The Black Eagle Mystery
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"I can't go so far as that, Mr. Whitney. I'm sure there's some explanation – as to Mr. Barker, I mean."
"I hope so," said the chief, "for your sake if for no other. I hope he'll come back and make the restitution he owes his associates and discharge that obligation about the house and lot."
He looked at her smiling, a rallying smile that said as plain as words, he knew such hopes to be groundless. She did not smile back, simply raised her eyebrows and gave a slight nod. George, who was facing her, leaned forward and said as if he had just met her at a pink tea and was being gallantly sympathetic:
"It was rather hard on you, Miss Whitehall, having those two men in your place that day. The press must have made your life a burden."
"It wasn't so bad. Some reporters called me up but when they found how little I knew they left me alone. I hadn't anything exciting to say. Both interviews were nothing but business."
"But let me ask you a question – not for publication this time, just as a thing I'm curious about. It was only a few hours after you saw him that Harland killed himself. Wasn't there anything unusual in his manner, anything to suggest that he was not himself?"
She looked down at the purse she was holding in her lap, and said slowly, clasping and unclasping the catch:
"I didn't notice anything – unless perhaps he was a little irritable and nervous. I certainly never would have thought he was in the state of a man contemplating suicide."
"And you would have known," said the chief. He turned to George in explanation. "As Harland's partner, Miss Whitehall would have known him well enough to notice any marked change in him."
I was watching her closely and as the glances of the two men met I saw uneasiness well up through the quietude of her face. Then for the first time I suspected that she was not as composed as she seemed. Her words confirmed the suspicion, they came quickly in hurried denial:
"No – I didn't know him well. I saw him very seldom. We were not in the least – what – what you'd call friends or even close acquaintances. It was all purely business."
The chief nodded, a slight, Mandarin-like teetering of his head, which gave the impression of a polite agreement in a matter that didn't interest him.
"Purely business," he murmured, then again turned to George. "What Miss Whitehall says would bear out the general idea that it was that last interview which drove Harland to desperation."
As they spoke she looked from one to the other, a glance that passed over both faces as quick as a lightning flash. Before they could turn, it was gone and her eyes had a dense, dead look as if she had dropped some inner veil over them. Then I knew that the brain behind that smooth white forehead was something more than alert, it was on its guard, wary and watchful.
The knowledge made me suddenly speak. I wanted to see, I had to see, if that careful control would hold under a direct question about her lover.
"How about Barker? How did he act when you saw him that afternoon?"
She shifted slightly to see me better.
"Oh, perfectly naturally.There was nothing in the least unusual about him."
"Barker was a man of iron," said the chief. "His mental disturbances didn't show on the outside. Besides," he gave a wave of his hand toward her – "this young lady knew him only slightly." He turned quickly to her, "I'm right, am I not?"
"Perfectly," she fixed her eyes on him and kept them there, black and unfathomable. "My acquaintance with him was simply that of an agent with a customer."
For a moment I couldn't look at her; I got up and going to the window fumbled with the blind. The man she'd tried to run away with – and telling her lie with that smooth steadiness! It was only love could give such nerve. Behind me I heard the old man's voice:
"A horrible affair. It was fortunate for you you escaped the sight of it."
"Ah – " it was a sound of shuddering protest – "that would have been too much. I knew nothing of it till I saw the papers the next morning. It made me ill – I was at home for several days."
"Well," said he, "I'm in hopes we're going to straighten things out before long."
I turned from the window and moved back, wondering what he was going to say. She was looking again at her purse, snapping and unsnapping the clasp.
"How can you do that?" she asked.
"Haven't you read in the papers that Barker's been seen in Philadelphia?"
"Ah yes," she murmured, her glance still on the purse. "But nobody's found him yet."
"Give us time – give us time. These vanishing gentlemen like a change of air. They don't stay long under our hospitable flag. Their goal is Canada."
For a moment she had no reply. You could see it, you could see the effort with which she held her statue-calm pose, but a deep breath lifted her breast and the edge of her teeth showed on her underlip.
"Canada," said the old man with a comfortable roll in his big chair, "is our modern American equivalent of the medieval sanctuary."
She'd got her nerve back – I never saw such grit. She gave him a smile, not jolly like his, but defiant.
"Of course," she said, "a sort of Cave of Adullum." Then she rose and looking at him from under her eyelids added, "But if a man's clever enough to get to the Cave of Adullum I should think he'd be too clever to stay there."
She turned and took her coat from the chair back. George made a jump to help her and the old man heaved himself up, breaking out with renewed apologies for the trouble he'd given her. They were like people separating after a social function, he bland and courteous, she gracious and deprecating.
"If I could be of any service to you I'd be only too glad. But" – she gave that little shrug of her shoulders – "I'm so unimportant. A poor working woman whose orbit happened by chance to cross those of two great luminaries."
"There's nothing for anybody to do but us," said George, standing behind her and holding out her coat. "And we'll do it. You'll see some morning in the paper that we've got our hands on Barker – the high-class sneak."
He and his father worked so well together that he told me afterward he knew the old man would be watching her. He was and so was I, and at those words I saw the rich color spread to her forehead and again that flash, like a leap of flame, shine in her eyes. She knew it too and dropped her lids over it, but the color she couldn't control and it glowed in crimson on her cheeks as she answered with a sort of soft tolerance:
"Oh, Mr. Whitney, hunting criminals has made you unjust." Then as the coat slipped on she flashed a look at him over her shoulder, "But I don't think it's real! The profession requires a pose."
George was quite bowled over. He had no answer and she knew it, turning from him with a smile and moving toward the door. Halfway there the old man stopped her.
"Oh, by the way – one thing more that nearly slipped my memory. You no doubt saw in the papers that Harland is supposed to have spent the half-hour before he jumped, in the corridor of your floor. Did you see him there – as you left, I mean?"
"I?" she raised her eyebrows in artless, surprised query. "No, I'd gone before he came down. I left about six, or maybe a little before."
"Um!" he nodded. "You were probably in the elevator."
"Yes, probably – " her purse dropped from her hand to the floor. We all started forward to pick it up but she was too quick for us and had it before any of us could reach it. As she righted herself from the sudden stoop her face was deeply flushed. "Yes, of course, I must have been in the elevator," she finished with a slight gasp as if the quick movement had impeded her breathing.
"I see, of course," agreed the chief moving beside her to the door. "It merely interested me as a student of morbid psychology. I'd like to have known how a man of Harland's type looked, moved, comported himself, while such a struggle went on in his mind."
At the door there were general good-byes, a very cordial parting all round. I slipped out behind her to escort her through the hall to the elevator. As we brushed along side by side she said nothing and glimpsing down at her face, I saw it set in a still pondering – sphinx-like it seemed to me.
Waiting for the car I said a few civil commonplaces to which she made short conventional answers. Biting her lip, her eyes on the ground, she looked preoccupied, impatient, I thought, for the car to come. I wanted to ask her if I could see her again, but I didn't dare, she seemed so indifferent, so shut away in her own brooding. But when she entered the elevator and the gate shut, I saw her through the grill-work, looking at me from behind that iron barrier, and the sight stirred me like a hand clasped on my heart.
It wasn't only the expression of her face, which was sad, almost tragic, but it was a strange and eerie suggestion that it was like a face looking through the bars of a prison. The thought haunted me as I walked back.
In the office George and the chief were talking over the interview. They'd noted every tone of her voice, every change of her color. That she'd lied had not surprised them. She had had to lie.
"Must love the old rascal to death," George commented.
The chief rose lumberingly and moved to his cigar box on the mantelpiece.
"I understand now why Barker – who never was known to care for a woman – finally fell. She's a splendid creature – brains and beauty."
"Both to burn," George agreed. "You couldn't get much out of her."
"All I wanted just now," said his father, striking a match, "the rest'll come in time."
I was just going to ask him what more he expected, when a clerk opened the door and said:
"Mrs. Babbitts is outside to see Mr. Whitney."
The chief squared round like a flash, the lit match dropping to the hearth. His face, usually heavy and stolid, lit into an almost avid eagerness.
"Show her in," he ordered and the clerk disappeared.
"What are you expecting to get from Molly?" George asked. "Isn't she finished?"
"Not quite." The old man's eyes were on the door, his cigar unlit in his hand. I hadn't often seen him so openly on the qui vive. "Molly's had further orders."
"You'll see," was the answer.
Molly entered with the cold of the night still around her. Her long coat was buttoned wrong, her hat on one side. Haste was written all over her, haste and that bright-eyed, jubilant exhilaration that took possession of her when things were moving her way. She was like a little game dog on the scent, and I'd often heard the old man say she'd make the best woman detective he'd ever known. He was awfully fond of her, and took a sort of paternal pride in her nerve and cleverness, just as he did in George's.
"Well, Molly," he said – "got that stuff for me?"
She nodded, her little body seeming to radiate a quivering energy:
"Today at the lunch hour. I came the minute I got off."
"Go ahead. I said not to tell anybody till you told me first. Well, you're going to tell me first now."
Standing by the table, her eyes bright on the old man, she said slowly and clearly:
"Troop says he never took Miss Whitehall down from her offices on the night of January the fifteenth."
George gave a smothered ejaculation and started forward. I was transfixed – not believing my ears. Only the chief looked unmoved, leaning against the mantelpiece, holding Molly's glance with his.
"Go on," he growled.
"He says that he was there later than usual, until eight, because of the accident and the other car being broken. Before that he took down the two Azalea Woods Estates clerks, Iola Barry and Tony Ford, but not Miss Whitehall. After the accident he ran out into the street, and when he came back the people were on every landing ringing the bells and wild because the elevator didn't come. He went up and took them off, but Miss Whitehall wasn't among them. He said that he'd heard some of them got tired of waiting and went by the stairs."
"He thought Miss Whitehall went that way?"
"Yes, it was the only way she could have gone. He supposed she'd got impatient or hysterical and just rushed pell-mell down."
"Did Troop or anyone else see her in the lower hall or leaving the building?"
"No, I questioned him careful about that. He thought she'd seen the excitement on Broadway and run down and maybe met someone who'd told her what had happened. And not wanting to get in it she'd gone out the side door. Anyway he said she wasn't in the ground floor hall, or out in the street with the others or he'd have seen her."
There was a pause. In that pause – like figures in a picture – I saw George, amazed, petrified, staring at his father, Molly looking from one to the other, and the chief with his brows low down and his head drooped, gazing at the fire. In a moment they would burst into speech – the speech that was withheld while that astounding revelation found acceptance in their minds.
To hear what they said – to listen to what I couldn't believe and yet couldn't contradict – was more than I could stand just then. Without a word, unnoticed by any of them, I slipped out, fled down the hall, into the elevator and out to the street.
It was cold, a sharp, frosty night, with a few stars shining in the deep-blue sky. Dark masses of men flowed out of the doors of skyscrapers and drained away down the subway entrances. I jostled through them, elbowing them right and left, instinctively turning my face uptown, deaf to the curses that followed me, blind to the lights that stretched in a spangled vista in front.
What did it mean? What could it mean? I'd understood the lie about Barker but now those other lies! She had said she went down about six, in the elevator. I'd heard her, there was no getting away from it. Wasthat the reason the old man had wanted to see her? Suddenly I saw again his look of hungry expectation when Molly was announced, and with a stifled sound, I stopped short. As lightning plays upon a dark landscape, for a moment showing it plain, I had a clear glimpse of the line of thought he'd been pursuing. The horror of it held me rooted there, rigid as a dead man, in the midst of the hurrying crowd.
Incredible – hideous – unbelievable! Association with criminals had warped and diseased his judgment. And then like a sinister shadow, creeping on me dark and ominous, rose the memory of her guarded face, the flame of color she couldn't hide, the dropped purse. I started out again, fighting the shadow, but all I had to fight with was my belief in her. She couldn't – it was impossible, I'd die swearing it. And battering against that belief, came questions, insistent, maddening. Why couldn't she speak out? Why didn't she admit the truth – say that Barker was her lover and have done with it? Why had she lied – about him, about the time she left, about everything she could have frankly admitted, if – if – When I got there I could go no farther. Cursing under my breath I forged along, the air ice-cold on the sweat that was damp on my forehead.