Six Seconds of Darkness/Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

THE old-timer at the telephone board made a casual entry on the report sheet spread before him, relighted his offensively fragrant pipe, and swung his swivel chair around idly.

“That was O’Rafferty on nine,” he reported. “All’s quiet.”

Desk Sergeant Larry O’Brien grinned cheerfully through the haze of rancid smoke.

“As I was afther sayin’,” he remarked, “ye cannot always sometimes tell. ’Tis these clear and aisy nights which beget action for us poor coppers. Ye wouldn’t be afther thinkin’ by the quietude which has gripped us hereabouts these past sivin days that there’s a bombshell sizzlin’ under headquarters waitin’ to be busted.”

The other answered sagely:

“That all depends on how much you’ve been talking to reporters, Larry. They’ve been asking so many questions and taking so many notes that I’m afraid to say me name’s Farris. They’re wise that something’s up.”

“Bad cess to ’em—the whole beloved lot. There’s Stinson of the News—him that’s so thin he could sit on a dime an’ ye’d shtill be able to read ‘In God We Trust’—he wanted to know was I in on the graft?”

“And you told him——

“I’m afther givin’ nothin’ away, me bhye. I merely raymarked that I’m no special pals with Barret Rollins, an’ that Police Commissioner Clement Hall app’inted me personally.”

Farris lowered his voice discreetly and hitched his chair confidentially closer.

“They’re wise, ain’t they? The whole crowd?”

“To pwhat?”

“That Rollins is in the middle of the fireworks? That Hamilton’s been trying to get him ever since Hall became interested in this Civic Reform League? I don’t see,” he complained, “why they always start in on the police when they decide a city needs cleanin’ up?”

“Logic, most likely. And as for Robbins, he don’t be afther lovin’ Commissioner Hall nor Mister Edward J. Hamilton anny more than they’re lovin’ him; which is considerable less than none at all. An’ he’s a good detective, too; he’s keen, an’ he’s got a good head on a pair of hefty shoulders. But, Al, me bhye, Oi’m thinkin’ Oi’d rather be a disk sergeant right this minute than Mister Barret Rollins, chief av detictives. An’—well, speakin’ av angels—or divils——

The street door swung back and a man of medium height briefly acknowledged the salute of the gray-haired doorman. The newcomer swung across to the desk, and nodded a curt greeting.

“O’Brien,” he said, “how goes it?”

“So-so, chief. How’s the bhye?”

“Well enough. Anything new tonight?”

“Everything’s dead. Nothing stirring anywhere except a stiff was drug out av the river an’ carried to Carson’s undertaking joint. What’s new with you?”

“Nothing, nothing at all. I’ll be going into the office yonder for a smoke and a bit of a snooze. If you want me——” He waved his hand airily.

O’Brien’s eyes followed the man with interest as he walked across the room toward the little door which opened into his private office. Barrett Rollins radiated strength and physical ability in every well-knit line of his stocky figure. His unusual breadth and depth of chest conveyed an impression of lack of height to which a tape measure easily gave the lie. Nor was his face that of the average plain-clothes man; the eyes were a bit too close set, perhaps, but they were level eyes—eyes blessed with the rare faculty of penetration. The brain behind those eyes was alert and ruthless.

He had worked himself to his present position as chief of the plain-clothes force by dint of sheer ability. A little political pull may have helped here and there, but that assistance had been inconsiderable. He was an efficient man, greatest testimony to which was given by the unanimous praise of his worst enemies—who, by the way, numbered legion. He was a martinet; unbending, inexorable, heartless. His third degree was a classic.

Larry O’Brien chuckled softly as he chewed the stub of a dilapidated cigar.

“And to think of him,” he remarked, “bein’ squeezed between th’ thumb an’ forefinger of a little, undersized runt of a reformer like Edward Hamilton. Hamilton’s said he’s ready to turn things loose an’ tear ’em up, an’ he never makes a statement unless——

The telephone on his desk jangled sharply. Farris groaned audibly as he lifted himself from the depths of his swivel chair and the sergeant motioned him back to rest.

“Oi’ll be afther answerin’ it mesilf,” he said, and then, lifting the receiver: “P’lice headquarters.”

From the other end of the wire came the curt, incisive tones of Police Commissioner Clement Hall, the real czar of the department under the city’s new form of government.

“Sergeant O’Brien?”

“Yis, sor. Misther Hall, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Is Rollins there?”

“Yis, sor.”

“Tell him to take two of his best men, Hawkins and Cartwright, if they’re there, and hustle to the home of Edward J. Hamilton in Chief Rariden’s automobile.”

“The chief’s auto ain’t here, sor.”

“A taxicab, then,” came the impatient snap. “Hurry! That’s the thing I’m after.”

“And whin they get there, sor?”

the commissioner’s usually placid voice quivered with excitement:

“Hamilton has been murdered!”

Pwhatt? Edward Hamilton?”

“Yes. Tell Rollins to drop everything else and stick on that case until he gets the man. Tell him I know nothing about it except that Mrs. Faber, Hamilton’s housekeeper, just telephoned me that Hamilton had been shot. I’m coming right down to headquarters. Tell Rollins to keep in touch with me. I want speed; understand? And I want him to catch the man who did it!”

The receiver clicked on the hook, and Sergeant Larry O’Brien dazedly followed suit at his end. Farris had risen and was standing at the sergeant’s elbow, his old eyes on fire with excitement.

“What’s that, O’Brien—what’s that?”

“There’s hell broke loose!” came back the sharp answer. “Orderly!”

The young policeman on duty answered the call immediately. He had heard just enough of the conversation to comprehend its import.

“Yes, sir?”

“Call Chief Rollins—quick!” Then, turning back to Farris: “Hamilton killed! Holy, sufferin’ mackerel!”

Rollins came out of his private office on the jump. His little eyes were blazing, and his manner radiated the competence which had carried him to his present position of eminence on the police force.

“What’s this? Hamilton killed?”

“Deader’n a doornail!” snapped O’Brien. “Hall wants you to take Hawkins and Cartwright and stick around there until you get the guy. Didn’t tell me anything. Says the housekeeper telephoned him. He’s coming down here, and is afther wantin’ you to keep in touch with us. He’s liable to stop in there, so ye’d better hurry.”

“I’ll hurry. Orderly! Hike upstairs and tell Cartwright and Hawkins to come running.” He viciously bit off the end of a black cigar. “Good Lord! Hamilton killed!”

In an unbelievably short time the two plain-clothes officers presented themselves at the desk. Rollins briefly ordered them to follow. The faces of the three men detailed to the case were studies in concentration and bewilderment. Nor could they conceal the excitement which gripped them. That Edward Hamilton of all men should have been murdered at this particular time; Edward Hamilton, civic reformer, broker, social leader! And evidently in his own home!

Even before the door had closed behind them policemen appeared from the dormitories upstairs in various stages of disarray, begging for news. To all of them O’Brien made the same answer. He knew nothing except that Hamilton had been murdered. How or why or when he did not know. As to the place of the crime, he judged it had been at Hamilton’s home. Policemen gathered in knots and discussed the case excitedly, robbing themselves of well-earned sleep that they might miss no detail of the case as it was telephoned in. One by one they went up-stairs to make themselves presentable, only to return and lounge about the grim room, speculating on the whys and wherefores.

Edward J. Hamilton occupied a unique position in the city’s life. A bachelor at forty, his household had no other members except his ward, a girl of about nineteen years of age, and one of the city’s most popular débutantes, and a Mrs. Faber, who for many years had held the position of housekeeper.

Years before he had retired from the active business life of the city, although his retirement had been more a figure of speech than an actual fact. He was financially interested in most of the city’s largest enterprises; he was on the directorates of the First National Bank and of a large lumber corporation. He was socially in demand—a thorough cosmopolite, a polished gentleman, a patron of the arts; a man known for his gentleness of disposition, his lovableness of character, his unflagging devotion to duty, and, above all, for his fearlessness.

Of enemies he had many; no man of decided character is ever entirely free from enemies, but they respected him. During recent years public office had been thrust at him, and he had steadfastly declined. But lately he had forged to the front of the stage with the organization of the Civic Reform League—a body of leading citizens who recognized the rottenness in Denmark and had decided to weed their municipal garden. It was at head of such a body of men that one who knew Hamilton would expect to find him. And there he was!

His murder, coming at this time, was nothing less than sensational. No single event could have so shaken the city. The veriest novice of the police force felt himself on his toes, for it was public knowledge that the force had been slated to receive the first broadside from the guns of the Civic Reform League, captained by the dead man. It was up to the department to make good, to do its bit to neutralize the sentiment against it by prompt and efficient action in discovering and apprehending the culprit.

The clock over the sergeant’s desk slowly struck ten, and with the striking came the first of the calls from the policemen on the various beats about the city, giving their hourly report. At five minutes past ten a handsome limousine whirred up to the door of police headquarters. It jerked to a protesting stop with a loud screeching of brakes. Immediately the officers about the walls rose to their feet and massed together, staring toward the door.

In the stark glare of the single carbon lamp which glowed in the doorway, the figure of a woman appeared. She jumped from the driver’s seat of the big car, gathered her skirts about her, and half walked, half ran, across the sidewalk and into the police station.

She entered the room and paused in uncertainty. Larry O’Brien, rising to his feet, appraised her swiftly with his keen Irish eyes.

He saw a girl of about nineteen years of age, a girl with rose-red cheeks and now-pallid lips, flashing black eyes and raven hair. She was of medium height, slender, and, even in the tempest of emotion by which she was plainly gripped, wonderfully graceful. Her bosom rose and fell unevenly; the folds of her wrap fell back, disclosing a costly evening dress. The young policeman in the corner who had patrolled the beat on which the murder had that night occurred stifled an exclamation of surprise, but did not succeed in holding back the girl’s name:

Miss Duval!

A gasp went up from the policemen. They surged closer to the desk. Sergeant O’Brien rasped them back and bowed to the girl:

“Yes, miss?”

She stared about her in bewilderment.

“This—this is police headquarters?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I want to see the chief.”

“I’m sorry, miss, he isn’t here.”

It was plain that she was on the verge of hysteria. With a filmy bit of lacy handkerchief she dashed the tears from her eyes.

“I must see him, I tell you! I am Eunice Duval, Mr. Hamilton’s ward. Mr. Hamilton has just been—been—killed!”

O’Brien lowered his voice, trying futilely to quiet her agitation:

“Yes, ma’am; we’ve just heard it. Don’t you worry none, ma’am, we’ve got our best men out on the case, an’ we’ll catch the man that did it. Bad cess to th’ spalpeen.”

The girl stopped short and stared at him. Then she broke into a laugh; a laugh which was not good to hear—a loud laugh, gratingly harsh.

You’ll catch the one who did it? Who—who? You?”

O’Brien was nonplussed and not a little embarrassed. A woman in hysterics!

“Keep a holt on yersilf, ma’am. I’m Sergint O’Brien—Larry O’Brien, at yer service, ma’am. If ye’ll have a chair I’ll——

She stared at him as though transfixed. Then her hands went to her bosom, and she threw back her head once more. Peal after peal of laughter rang out; the laughter of uncontrolled hysteria. Larry O’Brien, mumbling to the saints for help, deserted his post at the desk and rounded the railing to her side. One of the patrolmen—a man of family—diagnosed the case and sent out a hurry call for a flask of whisky.

“Take it aisy, now, ma’am,” soothed O’Brien. “’Tis a terrible thing, to be sure, but we’ll catch the guy.”

The laughter stopped as abruptly and as eerily as it had started. For a minute the girl tried to speak—but the words seemed to choke her.

“You—you can call back the men you—you sent on the case,” she said.

“Call them back? Ye’re not falin’ well, miss.”

“No. Can’t you understand what I came here for? I came here to give myself up! I killed Mr. Hamilton!