Six Seconds of Darkness/Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

IN the face of a crisis a man will exhibit courage or cowardice. And Barrett Rollins, accused at the eleventh hour of a crime with which he had apparently had no connection, played his rôle well.

He did not bluster; he did not shrink. Instead, he seemed suddenly cool—although one might have noticed an occasional biting of his lips, a twitching of his huge, muscular hands, a furtive glance from the corners of his little eyes.

For Rollins was cornered. The chain of evidence woven so cleverly by circumstance around the other principals in the drama had suddenly wound itself about him. With Scammon’s accusation, loose ends of the story seemed to meet—or almost so. But Rollins played his hand gamely. For the first time in the course of the case he won the sincere admiration of Commissioner Hall and of Denson, the lawyer.

So cool was he, in fact, so seemingly contemptuous of Scammon’s charge, that Hall could not bring himself to believe that the man was guilty. The idea was too preposterous; too far-fetched. And yet Scammon’s voice had carried conviction of knowledge, Scammon’s whole demeanour had implied verity. And instead of allowing himself to lose control Rollins merely shrugged.

“Damned nonsense!” was all he said.

Carroll had not changed his expression.

“For your sake, Rollins, I hope so.”

“I didn’t ask for any soft stuff from you, Carroll. An ass of your type would most likely believe this crook’s story.”

“Ye-e-s, he most likely would.” Carroll turned back to Scammon. “Now listen here, Lefty—if you can prove the charge you’ve just made you’re in a fair way to get clear of this murder charge. Burglary you’re in for, whether or no. Take my advice and come clean with the whole story. Are you willing?”

The expression of the little fellow was almost pitiful.

“Sure I am, sir. As I said, sir, I wasn’t squealin’ on no pal—s’long’s Rollins was on the force I knowed he’d see me safe through some way. But maybe I’d better tell all of it like it happened.”

“D’yuh mean,” growled Rollins interrogatively, “that you’re gonna sit there an’ listen to his drivel?”

“Yes, I guess we’d better. They’ve all had a chance to talk except Scammon. Go ahead, Lefty.”

The little man passed a nervous hand across his lips.

“All th’ beginnin’ of my story goes pretty well with what this fly cop,” indicating Donaldson, “said. Only one thing is different; th’ man who came to me with the proposition was Chief Rollins yonder. He said that Hamilton had some papers in his safe which he wanted. He seemed to know all about what they were an’ all.

“He said he wanted me to get a coupla good yeggs an’ work the house. Wanted to make it look like th’ real thing, see; so’s when they found th’ stuff was gone they’d think it had just been took accidentallike wit’ th’ rest of th’ swag. Th’ thing looked pretty easy, ’specially after I managed to strike up an acquaintance wit’ this here guy. I t’ought he was th’ butler, see? Well, he comes across elegant. I was a boob for not knowin’ he was too easy, but how was I to know they was lookin’ for just this kind of a move?

“Him an’ Red Hartigan an’ Pal Conover was to divide what they got. I was to get th’ things Rollins wanted an’ meet him out yonder by that bush, y’ see about fifty or sixty feet beyond th’ porch door. Of course, havin’ th’ butler fixed, it looked easy. An’ there wasn’t no chancst for me to do Rollins dirt, ’cause he had th’ goods on me for another little job of mine, an’ he said he’d send me up if I didn’t come across fair an’ square. Oh, I ain’t even squealin’ on him now because I want to—th’ chief has always treated me right; but murder I won’t face for no man.

“All what th’ butler—Donaldson—says about th’ robbery happened just like that. I got down t’ th’ front hall an’ out into th’ garden. It was pretty bright, an’ I didn’t have no trouble spottin’ th’ bush Rollins was hid behind, see? I had th’ packet in me pocket—an’ I had my gun out.”

“You had your revolver in your hand?”

“Sure, a .38 special wit’ one of the butt plates busted. I had took it out when I got t’ th’ bottom of th’ front stairs, because there was two fellers quarrellin’ hell bent for ‘lection in th’ room yonder, an’ I wasn’t takin’ no chances if they should of happened to run up on me—y’see, they don’t usually ask no questions of burglars—they shoot.

“Anyway, I creeps along slow an’ easy, gun out an’ th’ papers in my pocket, until I gets t’ th’ bush. There was Rollins lyin’ in there comfy an’ easy. As I get there he grabs me.

“‘Duck, you dam fool, duck!’ he says. ‘Lookit there!’

“He points to th’ winder of this here room, which we could see real plain, them there big, double doors bein’ opened. Rollins was all excited.

“‘They’ll make it easy f’r me!’ he says. ‘Lookit!’

“A big man an’ a little man was scrappin’, an’ then, all of a suddint, th’ little feller tears loose an’ makes a break for th’ table. He yanks out a gun, an’ before he can shoot th’ big feller grabs him.

“‘I hope he gets him!’ Rollins was sayin’ over an’ over again. ‘I hope he kills that—Hamilton!’

“Just then th’ lights went out—flooie! just like that. There was two shots, or one, I ain’t sure which. Then th’ lights flashed on in about five or six seconds. There they was, standin’ up kinder funny, an’ th’ young lady yonder had the revolver in her hand. This geezer Hamilton was starin’ around like he didn’t know what to make of it, an’ Rollins lets out a line of cuss words that’d of burned if you’d of touched a match to ‘em.

“‘Missed him,’ he says, fiercelike. ‘By God, I’ll get him myself!’

“An’ with that he outs with his gat an’ takes one crack at Hamilton. An’, b’lieve me, mister, when Rollins shoots he don’t usually miss—not often. Take it from me, it wasn’t no cold-blooded murder, he was that excited an’ all. Anyway, w’en I seen Hamilton fallin’, b’lieve me, I didn’t think of nothin’ but makin’ a getaway! I drops me gun, hops to me feet, an’ makes tracks for River Street, an’ I guess that’s when this here Donaldson seen me, because he come after me right away. An’ that’s th’ truth.”

Rollins filled his pipe from a well-used sack, tamped it down with meticulous care, lighted it carefully, and puffed deeply two or three times. When he spoke his voice was quiet and inquiring rather than bitter.

“It looks like story-tellin’ is th’ most pop’lar indoor sport around here,” he started slowly, choosing his words with evident care. “So it’s up to me to have my innin’s an’ to explain how I know Hartigan done it, and why I’ve been insisting on that all along.

“To go back a little ways, y’ll probably remember this mornin’ when Carroll here says that maybe I know somethin’ about th’case I ain’t tellin’? Yeh? Well, he was right. What I knew about it I was keepin’ up my sleeve, hopin’ that I’d land ’im right.

“First off, as Lefty here says, there ain’t no use dickerin’ about little things when there’s a murder charge flyin’ around, so I’ll admit right off that all this story about me gettin’ up th’ burglary is dead true. If them there papers Lefty took is fakes, y’ got me dead to rights on that, anyway. So we’ll let it go that I framed th’ whole thing just to get them papers which has got the goods on me in th’ graft matter— in which I ain’t been no worse than a hell of a lot of others in th’ department whose names I ain’t givin’.

“Furthermore, I was out there behind that bush, just like he says, an’ everythin’ happened just like he says it did, even to me sayin’ that I’d get him myself. But he didn’t stay to see who it was I got.” Rollins paused triumphantly.

“Well—who was it?”

“The man I shot,” finished Rollins easily, “was Red Hartigan!

The spectators gasped; all save Carroll. As for the detective, he seemed the same calmly judicial man he had been all through the case.

“No,” he remarked casually, “I don’t think you shot Hartigan.”

Rollins flushed and controlled himself with a visible effort.

“I tell you I did; I seen him shoot Hamilton an’ I shot him.”

“No-o, I’m afraid that don’t go.”

“Whadaya mean, don’t go? D’yuh mean I’m lyin’?”

“Put it in your own words. But the fact is absurd on the face of it. Hartigan was behind that screen; a bullet fired from behind that bush could not have struck behind that screen without coming through the glass of the window on this side, and as that glass is not broken your bullet didn’t hit Hartigan; nor could your bullet, if you shot from behind that bush, have struck in the ceiling yonder where Miss Duval’s bullet hit, No, you didn’t shoot Hartigan, Rollins.”

“I swear I did—that’s the truth if I ever told it, Carroll. An’ after I shot I beat it right down to headquarters, an’ they just got th’ news in there an’ sent me up here wit’ Hawkins an’ Cartwright. What’s wrong wit’ that story?’

“As a story it’s a dandy, Rollins,” returned Carroll calmly, “I congratulate you on it. But as the truth—nothing doing!”

“I s’pose y’ can prove it ain’t th’ truth, huh?”

“Yes, certainly I can.”

“Do it, then!”

“All right—how about this? Perhaps you did not know that we have down at the police station the man who shot Red Hartigan! His name is Frederick Badger.”

Rollins paled, but even then he did not lose his poise.

“I can’t be bluffed,” he said belligerently. “Y’ think I’d b’lieve that?”

“No, but a jury probably will. You see, this man Badger is a monomaniac, a half-wit. He went there to kill Mr. Hamilton and actually tried to do it. Hartigan switched off the lights and Badger fired from his place by the window—screened from you, by the way, by the veranda screen which had been let down during the afternoon. His bullet went in through the window, struck Hartigan on the wrist, and went on through the screen, making the hole that you claim Hartigan made with his bullet. And that’s the little trump I’ve been holding up my sleeve—I wanted to see just how you’d work your end of the case if you didn’t know about Badger.

“Remember this, Rollins. I had been looking for this burglary of yours. My plan was to let it go off just like you planned, and then make the whole thing public. The killing of Mr. Hamilton changed those plans considerably. You’ve always had a reputation for being hot-headed; a dozen times in your police career you’ve been on the carpet for shooting men without cause. Scammon’s story sounds true; there’s just one more link necessary—would you mind letting me see your revolver?”

“Th’ hell with you! I’ll let you see nothing!”

“Don’t be foolish, Rollins. It will take us about three seconds to get it from you forcibly. Better fork over.”

Rollins was trapped and he knew it. With a very bad grace, he handed his revolver, butt first, to Carroll, and Carroll exhibited it to the others. It was a .38 special with a broken butt plate.

“Your revolver, Scammon?”

The burglar nodded.

“Yes—I’d know it in a million.”

“Good! And now, gentlemen, can’t you see what happened? Miss Duval’s bullet lodged in the ceiling, Mr. Harrelson never fired, Badger shot Hartigan, and Hartigan never had a gun. Rollins, in a fit of fury—one of the kind for which he is notorious, and realizing that the crime could be fastened on any one of three others, killed Hamilton.

“Then when Rollins was sent on the case he planted his own revolver, from which one shot had been fired, on Hartigan. A great case against the man, don’t you see. He kept the revolver Lefty Scammon had dropped. It’s really rather simple after you’ve got the facts before you—although I admit freely, Rollins, that you had me completely fooled. I started out with the idea that you had a hand in it, and I lost that idea. It would have stayed lost, perhaps, if you had not insisted so stubbornly that Hartigan was the man who did it when I knew all the time that Hartigan’s story must be true. And so, gentlemen,” turning to the others, “I think that about ends our day’s work. If you don’t mind, Rollins, we’ll slip the bracelets on you.”

Rollins held out his hands mildly and the handcuffs were slipped over his wrists.

“Do you wish to confess?” questioned Carroll in his habitual kindly voice.

Rollins smiled with grim humour.

“I’ve been in this business too long to confess to anything,” he answered. “What you got against me you gotta prove!”

“I guess we’ll do that all right enough, Rollins. And now—let’s call it a day. There are a few entries to be made on the blotter at headquarters.”

Sergeant Larry O’Brien turned on his cot, waked, yawned, and stretched himself luxuriously. His eye lighted on the immense figure of Patrolman Rafferty on the next cot.

“There’s wan thing I’m afther hopin’,” said Sergeant Larry O’Brien, “an’ that is that there’s somethin’ doin’ today. Things around here lately have been too slow. By the way, got an evenin’ paper?”

Rafferty smiled. “Here’s an extry.”

The flaring headlines burned themselves into the brain of Sergeant O’Brien, but he refused to be budged from his professional stolidity.

“Never did like that guy Rollins, anyway,” he said. “An’ I’m right glad neither of them two kids is gonna be hanged. They’re better off married!”


THE END