The Black Eagle Mystery
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"Going home, eh?" said he. "It's a long, cold ride home."
"That's the first truth you've said," I answered. "And for showing me you can do it I'll offer you my grateful thanks."
I began to put on my gloves, he standing in the doorway watching.
"To break the journey with a little bit of dinner might be a good idea."
"It might," I said, "if anybody had it."
"I have it. I've had it all day."
"What's the good of having it if you haven't got the price." I picked up my satchel and looked cool and pitying at him. "Unless you're calculating to take me to the bread line."
"There you wrong me," he answered. "Nothing but the best for you," and putting his hand into his vest pocket he drew out a roll of bills, folding them back one by one and giving each a name, "Canvas back, terrapin, champagne, oyster crabs, alligator pears, anything the lady calls for."
Those greenbacks, flirted over so carelessly by his strong, brown fingers, gave me the horrors. Blood money! I drew back. If he hadn't been blocking up the entrance, I think I'd have quit it and made a break for the open. He glanced up and saw my face, and I guess it looked queer.
"What are you staring so for? They're not counterfeit."
The feeling passed, and anyway I couldn't get out without squeezing by him and I didn't want to touch him any more than I would a spider.
"I was calculating how much of it I could eat," I said. "My folks don't like me to dine out so when I do I try to catch up with all the times I've refused."
"Come along then," he said, stepping back from the doorway. "I know a bully little joint not far from here. You can catch up there if you've been refusing dinners since the first telephone was installed."
So off we trotted into the night, I and the murderer!
Can you see into my mind – it was boiling with thoughts like a Hammam bath with steam? What would Soapy say? He'd be raging, but after all he couldn't do anything more than rage. You can't divorce a woman for dining with a murderer, especially if she only does it once. Mr. Whitney'd be all right. If I got what I intended to get he'd pass me compliments that would take O'Mally's pride down several pegs. As for myself – Tony Ford wouldn't want to murder me. There was nothing in it, and judging by the pleasant things he said as we walked to the restaurant, you'd think to keep me alive and well was the dearest wish of his heart.
The restaurant was one of those quiet foreign ones, in an old dwelling house, sandwiched in among shops and offices. It was a decent place – I'd been there for lunch with Iola – in the daytime full of business people, and at night having the sort of crowd that gathers where boarding houses and downtown apartments and hotels for foreigners give up their dead.
We found a table in a corner of the front room, with the wall to one side of us and the long curtains of the window behind me. There were a lot of people and a few waiters, one of whom Mr.Ford summoned with a haughty jerk of his head. Then he sprawled grandly in his chair with menus and wine lists, telling the waiter how to serve things that were hot and ice things that were cold till you'd suppose he'd been a chef along with all his other jobs. He put on a great deal of side, like he was a cattle king from Chicago trying to impress a Pilgrim Father from Boston. The only way it impressed me was to make me think a gunman with blood on his soul wasn't so different from an innocent clerk with nothing to trouble him but the bill at the end.
As he was doing this I took off my veil and gloves, careful to pull off my wedding ring – I wasn't going to have that sidetracking him – and thinking how I'd begin.
We were through the soup and on the fish when I decided the time was ripe to ring the bell and start. I did it quietly:
"I guess you've got a new place?"
"No, I'm still one of the unemployed. Don't I act like it?" He smiled, a patronizing smirk, pleased he'd got the hello girl guessing.
"You act to me like the young millionaire cutting his teeth on Broadway."
He lifted his glass of white wine and sipped it:
"I inherited some money this winter from an uncle up-state. You're not drinking your wine. Don't you like it?"
In his tone, and a shifting of his eyes to the next table, I caught a suggestion of something not easy, put on. Maybe if you hadn't known what I did you wouldn't have noticed what was plain to me – he didn't like the subject.
"No, I never touch wine," I answered. "I don't want to speak unfeelingly but it was mighty convenient your uncle died just as your business failed. Wasn't it too bad about Miss Whitehall?"
"Very unfortunate, poor girl. Bad for me but worse for her."
"She had no idea it was coming, I suppose?"
He looked up sudden and sharp:
"What was coming?"
His small gray eyes sent a glance piercing into mine, full of a quick, arrested attention.
"Why – why – the ruin of Mr. Harland."
"Oh, that," he was easy again, "I thought you meant the suicide. I don't know whether she knew or not. Waiter" – he turned and made one of those grandstand plays to the waiter – "take this away and bring on the next."
"She'd have known that night as soon as she heard he was dead but I guess she was so paralyzed she didn't think of herself."
"I don't know what she thought of. She wasn't in the office."
I dropped my eyes to my plate. Eliza crossing on the ice didn't have anything over me in the way she picked her steps.
"Oh, she'd gone before it happened?"
"Yes. I left early myself that night – before she did. I was halfway home when I remembered some papers I'd said I'd go over and had to hike back for them. She was gone when I got there. And just think how gruesome it was, when I was going down in the elevator Harland jumped, struck the street a few minutes before I reached the bottom."
Could you beat it! Knowing what had been done in that closed office, knowing what was going to be done while he was sliding down from story to story and then getting it off that way, as smooth as cream. A sick feeling rose up inside me. I wanted to get away from him and see an honest face and feel the cold, fresh air. Dining with a gunman wasn't as easy as I'd thought.
Tony Ford, leaning across his plate, tapped on the cloth with his knife handle to emphasize his words:
"He must have been up that side corridor waiting. When he heard the gate shut and the car go down, he came out, walked to the hall window and jumped. Ugh!" he gave a wriggling movement with his broad shoulders. "That takes nerve!"
I suppose sometimes in crowds you pass murderers, but you don't know them for what they are. Probably never again if I lived to be a hundred, would I sit this way, not only conversing with one, but conversing about his crime. It wasn't what you'd look back on afterward as one of the happy memories of your life, but it was a red-letter experience. I had a vision of telling my grandchildren how once, when I was young, I talked with one of the blackest criminals of his day on the subject of the deed he'd helped commit.
"It's a fortunate thing he left no family." It was something to say, and I had to keep him moving along the same line. "You'd suppose he'd have married again, being wealthy and handsome."
Mr. Ford, who was lighting a cigarette, smiled to himself and said: "So you would."
"And I guess he could have had his pick. Maybe he cared for someone who didn't reciprocate."
He threw away the match and lolled back in his chair.
"Maybe," he said with a meaning secret air.
It wouldn't have taken a girl just landed at Ellis Island to see that he wanted to be questioned. It was out on him like a rash. So not to disappoint him and also being curious I asked:
"Was he in love with someone?"
He said nothing but blew a smoke ring into the air, staring at it as it floated away. I waited while he blew another ring, the look on his face as conscious as an actor's when he has the middle of the stage. Then he spoke in a weighty tone:
"Harland was in love – madly in love."
This was news to me. I hadn't looked for it and I didn't know where it might lead. I didn't have to hide my interest; he expected it, was gratified when he saw me open-mouthed. But he had to do a little more acting, and tapping on his wine glass with his forefinger said languid to the waiter:
"Fill it up – the lady won't take any." Then, his eyes following the smoke rings – "Nobody had an idea of it – nobody but me. I knew Harland better than many who considered themselves his friends."
"You knew him," it came out of me before I thought, or I'd never have put the accent on the "you" that way.
"I knew him well. He'd – er – taken rather a fancy to me."
I couldn't say anything – the man he'd killed! Fortunately he didn't notice me. The wine he'd taken was beginning to make him less sharp. Not that he was under the influence, but he was not so clear-headed and his natural vanity was coming up plainer every minute. He went on:
"I met him quite casually in the Black Eagle Building and then – well, something about me attracted him. Anyway we grew friendly – and – er – that's how I stumbled on his secret."
He inclined his head majestically:
"You can see how it was possible when I tell you the lady was Miss Whitehall."
Believe me I got a thrill! There was a second when I had to bite on my under lip to keep an exclamation from bursting out. This was something, something that no one had had a suspicion of, something that might lead – I couldn't follow it then – that time, what I had to do was to find out everything he knew.
"Are you sure?" I breathed out incredulous.
"Perfectly. He was daffy about her."
"You just guessed it?"
He suddenly wheeled in his chair and looked at me, with that same piercing, almost fierce look I'd seen before. The wine he'd been drinking showed red in his face, and in his manner there was a roughness that was new.
"Of course I guessed it. A man like Harland doesn't go round tellingyou he's in love. But I'm a pretty sharp chap. Many things don't escape me. He didn't have to tell me. I was on the spot and I saw."
Why didn't Iola see? She was on the spot too and when it came to romance no man that breathes has anything on Iola. I ventured as carefully as if I was walking on the subway tracks, and didn't know which was the third rail.
"He tried to keep it a secret?"
"Oh, he tried and I guess he did except from little Tony."
"What did she feel – Miss Whitehall – about him?"
"Not the way he did."
"Perhaps there was someone else?"
A meaning look came over his face and he said softly:
"Perhaps there was."
I don't know whether it was an interest that stole into my voice without my knowledge or some instinct that warned him, but suddenly he pulled himself up. The lounging swagger dropped from him, and he gave me a look from under his eyebrows, sullen and questioning. Then like a big animal, restless and uneasy, he glanced over the littered-up table, pushing his napkin in among the glasses and muttering something about the wine. I didn't want him to know I was watching and hunted in my lap for my gloves. But to say I was keen isn't the word, for I could see into him as if his chest was plate glass and what I saw was that he was scared he'd said too much.
"How should I know?" he suddenly exclaimed, as if there'd been no pause. "I don't know anything about Miss Whitehall. Just happening to be round in the office I caught on to Harland's infatuation. Anyone would. She may have a dozen strings to her bow for all I know or care." He gave me an investigating look – how was I taking it? – and I smiled innocently back. That reassured him and he twisted round in his chair, snapping his fingers at the waiter, "Here, lively – my bill. Don't keep us waiting all night."
The waiter who'd been hovering round watching us eating through those layers of food darted off like a dog freed from the leash. Mr. Ford subsided back into his chair. He was more at ease, but not all right yet as his words proved.
"Don't you go quoting me, now, as having said anything about Harland and Miss Whitehall. He's in his grave, poor chap, and I don't like to figure as having talked over his private affairs. Doesn't look well, you know."
"Sure," I said comfortably. "I'm on."
My gloves were buttoned and my veil down. Mr. Ford, leaning his elbows on the table, was looking at me with what he thought was a romantic gaze, long and deep. In my opinion he looked like a fool – men mostly do when they're trying to be sentimental on a heavy meal. But I wasn't worrying about that. What was engaging me was how I could shake him without telling him who I was or where I lived. In the first excitement of corralling him I'd never thought of it. Now the result of my rash act was upon me. If you ever dine with a murderer, take my advice – when you start in lay your pipes for getting out.
As we waited for that bill I was as uncomfortable as if I had to pay it. Suppose I couldn't escape and he followed me home? Babbitts would be like the mad elephant in the Zoo, and from what I knew of Tony Ford he might draw a pistol and make me a widow.
"Have you enjoyed your dinner, little one?" said he, soft and slushy.
"Fine!" I answered, pulling my coat off the chair back.
"We've got to be good friends, haven't we?"
"Pals," I said.
"Don't you think we know each other well enough for you to tell me your name?"
"They say there's a great charm about the unknown," I answered. "And I want to be as charming as it's possible with the restrictions nature's put upon me."
"You don't need any extra trimmings," said he. "You might as well tell me, for I can always find out at the Black Eagle Building."
Could he? I was Miss Morgenthau there, and today was positively my last appearance. If I could get away from him now I was safe from his ever finding me.
The waiter brought the bill with murmurings that it was to be paid at the desk. We rose, Mr. Ford feeling in his pocket, the waiter trying to look listless, as if money was no treat to him. I moved across the room and reconnoitered. The desk, with a fat gray-haired woman sitting behind it, was close by the door that led into the hall. Several people were out there putting on coats and hats and jabbering together in a foreign lingo. I sauntered carelessly through the doorway, seeing, out of the tail of my eye, Mr. Ford put down a twenty-dollar bill on the counter. The gray-haired woman began to pull out little drawers and make change. One of the people in the hall opened the front door and they began filing out. I went with them, slow on their heels at first, then fast, dodging between them, then like a streak down the steps to the sidewalk and up the street.
It was an awful place to hide in – all lights and show windows; a fish might as well try to conceal itself in a parlor aquarium. There wasn't a niche that you could have squeezed a cat into and I had to get somewhere. Suddenly I saw a narrow flight of stairs with a large set of teeth hanging over them and up that I went, stumbling on my skirt till I reached a landing and flattened back against the dentist's door. It was locked or I would have gone in, so scared I was of that man – gone in, and if the price of concealment had been a set of false teeth I make no doubt I'd have ordered them.
After a while I ventured down, took a look out and stole away, dodging along dark side streets and round corners with my muff up against my face, till I struck a cab stand. Not a word came out of me till I was safe inside a taxi, and then I almost whispered my address to the chauffeur.
As we sped along I quieted down and began to think – going over what he'd said, connecting things up. And as I thought, bouncing round in that empty vehicle like one small pea in a pod that was too big, I saw it plainer and plainer, as if one veil after another was being lifted. Harland was in love with her – she'd not gone down in the elevator – she'd stayed there! she'd been there! She'd —
We went over a chuck hole and I bounced up nearly to the roof, but the smothered cry that came from me wasn't because of that. It was because Isaw– the whole thing was as clear as daylight. She'd been the lure that brought him to the Azalea Woods Estates, she'd been the person that kept him in the front office while Barker came down from the story above!