CHAPTER XII

MY COMMISSION

When I came to, I was lying in darkness, and the stillness was absolute. When I tried to move, I found I was practically a prisoner: I had fallen into an air shaft, or something of the kind. I could not move my arms, where they were pinioned to my sides, and I was half-lying, half-crouching, in a semi-vertical position. I worked one arm loose and managed to make out that my prison was probably the dumb-waiter shaft to the basement kitchen.

I had landed on top of the slide, and I seemed to be tied in a knot. The revolver was under me, and if it had exploded during the fall it had done no damage. I can hardly imagine a more unpleasant position. If the man I had been following had so chosen, he could have made away with me in any one of a dozen unpleasant ways—he could have filled me as full of holes as a sieve, or scalded me, or done anything, pretty much, that he chose. But nothing happened. The house was impressively quiet.

I had fallen feet first, evidently, and then crumpled up unconscious, for one of my ankles was throbbing. It was some time before I could stand erect, and even by reaching, I could not touch the doorway above me. It must have taken five minutes for my confused senses to remember the wire cable, and to tug at it. I was a heavy load for the slide, accustomed to nothing weightier than political dinners, but with much creaking I got myself at last to the floor above, and stepped out, still into darkness, but free.

I still held the revolver, and I lighted the whole lower floor. But I found nothing in the dining-room or the pantry. Everything was locked and in good order. A small alcove off the library came next; it was undisturbed, but a tabouret lay on its side, and a half dozen books had been taken from a low book-case, and lay heaped on a chair. In the library, however, everything was confusion. Desk drawers stood open—one of the linen shades had been pulled partly off its roller, a chair had been drawn up to the long mahogany table in the center of the room, with the electric dome overhead, and everywhere, on chairs, over the floor, heaped in stacks on the table, were papers.

After searching the lower floor, and finding everything securely locked, I went up-stairs, convinced the intruder was still in the house. I made a systematic search of every room, looking into closets and under beds. Several times I had an impression, as I turned a corner, that some one was just ahead of me, but I was always disappointed. I gave up at last, and, going down to the library, made myself as comfortable as I could, and waited for morning.

I heard Bella coming down the stairs, after seven sometime; she came slowly, with flagging footsteps, as if the slightest sound would send her scurrying to the upper regions again. A little later I heard her rattling the range in the basement kitchen, and I went up-stairs and dressed.

I was too tired to have a theory about the night visitor; in fact, from that time on, I tried to have no theories of any kind. I was impressed with only one thing—that the enemy or enemies of the late Allan Fleming evidently carried their antagonism beyond the grave. As I put on my collar I wondered how long I could stay in this game, as I now meant to, and avoid lying in state in Edith's little drawing-room, with flowers around and a gentleman in black gloves at the door.

I had my ankle strapped with adhesive that morning by my doctor and it gave me no more trouble. But I caught him looking curiously at the blue bruise on my forehead where Wardrop had struck me with the chair, and at my nose, no longer swollen, but mustard-yellow at the bridge.

"Been doing any boxing lately," he said, as I laced up my shoe.

"Not for two or three years."

"New machine?"

"No."

He smiled at me quizzically from his desk.

"How does the other fellow look?" he inquired, and to my haltingly invented explanation of my battered appearance, he returned the same enigmatical smile.

That day was uneventful. Margery and Edith came to the house for about an hour and went back to Fred's again.

A cousin of the dead man, an elderly bachelor named Parker, appeared that morning and signified his willingness to take charge of the house during that day. The very hush of his voice and his black tie prompted Edith to remove Margery from him as soon as she could, and as the girl dreaded the curious eyes of the crowd that filled the house, she was glad to go.

It was Sunday, and I went to the office only long enough to look over my mail. I dined in the middle of the day at Fred's, and felt heavy and stupid all afternoon as a result of thus reversing the habits of the week. In the afternoon I had my first conversation with Fred and Edith, while Margery and the boys talked quietly in the nursery. They had taken a great fancy to her, and she was almost cheerful when she was with them.

Fred had the morning papers around him on the floor, and was in his usual Sunday argumentative mood.

"Well," he said, when the nursery door up-stairs had closed, "what was it, Jack? Suicide?"

"I don't know," I replied bluntly.

"What do you think?" he insisted.

"How can I tell?" irritably. "The police say it was suicide, and they ought to know."

"The Times-Post says it was murder, and that they will prove it. And they claim the police have been called off."

I said nothing of Mr. Lightfoot, and his visit to the office, but I made a mental note to see the Times-Post people and learn, if I could, what they knew.

"I can not help thinking that he deserved very nearly what he got," Edith broke in, looking much less vindictive than her words. "When one thinks of the ruin he brought to poor Henry Butler, and that Ellen has been practically an invalid ever since, I can't be sorry for him."

"What was the Butler story?" I asked. But Fred did not know, and Edith was as vague as women usually are in politics.

"Henry Butler was treasurer of the state, and Mr. Fleming was his cashier. I don't know just what the trouble was. But you remember that Henry Butler killed himself after he got out of the penitentiary, and Ellen has been in one hospital after another. I would like to have her come here for a few weeks, Fred," she said appealingly. "She is in some sanatorium or other now, and we might cheer her a little."

Fred groaned.

"Have her if you like, petty," he said resignedly, "but I refuse to be cheerful unless I feel like it. What about this young Wardrop, Jack? It looks to me as if the Times-Post reporter had a line on him."

"Hush," Edith said softly. "He is Margery's fiancé, and she might hear you."

"How do you know?" Fred demanded. "Did she tell you?"

"Look at her engagement ring," Edith threw back triumphantly. "And it's a perfectly beautiful solitaire, too."

I caught Fred's eye on me, and the very speed with which he shifted his gaze made me uncomfortable. I made my escape as soon as I could, on the plea of going out to Bellwood, and in the hall up-stairs I met Margery.

"I saw Bella to-day," she said. "Mr. Knox, will you tell me why you stayed up last night? What happened in the house?"

"I—thought I heard some one in the library," I stammered, "but I found no one."

"Is that all the truth or only part of it?" she asked. "Why do men always evade issues with a woman?" Luckily, woman-like, she did not wait for a reply. She closed the nursery door and stood with her hand on the knob, looking down.

"I wonder what you believe about all this," she said. "Do you think my father—killed himself? You were there; you know. If some one would only tell me everything!"

It seemed to me it was her right to know. The boys were romping noisily in the nursery. Down-stairs Fred and Edith were having their Sunday afternoon discussion of what in the world had become of the money from Fred's latest book. Margery and I sat down on the stairs, and, as well as I could remember the details, I told her what had happened at the White Cat. She heard me through quietly.

"And so the police have given up the case!" she said despairingly. "And if they had not, Harry would have been arrested. Is there nothing I can do? Do I have to sit back with my hands folded?"

"The police have not exactly given up the case," I told her, "but there is such a thing, of course, as stirring up a lot of dust and then running to cover like blazes before it settles. By the time the public has wiped it out of its eyes and sneezed it out of its nose and coughed it out of its larynx, the dust has settled in a heavy layer, clues are obliterated, and the public lifts its skirts and chooses another direction. The 'no thoroughfare' sign is up."

She sat there for fifteen minutes, interrupted by occasional noisy excursions from the nursery, which resulted in her acquiring by degrees a lapful of broken wheels, three-legged horses and a live water beetle which the boys had found under the kitchen sink and imprisoned in a glass topped box, where, to its bewilderment, they were assiduously offering it dead and mangled flies. But our last five minutes were undisturbed, and the girl brought out with an effort the request she had tried to make all day.

"Whoever killed my father—and it was murder, Mr. Knox—whoever did it is going free to save a scandal. All my—friends"—she smiled bitterly—"are afraid of the same thing. But I can not sit quiet and think nothing can be done. I must know, and you are the only one who seems willing to try to find out."

So it was, that, when I left the house a half hour later, I was committed. I had been commissioned by the girl I loved—for it had come to that—to clear her lover of her father's murder, and so give him back to her—not in so many words, but I was to follow up the crime, and the rest followed. And I was morally certain of two things—first, that her lover was not worthy of her, and second, and more to the point, that innocent or guilty, he was indirectly implicated in the crime.

I had promised her also to see Miss Letitia that day if I could, and I turned over the events of the preceding night as I walked toward the station, but I made nothing of them. One thing occurred to me, however. Bella had told Margery that I had been up all night. Could Bella—? But I dismissed the thought as absurd—Bella, who had scuttled to bed in a panic of fright, would never have dared the lower floor alone, and Bella, given all the courage in the world, could never have moved with the swiftness and light certainty of my midnight prowler. It had not been Bella.

But after all I did not go to Bellwood. I met Hunter on my way to the station, and he turned around and walked with me.

"So you've lain down on the case!" I said, when we had gone a few steps without speaking.

He grumbled something unintelligible and probably unrepeatable.

"Of course," I persisted, "being a simple and uncomplicated case of suicide, there was nothing in it anyhow. If it had been a murder, under peculiar circumstances—"

He stopped and gripped my arm.

"For ten cents," he said gravely, "I would tell the chief and a few others what I think of them. And then I'd go out and get full."

"Not on ten cents!"

"I'm going out of the business," he stormed. "I'm going to drive a garbage wagon: it's cleaner than this job. Suicide! I never saw a cleaner case of—" He stopped suddenly. "Do you know Burton—of the Times-Post?"

"No: I've heard of him."

"Well, he's your man. They're dead against the ring, and Burton's been given the case. He's as sharp as a steel trap. You two get together."

He paused at a corner. "Good-by," he said dejectedly. "I'm off to hunt some boys that have been stealing milk bottles. That's about my size, these days." He turned around, however, before he had gone many steps and came back.

"Wardrop has been missing since yesterday afternoon," he said. "That is, he thinks he's missing. We've got him all right."

I gave up my Bellwood visit for the time, and taking a car down-town, I went to the Times-Post office. The Monday morning edition was already under way, as far as the staff was concerned, and from the waiting-room I could see three or four men, with their hats on, most of them rattling typewriters. Burton came in in a moment, a red-haired young fellow, with a short thick nose and a muggy skin. He was rather stocky in build, and the pugnacity of his features did not hide the shrewdness of his eyes.

I introduced myself, and at my name his perfunctory manner changed.

"Knox!" he said. "I called you last night over the 'phone."

"Can't we talk in a more private place?" I asked, trying to raise my voice above the confusion of the next room. In reply he took me into a tiny office, containing a desk and two chairs, and separated by an eight-foot partition from the other room.

"This is the best we have," he explained cheerfully. "Newspapers are agents of publicity, not privacy—if you don't care what you say."

I liked Burton. There was something genuine about him; after Wardrop's kid-glove finish, he was a relief.

"Hunter, of the detective bureau, sent me here," I proceeded, "about the Fleming case."

He took out his note-book. "You are the fourth to-day," he said. "Hunter himself, Lightfoot from Plattsburg, and McFeely here in town. Well, Mr. Knox, are you willing now to put yourself on record that Fleming committed suicide?"

"No," I said firmly. "It is my belief that he was murdered."

"And that the secretary fellow, what's his name?—Wardrop?—that he killed him?"

"Possibly."

In reply Burton fumbled in his pocket and brought up a pasteboard box, filled with jeweler's cotton. Underneath was a small object, which he passed to me with care.

"I got it from the coroner's physician, who performed the autopsy," he said casually. "You will notice that it is a thirty-two, and that the revolver they took from Wardrop was a thirty-eight. Question, where's the other gun?"

I gave him back the bullet, and he rolled it around on the palm of his hand.

"Little thing, isn't it?" he said. "We think we're lords of creation, until we see a quarter-inch bichloride tablet, or a bit of lead like this. Look here." He dived into his pocket again and drew out a roll of ordinary brown paper. When he opened it a bit of white chalk fell on the desk.

"Look at that," he said dramatically. "Kill an army with it, and they'd never know what struck them. Cyanide of potassium—and the druggist that sold it ought to be choked."

"Where did it come from?" I asked curiously. Burton smiled his cheerful smile.

"It's a beautiful case, all around," he said, as he got his hat. "I haven't had any Sunday dinner yet, and it's five o'clock. Oh—the cyanide? Clarkson, the cashier of the bank Fleming ruined, took a bite off that corner right there, this morning."

"Clarkson!" I exclaimed. "How is he?"

"God only knows," said Burton gravely, from which I took it Clarkson was dead.

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