Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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When I finally did go to sleep I dreamed that all of us, the fat man, Babbitts, Carol Whitehall and I and Mr. Barker, were packed together in one taxi, which was rushing through the dark, lurching from side to side. As if we weren't enough, it was piled high with suitcases, on one of which I was sitting, squeezed up against Mr. Barker, who had a face like an eagle, and kept telling me to move so he could get his revolver.

I don't know what hour I awoke, but the light was coming in between the curtains and the radiators were beginning to snap with the morning heat when I opened my eyes. I came awake suddenly with that queer sensation you sometimes have that you're not alone.

And I wasn't. There sitting on a chair by the bedside, all hunched up in his overcoat, with his suitcase at his feet, was Himself, looking as cross as a bear.

I sat up with a yelp as if he'd been a burglar.

"You here?" I cried.

He looked at me, glum as an owl, and nodded.

"Yes. It's all right."

"Why – why – what's happened?"

"Nothing."

"You haven't been to Toronto and back in this time?"

"I've been to Rochester and back," he snapped. "She got out there, waited most of this infernal night and took the first return train."

"Came back?"

"Isn't that what I'm saying?" For Himself to speak that way to me showed he was riled something dreadful. "She got off at Rochester and stayed round in the depot – didn't see anyone, or speak to anyone, or send a phone, or a wire. She got a train back at three, we followed her and saw her go up the steps of her own apartment."

"Why – what do you make of it?"

He shrugged:

"Only one of two things. She either changed her mind or saw she was being shadowed."

CHAPTER VI
JACK TELLS THE STORY

This chapter in our composite story falls to me, not because I can write it better but because I was present at that strange interview which changed the whole face of the Harland case. Even now I can feel the tightening of the muscles, the horrified chill, as we learned, in one of the most unexpected and startling revelations ever made in a lawyer's office, the true significance of the supposed suicide.

It was the morning after the night ride of Babbitts and O'Mally, and I was late at the office. The matter had been arranged after I left the evening before and I knew nothing of it. As I entered the building I ran into Babbitts, who was going to the Whitney offices to report on his failure and in the hopes that some new lead might have cropped up. Drawing me to the side of the hall he told me of their expedition. I listened with the greatest interest and surprise. It struck me as amazing and rather horrible. Until I heard it I had not believed the story of the typewriter girl – that Barker was in love with Miss Whitehall – but in the face of such evidence I had nothing to say.

We were both so engrossed that neither noticed a woman holding a child by the hand and moving uncertainly about our vicinity.

It wasn't till the story was over and we were walking toward the elevator that I was conscious of her, looking this way and that, jostled by the men and evidently scared and bewildered. Judging her too timid to ask her way, and too unused to such surroundings – she looked poor and shabby – to consult the office directory on the wall, I stopped and asked her where she wanted to go.

She gave a start and said with a brogue as rich as butter:

"It's to L'yer Whitney's office I'm bound, but where is it I don't know and it's afeared I am to be demandin' the way with everyone runnin' by me like hares."

"I'm going there myself," I said, "I'll take you."

She bubbled out in relieved thanks and followed us into the elevator. As the car shot up I looked her over wondering what she could want with the chief. She was evidently a working woman, neatly dressed in a dark coat and small black hat under which her hair was drawn back smooth and tight. Her face was of the best Irish type, round, rosy and honest. One of her hands clasped the child's, his little fingers crumpled inside her rough, red ones. She addressed him as "Dannie," and when passengers crowded in and out, drew him up against her, with a curious, soft tenderness that seemed instinctive.

He was a pale, thin little chap, eight or nine, with large, gray eyes, that he'd lift to the faces round him with a solemn, searching look. I smiled down at him but didn't get any response, and it struck me that both of them – woman and boy – were in a state of suppressed nervousness. Every time the gate clanged she'd jump, and once I heard her mutter to him "not to be scared."

Inside the office Babbitts went up the hall to the old man's den and I tried to find out what she wanted. Her nervousness was then obvious. Shifting from foot to foot, her free hand – she kept a tight clutch on the boy – fingering at the buttons of her coat, she refused to say. All I could get out of her was that she had something important to tell and she wouldn't tell it to anyone but "L'yer Whitney."

By this time my curiosity was aroused. I asked her if she was a witness in a case, and with a troubled look she said "maybe she was," and then, backing away from me against the wall, reiterated with stubborn determination, "But I won't speak to no one but L'yer Whitney himself."

I went up to the private office where the old man and George were talking with Babbitts and told them. George was sent to see if he could manage better than I had and presently was back again with the announcement:

"I can't get a thing out of her. She insists on seeing you, father, and says she won't go till she does."

"Bring her in," growled the chief, and as George disappeared he turned to Babbitts and said, "Wait here for a moment. I want to ask you a few more things about that girl last night."

Babbitts drew back to the window and I, taking a chair by the table, said, laughing:

"She's probably been sued by her landlord and wants you to take the case."

"Maybe," said the old man quietly. "I'm curious to see."

Just then the woman came in, the child beside her, and George following. She looked at the chief with a steady, inquiring gaze, and he rose, as urbanely welcoming as if she were a star client.

"You want to see me, Madam?"

"I do," she answered, "if you're L'yer Whitney. For it's to no one else I'll be goin' with what I'm bringin'."

He assured her she'd found the right man, and waved her to a chair. She sat down, drawing the boy against her knee, the chief opposite, leaning a little forward in his chair, all encouraging attention.

"Well, what is it?" he said.

"It's about the Harland suicide," she answered, "and it's my husband, Dan Meagher, who drives a dray for the Panama Fruit Company, who's sent me here. 'Go to L'yer Whitney and tell him,' he says to me, 'and don't be sayin' a word to a soul, not your own mother if she was above the sod to hear ye.'"

George, who had been standing by the table with the sardonic smile he affects, suddenly became grave and dropped into a chair. The chief, nodding pleasantly, said:

"The Harland suicide, Mrs. Meagher; that's very good. We'd like any information you can give us about it."

The woman fetched up a breath so deep it was almost a gasp. With her eyes on the old man she bent forward, her words, with their rich rolling r's, singularly impressive.

"It's an honest woman I am, your Honor, and what I'll be after tellin' you is God's truth for me and for Dannie here, who's never lied since the day he was born."

The little boy looked up and spoke, his voice clear and piping, after the fuller tones of his mother:

"I'm not lying."

"Let's hear this straight, Mrs. Meagher," said the chief. "I'm a little confused. Is it you or the boy here that knows something?"

"Him," she said, putting her hand on the child's shoulder, "he seen something. It's this way, your Honor. I'm one of the cleaners in the Massasoit Building. The three top floors is mine and I go on duty to rid up the offices from five till eight. It's my habit to take Dannie with me, he bein', as maybe you can see, delicate since he had the typhoid, and not allowed to go to school yet or run on the street."

"I empty the trash baskets," piped up the little boy.

"Don't speak, Dannie, till your evidence is wanted," said she. "On the evenin' of the suicide, L'yer Whitney, I was doin' my chores on the seventeenth floor, in the Macauley-Blake Company's offices, they bein', as you may know, at the back of the buildin'. I was through with the outer room by a quarter past six, so I turned off the lights and went into the inner room, closin' the door, as I had the window open and didn't want the cold air on the boy."

"You left him in the room that looks over the houses to the front of the Black Eagle Building?"

"By the window," spoke up the little boy. "I was leanin' there lookin' out."

"That's it," said she. "The office was dark and as I shut the door I seen him, by the sill, peerin' over some books they had there." She took the little boy's hand and, fondling it in hers, said, "Now, Dannie, tell his Honor what you saw, same as you tolt Paw and me this day." She turned to the chief. "It's no lie he'll be after sayin', L'yer Whitney, I'll swear that on the Book."

The little boy raised his big eyes to the old man's and spoke, clearly and slowly:

"I was lookin' acrost at the Black Eagle Building, at the windows opposite. On the floor right level with me they was all dark, 'cept the hall one. That was lit and I could see down into the hall, and there was no one in it. Suddent a door opened, the one nearest to the window, and a head come out and looked quick up and down and then acrost to our building. Then it went in and I was thinkin' how it couldn't see me because it was all dark where I was, when the door opened again, slow, and an awful sort of thing came out."

He stopped and turned to his mother, shrinking and scared. She put her arm round him and coaxed softly:

"Don't be afeart, darlint. Go on, now, and tell it like you tolt it to me and Paw at breakfast."

The old man was motionless, his face as void of expression as a stone mask. George was leaning forward, his elbows on the table, his eyes on the boy in a fixed stare.

"What was it you saw, Dannie?" said the chief, his voice sounding deep as an organ after that moment of breathless hush. "Don't be afraid to tell us."

The boy spoke again, pressing back against his mother:

"It was like an animal creepin' along, crouched down – "

"Show the gentlemen," said Mrs. Meagher, and without more urging the little chap slid down to the floor on his hands and knees and began padding about, bent as low as he could. It was a queer sight, believe me – the tiny figure creeping stealthily along the carpet – and we four men, all but the old man, now up on our feet, leaning forward to watch with faces of amazement.

"That way," he said, looking up sideways. "Just like that – awful quick from the door to the window." He rose and went back to his mother, cowering against her. "I thought it was some kind of bear, and I was terrible scairt. I was so scairt I couldn't raise a yell or make a break or nothin'. I stood lookin' and I saw it was a man, and – " He stopped, terrified memory halting the words.

She had to coax again, her arm around him, her face close to his.

"Go on, Dannie boy, you want the gintlemin to think you're the brave man that ye are. Go on, now, lamb." Over his head she looked at the chief and said, "It's a sight might have froze the heart of anyone, let alone a pore, sickly kid."

The boy went on, almost in a whisper:

"He had another man on his back, still, like he was dead, with his arms hangin' down. I could see the hands draggin' along the floor like they was bits of rope. And when he got to the window, quick – I never seen nothin' so quick – the one that was creepin' slid the other on to the sill. He done it this way." He crouched down on his knees with his hands raised over his head and made a forward, shoving motion. "Pushing him out. Just for a second I could see the dead one, acrost the sill, with his head down, and then the other gave a big shove and he went over."

There was a moment of dead silence in which you could hear the tick of the clock on the mantel. I had an impression of Babbitts, his face full of horror, and George, bent across the table, biting on his under lip. Only the old man held his pose of bland stolidity.

"And what did the man – the one that was on his knees – do then, Dannie?" he asked gently.

"He got up and made a break for the door. Whisht," he shot one palm across the other with a swift gesture – "like that, and went in."

"Which door was that – which side?"

Dannie waved his right hand.

"This one – the door he came out of – this side!"

"The Azalea Woods Estates," came from George.

The old man gave him a quick glance, a razor-sharp reproof, and turning to Dannie held out his hand.

"Well, Dannie, that's a wonderful story, and it's great the way you tell it. Let's shake on it." The little boy stepped forward and put his small, thin paw in the chief's big palm. "You've told it to all the fellows on the block, haven't you?"

Dannie shook his head.

"I ain't told it to a soul till this mornin', when I couldn't hold it no more and let out to Paw and Maw."

"Why didn't you tell?"

"I was scairt. I didn't want to. I kep' dreamin' of it at night and I didn't know what to do. And this mornin' when Paw and Maw was gassin' about the suicide I just busted out. I – I – " his lips trembled and the tears welled into his eyes.

"It's thrue what he says, every word," said Mrs. Meagher. "It's sick he's been ever sence, and me crazy not knowin' what was eatin' into him. And this mornin' he breaks into a holler and out it comes."

As she was speaking the old man patted the thin hand, eyeing the child with a deep, quiet kindliness.

"You're a wise boy, Dannie," said he. "And you want to keep on being a wise boy and not tell anyone. Will you answer a question or two, saying when you don't know or don't remember? I'll see that you get something pretty nice afterward, if you do."

"Yes," says Dannie, "I'll answer."

"Could you see what the man looked like, the man that was alive?"

"No – I wasn't near enough. They was like – like" – he paused and then said, his eyes showing a troubled bewilderment – "like shadows."

"He would have seen the figures in silhouette," George explained, "black against the lit window."

"That's it," he turned eagerly to George. "And it was acrost the street and the houses on Broadway."

"Um," said the chief, "too far for any detail. Well, this man, the one that went on his hands and knees, was he a fat man?"

The child shook his head.

"No, sir. He – he was just like lots of men."

"Now look over these three gentlemen," said the chief, waving his hand at us. "Which of them looks most like him? Not their faces, but their bodies."

Dannie looked at us critically and carefully. His eye passed quickly over Babbitts, medium height, broad and stocky, lingered on me, six feet two with the longest reach in my class at Harvard, then brought up on George, who tips the beam at one hundred and sixty pounds.

"Most like him," he said, pointing a little finger at the junior member of Whitney & Whitney. "Skinny like him."

"Very well done, Dannie," said the old man, then turned to George. "Lightly built. He would have no means of judging height."

George took up the interrogation:

"Could you see at all what kind of clothes he wore?"

"No – he went too quick."

"And he looked over at your building?"

"Yes – but he couldn't have seen anything. Maw's floors was all dark."

"Did you see him come out of the room again?"

"No. I was that scairt I crep' away back to where Maw was."

"Come in to me like a specter," said Mrs. Meagher. "And not a word out of him only that he was cold."

"Well, Mrs. Meagher," said the chief, "this is a great service you've done us, and it's up to us to do something for you."

"Oh, your Honor," she answered, "it's not pay I'm wantin'. It was my dooty and I done it. Now, Dannie boy, it's time we was gettin' home."

"Wait a moment," said the old man. "You say your husband's a drayman. Tell him to come and see me – my home's the best place – this evening if possible. And tell him – and this applies as much to you" – his bushy brows came down over his eyes and his expression grew lowering – "not to mention one word of this. If you keep your mouths shut, your future's made. If you blab" – he raised a warning finger and shook it fiercely in her face – "God help you."

Mrs. Meagher looked terrified. She clutched Dannie and drew him against her skirts.

"It's not a word I'll be after sayin', your Honor," she faltered. "I'll swear it before the priest."

"That's right. I'll see the priest about it." He suddenly changed, straightened up, and was the genial old gentleman who could put the shyest witness at his ease. "The little chap doesn't look strong. New York's no place for him. He ought to run wild in the country for a bit."

"Ah, don't be after sayin' it," she shook her head wistfully. "That's what the doctor tolt me. But what can a poor scrubwoman do?"

"Not as much, maybe, as a lawyer can. You leave that to me. I'll see he goes and you'll be along. All I ask in return is" – he put his finger on his lips – "just one word – silence."

She tried to say something, but laughing and pooh-poohing her attempts at thanks, he walked her to the door.

"There – there – no back-talk. Hustle along now, and don't forget, I want to see Dan Meagher tonight. Ask the clerk in the waiting room for the address. Good-bye." He shook hands with her and patted Dannie on the shoulder. "A month on a farm and you won't know this boy. Good-bye and good luck to you!"

As the door shut on her his whole expression and manner changed. He turned back to the room, his hands deep in his pockets, his shoulders hunched, his eyes, under the drooping thatch of his hair, looking from one to the other of us.

"Well, gentlemen?" he said.

"Murder!" came from George on a rising breath.

"Murder," repeated his father. "A fact that I've suspected since the inquest."

CHAPTER VII
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

Murder! Will I ever forget that night when Babbitts told me, the two of us shut in our room! I can see his face now, thrust out toward me, all strained and staring, his voice almost a whisper. As for me – I guess I looked like the Village Idiot, with my mouth dropped open and my eyes bulged so you could cut 'em off with a shingle.

The next day the same word went out to us that was given to Mrs. Meagher —silence. Not a whisper, not a breath! Neither the public, nor the press, nor the police must get an inkling. All there was to go upon was the story of a child, and until this could be confirmed by other facts, the outside world was to know nothing. If corroborative evidence were found it would be the biggest sensation the Whitney office had ever had. Babbitts was promised the scoop, but if he gave away a thing before the time was ripe it would be the end of us as far as Whitney & Whitney went.

Six shared the secret, the Whitneys, father and son, the Babbittses, husband and wife, Jack Reddy and O'Mally. In twenty-four hours Mrs. Meagher and Dannie were spirited off to a farm up-state and the old man had a s?ance with Meagher, the drayman, that shut his mouth tighter than a gag.

The six of us were organized into a sort of band to work on the case. It seemed to me we were like moles, tunneling along underground, not a soul on the surface knowing we were there, and if they'd found it out, not able to make a guess what we were after.

O'Mally and I were the only two that were put right on the scene of the crime. I was to stay on the Black Eagle switchboard to pick up all I could from Troop, the boy who operated the one elevator which was running that night – to find out about the people he had taken up or down from the seventeenth floor between five and six-thirty. O'Mally was commissioned to examine the Azalea Woods Estates offices, and get next to Mrs. Hansen, cleaner of the top floors, and see if she had seen anything on the evening of January fifteenth.

What we ferreted out I'll put down as clearly and quickly as I can. It may not be interesting, but to understand a case that was interesting, it's necessary to know it.

O'Mally got busy right off – quicker than I, but he knew better how to do it. The Azalea Woods Estates was vacated and that was easy. His search only gave up one thing, two dark spots on the floor of the private office close by the window. With a chisel he shaved off the wood on which they were and it was sent to a chemist who analyzed the spots as blood.

What he heard from Mrs. Hansen was even more important, and he did it well, worming it out of her in easy talk about the suicide. I'll boil it down to simple facts, not as I heard him tell it in Mr. Whitney's den, with bits about Mrs. Hansen that you couldn't help but laugh at.

On the night of January the fifteenth she was at work on the seventeenth floor at half-past five. Behind the elevators, round on the side corridor where the service stairs go down, is a sink closet where the cleaners kept their brooms and dusters. Having finished with a rear office she went into this closet to empty and refill her pails, at a little before six. While in there she could hear nothing because of the running water, but when she turned it off she heard steps coming down the stairs on the Broadway side. She had moved out into the hall when the steps stopped, and rounding the corner by the elevators she saw Mr. Harland standing at the door of the Azalea Woods Estates offices.



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