctic disposition then.”
We sat tightly silent, for Scott seemed unwilling to go on. Finally, he jumped up and asked me for a cigarette. The first match, he dropped. And he forgot that he carried a lighter. He inhaled deeply several times before he continued.
“From that day to the day previous to the murder, Mrs. Kent devoted herself to trying to palm off a hated burden on the Cushings. Off she packed Ethel time after time to Syracuse, telling her to stay there. But back each time her supposed grandparents ticketed her—some strange instinct making them obstinately refuse her. But think of the young girl’s state of mind. She told me she felt like a leper. No one wanted her. No one in either home.”
I placed one hand in the other, and it felt cold. Hutchinson sat frowning at his shoes. A muscle twitched in Scott’s temple.
“Then, the maliciously cruel blow. Before shipping Ethel to the Cushings last month, Mrs. Kent called her into this room and told her things that made her totter away through that door to the train. She wasn’t her mother. She had never even adopted her. No, she couldn’t recall even the name of Ethel’s mother. But no one else knew this, and this time Ethel must come to her senses and love-up the Cushings. They must keep her and make her their heiress.”
Scott angrily stamped out a lighted cigarette he had dropped on the ermine rug. I saw a fat, homely young girl staring desperately out a Pullman window on her way to a thin, white-haired couple who were gentle, but iron about one thing, who queerly seemed to have already divined that there was nothing of their son in her.
Scott looked over our heads. “The Cushings sent her back. On the long train ride back here, Ethel planned murder. Back in this room, while Mrs. Kent was swearing at her, her own eyes were held fascinated by the loaded revolver on the night-stand beside that ebony bed. She got ready the gear of murder. But she waited. Perhaps Mrs. Kent would change now; perhaps she wouldn’t attempt to force her on the Cushings again.”
Scott turned sharply, flung nervously away from us. “On the day before her murder, Helen Brill Kent threw into Ethel’s lap another ticket to Syracuse. On the night of the murder, Ethel sidled through the front door here from the train bearing a bunch of violets. She leaned unnoticed against the side of the entrance to the living room. She heard Mrs. Kent icily cut adrift all here, including Mrs. Vroom. Ethel quickly made up her mind. Mrs. Kent must be killed before telling anyone else that she wasn’t her daughter, while she herself might still inherit part of her estate as her supposed daughter. Ethel flew to her own room and hung the wire down the sleeve of her coat. When she stole into the living room, no one greeted her; no one even asked her why she didn’t take off her hat and coat and gloves. All were raving frantically over their own troubles. And for the same reason, no one observed her later, when she slipped away to this room to wire up murder.
“Mrs. Kent was in the bathroom here. Ethel heard her patting cold cream into her precious face for the night. She looped the wire around the cupid’s thumb, then she stopped, startled. Shah sat up on the bed. The cat watched every move of hers intently, as though he knew exactly what she was up to and would warn his mistress. Ethel set her lips. She managed to hook the wire in place. She raced back among the still raging people in the living room and snatched up a book. She threw herself on the window-seat. She tried to read. And then after what seemed hours, she heard the muffled sound of the shot in this room. After that, hours more of dreadful waiting until she simply had to make sure that Helen Brill Kent was dead.”
Scott stood looking out a window. I sat staring blankly at the floor. It was Hutchinson who smashed the long silence. He jumped up; once more he pronounced sentence on the international beauty about whom we had learned so much more than anyone else knew.
“There’s your professional beauty. Lovely to most people as a spray of goldenrod, but heartless as ice, and mercenary as a cash register.”
Scott, about to reply, was stopped by a slight scratching sound at the door. He swung to it and threw it open. Across the sill, Shah lifted one silkily-furred paw tentatively. His golden eyes questioned Scott a moment before he stepped daintily into the room. He scented each of us appraisingly. Then he sat peering up into Scott’s stern young face. Obviously, he asked to be invited up into his lap.
As Scott groomed the cat’s marvelous smoke Persian coat on his lap, his stern face relaxed a bit. He turned to Hutchinson.
“Fix it up for me, won’t you, Randolph? Shah needs a home, and I guess I need a cat.”
Shah sat up on his lap. He began to make an elaborate toilet for his new home.
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