Final Proof: or, The Value of Evidence
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"And you say you have thwarted this man's purpose?"
"Yes; absolutely. Of course, that tale of his makes me sympathize with him, but the law does not grant a man the right to murder even when a wife is stolen. Certainly not after the lapse of five years."
"I should think that the author of that document would be a man who would carefully plan whatever scheme he might have decided upon, and if you have really thwarted him, then you have been very clever. Very clever, indeed. How was it?"
"To explain that," replied Mr. Barnes, "I must begin by telling you of the visit of this man who calls himself Odell. You will note that the Texan says that his adversary 'will explain,' etc. Thus he evidently intended his communication to reach me before the visit of my client. But it was otherwise. Mr. Odell, as we must call him, came here two days ago, whereas that communication did not reach me until yesterday morning."
"Did this man Odell tell you the same story as that sent to you by the Texan?"
"Essentially the same, yet differing materially in some of the details. He came into my office in a very nervous, excited frame of mind, and even after I had asked him to be seated and to state his business he seemed half inclined to go away. However, he finally concluded to confide his trouble to me, though he began the conversation in a singular manner.
"'I hardly know,' said he, 'whether you can help me or not. Your business is to detect crimes after they have been committed, is it not?'
"'It is,' said I.
"'I wonder,' said he, 'whether you could prevent a crime?'
"'That would depend much upon the circumstances and the nature of the crime.'
"'Let us say that a murder was contemplated. Do you think you might be able to prevent it?'
"'Do you know who is threatened? Who is the person to be murdered?'
"'Yourself? Tell me the circumstances which lead you to believe that such a danger threatens you.'
"'The circumstances are peculiar. I suppose I must tell you the whole miserable story. Well, so be it. Some years ago I went into one of the southern states, it matters not which, and there I met a young girl with whom I fell madly in love. There is nothing out of the common about the story except as regards her guardian. I suppose that is what he would be called. This man was quite a wealthy ranchman, and it seems that he had found the girl when an infant, on the open plains. He took her home, and raised her. Of course he grew fond of her, but the fool forgot that he was twenty years older than herself and fell in love with her. Consequently I knew that it would be useless to ask his consent to our marriage, so we eloped.'"
"That is a different version," interrupted Mr. Mitchel.
"Very different," said Mr. Barnes. "But when I heard it, it was the only version known to me. I asked him how long a time had passed since the elopement, and he replied:
"'Five years.I married the girl of course, and we have been living until recently up the Hudson. A month ago she died, and in grief I followed her body to the grave. The last sod had just been placed on the mound, when looking up I saw the man, the guardian, let us call him, standing glaring at me in a threatening manner. I was startled, and as a moment later he seemingly disappeared, I was inclined to believe that it had been merely a trick of the mind. This seemed not improbable, for if the man harbored any ill-will, why had he not sought me out before?'
"'Perhaps he did not know where to find you,' I suggested.
"'Yes, he did. I know that, because my wife told me that she wrote to him once. But it was not imagination, for that same night he came to my house, and coolly informed me that now that the girl was dead, there was nothing to delay longer his purpose to take my life.'
"'He told you this openly?'
"'He made the announcement as calmly as though he were talking of slaying one of his steers. I don't know why, for I am not a coward, but a terrible fear seized me. I seemed to realize that it would be useless for me to make any resistance; whether he chose to take my life at that moment or later, it seemed to me that I could and would make no effort to save myself. In fact, I imagine I felt like a man in a trance, or it might be in a dream-disturbed sleep wherein, while passing through dreadful experiences, and wishing that some one might arouse me, yet I myself was powerless to awaken.'
"'Perhaps the man had hypnotized you.'
"'Oh, no. I don't make any such nonsensical claim as that. I was simply terrified, that is all, – I who have never known fear before. Worse than all, I have not for an instant since been able to escape from my feeling of helpless terror. He talked to me in the quietest tone of voice. He told me that he had known of my whereabouts all the time, and that he had spared me just so long as the girl was happy; that so long as her happiness depended upon my living, just so long had he permitted me to live. Throughout the interview he spoke of my life as though it belonged to him; just as though, as I said before, I might have been one of his cattle. It was awful.'
"'Did he say when or how he would murder you?'
"'He did worse than that. He did the most diabolical thing that the mind of man could conceive. He explained to me that he considered me in his debt, and that the debt could only be cancelled with my life. And then he had the horrible audacity to ask me to give him a written acknowledgment to that effect.'
"'How? I do not understand.'
"'He drew out a large sheet of paper on which were some written words, and handed me the paper to read. This is what I saw: "On or before the thirtieth day from this date I promise to pay my debt to the holder of this paper."'
"'How very extraordinary!'
"'Extraordinary! Nothing like this has ever occurred in all the world. The man asked me practically to give him a thirty-day note to be paid with my life. Worse than that, I gave it to him.'
"'You gave it to him! What do you mean?'
"'At his dictation I copied those words on a similar sheet that he furnished, and I signed the hellish document. Don't ask me why I did it. I don't know, unless in my terror and despair I thought at the moment only of getting rid of my visitor, and of gaining even the short respite that here seemed held out to me. At all events I wrote the thing, and he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket with a satanic smile. Then he rose to go, but further explained to me that as the note said "on or before" thirty days, he would feel at liberty to conclude the matter at his own pleasure. This doubled the horror of the situation. What he said next, however, seemed to offer a ray of hope, if hope might be sought under such circumstances. He told me that if I could by any means manage to live beyond the limitations of the note, he would return the paper to me to be burned, and in that case I might consider the matter terminated.'
"'Why, then, he did give you one chance of living.'
"'I have tried to make myself think so. But as I have thought it over, sometimes I imagine that there is merely an added deviltry in this, – that he held out this hope only to intensify my sufferings; for total despair might have led me to suicide, thus shortening the period of my mental agony. If this was his purpose, he succeeded only too well. A dozen times I have been on the verge of blowing my brains out to abbreviate the torture, when the thought has come to me that as another day had passed finding me still alive, so might the remaining ones; that I might escape after all. So I have lived and entered another day of torment.'
"'But why have you allowed this affair to so prey upon your mind?'
"'Allowed it? How could I have escaped from it? You do not know the expedients of that fiend. I will tell you a few of the things that have made it impossible for me to forget. In the first place, every morning I have received a postal-card on which would appear some figures, – "30 minus 1 equals 29," – "30 minus 2 equals 28," – "30 minus 3 equals 27," and so on. Can you imagine my feelings this morning when the card was placed in my hand on which I found "30 minus 28 equals 2"?'
"'But why have you read these cards?'
"'Why? Why does the bird go to the snake that devours it? The cards have exerted a fascination for me. In my mail I would look first to see if one were there. Finding it, I would read it over and over, though of course I would know in advance the ghoulish calculation that would be there. But this is not all. On the third day I was about to smoke a cigar, when its peculiar shape attracted my attention. I looked at it a long time stupidly, and then broke it in half. Inside I found a slender metal tube, which later I discovered was filled with some horribly explosive preparation. I do not think that any other cigar of that nature has reached me. But, my suspicions once aroused, I began opening my cigars, to make sure, and in this manner, of course, they were rendered useless. Why, I have been suspicious even of cigars offered to me by some of my best friends. The more cordial the presentation, the more certain I have felt that the man might be in the plot against me. So I have been obliged to forego smoking, a great trial, as you may imagine, in such a condition of mind as I have been in, when a sedative would have been so acceptable.'
"'You might have used cigarettes,' suggested the detective.
"'Cigarettes? It seemed so at first. Of course not those ready-made, but I might make them for myself. I made one. Just one! I rolled it, using paper and tobacco that had been in my own room for over a month. When I applied a match the thing sizzled like a firecracker. Whether or not some powder had been dropped into my tobacco, I do not know. Undoubtedly I could have obtained fresh tobacco and fresh paper, and thus have enjoyed the longed-for smoke. But I tell you I have been unable to think these things out. I have been as feeble-minded as any imbecile. For a few days I obtained a little consolation out of liquor, but one night after taking a drink I thought I noticed a sediment in the bottom of the glass. I looked at it closer, and there it was. A whitish powder. Undoubtedly arsenic.'
"'Why not sugar?' said Mr. Barnes.
"'I don't know. That never occurred to me. Perhaps it was. At all events I have not had a drop of anything since, except water. No tea, no coffee, no liquor that might hide a poison. Only clear water, drawn from the hydrant with my own hands, into a cup that I carried about my person, and washed out before every draught. I was determined that he should not poison me except by poisoning the reservoir. This necessitated adopting a plan for eating that would be equally safe. So I have taken to eating at restaurants, a different one for every meal.'
"'You have allowed yourself to become morbid on this subject. I should not be surprised if this man really has no intention of committing this murder, but has taken this means of having revenge, by causing you a month of mental suffering.'
"'I hardly think that. He has made several efforts to kill me already.'
"'In what manner?'
"'Well, twice, in my own house, I was shot at from without. I heard the report of a pistol each time, and a ball passed close to me and entered the wall at my side. After the second attempt I decided to change my place of abode, and took a room at my club. The room had but one window, and that opened on the interior court. I was particular that it should not be exposed to the street. For several days nothing happened; then one night, just as I was putting out my gas, and consequently standing by the window, again I heard a pistol shot, and another bullet whistled past me, all too close. The odd thing was that though I had an immediate investigation made, it is certain that my enemy was not in the building.'
"'In that case, the shot must have come in accidentally. Some one opposite was probably handling his pistol and carelessly touched the trigger, causing the explosion. Naturally, when he found that you had nearly been shot, he chose not to make any explanations.'
"'However that may be, I thought it best to move again. This time I found a room in a hotel, where the only ventilation is from a skylight opening upon the roof. In there at least I have felt safe from intruding bullets. But I am disturbed by the regularity with which those postal-cards come to me. The address has always been changed as I have moved from one place to another.'
"'Evidently your man keeps an eye upon you.'
"'Very evidently, though I have never set eyes upon him since his visit on the night when he made me give him that diabolically conceived promissory note. Now that is the story. Can you do anything for me?'
"'Let me see; according to the calculation on the card that reached you this morning there are still two days of respite?'
"'Not of respite. There is no respite from my torture till the end comes, be that what it may. But there are two days remaining of the thirty.'
"That was the problem, Mr. Mitchel," said Mr. Barnes, "which I was called upon to solve. Bearing in mind that I had not yet received the other man's communication, you will, of course, concede that it was my duty to endeavor to save this man?"
"Undoubtedly. It was your duty to save the man under any circumstances. We should always prevent crime where we can. The question here was rather how you might be able to accomplish this."
"How would you have proceeded, had the case been in your care?"
"Oh, no, Mr. Barnes," said Mr. Mitchel, laughing. "You cannot be allowed to get my advice after the affair is over. I must come in as principal or spectator. In this instance I am merely a spectator."
"Very well. As you please. My plan, I think, was as ingenious as it was simple. It was evident to me either that we had to deal with a man who did not intend to kill his victim, in which case any course would save him; or else the affair might be serious. If the man really was plotting murder, the affair occupying so long a time was unquestionably premeditated and thoroughly well planned. Whatever the scheme, it was equally obvious that we could not hope to fathom it. The blow, if it should come, would be swift and sure. Consequently but one course lay before us."
"And that was?"
"To remove our man to such a place of safety that the blow, however well conceived, could not by any possibility reach him."
"Ah, well argued! And could you find such a place?"
"Yes. A private room in a safe-deposit vault."
"Not bad. Not half bad. And you did this?"
"Without delay. I explained my purpose to the officers of one of these institutions, and before another hour had passed I had Mr. Odell 'safely deposited,' where none could reach him except myself."
"Of course you supplied him with eatables?"
"Yes, indeed, and liquor and cigars beside. Poor fellow! How he must have enjoyed his cigars! When I visited him yesterday, on opening the door of his room he looked like a spectre in a fog. Now I must further remind you that I put Mr. Odell in this safety-vault before receiving the letter from the Texan, firmly believing at the time that we were taking unnecessary precautions. After reading the Texan's story I altered my mind, becoming convinced that any other course would have been fatal. Indeed so impressed was I with the determination of this man to have Mr. Odell's life, that though I had the intended victim absolutely safe, still I felt it my duty to make assurance doubly sure, by remaining at the vault myself throughout the rest of the final twenty-four hours, which terminated at noon to-day."
"Then you released your prisoner?"
"I did, and a happier man than he you never saw. He stood out in the open air and took a long breath as eagerly as a drunkard drinks his tipple."
"And then what?"
"Why, then we separated. He said he would go to his hotel for a good sleep, for he had little rest in that vault."
"And that, you think, ends the case?"
A quizzical tone in Mr. Mitchel's voice attracted Mr. Barnes's keen sense of hearing, and, slightly disturbed, he said:
"Why, yes. What do you think?"
"I think I would like to go to that man's hotel, and I think we cannot get there too quickly."
"Why, what do you mean? Explain."
"I cannot explain. There is no time. Do not waste another minute, but let us go at once and call on your client."
Mystified, Mr. Barnes jumped up, and the two men hurried out of the building and up Broadway. They had only a few blocks to walk, and were soon in the elevator of the hotel ascending to the top floor where was that room whose only communication with the outer world was a skylight. Reaching the door, Mr. Barnes tried the knob, but the door was locked. He knocked first lightly and then more violently, but there was no response.
"It is useless, Mr. Barnes," said Mr. Mitchel. "We must break in the door, and I fear we may be too late."
"Too late?" said Mr. Barnes, wonderingly; but without losing more time throwing his weight against the door it yielded and flew in. The two men and the hall-boy entered, and pointing to the floor where lay the body of a man, Mr. Mitchel said:
"See! we are too late."
They lifted the man to the bed, and hastily summoned medical aid, but he was dead. While the hall-boy was gone to call the doctor, Mr. Barnes ruefully said:
"This is incomprehensible to me. After reading that Texan's letter, I was so assured that however vengeful he might be, still he was an honorable man, that I felt positive he would keep his word, and that this man would be safe at the expiration of the note."
"You were entirely right in your estimate of the Texan's character, Mr. Barnes. Your fatal error was in regard to the expiration of the note."
"Why, the thirty days expired at noon to-day."
"Very true. But you have overlooked the usual three days' grace!"
"Just so; the devil, – in this instance the devil being the Texan. Ordinarily the extra three days is an extension demanded by the maker of the note, but in this instance it has been utilized by the deviser of the scheme, who, knowing that his man would be on guard during the thirty days, misled him by a promise of safety thereafter. But he did more than that."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, how has he accomplished his purpose? How has he killed this man up here in a locked room, which has no window through which a bullet might be fired?"
"I do not know; that is another puzzle to be solved."
"I have already solved it. The promissory note is the vehicle of his vengeance, – the means by which the opportunity was obtained, and the means by which the end has been consummated. You will recall that Odell told you that the Texan promised that if he should live beyond the limitation of the note it would be returned so that he might burn it, and he might then consider the matter terminated. These were very suggestive words, and have wrought this man ruin. Evidently soon after he reached this hotel, feeling that at last he had escaped his threatened doom, an envelope was sent up to him, which contained the so-called promissory note. It being too dark in here to read, he lighted his gas. The reception of this paper caused him satisfaction because it seemed to show that his adversary was keeping faith. It had been suggested to him that he might 'burn' the note, and so 'terminate' the affair. Therefore he set fire to the paper, which evidently had been charged with an explosive substance. The explosion not only stunned if it did not kill the man, but it extinguished the gas, leaving the jet open, so that if not destroyed by the explosive he certainly must have been asphyxiated by the escaping gas. Here on the floor is a bit of the paper, and we can still see a few of the words which we know were contained in the promissory note. Then there is the gas turned on, while it is still daylight without. Am I right?"
"Unquestionably," said Mr. Barnes. "What a diabolical scheme from conception to the final act! But suppose that Mr. Odell had not burned that paper? Then the scheme must have failed."
"Not at all. You still overlook the three days of grace, of which but a few hours have yet expired."
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