The Man in Lower Ten/Chapter 20
THE NOTES AND A BARGAIN
I WENT back slowly to where the woman sat alone. She smiled rather oddly as I drew near, and pointed to the chair Bronson had vacated.
"Sit down, Mr. Blakeley," she said, "I am going to take a few minutes of your valuable time."
"Certainly." I sat down opposite her and glanced at a cuckoo clock on the wall. "I am sorry, but I have only a few minutes. If you—" She laughed a little, not very pleasantly, and opening a small black fan covered with spangles, waved it slowly.
"The fact is," she said, "I think we are about to make a bargain."
"A bargain?" I asked incredulously. "You have a second advantage of me. You know my name"—I paused suggestively and she took the cue.
"I am Mrs. Conway," she said, and flicked a crumb off the table with an over-manicured finger.
The name was scarcely a surprise. I had already surmised that this might be the woman whom rumor credited as being Bronson's common-law wife. Rumor, I remembered, had said other things even less pleasant, things which had been brought out at Bronson's arrest for forgery.
"We met last under less fortunate circumstances," she was saying. "I have been fit for nothing since that terrible day. And you—you had a broken arm, I think."
"I still have it," I said, with a lame attempt at jocularity; "but to have escaped at all was a miracle. We have much, indeed, to be thankful for."
"I suppose we have," she said carelessly, "although sometimes I doubt it." She was looking somberly toward the door through which her late companion had made his exit.
"You sent for me—" I said.
"Yes, I sent for you." She roused herself and sat erect. "Now, Mr. Blakeley, have you found those papers?"
"The papers? What papers?" I parried. I needed time to think.
"Mr. Blakeley," she said quietly, "I think we can lay aside all subterfuge. In the first place let me refresh your mind about a few things. The Pittsburg police are looking for the survivors of the car Ontario; there are three that I know of—yourself, the young woman with whom you left the scene of the wreck, and myself. The wreck, you will admit, was a fortunate one for you."
I nodded without speaking.
"At the time of the collision you were in rather a hole," she went on, looking at me with a disagreeable smile. "You were, if I remember, accused of a rather atrocious crime. There was a lot of corroborative evidence, was there not? I seem to remember a dirk and the murdered man's pocket-book in your possession, and a few other things that were—well, rather unpleasant."
I was thrown a bit off my guard.
"You remember also," I said quickly, "that a man disappeared from the car, taking my clothes, papers and everything."
"I remember that you said so." Her tone was quietly insulting, and I bit my lip at having been caught. It was no time to make a defense.
"You have missed one calculation," I said coldly, "and that is, the discovery of the man who left the train."
"You have found him?" She bent forward, and again I regretted my hasty speech. "I knew it; I said so."
"We are going to find him," I asserted, with a confidence I did not feel. "We can produce at any time proof that a man left the Flier a few miles beyond the wreck. And we can find him, I am positive."
"But you have not found him yet?" She was clearly disappointed. "Well, so be it. Now for our bargain. You will admit that I am no fool."
I made no such admission, and she smiled mockingly.
"How flattering you are!" she said. "Very well. Now for the premises. You take to Pittsburg four notes held by the Mechanics' National Bank, to have Mr. Gilmore, who is ill, declare his indorsement of them forged.
"On the journey back to Pittsburg two things happen to you: you lose your clothing, your valise and your papers, including the notes, and you are accused of murder. In fact, Mr. Blakeley, the circumstances were most singular, and the evidence—well, almost conclusive."
I was completely at her mercy, but I gnawed my lip with irritation.
"Now for the bargain." She leaned over and lowered her voice. "A fair exchange, you know. The minute you put those four notes in my hand—that minute the blow to my head has caused complete forgetfulness as to the events of that awful morning. I am the only witness, and I will be silent. Do you understand? They will call off their dogs."
My head was buzzing with the strangeness of the idea.
"But," I said, striving to gain time, "I haven't the notes. I can't give you what I haven't got."
"You have had the case continued," she said sharply. "You expect to find them. Another thing," she added slowly, watching my face, "if you don't get them soon, Bronson will have them. They have been offered to him already, but at a prohibitive price."
"But," I said, bewildered, "what is your object in coming to me? If Bronson will get them anyhow—"
She shut her fan with a click and her face was not particularly pleasant to look at.
"You are dense," she said insolently. "I want those papers—for myself, not for Andy Bronson."
"Then the idea is," I said, ignoring her tone, "that you think you have me in a hole, and that if I find those papers and give them to you you will let me out. As I understand it, our friend Bronson, under those circumstances, will also be in a hole."
"The notes would be of no use to you for a limited length of time," I went on, watching her narrowly. "If they are not turned over to the state's attorney within a reasonable time there will have to be a nolle pros—that is, the case will simply be dropped for lack of evidence."
"A week would answer, I think," she said, slowly. "You will do it, then?"
I laughed, although I was not especially cheerful.
"No, I'll not do it. I expect to come across the notes any time now, and I expect just as certainly to turn them over to the state's attorney when I get them."
She got up suddenly, pushing her chair back with a noisy grating sound that turned many eyes toward us.
"You're more of a fool than I thought you," she sneered, and left me at the table.