Keeban (Little, Brown and Company)/Chapter 8

VIIIA LADY DISCREDITS ME.

She was not in bed but was lying upon it in a negligee—a silk and lace, pink and white creation which was originally no garment of grief. She was pink and white herself, except for her bobbed hair of bronze and for her big eyes which were blue. She displayed a good deal of herself, especially the beauty of her bosom; she did this not with any evident design of the moment but probably upon the general principle that it was never a disadvantageous thing for her to do.

She was alone in the room when I entered and Fred Scofield, who came up with me, dropped back at the door. She gazed at me, making hardly a motion, and waited for me to open the meeting.

I did it formally, with that door open behind me; I said the stupid tosh I felt expected to say.

"Shut the door and sit down," said Shirley.

The first part was important, so I did it; then I strolled to the foot of her bed and stood. She lay looking at me, one hand holding a cigarette box which she tapped with her fingers; but she wasn't smoking.

I was realizing I had never met up with a murderess before—at least not with a girl who'd done her bit in a bump off for money.

Of course since I had, in my own right, a normal list of acquaintances of fair size, I knew a woman or two who'd shot friend husband; but the moving impulse was not financial. The widow—I mean the woman who immediately made herself the widow—in one case happened upon husband with another lady on the wrong landing; in the other case, she'd become peeved about something purely private and so highly sensational when sobbed out on the witness stand, and followed by an effective faint, that the jury not only justified her but acquitted her with cheers.

The widow Scofield, lying here on the bed before me, failed to fall in that same class in my mind. I doubted if she would in the emotions of any jury; and some doubt of this nature seemed to flit across the eyes of blue which kept watching me. She was gambling, if not with her life itself, at least with her liberty for life; and her stake, if she won, was the neat little sum of five hundred thousand dollars to enhance her joys of freedom.

Elsewhere in this house the aged youth, her husband, lay dead; and whatever was to happen, her chapter with him was concluded and she could not contrive to conceal from me a certain relief at that. Perhaps I imagined it, with my picture of her at her piano last night still haunting my mind; yet I'm not imaginative. I felt her saying to herself, as she gazed at me, "Well, whatever's to come next, that's over. Twenty-two with sixty-seven, rejuvenated!"

She said aloud to me, "What did you mean by the words on your card?"

"If you don't know," I said, "why did you change your mind, after you had the card, and send for me?"

She didn't respond; she lay waiting, watchfully, and let me look her over and think her over with all the deliberation I wanted. She seemed to me not so slight as that Christina who'd met me at the river ledge with Keeban; but I knew enough about the effect of negligee, and of a figure loosed from a girdle, to allow for more fullness now. Her hair was bronze; but yellow over that bronze would have been easy enough to manage, especially in the dim light of that dock room. Her manner of speech had changed; yet I was wholly sure she was Christina.

At the next moment, she admitted it. "I know what you meant, Steve," she said, speaking my name as she had in that room by the river. "You think you have something on me, do you?"

"You're Christina," I said.

"Right! Call in my step-son Fred and whoever else you care to; I've something to confess which I should have told the police this morning—but I didn't. Yet it didn't hurt anything to hold it back. Call him in!"

She sat straight and raised an pointed to the door in some cabaret imitation of a grand gesture. "Open the door," she ordered me.

I opened it and went out and found Fred. "She's something to say to us," I told him. I decided to include nobody else just then, though there were police enough everywhere and all keen to listen. Fred and I went into her room and closed the door. She motioned us to seats beside the bed as though she might be Madame Récamier on her couch receiving a couple of her lesser courtiers.

"Fred, I can tell more about the shooting last night; I'm going to do it," she said, looking at Fred, not at me. "You can decide how much to give out to the police—to the 'bulls,'" she added, deliberately blunting her speech and gazing at me. She swung back to Fred.

"I come from the cabarets, you know; maybe you've thought sometimes that I come from worse. Anyway, you treated me like you did."

"I'm sorry," said Fred and waited.

"That I didn't come from worse wasn't any fault of Jerry Fanneal. He was hot after me—hot after me.

Here was the start of a counter-attack on me; I felt it and demanded, "When was that?"

"Oh, before I married; long before the big surprise to his swell friends and family when he threw Dorothy Crewe into the street. He was comin' down to the cabarets for a long time, Didn't you know it, Mr. Steve Fanneal?"

"Yes;" I said. "Often I went with him."

"But often not; isn't that so? Tell the truth!" This was a straight challenge.

"Sometimes not," I granted.

"I guess not! Well, you should've seen some of those 'sometimes.' The boy was crazy; I seen it!" In her excitement, she was forgetting her "g's" and the tenses she could speak correctly when she tried to; she was a cabaret Récamier now. "Clean crazy. He kept it under when he was back with his swells and you; but when he was down with us, he blew the lid some distance off, I'm telling you. I made him crazier than most, for he couldn't get me. He thought I'd fall for money. Not me!

"I was glad to get married to a decent man, if he was a bit old; and glad to get away, believe me! Then we made the mistake of comin' back. I didn't want to, as you know; but the boys wanted father and me to cut down expenses. So we had to come. Anyway, with me married and Jerry mixed up with another skirt—and a swell one, too—I figured he'd forget his old grief about me. But you know what he did to his lady friend; well, when he'd made himself all lonely again, he seems to have got me back on his busted brain. Anyway, he sent word to me to come meet him."

"How did he send word?" This was from me.

"Telephoned."

"Why didn't you inform the police?" That was another interjection of mine; and she came back at me through the wide, wide opening I'd left her. "Why didn't you, when he slipped word to you to meet him?"

Fred failed to interrupt; he was too busy looking and listening. I reserved my reply and she went on:

"He mentioned to me that, if I set a squeal, I'd hear from it; also that I'd better meet him. He wanted money to get away. Of course he couldn't sell those Crewe diamonds at any sort of price now; there was too much danger in handling them, with everybody watching for 'em; and too much loss if he had 'em cut. He wanted cash money and he thought I could bring it. Remember, a couple a weeks ago," she said to Fred, "I tried to get some considerable cash from you?"

Fred admitted that.

She said, "That was to give to Jerry Fanneal. I got afraid of him. I wanted him to get out. When I couldn't raise the cash, I said I'd help him get it from his own family; and so I put up the talk for him to Steve Fanneal."

"What?" said Fred.

She had to tell him again and when she was through she referred Fred to me. "Let him tell it now."

She had me in the hole; and she knew it; and Fred saw it. I had no chance at all of convincing Fred that the man I met with her was not Jerry but Keeban. Here was she denying, like everyone else, that Keeban could exist; here was she explaining how Jerry had come to do this murder. I knew better than to try to tell my story.

Shirley carried on. "Jerry and I met him and he got the money. Ten thousand in cash, wasn't it?" she examined me. "If he denies it, Fred, ask the teller in his bank—last week Thursday he got it."

"Did you?" asked Fred.

"I did," I said.

He nodded to Shirley. "Go on."

"He gave it to Jerry to go away."

"That's right?" Fred asked me.

"That's right," I had to admit.

Shirley continued, "Then Jerry wanted me. He's crazy, you see. Sometimes he's all right, like anybody else; then he's like when he took that necklace from Dorothy Crewe and tossed her into the street. He said he'd get my husband and then me. Isn't that true? Didn't you know Win was in danger?" Again she was at me.

"Yes; but——"

"But you tried to stop it, of course; with wonderful success! Well, I've nothing on you there, I tried to stop it too!"

Then she broke into crying; and a great chance I had. There she was, a girl all white and pink in her negligee; and tears, real tears! I got out and was lucky to be able to get.