Six Seconds of Darkness/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV

OUT of the stillness which followed the young man’s announcement came the mumbled words of a policeman:

“Begorra, this murder is just one damned confession after another!” Then some one said: “Hush, you fool!” and there was quiet again.

Clement Hall was too startled for immediate speech. His jaw dropped and his figure slumped limply. The young man stared at him in surprise, and then curiously at David Carroll, who was eyeing him with a deliberation which brought a slow flush of anger to the young artist’s face. He fidgeted uncomfortably. Finally he broke out irritably:

“What are you staring at? And why?”

By way of answer Carroll flipped back the lapel of his coat, disclosing his badge. Harrelson subsided. Carroll spoke softly:

“This way, young man, and you, too, commissioner, if you please.”

A battery of curious eyes followed their progress across the sombre hall, and as the door of the rest room closed behind them a bedlam of comment and conjecture broke loose.

The case had piled sensation on sensation until it had long since passed the point of plausibility. Larry O’Brien waxed garrulous.

“Be all the saints, ’tis spooky! Usually whin a murder is done we hunt for the guilty. This time we have two guilty wans and have to hunt for the innocent. Bedad, they lied whin they said that wonders have ceased!”

Meanwhile, in the rest room, David Carroll was questioning Vincent Harrelson in his habitual calm, unperturbed way. His first effort was to discover if the young man knew that any one else had confessed.

“You say you killed Hamilton?’

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“We quarreled when I visited his house tonight. We have quarreled several times before. It is strictly a personal matter. I believe Mr. Hall was sufficiently intimate at Hamilton’s home to understand.”

Hall nodded.

“I believe I do.”

“You shot him in cold blood?” asked Carroll deliberately.

The young man leaped to his feet.

“Good God, no! We quarreled bitterly and he lost his head. He hit me here.” Harrelson exhibited a red spot on his left cheek. “I grappled with him and he tore loose. We were in the library then. He dashed to the table, picked up a paper weight, and would have thrown it at me, but I held him. When finally I let him go—and it is more than possible that I handled him a bit roughly—he ran into the next room and took a revolver from the drawer of the table. I grabbed his wrist and got the revolver away from him. Then it went off—how, I don’t know. He fell, and that’s all.”

“That’s all?

“Yes.”

“You’re sure?”

The young man straightened nervously.

“Say, look here, what are you driving at? I’ve told you that was all!”

Apparently Carroll was looking at a set of dominoes spread out on the table before him. His next remark was as casual as a comment on an item in the day’s news:

“How about the switching off of the lights?”

But, disinterested as he seemed, he did not miss the sudden pallor of Harrelson’s cheeks. The young man opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and rose.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, and I refuse to say anything further!”

Carroll’s voice grew cold as steel.

“What about the switching off of the lights?” he snapped. “And who fired the other shot?”

Harrelson gripped the edge of his chair.

“I have nothing further to say at this time. I’ve told you I killed Mr. Hamilton, and that’s all I’m going to tell you. I wish you’d put me in a cell or wherever I am to be put.”

“You’re a very foolish young man,” said Carroll. “If I were you——

“You’re not. And I’ll be exceedingly obliged if you’ll keep your advice to yourself.”

Clement Hall touched the artist on the arm.

“He’s trying to help you, Mr. Harrelson.”

“I haven’t asked for help from any one. I’ve come down here to give myself up for killing a man. The duty of the police department is very plain. There’s nothing else to the case.”

“You’re mistaken, Mr. Harrelson,” said Carroll in his characteristically friendly manner. “I am in charge of this case, and I know several things about it which you think I do not know. Since you have seen fit to assume a hostile attitude, I will not mince matters. Put in plain English, your story is false as to several salient facts. I happen to know that just before Mr. Hamilton was shot the lights went out. They remained out for about six seconds. Then they snapped on again. Therefore, we are presented with one very pertinent question: Who switched those lights off and who switched them on again, and why? Have you anything to say about that?”

Harrelson looked up sullenly.

“Nothing.”

“Item number one,” retorted Carroll with sudden and incisive coldness. “Item number two is the fact that there were two shots, one evidently in the dark and one immediately after the lights were switched on. Which shot, if you please, did you fire?”

“I fired the shot which killed Mr. Hamilton,” came the stolid answer.

“You are quite sure?”

“You can prove it easily enough. Get the bullet which killed him and see if it does not fit his revolver. That will answer you. I don’t know anything about any second shot.”

“You mean you won’t tell?” .

“Have it your own way. I’ve said all I intend to.”

“Who else was in the room at the time of the shooting?”

“I have nothing more to say.”

Carroll smiled.

“That answer is perfectly satisfactory.” Then to Hall: “I will hold this young man in one of the cells under special guard. No one is to be allowed to discuss the case with him. Is that satisfactory?”

“You’re in charge, Carroll. My interest is far more personal than official.”

A sergeant was called and the prisoner placed in his charge with instructions not to discuss any phase of the case with him. Once alone, the two men faced each other and Carroll laughed shortly.

“It is a poser,” he admitted. “The most interesting case I have ever worked. The usual order of things is reversed. We have three people claiming guilt for a crime which only one could have committed. H’mph! That young man is very—er—tart.”

“Temperament!” snorted Hall. “He’s an artist!”

“And, I believe you said, engaged to Miss Duval?”

“That’s the bone of contention between him and Hamilton. Hamilton, I suspect, was deeply in love with Miss Duval; and even under normal circumstances he would not have been overly fond of the man whom she happened to love. That, then, was the case between them basically.

“But Hamilton was superconscientious. I believe he was broad enough to have sanctioned her marriage with Harrelson had he found no fault with the young man personally. But whether it was true or not, whether or not it was just—he was sincere in the belief that Harrelson was after Miss Duval’s money, that he was worthless personally, that he was lazy, and that he was rather much of a Lothario.”

“Hmm! His temperament—would it be of the kind——

“I know exactly what you are thinking; you’re wondering whether he would be quixotic enough to surrender himself for a crime the girl had committed? Isn’t that it?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know. He might and he might not. On the other hand, he has exhibited a certain strength of character in giving himself up at all, especially if a rigid investigation would have implicated her. He could have gotten away.”

“I’m not so sure,” said Carroll slowly. “And remember this, that if he told us the strict and whole truth—which he quite evidently did not—no jury in the world would convict him of anything. But there is something wrong somewhere. He may have lied as to the darkness and the second shot in order to shield the girl. On the other hand, he may have killed the man himself, formulated this self-defence story, and thought to bluff it out. I don’t know the significance of the sudden darkness at the time of the shooting, but that it did have something to do with it I am sure.”

“That whole phase of it,” snapped Hall somewhat irritably, “strikes me as silly. Who would have turned out the lights in the room at that particular time, and why? Certainly it was no time for domestic pyrotechnics. And, besides, while we are discussing whether Miss Duval or Harrelson may be the guilty one, we have completely forgotten old man Badger, the one person who has supplied confession, motive, evidence, and testimony.”

“No-o, Mr. Hall—I hadn’t quite forgotten Badger. Without him the case is complicated enough. With him—it is—er—interesting, very interesting, I suggest that you telephone Doctor Robinson; he should have found the bullet by this time.”

Doctor Robinson had found the bullet, and Doctor Robinson was desirous of coming down to see Mr. Hall immediately. He came, and a quick and thorough examination showed that the lethal bullet was of the same calibre as that used in the official police revolvers. Hall looked at Carroll and Carroll looked at Hall.

“It would have been queer,” remarked Carroll easily, “if something had turned up to bewilder us more. Although that would have been well-nigh impossible.”

Hall laughed shortly. He questioned the doctor:

“The man was only shot once; you are quite sure?”

“Just once. I am positive of it.”

“Where was he shot?”

“Through the heart. The bullet entered his left side.”

“Would you say, after close investigation, doctor,” questioned Carroll, “that the bullet that killed him was fired from very close to him?”

Doctor Robinson looked up in some surprise.

“Why, no; I should say most emphatically that it was fired from a distance.”

“The distance of a few feet?”

“More than that. I do not pretend to be an expert in such matters, but I should hazard a guess that the person who killed him fired from a distance of at least twenty-five feet.”

Carroll thanked the doctor briefly and requested him to take charge of the body with the coroner. After the man of medicine had gone, Hall sank weakly into a chair and spread his hands helplessly.

“I give it up altogether,” he said hopelessly. “He is certain that the bullet was fired from a distance. Badger’s bullet was the only one fired from a distance. Eunice Duval insists that she was in the room with him, and, while she gave no details, she led us to believe that they were close together. Harrelson maintains that they were struggling when the shot was fired. Evidence of that would have been unmistakable—powder marks and the sear of the flame. I am convinced that Harrelson confessed to save Eunice, although what she had to do with it—— Good Lord! the thing is fearful!”

“I’m not convinced of anything—yet,” said Carroll slowly. “Not even that Harrelson did not do it himself.”

“But, great goodness, man, he couldn’t have done it if he was grappling with the man!”

“How do we know that he was grappling with him? He lied to us about the sudden darkness; he swears he knows nothing about a second shot. Why is it not possible that both he and Miss Duval shot?”

“Hamilton was only hit once.”

“One might have missed and the other finished it.”

“You’re crazy. They are not members of a murderers’ club. Your beastly theories——

“Easy, there, Mr. Hall—you’re letting your personal interest run away with your sounder judgment. I have merely advanced theories, none of which do I believe.”

“Then for God’s sake tell me what you do believe!”

“I prefer not to. I’d rather work the case my own way. It ought not prove a very difficult task to disclose the innocence of those who are innocent.”

“And we have the guilty one dead to rights?”

“Yes, we have the guilty one dead to rights.”

“I—I’m glad you’re in charge of the case, Carroll. You’re so—so—damned impersonal!”

“That’s my business. Just at present I’m willing to admit frankly that, being only human, I’m about as confused as you are. I want to get off by myself and think. Which I cannot do with that infernal noise dinning in my ears.”

The noise was the clanging of the police patrol which swung in from the street to the courtyard, gong clanging and muffler cut out. Carroll and the police commissioner strolled to the window and gazed out into the stone-flagged courtyard surrounded by its austere greystone wall and beyond that a frame of trees garlanded with the fresh leaves of early summer. It was Hall who recognized the man in charge of the wagon.

“By George, it’s Barrett Rollins!”

Carroll evinced sudden interest.

“So it is,” he said quietly, eyeing the heavy-set form of the thief of the regular detective force. “And he’s got a wounded man in that wagon. I wonder if he’s been using his revolver again to bring down some poor suspect. That’s a habit of his—firing his revolver rather indiscriminately.”

“He’s been on the carpet for it a half-dozen times,” answered Hall. “I wonder now——

“I suggest that you have him sent in here,” said Carroll. “He may have something of interest to tell us.”

In response to orders, Barrett Rollins entered the room a few minutes later. But he was not alone.

With him was a huge man, lantern-jawed, shaggy-haired, and with glowing eyes which flamed from beneath heavy lashes. Rollins’ attitude was one of triumph; then he flushed with sudden fury as his eyes fell on the figure of Carroll. But Carroll was staring at the bloodstained bandage around the hand and wrist of the prisoner.

“What you doin’ here?” Rollins demanded gruffly.

Carroll shrugged.

“You might ask Mr. Hall.”

Hall spoke softly:

“I’ve placed Mr. Carroll in charge of the Hamilton case, Rollins. Absolutely in charge.”

Rollins’ face took on a sneer.

“You can let your fine Sherlock Holmes go,” he said triumphantly, “Because the case is solved. This here man is Red Hartigan, alias Rio Red, alias Pete Harti——

“Yes, yes!” Hall was leaning forward anxiously. “What about him?”

Rollins chuckled.

Red Hartigan,” he exulted, “is the man who murdered Mr. Hamilton!