Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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It was the second of these, on the left-hand side, and creeping toward it we stood for a moment getting our wind. The place was very cold, as if a window was open, and there was not a sound. Standing by the door O'Mally knocked softly. There was no answer.

In that half-lit passage, chilled with the icy breath of the winter night and held in a strange stillness, I was seized by a grisly sense of impending horror. If I'd been a small boy my teeth would have begun to chatter. At thirty years of age that doesn't happen, but I doubt whether anyone whose body was supplied with an ordinarily active nervous system would not have felt something sinister in that cold, dark place, in the silence behind that close-shut door.

O'Mally knocked again and again; there was no answer.

"Try it," I whispered and the detective turned the handle.

"Locked," he breathed back, then – "Stand away there. I'm going to break it. There's something wrong here."

He turned sideways, bracing his shoulder against the door. There was a cracking sound, and the lock, embedded in old soft wood, gave way, the door swinging in with O'Mally hanging to the handle.

The room was unlit but for the silver moonlight that came from the window, uncurtained and open. At that sight the same thought seized the three of us – the man was gone – and O'Mally, fumbling in his pocket for matches, broke into furious profanity.

I had a box and as I dug round for it, took a look about, and saw the shapes of a chair with garments hanging over it, an open desk, and, against the opposite wall, the bed. It was only a pale oblong, and looked irregular, as if the clothes were heaped on it as the man had thrown them back. I could have joined O'Mally in his swearing. Gone – when our fingers were closing on him! Then I found the matches and the gas burst out over our heads.

My eyes were on the bed and O'Mally's must have been, for simultaneously I gave an exclamation and he leaped forward. There, asleep, under the covers lay a man. Quick as a flash of lightning the detective was beside him, bending to look close at the face, then he drew back with a sound – a cry of amazement, disbelief – and pulling off the bed clothes laid his hand on the sleeper's chest.

"God in Heaven!" he gasped, turning to us. "He's dead!"

Babbitts and I made a rush for the bed, I to the head, where I leaned low to make sure, staring into the gray, pale face with its prominent nose and sunken eyes. Then it was my turn to cry out, to stagger back, looking from one man to the other, aghast at what I'd seen:

"It's not Barker at all."

For a moment we stared at one another, jaws fallen, eyes stony. Not a word came from one of us, the silence broken by the hissing rush of the gas turned up full cock in a sputtering ribbon of flame. I came to myself first, turned from them back to the dead face, its marble calm in strange contrast to the stunned consternation of the living faces.

"It's not he," I repeated.

"I've often seen him. It's not the man."

"Well – well – " stammered O'Mally, coming out of his stupor. "Who on earth is it?"

"How do I know – Sammis, I suppose. It's like him – the nose, the eyes and the eyebrows, and the mustache. But," I looked at them, gazing like two stupefied animals at the head on the pillow, "it's not Johnston Barker."

O'Mally, with a groan of baffled desperation, fell into a chair, his hands hanging over the arms, his feet limp on the floor before him. Babbitts stood paralyzed, leaning on the foot of the bed. It was an extraordinary situation – three live men, hot on the chase of a fourth and in the moment of victory faced by the most inscrutable and solemn thing that life holds – a dead man. We couldn't get over it, couldn't seem to think or act, grouped round the bed with the whistling rush of the gas loud on the silence.

Then suddenly, another and more distant sound broke up our stupefaction. Someone was coming up the stairs. It jerked us back to life, and I made a run for the door, O'Mally's whisper hissing after me:

"If it's that woman, keep her away for a while. I want to go over the room."

It was Miss Graves, ascending slowly with the help of the balustrade. I caught her on the landing and told her what we'd found. She was not greatly surprised – the doctor had warned her. I explained the broken door by telling her we had been alarmed by the silence and had forced our way in. That, too, she took quietly, and turned away, gliding shadowlike down the stairs to send out the servant for the doctor.

When I re?ntered the room its aspect was changed. A sheet covered the dead man and O'Mally and Babbitts, with all the burners in the chandelier blazing, had started looking over the room. The detective was already at work on the papers in the desk, Babbitts going through the clothes over the chair and the few others that hung in the cupboard.

"Hustle and get busy," said O'Mally, as he heard me come in. "If this isn't Johnston Barker, it's the man we've been trailing and I'm pretty sure it's the one that attacked Ford."

There was a table by the bedside with a reading lamp and some books on it. Moving these I came upon two newspaper clippings, relating to the suicide of Harland. In both Anthony Ford was mentioned. The reporters had evidently spoken to him that night on the street, gleaning any fragments of information they could. One alluded to the fact that he was employed in the offices below Harland's, the Azalea Woods Estates. These words were heavily underlined in pencil.

"Looks like it from this," I said, showing the clipping to O'Mally.

He glanced at it and grunted, going back to his inspection of a sheaf of papers he had found in one of the desk pigeonholes.

Meantime Babbitts had found in the coat that hung over the chair a wallet containing a hundred dollars, a tailor's bill for a suit and coat, receipted and bearing a New York address, and Tony Ford's house and street number written in pencil on a neatly folded sheet of note paper. Besides these there was one letter, dated January 13, typed and bearing no signature. Its contents was as follows:

Enclosed please find one hundred dollars in two bills of fifty. Will send same amount on same date next month if work should be still delayed. Will communicate further later.

The envelope, also addressed in typewriting, was directed to Joseph Sammis, General Delivery, Philadelphia, and bore a New York postmark.

We were working too quickly for much comment, but Babbitts held out the paper with Ford's address on it toward O'Mally.

"This bears it out, too," he said.

O'Mally looked at it, and snapped the elastic back on the documents he'd been going over.

"From what I've seen here," he said, "Sammis was the man Ford was with in the real-estate business. These are all contracts, bills and some correspondence, the records of a small venture that went to smash," he pushed the roll back in its pigeonhole – "not another thing."

"There's not another thing in the room," I answered, "except two novels and a stack of New York papers on the floor there by the bureau. Hist! quiet!"

There were feet coming up the stairs. In a twinkling everything was as it had been, Babbitts and O'Mally withdrew to the window and I went out to see who was coming. It was Miss Graves and the doctor.

I explained the situation and found the doctor brusquely business-like and matter-of-fact. It was what might have been expected. When he had been called in that morning he had found Mr. Sammis a very sick man, suffering from angina pectoris and a general condition of debility and exhaustion. He had asked him if he had been subjected to any recent exertion or strain but been told no other than a trip the day before to Washington. Miss Graves said it was undoubtedly this trip that had done the damage. He had been well when he started on Tuesday morning, but on returning twenty-four hours later had been so weak and enfeebled that one of the other lodgers had had to assist him to his room. An examination proved that he had been dead some hours. Who his relations were or where he came from Miss Graves had no idea and would turn the matter over to the authorities.

It was close on midnight when we left, and there being no vehicle in sight we walked up the street. The moon was as bright as day, and, swinging along between those two lines of black houses, with here and there a light shining yellow in an upper window, we were silent, each occupied by his own thoughts.

I could guess those of the other two – Babbitts' chagrin at once again losing his big story, O'Mally's sullen indignation at having followed a clue that led to such a blind alley. But their disappointment and bitterness were nothing to mine. All my hopes gone again, and this last puzzle helping in no way, in no way as I then counted help.

CHAPTER XIII
JACK TELLS THE STORY

To say that the expectant Whitney office got a jolt is putting it mildly. On the threshold of success, to meet such a setback enraged George and made even the chief grouchy. The new developments added new complications that upset their carefully elaborated theories. There had to be a readjustment. Whoever Sammis was and whatever his motive could have been it was undoubtedly he who had attacked Tony Ford.

It was inexplicable and mysterious. The chief had an idea that there was a connection between Sammis and Barker, that the man now dead might have been "planted" in Philadelphia to divert the search from the live man, who had stolen to safety after a rise to the surface in Toronto. George scouted it; an accidental likeness had fooled them and made them waste valuable time. The devil was on the side of Barker, taking care of his own.

It did look that way. Investigation of the few clues we had led to nothing. The tailor, whose bill was found in Sammis's pocket, remembered selling a suit and overcoat to a man called Sammis on January tenth. He was a quiet, polite old party who looked poor and shabby but bought good clothes and paid spot cash for them. The typewritten letter indicated that Sammis had been sent to Philadelphia and well paid for some work that had not yet started. It was upon this letter the chief based his contention that Sammis's appearance in the case was not a coincidence – he was another of Barker's henchmen, and it was part of Barker's luck that at the crucial moment he should have died.

But it was all speculation, nothing certain except that we had lost our man again. Philadelphia had dropped out as a point of interest and the case swung back to New York, where it now centered round the bed of Tony Ford.

We were in constant communication with the hospital and on Thursday received word that Ford would recover. That lifted us up from the smash of Wednesday night. When he was able to speak we would hear something – everything if he could be scared into a full confession. The hospital authorities refused to let anyone see him till he was perfectly fit, a matter of several days yet. That suited us, as we wanted no speech with him till he was strong enough to stand the shock of our knowledge. Caught thus, with his back against the wall, we expected him to make a clean breast of it.

The enforced waiting was – to me anyway – distracting. With the hope I'd had of Barker gone, I was now looking to Ford. He must, he couldexonerate her, there wasn't the slightest doubt of it. But to have to wait for it, to be cool and calm, to get through the next few days – I felt like a man caught in the rafters of a burning building, trying to be patient while they hacked him out.

After the news from the hospital the temperature of the office fell to an enforced normal. O'Mally went back to his burrow and Babbitts to his paper with his big story still in the air. That night in my place, I measured off the sitting room from eight till twelve – five strides from the bookcase to the window, seven from the fire to the folding doors.

If I could only induce her to speak, if she herself would only clear up the points that were against her, there was still a chance of getting her out of it before Ford opened up. That she had something to hide, some mystery in connection with her movements that night, some secret understanding with Barker, even I had to admit. But whatever it was it would be better to reveal it than to go on into the fierce white light that would break over the Harland case within a week.

In that midnight pacing I tried to think of some way I could force her to tell – to tell me, but the clocks chimed on and the fire died on the hearth and I got nowhere. She knew me so slightly, might think I was set on by the office, the very fact that I was what I was might seal her lips closer. Instead of breaking down her reticence I might increase it, strengthen that wall of secretiveness behind which she seemed to be taking refuge like a hunted creature.

When I went to the office on Friday morning the chief asked me to go to Buffalo that night, to look up some witnesses in the Lytton case. It would take me all Saturday and I could get back by Sunday night or at the latest Monday morning. A phone message sent to the hospital before I came in had drawn the information that Tony Ford would not be able to see the Philadelphia detectives – O'Mally and Babbitts posed in that r?le – till Monday. That settled it – better to be at work out of town than hanging about cursing the slowness of the hours.

But the questions of the night before haunted me. Why, anyway, couldn't I go to see her? Wasn't it up to me, whether I succeeded or not, to make the effort to break through her silence – the silence that was liable to do her such deadly damage? I had to see her. I couldn't keep away from her. At lunch time I called her up and asked her if I could come. She said yes and named four that afternoon. On the stroke I was in the vestibule, pushing the button below her name, and with my heart thumping against my ribs like a steel hammer.

She opened the door and as I followed her up the little hall told me the servant had been sent away and her mother was out. As on that former visit she seated herself at the desk, motioning me to a chair opposite. The blinds were raised, the room flooded with the last warm light of the afternoon. By its brightness I saw that she was even paler and more worn than she had been that other time – obviously a woman harassed and preyed upon by some inner trouble.

On the way up I had gone over ways of approach, but sitting there in the quiet pretty room, so plainly the abode of gentlewomen, I couldn't work round to the subject. She didn't give me any help, seeming to assume that I had dropped in to pay a call. That made it more difficult. When a woman treats you as if you're a gentleman, actuated by motives of common politeness, it's pretty hard to break through her guard and pry into her secrets.

She began to talk quickly and, it seemed to me, nervously, telling me how the owner of their old farm on the Azalea Woods Estates had offered them a cottage there, to which they would move next week. It was small but comfortable, originally occupied by a laborer's family who had gone away. The people were very kind, would take no rent, and she and her mother could live for almost nothing till she found work. I sympathized with the idea, she'd get away from the wear and tear of the city, have time to rest and recuperate after her recent worry. She dropped her eyes to a paper on the desk and said:

"Yes, I'm tired. Everything was so sudden and unexpected. I once thought I was strong enough to stand anything – but all this – "

She stopped and picking up a pencil began making little drawings on the paper, designs of squares and circles.

"It's worn you out," I said, looking at her weary and colorless face. Like the thrust of a sword a pang shot through me – love of a man, hidden and disgraced, had blighted that once blooming beauty.

She nodded without looking up:

"It's not the business only, there have been other – other – anxieties."

That was more of an opening than anything I'd ever heard her say. I could feel the smothering beat of my heart as I answered, as quietly as I could:

"Can't you tell them to me? Perhaps I can help you."

One of those sudden waves of color I'd seen before passed across her face. As if to hide it she dropped her head lower over the paper, touching up the marks she was making. Her voice came soft and controlled:

"That's very kind of you, Mr. Reddy – But I know you're kind – I knew it when I first met you a year ago in the country. No, I can't tell you."

I leaned nearer to her. If I had a chance to make her speak it was now or never.

"Miss Whitehall," I said, trying to inject a simple, casual friendliness into my voice. "You're almost alone in the world, you've no one – no man, I mean – to look after you or your interests. You don't know how much help I might be able to give you."

"In what way?" she asked, with her eyes still on the paper.

For a moment I was nonplused. I couldn't tell her what I knew – I couldn't go back on my office. I was tied hand and foot; all I could do with honesty was to try to force the truth from her. Like a fool I stammered out:

"In advice – in – in – a larger knowledge of the world than you can have."

She gave a slight, bitter smile, and tilting her head backward looked critically at her drawings:

"My knowledge of the world is larger than you think – maybe larger than yours. There's only one thing you can do for me, but there is one."

I leaned nearer, my voice gone a little hoarse:

"What is it?"

She turned her head and looked into my eyes. Her expression chilled me, cold, challenging, defiant:

"Tell me if the Whitney Office has found Johnston Barker yet?"

For a second our eyes held, and in that second I saw the defiance die out of hers and only question, a desperate question, take its place.

"No," I heard myself say, "they have not found him."

"Thank you," she murmured, and went back to her play with the pencil.

I drew myself to the edge of my chair and laid a hand on the corner of the desk:

"You've asked me a question and I've answered it. Now let me ask one. Why are you so interested in the movements of Johnston Barker?"

She stiffened, I could see her body grow rigid under its thin silk covering. The hand holding the pencil began to tremble:

"Wouldn't anyone be interested in such a sensational event? Isn't it natural? Perhaps knowing Mr. Barker personally – as I told you in Mr. Whitney's office – I'm more curious than the rest of the world, that's all."

The trembling of her hand made it impossible for her to continue drawing. She threw down the pencil and locked her fingers together, outstretched on the paper, a breath, deep taken and sudden, lifting her breast. It was pitiful, her lonely fight. I was going to say something – anything, to make her think I didn't see, when she spoke again:

"Do any of you – you men who are hunting him – ever think that he may not be able to come back?"

"Able?" I exclaimed excitedly, for now again I thought something was coming. "What do you mean by able?"

I had said – or looked – too much. With a smothered sound she jumped to her feet and before I could rise or stay her with a gesture, brushed past me and moved to the window. There, for a moment, she stood looking out, her splendid shape, crowned with its mass of black hair, in silhouette against the thin white curtains.

"Look here, Miss Whitehall," I said with grim resolution, "I've got to say something to you that you may not like, may think is butting in, but I can't help it."

"What?" came on a caught breath.

"If you know anything about Barker – his whereabouts, his inability to come back – why don't you tell it? It will help us and help you."

She wheeled round like a flash, all vehement denial.

"I – I? I didn't mean that I knew. I was only wondering, guessing. It's just as I told Mr. Whitney that day. And you seem to think I'm not open, am hiding something. Why should I do that? What motive could I have to keep secret anything I might know that would bring Mr. Barker to justice?"

As she spoke she moved toward me, bringing up in front of me, her eyes almost fiercely demanding. Mine fell before them. It was no use. With my memory of those letters, of her mysterious plot with Barker clear in my mind, I could go no farther.

I muttered some sentences of apology, was sorry if I'd offended her, hadn't meant to imply anything, was carried away by my zeal to find the absconder. She seemed mollified and moved to her seat by the desk. Then suddenly, as if a spring that had upheld her had snapped, she dropped into the chair, limp and pallid.

"I'm tired, I'm not myself," she faltered. "I don't seem to know what I'm saying. All this – all these dreadful things – have torn me to pieces – " Her voice broke and she averted her face but not before I'd seen that her eyes were shining with tears. That sight brought a passionate exclamation out of me. I went toward her, my arms ready to go out and enfold her. But she waved me back with an imploring gesture:



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