CHAPTER XIII

SIZZLING METAL

Burton listened while he ate, and his cheerful comments were welcome enough after the depression of the last few days. I told him, after some hesitation, the whole thing, beginning with the Maitland pearls and ending with my drop down the dumb-waiter. I knew I was absolutely safe in doing so: there is no person to whom I would rather tell a secret than a newspaper man. He will go out of his way to keep it: he will lock it in the depths of his bosom, and keep it until seventy times seven. Also, you may threaten the rack or offer a larger salary, the seal does not come off his lips until the word is given. If then he makes a scarehead of it, and gets in three columns of space and as many photographs, it is his just reward.

So—I told Burton everything, and he ate enough beefsteak for two men, and missed not a word I said.

"The money Wardrop had in the grip—that's easy enough explained," he said. "Fleming used the Borough Bank to deposit state funds in. He must have known it was rotten: he and Clarkson were as thick as thieves. According to a time-honored custom in our land of the brave and home of the free, a state treasurer who is crooked can, in such a case, draw on such a bank without security, on his personal note, which is usually worth its value by the pound as old paper."

"And Fleming did that?"

"He did. Then things got bad at the Borough Bank. Fleming had had to divide with Schwartz and the Lord only knows who all, but it was Fleming who had to put in the money to avert a crash—the word crash being synonymous with scandal in this case. He scrapes together a paltry hundred thousand, which Wardrop gets at the capital, and brings on. Wardrop is robbed, or says he is: the bank collapses and Clarkson, driven to the wall, kills himself, just after Fleming is murdered. What does that sound like?"

"Like Clarkson!" I exclaimed. "And Clarkson knew Fleming was hiding at the White Cat!"

"Now, then, take the other theory," he said, pushing aside his cup. "Wardrop goes in to Fleming with a story that he has been robbed: Fleming gets crazy and attacks him. All that is in the morning—Friday. Now, then—Wardrop goes back there that night. Within twenty minutes after he enters the club he rushes out, and when Hunter follows him, he says he is looking for a doctor, to get cocaine for a gentleman up-stairs. He is white and trembling. They go back together, and find you there, and Fleming dead. Wardrop tells two stories: first he says Fleming committed suicide just before he left. Then he changes it and says he was dead when he arrived there. He produces the weapon with which Fleming is supposed to have killed himself, and which, by the way, Miss Fleming identified yesterday as her father's. But there are two discrepancies. Wardrop practically admitted that he had taken that revolver from Fleming, not that night, but the morning before, during the quarrel."

"And the other discrepancy?"

"The bullet. Nobody ever fired a thirty-two bullet out of a thirty-eight caliber revolver—unless he was trying to shoot a double-compound curve. Now, then, who does it look like?"

"Like Wardrop," I confessed. "By Jove, they didn't both do it."

"And he didn't do it himself for two good reasons: he had no revolver that night, and there were no powder marks."

"And the eleven twenty-two, and Miss Maitland's disappearance?"

He looked at me with his quizzical smile.

"I'll have to have another steak, if I'm to settle that," he said. "I can only solve one murder on one steak. But disappearances are my specialty; perhaps, if I have a piece of pie and some cheese—"

But I got him away at last, and we walked together down the street.

"I can't quite see the old lady in it," he confessed. "She hadn't any grudge against Fleming, had she? Wouldn't be likely to forget herself temporarily and kill him?"

"Good Lord!" I said. "Why, she's sixty-five, and as timid and gentle a little old lady as ever lived."

"Curls?" he asked, turning his bright blue eyes on me.

"Yes," I admitted.

"Wouldn't be likely to have eloped with the minister, or advertised for a husband, or anything like that?"

"You would have to know her to understand," I said resignedly. "But she didn't do any of those things, and she didn't run off to join a theatrical troupe. Burton, who do you think was in the Fleming house last night?"

"Lightfoot," he said succinctly.

He stopped under a street lamp and looked at his watch.

"I believe I'll run over to the capital to-night," he said. "While I'm gone—I'll be back to-morrow night or the next morning—I wish you would do two things. Find Rosie O'Grady, or whatever her name is, and locate Carter. That's probably not his name, but it will answer for a while. Then get your friend Hunter to keep him in sight for a while, until I come back anyhow. I'm beginning to enjoy this; it's more fun than a picture puzzle. We're going to make the police department look like a kindergarten playing jackstraws."

"And the second thing I am to do?"

"Go to Bellwood and find out a few things. It's all well enough to say the old lady was a meek and timid person, but if you want to know her peculiarities, go to her neighbors. When people leave the beaten path, the neighbors always know it before the families."

He stopped before a drug-store.

"I'll have to pack for my little jaunt," he said, and purchased a tooth-brush, which proved to be the extent of his preparations. We separated at the station, Burton to take his red hair and his tooth-brush to Plattsburg, I to take a taxicab, and armed with a page torn from the classified directory to inquire at as many of the twelve Anderson's drug-stores as might be necessary to locate Delia's gentleman friend, "the clerk," through him Delia, and through Delia, the mysterious Carter, "who was not really a butler."

It occurred to me somewhat tardily, that I knew nothing of Delia but her given name. A telephone talk with Margery was of little assistance: Delia had been a new maid, and if she had heard her other name, she had forgotten it.

I had checked off eight of the Andersons on my list, without result, and the taximeter showed something over nineteen dollars, when the driver drew up at the curb.

"Gentleman in the other cab is hailing you, sir," he said over his shoulder.

"The other cab?"

"The one that has been following us."

I opened the door and glanced behind. A duplicate of my cab stood perhaps fifty feet behind, and from it a familiar figure was slowly emerging, carrying on a high-pitched argument with the chauffeur. The figure stopped to read the taximeter, shook his fist at the chauffeur, and approached me, muttering audibly. It was Davidson.

"That liar and thief back there has got me rung up for nineteen dollars," he said, ignoring my amazement. "Nineteen dollars and forty cents! He must have the thing counting the revolutions of all four wheels!"

He walked around and surveyed my expense account, at the driver's elbow. Then he hit the meter a smart slap, but the figures did not change.

"Nineteen dollars!" he repeated dazed. "Nineteen dollars and—look here," he called to his driver, who had brought the cab close, "it's only thirty cents here. Your clock's ten cents fast."

"But how—" I began.

"You back up to nineteen dollars and thirty cents," he persisted, ignoring me. "If you'll back up to twelve dollars, I'll pay it. That's all I've got." Then he turned on me irritably. "Good heavens, man," he exclaimed, "do you mean to tell me you've been to eight drug-stores this Sunday evening and spent nineteen dollars and thirty cents, and haven't got a drink yet?"

"Do you think I'm after a drink?" I asked him. "Now look here, Davidson, I rather think you know what I am after. If you don't, it doesn't matter. But since you are coming along anyhow, pay your man off and come with me. I don't like to be followed."

He agreed without hesitation, borrowed eight dollars from me to augment his twelve and crawled in with me.

"The next address on the list is the right one," he said, as the man waited for directions. "I did the same round yesterday, but not being a plutocrat, I used the street-cars and my legs. And because you're a decent fellow and don't have to be chloroformed to have an idea injected, I'm going to tell you something. There were eleven roundsmen as well as the sergeant who heard me read the note I found at the Fleming house that night. You may have counted them through the window. A dozen plain-clothes men read it before morning. When the news of Mr. Fleming's mur—death came out, I thought this fellow Carter might know something, and I trailed Delia through this Mamie Brennan. When I got there I found Tom Brannigan and four other detectives sitting in the parlor, and Miss Delia, in a blue silk waist, making eyes at every mother's son of them."

I laughed in spite of my disappointment. Davidson leaned forward and closed the window at the driver's back. Then he squared around and faced me.

"Understand me, Mr. Knox," he said, "Mr. Fleming killed himself. You and I are agreed on that. Even if you aren't just convinced of it I'm telling you, and—better let it drop, sir," Under his quiet manner I felt a threat: it served to rouse me.

"I'll let it drop when I'm through with it," I asserted, and got out my list of addresses.

"You'll let it drop because it's too hot to hold," he retorted, with the suspicion of a smile. "If you are determined to know about Carter, I can tell you everything that is necessary."

The chauffeur stopped his engine with an exasperated jerk and settled down in his seat, every line of his back bristling with irritation.

"I prefer learning from Carter himself."

He leaned back in his seat and produced an apple from the pocket of his coat.

"You'll have to travel some to do it, son," he said. "Carter left for parts unknown last night, taking with him enough money to keep him in comfort for some little time."

"Until all this blows over," I said bitterly.

"The trip was for the benefit of his health. He has been suffering—and is still suffering, from a curious lapse of memory." Davidson smiled at me engagingly. "He has entirely forgotten everything that occurred from the time he entered Mr. Fleming's employment, until that gentleman left home. I doubt if he will ever recover."

With Carter gone, his retreat covered by the police, supplied with funds from some problematical source, further search for him was worse than useless. In fact, Davidson strongly intimated that it might be dangerous and would be certainly unpleasant. I yielded ungraciously and ordered the cab to take me home. But on the way I cursed my folly for not having followed this obvious clue earlier, and I wondered what this thing could be that Carter knew, that was at least surmised by various headquarters men, and yet was so carefully hidden from the world at large.

The party newspapers had come out that day with a signed statement from Mr. Fleming's physician in Plattsburg that he had been in ill health and inclined to melancholia for some time. The air was thick with rumors of differences with his party: the dust cloud covered everything; pretty soon it would settle and hide the tracks of those who had hurried to cover under its protection.

Davidson left me at a corner down-town. He turned to give me a parting admonition.

"There's an old axiom in the mills around here, 'never sit down on a piece of metal until you spit on it.' If it sizzles, don't sit." He grinned. "Your best position just now, young man, is standing, with your hands over your head. Confidentially, there ain't anything within expectorating distance just now that ain't pretty well het up."

He left me with that, and I did not see him again until the night at the White Cat, when he helped put me through the transom. Recently, however, I have met him several times. He invariably mentions the eight dollars and his intention of repaying it. Unfortunately, the desire and the ability have not yet happened to coincide.

I took the evening train to Bellwood, and got there shortly after eight, in the midst of the Sunday evening calm, and the calm of a place like Bellwood is the peace of death without the hope of resurrection.

I walked slowly up the main street, which was lined with residences; the town relegated its few shops to less desirable neighborhoods. My first intention had been to see the Episcopal minister, but the rectory was dark, and a burst of organ music from the church near reminded me again of the Sunday evening services.

Promiscuous inquiry was not advisable. So far, Miss Jane's disappearance was known to very few, and Hunter had advised caution. I wandered up the street and turned at random to the right; a few doors ahead a newish red brick building proclaimed itself the post-office, and gave the only sign of life in the neighborhood. It occurred to me that here inside was the one individual who, theoretically at least, in a small place always knows the idiosyncrasies of its people.

The door was partly open, for the spring night was sultry. The postmaster proved to be a one-armed veteran of the Civil War, and he was sorting rapidly the contents of a mail-bag, emptied on the counter.

"No delivery to-night," he said shortly. "Sunday delivery, two to three."

"I suppose, then, I couldn't get a dollar's worth of stamps," I regretted.

He looked up over his glasses.

"We don't sell stamps on Sunday nights," he explained, more politely. "But if you're in a hurry for them—"

"I am," I lied. And after he had got them out, counting them with a wrinkled finger, and tearing them off the sheet with the deliberation of age, I opened a general conversation.

"I suppose you do a good bit of business here?" I asked. "It seems like a thriving place."

"Not so bad; big mail here sometimes. First of the quarter, when bills are coming round, we have a rush, and holidays and Easter we've got to hire an express wagon."

It was when I asked him about his empty sleeve, however, and he had told me that he lost his arm at Chancellorsville, that we became really friendly When he said he had been a corporal in General Maitland's command, my path was one of ease.

"The Maitland ladies! I should say I do," he said warmly. "I've been fighting with Letitia Maitland as long as I can remember. That woman will scrap with the angel Gabriel at the resurrection, if he wakes her up before she's had her sleep out."

"Miss Jane is not that sort, is she?"

"Miss Jane? She's an angel—she is that. She could have been married a dozen times when she was a girl, but Letitia wouldn't have it. I was after her myself, forty-five years ago. This was the Maitland farm in those days, and my father kept a country store down where the railroad station is now."

"I suppose from that the Maitland ladies are wealthy."

"Wealthy! They don't know what they're worth—not that it matters a mite to Jane Maitland. She hasn't called her soul her own for so long that I guess the good Lord won't hold her responsible for it."

All of which was entertaining, but it was much like an old-fashioned see-saw; it kept going, but it didn't make much progress. But now at last we took a step ahead.

"It's a shameful thing," the old man pursued, "that a woman as old as Jane should have to get her letters surreptitiously. For more than a year now she's been coming here twice a week for her mail, and I've been keeping it for her. Rain or shine, Mondays and Thursdays, she's been coming, and a sight of letters she's been getting, too."

"Did she come last Thursday?" I asked over-eagerly. The postmaster, all at once, regarded me with suspicion.

"I don't know whether she did or not," he said coldly, and my further attempts to beguile him into conversation failed. I pocketed my stamps, and by that time his resentment at my curiosity was fading. He followed me to the door, and lowered his voice cautiously.

"Any news of the old lady?" he asked. "It ain't generally known around here that she's missing, but Heppie, the cook there, is a relation of my wife's."

"We have no news," I replied, "and don't let it get around, will you?"

He promised gravely.

"I was tellin' the missus the other day," he said, "that there is an old walled-up cellar under the Maitland place. Have you looked there?" He was disappointed when I said we had, and I was about to go when he called me back.

"Miss Jane didn't get her mail on Thursday, but on Friday that niece of hers came for it—two letters, one from the city and one from New York."

"Thanks," I returned, and went out into the quiet street.

I walked past the Maitland place, but the windows were dark and the house closed. Haphazard inquiry being out of the question, I took the ten o'clock train back to the city. I had learned little enough, and that little I was at a loss to know how to use. For why had Margery gone for Miss Jane's mail after the little lady was missing? And why did Miss Jane carry on a clandestine correspondence?

The family had retired when I got home except Fred, who called from his study to ask for a rhyme for mosque. I could not think of one and suggested that he change the word to "temple." At two o'clock he banged on my door in a temper, said he had changed the rhythm to fit, and now couldn't find a rhyme for "temple!" I suggested "dimple" drowsily, whereat he kicked the panel of the door and went to bed.

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