Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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She suddenly sank down into a chair by the table, her hands braced against its edge, her eyes riveted in that strange, mesmerized stare on the fern plant in front of her.

"When did they discover it?" she said in a low voice.

"Not long after it happened – but that doesn't matter. They've got everything in their hands. Even if you insist that you're innocent they've got enough to arrest you on. You've been under surveillance all along – they've been shadowing you. They followed you that time you tried to go to Toronto."

"I knew that," she said in the same low voice as if she was talking to herself.

"They know how you came out of the building that night – not by the elevator as you said, but by the stairs, and how you didn't get home till nearly eight. They know about you and Barker."

She lifted her head and said quickly:

"What do they know about me and Barker?"

"That he was in love with you and you with him."

"Oh, that!" Her tone was indifferent as if the point was a matter of no consequence.

"They know how the murder was done. How you and Barker did it."

"Barker and I – " She sank back in her chair, then suddenly leaning across the table, looked into my face and said, "Tell me how we did it. Let me see what they know."

I took the chair opposite and told her the whole plot and how we'd worked it out. While I was doing it she never said a word, but sat with her profile toward me and her eyes in that blank, motionless stare on the fern plant.

When I had finished there was a pause, then suddenly she drew a deep breath, turned toward me and said:

"What brought you here to me tonight?"

It came so unexpectedly I had no answer ready. What I'd looked for was a scene, terror, maybe hysterics and her breaking away as fast as she could put on her hat. Seeing me stupidly dumb she rose out of her chair, and moved away for a few steps, then stopped and seemed again to fall into that trance of thinking. It was like everything else in this nightmare – different to what I'd looked for, and a sickening thought came to me that maybe she was ready to throw up the sponge and go down and confess. And then – for all I knew – Jack Reddy might persuade her to marry him and go to prison with her. How can you be sure what a man crazy with love will do? If she got a life sentence he'd probably live at the gates of Sing Sing for the rest of his days. I was desperate and went round the table after her.

"Say," I implored. "What are you going to do?"

"I'm thinking," she muttered.

"For God's sake don't think," I wailed. "Get up and act. If I go back on the people that employ me and come here in the middle of the night to warn you, isn't it the least you can do to take advantage of it andgo?"

She wheeled round on me, her face all alight with a wonderful beaming look.

"That's the reason," she said. "That's what made you come – humanity – pity! You've risked everything to help me.

Oh, you don't know what you've done – what courage you've put into me. And you don't know what my gratitude is."

Before I knew it she had seized hold of one of my hands and held it against her heart, with her head bowed over it as if she was praying.

Do you guess how I felt? Ashamed? – perishing with it, ready to sink down on the floor and pass away. A murderess no doubt but even if a murderess thinks you did her a good turn when you didn't it makes you feel like a snake's a high-class animal beside you.

"Oh, come on," I begged. "Let go of me and get out."

She dropped my hand and looked at me – Oh, so soft and sweet! – and I saw tears in her eyes. That pretty near finished me and I wailed out:

"Don't stop to cry. You don't know but what they might get uneasy and come tonight. Put on your things and go."

Hadn't I got to hurry her? If Jack made a quick trip he'd be back in town between two and three and he'd come as straight as wheels could take him to her door.

"Yes, I'll go," she said.

"Now," I urged, "as soon as you can get into your coat and hat. Don't bother about this," I pointed to the disorder round us – "They'll think you've had another message from Barker and gone to him."

A curious, slight smile came over her face.

"Yes," she said, "that's what they will think, I suppose."

"Of course it is, and they'll waste time looking for him which'll giveyou a good start. If there's no train now to the place you're going to, sit in the depot, ride round in a taxi, walk up and down Fifth Avenue, only get out of this place."

"I'll be gone in half an hour," she said, and moved between the trunks and piled up clothes to the bedroom beyond. I followed her and saw into the room, all confusion like the others, every gas in the chandelier blazing.

"Can I help you?" I said. "Can I pack a suitcase or anything?"

"No – " she halted in front of the mirror, letting the kimono slide off her to the floor, her arms and neck like shining marble under that blaze of light. "I'll only want a few things. There's a bag there I can throw them into. You'd better go now."

I was afraid she'd not be as quick as I wanted but I couldn't hang round urging any more after she'd told me to go. Besides I could see she was hurrying, grabbing a dress from the bed and getting into it so swiftly even I was satisfied.

"Well then I'm off," I said.

She looked up from the hooks she was snapping together and said:

"Before you go tell me who you are?"

"There's no need for that," I answered, thinking she'd probably never see me again. "I'm just someone that blew in tonight for a minute and who's going like she came."

"Someone I'll never forget," she said, "and that some day, if all goes well, I'll be able to pay back."

I was afraid she was going to get grateful again and I couldn't stand any more of that. So with a quick "good-bye" away I went, up the hall, opening the door without a sound, and stealing down the stairs as soft as a robber.

Out in the street I stopped and reconnoitered. There was no one in sight except a policeman lounging dreary on the next corner. Across from the apartment was the entrance of a little shop – tobacco and light literature – and into that I crept, squeezing back against the glass door. I couldn't be at peace till I saw her leave and for fifteen or twenty minutes I stood there watching the lights in her windows. Then suddenly they began to go out, across the front and along down the side, till every pane was black. A few minutes later, she came down the steps carrying a bag. She stopped close to where I was, and hailed a car, and not till I saw it start with her sitting by the door, did I steal out of my hiding place and sprint up the street to Madison Avenue.

When I reached home I was shivering and wild-eyed, for if Babbitts was there what could I say to him? He wasn't – thank Heaven! – and cold as ice, feeling as if I'd been through a mangle, I crawled into bed.

There wasn't much sleep for me that night. About all I could say to myself was that I'd saved Jack. But the others – Oh, the others! I couldn't get them out of my mind. They'd come in a procession across the dark and look at me sad and reproachful. Mr. Whitney, who'd done everything in the world for me, and Mr. George, who could put on such side, but had always been so kind and cordial, and O'Mally, who'd told Babbitts the case was going to make him, and Babbitts – Oh, Babbitts!

I rolled over on the pillow and cried scalding, bitter tears. It wasn't only the scoop – it was that I'd have a secret from him forever – him that up to now had known every thought in my mind, had been like the other half of me. They say virtue is its own reward, and I've always believed it. But that night I had the awful thought that maybe I'd done wrong, for all the reward I got was to feel like an outcast with a stone for a heart.

CHAPTER XVII
JACK TELLS THE STORY

That night when I left Molly there was only one thought in my mind – to reach Carol and help her get away. If the figure of Barker had not stood between us I would have then and there implored her to marry me and give me the right to fight for her. But I knew that was hopeless. As things stood, all I could do was to tell her the situation and give her a chance to escape.

I suppose it's a pretty damaging confession but the office, my duty to my work and my associates, cut no ice at all. Heretofore I'd rather patted myself on the back as a man who stood by his obligations. That night only one obligation existed for me – to protect from disgrace the woman I loved.

I knew the trains to Azalea – it was on the road to Firehill – and though one left at midnight, the last train on the branch line to the Azalea Woods Estates had long gone. The shortest and quickest way for me to get there was to take out my own car. This would also insure the necessary secrecy. I could bring her back with me and let her slip away in the crowds at one of the big stations.

It was a wild, windy night, a waning moon showing between long streamers of clouds. By the time I struck the New Jersey shore – after maddening delays in the garage and at the ferry – it was getting on for one, and the clouds had spread black over the sky. It was a fiendish ride for a man on fire as I was. For miles the road looped through a country as dark as a pocket, broken with ice-skimmed pools and deep-driven ruts. In the daylight I could have made the whole distance inside an hour, but it was after two when I came to the branch line junction and turned up the long winding road that led over the hills to the Azalea Woods Estates.

As I sighted the little red-roofed station and the houses dotted over the tract, the moon came out and I slowed up, having no idea where the cottage was or what it looked like. The place was quiet as the grave, the light sleeping on the pale walls of the stucco villas backed by the wooded darkness of the hills.

I was preparing to get out and rouse one of the slumbering inhabitants when I heard the voices of women. They were coming down a side road and looking up it I saw three figures moving toward me, their shadows slanting black in front of them. At the gate of a large, white-walled house, two of them turned in, their good-nights clear on the frosty air, and the third advanced in my direction. I could see her skirts, light-colored below her long dark coat, and her head tied up in some sort of scarf. By their clothes and voices I judged them to be servant girls coming back from a party.

As she approached I hailed her with a careful question:

"I beg your pardon, but I think I'm lost. Can you tell me where I am?"

"I can," she said, drawing up by the car. "You're in the Azalea Woods Estates."

"Oh, I am a bit out of my way. The Azalea Woods Estates," I surveyed the scattered houses and wide-cut avenues, "I've heard of them but never seen them before. Doesn't a Mrs. Whitehall live here?"

The girl smiled; she had a pleasant, good-natured face.

"She surely does – in the Regan cottage over beyond the crest there. I'm living with her, doing the heavy work, until she gets settled. I belong on the big farm, but as she was lonesome and had no girl I said I'd come over and stay till her daughter joined her."

I smothered a start —could Molly have made a mistake?

"Her daughter, eh? Isn't her daughter with her now?"

"No, sir. She's coming tomorrow afternoon, then I'm going home. We'll have the cottage all ready for her. She's not expected till the 2.40 from town. Do you know the ladies?"

I bent over the wheel, afraid even by that pale light my face might show too much. Molly had made a mistake, sent me out here on a fruitless quest, wasted three or four precious hours. I could have wrung her neck. I heard my voice veiled and husky as I answered:

"Only by hearsay. I knew Miss Whitehall was the head of the enterprise, that's all. Er – er – it's Azalea I'm aiming for. How do I get there?"

She laughed.

"Well you are out of your way. You'll have to go back to the Junction on the main line. Then follow the road straight ahead and you'll strike Azalea – about twenty miles farther on."

"Thank you," I said and began to back the car for the turn.

"No thanks," she answered and as I swung around called out a cheery "Good night."

That ride back – shall I ever forget it! It was as if an evil genius was halting me by every means malevolence could devise. Before I reached the highway the moon disappeared and the darkness settled down like a blanket. The wind was in my face this way and it stung till the water ran out of my eyes. Squinting through tears I had to make out the line of the road, black between black hedges and blacker fields. I went as fast as I dared – nothing must happen to me that night for if I failed her, Carol was lost. With the desire to let the car out as if I was competing in the Vanderbilt Cup Race, I had to slow down for corners and creep through the long winding ways that threaded the woods.

And finally – in a barren stretch without a light or a house in sight a tire blew out! I won't write about it – what's the use? It's enough to say it was nearly six, and the East pale with the new day, when I rushed into Jersey City. I was desperate then, and police or no police, flashed like a gray streak through the town to the ferry.

On the boat I had time to think. I decided to phone her, tell her I was coming and to be dressed and ready. I could still get her off three or four hours ahead of them. I stopped at the first drug store and called her up. The wait seemed endless, then a drawling, nasal voice said, "I can't raise the number. Lenox 1360 don't answer." I got back in the car with my teeth set – sleeping so sound on this morning of all mornings! Poor, unsuspecting Carol!

The day was bright, the slanting sun rays touching roofs and chimneys, when I ran up along the curb at her door. An old man in a dirty jumper who was sweeping the sidewalk, stopped as he saw me leap out and run up the steps. The outer door was shut and as I turned I almost ran into him, standing at my heels with his broom in his hand. He said he was the janitor, took a bunch of keys from his pocket, and unlocked the door, fastening the two leaves back as I pressed her bell.

There was no answering click of the latch and I tried the inner door – fast, and all my shaking failed to budge it.

"Isn't Miss Whitehall here?" I said, turning on the man who was watching me interestedly.

"Sure," he answered. "Anyways she was last night. She talked to me down the dumbwaiter at seven and told me she wasn't going till this afternoon."

"Open the door," I ordered, speaking as quietly as I could. "She's probably asleep – I've an important message for her, and I want to give it now before I go downtown."

He did as I told him and I ran up the stairs, and pressed the electric button at her door. As I waited I heard the janitor's slow steps pounding up behind me, but from the closed apartment there was not a sound.

"She ain't there, I guess," he said as he gained the landing. "She must have gone last night."

I turned on him:

"Have you a key for this apartment?"

"I've a key for every apartment," he answered, holding out the bunch in his hand.

"Then open the door. If she's not here I've got to know it."

He inserted a key in the lock and in a minute we were inside. The morning light filtered in through drawn blinds, showing a deserted place, left in the chaos of a hasty move. Everything was in disorder, trunks open, furniture stacked and covered. The curtains to the front bedroom that I'd always seen closed were pulled back, revealing the evidences of a hurried packing, clothes on the bed, bureau drawers half out, a purple silk thing lying in a heap on the floor.

She was gone, gone in wild haste, gone like one who leaves on a summons as imperative as the call of death – or love!

"She's evidently gone to her mother or some friend for the night," I said carelessly. "She'll be back again to finish it up."

The janitor agreed and asked if I'd leave a message. No, I'd phone up later. I cautioned him to keep my visit quiet and he nodded understandingly – took me for a desperate lover, which Heaven knows I was. But in order to run no risks of his speaking to those who would follow me, I sealed his lips with a bill that left him speechless and bowing to the ground.

I was in my own apartment before Joanna and David were up, ready to be called to breakfast from what they, in their fond old hearts, thought was a good night's rest. Sitting on the side of my bed, with my head in my hands, I struggled for the coolness that day would need. Of course she'd gone to Barker – nothing else explained it. The state of the apartment proved she had intended leaving for the cottage, her mother had unquestionably expected her, not a soul in the world but myself could have warned her. Only another command from the man who ruled her life could account for her disappearance. Some time that night she had heard from him, and once again had gone to join him. I tried to dull my pain with the thought that she was safe, kept whispering it over and over, and through it and under it like the unspoken anguish of a nightmare went the other, "She's with him, flown to him, in his arms."

There was fury in me against every man in the Whitney office, but I could no more have kept away from it than I could have from her if she'd been near me. At nine o'clock I was there and found the chief, George and O'Mally already assembled. The air was charged with excitement, the long, slow work had reached its climax, the bloodhounds were in sight of the quarry. I could see the assurance of victory in their faces, hear it in the triumphant note of their voices. I don't think any man has ever stood higher in my esteem than Wilbur Whitney, but that morning, with the machinery of his devising ready to close on his victim, I hated him.

Immediately after I arrived they sent a phone message to her. I sat back near the window, to all intents and purposes a quiet, unobtrusive member of the quartette. When the reply came that the number didn't answer they concluded she was out, arranging for her departure that afternoon. The second message went at 9.30, and on the receipt of the same answer, a slight, premonitory uneasiness was visible. A third call was sent a few minutes before ten and this time central volunteered the information that "Lenox 1360 wasn't answering at all that morning."

The chief and O'Mally kept their pose of an unruffled confidence, but George couldn't fake it – he was wild-eyed with alarm. After a few minutes' consultation O'Mally was sent off to find out what was up, leaving the chief musing in his big chair and George swinging like a pendulum from room to room. I had to listen to him – he only got grunts from his father – and it took pretty nearly all the control I had to answer the stream of questions and surmises he deluged me with.

When O'Mally came back with the news that the bird had flown, the fall of the triumph of Whitney & Whitney was dire and dreadful. The announcement was met by dead silence, then George burst out sentences of sputtering fury, heads would drop in the basket after this. Even the chief was shaken out of his stolidity, rising from his chair, a terrible, old figure, fierce and bristling like an angry lion. I don't think in the history of the firm they'd ever had a worse jar, a more complete collapse in the moment of victory.

But O'Mally and the old man were too tried and seasoned timber to let their rage stand in the way. The detective had hardly finished before they were up at the table getting at their next move. All were agreed that she had had another communication from Barker and had gone to him. They saw it as I had – as anyone who knew the circumstances would. The first message had been by phone, the second might have been, and there was the shade of a possibility that she might have phoned back. If she had there would be a record, easily traced. The power of the Whitney office stretched far and through devious channels. In fifteen minutes the machinery was started to have the records of all out of town messages sent from Lenox 1360 within the last week turned in to Whitney & Whitney.

It was what I'd feared, but I was powerless, also I thought the chances were in her favor. Barker, no matter how he loved her, might not dare to trust her with his telephone number. Judging by the way he had frustrated all our efforts to find him, he was taking no risks. It would have been in keeping with his unremitting caution to hold all communications with her by letter. That kept me quiet, kept me from bursting out on them as they schemed and plotted close drawn round the table.

The next move was suggested by the chief – to find Mrs. Whitehall and bring her to the office. In default of the daughter they would try the mother. All were of the opinion that the older woman was ignorant of the murder, but it was possible that she might know something of her daughter's movements. And even if she didn't, that attack by surprise which was to have broken down Carol Whitehall might, tried in a lesser degree, draw forth some illuminating facts from her mother. It was nearly midday when George and O'Mally set out in a high-powered motor for the Azalea Woods Estates.



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