Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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As I swung up the long reach of Central Park West – she's a few blocks in from there on Ninety-fifth Street – my thoughts, circling round the Harland affair, brought up on Miss Whitehall, whose offices are just below those of the dead man. I wondered if she'd been there and hoped she hadn't, a nasty business for a woman to see. I'd met her several times – before she started the Azalea Woods Estates scheme – at the house of a friend near Longwood and been a good deal impressed as any man would. She was one of the handsomest women I'd ever seen, dark and tall, twenty-five or – six years of age and a lady to her finger tips. I was just laying round in my head for an excuse to call on her when the villa site business loomed up and she and her mother whisked away to town. That was the last I saw of them, and my fell design of calling never came off – what was decent civility in the country, in the town looked like butting in. Bashful? Oh, probably. Maybe I'd have been bolder if she'd been less good-looking.

Molly was at home, and had to give me tea, and here were Soapy's cigars and there were Soapy's cigarettes. Blessed little jolly soul, she welcomes you as if you were Admiral Dewey returning from Manila Bay. Himself was at the Harland inquest and maybe he and the boys would be in, as the inquest was to be held at Harland's house on Riverside Drive. So as we chatted she made ready for them – on the chance. That's Molly too.

As she ran in and out of the kitchen she told me of a visit she'd paid the day before to Miss Whitehall's office and let drop a fact that gave me pause. While she was there a man had come with a note from some bank which, from her description, seemed to be protested. That was a surprise, but what was a greater was that Harland had been the endorsee. Out Longwood way there'd been a good deal of speculation as to how the Whitehalls had financed so pretentious a scheme. Men I knew there were of the opinion there had been a silent partner. If it was Harland – who had a finger in many pies – the enterprise was doomed. I sat back puffing one of Babbitts' cigars and pondering. Why the devil hadn't I called? If it was true, I might have been of some help to them.

Before I had time to question her further, the hall door opened and Babbitts came in with a trail of three reporters at his heels. I knew them all – Freddy Jaspar, of the Sentinel, who three years ago had tried to fix the Hesketh murder on me and had taken twelve months to get over the agony of meeting me, Jones, of the Clarion, and Bill Yerrington, star reporter of a paper which, when it couldn't get its headlines big enough without crowding out the news, printed them in blood red.

They had come from the inquest and clamored for food and drink, crowding round the table and keeping Molly, for all her preparations, swinging like a pendulum between the kitchen and the dining-room. I was keen to hear what had happened, and as she whisked in with Jaspar's tea and Babbitts' coffee, a beer for Yerrington and the whiskey for Jones, they began on it.

There'd been a bunch of witnesses – the janitor, the elevator boy, Harland's stenographer who'd had hysterics, and Jerome, his head clerk, who'd identified the body and had revealed an odd fact not noticed at the time.

The front hall window of the eighteenth story – the window Harland was supposed to have jumped from – had been closed when Jerome ran into the hall.

"Jerome's positive he opened it," said Babbitts. "He said he remembered jerking it up and leaning out to look at the crowd on the street."

"How do they account for that?" I asked. "Harland couldn't have stood on the sill and shut it behind him."

Jaspar explained:

"No – It wasn't that window. He went to the floor below, the seventeenth. The janitor, going up there an hour afterward, found the hall window on the seventeenth floor wide open."

"That's an odd thing," I said – "going down one story."

"You can't apply the ordinary rules of behavior to men in Harland's state," said Jones. "They're way off the normal. I remember one of my first details was the suicide of a woman, who killed herself by swallowing a key when she had a gun handy. They get wild and act wild."

Yerrington, who was famous for injecting a sinister note into the most commonplace happenings, spoke up:

"The window's easily explained. What is queer is the length of time that elapsed between his leaving the office and his fall to the street. That Franks girl, when she wasn't whooping like a siren in a fog, said it was 6.05 when he went out. At twenty-five to seven the body fell – half an hour later." He looked at me with a dark glance. "What did he do during that time?"

"I'll tell you in two words," said Jaspar. "Stop and think for a moment. What was that man's mental state? He's ruined – he's played a big game and lost. But life's been sweet to him – up till now it's given him everything he asked for. There's a struggle between the knowledge that death is the best way out and the desire to live."

"To express it in language more suited to our simple intellects," said Jones, "he's taken half an hour to make up his mind."

"Precisely."

"Where did he spend that half hour?" said Yerrington, in a deep, meaningful voice.

"Hi, you Yerrington," cried Babbitts, "this isn't a case for posing as Burns on the Trail. What's the matter with him spending it in the seventeenth floor hall?"

Molly, who was sitting at the head of the table in a mess of cups and steaming pots, colored the picture.

"Pacing up and down, trying to get up his nerve. Oh, I can see him perfectly!"

"Strange," said Yerrington, looking somberly at the droplight, "that no one saw him pacing there."

"A great deal stranger if they had," cut in Jones, "considering there was no one there to see. It was after six – the offices were empty."

They had the laugh on Yerrington who muttered balefully, dipping into his glass.

"It fits in with the character of Harland," I said, "the stuff in the papers, all you hear about him. He was an intellect first – cool, resolute, hard as a stone. That kind of man doesn't act on impulse. As Mrs. Babbitts says, he probably paced up and down the empty corridor with his vision ranging over the situation, arguing it out with himself and deciding death was the best way. Then up with the window and out."

"Do you suppose Mr. Barker had any idea he was going to do it when he left?" Molly asked.

Babbitts laughed.

"Ask us an easier one, Molly."

Jaspar answered her, looking musingly at the smoke of his cigarette.

"I guess Barker wasn't bothering much about anybody just then. His own get-away was occupying his thoughts."

"You're confident he's lit out?" said Jones.

"What else? Why, if he wasn't lying low in that back room, didn't he come out when he heard Miss Franks' screams? Why hasn't he showed up since? Where is he? That idea they've got in his office that he may have had aphasia or been kidnapped is all tommyrot. They've got to say something and they say that. The time was ripe for his disappearance and things worked out right for him to make it then and there. If he didn't slip out while Miss Franks and Jerome were at the hall window, he did it after they'd gone down. It was nearly an hour before the police went up. He could have taken his time, quietly descended the side stairs and picked up his auto which was waiting in some place he'd designated."

"That's the dope," said Babbitts. "And it won't be many more 'sleeps,' as the Indians say, before that car is run to earth. You can't hide a man and a French limousine for long."

He was right. Johnston Barker's car was located the next day and the public knew that the head of the Copper Pool had disappeared by design and intention. His clerks and friends who had desperately suggested loss of memory, kidnapping, accident, were silenced. Their protesting voices died before evidence that was conclusive. Judge for yourself.

On the morning of January the eighteenth, Heney, the chauffeur, turned up in the Newark court, telling a story that bore the stamp of truth. At five o'clock on the day of the suicide he had received a phone message in the garage from Barker. This message instructed him to take the limousine that evening at 8.15 to the corner of Twenty-second Street and Ninth Avenue. There he was to wait for his employer, but not in any ordinary way. The directions were explicit and, in the light of subsequent events, illuminating. He was not to stop but to move about the locality, watching for Barker. When he saw him he was to run along the curb, slowing down sufficiently for the older man to enter the car.

From there he was to proceed to the Jersey Ferry, cross and continue on to Elizabeth. The objective point in Elizabeth was the railway depot, but instead of going straight to it, the car was to stop at the foot of the embankment on the Pennsylvania side, where Barker would alight. Further instructions were that Heney was to mention the matter to no one, and if asked on the following day of Barker's whereabouts, deny all knowledge of it. Pay for his discretion was promised.

Heney said he was astonished, as he had been in Barker's employment two years and never piloted the magnate on any such mysterious enterprise. But he did what he was told, sure of his money and trusting in his boss. At the corner of the two streets he saw no one, looped the block, and on his return made out a figure moving toward him that slowed up as he came in sight. He ran closer and by the light of a lamp recognized Barker; and skirted the curb as he'd been ordered. With a nod and glance at him, Barker opened the car door and entered.

The run to Elizabeth was made without incident. Heney stopped the car at the Pennsylvania side of the culvert, above which the station lights shone. Barker alighted and with a short "Good night" mounted the steps to the depot.

On the way home, going at high speed, Heney, rounding a corner, ran into a wagon and found himself face to face with a pair of angry farmers. They haled him before a magistrate to whom he gave a false name, representing himself as a chauffeur joy-riding in a borrowed car. He told this lie hoping to be able to hush the matter up the next day.

When he read of his boss' disappearance in the papers he was uneasy, knowing discovery could not be long postponed. The number of the car – overlooked in the rush of bigger matters – was made public in the evening papers of the seventeenth. Then he knew the game was up, admitted his deception and the identity of his employer.

Inquiries at the Elizabeth depot confirmed his story. The Jersey Central and Pennsylvania tracks run side by side through the station. At nine-thirty on the night of January fifteenth the ticket agent of the Pennsylvania Line remembered selling a Philadelphia ticket to a man answering the description of Barker. He did not see this man board the train, being busy at the time in his office. None of the train officials had any recollection of such a passenger, but as the coaches were full, the coming and going of people continuous, he might easily have been overlooked.

After this there was no more doubt as to Barker's flight. The papers announced it to an amazed public, shaken to its core by the downfall of one of its financial giants. The collapse of the Copper Pool was complete and Wall Street rocked in the last throes of panic. From the wreckage the voices of victims called down curses on the traitor, the man who had planned the ruin of his associates and got away with it.

They congregated in the Whitney office where the air was sulphurous with their fury. And from the Whitney office the Whitney detectives, Jerry O'Mally at their head, slipped away to Philadelphia, with their noses to the trail. With his picture on the front page of every paper in the country it would be hard for Barker to elude them, but he had three days' start, and, as O'Mally summed it up, "It has only taken seven to make the world."

CHAPTER IV
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

The day after the Harland inquest I meant to go down and see Iola and find out if she'd heard anything from Miss Whitehall. But that day I got sidetracked some way or other and the next it rained.

Usually I don't mind rain, but this was the real wet, straight kind that would get in at you if you wore a diver's suit. As I stood at the parlor window, looking down at the street all pools and puddles, with the walls shining under a thin glaze of water, and the umbrellas like wet, black mushrooms, I got faint-hearted. I could just as well phone, and if anything had transpired (it was the business I was uneasy about) go down and help Iola through the fit of blind staggers she'd be bound to have.

So presently it was:

"Hello, Iola, I was coming down today but it's too moistuous."

Then Iola's voice, sort of groaning:

"Oh, Molly, is that you? I do wish it had been fine and you'd have come."

"Why – anything wrong?"

"Oh, yes, everything. Miss Whitehall isn't back yet, and Mr. Ford's hardly been in at all and has such a gloom on him you wouldn't know him, and I'm awful discouraged."

"Have you tried to see Miss Whitehall?"

"No, I can't seem to get up enough spunk."

"Why don't you phone her?"

"Well, I don't know, I'm sort of scared of what I'll hear. I thought I'd better sit around and wait, and then I thought I ought to find out, and between the two – Oh, dear, what's the use!"

That was just like Iola. The only way you can be sure she's got a mind at all is the trouble she has making it up. If it's true that men like the helpless kind she ought to have a string of lovers as long as the line at the box office when Caruso sings Pagliacci. I wonder I ever got married!

"Tell you what, girlie," I said, "you come up tonight and dine with me. Himself is going to be late and we two bandits will steal out after dinner and make a raid on Miss Whitehall's."

Even then she hung back. I had to coax and urge and it was only me promising I'd see her through and if necessary ask the questions, made her finally agree.

The rain held on all day and it was teeming when we started out. Miss Whitehall's flat was on the other side of town – the East Sixties – and we had to go round the Park, crowding on and off cars, fighting our way through packs of people, Iola clawing at my back and catching her umbrella in men's hats and women's hair till you'd think she did it on purpose. When we got to the street we turned east, walking from Madison Avenue over Park with its great huge apartment houses, and then on a ways – not far, but far enough to make you feel Miss Whitehall's home wasn't as stylishly located as her office. Iola was that nervous I was afraid she'd forget the number, but we found it, on a corner over a drug store, where there were large, glassy bottles in the window and advertisements of ladies offering pills and candy with such glad, inviting smiles you'd know it was damaged stock.

The entrance was round on the side, and as we stood in the vestibule, dimly lit, with a line of letter boxes on each side, I couldn't help but whisper:

"You'd never think from her offices she'd live over a store."

And Iola answered, pushing the button under a letter box marked "Mrs. Serena Whitehall."

"It's a shock to me. I'd no more connect her with a push-button than I would you with a glass-topped entrance and a man in knee pants."

The door clicked and we went up the stairs, one feeble little electric bulb furnishing the light. There was a smell in the air like one of the tenants had had lamb stew for dinner and another was smoking the kind of cigar that tells you it's strong and hearty half a block off. The first-floor landing was hers – a card in a frame by the door told us so – and we pressed on the bell, hearing it give a loud, whirring ring inside.

The door was opened by a young girl, very neat in a black dress and white apron. She was sure we couldn't speak to Miss Whitehall, but perhaps Mrs. Whitehall would see us and she showed us up the tiny little hall into the dining-room. I'd never have believed a room furnished so plain could be so elegant. There was a square of brown carpet on the floor and ecru linen curtains – no lace, just hemstitched – at the windows and on the side table some silver; yet it had a refined, classy look. Two doors opened from it, one into the hall hung with a blue porti?re and double ones that I guessed led into the parlor. We could hear voices coming from there, low and murmuring.

By this time Iola was that nervous she was licking her lips with her tongue like a baby that's had a sugar stick. I was just edging round to give her a dig and whisper, "Brace up," when the curtain into the hall was lifted and a lady came in.

As she was well along in years – near to fifty I'd say – I knew she was Mrs. Whitehall. She was very dignified and gentle, with black hair turning gray and lots of lines on her forehead and round her eyes, which were dark like her hair and had a sad, weary expression. I guessed she'd been handsome once, but she looked as if she'd had her troubles, and when I heard her voice, low and so quiet, there was something in it that made me feel she was having them still.

I'd promised to be spokesman and not seeing any reason to waste time I went straight to the point. Mrs. Whitehall stood listening, her hands clasped on the back of a chair, her eyes on the little fern plant in the center of the table.

"Perhaps it would be best," she said, in that soft, faded sort of voice, "if Miss Barry were to see my daughter. I hardly know what to say to her."

She turned and left the room by the hall door and Iola gasped at me:

"Oh, Molly, it's true!"

"Don't cross your bridges till you come to them," I said, but all the same, I thought it looked bad.

"What'll I do if the business shuts down?"

"Shut up till you know if it does," I whispered back.

The double doors rolled back and Mrs. Whitehall stood between them. She looked at Iola.

"If you'll come in here, Miss Barry," she said, "my daughter will see you."

It was plain she didn't expect me, so I stood by the table without moving. As Mrs. Whitehall drew back and before Iola got to the doorway, there was a moment when I saw into the room. It looked real artistic, flowered cretonne curtains, wicker chairs with cushions and low bookcases around the walls, the whole lit up by the yellow glow of lamps. But I wasn't interested in the furniture – what caught my eye was a couch just opposite the open door, on which a woman was lying.

There was a lamp on a stand beside her and its light fell full over her. If I hadn't known Carol Whitehall was there I'd have guessed right off it was she from the likeness to her mother. She had just the same hair and deep, rich-looking eyes except in her the hair was black as night and the eyes were young. She had a newspaper in her hand and as the doors opened she'd looked up, intent and questioning, and I saw she was beautiful. She was like a picture, leaning forward with that inquiring expression, her features clear in the flood of soft light. I got an impression of her then that I've never forgotten – of force and strength. It didn't come from anything especial in her face, but from something in her general makeup, something vivid and warm, like she was alive straight through.

They stayed in the room some time while I sat waiting. I'd sized up everything in sight, especially two little glass lamps on the sideboard that I thought would be a nice present for Babbitts to give me on my next birthday, when the doors slid back and Iola came in. She didn't say anything and seemed in a hurry to be off. Mrs. Whitehall showed us out, very polite but depressed, and when the door was shut on us and we stole down the stairs, I felt the worst had come. In the vestibule I looked at Iola and said: "Well?"

She was struggling with her umbrella, her face bent over it.

"Fired!" she answered in a husky voice.

The rain was coming down in torrents, and wanting to cuddle up comforting against her, I didn't raise my umbrella and we walked up the street, squeezed together, with the downpour spattering around us. Believe me, the water fell under Iola's umbrella pretty nearly as heavy as it did outside it. Miss Whitehall was broke. Mr. Harland had been her financial backer and now she was ruined and the business would close. The surprise and horror of the whole thing had prostrated her and as soon as she was better she'd wind up the Azalea Woods Estates and try and sublet her offices, on which she had still a six months' lease.

"She was awful sweet," Iola sobbed. "She gave me a full month's salary and said she'd meant to keep me forever. Oh, Molly, why did it have to happen?"

I squeezed her and said:

"That's all right, dearie. We'll all hustle and get you another job. I got lots of money and what's mine's yours – the way it always is between good and true friends."

But Iola wouldn't be comforted.

"I can't take your money. I never took a cent yet. And I thought I was fixed for life. I thought even if the business didn't pan out big she'd marry Mr. Barker and get a place for me."



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