Six Seconds of Darkness/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III

FOR a few seconds Hall was stunned by the import of the words of the simple little man, Then he was conscious of an insane desire to laugh aloud. He glanced at David Carroll, and saw the little detective staring keenly from his fishy eyes at the latest personage to hold the centre of the stage in the tragedy.

Then gradually Hall began to understand what the confession of Frederick Badger might mean to the girl in the other room who had also confessed to the crime. If Badger had killed Hamilton, then it followed as a matter of course that the girl had not done so. Somewhere, somehow, there was a mistake. Then he was conscious of the fact that Badger was talking.

“He wouldn’t give me my due,” he was explaining painstakingly, “and I told him I was going to kill him, so I did it!”

Carroll took the revolver and “broke” it with a deft motion. Four loaded cartridges and one exploded shell clattered to the floor. The empty shell was picked up by the boyish-looking detective, and he smelled it.

“Recent,” was all he said. Badger gazed at him in surprise.

“Of course,” he explained. “I killed him less than an hour ago and walked right down here to give myself up.”

Commissioner Hall faced the little man curiously.

“You are quite sure that you killed him?”

“Of course I killed him. I told him I was going to, and I did. I left his house about eight o’clock, went down to a pawnshop on Halsey Street near Oak and bought that revolver and the bullets.”

Immediately Carroll made his way to a telephone. Within three minutes he was back.

“That part of the story is true. It’s Simpson’s pawnshop, and he remembers the sale distinctly. One of those bullets has been fired since the revolver was bought.” He examined the gun closely. “It’s a regulation police revolver, too.”

“How can that be?” questioned Hall sharply.

“Some discharged policeman, probably, pawned his service revolver.”

“Then the case is simple,” snapped Hall hopefully. “The bullet which really killed him can be identified by its size. If this old man did it, it will be proven beyond a doubt by the size of the bullet found at the autopsy.”

“If I killed him?” echoed Badger. “Don’t you understand?—I did kill him. That’s what I came here to tell you. I bought the revolver and went back there through the garden and stood on the veranda and killed him—in the dark!”

“You——” Hall slapped his hand against his knee. “By George, Carroll, that’s the second person who has made some reference to killing Hamilton ‘in the dark’!”

Badger seemed a bit dazed at the refusal of these men to take his confession of murder quite seriously. Carroll was silent, tight-lipped, keenly observant—the lethal weapon held in his right hand.

Once again the police commissioner took stock of the latest figure in the sensational case. The man seemed even smaller, weaker, and more dejected than when he exploded his confession of the crime to which some one else had already confessed. He was, above all things, meek; meek and intensely out of place. But he was determined that he had killed Hamilton, and with cause! That “with cause” feature of the confession impressed Clement Hall. Eunice Duval had refused to give details.

“Suppose you tell us what happened tonight, Mr. Badger,” he suggested. “Start at the beginning and tell us everything.”

The old man spread his skinny fingers in a helpless gesture.

“There isn’t anything to tell except that I killed him and ran away.”

“You ran away?”

“Yes.”

“If you intended to come down here and confess to the crime, why did you run away?”

“I was frightened. The noise scared me—the noise and the dark.”

Here Carroll interrupted, his voice soft and soothing:

“What do you mean by repeating that you shot him in the dark? Where was he when you shot?”

“In his living room on the other side of the big table. I was on the veranda by the window.”

“You shot through the window?”

“Yes. It was half open. One side of it was open.”

“Now what about the darkness? You’ve said twice that you shot in the dark.”

Badger passed a trembling hand across his forehead.

“That’s the funny part of it. I took careful aim at Mr. Hamilton, and just before I pulled the trigger the lights went out.”

“The lights in the room where he was standing?”

“Yes, sir; they all went out and the room was very dark. Then, in about five seconds, they flashed on again, and I saw him falling, and I ran away.”

“Did you hear anything else—another shot?”

“I don’t know. You see, I wasn’t thinking about anything except myself. There might have been another shot.”

“Would you have heard it if there had been?”

Badger stared at him blankly.

“Maybe; I don’t know.”

Hall was settled back in his chair, listening amazedly to the dialogue. The thing was ludicrous—Carroll, who looked like a fussy college boy and was a truly great detective, discussing a case with a watery-eyed, harmless-appearing old man who confessed to murder. The thing was not at all as it should have been; there was as little of the detective in Carroll’s appearance as there was of the murderer in Badger’s.

Of one thing Hall was already convinced, that, whether or not Badger had killed Hamilton, he was not quite sane. There was an occasional gleam in his weak old eyes when Hamilton’s name was mentioned that denoted a mild form of mania. Carroll continued his questioning.

“Now suppose you tell us, Mr. Badger,” he said quietly, “why you killed Mr. Hamilton?’

“Because I told him I was going to.”

“When did you tell him that?”

“Tonight about eight o’clock. He laughed at me and told me not to let a little thing make me try anything foolish. Then I went down to the pawnshop and bought the revolver and went back and shot him in the dark.”

In the dark! In the dark! Eunice had spoken of shooting “in the dark.”

“Why,” persisted Carroll easily, “did you tell Mr. Hamilton that you were going to kill him?”

“Because he stole my money.”

“Hamilton stole your money?” burst in Hall brusquely. “That’s ridiculous! The man was worth a fortune.”

Again that flash of fury in Badger’s eyes—a fire spark that died out almost as soon as born.

“I don’t care how much he had,” he insisted. “He stole my money.”

“When?”

“Fifteen years ago.”

“Damned rot!” chortled Hall. “This man is crazy!”

“Just a minute, Mr. Hall,” interrupted Carroll. “Tell us all about it, Mr. Badger.”

“He took my money—it was on a proposition to develop oil lands. Then he said he sent down an engineer and the engineer said there wasn’t any oil there. But I knew—I knew——” Badger rose to his feet, and as he talked his manner became more violent and his voice rose to a crescendo. “I know how these rich men get rich! They steal their money from us poor people. He took all my money, and I know there was oil there. He said there wasn’t, and all my money was gone. I asked him to give it back to me, and he said he was sorry, but that he had lost three times as much as I had. And there was oil there—there was oil on the land when I bought it.” The old man had worked himself into a frenzy. He gesticulated wildly and paced the room. “Oh, he had it coming to him! For fifteen years I have visited him two or three times a week; I’ve warned him and I’ve threatened him. I told him that he couldn’t get away with it. But he’s got a stone heart. He didn’t have any right to live. Tonight he laughed at me and said I was a ‘poor nut.’ Me, whose money he stole. And I told him I was going to kill him—and——” Suddenly the frenzy of passion disappeared. In the fraction of an instant he was metamorphosed from the victim of a monomania to his natural, harmless, helpless, inoffensive self. “And so I went to the pawnshop and bought the revolver and went back to the house and killed him. And then I came down here and gave myself up.”

“Do you realize what this means for you?”

Badger shrugged.

“There wasn’t anything in life for me, anyway. And maybe it’ll teach these rich people a lesson. I told him I was going to kill him, and then I went right down to the pawnshop——

“Yes, yes; we understand that. We’ll hold you now. I’m sorry you had to shoot him——

Again Badger was on his feet.

“He stole my money! He stole it!”

Carroll reached over to the desk at which Hall was sitting and pressed a buzzer.

“Put him in charge of one of your best men personally,” he ordered. “See to it that he is allowed to speak to no one. Not even to Rollins.”

When Badger had been led away and the two men were alone, Hall lighted a cigar and puffed violently for a few minutes.

“Of course it’s damned rot!” he said at length.

“What?” queried the detective in a mild tone.

“That fool notion that Hamilton stole his money. More than probably he went to Hamilton with some wildcat scheme and got some of Hamilton’s money in on it. And of course—— Oh, damn it all, anyway! It’s my opinion that the man is crazy.”

Carroll’s answer was as calm and steady as though he were remarking on the weather:

“Undoubtedly he is. But crazy men can kill people.”

“Of course he killed—but Eunice said she killed him.”

“H’mph! Suppose you go in and tell Miss Eunice that this man has confessed and see what she says. Ask her first if she knows who Badger is?”

“If she’ll see me.” Hall started for the door. “I can’t make head or tail of it. I’ll tell her, though.”

His knock was answered by Mrs. Faber, and only after pleading with the girl through her did Eunice consent to speak to him.

He found her lying on the couch staring, dry-eyed, at the ceiling. Her face was pallid, and one hand hung limply over the side of the couch. She spoke without turning her head:

“What is it, Mr. Hall?”

“I hate to bother you, Eunice; but there’s been a terrible mistake somewhere, and I want you to help me out. Tell me first, do you know of a man named Frederick Badger?”

She turned her face to the wall.

“I thought you wanted to see me about something important, Mr. Hall. I’m not at all well, and I wish——

“But this is important; really it is. Do you know of him?”

“Of course I do!” she said somewhat sharply. “He’s been bothering Mr.—Mr. —Hamilton for years. They were in some business deal together. Mr. Hamilton thought he was crazy.”

“I see.”

“And now, if that’s all you wanted to know, I wish you’d go. I don’t want to see any one except Mr. Denson. He hasn’t come yet, has he?”

“No. Eunice, please, won’t you take a friend’s advice and retract your confession?”

“Of course not! I killed him. That’s all I have to say.”

“But you did not kill him,” said Hall desperately. “That man has already confessed to Mr. Hamilton’s murder!”

The effect of his words was electrical. The girl’s figure stiffened, grew rigid; then in a flash she was on her feet, bosom heaving, eyes flashing, fists clenched.

“You’re lying! You know you are lying!”

Hall gave back a step.

“Eunice! You know I’m not. He has confessed to the killing.”

“It’s a lie!” A pause, and then: “What man?”

“Frederick Badger!”

O-o-o-h!” As suddenly as she had risen, she relaxed. The light died from her eyes. She crumpled on the couch. “Why—why—didn’t you say that?

“I did. I explained. That’s why I asked you who he was. If you’ll withdraw your confession now we’ll probably let you go home. Badger killed him.”

She turned her haggard face to him.

“I told you Badger is crazy. I repeat it. He didn’t kill Mr. Hamilton. I did—shot him with his own revolver!”

“But, Eunice——

“Mrs. Faber,” she said weakly, “please make Mr. Hall go. He means well, but I can’t stand much more of this. I—I’ll go to pieces again in a minute.”

Hall was hurt. He bowed in the girl’s direction.

“I’ll go, Mrs. Faber, but there is a mistake. She didn’t kill Mr. Hamilton. This man Badger insists that he did. He bought a revolver and went there and shot him——

The eyes of the little housekeeper lighted.

“That explains the second shot.”

“What second shot?”

“There were two shots, sir. I was in my room in bed. I heard a shot—that echoed all around. Then there was another shot. I put my wrapper on, and when I got downstairs Mr. Hamilton was—was——” She glanced significantly toward the huddled figure of the girl on the couch. “You understand, sir.”

“Yes, I understand. I think I do. The shot that echoed was the one from inside the room. The other was from outside. What a mess!”

He left the two women together and told his story to Carroll.

“That simplifies things,” said Carroll. “We’ll have an autopsy performed and discover whether Hamilton was killed by a bullet from a police revolver. Badger’s weapon was undoubtedly one.”

Hall shook his head.

“They’re performing the autopsy now,” he said, “but that will tell us nothing. The girl says she used Hamilton’s revolver. That revolver was a present to him from me—and it was the duplicate of the one Badger used!”

Hall shook his head.

“That makes it a little harder. And Miss Duval still refuses to go into details?”

“Yes. She insists on seeing Denson first. I can’t blame her. Poor little kid, she’s gone through hell this night. She’s a wreck. And now I haven’t yet telephoned Rollins.” He turned to the instrument on his desk, but Carroll stopped him.

“Don’t; not yet. Let him work over the ground. Maybe he’ll run across something which will prove which one really killed him.”

“Ye-e-s; perhaps he will. I’m almost afraid that he will.”

Carroll looked up sharply.

“I see you think the girl’s bullet did it?” he said interrogatively.

Hall flushed dully.

“I think nothing,” he said curtly. “However, I’ll let Rollins remain.”

For some minutes they sat quietly, Hall puffing on a cigar and Carroll raptly contemplating the glowing end of a Turkish cigarette. Then there was a violent knock at the door.

“Come in!” And in response to Hall’s command a young officer burst into the room.

“A young man to see you immediately, Mr. Hall—he says you know him; his name is Harrelson—Vincent Harrelson.”

Hall felt Carroll’s eyes upon him, and he gave answer to the unspoken query: “Yes, it’s Vincent Harrelson, the artist. I think—mind you, I don’t know—that he was secretly engaged to Eunice.”

“A-a-h! Let’s go see what he wants.”

Again the man they saw did not fit into the picture. Artist he was, but not at all the painter depicted in fiction. He was more than six feet in height, broad of shoulder and very deep of chest. His big, soft, brown eyes contained a strange light; there was suppressed excitement in his manner. He made his way immediately to Hall.

“They told me the chief of police was out of the city and that you were here,” he said swiftly, the words almost tumbling over one another. “You know who I am—and you know something about family conditions——

“Yes, I understand.”

“I just came in to give myself up, sir. About an hour ago I quarreled with Mr. Hamilton—and I killed him!