"I’LL tell you why I think Hartigan was I shot by Badger,” continued Carroll evenly. “You yourselves saw the man re-enact his part in last night’s tragedy. I, for one, am anything but gullible, and I say frankly that I believe the man was telling the truth.”
“And I,” said Denson.
“Me, too,” agreed Hall.
“So far so good. You also noticed that he handled his revolver with two hands. He is physically weak and puny. From the very way he handled the gun it was self-evident that he is not used to firearms. Why, then, suppose that his aim was so deadly accurate that he hit his target even in the dark? Revolver shooting is a difficult art at best, and it would be stretching one’s credulity to believe that he hit the man he was firing at, especially as Hartigan—so he says—had meanwhile snapped off the lights.
“But it is certain that he fired. Where, then, did his bullet go? Here.” He took his stand on the spot where Badger had stood and clutched the revolver in two hands, waving it as Badger had done. “If Harrelson and Hamilton had come through that door yonder they would have been visible beyond the left side of the screen. Badger already had his trigger back probably—his gun fired, and the bullet struck Hartigan. You can see the bullet hole beyond in the screen, just at the height of Hartigan’s wrist, and I am pretty well convinced, after examining it again in the light of Badger’s story, that the bullet which went through that screen was headed into the room—not toward the wall. What do you think, Mr. Hall?”
“I think you’re dead right—and in so far as that little old man is concerned I’m glad.”
“And you, Denson?”
The lawyer pulled a wry face.
“Since I have agreed to be honest, I must admit that I agree with you—much as I hate to.”
“With Badger eliminated, the burden of guilt is thrown on one of my two clients—Miss Duval or Mr. Harrelson.”
“You forgot Hartigan,” suggested Carroll.
“By George!” Hall broke out. “I had forgotten Hartigan! We’ve proved his story true up to the present; but, still, he might have shot Hamilton and thought that Hamilton shot him.”
“He might, yes,” agreed Carroll. “But one fact stands out with puzzling significance—it is agreed that no shot was fired before the lights went out, and it is a virtual certainty that Hartigan was shot in the dark. Are we to believe, then, that he shot after switching the lights back on and after he had been wounded?”
“He fired a shot at some time!” snapped Denson bluntly. “We know that!”
“Yes,” said Carroll, “so we do. I had forgotten that.”
Hall flashed him a keen glance.
“What are you driving at, anyway, Carroll? Hartigan lied to us when he told his first story; he admitted it when he came in to see us at headquarters with his carefully thought-out revision. Rollins found Hartigan unconscious behind that screen; he found in his pocket a revolver from which one shot had been fired. His deductions were absolutely logical. Why should we believe every detail of the crook’s story?”
“We shouldn’t,” said Carroll simply. “We shouldn’t believe any one’s story—even that of Miss Duval.”
“Meaning?” interjected Denson eagerly.
“That, of our four choices, three are mistaken—either deliberately or through circumstances. Remember, this case reeks with the unusual; we have one of the most prominent men in the city murdered in his own study—and immediately following the murder the confessions of his ward, a society belle; a young artist, and a half-crazy old man. Then the head of our regular detective force brings in a burglar so tightly hemmed around with a net of circumstantial evidence that he wouldn’t have a breathing chance before a jury.
“A doctor’s investigation proves beyond peradventure of a doubt that the man was shot only once. And while every one present admits that three shots might have been fired—the likelihood is that there were only two; one fired in the dark, and the other immediately after the lights were snapped on.”
“You’re wrong,” said Denson earnestly. “You yourself admitted that what seemed to be the echo of the first shot in the dark might have been a second shot.”
“No, I don’t forget that. I’ll even go so far as to admit that two shots were fired in the dark. But this much I will say, I have been trying to find out who fired the shot which came after the lights went on again. I am strongly convinced that that is the shot which killed Mr. Hamilton.”
“I’d like to believe you,” said Denson, “but I can’t.”
“The stories all tally that Hamilton was sinking to the floor when the lights were snapped on.”
“True enough; but isn’t it likely that a man who has always led a sedentary life, and then is suddenly gripped in a deadly fight with another man, should be somewhat surprised when at the climax the lights are suddenly extinguished, two shots—or one—fired, and then the room suddenly bathed in light again? Imagine yourself in that predicament; can’t you visualize the scene—the surcharged tenseness of it, the fierce, emotional strain— your dazed attitude when the lights went on. And then the shot, and you sink to the floor. Of course it would look as though you had been shot while the lights were out.”
“Then why not Hartigan—in desperation?” pursued Denson doggedly.
“You’re a good lawyer, Mr. Denson. But you seem to forget that Hartigan was shot in the right wrist. You see, you are giving yourself away—you are trying to prove that Hartigan did it when you yourself are convinced that he did not.”
“Touche! As a matter of fact, I am convinced that either Miss Duval or Mr. Harrelson did it. But I agree with you that Badger did not—his bullet went somewhere; and if, as you say, the bullet which hit Hartigan was travelling into the room and not out of it, then Badger’s bullet must have done it. Therefore, it rests between by clients and the burglar, and I’d rather believe in the guilt of the latter.”
“So would I,” said Carroll simply. “But I am letting circumstances right themselves in my mind. You see, gentlemen, the popular idea of the detective is a man who, by some God-given inspiration when the facts of the case are spread before him, immediately suspects the man who eventually proves to be guilty.
“How he does it—by what mental legerdemain—I have never been able to discover. But, as I say—he usually knows instinctively; and he is never wrong. He then proceeds to chase the wrong persons through some three hundred and fifty pages of a novel, finally swinging around and surprising the reader of the tale by the apprehension of the right man.
“I am not that sort of a character. My method is simple; I am merely marshalling before me all the facts of the case, down to the minutest detail. I am trying to weigh each in the balance and give each the attention that it appears to deserve. When I feel confident that I have all the facts before me, I will then try to decide who really did the killing, and how. But please, please do me the favour of ridding yourselves of the idea that I am a fiction detective holding back in my mind the name of the person who really did it. I assure you that I am as much up in the air as you are.”
“That all sounds good, Carroll,” said Hall, “but you admitted not so long ago that you had started out with pretty well-formed suspicions.”
“I did,” said Carroll quietly, “and they were all knocked into a cocked hat by later developments. And I prefer not to tell my suspicions to you. There are a good many things in this case I cannot make head or tail of—which is the reason I do not want to tell you what I originally thought. I want you to review the case for yourselves—open-mindedly, and then let me know honestly what your conclusions are. You stand as much chance, if not more, of hitting the correct solution. I can promise you this—we shall know something before very long, and in the meanwhile I want to get Mr. Denson’s consent to a little plan of mine.”
“Which is?” asked the lawyer.
“To return to headquarters, confront Vincent Harrelson with Miss Duval—without telling either anything about the other—and then deliberately listen. How about it?”
Denson shook his head slowly.
“I’m afraid that’s not playing the game squarely.”
“Do you want the truth of the matter, Denson? That is a quick way of learning where they stand.”
Denson paced slowly up and down the veranda. What Carroll said was true; neither Eunice nor Vincent Harrelson knew that the other had confessed. Suddenly confronted with one another, they might be startled into speaking the truth. Denson whirled and nodded.
“Another damn-fool proceeding on my part, Carroll, but you can have your way.”
“Great! I assure you, Mr. Denson, you are doing a sensible thing. Now—back to headquarters.”
In a short time they were back at the police station and Badger was left in his private cell in the company of Roberts, Carroll’s man.
Carroll arranged things with expedition. Johnson and Smith, two of Carroll’s men, were instructed about bringing Eunice and Vincent Harrelson into the rest room within thirty seconds of one another; there to leave them without a word. And then, when the stage was set, Carroll inquired for Rollins.
“What’s that?” questioned Hall wonderingly. “What do you want with Rollins?”
“He is the head of the police department’s detective force; I think he should be here.”
Hall shook his head.
“Aren’t you equivocating, Carroll? Haven’t you some ulterior motive?”
Carroll grinned enigmatically.
“What is it?”
“Draw your own conclusions. At least, it will do no harm for Rollins to hear what transpires.”
Rollins was called and the situation sketched to him. He appeared surprised at first that Carroll had not entirely dropped the case, but the outside detective placated him.
“You see, Rollins, I don’t like to drop the case until it is absolutely cleared up—and, while circumstantial evidence does undoubtedly point to Red Hartigan, we have two other self-confessed suspects who must be cleared before we can close up the record. Isn’t that so?”
“Ye-e-s; but as soon as they know about Hartigan——”
“Exactly,” beamed Carroll naively, and then nodded to his two men. Rollins scowled momentarily.
“That’s another thing I don’t like,” he asserted none too pleasantly. “Why’ve you got your men on the job here instead of the reg’lars?”
“A little idiosyncrasy of mine, Rollins. However, I’ll trot ’em away soon enough. Now let’s keep silent, all of us. From this room here we can see something and hear everything. Not a soul is to say a word.”
A silence fell on them as they stood, grouped, in the dressing room between the rest room and the showers. Their expressions afforded a study for a facial artist. Denson plainly betrayed his keen personal interest and his fear that he had done the wrong thing in consenting to the forthcoming meeting; Hall was figuratively on his toes with interest, part personal and part impersonal; Rollins was sullen and rather ill at ease; Carroll placid and smiling benignly.
The door opened and Vincent Harrelson entered the rest room. Smith left him with a word, and Harrelson stared curiously about, plainly at a loss for an explanation. And then, a few seconds later, in came Eunice Duval. The officer in charge of her left the pair alone; the door closed, and they faced each other.
The surprise visible on the face of each could not have been simulated; even the chronically doubting Rollins knew that it was real. For perhaps five seconds the young couple stared at one another, and then they did the perfectly natural and normal thing for two young people who are very much in love. They swept together, and Vincent took the girl in his arms and kissed hungrily. Then he let her lean back in his arms and stared into her eyes.
“It’s good to see you, sweetheart,” he said softly. “But how in the world did you know I was here? The papers haven’t a word about me—at least, that’s what Smith said.”
A puzzled look flashed into her eyes.
“They didn’t tell me you were here, Vincent. They simply said that there was some one to see me, and then brought me in.”
“Brought you in?”
He shook his head.
“I don’t understand, dear.”
The colour mounted to her face.
“Surely you don’t think I would have kept silent. I came down here immediately after I shot Mr. Hamilton——”
He went white; the big, muscular hands which gripped her shoulders tightened until she winced with the pain of it.
“What are you saying?” he cried hoarsely. “After you shot Hamilton?”
“Why, certainly, dear; what else was there for me to do?”
Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed with grim humour. Her face grew very grave, and she touched him gently on the arm.
“Vincent—what’s the matter? Please tell me——”
“Don’t you understand, darling? Can’t you see why they brought us together in here? They’ve no doubt got a dictagraph rigged up somewhere and are listening to every word we’re saying.”
“What has that to do with it?” she said doggedly. “I’ve told them I did it——”
“And so have I,” he flashed. “Do you suppose for one minute that I would have allowed that sacrifice on your part?” The words were pouring torrentially from his lips. “Do you suppose that I will allow your name to be dragged through the mire because, bless you, you think that you will be absolved by a jury while I would be convicted?. Go tell them, dear, that you didn’t. I’ll get off, never fear. I shot him in self-defence.”
“Vincent!” Her arms went up about his neck and her eyes bored straight into his. “You mustn’t do this thing; it is wonderful of you, just what I would have expected, but you cannot; you must not.”
He laughed shortly.
“My dear little girl, it wouldn’t take them very long to find out that you did not shoot Mr. Hamilton. And then they’d find out about my quarrel with him and get me. My self-defence plea would amount to nothing, then, would it? I thought I’d better face the music; had better take my medicine right. He did attack me, and it was he who pulled the revolver from the drawer. If there is such a thing as justice in the courts—and I believe that there is—I will be let off.”
Very suddenly the girl seated herself. Her eyes were misty.
“Kiss me, Vincent.”
He did as bidden, and then she continued:
“Now sit down, please; I want to argue with you.”
“There’s no room for argument, dear.”
He drew a chair close to hers, possessed himself of her hand, and as she talked he stroked it gently. Her eyes flamed with a wonderful light, a light which brought lumps to the throat of the eavesdropping quartet in the next room.
“Listen, dear,” she said softly, “you must listen to sense. I came down and confessed because I was afraid they would find out about your quarrel and fight with Mr. Hamilton and would arrest you. I shot him, as you well know, just as the lights went out. They won’t do anything to me—it was done in the heat of passion and when it seemed that he would kill you.”
“Let me interrupt,” he said firmly. “That defence would never go. In the first place, you had no revolver.”
“I picked it up off the floor when you tore it from his hand.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Eunice. You’re saying all that because you, too, think that we are being listened to. Imagine that little runt of a man tearing a revolver from my hands.”
“He didn’t,” she persisted. “You tore it from his hands. I picked it up and fired just after the lights went out. When they went up again he was falling. Oh, it was terrible!”
“It was that—and more,” he agreed soberly. “But there’s no use for any more of this stage play. I’m willing to take my chances; they cannot convict me of murder; manslaughter, perhaps, but not murder. The chances are that they will let me off scot-free.”
“As though I’d be willing to chance that, dear.”
“Why not?” he pleaded wildly. “I shot him!”
“Please, dear—all of that is for the benefit of any one who may be listening, and you know it. Don’t put your neck into a noose! You didn’t even have the revolver.”
The man shrugged hopelessly.
“Are you going to stick to that ridiculous story, sweetheart?”
“It is the truth.”
“Eunice!” His voice grew sharp. “You put me in the light of a man confessing to save his sweetheart. I wouldn’t do it if you had really shot him; they’d let you off, all right enough. But I picked up that revolver and fired in the dark—I had taken aim first, I’m a good shot; you are not.”
“I was standing very close to him.”
“And I was closer. Can’t you see that they’ll never hang me for what I did?”
“I’ll not allow you to take chances.”
“And you won’t retract your ridiculous confession?”
“I have told the truth.”
“You will stick to that story?”
“Then,” he said hopelessly, “God help us both!”
“Why?” she cried anxiously. “You don’t mean to say that you will refuse to retract in the face of what I have just said?”
“I mean just that, dear. I shot him, and I was willing to take the consequences. In view of your implication, I am afraid I shall have to amend my story so that it will not look so much life self-defence—so that I will lose the jury’s sympathy and they’ll be more liable to convict me.”
“They’ll never convict you. They will realize that I am telling the truth.”
“Then,” he said simply, “I shall never hold my head up again. You mean well, Eunice; but you are doing a headstrong, foolish thing. I am sorry, dear; although it makes me love you the more.”
A sudden, crafty light crept into her eyes.
“Did you hear a second shot?—it sounded just as though it were fired when the lights went on again.”
“You will claim that you fired that?”
“Did you hear it?”
“Yes—of course I did.”
“Where did it come from?”
“I don’t know, dear. I probably imagined it.”
“If it had been real and not a figment of the imagination—where would you guess it came from?”
“Outside, I should say.”
“Good! And did you know that they found a burglar lying unconscious and wounded, behind that screen?”
“What? You mean——”
“That we’ll both probably get off, if we want to. I mean that they are sure that his bullet killed Mr. Hamilton.”
The young artist shook his head slowly.
“No, dear; I certainly did not hit the screen when I fired and the burglar was wounded. The chances are his revolver went off and he hit himself. It was my shot——”
“Don’t lie! It was I who fired—you know it!”
In the adjoining room, Carroll nodded to the others and beckoned them to follow.
Once in the courtyard, the group faced each other, their expressions denoting varying degrees of bewilderment, Carroll spoke—addressing Rollins.
“What do you make of it?” he questioned.
Rollins deliberated, and then——
“I think they’re both lying,” he said bluntly, “because each really thinks the other did it!”