"Maybe you recollect how hot those days were. Well, in my cheap, stuffy room, openin' on an air-shaft, it was hotter 'n hell with the lid on. When I couldn't stand it any longer, I went out into the corridor an' down it to the fire escape outside the window. It was a lot cooler there. I lit a stogie an' sat on the railin' smokin', maybe for a quarter of an hour. By-an'-by some one come into the apartment right acrost the alley from me. I could see the lights come on. It was a man. I saw him step into what must be the bedroom. He moved around there some. I couldn't tell what he was doin' because he didn't switch on the light, but he must 'a' been changin' to his easy coat an' his slippers. I know that because he came into the room just opposite the fire escape where I was sittin' on the rail. He threw on the lights, an' I saw him plain. It was Cunningham, the old crook who had beat me outa fifteen hundred dollars."
Kirby smoked steadily, evenly. Not a flicker of the eyelids showed the excitement racing through his blood. At last he was coming close to the heart of the mystery that surrounded the deaths of his uncle and his valet.
"I reckon I saw red for a minute," Olson continued. "If I'd been carryin' a gun I might 'a' used it right there an' then. But I hadn't one, lucky for me. He sat down in a big easy-chair an' took a paper from his pocket. It looked like some kind of a legal document. He read it through, then stuck it in one o' the cubby-holes of his desk. I forgot to say he was smokin', an' not a stogie like I was, but a big cigar he'd unwrapped from silver paper after takin' it from a boxful."
"He lighted the cigar after coming into the small room," Kirby said, in the voice of a question.
"Yes. Didn't I say so? Took it from a box on a stand near the chair. Well, when he got through with the paper he leaned back an' kinda shut his eyes like he was thinkin' somethin' over. All of a sudden I saw him straighten up an' get rigid. Before he could rise from the chair a woman came into the room an' after her a man.
"The man was Cass Hull."
FROM THE FIRE ESCAPE
"The woman—what was she like?"
"She was tall an' thin an' flat-chested. I didn't know her at the time, but it must 'a' been Hull's wife."
"You said you didn't know what time this was," Kirby said.
"No. My old watch had quit doin' business an' I hated to spend the money to get it fixed. The mainspring was busted, a jeweler told me."
"Who spoke first after they came into the room?"
"Yore uncle. He laid the cigar down on the stand an' asked them what they wanted. He didn't rise from the chair, but his voice rasped when he spoke. It was the woman answered. She took the lead all through. 'We've come for a settlement,' she said. 'An' we're goin' to have it right now.' He stiffened up at that. He come back at her with, 'You can't get no shot-gun settlement outa me.' Words just poured from that woman's mouth. She roasted him to a turn, told how he was crooked as a dog's hind leg an' every deal he touched was dirty. Said he couldn't even be square to his own pardners, that he couldn't get a man, woman, or child in Colorado to say he'd ever done a good act. Believe me, she laid him out proper, an' every word of it was true, 'far as I know.
"Well, sir, that old reprobate uncle of yours never batted an eye. He slid down in his chair a little so's he could be comfortable while he listened. He grinned up at her like she was some kind of specimen had broke loose from a circus an' he was interested in the way it acted. That didn't calm her down none. She rip-r'ared right along, with a steady flow of words, mostly adjectives. Finally she quit, an' she was plumb white with anger. 'Quite through?' yore uncle asked with that ice-cold voice of his. She asked him what he intended to do about a settlement. 'Not a thing,' he told her. 'I did aim to give Hull two thousand to get rid of him. But I've changed my mind, ma'am. You can go whistle for it.'"
"Two thousand! Did he say two thousand?"
Kirby leaned forward eagerly.
"That's what he said. Two thousand," answered Olson.
"Then that explains why he drew so much from the bank that day."
"I had it figured out so. If the woman hadn't come at him with that acid tongue of hers he'd intended to buy Hull off cheap. But she got his gorge up. He wouldn't stand for her line of talk."
"What took place then?" the cattleman questioned.
"Still without rising from the chair, Cunningham ordered them to get out. Hull was standin' kinda close to him. He had his back to me. Cunningham reached out an' opened a drawer of the stand beside him. The fat man took a step forward. I could see his gun flash in the light. He swung it down on yore uncle's head an' the old man crumpled up."
"So it was Hull killed him, after all," Kirby said, drawing a long breath of relief.
Then, to his surprise when he thought about it later, a glitter of malicious cunning lit the eyes of the rancher.
"That's what I'm tellin' you. It was Hull. I stood there an' saw just what I've been givin' you."
"Was my uncle senseless then?"
"You bet he was. His head sagged clear over against the back of the chair."
"What did they do then?"
"That's where I drop out. Mrs. Hull stepped straight to the window. I crouched down back of the railin'. It was dark an' she didn't see me. She pulled the blind down. I waited there awhile an' afterward there was the sound of a shot. That would be when they sent the bullet through the old man's brain."
"What did you do?"
"I didn't know what to do. I'd talked a lot of wild talk about how Cunningham ought to be shot or strung up to a pole. If I went to the police with my story, like enough they 'd light on me as the killer. I milled the whole thing over. After a while I went into a public booth downtown an' 'phoned to the police. You recollect maybe the papers spoke about the man who called up headquarters with the news of Cunningham's death."
"Yes, I recollect that all right."
Kirby did not smile. He did not explain that he was the man. But he resolved to find out whether two men had notified the police of his uncle's death. If not, Olson was lying in at least one detail. He had a suspicion that the man had not given him the whole truth. He was telling part of it, but he was holding back something. A sly and furtive look in his eyes helped to build this impression in the mind of the man who listened to the story.
"You didn't actually see Hull fire the shot that killed my uncle, then?"
Olson hesitated, a fraction of a second. "No."
"You don't know that it was he that fired it."
"No, it might 'a' been the woman. But it ain't likely he handed her the gun to do it with, is it? For that matter I don't know that the crack over the head didn't kill Cunningham. Maybe it did."
"That's all you saw?"
Again the almost imperceptible hesitation. Then, "That's all," the Dry Valley rancher said sullenly.
"What kind of a gun was it?" Kirby asked.
"Too far away. Couldn't be sure."
"Big as a.45?"
"Couldn't 'a' been. The evidence was that it was done with an automatic."
"The evidence was that the wound in the head was probably made by a bullet from an automatic. We're talkin' now about the blow on the head."
"What are you drivin' at?" the rancher asked, scowling. "He wouldn't bring two different kinds of gun with him. That's a cinch."
"No; but we haven't proved yet he fired the shot you heard later. The chances are all that he did, but legally we have no evidence that somebody else didn't do it."
"I guess a jury would be satisfied he fired it all right."
"Probably. It looks bad for Hull. Don't you think you ought to go to the police with your story? Then we can have Hull arrested. They'll give him the third degree. My opinion is he'll break down under it and confess."
Olson consented with obvious reluctance, but he made a condition precedent to his acceptance. "Le' 's see Hull first, just you 'n' me. I ain't strong for the police. We'll go to them when we've got an open an' shut case."
Kirby considered. This story didn't wholly fit the facts as he knew them. For instance, there was no explanation in it of how the room where Cunningham was found murdered had become saturated with the odor of chloroform. Nor was it in character that Hull should risk firing a gun, the sound of which might bring detection on him, while his victim lay helpless before him. Another blow or two on the skull would have served his purpose noiselessly. The cattleman knew from his observation of this case that the authorities had a way of muddling things. Perhaps it would be better to wait until the difficulties had been smoothed out before going to them.
"That suits me," he said. "We'll tackle Hull when his wife isn't with him. He goes downtown every day about ten o'clock. We'll pick him up in a taxi, run him out into the country somewhere, an' put him over the jumps. The sooner the quicker. How about to-morrow morning?"
"Suits me, too. But will he go with us?"
"He'll go with us," Kirby said quietly.
LIKE A THIEF IN THE NIGHT
From ten thousand bulbs the moving-picture houses of Curtis Street were flinging a glow upon the packed sidewalks when Kirby came out of the hotel and started uptown.
He walked to the Wyndham, entered, and slipped up the stairs of the rooming-house unnoticed. From the third story he ascended by a ladder to the flat roof. He knew exactly what he had come to investigate. From one of the windows of the fourth floor at the Paradox he had noticed the clothes-line which stretched across the Wyndham roof from one corner to another. He went straight to one of the posts which supported the rope. He made a careful study of this, then walked to the other upright support and examined the knots which held the line fast here.
"I'm some good little guesser," he murmured to himself as he turned back to the ladder and descended to the floor below.
He moved quietly along the corridor to the fire escape and stepped out upon it. Then, very quickly and expertly, he coiled a rope which he took from a paper parcel that had been under his arm. At one end of the coil was a loop. He swung this lightly round his head once or twice to feel the weight of it. The rope snaked forward and up. Its loop dropped upon the stone abutment he had noticed when he had been examining the exteriors of the buildings with Cole Sanborn. It tightened when he gave a jerk.
Kirby climbed over the railing and swung himself lightly out into space. A moment, and he was swaying beside the fire escape of the Paradox. He caught the iron rail and pulled himself to the platform.
By chance the blind was down. There was no light within, but after his eyes had become used to the darkness he tried to take a squint at the room from the sides of the blind. The shade hung an inch or two from the window frame, so that by holding his eye close he could get more than a glimpse of the interior.
He tapped gently on the glass. The lights inside flashed on. From one viewpoint he could see almost half the room. He could go to the other side of the blind and see most of the other half.
A man sat down in a chair close to the opposite wall, letting his hands fall on the arms. A girl stood in front of him and pointed a paper-knife at his head, holding it as though it were a revolver. The head of the man fell sideways.
Kirby tapped on the window pane again. He edged up the sash and stepped into the room.
The young woman turned to him eagerly, a warm glow in her shell-pink cheeks. "Well?" she inquired.
"Worked out fine, Rose," Kirby said. "I could see the whole thing."
"Still, that don't prove anything," the other man put in. He belonged to the staff of the private detective agency with which Kirby was dealing.
The Wyoming man smiled. "It proves my theory is possible. Knowing Olson, I'm willin' to gamble he didn't sit still on the fire escape an' let that drawn blind shut him off from what was goin' on inside. He was one mighty interested observer. Now he must 'a' known there was a clothes-line on the roof. From the street you can see a washin' hangin' out there any old time. In his place I'd 'a' bopped up to the roof an' got that line. Which is exactly what he did, I'll bet. The line had been tied to the posts with a lot of knots. He hadn't time to untie it. So he cut the rope. It's been spliced out since by a piece of rope of a different kind."
"How do you know that's been done since?" the detective asked.
"A fair question," Kirby nodded. "I don't. I'll find out about that when I talk with the landlady of the Wyndham. If I'm right you can bet that cut rope has puzzled her some. She can't figure out why any one would cut her rope down an' then leave it there."
"If you can show me her rope was cut that night, I'll say you're right," the detective admitted. "And if you are right, then the Swede must 'a' been right here when your uncle was killed."
"May have been," Kirby corrected. "We haven't any authentic evidence yet as to exactly when my uncle was killed. We're gettin' the time narrowed down. It was between 9.30 and 9.50. We know that."
"How do you know that?" the professional sleuth asked. "Accordin' to your story you didn't get into the apartment until after ten o'clock. It might 'a' been done any time up till then."
The eyes of Kirby and Rose met. They had private information about who was in the rooms from about 9.55 till 10.10.
The cattleman corrected his statement. "All right, say between 9.30 and 10.05. During that time Hull may have shot my uncle. Or Olson may have opened the window while my uncle lay there helpless, killed him, stepped outa the window again, an' slipped down by the fire escape. All he'd have to do then would be to walk into the Wyndham, replace the rope on the roof, an' next mornin' leave for Dry Valley."
The detective nodded. "If he cut the rope. Lemme find out from the landlady whether it was cut that night."
"Good. We'll wait for you at the corner."
Ten minutes later the detective joined them in front of the drug-store where they were standing. The hard eyes in his cold gambler's face were lit up for once.
"I'll say the man from Missouri has been shown," he said. "I let on to the dame at the Wyndham that I was after a gang of young sneak thieves in the neighborhood. Pretty soon I drifted her to the night of the twenty-third—said they 'd been especially active that night and had used a rope to get into a second story of a building. She woke up. Her clothesline on the roof had been cut that very night. She remembered the night on account of its being the one when Mr. Cunningham was killed. Could the boys have used it to get into the store an' then brought it back? I thought likely."
"Bully! We're one step nearer than we were. We know Olson was lookin' in the window from the fire escape just outside."
The detective slapped his thigh. "It lies between Hull and the Swede. That's a cinch."
"I believe it does," agreed Rose.
Kirby made no comment. He seemed to be absorbed in speculations of his own. The detective was reasoning from a very partial knowledge of the facts. He knew nothing about the relations of James Cunningham to his uncle, nor even that the younger Cunninghams—or at least one of them—had been in his uncle's apartment the evening of his death. He did not know that Rose had been there. Wherefore his deductions, even though they had the benefit of being trained ones, were of slight value in this case.
"Will you take the key back to the Chief of Police?" Kirby asked him as they separated. "Better not tell him who was with you or what we were doin'."
"I'm liable to tell him a whole lot," the detective answered with heavy irony. "I'm figurin' on runnin' down this murderer myself if any one asks you."
"Wish you luck," Kirby said with perfect gravity.
A RIDE IN A TAXI
Kirby was quite right when he said that Hull would go with them. He was on his way downtown when the taxi caught him at Fourteenth and Welton. The cattleman jumped out from the machine and touched the fat man on the arm as he was waddling past.
"We want you, Hull," he said.
A shadow of fear flitted over the shallow eyes of the land agent, but he attempted at once to bluster. "Who wants me? Whadjawant me for?"
"I want you—in that cab. The man who saw you in my uncle's room the night he was killed is with me. You can either come with us now an' talk this thing over quietly or I'll hang on to you an' call for a policeman. It's up to you. Either way is agreeable to me."
Beads of perspiration broke out on the fat man's forehead. He dragged from his left hip pocket the familiar bandanna handkerchief. With it he dabbed softly at his mottled face. There was a faint, a very faint, note of defiance in his voice as he answered.
"I dunno as I've got any call to go with you. I wasn't in Cunningham's rooms. You can't touch me—can't prove a thing on me."
"It won't cost you anything to make sure of that," Kirby suggested in his low, even tones. "I'm payin' for the ride."
"If you got anything to say to me, right here's a good place to onload it."
The man's will was wobbling. The cattleman could see that.
"Can't talk here, with a hundred people passin'. What's the matter, man? What are you afraid of? We're not goin' to hit you over the head with the butt of a six-shooter."
Hull flung at him a look of startled terror. What did he mean? Or was there anything significant in the last sentence? Was it just a shot in the dark?
"I'll go on back to the Paradox. If you want to see me, why, there's as good a place as any."
"We're choosin' the place, Hull, not you. You'll either step into that cab or into a patrol wagon."
Their eyes met and fought. The shallow, protuberant ones wavered. "Oh, well, it ain't worth chewin' the rag over. I reckon I'll go with you."
He stepped into the cab. At sight of Olson he showed both dismay and surprise. He had heard of the threats the Dry Valley man had been making. Was he starting on a journey the end of which would be summary vengeance? A glance at Lane's face reassured him. This young fellow would be no accomplice at murder. Yet the chill at his heart told him he was in for serious trouble.
He tried to placate Olson with a smile and made a motion to offer his hand. The Scandinavian glared at him.
The taxicab swung down Fourteenth, across the viaduct to Lake Place, and from it to Federal Boulevard.
Hull moistened his lips with his tongue and broke the silence. "Where we goin'?" he asked at last.
"Where we can talk without bein' overheard," Kirby answered.
The cab ran up the steep slope to Inspiration Point and stopped there. The men got out.
"Come back for us in half an hour," the cattleman told the driver.
In front and below them lay the beautiful valley of Clear Creek. Beyond it were the foothills, and back of them the line of the Front Range stretching from Pike's Peak at the south up to the Wyoming line. Grey's and Long's and Mount Evans stood out like giant sentinels in the clear sunshine.
Hull looked across the valley nervously and brought his eyes back with a jerk. "Well, what's it all about? Whadjawant?"
"I know now why you lied at the inquest about the time you saw me on the night my uncle was killed," Kirby told him.
"I didn't lie. Maybe I was mistaken. Any man's liable to make a mistake."
"You didn't make a mistake. You deliberately twisted your story so as to get me into my uncle's apartment forty minutes or so earlier than I was. Your reason was a good one. If I was in his rooms at the time he was shot, that let you out completely. So you tried to lie me into the death cell at Canon City."
Hull's bandanna was busy. "Nothin' like that. I wouldn't play no such a trick on any man. No, sir."
"You wouldn't, but you did. Don't stall, Hull. We've got you right."
The rancher from Dry Valley broke in venomously. "You bet we have, you rotten crook. I'll pay you back proper for that deal you an' Cunningham slipped over on me. I'm gonna put a rope round yore neck for it. I sure am. Why, you big fat stiff, I was standin' watchin' you when you knocked out Cunningham with the butt of yore gun."
From Hull's red face the color fled. He teetered for a moment on the balls of his feet, then sank limply to the cement bench in front of him. He tried to gasp out a denial, but the words would not come. In his throat there was only a dry rattle.
He heard, as from a long distance, Lane's voice addressing him.
"We've got it on you, Hull. Come through an' come clean."
"I—I—I swear to God I didn't do it—didn't kill him," he gasped at last.
"Then who did—yore wife?" demanded Olson.
"Neither of us. I—I'll tell you-all the whole story."
"Do you know who did kill him?" Kirby persisted.
"I come pretty near knowing but I didn't see it done."
"Yore cousin—James Cunningham."
ON THE GRILL
In spite of the fact that his mind had at times moved toward his cousin James as the murderer, Kirby experienced a shock at this accusation. He happened to glance at Olson, perhaps to see the effect of it upon him.
The effect was slight, but it startled Kirby. For just an instant the Dry Valley farmer's eyes told the truth—shouted it as plainly as words could have done. He had expected that answer from Hull. He had expected it because he, too, had reason to believe it the truth. Then the lids narrowed, and the man's lip lifted in a sneer of rejection. He was covering up.
"Pretty near up to you to find some one else to pass the buck to, ain't it?" he taunted.
"Suppose you tell us the whole story, Hull," the Wyoming man said.
The fat man had one last flare of resistance. "Olson here says he seen me crack Cunningham with the butt of my gun. How did he see me? Where does he claim he was when he seen it?"
"I was standin' on the fire escape of the Wyndham across the alley—about ten or fifteen feet away. I heard every word that was said by Cunningham an' yore wife. Oh, I've got you good."
Hull threw up the sponge. He was caught and realized it. His only chance now was to make a clean breast of what he knew.
"Where shall I begin?" he asked weakly, his voice quavering.
"At the beginning. We've got plenty of time," Kirby replied.
"Well, you know how yore uncle beat me in that Dry Valley scheme of his. First place, I didn't know he couldn't get water enough. If he give the farmers a crooked deal, I hadn't a thing to do with that. When I talked up the idea to them I was actin' in good faith."
"Lie number one," interrupted Olson bitterly.
"Hadn't we better let him tell his story in his own way?" Kirby suggested. "If we don't start any arguments he ain't so liable to get mixed up in his facts."
"By my way of figurin' he owed me about four to six thousand dollars he wouldn't pay," Hull went on. "I tried to get him to see it right, thinkin' at first he was just bull-headed. But pretty soon I got wise to it that he plain intended to do me. O' course I wasn't goin' to stand for that, an' I told him so."
"What do you mean when you say you weren't goin' to stand for it. My uncle told a witness that you said you'd give him two days, then you'd come at him with a gun."
The fat man mopped a perspiring face with his bandanna. His eyes dodged. "Maybe I told him so. I don't recollect. When he's sore a fellow talks a heap o' foolishness. I wasn't lookin' for trouble, though."
"Not even after he threw you downstairs?"
"No, sir. He didn't exactly throw me down. I kinda slipped. If I'd been expectin' trouble would I have let Mrs. Hull go up to his rooms with me?"
Kirby had his own view on that point, but he did not express it. He rather thought that Mrs. Hull had driven her husband upstairs and had gone along to see that he stood to his guns. Once in the presence of Cunningham, she had taken the bit in her own teeth, driven to it by temper. This was his guess. He knew he might be wrong.
"But I knew how violent he was," the fat man went on. "So I slipped my six-gun into my pocket before we started."
"What kind of a gun?" Kirby asked.
"A sawed-off .38."
"Do you own an automatic?"
"No, sir. Wouldn't know how to work one. Never had one in my hands."
"You'll get a chance to prove that," Olson jeered.
"He doesn't have to prove it. His statement is assumed to be true until it is proved false," Kirby answered.
Hull's eyes signaled gratitude. He was where he needed a friend badly. He would be willing to pay almost any price for Lane's help.
"Cunningham had left the door open, I reckon because it was hot. I started to push the bell, but Mrs. Hull she walked right in an' of course then I followed. He wasn't in the sittin'-room, but we seen him smokin' in the small room off'n the parlor. So we just went in on him.
"He acted mean right from the start—hollered at Mrs. Hull what was we doin' there. She up an' told him, real civil, that we wanted to talk the business over an' see if we couldn't come to some agreement about it. He kep' right on insultin' her, an' one thing led to another. Mrs. Hull she didn't get mad, but she told him where he'd have to head in at. Fact is, we'd about made up our minds to sue him. Well, he went clean off the handle then, an' said he wouldn't do a thing for us, an' how we was to get right out."
Hull paused to wipe the small sweat beads from his forehead. He was not enjoying himself. A cold terror constricted his heart. Was he slipping a noose over his own head? Was he telling more than he should? He wished his wife were here to give him a hint. She had the brains as well as the courage and audacity of the family.
"Well, sir, I claim self-defense," Hull went on presently. "A man's got no call to stand by an' see his wife shot down. Cunningham reached for a drawer an' started to pull out an automatic gun. Knowin' him, I was scared. I beat him to it an' lammed him one over the head with my gun. My idea was to head him off from drawin' on Mrs. Hull, but I reckon I hit him harder than I'd aimed to. It knocked him senseless."
"And then?" Kirby said, when he paused.
"I was struck all of a heap, but Mrs. Hull she didn't lose her presence of mind. She went to the window an' pulled down the curtain. Then we figured, seein' as how we'd got in bad so far, we might as well try a bluff. We tied yore uncle to the chair, intendin' for to make him sign a check before we turned him loose. Right at that time the telephone rang."
"Did you answer the call?"
"Yes, sir. It kept ringing. Finally the wife said to answer it, pretendin' I was Cunningham. We was kinda scared some one might butt in on us. Yore uncle had said he was expectin' some folks."
"What did you do?"
"I took up the receiver an' listened. Then I said, 'Hello!' Fellow at the other end said, 'This you, Uncle James?' Kinda grufflike, I said, 'Yes.' Then, 'James talkin',' he said. 'We're on our way over now.' I was struck all of a heap, not knowin' what to say. So I called back, 'Who?' He came back with, 'Phyllis an' I.' I hung up."
"We talked it over, the wife an' me. We didn't know how close James, as he called himself, was when he was talkin'. He might be at the drug-store on the next corner for all we knew. We were in one hell of a hole, an' it didn't look like there was any way out. We decided to beat it right then. That's what we did."
"You left the apartment?"
"With my uncle still tied up?"
Hull nodded. "We got panicky an' cut our stick."
"Did anybody see you go?"
"The Jap janitor was in the hall fixin' one of the windows that was stuck."
"Did he say anything?"
"He come to me after the murder was discovered—next day, I reckon it was, in the afternoon, just before the inquest—and said could I lend him five hundred dollars. Well, I knew right away it was a hold-up, but I couldn't do a thing. I dug up the money an' let him have it."
"Has he bothered you since?"
Hull hesitated. "Well—no."
"Meanin' that he has?"
Hull flew the usual flag of distress, a red bandanna mopping a perspiring, apoplectic face. "He kinda hinted he wanted more money."
"Did you give it to him?"
"I didn't have it right handy. I stalled."
"That's the trouble with a blackmailer. Give way to him once an' he's got you in his power," Kirby said. "The thing to do is to tell him right off the reel to go to Halifax."
"If a fellow can afford to," Olson put in significantly. "When you've just got through a little private murder of yore own, you ain't exactly free to tell one of the witnesses against you to go very far."
"Tell you I didn't kill Cunningham," Hull retorted sullenly. "Some one else must 'a' come in an' did that after I left."
"Sounds reasonable," Olson murmured with heavy sarcasm.
"Was the hall lit when you came out of my uncle's rooms?" Kirby asked suddenly.
"Yes. I told you Shibo was workin' at one of the windows."
"So Shibo saw you and Mrs. Hull plainly?"
"I ain't denyin' he saw us," Hull replied testily.
"No, you don't deny anything we can prove on you," the Dry Valley man jeered.
"And Shibo didn't let up on you. He kept annoyin' you afterward," the cattleman persisted.
"Well, he—I reckon he aims to be reasonable now," Hull said uneasily.
"Why now? What's changed his views?"
The fat man looked again at this brown-faced youngster with the single-track mind who never quit till he got what he wanted. Why was he shaking the bones of Shibo's blackmailing. Did he know more than he had told? It was on the tip of Hull's tongue to tell something more, a damnatory fact against himself. But he stopped in time. He was in deep enough water already. He could not afford to tell the dynamic cattleman anything that would make an enemy of him.
"Well, I reckon he can't get blood from a turnip, as the old sayin' is," the land agent returned.
Kirby knew that Hull was concealing something material, but he saw he could not at the present moment wring it from him. He had not, in point of fact, the faintest idea of what it was. Therefore he could not lay 'hold of any lever with which to pry it loose. He harked back to another point.
"Do you know that my cousin and Miss Harriman came to see my uncle that night? I mean do you know of your own eyesight that they ever reached his apartment?"
"Well, we know they reached the Paradox an' went up in the elevator. Me an' the wife watched at the window. Yore cousin James wasn't with Miss Harriman. The dude one was with her."
"Jack!" exclaimed Kirby, astonished.
"How do you know? How did you recognize them?"
"Saw 'em as they passed under the street light about twenty feet from our window. We couldn't 'a' been mistook as to the dude fellow. O' course we don't know Miss Harriman, but the woman walkin' beside the young fellow surely looked like the one that fainted at the inquest when you was testifyin' how you found yore uncle dead in the chair. I reckon when you said it she got to seein' a picture of one of the young fellows gunnin' their uncle."
"One of them. You just said James wasn't with her."
"No, he come first. Maybe three-four minutes before the others."
"What time did he reach the Paradox?"
"It might 'a' been ten or maybe only five minutes after we left yore uncle's room. The wife an' me was talkin' it over whether I hadn't ought to slip back upstairs and untie yore uncle before they got here. Then he come an' that settled it. I couldn't go."
"Can you give me the exact time he reached the apartment house?"
"Well, I'll say it was a quarter to ten."
"Do you know or are you guessin'?"
"I know. Our clock struck the quarter to whilst we looked at them comin' down the street."
"At them or at him?"
"At him, I mean."
"Can't stick to his own story," Olson grunted.
"A slip of the tongue. I meant him."
"And Jack and the lady were three or four minutes behind him?" Kirby reiterated.
"Was your clock exactly right?"
"May be five minutes fast. It gains."
"You know they turned in at the Paradox?"
"All three of 'em. Mrs. Hull she opened the door a mite an' saw 'em go up in the elevator. It moves kinda slow, you know. The heavy-set young fellow went up first. Then two-three minutes later the elevator went down an' the dude an' the young lady went up."
Kirby put his foot on the cement bench and rested his forearm on his knee. The cattleman's steady eyes were level with those of the unhappy man making the confession.
"Did you at any time hear the sound of a shot?"
"Well, I—I heard somethin'. At the time I thought maybe it was a tire in the street blowin' out. But come to think of it later we figured it was a shot."
"You don't know for sure."
"Well, come to that I—I don't reckon I do. Not to say for certain sure."
A tense litheness had passed into the rough rider's figure. It was as though every sense were alert to catch and register impressions.
"At what time was it you thought you heard this shot?"
"I dunno, to the minute."
"Was it before James Cunningham went up in the elevator? Was it between the time he went up an' the other two went up? Or was it after Jack Cunningham an' Miss Harriman passed on the way up?"
"Seems to me it was—"
"Hold on." Kirby raised a hand in protest. "I don't want any guesses. You know or you don't. Which is it?"
"I reckon it was between the time yore cousin James went up an' the others followed."
"You reckon? I'm askin' for definite information. A man's life may hang on this." The cattleman's eyes were ice-cold.
Hull swallowed a lump in his fat throat before he committed himself. "Well, it was."
"Was between the two trips of the elevator, you mean?"
"Your wife heard this sound, too?"
"Yep. We spoke of it afterward."
"Do you know anything else that could possibly have had any bearing on my uncle's death?"
"No, sir. Honest I don't."
Olson shot a question at the man on the grill. "Did you kill the Jap servant, too, as well as his boss?"
"I didn't kill either the one or the other, so help me."
"Do you know anything at all about the Jap's death? Did you see anything suspicious going on at any time?" Kirby asked.
"No, sir. Nothin' a-tall."
The rough rider signaled the taxicab, which was circling the lake at the foot of the hill. Presently it came up the incline and took on its passengers.
"Drive to the Paradox Apartments," Kirby directed.
He left Hull outside in the cab while he went in to interview his wife. The lean woman with the forbidding countenance opened the door.
Metaphorically speaking, Kirby landed his knockout instantly. "I've come to see you on serious business, Mrs. Hull. Your husband has confessed how he did for my uncle. Unless you tell the whole truth he's likely to go to the death cell."
She gasped, her fear-filled eyes fastened on him. Her hand moved blindly to the side of the door for support.
A FULL MORNING
But only for an instant. A faint color dribbled back into her yellow cheeks. He could almost see courage flowing again into her veins.
"That's a lie," she said flatly.
"I don't expect you to take my word. Hull is in front of the house here under guard. Come an' see if you doubt it."
She took him promptly at his suggestion. One look at her husband's fat, huddled figure and stricken face was enough.
"You chicken-hearted louse," she spat at him scornfully.
"They had evidence. A man saw us," he pleaded.
"This man." His trembling hand indicated Olson. "He was standin' on the fire escape acrost the alley."
She had nothing to say. The wind had died out of the sails of her anger.
"We're not goin' to arrest Hull yet—not technically," Kirby explained to her. "I'm arrangin' to hire a private detective to be with him all the time. He'll keep him in sight from mornin' till night. Is that satisfactory, Hull? Or do you prefer to be arrested?"
The wretched man murmured that he would leave it to Lane.
"Good. Then that's the way it'll be." Kirby turned to the woman. "Mrs. Hull, I want to ask you a few questions. If you'll kindly walk into the house, please."
She moved beside him. The shock of the surprise still palsied her will.
In the main her story corroborated that of Hull. She was not quite sure when she had heard the shot in its relation to the trips of the elevator up and down. The door was closed at the time. They had heard it while standing at the window. Her impression was that the sound had come after James Cunningham had ascended to the floor above.
Kirby put one question to the woman innocently that sent the color washing out of her cheeks.
"Which of you went back upstairs to untie my uncle after you had run away in a fright?"
"N-neither of us," she answered, teeth chattering from sheer funk.
"I understood Mr. Hull to say—"
"He never said that. Y-you must be mistaken."
"Mebbeso. You didn't go back, then?"
The monosyllable "No" came quavering from her yellow throat.
"I don't want you to feel that I'm here to take an advantage of you, Mrs. Hull," Kirby said. "A good many have been suspected of these murders. Your husband is one of these suspects. I'm another. I mean to find out who killed Cunningham an' Horikawa. I think I know already. In my judgment your husband didn't do it. If he did, so much the worse for him. No innocent person has anything to fear from me. But this is the point I'm makin' now. If you like I'll leave a statement here signed by me to the effect that neither you nor your husband has confessed killing James Cunningham. It might make your mind a little easier to have it."
She hesitated. "Well, if you like."
He stepped to a desk and found paper and pen. "I'll dictate it if you'll write it, Mrs. Hull."
Not quite easy in her mind, the woman sat down and took the pen he offered.
"This is to certify—" Kirby began, and dictated a few sentences slowly.
She wrote the statement, word for word as he gave it, using her left hand. The cattleman signed it. He left the paper with her.
After the arrangement for the private detective to watch Hull had been made, Olson and Lane walked together to the hotel of the latter.
"Come up to my room a minute and let's talk things over," Kirby suggested.
As soon as the door was closed, the man from Twin Buttes turned on the farmer and flung a swift demand at him.
"Now, Olson, I'll hear the rest of your story."
The eyes of the Swede grew hard and narrow. "What's bitin' you? I've told you my story."
"Some of it. Not all of it."
"You told me what you saw from the fire escape of the Wyndham, but you didn't tell what you saw from the fire escape of the Paradox."
"Who says I saw anything from there?"
"I say so."
"You tryin' to hang this killin' on me?" demanded Olson angrily.
"Not if you didn't do it." Kirby looked at him quietly, speculatively, undisturbed by the heaviness of his frown. "But you come to me an' tell the story of what you saw. So you say. Yet all the time you're holdin' back. Why? What's your reason?"
"How do you know I'm holdin' back?" the ranchman asked sulkily.
Kirby knew that in his mind suspicion, dread, fear, hatred, and the desire for revenge were once more at open war.
"I'll tell you what you did that night," answered Kirby, without the least trace of doubt in voice or manner. "When Mrs. Hull pulled down the blind, you ran up to the roof an' cut down the clothes-line. You went back to the fire escape, fixed up some kind of a lariat, an' flung the loop over an abutment stickin' from the wall of the Paradox. You swung across to the fire escape of the Paradox. There you could see into the room where Cunningham was tied to the chair."
"How could I if the blind was down?"
"The blind doesn't fit close to the woodwork of the window. Lookin' in from the right, you can see the left half of the room. If you look in from the other side, you see the other part of it. That's just what you did."
For the moment Olson was struck dumb. How could this man know exactly what he had done unless some one had seen him?
"You know so much I reckon I'll let you tell the rest," the Scandinavian said with uneasy sarcasm.
"Afraid you'll have to talk, Olson. Either to me or to the Chief at headquarters. You've become a live suspect. Figure it out yourself. You threaten Cunningham by mail. You make threats before people orally. You come to Denver an' take a room in the next house to where he lives. On the night he's killed, by your own admission, you stand on the platform a few feet away an' raise no alarm while you see him slugged. Later, you hear the shot that kills him an' still you don't call the officers. Yet you're so interested in the crime that you run upstairs, cut down the clothes-line, an' at some danger swing over to the Paradox. The question the police will want to know is whether the man who does this an' then keeps it secret may not have the best reason in the world for not wanting it known."
"What you mean—the best reason in the world?"
"They'll ask what's to have prevented you from openin' the window an' steppin' in while my uncle was tied up, from shootin' him an' slippin' down the fire escape, an' from walkin' back upstairs to your own room at the Wyndham."
"Are you claimin' that I killed him?" Olson wanted to know.
"I'm tellin' you that the police will surely raise the question."
"If they do I'll tell 'em who did," the rancher blurted out wildly.
"I'd tell 'em first, it I were in your place. It'll have a lot more weight than if you keep still until your back's against the wall."
"When I do you'll sit up an' take notice. The man who shot Cunningham is yore own cousin," the Dry Valley man flung out vindictively.
"The smug one—James."
"You saw him do it?"
"I heard the shot while I was on the roof. When I looked round the edge of the blind five minutes later, he was goin' over the papers in the desk—and an automatic pistol was there right by his hand."
"He was alone?"
"At first he was. In about a minute his brother an' Miss Harriman came into the room. She screamed when she saw yore uncle an' most fainted. The other brother, the young one, kinda caught her an' steadied her. He was struck all of a heap himself. You could see that. He looked at James, an' he said, 'My God, you didn't—' That was all. No need to finish. O' course James denied it. He'd jumped up to help support Miss Harriman outa the room. Maybe a coupla minutes later he came back alone. He went right straight back to the desk, found inside of three seconds the legal document I told you I'd seen his uncle reading glanced it over, turned to the back page, jammed the paper back in the cubby-hole, an' then switched off the light. A minute later the light was switched off in the big room, too. Then I reckoned it was time to beat it down the fire escape. I did. I went back into the Wyndham carryin' the clothes-line under my coat, walked upstairs without meetin' anybody, left the rope on the roof, an' got outa the house without being seen."
"That's the whole story?" Kirby said.
"The whole story. I'd swear it on a stack of Bibles."
"Did you fix the rope for a lariat up on the roof or wait till you came back to the fire escape?"
"I fixed it on the roof—made the loop an' all there. Figured I might be seen if I stood around too long on the platform."
"So that you must 'a' been away quite a little while."
"I reckon so. Prob'ly a quarter of an hour or more."
"Can you locate more definitely the exact time you heard the shot?"
"No, I don't reckon I can."
Kirby asked only one more question.
"You left next mornin' for Dry Valley, didn't you?"
"Yes. None o' my business if they stuck Hull for it. He was guilty as sin, anyhow. If he didn't kill the old man, it wasn't because he didn't want to. Maybe he did. The testimony at the inquest, as I read the papers, left it that maybe the blow on the head had killed Cunningham. Anyhow, I wasn't gonna mix myself in it."
Kirby said nothing. He looked out of the window of his room without seeing anything. His thoughts were focused on the problem before him.
The other man stirred uneasily. "Think I did it?" he asked.
The cattleman brought his gaze back to the Dry Valley settler. "You? Oh, no! You didn't do it."
There was such quiet certainty in his manner that Olson drew a deep breath of relief. "By Jupiter, I'm glad to hear you say so. What made you change yore mind?"
"Haven't changed it. Knew that all the time—well, not all the time. I was millin' you over in my mind quite a bit while you were holdin' out on me. Couldn't be dead sure whether you were hidin' what you knew just to hurt Hull or because of your own guilt."
"Still, I don't see how you're sure yet. I might 'a' gone in by the window an' gunned Cunningham like you said."
"Yes, you might have, but you didn't. I'm not goin' to have you arrested, Olson, but I want you to stay in Denver for a day or two until this is settled. We may need you as a witness. It won't be long. I'll see your expenses are paid while you're here."
"I'm free to come an' go as I please?"
"Absolutely." Kirby looked at him with level eyes. He spoke quite as a matter of course. "You're no fool, Olson. You wouldn't stir up suspicion against yourself again by runnin' away now, after I tell you that my eye is on the one that did it."
The Swede started. "You mean—now?"
"Not this very minute," Kirby laughed. "I mean I've got the person spotted, at least I think I have. I've made a lot of mistakes since I started roundin' up this fellow with the brand of Cain. Maybe I'm makin' another. But I've a hunch that I'm ridin' herd on the right one this time."
He rose. Olson took the hint. He would have liked to ask some questions, for his mind was filled with a burning curiosity. But his host's manner did not invite them. The rancher left.
Up and down his room Kirby paced a beat from the window to the door and back again. His mind was busy dissecting, analyzing, classifying. Some one had once remarked that he had a single-track mind. In one sense he had. The habit of it was to follow a train of thought to its logical conclusion. He did not hop from one thing to another inconsequently.
Just now his brain was working on his cousin James. He went back to the first day of his arrival in Denver and sifted the evidence for and against him. A stream of details, fugitive impressions, and mental reactions flooded through.
For one of so cold a temperament James had been distinctly friendly to him. He had gone out of his way to find bond for him when he had been arrested. He had tried to smooth over difficulties between him and Jack. But Kirby, against his desire, found practical reasons of policy to explain these overtures. James had known he would soon be released through the efforts of other cattlemen. He had stepped in to win the Wyoming cousin's confidence in order that he might prove an asset rather than a liability to his cause. The oil broker had readily agreed to protect Esther McLean from publicity, but the reason for his forbearance was quite plain now. He had been protecting himself, not her.
The man's relation to Esther proved him selfish and without principle. He had been willing to let his dead uncle bear the odium of his misdeed. Yet beneath the surface of his cold manner James was probably swept by heady passions. His love for Phyllis Harriman had carried him beyond prudence, beyond honor. He had duped the uncle whose good-will he had carefully fostered for many years, and at the hour of his uncle's death he had been due to reap the whirlwind.
The problem sifted down to two factors. One was the time element. The other was the temperament of James. A man may be unprincipled and yet draw the line at murder. He may be a seducer and still lack the courage and the cowardice for a cold-blooded killing. Kirby had studied his cousin, but the man was more or less of a sphinx to him. Behind those cold, calculating eyes what was he thinking?
Only once had he seen him thrown off his poise. That was when Kirby and Rose had met him coming out of the Paradox white and shaken, his arm wrenched and strained. He had been nonplussed at sight of them. For a moment he had let his eyes mirror the dismay of his soul. The explanation he had given was quite inadequate as a cause.
Twenty-four hours later Kirby had discovered the dead body of the Japanese valet Horikawa. The man had been dead perhaps a day. More hours than one had been spent by Kirby pondering on the possible connection of his cousin's momentary breakdown and the servant's death. Had James come fresh from the murder of Horikawa?
It was possible that the Oriental might have held evidence against him and threatened to divulge it. James, with the fear of death in his heart, might have gone each day into the apartment where the man was lurking, taking to him food and newspapers. They might have quarreled. The strained tendons of Cunningham's arm could be accounted for a good deal more readily on the hypothesis of a bit of expert jiu-jitsu than on that of a fall downstairs. There were pieces in the puzzle Kirby could not fit into place. One of them was to find a sufficient cause for driving Horikawa to conceal himself when there was no evidence against him of the crime.
The time element was tremendously important in the solution of the mystery of Cunningham's death. Kirby had studied this a hundred times. On the back of an envelope he jotted down once more such memoranda as he knew or could safely guess at. Some of these he had to change slightly as to time to make them dovetail into each other.
8.45. Uncle J. leaves City Club. 8.55. Uncle J. reaches rooms. 8.55- 9.10. Gets slippers, etc. Smokes. 8.55- 9.20. Olson watching from W. fire escape. 9.10- 9.30. Hulls in Apt. 9.30- 9.40. X. 9.37- 9.42. Approximately time Olson heard shot. 9.20- 9.42. Olson busy on roof, with rope, etc. Then at window till 9.53. 9.40- 9.53. James in Apt. 9.44- 9.50. Jack and Phyllis in Apt. 9.55-10.05. Wild Rose in rooms. 10.00. I reach rooms. 10.20. Meet Ellis. 10.25. Call police.
That was the time schedule as well as he had been able to work it out. It was incomplete. For instance, he had not been able to account for Horikawa in it at all unless he represented X in that ten minutes of time unaccounted for. It was inaccurate. Olson was entirely vague as to time, but he could be checked up pretty well by the others. Hull was not quite sure of his clock, and Rose could only say that she had reached the Paradox "quite a little after a quarter to ten." Fortunately his own arrival checked up hers pretty closely, since she could not have been in the room much more than five minutes before him. Probably she had been even less than that. James could not have left the apartment more than a minute or so before Rose arrived. It was quite possible that her coming had frightened him out.
So far as the dovetailing of time went, there was only the ten minutes or less between the leaving of the Hulls and the appearance of James left unexplained. If some one other than those mentioned on his penciled memoranda had killed Cunningham, it must have been between half-past nine and twenty minutes to ten. The X he had written in there was the only possible unknown quantity. By the use of hard work and common sense he had eliminated the rest of the time so far as outsiders were concerned.
Kirby put the envelope in his pocket and went out to get some luncheon.
"I'll call it a mornin'," he told himself with a smile.
KIRBY INVITES HIMSELF TO A RIDE
The Twin Buttes man had said he would call it a morning, but he carried with him to the restaurant the problem that had become the pivot of all his waking thoughts. He had an appointment to meet a man for lunch, and he found his guest waiting for him inside the door.
The restaurant was an inconspicuous one on a side street. Kirby had chosen it for that reason. The man who stepped into the booth with him and sat down on the opposite seat was Hudson, the clerk whom James had accused of losing the sheets of paper with the Japanese writing.
"I've got it at last," he said as soon as he was alone. "Thought he never would go out and leave the key to the private drawer inside the safe. But he left the key in the lock—for just five minutes—while Miss Harriman came to see him about something this morning. He walked out with her to the elevator. I ducked into his office. There was the key in the drawer, and in the drawer, right at the bottom under some papers, I found what I wanted."
He handed to Kirby the sheets of paper found in the living-room of the apartment where Horikawa had been found dead.
The cattleman looked them over and put them in his pocket. "Thought he wouldn't destroy them. He daren't. There might come a time when the translation of this writing would save his life. He couldn't tell what the Jap had written, but there might be a twist to it favorable to him. At the same time he daren't give it out and let any one translate it. So he'd keep it handy where nobody could get at it but himself."
"I reckon that just about evens the score between me and Mr. James Cunningham," the clerk said vindictively. "He bawled me out before a whole roomful of people when he knew all the time I hadn't lost the papers. I stood it, because right then I had to. But I've dug up a better job and start in on it Monday. He's been claiming he was so anxious to get these sheets back to you. Well, I hope he's satisfied now."
"He had no right to keep 'em. They weren't his. I'll have 'em translated, then turn the sheets over to the police if they have any bearing on the case. Of course they may be just a private letter or something of that sort."
The clerk went on to defend himself for what he had done. Cunningham had treated him outrageously. Besides, they weren't his papers. He had no business to hold back evidence in a murder case because it did not suit him to have it made public. Didn't Mr. Lane think he had done right in taking the papers from the safe when he had a chance?
Mr. Lane rather dodged the ethics of the case of Hudson. He had, of course, instigated the theft of the papers. He was entitled to them. James had appropriated them by a trick. Besides, it was a matter of public and private justice that the whole Cunningham mystery be cleared up as soon as possible. But he was not prepared to pass on Hudson's right to be the instrument in the case. The man was, of course, a confidential employee of the oil broker. There was one thing to be said in his favor. Kirby had not offered him anything for what he had done nor did he want anything in payment. It was wholly a gratuitous service.
The cattleman had made inquiries. He knew of a Japanese interpreter used in the courts. Foster had recommended him as entirely reliable. To this man Kirby went. He explained what he wanted. While the Japanese clerk read in English the writing to him and afterward wrote out on a typewriter the translation of it, Kirby sat opposite him at the table to make sure that there was no juggling with the original document.
The affair was moving to its climax. Within a few hours now Kirby expected to see the murderer of his uncle put under arrest. It was time to take the Chief of Police into his confidence. He walked down Sixteenth toward the City Hall.
At Curtis Street the traffic officer was semaphoring with energetic gesture the east and west bound vehicles to be on their way. Kirby jaywalked across the street diagonally and passed in front of an electric headed south. He caught one glimpse of the driver and stood smiling at the door with his hat off.
"I want to see you just a minute, Miss Harriman. May I come in?"
Her long, dark eyes flashed at him. The first swift impulse was to refuse. But she knew he was dangerous. He knew much that it was vital to her social standing must not be published. She sparred for time.
"What do you want?"
He took this as an invitation and whipped open the door.
"Better get out of the traffic," he told her. "Where we can talk without being disturbed."
She turned up Fifteenth. "If you have anything to say," she suggested, and swept her long-lashed eyes round at him with the manner of delicate disdain she held at command.
"I've been wonderin' about somethin'," he said. "When James telephoned my uncle, on the evenin' he was killed, that you an' he were on the way to his rooms, he said you were together; but James reached there alone, you an' Jack arrivin' a few minutes later. Did James propose that he go first?"
The young woman did not answer. But there was no longer disdain in her fear-filled eyes. She swung the car, as though by a sudden impulse, to the left and drove to the building where the older James Cunningham had had his offices.
"If you want to ask me questions you'd better ask them before Jack," she said as she stepped out.
"Suits me exactly," he agreed.
Her lithe, long body moved beside him gracefully, its every motion perfectly synchronized. In her close-fitting, stylish gown she was extremely handsome. There was a kind of proud defiance in the set of her oval jaw, as though even in the trouble that involved her she was a creature set apart from others.
"Mr. Lane has a question he wants to ask you, Jack," she said when they were in the inner office.
Kirby smiled, and in his smile there were friendliness and admiration. "First off, I have to apologize for some things I said two days ago. I'll eat humble pie. I accused you of somethin'. You're not the man, I've found out."
"Yes?" Jack, standing behind his desk in the slim grace of well-dressed youth, watched him warily.
"We've found out at last who the man is."
"Indeed!" Jack knew that Esther McLean had been found by her friends and taken away. No doubt she had told them her story. Did the cattleman mean to expose James before the woman he knew to be his wife? That wouldn't be quite what he would expect of Lane.
"Incidentally, I have some news for you. One of your uncle's stenographers, a Miss McLean, has just been married to a friend of mine, the champion rough rider. Perhaps you may have heard of him. His name is Cole Sanborn."
Jack did not show the great relief he felt. "Glad to hear it," he said simply.
"Did we come here to discuss stenographers?" asked the young woman with a little curl of the lip. "You mentioned a question, Mr. Lane. Hadn't we better get that out of the way?"
Kirby put to Jack the same query he had addressed to her.
"What's the drift of this? What do you want to prove?" Jack asked curtly.
The eyes in the brown face plunged deep into those of Jack Cunningham. "Not a thing. I've finished my case, except for a detail or two. Within two hours the murderer of Uncle James will be arrested. I'm offerin' you a chance to come through with what you know before it's too late. You can kick in if you want to. You can stay out if you don't. But don't say afterward I didn't give you a chance."
"What kind of a chance are you giving me? Let's get clear on that. Are you proposing I turn state's evidence on James? Is that what you're driving at?"
"Did James kill Uncle James?"
"Of course he didn't, but you may have it in that warped mind of yours that he did."
"What I think doesn't matter. All that will count is the truth. It's bound to come out. There are witnesses that saw you come to the Paradox, a witness that actually saw you in uncle's rooms. If you don't believe me, I'll tell you somethin'. When you an' Miss Harriman came into the room where my uncle had been killed, James was sittin' at the desk lookin' over papers. A gun was lyin' close by his hand. Miss Harriman nearly fainted an' you steadied her."
Miss Harriman, or rather Mrs. James Cunningham, nearly fainted again. She caught at the back of a chair and stood rigid, looking at Kirby with dilated, horror-filled eyes.
"He knows everything—everything. I think he must be the devil," she murmured from bloodless lips.
Jack, too, was shaken, badly. "For God's sake, man, what do you know?" he asked hoarsely.
"I know so much that you can't safely keep quiet any longer. The whole matter is goin' to the police. It's goin' to them this afternoon. What are you goin' to do? If you refuse to talk, then it will be taken to mean guilt."
"Why should it go to the police? Be reasonable, man. James didn't do it, but he's in an awful hole. No jury on earth would refuse to convict him with the evidence you've piled up. Can't you see that?"
Kirby smiled. This time his smile was grim. "I ought to know that better than you. I'll give you two hours to decide. Meet you at James's office then. There are some things we want to talk over alone, but I think Miss Harriman had better be there ready to join us when we send for her."
"Going through with this, are you?"
"I'm goin' through in spite of hell and high water."
Jack strode up and down the room in a stress of emotion. "You're going to ruin three lives because you're so pigheaded or because you want your name in the papers as a great detective. Is there anything in the world we can do to head you off?"
"Nothin'. And if lives are ruined it's not my fault. I'll promise this: The man or woman I point to as the one who killed Uncle James will be the one that did it. If James is innocent, as you claim he is, he won't have it saddled on him. Shall I tell you the thing that's got you worried? Down in the bottom of your heart you're not dead sure he didn't do it—either one of you."
The young woman took a step toward Kirby, hands outstretched in dumb pleading. She gave him her soft, appealing eyes, a light of proud humility in them.
"Don't do it!" she begged. "He's your own cousin—and my husband. I love him. Perhaps there's some woman that loves you. If there is, remember her and be merciful."
His eyes softened. It was the first time he had seen her taken out of her selfishness. She was one of those modern young women who take, but do not give. At least that had been his impression of her. She had specialized, he judged, in graceful and lovely self-indulgence. A part of her code had been to get the best possible bargain for her charm and beauty, and as a result of her philosophy of life time had already begun to enamel on her a slight hardness of finish. Yet she had married James instead of his uncle. She had risked the loss of a large fortune to follow her heart. Perhaps, if children came, she might still escape into the thoughts and actions that give life its true value.
A faint, sphinxlike smile touched his face. "No use worryin'. That doesn't help any. I'll go as easy as I can. We'll meet in two hours at James's office."
He turned and left the room.
THE MILLS OF THE GODS
Kirby Lane did not waste the two hours that lay before the appointment he had made for a meeting at the office of his cousin James. He had a talk with the Hulls and another with the Chief of Police. He saw Olson and Rose McLean. He even found the time to forge two initials at the foot of a typewritten note on the stationery of James Cunningham, and to send the note to its destination by a messenger.
Rose met him by appointment at the entrance to the Equitable Building and they rode up in the elevator together to the office of his cousin. Miss Harriman, as she still called herself in public, was there with Jack and her husband.
James was ice-cold. He bowed very slightly to Rose. Chairs were already placed.
For a moment Kirby was embarrassed. He drew James aside. Cunningham murmured an exchange of sentences with his wife, then escorted her to the door. Rose was left with the three cousins.
"I suppose Jack has told you of the marriage of Esther McLean," Kirby said as soon as the door had been closed.
James bowed, still very stiffly.
Kirby met him, eye to eye. He spoke very quietly and clearly. "I want to open the meetin' by tellin' you on behalf of this young woman an' myself that we think you an unmitigated cur. We are debarred from sayin' so before your wife, but it's a pleasure to tell you so in private. Is that quite clear?"
The oil broker flushed darkly. He made no answer. "You not only took advantage of a young woman's tender heart. You were willin' our dead uncle should bear the blame for it. Have you any other word than the one I have used to suggest as a more fittin' one?" the Wyoming man asked bitingly.
Jack answered for his brother. "Suppose we pass that count of the indictment, unless you have a practical measure to suggest in connection with it. We plead guilty."
There wag a little gleam of mirth in Kirby's eyes. "You an' I have discussed the matter already, Jack. I regret I expressed my opinion so vigorously then. We have nothin' practical to suggest, if you are referrin' to any form of compensation. Esther is happily married, thank God. All we want is to make it perfectly plain what we think of Mr. James Cunningham."
James acknowledged this and answered. "That is quite clear. I may say that I entirely concur in your estimate of my conduct. I might make explanations, but I can make none that justify me to myself."
"In that case we may consider the subject closed, unless Miss McLean has something to say."
Kirby turned to Rose. She looked at James Cunningham, and he might have been the dirt under her feet. "I have nothing whatever to say, Kirby. You express my sentiments exactly."
"Very well. Then we might open the door and invite in Miss Harriman. There are others who should be along soon that have a claim also to be present."
"What others?" asked Jack Cunningham.
"The other suspects in the case. I prefer to have them all here."
"Any one else?"
"The Chief of Police."
James looked at him hard. "This is not a private conference, then?"
"That's a matter of definitions. I have invited only those who have a claim to be present," Kirby answered.
"To my office, I think."
"If you prefer the Chief's office we'll adjourn an' go there."
The broker shrugged. "Oh, very well."
Kirby stepped to the door connecting with an outer office and threw it open. Mr. and Mrs. Hull, Olson, and the Chief of Police followed Phyllis Harriman into the room. More chairs were brought in.
The Chief sat nearest the door, one leg thrown lazily across the other. He had a fat brown cigar in his hand. Sometimes he chewed on the end of it, but he was not smoking. He was an Irishman, and as it happened open-minded. He liked this brown-faced young fellow from Wyoming—never had believed him guilty from the first. Moreover, he was willing his detective bureau should get a jolt from an outsider. It might spur them up in future.
"Chief, is there anything you want to say?" Kirby asked.
"Not a wor-rd. I'm sittin' in a parquet seat. It's your show, son."
Kirby's disarming smile won the Chief's heart. "I want to say now that I've talked with the Chief several times. He's given me a lot of good tips an' I've worked under his direction."
The head of the police force grinned. The tips he had given Lane had been of no value, but he was quite willing to take any public credit there might be. He sat back and listened now while Kirby told his story.
"Outside of the Chief every one here is connected closely with this case an' is involved in it. It happens that every man an' woman of us were in my uncle's apartments either at the time of his death or just before or after." Kirby raised a hand to meet Olson's protest. "Oh, I know. You weren't in the rooms, but you were on the fire escape outside. From the angle of the police you may have been in. All you had to do was to pass through an open window."
There was a moment's silence, while Kirby hesitated in what order to tell his facts. Hull mopped the back of his overflowing neck. Phyllis Cunningham moistened her dry lips. A chord in her throat ached tensely.
"Suspicion fell first on me an' on Hull," Kirby went on. "You've seen it all thrashed out in the papers. I had been unfriendly to my uncle for years, an' I was seen goin' to his rooms an' leavin' them that evening. My own suspicion was directed to Hull, especially when he an' Mrs. Hull at the coroner's inquest changed the time so as to get me into my uncle's apartment half an hour earlier than I had been there. I'd caught them in a panic of terror when I knocked on their door. They'd lied to get me into trouble. Hull had quarreled with Uncle James an' had threatened to go after him with a gun in two days after that time—and it was just forty-eight hours later he was killed. It looked a lot like Hull to me.
"I had one big advantage, Chief, a lot of inside facts not open to you," the cattleman explained. "I knew, for instance, that Miss McLean here had been in the rooms just before me. She was the young woman my uncle had the appointment to meet there before ten o'clock. You will remember Mr. Blanton's testimony. Miss McLean an' I compared notes, so we were able to shave down the time during which the murder must have taken place. We worked together. She gave me other important data. Perhaps she had better tell in her own words about the clue she found that we followed."
Rose turned to the Chief. Her young face flew a charming flag of color. Her hair, in crisp tendrils beneath the edge of the small hat she wore, was the ripe gold of wheat-tips in the shock. The tender blue of violets was in her eyes.
"I told you about how I found Mr. Cunningham tied to his chair, Chief. I forgot to say that in the living-room there was a faint odor of perfume. On my way upstairs I passed in the dark a man and a woman. I had got a whiff of the same perfume then. It was violet. So I knew they had been in the apartment just before me. Mr. Lane discovered later that Miss Harriman used that scent."
"Which opened up a new field of speculation," Kirby went on. "We began to run down facts an' learned that my cousin James had secretly married Miss Harriman at Golden a month before. My uncle had just learned the news. He had a new will made by his lawyer, one that cut James off without a cent an' left his property to Jack Cunningham."
"That will was never signed," Jack broke in quickly.
Kirby looked at Jack and smiled cynically. "No, it was never signed. Your brother discovered that when he looked the will over at Uncle's desk a few minutes after his death."
James did not wink an eye in distress. The hand of the woman sitting beside him went out instantly to his in a warm, swift pressure. She was white to the lips, but her thought was for the man she loved and not for herself. Kirby scored another mark to her credit.
"Cumulative evidence pointed to James Cunningham," continued Kirby. "He tried to destroy the proof of his marriage to Miss Harriman. He later pretended to lose an important paper that might have cleared up the case. He tried to get me to drop the matter an' go back to Wyoming. The coil wound closer round him.
"About this time another factor attracted my attention. I had the good luck to unearth at Dry Valley the man who had written threatenin' letters to my uncle an' to discover that he was stayin' next door to the Paradox the very night of the murder. More, my friend Sanborn an' I guessed he had actually been on the fire escape of the Wyndham an' seen somethin' of importance through the window. Later I forced a statement from Olson. He told all he had seen that night."
Kirby turned to the rancher from Dry Valley and had him tell his story. When he had finished, the cattleman made comment.
"On the face of it Olson's story leaves in doubt the question of who actually killed my uncle. If he was tellin' the whole truth, his evidence points either to the Hulls or my cousin James. But it was quite possible he had seen my uncle tied up an' helpless, an' had himself stepped through the window an' shot him. Am I right, Chief?"
The Chief nodded grimly. "Right, son."
"You told me you didn't think I did it," Olson burst out bitterly.
"An' I tell you so again," Kirby answered, smiling. "I was mentionin' possibilities. On your evidence it lies between my cousin James an' the Hulls. It was the Hulls that had tied him up after Cass Hull knocked him senseless. It was Hull who had given him two days more to live. And that's not all. Not an hour an' a half ago I had a talk with Mrs. Hull. She admitted, under pressure, that she returned to my uncle's apartment again to release him from the chair. She was alone with him, an' he was wholly in her power. She is a woman with a passionate sense of injury. What happened then nobody else saw."
Mrs. Hull opened her yellow, wrinkled lips to speak, but Kirby checked her. "Not yet, Mrs. Hull. I'll return to the subject. If you wish you can defend yourself then."
He stopped a second time to find the logical way of proceeding with his story. The silence in the room was tense. The proverbial pin could have been heard. Only one person in the room except Kirby knew where the lightning was going to strike. That person sat by the door chewing the end of a cigar impassively. A woman gave a strangled little sob of pent emotion.
"I've been leaving Horikawa out of the story," the cattleman went on. "I've got to bring him in now. He's the hinge on which it all swings. The man or woman that killed my uncle killed Horikawa too."
James Cunningham, sitting opposite Kirby with his cold eyes steadily fixed on him, for the first time gave visible sign of his anxiety. It came in the form of a little gulping sound in his throat.
"Cole Sanborn and I found Horikawa in the room where he had been killed. The doctors thought he must have been dead about a day. Just a day before this time Miss McLean an' I met James Cunningham comin' out of the Paragon. He was white an' shaking. He was sufferin' from nausea, an' his arm was badly strained. He explained it by sayin' he had fallen downstairs. Later, I wondered about that fall. I'm still wonderin'. Had he just come out of the apartment where Horikawa was hidin'? Had the tendons of that arm been strained by a jiu-jitsu twist? And had he left Horikawa behind him dead on the bed?"
James, white to the lips, looked steadily at his cousin. "A very ingenious theory. I've always complimented you on your imagination," he said, a little hoarsely, as though from a parched throat.
"You do not desire to make any explanation?" Kirby asked.
"Thanks, no. I'm not on trial for my life here, am I?" answered the oil broker quietly, with obvious irony.
His wife was sobbing softly. The man's arm went round her and tightened in wordless comfort.
From his pocket Kirby drew the envelope upon which he had a few hours earlier penciled the time schedule relating to his uncle's death.
"One of the points that struck me earliest about this mystery was that the man who solved it would have to work out pretty closely the time element. Inside of an hour ten people beside Uncle James were in his rooms. They must 'a' trod on each other's heels right fast, I figured. So I checked up the time as carefully as I could. Here's the schedule I made out. Mebbe you'd like to see it." He handed the envelope to James.
Jack rose and looked over his brother's shoulder. His quick eye ran down the list. "I get the rest of it," he said. "But what does X mean?"
"X is the ten minutes of Uncle's time I can't account for. Some of us were with him practically every other minute. X is the whole unknown quantity. It is the time in which he was prob'ly actually killed. It is the man who may, by some thousandth chance, have stepped into the room an' killed him while none of us were present," explained Kirby.
"If there is such an unknown man you can cut the time down to five minutes instead of ten, providing your schedule is correct," James cut in. "For according to it I was there part of the time and Mrs. Hull part of the rest of it."
"Yes," agreed his cousin.
"But you may have decided that Mrs. Hull is X or that I am," jeered James. "If so, of course that ends it. No need for a judge or jury."
Kirby turned to the man by the door. "Chief, one of the queer things about this mystery is that all the witnesses had somethin' to conceal. Go right through the list, an' it's true of every one of us. I'm talkin' about the important witnesses, of course. Well, Cole an' I found a paper in the living-room of the apartment where Horikawa was killed. It was in Japanese. I ought to have turned it over to you, but I didn't. I was kinda playin' a lone hand. At that time I didn't suspect my cousin James at all. We were workin' together on this thing. At least I thought so. I found out better later. I took the paper to him to get it translated, thinkin' maybe Horikawa might have written some kind of a confession. James lost that paper. Anyhow, he claimed he did. My theory is that Horikawa had some evidence against him. He was afraid of what that paper would tell."
"Unfortunately for your theory it was a clerk of mine who lost the paper. I had nothing to do with it," James retorted coldly. "No doubt the paper has been destroyed, but not by me. Quite by accident, I judge."
His cousin let off a bomb beneath the broker's feet. "You'll be glad to know that the paper wasn't destroyed," he said. "I have it, with a translation, in my pocket at the present moment."
James clutched the arms of his chair. His knuckles grew white with the strain. "Where—where did you find it?" he managed to say.
"In the most private drawer of your safe, where you hid it," Kirby replied quietly.
Cunningham visibly fought for his composure. He did not speak until he had perfect self-control. Then it was with a sneer.
"And this paper which you allege you found in my safe—after a burglary which, no doubt, you know is very much against the law—does it convict me of the murder of my uncle?"
The tension in the room was nerve-shattering. Men and women suspended breathing while they waited for an answer.
"On the contrary, it acquits you of any guilt whatever in the matter."
Phyllis Cunningham gave a broken little sob and collapsed into her husband's arms. Jack rose, his face working, and caught his brother by the shoulder. These two had suffered greatly, not only because of their fear for him, but because of the fear of his guilt that had poisoned their peace.
James, too, was moved, as much by their love for him as by the sudden relief that had lifted from his heart. But his pride held him outwardly cold.
"Since you've decided I didn't do it, Mr. Lane, perhaps you'll tell us then who did," he suggested presently.
There came a knock at the door.
A whimsical smile twitched at the corners of Kirby's mouth. He did not often have a chance for dramatics like this.
"Why, yes, that seems fair enough," he answered.
"He's knockin' at the door now. Enter X."
Shibo stood on the threshold and sent a swift glance around the room. He had expected to meet James alone. That first slant look of the long eyes forewarned him that Nemesis was at hand. But he faced without a flicker of the lids the destiny he had prepared for himself.
"You write me note come see you now," he said to Cunningham.
James showed surprise. "No, I think not."
"You no want me?"
The Chief's hand fell on the shoulder of the janitor. "I want you, Shibo."
"You write me note come here now?"
"No, I reckon Mr. Lane wrote that."
"I plenty busy. What you want me for?"
"For the murders of James Cunningham and Horikawa." Before the words were out of his mouth the Chief had his prisoner handcuffed.
Shibo turned to Kirby. "You tellum police I killum Mr. Cunnin'lam and Horikawa?"
"I plenty sorry I no kill you."
"You did your best, Shibo. Took three shots at ten feet. Rotten shooting."
"Do you mean that he actually tried to kill you?" James asked in surprise.
"In the Denmark Building, the other night, at eleven o'clock. And I'll say he made a bad mistake when he tried an' didn't get away with it. For I knew that the man who was aimin' to gun me was the same one that had killed Uncle James. He'd got to worryin' for fear I was followin' too hot a trail."
"Did you recognize him?" Jack said.
"Not right then. I was too busy duckin' for cover. Safety first was my motto right then. No, when I first had time to figure on who could be the gentleman that was so eager to make me among those absent, I rather laid it to Cousin James, with Mr. Cass Hull second on my list of suspects. The fellow had a searchlight an' he flashed it on me. I could see above it a bandanna handkerchief over the face. I'd seen a bandanna like it in Hull's hands. But I had to eliminate Hull. The gunman on the stairs had small, neat feet, no larger than a woman's. Hull's feet are—well, sizable."
They were. Huge was not too much to call them.
As a dozen eyes focused on his boots the fat man drew them back of the rungs of his chair. This attention to personal details of his conformation was embarrassing.
"Those small feet stuck in my mind," Kirby went on. "Couldn't seem to get rid of the idea. They put James out of consideration, unless, of course, he had hired a killer, an' that didn't look reasonable to me. I'll tell the truth. I thought of Mrs. Hull dressed as a man—an' then I thought of Shibo."
"Had you suspected him before?" This from Olson.
"Not of the murders. I had learned that he had seen the Hulls come from my uncle's rooms an' had kept quiet. Hull admitted that he had been forced to bribe him. I tackled Shibo with it an' threatened to tell the police. Evidently he became frightened an' tried to murder me. I got a note makin' an appointment at the Denmark Building at eleven in the night. The writer promised to tell me who killed my uncle. I took a chance an' went." The cattleman turned to Mrs. Hull. "Will you explain about the note, please?"
The gaunt, tight-lipped woman rose, as though she had been called on at school to recite. "I wrote the note," she said. "Shibo made me. I didn't know he meant to kill Mr. Lane. He said he'd tell everything if I didn't."
She sat down. She had finished her little piece.
"So I began to focus on Shibo. He might be playin' a lone hand, or he might be a tool of my cousin James. A detective hired by me saw him leave James's office. That didn't absolutely settle the point. He might have seen somethin' an' be blackmailin' him too. That was the way of it, wasn't it?" He turned point-blank to Cunningham.
"Yes," the broker said. "He had us right—not only me, but Jack and Phyllis, too. I couldn't let him drag her into it. The day you saw me with the strained tendon I had been with him and Horikawa in the apartment next to the one Uncle James rented. We quarreled. I got furious and caught Shibo by the throat to shake the little scoundrel. He gave my arm some kind of a jiu-jitsu twist. He was at me every day. He never let up. He meant to bleed me heavily. We couldn't come to terms. I hated to yield to him."
"And did you?"
"I promised him an answer soon."
"No doubt he came to-day thinkin' he was goin' to get it." Kirby went back to the previous question. "Next time I saw Shibo I took a look at his feet. He was wearin' a pair o' shoes that looked to me mighty like those worn by the man that ambushed me. They didn't have any cap pieces across the toes. I'd noticed that even while he was shootin' at me. It struck me that it would be a good idea to look over his quarters in the basement. Shibo has one human weakness. He's a devotee of the moving pictures. Nearly every night he takes in a show on Curtis Street. The Chief lent me a man, an' last night we went through his room at the Paradox. We found there a flashlight, a bandanna handkerchief with holes cut in it for the eyes, an' in the mattress two thousand dollars in big bills. We left them where we found them, for we didn't want to alarm Shibo."
The janitor looked at him without emotion. "You plenty devil man," he said.
"We hadn't proved yet that Shibo was goin' it alone," Kirby went on, paying no attention to the interruption. "Some one might be usin' him as a tool. Horikawa's confession clears that up."
Kirby handed to the Chief of Police the sheets of paper found in the apartment where the valet was killed. Attached to these by a clip was the translation. The Chief read this last aloud.
Horikawa, according to the confession, had been in Cunningham's rooms sponging and pressing a suit of clothes when the promoter came home on the afternoon of the day of his death. Through a half-open door he had seen his master open his pocket-book and count a big roll of bills. The figures on the outside one showed that it was a treasury note for fifty dollars. The valet had told Shibo later and they had talked it over, but with no thought in Horikawa's mind of robbery.