Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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"Oh go Ц I beg of you, go Ц I want peace Ц I want to be alone. Please go Ц Please don't torment me any more. I can't bear it."

She dropped her face into her hands, shrinking back from me, and I turned and left her. My steps as I went down the hall were the only sounds in the place, but the silence seemed to thrill with unloosed emotions, to hum and sing with the vibrations that came from my nerves and my heart and my soul.

The big moments in your life ought to come in beautiful places, at least that's what I've always thought. But they don't Ц anyway with me. For as I went down that dingy staircase, full of queer smells, dark and squalid, the greatest moment I'd ever known came to me Ц I loved her!

I'd loved her always Ц I knew it now. Out in the country those few first times, but then more as a vision, something that wove through my thoughts, aloof and unapproachable, like an inspiration and a dream. And that day in Whitney's office as a woman. And every day since, deeper and stronger, seeing her beset, realizing her danger, longing with every fiber to help her. It was the cause of that burst of the old fury, of the instinct that kept me close and secretive, of this day's fruitless attempt to make her speak. All the work, the growing dread, the rush of events, had held me from seeing, crowded out recognition of the wonderful thing. I stood in the half-lit, musty little hall in a trance-like ecstasy, outside myself, holding only that one thought Ц I loved her Ц I loved her Ц I loved her!

Presently I was in the street, walking without any consciousness of the way, toward the Park. The ecstasy was gone, the present was back again Ц the present blacker and more terrible after those radiant moments. I don't know how to describe that coming back to the hideous reality. Everything was mixed up in me Ц passion, pity, hope, jealousy. There was a space when that was the fiercest, gripped me like a physical pang, and then passed into a hate for Barker, the man she loved who had left her to face it alone. I think I must have spoken aloud Ц I saw people looking at me, and if my inner state was in any way indicated on my outer envelope I wonder I wasn't run in as a lunatic.

In a quiet bypath in the Park I got a better hold on myself and tried to do some clear thinking. The first thing I had to do was to rule Barker out. Even if my fight was to give her to him I must fight; that I couldn't do till we heard from Ford. Until then it was wisdom to say nothing, to keep my pose of a disinterested adherent of the theory of her innocence. If Ford's story exculpated her she was out of the case forever. If it didn't I couldn't decide what I'd do till I heard where it placed her.

It was a momentary deadlock with nothing for it but to wait. That I was prepared to do Ц go to Buffalo, get through my job there and come back. But I'd come back with my sword loose in its scabbard to do battle for my lady.

CHAPTER XIV
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

You can imagine after that disappointment in Philadelphia Ц it seems an unfeeling way to speak of the death of an old gentleman Ц how we all turned our eyes and kept them fixed on Tony Ford.

Friday night Babbitts told me the hospital had reported he couldn't be seen till Monday.

The others were in a fever, he said, O'Mally smoking big black cigars by the gross and Jack Reddy gone off to Buffalo, and Mr. George that scared Ford would slip off some way he'd have liked to put a cordon of the National Guard round the hospital.

Then came Saturday Ц and Gee! up everything burst different to what anybody had expected.

It started with Mr. George. Being so nervous he couldn't rest he called up the hospital in the morning and got word that there'd been a mistake in the message of the day before and that Mr. Ford was well enough to see the Philadelphia detectives that afternoon. Before midday Babbitts and O'Mally were gathered in, and while I was waiting on pins and needles in Ninety-fifth Street and Jack Reddy was off unsuspecting in Buffalo, the two of them were planted by Tony Ford's bedside, hearing the story that lifted the Harland case one peg higher in its surprise and grewsomeness.

O'Mally and Babbitts had their plans all laid beforehand. They were two plain-clothes men from Philadelphia, who had just come on a new lead Ц the finding of Sammis. When they'd opened that up before him, they were going to pass on to the murder Ц take him by surprise. If Ford made the confession they hoped to shake out of him, the warrant for his arrest would be issued and the Harland case come before the public in its true light.

Babbitts had never seen Ford and when he described him to me it didn't sound like the same man. He was lying propped up with pillows, his head swathed in bandages, and his face pale and haggard. Under the covers his long legs stretched most to the end of the cot, and his big, powerful hands were lying limp on the counterpane. He was in a private room, in an inside wing of the hospital, very quiet and retired.

When the attendant left and they introduced themselves he looked sort of scowling from one to the other. Both noticed the same thing Ц a kind of uneasiness, as if his apprehensions were aroused, and for all his broken head he was on the job, not weak and indifferent, but wary and alert.

This wasn't what they wanted so they started in telling him the news they thought would please him and put him at his ease. A clue had been picked up in Philadelphia that looked like the mystery of his attack was solved.

"In fact," says O'Mally, "a man's been run to earth there that we're pretty sure is the one."

Both men were watching him and both saw a change come over him that caught their eyes and held them. Instead of being relieved he was scared.

"Have you got the man?" he said.

O'Mally nodded:

"That's what we have."

"Who is he?"

"Party called Sammis. Answers to the description Ц "

Before he could go further Ford raised himself on his elbow, looking downright terrified.

"Joseph Sammis?" he said, his eyes set staring on O'Mally.

"That's it. We tracked him up and found him. But I don't want to raise any false hopes. We were too late. When we got there he was dead."

It had an extraordinary effect upon Ford. He gave a gasp, and raised himself up into a sitting posture, his mouth open, his eyes glued on O'Mally. For a minute not one of them said a word Ц Ford evidently too paralyzed at what he'd heard, and the others too surprised at the way Ford was acting which was exactly different to what they'd expected. It was he who spoke first, his voice gone down to a husky murmur:

"Dead?"

O'Mally answered:

"Heart disease, angina pectoris. The doctor down there said some strain or effort had finished him. That, as we see it, was the attack he made on you."

Then Ford did the most surprising thing of all. Raising his hands he clapped both over his face, and with a big, heaving sob from the bottom of his chest, fell back on the pillows and began to cry.

Babbitts said you couldn't have believed it if you hadn't seen it Ц he and O'Mally looking stumped at each other and between them that great ox of a man, lying in the bed crying like a baby. Then Himself, being fearful that maybe they'd done the man harm, rose up to go after a nurse, but O'Mally caught him by the coat, whispering, "Keep still, you goat," then turned and said very pleasant to Ford:

"Knocked you out, old man. That's natural, nerves still weak. Keep it up till you feel better. Don't mind us Ц we're used to it."

So there they sat, Babbitts still uneasy, but O'Mally, calm and patient, tilting back in his chair looking dreamy out of the window. He said afterward that he knew that hysterical fit for what it was Ц relief, and that was why he wouldn't let Babbitts call a nurse.

Presently the sobs began to ease off and Ford, groping under the pillow for a handkerchief, said, all choked up:

"How did you come to connect him with me?"

"By papers found in his desk Ц records of a real-estate business you and he'd been in some years ago at Syracuse."

"That's the man," said Ford, between his hiccuppy catches of breath, "and he's dead?"

"Dead as Julius C?sar." O'Mally leaned forward, his voice dropping, "Youknew he was the chap that attacked you?"

Ford, his head drooped, his shoulders hunched up like an old woman's, nodded:

"Yes, I lied when I said he was a stranger to me."

"Why did you do that?" asked Babbitts.

It was just what you might know he'd ask. One of the cutest things about Himself is that he never can understand why anyone, no matter what the provocation, has to lie.

Ford didn't answer and O'Mally, giving his chair a hitch nearer to the bed, said kind and persuasive:

"Say, Ford, you'd better tell us all you know. We got the papers, and most of the information. The man's dead. Clean it up and we'll let it drop."

Without raising his head Ford said, low and sort of sullen:

"All right Ц if you agree to that. I was in business with him and I Ц I Ц didn't play fair Ц lit out with some of the money." He turned a lowering look on Babbitts. "That's the answer to your question," then back to O'Mally, "I didn't run across him or hear of him in all this time and supposed the whole thing was buried and forgotten till he came into my room Tuesday night. He was blazing mad, said he'd been waiting for a chance to even up, and had at last found me. To keep him quiet I said I'd give him some money. I had some."

"Yes, yes," said O'Mally, nodding cheerfully, "the legacy your uncle left you."

Ford shot a look at him, sharp and quick:

"Oh, you know about that?"

"Naturally. Inquiries have been made in all directions. Go on."

"I hadn't much cash there Ц a few dollars, but I thought I'd hand him that and agree to pay him more later. He said he didn't want money,that wouldn't square our accounts, and as I went to the desk he came up behind me and struck me. That's all I know."

"Did he say how he'd located you?"

"Yes. He'd been looking for me ever since I'd skipped but couldn't find me. Then he saw my name in the papers after the Harland suicide. Some fool reporter spoke to me in the street that night and I told him who I was and where I worked. A short while after Sammis phoned up to the Black Eagle Building, heard from Miss Whitehall I'd left and got from her my house address."

"Did he say what he was doing in Philadelphia?"

"He had some new job there, he didn't say what, but he said he was well paid. That came out in his blustering about not wanting my money."

There was a pause, Babbitts and O'Mally scribbling in their note books, Ford sitting up in that hunched position, looking surly at his hands lying on the counterpane. So far every word he'd said tallied with what they already knew. Babbitts was wondering how O'Mally was going to get round to the real business of the interview, when the detective suddenly raised up from his notes, and leaning forward tapped lightly on one of Ford's hands with the point of his pencil.

"Say, Ford, how about that legacy from your uncle?"

Ford gave a start, stiffened up and looked quick as a flash into the detective's face.

"What about it?" he stammered.

O'Mally, his body bending forward, his pencil tip still on Ford's hand, said with sudden, grim meaning:

"We know where it came from."

For a second they eyed each other. Babbitts said it looked like an electric current was passing between them, holding them as still as if they were mesmerized. Then O'Mally went on, very low, each word falling slow and clear from his lips:

"We know all about that money and the game you've been playing. This Sammis business isn't what we're here for. It's the other Ц the Harland matter, the thing that's been occupying your time and thoughts lately. That outside job of yours Ц that job that was finished on the night of January the fifteenth." He paused and Ford's glance slid away from him, his eyes like the eyes of a trapped animal traveling round the walls of the room. "We've got you, Ford. The whole thing's in our hands. Your only chance is to tell Ц tell everything you know."

In describing it to me Babbitts said that moment was one of the tensest in the whole case. Ford was cornered, you could see he knew it and you could see the consciousness of guilt in his pallid face and trembling hands. O'Mally was like a hunter that has his prey at last in sight, drawn forward to the edge of his chair, his jaw squared, his eyes piercing into Ford like gimlets.

"Go ahead," he almost whispered. "What was that money paid you for?"

Ford tried to smile, the ghost of that cock-sure grin distorting his face like a grimace.

"I guess you've got the goods on me," he said. "I know when I'm beaten. You needn't try any third degree. I'll tell."

Babbitts was so excited he could hardly breathe. The Big Story was his at last Ц he was going to hear the murderer's confession from his own lips. Ford lifted his head, and holding it high and defiant, looked at O'Mally and said slowly:

"I got that money from Hollings Harland for reporting to him the affair between Johnston Barker and Miss Whitehall."

If you'd hit him in the head with a brick Babbitts said he couldn't have been more knocked out. He had sense enough to smother the exclamation that nearly burst from him, but he did square round in his chair and look aghast at O'Mally. That old bird never gave a sign that he'd got a blow in the solar plexus. For all anyone could guess by his face, it was just what he'd expected to hear.

"You were in Harland's pay," he murmured, nodding his head.

"I was in Harland's pay from the first of December to the day of his death. In that time he gave me eight hundred dollars."

O'Mally, slouching comfortable against his chair back, drooped his head toward his shoulder and said:

"Suppose you tell us the whole thing, straight from the start. It'll be easier that way."

"Any way you want it," said Ford. "It's all the same to me. I first met Harland in the elevator some time in the end of November. Seeing me every day he spoke to me casually and civilly, as one man does to another. There was nothing more than that till Johnston Barker began coming to the Azalea Woods Estates, then, bit by bit, Harland grew more friendly. I'll admit I was flattered, a chap in my position doesn't usually get more than a passing nod from a man in his. As he warmed up toward me, feeling his way with questions, I began to get a line on what he was after Ц he wanted a tab kept on Barker."

"Jealous?" O'Mally suggested.

"Desperately jealous. As soon as the thing opened up before me I saw how matters stood. He was secretly crazy about Miss Whitehall and was easy until Barker cut in, then he got alarmed. Barker was a bigger man than he, and there was no doubt about it that she liked Barker. When he realized that he put it up to me straight. He'd sized me up pretty thoroughly by that time and knew that I'd Ц what's the use of mincing matters Ц do his dirty work for him."

O'Mally inclined his head as if he was too polite to contradict.

"He offered me good money and all I had to do was to watch her and Barker and report what I heard or saw. It was a cinch Ц I was on the spot, the only other person in the office a fool of a stenographer, a girl, who hardly counted."

"What was the result of your Ц er Ц investigations?"

"That Barker was in love with her too. He came often on a flimsy excuse that he wanted to build a house in the tract. She was friendly at first, then for a while very cold and haughty Ц as if they might have had a quarrel. Then they seemed to make that up, and get as thick as thieves."

"Did she seem to care for Harland?"

"Not exactly Ц anyway not the way he did for her. She was always awfully nice to him Ц the few times he came into the office Ц gentle and sweet, but not the way she was with Barker. She was two different women to them Ц with Harland a sort of affable, gracious winner, but with Barker a girl with a man she's fond of, natural, glad to see him, no society stunts.

"A little before Christmas I caught on to the fact that she was receiving letters from Barker, and Harland offered me extra money if I'd get their contents. This wasn't so easy. Generally she took them away with her, but twice she left them on her desk. All I had to do then was to stay overtime and when she was gone, copy them. That way I got on to something that phazed us both Ц she and Barker were up to some scheme."

O'Mally moved slightly in his chair.

"Scheme?" he said Ц "What do you mean by scheme?"

"Something they were planning to do. After Christmas every time he'd come they'd go into the private office and talk there so low you couldn't catch a word. And the letters were all about it, but we couldn't get a line on what it was. I'll show them to you and you'll see for yourself. It got Harland wild, for though they weren't exactly love letters, they showed that she and Barker were close knit in some secret enterprise."

"Did you continue this work till the day of the suicide?"

"I did Ц to the night Ц to the time it happened. Harland was getting more and more worked up. I don't know whether it was the Barker-Whitehall business or his own financial worries, but I could see he was holding the lid on with difficulty. That day, January fifteenth, as you may remember, he was in her office and had a talk with her. As he went out I saw that he looked cheered-up, brisk and confident. Of course I've no idea what she said to him, but knowing the state he was in, I'll swear it was something that gave him hope. Yet a few hours after that he killed himself.

"Seeing him so heartened up and being curious myself, I decided to stay that evening and do a little quiet snooping among her papers. But she nearly blocked that game. She was in the habit of going between half-past five and six, leaving me to close up. That night she didn't do it, but hung about in the office, and after watching her for a few minutes I saw that she was on the jump Ц moving about, going from one desk to the other, glancing at the clock. Her manner made me certain that something was up Ц it was possible it had to do with the scheme she and Barker were hatching. I got the idea that I'd go and come back after a while, on the chance of stumbling on something that would be useful to my employer. I left her there and after loafing round for about half an hour returned. The office was dark and she'd gone. I lit up and looked over her desk in the Exhibit Room and a table in my room where she kept some papers, but found nothing. Then I thought I'd take a look into the private office but that door was locked."

"Ah, locked," said O'Mally, calm as a summer sea. "Was that her custom?"

"Not as far as I knew. I'd never found it locked before. It gave me an uneasy feeling for I thought she might have suspected what I was doing and turned the key against any invasion of her particular sanctum. She was no fool and might have caught on. So I fixed up the papers as I found them and left the office. You know what time that was, or you do if you read of the Harland suicide. I've always supposed the poor chap was up that side corridor as I stood there waiting for the car."

Babbitts bent over his notebook scribbling Ц he had to hide his face. He told me he thought the expression on it of stunned, crestfallen blankness would have given him away to an idiot. Waiting with their ears stretched to hear a confession of murder Ц and this was what they got! And the man wasn't lying. Every word he'd said matched with the facts we'd been worming and digging to find. He couldn't possibly have known murder had been discovered Ц he hadn't any suspicion a murder had been committed. The great revelation, that was to have broken on the public with an explosion like a dynamite bomb, was that Tony Ford was Harland's paid spy.

"Well," he said, looking at O'Mally, "what have you got to say? Go ahead with it if it'll give you any satisfaction. Only you needn't waste your breath. I know, without being told, that it's a rotten, dirty business."

O'Mally, his face as red as the harvest moon, pulled at his mustache looking thoughtful. But, sore as he must have been Ц you'd have to know O'Mally to realize what his disappointment was Ц he answered cool and easy:

"I ain't got anything to say. It's not my job to train the young. You've told me what I wanted to know Ц that's all I'm here for."

Ford turned to Babbitts and asked him to get some letters off the table and then went on to O'Mally:

"How did you come to find it out?"

Babbitts, gathering up the letters, cocked his head to listen, wondering how O'Mally was going to get out of it. But you couldn't phaze that veteran.

"Several ways Ц you see what we're after is Johnston Barker. It's the Copper Pool that owns us, and nosing round in our quiet little way we got on to the Barker-Whitehall affair and from that followed the scent to that legacy of yours. We didn't altogether believe in that uncle up-state Ц thought maybe he was Johnston Barker in private life, and that you might know something," he gave a lazy, good-humored laugh. "Got fooled all round. I don't mind telling you now that the way we happened on Sammis was pure accident. Thought he was Barker and had him shadowed. He looked like enough to him to have been his brother."



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