The Black Eagle Mystery
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Two days after that a chain of events began that put an end to all inaction and plunged the Harland case deeper than ever into sinister mystery. I will write them down in the order in which they occurred.
The first was on Tuesday – the Tuesday night following Molly's dinner with Tony Ford. That night an unknown man attacked Ford in his room, leaving him for dead.
For some years Ford had lived in a lodging house on the East Side near Stuyvesant Park. The place was decent and quiet, run by a widow and her daughter, the inmates of a shabby-genteel class – rather an odd place for a man of Ford's proclivities to house himself. It was one of those old-fashioned, brown-stone fronts, set back from the street behind a little square of garden, a short flagged path leading to the front door.
On the evening of the attack Ford had come in about half-past eight, and, after a few words with his landlady, who was sitting in the reception room, had gone upstairs. A little after ten, as they were closing up for the night, there was a ring at the bell and the door was opened by the servant, a Swede. The widow was as economical with her gas as lodging-house keepers usually are, and the Swede said she could only dimly see the figure of a man in the vestibule. He asked for Mr. Anthony Ford, and she told him Mr. Ford was in and directed him to a room on the third floor back. Without more words he entered and went up the stairs. After locking the door she followed him, being on her way to bed. When she reached the third floor he was standing at Ford's door, and, as she ascended to the fourth, she heard his knock and Ford's voice from the inside call out, "Hello, who's that?"
When the police asked her about the man's appearance her description was meager. He had worn the collar of his overcoat turned up and kept on his hat. All that she could make out in the brief moment when he crossed the hall to the stairs was that his eyes looked bright and dark, that he wore glasses, and that he had a large aquiline nose. She thought he had a white mustache, but on this point was uncertain, as the upturned collar hid the lower part of his face.
Babbitts, who reported the affair for the Dispatch and for the Whitney office on the side, questioned the girl carefully. She was stupid, not long landed, and could only be sure of the nose and the glasses. But one thing he elicited from her was an important touch in this impressionist picture – the man was small. When he passed her in the hall she noticed that he was not so tall as she was, and he moved quickly and lightly as he went up the stairs.
On the third floor front were two rooms, one vacant, one occupied by a boy named Salinger, a clerk in a near-by publishing house. Salinger came in at half-past ten, and as he passed Ford's door heard in the room men's voices, one loud, one low. A sentence in the raised voice – it did not sound like Ford's – caught his ear. The tone denoted anger, likewise the words: "I've come for something more than talk.I've had enough of that."
Knowing Ford was out of work he supposed he was having a row with a dun, and passed on to his own room, where he went to bed and read a novel. He was so engrossed in this that he said he would not have heard anyone come or go in the hall, but the landlady, who with her daughter occupied the parlor on the ground floor, at a little before eleven heard steps descending the stairs and the front door open and close.
It wasn't till nearly two in the morning that Salinger was wakened by a feeble knocking. He jumped up, and before he could reach the door heard a heavy fall in the passage. There, prostrate by the sill, lay Ford, unconscious, his head laid open by a deep wound.
Salinger dragged him back to his room, then roused the landlady, who sent for a doctor. He told Babbitts that the place gave no evidence of a struggle, the droplight was burning, a chair drawn close to it, and a book lying face down on the table as if Ford had been reading when the stranger interrupted him. On the floor near a desk standing between the two windows, a trickle of blood showed where Ford had fallen, suggesting that the attack had been made from behind as he stood over the desk. The doctor pronounced the injury serious. The blow had been delivered on the back of the head, and Ford's condition was critical.
When the police turned up they could find nothing to give them a clue to the assailant – no finger prints, no foot marks, no weapon or implement. Ford had been stricken down by one violent blow, falling on him suddenly and evidently unexpectedly. He was taken to the hospital, unconscious, no one knowing whether he would die before they could get a statement out of him.
The cause of the assault was at first puzzling. Robbery seemed improbable, as a man in Ford's position was not likely to have much money and as his gold watch and chain were found in full view on the table. But when the first excitement quieted down one of the women in the house came forward with the story that a few days before Ford had told her he had recently been left a legacy by an uncle up-state, and in proof of his newly acquired wealth had shown her two fifty-dollar bills. This put a different face on the matter. If Ford had carried such sums on him, it was probable the fact had become known and burglary been the motive of the attack.
The police looked over the papers in his wallet and desk but found nothing that threw any light on the mystery. Babbitts was present at this search and found three letters – tossed aside by the city detectives as having no bearing on the subject – that he knew must be seen by Whitney & Whitney. He and the precinct captain had hobnobbed together over many cases, and a few sentences in the hall resulted in the transfer of the papers to Babbitts' breast pocket with a promise to return them the next day.
I'll give you these letters later on – when we pored over them in the old man's private office.
In the hospital Ford came back to consciousness long enough to make an ante-mortem statement. It was short and explicit, satisfying the authorities, who didn't know that the victim himself was a criminal with matters in his own life to hide. Here it is, copied from the evening paper:
That settled the question as far as the police and the general public went. That the watch and chain were not touched nor the few dollars in the desk drawer was pointed to as positive proof that Ford's assailant was no common sneak thief or second-story man. He was not wasting his time on small change or articles difficult to dispose of. For a few days the police hunted for him, but not a trace of him was to be found. "An old hand," they had it, "dropped back into the darkness of the underworld."
There was not a detective or reporter in New York who connected that half-seen figure, stealing by night into a cheap lodging house, with the financier whose disappearance had been the nine days' wonder of the season.
On Wednesday evening Babbitts brought the letters to the Whitney office (we were all there but Molly), and we sat round the table passing the papers from hand to hand.
One was on a sheet of Harland's business stationery and was in Harland's writing, which both George and the chief knew. It was dated January second, and ran as follows:
As a document in the case it had no especial value, beyond confirming the fact that Ford was – as he had told Molly – on friendly terms with the lawyer.
The others were of vital significance. They were on small oblongs of white paper, the finely nicked upper edge indicating they had been attached to a writing tablet. Both were in ink, and in the same hand, rapid and scratchy, the words trailing off in unfinished scrawls. Neither had any address, but both bore dates: one December 27 and the other January 10.
Here is the first:
The signature was a hurried scratch. Babbitts said the police had glanced at the letter, set it down as the copy of a note Ford had written to some girl, and thrown it aside. Those half-formed initials might have been anything to the casual, uninterested eye.
The second, dated January 10, was a little longer:
We agreed with O'Mally when he sized these letters up as copies in Ford's hand – he had samples of it – of notes written by Barker to Carol Whitehall. The reason for Ford's taking them was not hard to guess with our knowledge of the gunman's character.
"It shows him up as a pretty tough specimen," said the detective, astride on a chair with a big black cigar in the corner of his mouth. "He wasn't going to lose a trick. While he was working for Barker he was gathering all the evidence against his employer that his position in the Whitehall office gave him access to."
"Laying his plans for blackmail," said George.
"That's it. He had his eagle eye trained on the future. When Barker and his girl were feeling safe in some secluded corner, these letters – documentary testimony to the plot – could be used as levers to extort more money."
"Do you suppose Barker was on to it and decided to get him out of the way before he had a chance to use them?" said Babbitts.
"No – I don't see it that way. There was no indication in the room of a search. I guess Barker acted on the principle that the fewer people share a secret the easier it is to keep."
"Looks to me," said George, "as if Ford had made some move that scared the old man. Coming back that way into a house full of people! Considering the circumstances he took a mighty big risk."
"Not as big a one as having Ford at large," answered O'Mally. "You've got to remember that not one of the three knows the murder has been discovered. They think they're as safe as bugs in a rug. With Ford out of it the only menace to Barker's safety is removed. I look at this as a last perfecting touch, the coping stone on the edifice."
The chief, who had been silently pacing back and forth across the end of the room, came slouching to the table and picked up the longer of the two letters. Holding it to the light he read it over murmuringly, then dropped it and said:
"Curious that a man who had conceived such a plot would allude to it in writing."
I spoke up. What seemed to me the first rational words of the meeting gave me my cue.
"What makes you so sure the thing alluded to in those letters is the murder?"
I was standing back between the window and the table. They all squared round in their chairs to stare at me, O'Mally bending his head to level a scornful glance below the shade of the electric standard.
"What else could they allude to?" he said.
"I don't know. Nobody, not a person here, knows all that existed between Barker and Miss Whitehall. There's no reason to take for granted that the plan, scheme, whatever you like to call it those letters indicate, was the killing of Harland."
O'Mally gave an exasperated grunt and cast an eye of derisive question at the chief. It enraged me and my hands gripped together.
"Oh, Lord, Jack, you're nutty," said George. "We know Barker and Miss Whitehall were in love, and we know Barker committed the murder, and we know she helped. That was enough to occupy their minds without going off on side mysteries."
Nature has cursed me with a violent temper. During the last two years – since the dark days of the Hesketh tragedy – I've thought it was conquered – a leashed beast of which I was the master. Now suddenly it rose, pulling at its chain. I felt the old forgotten stir of it, the rush of boiling blood that in the end made me blind. I had sense enough left to know I'd got to keep it down and I did it. But if there'd been no need for restraint, for dissimulation, it would have burst out as it has in the past, burst against O'Mally with a fist in the middle of his cock-sure, sneering face. I heard my voice, husky, but steady, as I said,
"That's all very well, but how about what the chief has just said? Why should Barker write when he could say what he wanted? Why did he, so cautious in every other way, do a thing a green boy would have known the danger of? You're building up your whole case on the vaguest surmises."
O'Mally took his cigar out of his mouth, his eyes narrowed and full of an ugly fire.
"I suppose the initial fact that a murder's been committed is surmise?"
"No," I came nearer the table, the blood singing in my ears, "it's your evidence against the woman, that you're twisting and coloring to match your preconceived theories. There's not an attempt been made to reconcile her previous record with the villainous act of which you accuse her. There's a gulf there you can't bridge. Why don't you go down into the foundations of the thing instead of putting your attention on surface indications? Why don't you go into the psychology of it, build on that, not the material facts that a child could see?"
I don't believe one of them guessed the state I was in – took my vehemence as an enthusiasm for impartial justice. But a few minutes more of it and the old fury would have broken loose. I saw O'Mally's face, red through a red mist, saw he was mad, mad straight through, enraged at the aspersions on his ability. He got up, ready to answer, and Lord knows what would have happened – a rough and tumble round the room probably – if the door hadn't opened and a clerk put in his head with the announcement:
"A gentleman on the phone wants Mr. O'Mally."
The words transformed the detective; his anger vanished as if it never had been. Quick as a wink he made for the door, flinging back over his shoulder:
"I told them at the office if anything turned up I'd be here. There's something doing."
A hush fell on the rest of us, the tense quiet of expectancy. The fire in me died like a flame when a bellows is dropped. News – any news – might bring help for her, exonerate her, wipe away the stain of the suspicions that no one but we six would ever know.
The door opened and O'Mally entered. His face was illuminated, shining with an irrepressible triumph, his movements quick and instinctively stealthy. Pushing the door to behind him he said as softly as if the walls had ears:
"They've got Barker in Philadelphia."