Geraldine Bonner.

The Black Eagle Mystery



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CHAPTER VIII
MOLLY TELLS THE STORY

For the next few days my moling was stopped – Troop was down with grippe and a substitute in his place. There was nothing to do but sit in my little hole by the elevators, passing the time with a novel and the tray cloth I was embroidering. At night, when Himself and I'd meet up, I'd hear from him how O'Mally was getting on in his tunnel. Babbitts kept in close touch with him, for he had the promise of being along when they made the inspection of the offices.

It took some days to arrange for that and while O'Mally was laying his wires for a midnight search, his men were tracking back over Tony Ford's trail. It didn't take them long and there was nothing much brought to light when you considered the kind of a man Tony Ford must be.

For the last three years he'd held clerkships in New York and Albany and once, for six months in Detroit. From some he'd resigned, from others been fired, not for anything bad, but because he was slack and lazy, though bright enough. The only thing they turned up that was shady was over two years before in Syracuse, when he'd been in a small real estate business with a partner and was said to have absconded with some of the funds. Nobody knew much of this and the man he'd been in with couldn't be found. The detectives said it was so vague they didn't put much reliance in it, thought maybe it might be spite work.

Anyway, it wasn't the record of a desperado, and they'd have been sort of baffled to fit his past actions with his present, if it hadn't been for one thing that, according to their experience, was very significant. In the last two months he'd spent a lot more money than his salary. As Miss Whitehall's managing clerk he had been paid sixty-five dollars a week, and he had been living at the rate of a man who has hundreds. It wasn't in his place – that was simple enough – a back room in a lodging house – but he'd been a spender in the white lights of Broadway. At expensive restaurants and lobster palaces he'd become a familiar figure, the gambling houses knew him, and he'd ridden round in motors like a capitalist.

"By the swath he's been cutting," said Babbitts, "you'd suppose he had an income in five figures."

"O Soapy," I said horrified. "They don't think he was paid for it?"

Himself looked solemn at me and nodded:

"That's exactly what they do think, Morningdew. He was paid and evidently paid high. Whoever the 'Other Man' was he could afford to be extravagant in his accomplice. Their idea is that Ford was engaged for his superior strength, and demanded a big retainer in advance."

"What a terrible man," I murmured and thought of him standing in the doorway smiling at me like butter wouldn't melt in his mouth. "He's a regular gunman."

"Worse than a gunman, for he's educated," said Babbitts. "Gee, wasn't it a lucky thing Iola got out of that place!"

The morning after that conversation I bid Babbitts good-bye as if he was going to the South Pole, for that was the night they'd selected to examine the two offices.

Three of them were in it, O'Mally, Babbitts, and one of O'Mally's men, a chap called Stevens. Himself would turn up for breakfast if he could, but if there was anything pressing at the paper or more developed than they expected, I wasn't to look for him till the evening of the next day.

I went down to my work and had a dull time for Troop was still sick and there was nothing to do but now and then jack in for a call and sew on my tray cloth. No Babbitts that night and no Babbitts for breakfast, and me piling down town for another eight hours in that dreary room with Troop not yet back and not a soul to speak to.

If, when I came home that evening, I'd found Babbitts still away I believe I'd have forgotten I was a lady sleuth and started a general alarm for him. But thank goodness, I didn't need to. For there he was on the Davenport with his muddy boots on the best plush cushion, sound asleep.

I didn't intend to wake him, but creeping round to our room, looking at him as I crept, I ran into the Victrola with a crash, and up he sat, wide awake, thanking me sarcastic for having roused him in such a delicate, tactful manner.

In a minute I was sitting on the edge of the Davenport – you'll know how I felt when I tell you I forgot his feet on the cushion – squeezed up against him and staring into his face:

"Quick – go ahead! Did you find anything?"

"We did, Morningdew."

"Did you get any nearer who the other man is?"

"We got next. The chief was right. It's Johnston Barker!"

"Barker! But, Soapy – "

He raised a finger and pointed in my face:

"Don't begin with any buts till you know. Now if you'll be quiet and listen like a nice little girl, you'll see."

This is what he told me as I sat pressed up against him, every now and then giving myself a hitch to keep from sliding off, too eager listening to rise up and get a chair.

They gained access to both offices without any trouble, O'Mally flashing his badge at the nightman, whom he'd already seen and fixed with a story that he was after important papers for the Copper Pool men. They tried the Harland offices first, a cursory inspection showing nothing. It wasn't till O'Mally himself got busy in the rear room that they began to move forward. A mark on the window sill was what started him. It was a circular scrape about as big round as a butter plate and was made, he said, by the heel of a man's boot.

Then he turned his attention to the window casing, the ledge and the outside frame. He used a small pocket searchlight, also matches, dropping them as they burned down and examining every inch of the surface. The first thing he lit upon was the cleat to which the awning rope is fastened in summer. It is always screwed securely down to the woodwork, and has to be strong and firm to hold the awnings in heavy winds, especially at that height. The cleat outside the window was loosened, and between its base and the wood were a few torn threads of rope that had caught in the head of the upper screw. These threads, carefully untangled and preserved, were from a new rope, clean and yellow, not the gray wind and weather-worn shreds that would have been left from the summer. Below the cleat were scratches, some long and deep, some wide, zigzag scrapes. By the color of these he said they had been recently made.

From there they descended to the Whitehall suite. Here O'Mally wasted little time on the front rooms but went direct to the rear office and began on the window. Babbitts and Stevens were ordered to search the floors and walls, which was easy as the furniture was gone and the place was bare except for the radiator and the washstand. I may as well put here that their investigations produced nothing.

But O'Mally's did. He went to work just as he had on the floor above. This cleat was secure, but on the sill were more scratches, several long deep ones, and on the stone ledge that same round, circular mark. But what he found there that was the vital thing was a button. It was lodged in a corner made by one of the small wooden rims that go up the window casing parallel with the window. Anyone could have overlooked it, hardly visible in this little angle where it might have been sent by the cleaner's duster as she flicked about the sill and the ledge. It was a metal button of the kind used on men's clothes to fasten their braces to, and it bore round it in raised letters the name of a fashionable tailor.

By the time they had done all this it was coming on for morning. They slipped out of the building and went to an all-night restaurant near-by to wait for daylight when O'Mally had decided to make an inspection of the roof of the church. He and Babbitts would do this, while Stevens, as soon as the day was far enough advanced, was commissioned to go to the tailor whose name was on the button, and find out when and for whom he had made any suits having that button upon them.

Meantime the day had broken into morning. With a caution to Babbitts to stay where he was O'Mally sauntered off to see about fixing things for getting on the roof of the church. Babbitts was left wondering whether they were going to be plumbers or tin workers or members of the congregation admiring the sacred edifice. But when O'Mally came back he'd got a new one on Soapy, for he'd depicted them to the sexton as an architect and builder from the West who were so struck by the dome they wanted to get up on the roof and study its proportions.

Fortunately it was a black, heavy day, the kind when the lights shine out in dark offices and people come to the windows and yank up the shades. If anyone did notice them they'd have looked like a couple of men searching for a leak, especially as they were busy in one spot – the space below the two windows marked by the burnt ends of the matches O'Mally had dropped.

And here, with the scattered matches all around it, caught in a ledge just above the gutter, they made the greatest find of all – a scarf pin. It was a star sapphire set in a twist of gold and platinum. An hour after they had it in their possession it was identified by George and Mr. Whitney as one they had seen on Johnston Barker the morning of January fifteenth.

From the tailor came further testimony. He identified the button as made from a new mould, the first consignment of which he had received late in December. So far he had only used it on two suits, one for a mining man from Nevada and the other for Johnston Barker – a dark brown cheviot with a reddish line. This had been the suit Barker had on when he visited the Whitney office that morning.

When he came to the end of all this I was balanced on the edge of the sofa, with my feet braced on the floor to keep from sliding off and my eyes glued on my loving spouse.

"Do you mean he came down from one window to the other, Soapy?"

Babbitts nodded:

"Lowering himself by a rope fastened to the upper cleat which his weight loosened."

"But – my goodness!" I was aghast at the idea. "A man of Barker's age dangling down along the wall that you could see for miles!"

"You couldn't have seen him twenty feet off. The wall's dark and it was a black dark night. If you'd been watching with a glass you couldn't have made out anything at that height and at that hour."

"But the danger of it?"

"He was on a desperate job and had to take chances. Besides it's not as risky as it sounds. The distance he had to drop was short. The ceilings are low in those office buildings and the awning supports have to be unusually strong because of the summer storms. And then the man himself was small and light and is known to have kept himself in the pink of condition. With a strong rope thrown over the cleat he could easily have swung himself to the story below, stood on the stone ledge which his feet scratched, and pushed up the window which Ford had probably left slightly raised."

"The whole thing was a plot?"

"A consummate plot – not a murder committed on the spur of the moment but a murder carefully planned. Whitney thinks Barker had scented Harland's suspicions long before they broke out in the quarrel, in fact that he had provoked it to give color to the suicide theory. When Barker went up that afternoon the rope was under his coat. When Ford left the Azalea Woods Estates early he knew every move he was to make from that time till he boarded the elevator. There were only two weak spots in it, the open window on the seventeenth floor and the length of time that Harland was supposed to have been in the corridor – the two points upon which Whitney based his suspicions."

I was silent a minute, turning it over in my mind, then I said slowly:

"When Barker was coming down that way – it would have taken some time wouldn't it? – Harland must have been in the front office."

"Yes. O'Mally's puzzled over that point – What kept him there?"

"Looks like he might have had a date with someone," I said pondering.

"Ford, of course, but nobody can imagine what he wanted to see Ford about. Oh, there's a lot of broken links in the chain yet."

I looked on the floor, frowning and thoughtful:

"It's awful strange. I'd like to know what made him come down there – what was put up to him to lure him that way to his death."

CHAPTER IX
JACK TELLS THE STORY

With the fitting of the murder on Johnston Barker, the office of Whitney & Whitney drew in its breath, took a cinch in its belt, and went at the work with a quiet, deadly zest. It was the most sensational and one of the biggest cases that had ever come their way. No one on the inside could have failed to feel the thrill of it, the horror of the crime, and the excitement of the subterranean chase for the criminal.

I was as keen as the rest of them, but there was one feature of the secret investigations that I detested – the dragging in of Carol Whitehall's name. It couldn't be helped. The affair had taken place in her offices, but it was hateful to me to hear her mentioned in our conferences, even though it was merely as an outside figure, a person as ignorant of the true state of the case as Troop or Mrs. Hansen.

The tapped phone message and the subsequent trip to Rochester had given me no end of a jar. Up till then I couldn't imagine her as caring for Barker. Everybody admitted that his private life had been beyond reproach – entirely free from entanglements with women – but even so I couldn't picture the girl I'd met in New Jersey in love with him. He was between fifty and sixty, more than twice her age. George said it was his money, but George has lived among the fashionable rich, women who'd marry an octogenarian for a house on Fifth Avenue and a string of pearls. I would have staked my last dollar she wasn't that kind – proud and pure as Diana, only giving herself where her heart went first.

But if it had been hard to imagine her as fond of Barker the magnate, what was it now when he was Barker the murderer? It made me sick. All I could hope for was that we'd get him and save the unfortunate girl by showing her what he was. And while we were doing this it was up to us to keep her out of it, shield her and protect her in every possible way. She was a lady, the kind of woman that every man wants to keep aloof from anything sordid and brutal.

I was thinking this one morning, a few days after our last s?ance, on my way to the office. I had been detained on work uptown and was late, entering upon a conference of the chief, George and O'Mally. When I heard what they'd been evolving, I didn't show the expected enthusiasm. Miss Whitehall was to be asked to come to Whitney & Whitney's that afternoon, the hope being to trap or beguile her into some information about Barker's whereabouts. It was the chief's plan – a poor one, I thought, and said so – but he was as enigmatic as usual, remarking that whether it succeeded or not, he wanted to see her. It didn't add to my good humor to hear that, as I knew the girl, they'd selected me for their messenger.

Not being able to strike straight at their subject they'd framed up a story, one that would give them scope for questions and be a sufficiently plausible excuse to get her there. It seemed to me absurd, but the old man was satisfied with it. Everybody now knew that Harland had been her silent partner. Their story was that they'd heard Barker was also in the enterprise, she'd had a double backing, his visits to her office gave color to the rumor, and so forth and so on. I left the office while they were conning it over.

As I mounted the stairs to her apartment I felt a good deal of a cad. If it had been anyone else, or any other kind of a woman – but that fine, high-spirited creature! A group of men trying to make a fool of her – beastly! Why had I said I'd do it – and why the devil had she got mixed up in such an ugly business?

A servant opened the door and showed me up a hall into the parlor. She was there sitting at a desk littered with papers, and rose with a faint surprised smile when she saw me. As we sat down and I made my apologies for intruding, I had a chance to observe her and was struck by the change in her. It was less than a year since we'd last met and she looked singularly different. Handsome of course – she'd always be that – but another kind of woman. At first I thought it was because she was paler and thinner – she'd been a radiant, blooming Amazon in the country – but after a few minutes I saw it was something – how can I express it? – more of the spirit than the body. The joyousness and gayety had gone out of her, and the spontaneity – I noticed that especially. I could feel constraint in her composure as if she was on her dignity.

As I explained my mission – I couldn't say much, and felt beastly uncomfortable while I was doing it – she listened with an expressionless, polite attention. When I had finished she made no comment, merely saying she would be only too happy to do anything for Mr. Whitney, then passed on to her own affairs, mentioning the failure of the Azalea Woods Estates and that she thought she and her mother would return to the country. I was on the verge of offering to finance her in a new deal and then remembered I was there as an emissary, not as a friend. It rattled me and the rattling wasn't helped when I met her eyes, brown and soft, but with something scrutinizing and watchful under their velvety darkness.

I stayed longer than I meant to – longer than I needed to. Some way or other our talk shifted round to Azalea and Longwood, to Firehill and the people we knew all through there. I forgot about the matter I'd come on, and she brightened up too and there was a gleam of the girl I'd met a year ago. But when I rose to leave the other woman was back, the reserved, poised woman who seemed shut in a shell of conventional politeness. She said she'd come that afternoon about five – she had work to do that would keep her till then. In the doorway she suddenly smiled and held out her hand. The feel of it, soft and warm, was in mine when I got out into the street.

I went back to the office feeling meaner than a yellow dog. Thank Heaven I'd not have to do that again. They'd get all they could out of her, and that would be the last time Whitney & Whitney would want to see her. Later on, in a week or two maybe, I could call on her again. The ice was broken, and anyway I didn't see but what it was my duty. Someone ought to help her to get on her feet again and as she'd no man in her own family the least I could do was to offer my services.

At five the chief, George and I were waiting for her. She was a little late and as she came in I noticed that she had more color than she'd had in the morning. She looked splendid, in a dark fur coat and some kind of a close-fitting hat with her black hair curling out below the edge. Her manner was cool and tranquil, not a hint about her of surprise or uneasiness, only that heightened color which I set down to the hurry she'd been in getting there.

The chief was as gracious as if he'd been welcoming her as a guest in his house – full of apologies, waving her to an armchair, suggesting she take off her coat as the room was warm. No outsider would ever have guessed what was going on in that astute and subtle mind. A feeling of indignant pity rose in me – she seemed so unsuspecting. But – No; it's better for me to describe the scene as it occurred, to try and make you see it as I did.

When the necessary politenesses were disposed of, the old man, very delicately, with all his tact and finesse, started on the frame-up. He did it admirably, finishing on a sort of confidential note. As the attorney for the Copper Pool group, it would facilitate matters if he knew of all Barker's activities; any information, the slightest, would be helpful.

She answered readily, without surprise, almost as if she might have heard the story before.

"You've been misinformed, Mr. Whitney. Mr. Barker had no interest in the Azalea Woods Estates. He had nothing to do with it."

The old man pursed out his lips and raised his brows:

"I see, one of those groundless rumors that gather about a sensational event. It probably started from the fact, mentioned in the papers, that Barker was in your office that afternoon."

"Probably. He came to see me about a house he was going to build in the tract. Of course that's all ended in nothing now."

He looked at her from under his bushy brows, a kind, fatherly glance:

"I was very sorry to hear, Miss Whitehall, that you were one of the sufferers in this double disaster we are trying to settle."

"Oh, I!" she gave a slight shrug of her shoulders. "I'm wiped out."

"Tch!" he shook his head frowning and resentful. "These men can knife each other – pirates in a buccaneer warfare – but when it comes to dragging down women I'd like to see them all strung up."

Her eyes gave a flash. It was like a spark struck from a flint, there and then gone. As if it had surprised her, and she was determined to guard against its return, the calm of her face intensified into an almost mask-like quiet. She answered softly:



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