Six Seconds of Darkness/Chapter 9

CHAPTER IX

FOR the first time since assuming charge of the case, David Carroll exhibited stark surprise. And no wonder—for all of Carroll’s theories regarding the shooting had been predicated on the sudden extinguishing of the lights. And here, by a word, Red Hartigan, burglar, knocked the foundation from under his carefully built case.

Nor did he conceal his surprise; the look of dismay on his face caused Hall to chuckle grimly.

“At least you’re human, Carroll. Heretofore, I’ve been the one to gape at news.”

“It is rather—er—bewildering,” said Carroll, after a short pause for the selection of the most apt word. Then, regaining his poise and clipping off his words incisively, he swung on Hartigan.

“Hartigan,” he said, “you are confessedly a crook and a liar. Are you telling the truth now, or did some one get to you?”

The big man was plainly puzzled.

“Get to me? How could any one do that? Ain’t I been under guard, huh? What I’m tellin’ you now is the Gawd’s truth; you can take it or leave it, but all the clever prosecutin’ attoneys in the world can’t shake my story now—because it’s true.”

“Tell us about it.”

“It’s just like I told you afore. I was making a getaway with the boodle, and I come into the room from the dinin’ room, where I’d copped some silver for good measure. The room was all lit up, an’, thinkin’ I heard the sound of a scrap in the next room, I hopped behind the screen. It was pretty dark back there, an’ I knowed they’d never spot me, an’ I could see sorter hazylike through—the light bein’ on that side.

“Then I was sure there was men quarrellin’, an’ all of a suddint a girl comes from behind the portières over the big winder on the other side of the door leadin’ to the porch—the one leadin’ to the next room—opens an’ the big guy an’ the little feller come out, fightin’. The little man makes a grab for a paper weight or somethin’, an’ the big feller gets it away. That’s where I begin to think it’s a swell chancst for me to make my getaway while everything’s excitement. Of course I’ve spotted the switch right near the screen—so I says to meself, why not switch ’em all off, make a break through the winder behind me, which is half open, an’ beat it? They don’t know I’m there, y’see, an’ they’d never suspect nothin’. An’ my pal’s waitin’ in the garden yonder, an’ th’ other feller is goin’ out the front door; two of us havin’ been workin’ inside an’ one outside.

“I keep me eyes sharp on the scrap, an’ believe me, they’re goin’ to it! Just as I reach out for the switch I see the little feller grab a gun outa th’ table drawer, an’ th’ big man knocks it outa his hand. They all make a dive for it, big feller, little feller, an’ th’ girl. I snap off the light—flooie! just like that.

“Just then there’s two shots; where from, I don’t know. I feel this pain, hot an’ burnin’like, in my hand, an’ I know a bullet’s got me. But I know that there wasn’t no one shootin’ at me. Then I get sick all of a sudden, an’ I know I’m gonna fall: Well, I thinks, if I fall down they’ll come over to switch on th’ lights, an’ they’ll spot me. So I reaches over, snaps ’em on again, an’ lays meself down. Next I know Rollins has me in the horspital. An’ that’s all.”

“No, that’s not all.”

“S’help me, it is.”

“Listen to common sense, Hartigan. “You know as well as I do that we’ve got you dead to rights with enough evidence to hang you higher than a kite. Now come clean, and maybe we’ll see our way to letting you off on a burglary charge without mentioning murder. Who were your pals?”

A peculiar look flashed into the burglar’s eyes.

“You ain’t no reg’lar bull, are youse, boss?”

“No. Why?”

“Because,” answered the man with quiet dignity, “if you was you’d know better than to ask Red Hartigan to squeal on a pal!”

Carroll pondered. Here he was balked in this new line of search by a cul-de-sac of a crook’s honour; a man who would steal and who would lie, but who steadfastly refused to violate the one immutable tenet of his profession—a man who would not squeal. Carroll nodded briefly:

“That’s all; you can go back to your cell.”

Hartigan started forward.

“I want you to b’lieve what I tol’ ye, boss. It’s the honest-t’-Gawd truth and——

“I’ve doubted the truth from lips of better men than you, Hartigan.” He opened the door. “O’Brien!”

“Yis, sor.” The head of the sergeant appeared as though by magic.

“Take this man back to his cell and see to it that he talks to no one—except, of course, Chief Rollins.”

“About reporters, sor?”

“Not a word is to be said to any one of them. We’ll give them the story in time. And when you’re relieved in the morning tell Ryall—he’s day sergeant, isn’t he?”

“Yis, sor, he is.”

“What you know of the case; and give him the same orders I’ve given you. That’s all.”

At the door, Hartigan turned.

“I ain’t used to you fancy bulls,” he shot vindictively at Carroll. “A reg’lar one would know when I was tellin’ the truth. I’ve said all I got to say—an’ be damned to you!”

The door closed behind sergeant and prisoner. It was Denson who questioned Carroll first.

“Do you believe his story?”

“As much as I believe any story I have heard so far. But it is a dangerous thing to believe the word of that type of man. They’re uncannily clever at simulation of innocence, and he, knowing nothing else of the case, feels that his neck is in a noose. And he’s liable to think up a mighty clever story.”

“And you mustn’t forget,” reminded Hall, “that a revolver, with one chamber exploded, was found in his coat pocket.”

Denson shook his head.

“The whole thing is beyond me. I’d better be going home. Remember, you gentlemen have both promised to telephone me if there are any new developments.”

They saw him out, and then returned to the rest room, where they had two regulation iron cots brought down and made up. They left instructions with O’Brien that they were to be called on the slightest provocation, and gradually they dropped off to sleep.

Hall was the first to wake. For a minute he stared blinkingly at his unusual surroundings, and then, slowly, recollection of the kaleidoscopic happenings of the previous night returned to his mind. In the cold, sober light of early morning, the events following Hamilton’s killing seemed like a horrible nightmare from which one must waken slowly.

He lay on his cot and stared at the sombre ceiling of the headquarters’ rest room. Once he heard some one try the knob and the voice of a policeman, evidently on special duty, warning the would-be intruder that he’d get busted high as Haman if he butted in on the police commissioner.

He could hear a buzzing of conversation in the hall outside, then the heavy tread of many feet on the stairs, followed by silence; then a sharp barking of answers as the day sergeant called the roll of the new patrol; then the incisive commands for inspection, and finally the opening of the street door and the solemn filing out of the uniformed guardians of the city’s peace. All in a day’s work to these men—tragedies such as that of the previous night. The latest was more sensational, perhaps, and rather closer to the bosom of the police department; but murder, robbery—nothing for a professional policeman to lose his head over.

He turned on his side, and his eyes rested on the figure of David Carroll. For a second he winked unbelievingly—it was incomprehensible that the smooth, slender, boyish face on the cot beside his belonged to one of the best detectives in the country; a man gentle of manner and modest of demeanour; fair to a fault, and with a code of honour as rigid and unshakable as the Rock of Gibraltar; a man who faced the worst risks cheerfully and quietly; who, in the midst of excitement, kept his head where others lost theirs—weighing, always weighing, fact and circumstance, person and personality.

Carroll smiled gently in his sleep; his face that of a dreamer, rather ascetic in the rigidity of some lines and poetic in the softness of others. Yet that was the man who, with some, the night before, had been austere, commanding, domineering almost; with others patient to a degree, tactful, retiring.

Of a sudden Carroll was awake. He rubbed his knuckles into his eyes, sat up in bed, and smiled cheerily at Hall. From the instant that his lids popped open there was no hint of bewilderment in his manner; rather, there was an almost uncanny righting of himself to surroundings.

“How do you do it?” asked Hall.

“What?”

“Remember it all—on the instant?”

“It’s my profession,” answered Carroll simply.

He leaped nimbly from the bed, slipped the length of the rest room, where he cracked open a door, took a careful survey, and motioned Hall to follow him into the shower room. The police commissioner satisfied himself with a warm spray, but Carroll ignored the handle marked “Hot” and stepped under the icy cascade with a grunt of satisfaction.

His skin glowed pinkly in the morning light, and the easy-writhing play of his muscles under the satiny flesh gave an impression of physical strength which his clothes hid completely. And finally they were dressed and munching a coarse breakfast served them by the barracks’ chef, That finished, they lighted cigars and seated themselves in the rest room. Carroll came straight to the point:

“Three of the best detectives I know will be here this morning to help me. One of them will be placed in charge of Miss Duval, one of Harrelson, and one of Badger. Hartigan I will leave to the tender mercies of the police department. Hello, Denson—you’re early!”

Denson shook hands briefly.

“Didn’t know I had nerves,” he grunted, “but last night made things seem creepy. Couldn’t sleep—worse luck. Took a cold dip and came on down. Anything new?”

“Nothing. Have you had breakfast?”

“Coffee and rolls; didn’t want anything else. What’s first on the program?”

“To the house with Badger.” Carroll glanced out of the window. “My men are coming now–good!”

Carroll’s three men proved to be mild-mannered young giants of placid countenances. He introduced them briefly— Roberts, Smith, and Johnson, three men with whom, as he briefly explained, he had worked some of his most difficult cases; men who could be trusted absolutely to keep silent regarding what they knew and to ask no questions about what they didn’t. He accompanied them from the room and assigned them to their tasks; Roberts as special custodian for Frederick Badger; Johnson to be with Eunice Duval, and Smith with Harrelson. No one was to speak to the prisoners, he informed them; least of all, Barrett Rollins. Then he spoke to Hall, had the commissioner’s automobile—a touring car had been brought down in place of the roadster which still lay parked in the street—backed up against the back door of headquarters, and within five minutes the car, containing Carroll, Roberts, Badger, Hall, and Denson, was speeding, with top up and curtains drawn, toward Hamilton’s home.

Immediately on his arrival, Carroll summoned the three policemen who had maintained the night vigil at the house. In response to his query as to their physical condition, they confessed that they had divided the night into three watches, two sleeping at a time, so that they felt fairly fresh. Carroll stationed the trio at the two entrances to the ground with strict orders that no one, even from the police department, was to be admitted without first summoning him. Then the car purred into the spacious grounds, beautiful now in the bright sun of a clear, summer day. It stopped under the shadow of a spreading elm, and the passengers alighted.

Badger, small, insignificant looking, and a bit frightened at the secrecy which had enshrouded their movements, glanced about apprehensively, Carroll spoke with him:

“You still stick to your story of last night, Mr. Badger?”

The little man looked at him out of his meek, mild, inquiring blue eyes.

“Why, yes; why shouldn’t I? It’s true.”

“I thought perhaps you’d like to retract your confession?”

“No-o. That wouldn’t be any use, would it?”

The man was pitiful; the watchers felt a profound sympathy for him. That such a meek man should have been inspired to deliberate murder—it was unbelievable that he was not mentally deficient.

“We’re going to do what we can for you, Mr. Badger,” said Carroll kindly. “Of course I can promise you nothing; if you are guilty, you must suffer. But, above all, you must be honest. What I want you to do now is to re-enact the scene last night from the time you entered the grounds until you left them. Here”—he thrust into the little wizened hands an empty revolver, the very one Badger had used the previous night—“go right ahead, just as you did last night.”

Badger gazed appealingly from one to the other.

“What’s the use of it?” he questioned vaguely. “Haven’t I told you I killed him?”

“Yes,” said Carroll gently, “but we are rather puzzled about the case. There are three punishments for killing a man; the crime may be murder, it may be manslaughter, or it may be plain homicide—and the latter may be justifiable. We will watch you. You’ll do it, won’t you?”

“Yes,” agreed the little old man timidly, “I’ll do it, but I don’t see what it’s all about.”

“It’s to find out what you really did do.”

“Very well.” Badger clutched the revolver tightly in his two hands, a fact at which Carroll nodded significantly. Then, quite abruptly, his expression changed as he entered into the spirit of the play.

The benign, harmless look in his eyes gave way as he walked across the lawn to a crafty, foxlike, wholly demented expression. His little shoulders hunched, and he minced stealthily.

He led the way around to the rear of the house, walking rather pridefully, as though the dramatic elements of the pantomime, with himself in the centre of the stage, appealed to him. He indicated a broken place in the wall which fronted on the back street.

“I climbed over there,” he chuckled foxily, “so that no one could see me.”

He walked halfway to the wall and then whirled.

“When I got to here,” he explained, “I got down on my hands and knees—so.”

Thereafter he acted without speaking. Slowly and quietly he crawled toward the rear of the house, pausing every minute or two to glance cautiously about. The revolver he had thrust into the pocket of his shiny old coat. The balmy breeze of the early morning ruffled the silky strands of snowy hair about his temples. Only the now bitter expression of his face was there to give plausibility to the fact that he was re-enacting a murder.

He approached the southeast corner of the house, flattened himself against the wall, and slipped quietly toward the southern side, where the long veranda spanned the length of the residence. Keeping in what must have been a dense shadow at night, he edged around the corner, and, without relaxing his vigilance, made his way past the kitchen and the butler’s pantry toward the flight of steps leading to the veranda at the place where the house jutted in, the space between dining room and living room.

Arriving at the steps, he dropped to all fours and crawled up, one by one. Carroll noticed that the screen at the corner of the veranda would have effectually shut off a view of him from any one who might have been in the garden. Followed by his breathless audience, the old man crept across the veranda, pausing long enough to pull the revolver from his pocket. At the big French window which faced east—toward the rear of the house—he began talking, low and sibilantly:

“I came up just like this—so I noticed that there was a light in the room. I moved up to the window and looked in. I saw a girl—Mr. Hamilton’s girl, I think it was. I was afraid she would see me, so I moved away. I waited in the shadow of the screen there; then I heard the sounds of a quarrel. I slipped back to the window, being careful to stand in the shadow so that Hamilton would not see me and run away. I wanted to kill him.

“Every once in a while I could see the girl, and then I saw him fighting with another man——

“Him?”

“Mr. Hamilton. I couldn’t see very plainly because that screen you see there cut off a part of my view. I didn’t want to shoot Hamilton while the young man was fighting with him, because I didn’t want to kill anybody but Hamilton. Then all of a sudden he rushed away from the man he was fighting with and tore open the drawer of that table yonder.” Badger’s voice rose shrilly; he was working himself into a state of intense excitement—his little figure quivered with emotion. “He opened the drawer and pulled out a revolver. I thought that he saw me—so I raised the revolver like this”—he lifted the weapon, still clutching it in both hands, and half closed his eyes—“and took careful aim. And then I pulled the trigger, but just as I did all the lights went out. I shot!” He paused and stood trembling.

“Then the lights went on again! I saw Hamilton falling—and I knew—I knew I had killed him, and I was glad, glad! He’d stolen my money and ruined my life. I had warned him, warned him a dozen times, but he wouldn’t believe me.”

Carroll touched him soothingly on the arm.

“That’s all right, Mr. Badger. Now tell us what you did after you pulled the trigger.”

The little man looked up dazedly.

“I ran away. Just ran away, that’s all. What else should I do? I went down to the police station and gave myself up.”

“Why did you do that?”

“Because I didn’t care any more what they did with me. I was willing to die now that I knew he was dead!” His eyes were flaming vindictively. “And I won’t say I’m sorry, because I’m not. I was scared at first awful; the gun made a big noise, and it frightened me. And there were other people in the room, and I thought they’d catch me and hold me, and I wanted to give myself up so that every one would know the truth—would know that Hamilton’s death had been the hand of justice—that’s it, the hand of justice. This hand here—see?” He extended a skinny paw that trembled as though with palsy.

“Think carefully, Mr. Badger; did you hear another shot—just after the lights went on again?”

Badger passed a weak hand across his forehead. Under Carroll’s soothing examination, he was recovering from the frenzy of passion which had gripped him a moment since.

“Another shot? I don’t know that I did.”

“Are you sure that you did not?

“No, I’m not sure about anything. I wasn’t thinking about anything much except being glad that I’d killed Hamilton. I told him I was going to do it, and after I saw him falling I ran away. And I ain’t sorry for it, either; I ain’t going to say that if you hang me. I’m glad I killed him.”

“S-h-sh! Don’t get yourself worked up.

“I —I—can’t help it when I think of that man—and what he did to me. You see, I ain’t been very well for a long time. I have headaches and such, and I don’t think of many things at a time. And,” with quaint dignity, “I guess that’s all, ain’t it, gentlemen?”

Carroll nodded.

“Yes, that’s all, Mr. Badger. Roberts!”

The young detective stepped forward.

“Yes, sir?”

“Take Mr. Badger to the automobile, and be sure that no one sees him. We’ll join you in a minute.”

“Very well, sir.”

He touched Badger gently on the shoulder and they walked together; the big, broad-shouldered young detective in the prime of a perfect life and the wizened little old man long past the heyday of his. Hall swore sharply.

“If he killed him or not,” he broke out violently, “he ought to get off! The old man is daffy; crazy as a loon! If I ever in my life saw a victim of a homicidal mania, he is it; don’t you think so. Denson?”

Denson nodded slowly.

“I believe I do. And you, Carroll?”

Instead of answering, Carroll stepped through the opened French window into the room and moved to his right until he stood behind the ornate Japanese screen in the shadow of which Rollins had found the unconscious form of Red Hartigan.

He inspected it carefully, occasionally turning to draw a bead from the spot from which Badger had fired to the place where the bullet hole showed. Finally he rejoined them.

“I don’t think Badger will need an insanity defence,” he announced quietly.

“Won’t need—— Why? What do you mean?”

“I mean,” explained Carroll simply, “that in so far as I can be positive of anything at this stage of the game, I am sure that Badger did not shoot Mr. Hamilton.” He paused. Denson leaned forward tensely.

“Then what did he shoot?”

“Unless I am utterly mistaken,” said the detective, “Badger shot Red Hartigan!