IT was Denson, his mind trained to cope with sudden twists, to whom the legal aspect made an immediate appeal. He leaned forward and made a futile attempt to conceal the excitement in his voice:
“Do you mean, Carroll, that they are free?”
“Practically. Can’t let them off entirely yet, but I think I can promise them a release on their own recognizance. And now”—he turned to them—“I would like to know, just to satisfy myself, who really did fire that shot?”
“No trap, Carroll,” warned Denson.
“Answer or not,” retorted the detective. “As for me, I play my cards face up. Two out of three were agreed that the shot was fired in the dark. It has been the consensus of opinion and my personal belief that the shot which killed Mr. Hamilton was not fired from close quarters—the appearance of the wound, the lack of burning, and the absence of powder stains attest that. But it is certain that Mr. Hamilton’s revolver was fired. Where, then, did the bullet go? It doesn’t take any transcendent investigator to find the hole made by a bullet fired from that spot at Mr. Hamilton. And there it is.” He pointed to a small, round hole plugged in the juncture point of the two walls and the ceiling in the corner near the hall. “So there, Denson, is my case against these two young people. They can answer or not, as they wish. I’ve played fair and aboveboard all the way through, and was merely trying to satisfy my very human curiosity as to which one did it.”
The eyes of the men met and held. Denson threw up his hands.
“You should have been a lawyer, Carroll. ‘Ye have a way wid yez.’ Tell him, Eunice.”
“I fired the shot,” she said simply. She was on the verge of tears from the emotional relief. But Harrelson put out his hand.
“She did not!” he insisted. “It was I who fired it.”
“As your lawyer, Vincent, I give you permission to tell.”
“You are sure that that is where the bullet went?’
“Well”—the young man spread his hands wide with a significant gesture—“I’m afraid I’m convicting myself a liar; but Eunice fired. My story is absolutely true up to the point of firing the shot.”
Hall looked at the young man in surprise.
“I congratulate you, sir,” he said quietly. “I had thought that chivalry was dead.”
“Not that, sir,” returned the young man somewhat bashfully. “You see, I took pains to concoct a story which pretty well protected me.”
“Poppycock and balderdash! Your story was true, and you were willing to shoulder the blame! Damme, sir, I’m glad to shake your hand, if it has taken the death of my best friend to prove to me that there are a few men alive in whom the best of the mediaeval still exists.”
Carroll resumed his slow pacing of the room. As he passed each of his three men, he whispered a few words to them significantly, then walked on nonchalantly, as though taking a constitutional. His keen eyes, lighted with the joy of the chase, missed no detail of the sparsely, if handsomely, furnished room. Finally he faced the others.
“And now,” he said, “we have proved the innocence of our two chief actors. I don’t know whether you gentlemen realize, in your personal relief over the liberation of these young folks, that we are as far from the capture of the murderer as we were thirty seconds after the fatal shot was fired.”
They stared at him in dazed silence. What he said was true; that phase of the case had not appealed to them. Hall opened his mouth to mention Badger, then closed it abruptly—like a fish gasping in the fresh air. He remembered two things regarding Badger—first of all, that they had pretty well proven his innocence, and secondly, that Rollins knew nothing of Badger, or his connection with the case.
He remembered, also, the fact that there was a third shot; two had already been accounted for—Eunice’s, which had fortunately gone wild and dug itself a burrow in the ceiling; and Badger’s, which had inflicted the painful wound in Hartigan’s right wrist.
But Hartigan’s revolver had also been fired. According to the burglar’s story, he had not fired. Furthermore, it had been pretty well agreed that the fatal shot had been fired immediately after the lights were turned on. Badger stubbornly maintained that he had fired in the dark. If that were true and it was a fact that his bullet was the one which had wounded Hartigan, then it followed that Hartigan could not well have fired with his right wrist mangled.
It seemed that Carroll had been working in a circle, eliminating one barrier after another only to find each new one harder to surmount. But if Carroll and his friends were bewildered, Barrett Rollins, head of the regular detective force, was not at all at a loss as to who was the culprit.
“There was three of them in the room,” said Rollins earnestly. “We know Miss Duval fired an’ we’ve found her bullet—in a place where Hartigan’s couldn’t of gone. I been noticin’, too, that that there hole in the screen was made by a bullet travellin’ into the room from behind th’ screen, and if youse fellers had eyes in your heads you’d of noticed that it is just about th’ height that Red could of fired from to kill Mr. Hamilton.”
“He could have been stooping, had he fired at that height.”
“Stoopin,’ sure he’d of been stoopin’. He was hidin’, wasn’t he? An’ when a man hides does he stand upright? G’wan! Y’don’t think any. Even in a dark alley a man’ll stoop if he’s tryin’ t’ make a getaway. Hartigan is th’ man.”
“You’re quite sure of that?” questioned Carroll quietly.
“Sure? M’Gawd, I know it!”
“How do you know?”
“I know, that’s all. There ain’t no one else could of done it.”
“No, that’s true; that’s true. And yet,” he continued in a placidly argumentative tone, as though discussing a purely theoretical case, “you forget that some one shot Hartigan.”
“Poof! Maybe he wasn’t shot just then.”
“But he was, you see.”
“I don’t see any such of a dam’ thing!—’scusing th’ French. You fly cops think you’ve got it all down pat when y’ don’t know a thing. T’ tell me that Red Hartigan couldn’t of been shot when——”
“He was shot behind that screen!” Carroll bit his words off sharply. A hint of antagonism, the first he had shown toward Rollins, had crept into his tones.
Carroll turned away, smiling again.
“Well, there’s no use arguing with you.”
“Of course there ain’t.” And then, as Carroll fell into a low-voiced conversation with Eunice and Harrelson, Rollins strode across the room after him. One big hand shot out and Carroll was whirled around. The face of the young detective went white, and he shook himself loose.
“Rollins,” he said acidly, “you will keep your hands to yourself.”
“I’ll do what I please——” started the man from headquarters, and then calmed down suddenly with the remembrance that he was in the presence of the police commissioner. “S’pose you tell me why you know that this here yegg was potted while he was there an’ not before.”
“I don’t believe you are interested in my theories,” returned Carroll quietly.
Rollins’ voice took on a pleading nuance.”
“Now, Mr. Carroll, I wasn’t meanin’ anything——”
“I’m nothing but a fly cop,” flung out Carroll, clipping his words. “But I have sense enough to know that his wound was bleeding profusely, and that there were no blood traces anywhere except behind that screen!”
An involuntary “Oh!” was ripped from Rollins’ lips. Of a sudden his temper grew sullen again.
“Well, whadaya drivin’ at? D’yuh have to have everybody mixed up in the case come out an’ paraded before y’? Then take y’r pick?”
This time real anger flamed into Carroll’s eyes. His face grew livid and his fists clenched. He came very close to Rollins, and his eyes burned into the little, close-set orbs of the chief of the regular force.
“Let’s have this out right now, Rollins, once and for all. From the very beginning of this case I haven’t liked your manner. So long as it was partially impersonal and dealt in generalities, I thought it beneath me to pay any particular attention. Now you’re forcing it on me, and I’m not going to ignore it longer. From this moment on you will remember that I am your superior officer, and you will act accordingly. And my first order is that you keep your filthy tongue between your teeth!”
“Damn you!” Rollins’ muscular frame tensed, and for a brief moment it appeared that the two men were about to clash physically. Then the larger man relaxed slowly, his eyes holding the steady, steely ones of Carroll as though transfixed. The little blond chap nodded.
“That’s better. Any time you care to talk decently you can talk. But you’ve uttered your last personality; get that?”
Rollins was beet-red and in the grip of a murderous anger. But he had been too good a disciplinarian on the force to give way again in the light of what he had read in Carroll’s unfaltering gaze.
“Very well, sir,” he said with simulated respect. “Until this case is finished I’ll remember that you’re over my head.”
“That’s all I ask.” Carroll turned toward the others, in a second ridding himself of the anger he had just exhibited. “We are still far from a solution of this case,” he said. “Instead of having two people who claim to have committed the crime, we have one suspect against whom the evidence is wholly circumstantial, and not at all strong. You, Hartigan, said something about pals; do you mean that you were not alone in this robbery?”
Hartigan thought for a moment and then nodded.
“Yes, sir, just that. Me and my pals—we never work alone, y’see; an’ they was with me.”
“And of course you won’t tell who they were?”
“Of course not, sir.”
“Hmm! Will you tell me this? Did one of them shoot you?”
The burglar was a bit dazed by the question.
“Why, cert’n’y not, sir. Ain’t I told you right from th’ first that I was shot while I was standin’ behind th’ screen?”
“Do you realize, Hartigan, the position this puts you in? So long as we suspected either Miss Duval or Mr. Harrelson, here, there was a chance that we might believe your story. But now even you will admit that neither of them did it, and you were the only other person in the room, and your gun had been fired——”
“No,” burst out the big man, “that’s not true, sir, and ye know it! That gun was planted on me! How, I dunno. All I know is I ain’t never toted a gat. Rollins, there, could tell y’ that if he would. Y’see,” he explained painstakingly, “us crooks has got habits just like reg’lar guys. Some of us is gunmen an’ some ain’t. An’ Rollins knows all of us—that’s his business. An’ he knows that when a man has a rep for not packin’ a rod he don’t do it, that’s all. Ain’t that so, Rollins?”
“Not in your case,” answered Rollins fiercely. “You’ve been caught with a gun before.”
Hartigan’s face flamed.
“Cop or no cop,” he raved, “I’m here tellin’ ye that y’r a dirty, rotten liar! An’ that goes as she lays if I swing for it!”
Rollins leaped forward—but Hall stopped him with a whispered word of warning. He turned to Carroll.
“What that yegg says is part true,” he explained. “I know ’em all, I got their records at my finger tips; some of ’em do carry guns an’ some don’t. But take it from me—an’ I know—there never was a bunch of second-story men that set out to crack a crib like this here one without heelin’ themselves. My Gawd, Mr. Carroll, don’t that sound reasonable?”
“Yes, Rollins, it sounds reasonable!”
“It’s the truth,” insisted Rollins.
“It’s a dam’——”
“Enough of that, Hartigan!” Carroll’s voice was again the implacable steel which forbade denial. “What I was driving at is this: Whether that gun was there or whether it wasn’t—whether you fired it or whether you didn’t, the fact remains that any jury in the world will believe that, in view of the circumstances, you killed Mr. Hamilton. I’m not asking you to squeal on your pals in an ordinary case. If you were only in for a burglary indictment that’d be one thing—but this is murder.”
“You don’t need to go on no farther, Mr. Carroll, because it’s just wastin’ y’r breath, see? Before I swing I’ll tell who them other guys was, because I’d want them to do the same for me. But, sure’s I stand here, I don’t know about them havin’ anything to do with the shootin’.”
“One of them might have killed Hamilton himself and planted the gun on you?”
Hartigan shook his head with dogged loyalty.
“I’ll take my chances, Mr. Carroll. If they jack me up for murder, I’ll tell. But until they do an’ I’m on trial I’ll stand my chances of the real murderer bein’ caught. An’ as for one of my pals plantin’ th’ rod on me—ain’t I told you they was my pals? They wouldn’t do nothin’ like that.”
“There’s something about you, Hartigan,” declared Carroll spontaneously, “that I like.”
“An’ there’s some difference between you an’ a ’tec’ who makes up his mind that a certain chap is guilty ’cause he’s got him with the goods, an’ after that doesn’t look no farther except to send the poor sucker up the river or maybe to the chair. That’s all I gotta say.”
It was too much for the excitable Rollins. He swung on Carroll.
“I’ll take orders from you, Carroll—but before I’ll stand up and let a damned yegg like him hand me that line o’ talk I’ll resign an’——”
“Wait a minute,” interrupted Hall. He crossed the room to the hall door and flung it open. Little Mrs. Faber, blinking and ill at ease and patently in the grip of a new and greater excitement, minced into the room.
“Gentlemen,” she said softly, very much impressed with the spotlight position she held, “the most marvellous thing has developed—the most unbelievable.”
“Yes, yes, Mrs. Faber. What is it?”
“You would hardly believe it. Even when Maggie—she’s the cook—when she told me I just said to her: ‘Maggie,’ I said, ‘if I didn’t know——’”
Eunice took a hand. She placed a hand lightly over the little housekeeper’s lips.
“What is it, Mrs. Faber? Tell us—please.”
“It’s Ethel, your maid.”
“What about Ethel?”
“Maggie just went up in the attic—and there she found Ethel bound and gagged and half dead!”