"Hello," the yellow man saluted us.
"Hello, Chung," Worth rejoined, and added, "Looks good to see you again."
I was relieved to hear that. It showed me that the cook, anyhow, had not seen Worth last night in Santa Ysobel.
"Just now I hea' 'bout Boss." Chung's eye went straight to the stain on the rug, exactly as Edwards' had done, but it stopped there, and his Oriental impassiveness was unmoved. "Too bad," he concluded, thrust the fingers of one hand up the sleeve of the other and waited.
"Where you been all day?" I said quickly.
"My cousin' ranch."
"His cousin's got a truck farm over by Medlow—or used to have," Worth supplied, and Chung looked to him, instantly.
"You sabbee," he said hopefully. "I go iss mo'ning—all same any day—not find out 'bout Boss. Too bad. Too velly much bad." A pause, then, looking around at the four of us, "I get dinner?"
"We've all had something to eat, Chung," Worth said. "You go now fix room. Make bed. To-night, I stay; Mr. Boyne here stay; Mr. Edwards stay. Fix three rooms. Good fire."
"All 'ite," the chink would have ducked out then, Jim Edwards after him, but I stopped the proceedings with,
"Hold on a minute—while we're all together—tell us about that visitor Mr. Gilbert had last night." I was throwing a rock in the brush-pile in the chance of scaring out a rabbit. I was shooting the question at Chung, but my eye was on Edwards. He glared back at me for a moment, then couldn't stand the strain and looked away. At last the Chinaman spoke.
"Not see um. I go fix bed now."
"Hold on," again I stopped him. "Worth, tell him those beds can wait. Tell him it's all right to answer my questions."
"'S all 'ite?" Chung studied us in turn. I was keeping an inconspicuous eye on Edwards as I reassured him. "'S all 'ite," he repeated with a falling inflection this time, and finished placidly, "You want know 'bout lady?"
"What's all this?" Edwards spoke low.
"About a lady who came to see Mr. Gilbert last night," I explained shortly; then, "Who was she, Chung?"
"Not see um good." The Chinaman shook his head gravely.
"Did she come here—to the study?" I asked. He nodded. Worth moved impatiently, and the Chinaman caught it. He fixed his eyes on Worth. I stepped between them. "Chung," I said sharply. "You knew the lady. Who was she?"
"Not see um good," he repeated, plainly reluctant. "She hold hand by face—cly, I think."
"Good God!" Edwards broke out startlingly. "If we're going to hear an account of all the women that Tom lectured and made cry—leave me out of it."
"One woman will do, for this time," I said to him drily, "if it's the right one," and he subsided, turning away. But he did not go. With burning eyes, he stood and listened while I cross-examined the unwilling Chung and got apparently a straight story showing that some woman had come to the side door of his master's house shortly after dinner Saturday night, walked to the study with that master, weeping, and that her voice when he heard it, sounded like that of some one he knew. I tried every way in the world to get him to be specific about this voice; did it sound like that of a young lady? an old lady? did he think it was some one he knew well, or only a little? had he been hearing it much lately? All the usual tactics; but Chung's placid obstinacy was proof against them. He kept shaking his head and saying over and over,
"No hear um good," until Barbara, standing watchfully by, said,
"Chung, you think that lady talk like this?"
As she spoke, after the first word, a change had come into her voice; it was lighter, higher, with a something in its character faintly reminiscent to my ear. And Chung bobbed his head quickly, nodding assent. In her mimicry he had recognized the tones of the visitor. I glanced at Edwards: he looked positively relieved.
"I'll go to the house, Worth," he said with more composure in his tone than I would have thought a few moments ago he could in any way summon. "You'll find me there." And he followed the Chinaman up the moonlit path.
I stood at the door and watched until I saw first Chung's head come into the light on the kitchen porch, then Jim Edwards's black poll follow it. I waited until both had gone into the house and the door was shut, before I went back to Barbara and Worth. They were speaking together in low tones over at the hearth. The three of us were alone; and the blood-stain on the rug, out of sight there in the shadow beyond the table, would seem to cry out as a fourth.
"Barbara," I broke in across their talk, "who was the woman who came here to this place last night?"
She didn't answer me. Instead, it was Worth who spoke.
"Better come here and listen to what Bobs has been saying to me, Jerry, before you ask any questions."
I crossed and stood between the two young people.
"Well," I grunted; and though Barbara's face was white, her eyes big and black, she answered me bravely,
"Mr. Gilbert did not kill himself. Worth doesn't think so, either."
"What!" It was jolted out of me. After a moment's thought, I finished, "Then I've got to know who the woman was that visited this room last night."
For a long while she made no reply, studying Worth's profile as he stared steadily into the fire. No signal passed between them, but finally she came to her decision and said,
"Mr. Boyne, ask Worth what he thinks I ought to say to that."
Instead, "Who was it, Worth?" I snapped, speaking to the back of the young man's head. The red came up into the girl's face, and her eyes flashed; but Worth merely shrugged averted shoulders.
"You can search me," he said, and left it there.
I looked from one to the other of these young people: Worth, whom I loved as I might have my own son had I been so fortunate as to possess one; this girl who had made a place of warmth for herself in my heart in less than a day, whose loyalty to my boy I was certain I might count on. How different this affair must look to them from the face it wore to me, an old police detective, who had bulled through many inquiries like this, the corpse itself, perhaps, lying in the back of the room, instead of the blood-stain we had there on the rug; what was practically the Third Degree being applied to relatives and friends; with the squalid prospect of a court trial ahead of us all. If they'd seen as much of this sort of thing as I had, they wouldn't be holding me up now, tying my hands that were so willing to help, by this fine-spun, overstrained notion of shielding a woman's name.
"Barbara," I began—I knew an appeal to the unaccountable Worth would get me nowhere—"the facts we've got to deal with here are a possible murder, with this lad the last person known—by us, of course—to have seen his father alive. We know, too, that they quarreled bitterly. We know all this. Outside people, men who are interested, and more or less hostile, were aware that Worth needed money—needs it yet, for that matter—a large sum. I suppose it is a question of time when it will be known that Worth came here last night; and when it is known, do you realize what it will mean?"
Worth had sat through this speech without the quiver of a muscle, and no word came from him as I paused for a reply. Little Barbara, big eyes boring into me as though to read all that was in the back of my mind, nodded gravely but did not speak. I crossed to the shelves and took down the diary whose leather back bore the date of 1916. As I opened it, finding the place where its pages had been removed, I continued,
"You and I know—we three here know—" I included Worth in my statement—"that the crime was neither suicide nor patricide; but it is likely we must have proof of that fact. Unless we find the murderer—"
"But the motive—there would have to be motive."
Barbara struck right at the core of the thing. She didn't check at the mere material facts of how a murder could have been done, who might have had opportunity. The fundamental question of why it should have been was her immediate interest.
"I believe I've the motive here," I said and thrust the mutilated volume into her hand. "Some one stole these leaves out of Mr. Gilbert's diary. The books are filled with intimate details of the affairs of people—things which people prefer should not be known—names, details and dates written out completely. It's likely murder was done last night to get possession of those pages."
She went to the desk and glanced over the book; not the minute examination with the reading glass which I had given it; that mere flirt of a glance which, when I had first noticed it the night before at Tait's, skimming across that description of Clayte, had seemed so inadequate. Then she turned to me.
"Mr. Gilbert cut these out himself," she pronounced.
That brought Worth's head up and his face around to stare at her.
"You say my father removed something he had written?" he asked. Barbara nodded. "He never changed a decision—and those books were his decisions."
"Then this wasn't a correction, but he cut it out. Can't you see, Mr. Boyne? Those leaves were removed by a man who respected the book and was as careful in his mutilation of it as he was in its making. It is precisely written—I'm referring to workmanship, not its literary quality—carefully margined, evenly indented on the paragraph beginnings. And so, in this removal of three leaves, the cutting was done with a sharp knife drawn along the edge of a ruler—" I picked up from where they lay on the blotting pad, a small pearl-handled knife, its sharp blade open, and the ruler I had seen when looking down from the skylight, and placed them before her. She nodded and continued,
"There is a bit of margin left so no other leaves can be loosened by this removal. The marking out of the run-over has been neatly ruled, done so recently that the ink is not yet black—done with that ink in the stand. It was blotted with this." She lifted a hand-blotter to show me the print of a line of ink. There were other markings on the face of the soft paper, and I took it eagerly. Barbara smiled.
"You will get little from that," she said. I had not even seen her give it attention. "Scattered words—and parts of words, blotted frequently as they were written. Perhaps, with care, we might learn something, but we can turn more easily to the last pages of his diary and—"
"There are no last pages," I interrupted. "The 1920 book is missing."
"Gone—stolen?" she exclaimed. It brought a smile to my face. For the first time in my experience of this pretty, little bunch of brains, she had hazarded a guess.
"Gone," I admitted coolly—a bit sarcastically. "I've no reason to say stolen."
"But—yes, you have—you have, Mr. Boyne! If it is gone, it was stolen. Is it gone—are you sure it is gone?" Eagerly her eyes were searching desk, cabinet, the shelf where the other diaries made their long row. I satisfied her on that score.
"I have searched the study thoroughly; it is not in this room."
"Was here last night," Worth cut in. "I saw it on the desk."
"And was stolen last night," Barbara reaffirmed, quickly. "These books are too big to be slipped into a pocket, so we can't believe it was left upon Mr. Gilbert's person; and he wouldn't lend it—wouldn't willingly let it go from his possession. So it was stolen; and the man who stole it—killed him." She shuddered.
That was going too swift for me to follow, but I saw on Worth Gilbert's face his acceptance of it. Either conviction of Barbara's infallibility, or some knowledge locked up inside his own chest, made him certain the diary had been stolen, and the thief was his father's murderer. In a flash, I remembered his words, "putting every damn' word of our row into it," and I shot straight at him,
"Did you take that book, Worth?"
He only shook his head and answered,
"You heard what Bobs said, Jerry."
If he took the book he killed his father; that was Barbara's inference, Worth's acceptance. I threw back my shoulders to cast off the suspicion, then reached across to place my fingers under the girl's hand and pull from it the only record of that last written page, the blotter.
"Will you read me that?" I asked her. "Every word and part of a word—every letter?"
Her eyes smiled into mine with a reassurance that was like balm. Worth rose and found her a hand-glass on the mantel, passing it to her, and with this to reverse the scrawlings, she read and I wrote down in my memorandum book two complete words, two broken words and five single letters picked from overlying marks that were too confused to be decipherable. Though the three of us struggled with them, they held no meaning.
Worth's interest quickly ceased.
"I'll join Jim Edwards in the house," he said, but I stopped him.
"One minute, Worth. There was a woman visitor here last night. It would seem she carried away with her the diary of 1920 and three leaves from the book of 1916. I want you—you and Barbara—to tell me what you know that happened here in Santa Ysobel on the dates of the missing pages, May 31 and June 1, 1916."
Barbara accepted the task, turning that wonderful cinematograph memory back, and murmured,
"I never tried recollecting on just a bare date this way, but—" then glanced around at me and finished—"nothing happened to me in Santa Ysobel then, because I wasn't in Santa Ysobel. I was in San Francisco and—"
"And I was in Flanders, so that lets me out," Worth broke in brusquely. "I'll go into the house."
"Wait, Worth." I placed a hand on his shoulder. "Go on, Barbara; you had thought of something."
"Yes. Father died in January of that year, and in March I had to vacate the house. It had been sold, and they wanted to fix it over. I left Santa Ysobel on the eighteenth of March, but they didn't get into the house until June first."
Again Worth interrupted.
"Which jogs my memory for an unexciting detail." He smiled enigmatically. "I was jilted June first."
"In Flanders?" How many times had this lad been jilted?
"No. Right here. I wasn't here of course, but the letter which did the trick was written here, and bore that date—June one, 1916."
"How do you get the date so pat?"
"It was handed me by the mail orderly—I was on the Verdun sector then—on the morning of the Fourth of July. Remember the date the letter was written because of the quick time it made. Most of our mail took from six weeks to eternity. What are you smiling at, Bobs?"
"Just a little—you don't mind, do you?—at your saying you remember Ina's letter by the quick time it made in reaching you."
"Who bought your house, Barbara?" I asked her.
"Dr. Bowman—or rather Mrs. Bowman's uncle bought it and gave it to her."
"And they went in on the first of June, 1916?" I was all excitement, turning the pages of the diary to get to certain points I remembered. "What can either one of you tell me about the state of affairs at that time between Dr. Bowman and his wife—and that man who was just in here—Jim Edwards?"
Worth turned a hostile back; Barbara seemed to shrink in her chair. I hated like a whipping to pull this sort of stuff on them, but I knew that Barbara's knowledge of Worth's danger would reconcile her to whatever painful thing must be done, and I had to know who was that visitor of last night.
"Is that—that stuff in those damnable books?" I saw the hunch of Worth's broad shoulders.
"Some of it is—some of it has been cut out," I replied.
"And you connect Jim Edwards with this crime?"
"I don't connect him—he connects himself—by them, and by his manner."
"Burn them!" He faced me, came over and reached for the book. "Dump the whole rotten mess into the fire, Jerry, and be done with it."
"Easy said, but that would sure be a short cut to trouble. Tell me, I've got to know, if you think this man Edwards—under great provocation—capable of—well, of killing a fellow creature."
"Jerry," Worth took the book out of my hand and laid it on the table, "what you want to do is to forget this—dirt—that you've been reading, and go at this thing without prejudice. If you open any trails and they lead in my direction, don't be afraid to follow them. This thing of trying to find a criminal in some one that my father has already deeply injured—some one that he's made life a hell for—so that suspicion needn't be directed to me, makes me sick. If I'd allow you to do it, I'd be yellow clear through."
That was about the longest speech I'd heard Worth Gilbert make since his return from France. And he meant every word of it, too; but it didn't suit me. This "Hew to the line" stuff is all right until the chips begin whacking the head of your friend. In this case there wasn't a doubt in my mind that when a breath of suspicion got out that Thomas Gilbert had not killed himself, that minute would see the first finger point at Thomas Gilbert's son as the murderer. So I grumbled,
"Just the same, Edwards has something on his mind about last night."
"He has—and it's pretty nearly tearing him to pieces," Worth admitted, but would go no further.
"He was here last night, I'm sure—and Mrs. Bowman was with him," I ventured.
Barbara, who had been sitting through this her eyes on Worth, turned from him to me and pronounced, gently,
"Yes, he was here, and Laura was with him."
"Bobs!" Worth spoke so sternly that she glanced up startled. "I'll not stand for you throwing suspicion on Jim."
"Did I—do that?" her lip trembled. Worth's eyes were on the fire.
"Don't quarrel with the girl," I remonstrated. Barbara had told me the visitor; I covered my elation with, "She's only looking out for your safety."
"I can look out for myself," curtly. He turned hard eyes on us. It made me feel put away from him, chucked out from his friendship. "And I never quarreled with anybody in my life. Sometimes—" he turned from one to the other of us, speaking slowly, "Sometimes I seem to antagonize people, for no reason that I can see; and sometimes I fight; but I never quarrel."
"No offense intended—or taken," I assured him hastily. My heart was full of his danger, and I told myself that it was his misery spoke, and not the true Worth Gilbert. But a very pale and subdued Barbara said tremulously,
"I guess I'd better go home now," suggesting, after the very slightest pause, "Mr. Boyne can take me."
"Don't, Bobsie." Worth's voice was gentle again, but absent. It sounded as though he had already forgotten both of us, and our possible cause of offense. "Go to the house with Jerry. I'll bar the door and follow."
"Can't I help with that?" I offered.
"No. Eddie will give me a hand if I need it. Go on. I'll be with you in a minute."
But it was considerably more than a minute before Worth followed us to the house. We walked slowly, talking; when I looked back from the kitchen porch, Worth had already come outside, and I thought Eddie Hughes was with him, though I heard no voices and couldn't be sure on account of the shrubbery between.
Getting into the house we found that Chung had the downstairs all opened up through, lights going, heat turned on from the basement furnace; everywhere that tended, homelike appearance a competent servant gives a place. On the hall table as we passed, I noticed a doctorish top coat, with a primly folded muffler laid across it.
"Dr. Bowman is here," Barbara said hardly above her breath.
We listened; no sound of voices from the living room; then I got the tramp of feet that moved back and forth in there. We opened the door, and there were the two men; a queer proposition!
Bowman had taken a chair pretty well in the middle of the room. It was Jim Edwards whose feet I had heard as he roamed about. No word was going between them; apparently they hadn't spoken to each other at all; the looks that met or avoided were those strange looks of persons who live in lengthened and what might be termed intimate hostility.
"Ah—Boyne—isn't it?" Bowman greeted me; I thought our coming relieved the situation. He shook hands, then turned to Barbara with, "Mrs. Thornhill said you were here; I told her I would bring you back with me."
I rather wondered not to hear him insist on being taken at once to the study, but his next words gave the reason. He'd reached Santa Ysobel too late for the inquest itself, but not too late to make what he informed us was a thorough investigation of everything it treated of.
Barbara and I found places on the davenport; Edwards prowled up and down the other end of the room, openly in torment. Those stormy black eyes of his were seldom off Bowman, while the doctor's gray, heavy-lidded gaze never got beyond the toes of the restless man's moving boots. He had begun a grumbling tale of the coroner's incompetence and neglect to reopen the inquest when he, the family physician, arrived, as though that were important, when Worth came in.
Instantly the doctor was on his feet, had paced up to the new master of the house, and began pumping his arm in a long handshake, while he passed out those platitudes of condolence a man of his sort deals in at such a time. The stuff I'd been reading in those diaries had told me what was the root and branch of his friendship with the dead man; it made the hair at the back of my neck lift to hear him boasting of it in Jim Edwards' presence, and know what I knew. "And, my dear boy," he finished, "they tell me you've not been to view the body—yet. I thought perhaps you'd like to go—with me. I can have my machine here in a minute. No?" as Worth declined with a wordless shake of the head.
I hoped he'd leave then; but he didn't. Instead, he turned back to his chair, explaining,
"If Mrs. Thornhill's cook hadn't phoned me, when Mrs. Thornhill had a second collapse last night, I suppose I should be in San Francisco still. The coroner seemed to think there was no necessity for having competent medical testimony as to the time of death, and the physical condition of the deceased. I should have been wired for. The inquest should have been delayed until I arrived. The way the thing was managed was disgraceful."
"It was merciful." Jim Edwards spoke as though unwillingly, in a muttered undertone. Evidently it was the first word he'd addressed to Bowman—if he could be said to address him now, as he finished, "I hadn't thought of an inquest. Yet of course there'd be one in a case of suicide."
Bowman only heard and wholly misconstrued him, snatching at the concluding words,
"Of course it was suicide. Done with his own weapon, taken from the holster where we know it always hung, fully loaded. The muzzle had been pressed so close against the breast when the cartridge exploded that the woolen vest had taken fire. I should say it had smouldered for some time; there was a considerable hole burned in the cloth. The flesh around the wound was powder-scarred."
Worth took it like a red Indian. I could see by the glint of his eye as it flickered over the doctor's face, the smooth white hands, the whole smooth personality, that the boy disliked, and had always disliked him. Yet he listened silently.
I rather hoped by leading questions to get Bowman to express the opinion that Thomas Gilbert had been killed in the small hours of the morning. Circumstances then would have fitted in with Eddie Hughes. Eddie Hughes was to me the most acceptable murderer in sight. But no—nothing would do him but to stick to the hour the coroner had accepted.
"Medical science cannot determine closer than that," he was very final. "The death took place within an hour preceding midnight."
"You are positive it couldn't be this morning?" I asked.
Well, Dr. Bowman's testimony, if accepted at the value the doctor himself placed upon it, would clear Worth of suspicion, for the lad was with me at Tait's from a few minutes past ten until after one; and Jim Edwards, now pacing the floor so restlessly, had also been there the greater part of that time. I had had too much experience with doctor's guesses based on rigor mortis to let it affect my views.
In the minute of silence, we could hear Chung moving about at the back of the house. The doctor spoke querulously.
"Never expect anything of a Chinaman, but I should think when the chauffeur found the body he might have had sense enough to summon friends of the family. He could have phoned me—I was only in San Francisco."
"He could have phoned me at the ranch," Jim Edwards' deep voice came in.
"You? Why should he phone for you?" Bowman wheeled on him at last. "I was the man's physician, as well as his close friend. Everybody knows you weren't on good terms with him. Gad! You wouldn't be here in this house to-night, if he were alive."
In the sort of silence that comes when some one's been suddenly struck in the face, Worth crossed to Edwards and laid an arm along his shoulders.
"I've asked Jim to stay in my place, here, in my house, while I'm away over Monday—and he can do as he likes about whom he chooses to have around."
Bowman gradually got to his feet, his face a study.
"I see," he said. "Then I'll not trespass on your time any longer. I felt obliged to offer my services ... patients of mine ... for years ... in affliction ..." a gleam of anger came into his fishy eyes. "I've been met with damned insolence.... Claiming of the house before your father's decently in his grave." He jerked fully erect. "Leave your affairs in the hands of that degenerate. If he doesn't do you dirt, you'll be the first he's let off! Come, Miss Barbara," to the girl who sat beside me, looking on mutely observant.
"Thank you, doctor." She answered him as tranquilly as though no voice had been raised in anger in that room. "I think I'll stay a little longer. Jim will take me home."
The doctor glared and stalked out. To the last I think he was expecting some one to stop him and apologize. I suppose this was what Worth described naively as "antagonizing people without intending to." Well, it might not be judicious; I certainly was glad the doctor was so sure of the time at which his friend Gilbert had met death; yet I couldn't but enjoy seeing him get his. As soon as the man's back was turned, Edwards beckoned Barbara to the window. Worth and I left them talking together there in low tones, he to get something he wanted from a case in the hall, where he called me to the phone, saying long distance wanted me. While I was waiting for my connection (Central, as usual, having gotten me, now couldn't get the other party) the two came from the living room and Barbara said "Good night" to us in passing.
"Those two seem to have something on hand," I commented as they went out. "The little girl gave Bowman one for himself—in the nicest possible way. Don't wonder Edwards likes her for it."
"Poor Laura Bowman! Her friends take turns giving that bloodless lizard she's tied to, one for himself any time they can," Worth said. "My mother used to handle the doctor something like that; and now it's Barbara—little Bobsie Wallace—God bless her!"
He went on into the dining room. I looked after his unconscious, departing figure and thought he deserved a good licking. Why couldn't he have spoken that way to the girl herself? Why hadn't he taken her home, instead of leaving it to Edwards? Then I got my call and answered,
"This is Boyne. Put them through."
In a minute came Roberts' voice.
"Hello, Mr. Boyne?"
"Yes. What you got?"
"Telegram—Hicks—Los Angeles. He's located Steve Skeels—"
"Read me the wire," I broke in.
"All right." A pause, then, "'Skeels arrived here from 'Frisco this morning shall I arrest?'"
"Good!" I exclaimed. "Wire him to keep Steve under surveillance and await instructions. Tell him not to lose him. Get it, Roberts? Hustle it. I'll be in by nine. Good-by," and I hung up.
I looked around; Worth had gone into the dining room; I stepped to the door and saw him kneeling before an open lower door of the built-in sideboard, and noted that the compartment had been steel lined and Yale-locked, making a sort of safe. A lamp at the end of an extension wire stood on the floor beside him; he looked around at me over his shoulder as I put my head in to say,
"Stock in your old suitcase has gone up a notch, Worth. We've caught Skeels."
"So soon?" was all he said. But my news seemed to decide something for him; with a sharp gesture of finality, he put into his breast pocket the package of papers he had been looking at.
When a little later, Edwards came in, Worth was waiting for him in the hall.
"Do we go now?" the older man asked, wincing. Worth nodded.
"Take your machine, Jim," he said. "We can park it at Fuller's and walk back from there. Boyne's roadster is in our garage."
"Anything wrong with Eddie Hughes?" Edwards asked as he stepped in to get his driving gloves. "I passed him out there headed for town lugging a lot of freight, and the fellow growled like a dog when I spoke to him."
"I fired him. Come on, Jim—let's get out of this."
"Hold on, Worth," I took a hand. "Fired Hughes? When?"
"While I was fixing up that door—after you and Bobs came to the house."
"What in God's name for?" I asked in exasperation.
"For giving me back talk," said the youth who never quarreled with any one.
He and Edwards tramped out together. I realized that the hostile son and an alienated friend had gone for a last look at the clay that had yesterday been Thomas Gilbert. Of course Worth would do that before he left Santa Ysobel. But would Edwards go in with him—or was he only along to drive the machine? It might be worth my while to know. But I could ask to-morrow; it wasn't worth a tired man's waiting up for. We must make an early start in the morning. I went upstairs to bed.
SEVEN LOST DAYS
Instead of driving up to San Francisco with Worth and Barbara, the next morning, I was headed south at a high rate of speed. Sitting in the Pullman smoker, going over what had happened and what I had made of it, vainly studying a small, blue blotter with some senseless hieroglyphics reversed upon it, I wasn't at all sure that this move of mine was anywhere near the right one. But the thing hit me so quick, had to be decided in a flash, and my snap judgment never was good.
We were all at breakfast there at the Gilbert house when I got the phone that those boobs down in Los Angeles had let Skeels slip through their fingers. I could see no way but to go myself. When I went out to retrieve my hand bag from the roadster, there was Barbara already in the seat. I delayed a minute to explain to her. She was full of eager interest; it seemed to her that Skeels ducking the detectives that way was more than clever—almost worthy of a wonder man.
"Slickest thing I ever knew," I grumbled. "You can gamble I wouldn't be going south after him if Skeels hadn't shown himself too many for the Hicks agency—and they're one of the best in the business."
Worth came out and settled himself at the wheel; he and Edwards exchanged a last, low-toned word; and they were ready to be off. Barbara leaned towards me with shining eyes.
"Perhaps," she said, "Skeels might even be Clayte!" then the roadster whisked her away.
The bulk of Worth Gilbert's fortune was practically tied up in this affair. Even as the Pullman carried me Los Angeles-ward, that boy was getting in to San Francisco, going to the bank, and turning over to them capital that represented not only his wealth but his honor. If we failed to trace this money, he was a discredited fool. Yes, I had done right to come.
So far on that side. Then apprehension began to mutter within me about the situation at Santa Ysobel. How long would that coroner's verdict of suicide satisfy the public? How soon would some seepage of fact indicate that the death was murder and set the whole town to looking for a murderer? The minute this happened, the real criminal would take alarm and destroy evidence I might have gathered if I had stayed by the case. I promised myself that it should be simply "there and back" with me in the Skeels matter.
This is the way it looked to me in the Pullman; then—once in Los Angeles—I allowed myself to get hot telling the Hicks people what I thought of them, explaining how I'd have run the chase, and wound up by giving seven days to it—seven precious, irreclaimable days—while everything lay wide open there in the north, and I couldn't get any satisfactory word from the office, and none of any sort from Worth.
That Skeels trail kept me to it, with my tongue hanging out; again and again I seemed to have him; every time I missed him by an hour or so; and that convinced me that he was straining every nerve, and that he probably had the whole of the loot still with him. At last, I seemed to have him in a perfect trap—Ensenada, on the Peninsula. You get into and out of Ensenada by steamboat only, except back to the mines on foot or donkey. The two days I had to wait over in San Diego for the boat which would follow the one Skeels had taken were a mighty uneasy time. If I'd imagined for a moment that he wasn't on the dodge—that he was there openly—I'd have wired the Mexican authorities, and had him waiting for me in jail. But the Mexican officials are a rotten lot; it seemed to me best to go it alone.
What I found in Ensenada was that Skeels had been there, quite publicly, under his own name; he had come alone and departed with a companion, Hinch Dial, a drill operator from the mines, a transient, a pick-up laborer, seemingly as close-mouthed as Silent Steve himself. Steve had come on one steamer and the two had left on the next. That north-bound boat we passed two hours off Point Loma was carrying Skeels and his pal back to San Diego!
Again two days lost, waiting for the steamer back. And when I got to San Diego, the trail was stone cold. I had sent Worth almost daily reports in care of my office, not wanting them to lie around at Santa Ysobel during the confusion of the funeral and all; but even before I went to Ensenada, telegrams from Roberts had informed me that these reports could not be delivered as Worth had not been at the office, and telephone messages to Santa Ysobel and the Palace Hotel had failed to locate him. When I believed I had Skeels firmly clasped in the jaws of the Ensenada trap, I had sent a complete report of my doings up to that time, and the optimistic outlook then, to Barbara with instructions for her to get it to Worth. She would know where he was.
But she hadn't. Her reply, waiting at San Diego for me, a delicious little note that somehow lightened the bitterness of my disappointment over Skeels, told me that she had seen Worth at the funeral, almost a week ago now, but only for a minute; that she had supposed he had joined me on the Skeels chase; and she would now try to hunt him up and deliver my report. Roberts, too, had a line in one of his reports that Worth had called for the suitcase on the Monday I left and had neither returned it nor been in the office since.
I worried not at all over Worth; if he wanted to play hide and seek with Dykeman's spotters, he was thoroughly capable of looking after himself; but in the Skeels matter, I did then what I should have done in the first place, of course; turned the work over to subordinates and headed straight home.
I reached San Francisco pretty well used up. It was nearly the middle of the forenoon next day when I got to my desk and found it piled high with mail that had accumulated in my absence. Roberts had looked after what he could, and sorted the rest, ready for me. Everything concerning the Clayte case was in one basket. As Roberts handed it to me, he explained.
"The Van Ness bank attorney—Cummings—has been keeping tabs on you tight, Mr. Boyne. Here every day—sometimes twice. Wants to know the minute you're back."
I grunted and dived into the letters. Nothing interesting. Responses acknowledging receipts of my early inquiries. Roberts lingered.
"Well?" I shot at him. He moved uneasily as he asked.
"Did you wire him when you were coming back?"
"Cummings? No. Why?"
"He telephoned in just before you came saying that he'd be right up to see you. I told him you hadn't returned. He laughed and hung up."
"All right, Roberts. Send him in when he comes." I dismissed the secretary. Cummings was keeping tabs on me with a vengeance. What was on his chest?
I didn't need to wait long to find out. In another minute he was at my door greeting me in an off-hand, "Hello, Boyne. Ready to jump into your car and go around with me to see Dykeman?"
"Just got down to the office, Cummings," I watched him, trying to figure out where I stood and where he stood after this week's absence. "Haven't seen Worth Gilbert yet. What's the rush with Dykeman?"
"You'll find out when you get there."
Not very friendly, seeing that Cummings had been Worth's lawyer in the matter, and aside from that queer scene in my office, there'd been no actual break. He stood now, not really grinning at me, but with an amused look under that bristly mustache, and suggested,
"So you haven't seen young Gilbert?"
The tone was so significant that I gave him a quick glance of inquiry as I said,
"No. What about him?"
"Put on your coat and come along. We can talk on the way," he replied, and I went with him to the street, dug little Pete out of the bootblack stand and herded him into the roadster to drive us. Cummings gave the order for North Beach, and as we squirmed through and around congested down-town traffic, headed for the Stockton Street tunnel, I waited for the lawyer to begin. When it came, it was another startling question,
"Didn't find Skeels in the south, eh?"
I hadn't thought they'd carry their watching and trailing of us so far. I answered that question with another,
"When did you see or hear from Worth Gilbert last?"
"Not since the funeral," he said promptly, "the day before the funeral—a week ago to-day, to be exact. I ran down to make my inventory then; as administrator, you know."
He looked at me so significantly that I echoed,
"Yes, I know."
"Do you? How much?" His voice was hard and dry; it didn't sound good to me.
"See here," I put it to him, as my clever little driver dodged in and out through the narrow lanes between Pagoda-like shops of Chinatown, avoiding the steep hill streets by a diagonal through the Italian quarter on Columbus Avenue. "If there's anything you think I ought to be told, put me wise. I suppose you raised that money for Worth—the seventy-two thousand that was lacking, I mean?"
"I did not."
I turned the situation over and over in my mind, and at last asked cautiously,
"Worth did get the money to make up the full amount, didn't he?"
We had swerved again to the north, where the Powell car-line curves into Bay Street, and were headed direct for the wharves. Cummings watched me out of the corners of his eyes, a look that bored in most unpleasantly, while he cross-examined,
"So you don't know where he raised that money—or how—or when? You don't even know that he did raise it? Is that the idea?"
I gave him look for look, but no answer. An indecisive slackening of the machine, and Little Pete asked,
"Where now, sir?"
"You can see it," Cummings pointed. "The tall building. Hit the Embarcadero, then turn to your right; a block to Mason Street."
So close to the dock that ships lay broadside before its doors, moored to the piles by steel cables, the Western Cereal Company plant scattered its mills and warehouses over two city blocks. Freight trains ran through arcades into the buildings to fetch and carry its products; great trucks, some gas driven, some with four-and six-horse teams, loaded sacks or containers that shot in endless streams through well worn chutes, or emptied raw materials that would shortly be breakfast foods into iron conveyors that sucked it up and whined for more. It was a place of aggressive activity among placid surroundings, this plant of Dykeman's, for its setting was the Italian fisherman's home district; little frame shacks, before which they mended their long, brown nets, or stretched them on the sidewalks to dry; Fisherman's Wharf and its lateen rigged, gayly painted hulls, was under the factory windows.
We pulled up before the door of a building separate from any of the mills or warehouses, and I followed Cummings through a corridor, past many doors of private offices, to the large general office. Here a young man at a desk against the rail lent Cummings respectful attention; the lawyer asked something in a low tone, and was answered,
"Yes, sir. Waiting for you. Go right through."
Down the long room with its rattling typewriters, its buzz of clerks and salesmen we went. Cummings was a little ahead of me, when he checked a moment to bow to some one over at a desk. I followed his glance. The girl he had spoken to turned her back almost instantly after she had returned his greeting; but I couldn't be mistaken. There might be more than one figure with that slim, half girlish grace about it, and other hair as lustrously blue-black, but none could be wound around a small head quite so shapely, carried with so blossomlike a toss. It was Barbara Wallace.
So this was where her job was. Strange I had not known this fact of grave importance. I went on past her unconscious back, left her working at her loose-leaf ledgers, beside her adding machine, my mind a whirl of ugly conjecture. Dykeman's employee; that would instantly and very painfully clear up a score of perplexing questions. Dykeman would need no detectives on my trail to tell him of my lack of success in the Skeels chase. Lord! I had sent her as concise a report as I could make—to her, for Worth. I walked on stupidly. In front of the last door in the big room, Cummings halted and spoke low.
"Boyne, you and I are both in the employ of the Van Ness Avenue Bank. We're somewhat similarly situated in another quarter; I'm representing the Gilbert estate, and you've been retained by Worth Gilbert."
I grunted some sort of assent.
"I brought you here to listen to what the bank crowd has to say, but when they get done, I've something to tell you about that young employer of yours. You listen to them—then you listen to me—and you'll know where you stand."
"I'll talk with you as soon as I get through here, Cummings."
"Be sure you do that little thing," significantly, and we went in.
AT DYKEMAN'S OFFICE
We found Whipple with Dykeman. I had always liked the president of the Van Ness Avenue Bank well enough; one of the large, smooth, amiable sort, not built to withstand stress of weather, apt to be rather helpless before it. He seemed now mighty upset and worried. Dykeman looked at me with hard eyes that searched me, but on the whole he was friendly in his greeting and inquiries as to my health.
While I was getting out of my coat and stowing it, making a great deal of the process so as to gain time, I saw Cummings was exchanging low spoken words with the two of them. I tried to keep my mind on these men before me and why I was with them, but all the while it would be running back to the knock-out blow of seeing that girl in Dykeman's place. She was double-crossing Worth! I might have grinned at the idea that I'd let myself be fooled by a pair of big, expressive, wistful, merry black eyes; but I had seen the look in those same eyes when they were turned on my boy; to think she'd look at him like that, and sell him out, was against nature. It was hurting me beyond all reason.
Whipple asked me about my trip south as though it was the most public thing in the world and he knew its every detail, and accepted my reply that I couldn't take one man's pay and report to another, with,
"Just so, Mr. Boyne. But your agency is retained—regularly, year by year—by our bank. And our bank has given over none of its rights—I should say duties—in regard to the Clayte case. We stand ready to assist any one whose behavior seems to us that of a law-abiding citizen. We don't want to advance any criminality. We can't strike hands with outlaws—"
"Tell him about the suitcase, Whipple," Dykeman broke in impatiently, rather spoiling the president's oratorical effect. "Tell him about the suitcase."
The suitcase! Was this one of the things Barbara Wallace had let out to her employer? She could have done so. She knew all about it.
"One moment, please," I snapped. "I've been away for a week, Mr. Whipple. I don't know a thing of what you're talking about. Did Captain Gilbert fail to meet his engagement with you Monday morning?"
Whipple shook his head.
"Mr. Dykeman wants you told about the suitcase," he said. "I'd like to have Knapp here when we go into that."
Dykeman picked up the end of a speaking-tube and barked into it,
"Send those men in." In the moment's delay, we all sat uneasily mute. Knapp came in with Anson. As they nodded to us and settled into chairs, two or three others joined us. Nothing was said about this filling out of the numbers, but to me it meant serious business, with Worth Gilbert its motive.
"Get it over, can't you?" I said, looking about from one to the other of the men, all directors in the bank. "I understand that Captain Gilbert met his engagement with you; was he short of the sum agreed?" Again Whipple shook his head.
"Captain Gilbert walked into the bank at exactly ten o'clock Monday morning. The uh—uh—unusual arrangement—contract, to call it so—that we'd made with him concerning the defalcation would have expired in a few seconds, and I think I may say," he looked around at the others, "that we should not have been sorry to have it do so. But he brought the sum agreed on."
I drew a great sigh of relief. Worth's bargain was complete; he was done with these men, anyhow. I was half out of my chair when Whipple said, sharply for him,
"Sit down, Mr. Boyne." And Dykeman almost drowned it in his,
"Wait, there, Boyne! We're not through with you."
"There's more to tell," Whipple continued. "Captain Gilbert brought that eight hundred thousand cash and securities in a—er—in a very strange way."
"What d'you mean, strange way? airplane or submarine?" I growled.
"He brought it," Whipple's words marched out of him like a solemn procession, "in a brown, sole-leather suitcase."
"With brass trimmings," Dykeman supplemented, and leaned back in his chair with an audible "Ah-h-h!" of satisfaction.
If ever a poor devil was flabbergasted, it was the head of the Boyne agency at that moment. I had a fellow feeling for that Mazeppa party who was tied in his birthday suit to the back of a wild horse. Locoed broncos were more amenable to rein than Worth Gilbert. So that was why he wanted that suitcase—"had a use for it," he'd put it; insisted on an order to be able to get it if I wasn't at my office; wanted it to shove back at these scary bank officials, with his own money for the payment inside. No wonder Whipple called him an "outlaw"!
"Get the idea, do you, Boyne?" Anson lunged at me in his ponderous way. "The rest of us thought 'twas a poor joke, but Knapp and Whipple had both seen that suitcase before—and recognized it."
"Yes," said Knapp quietly. "It chanced I saw it go through the door that last day, when it had nearly a million of our money in it. And here it was—" his voice broke off.
"Certainly startling," Cummings spoke directly at me, "for them to see it come back in Worth Gilbert's hands, with the same kind of filling, less one hundred and eighty seven thousand dollars. Of course, I didn't know the identity of the suitcase until they'd given Gilbert his receipt and he was gone."
"Oh, they accepted his money?" I said, and every man in the room looked sheepish, except Cummings who didn't need to, and Dykeman who was too mad to. He shouted at me,
"Yes, we took it; and you're going to tell us where he got that suitcase."
"What have your own detectives—those you hired on the side—to say about it?" I countered on him, and saw instantly that the Whipple end of the crowd hadn't known of Dykeman's spotters and trailers.
"Well, why not?" Dykeman shrilled. "Why not? Who wouldn't shadow that crook? One hundred and eighty seven thousand dollars! Worked us like suckers—come-ons—!" he choked up and began to cough. Cummings came in where he left off.
"See here, Boyne; we don't want to antagonize you. You've said from the first that this crime was a conspiracy—a big thing—directed by brains on the outside. Clayte was the tool. Whose tool was he? That's what we want to know." And Anson trundled along,
"These men who have been in the war get a contempt for law, there's no doubt about it. Captain Gilbert might—"
"No names!" Whipple's hand went up in protest. "No accusations, gentlemen, please; Mr. Boyne—this is a dreadful thing. But, really, Captain Gilbert's manner was very strange. I might say he—"
"Swaggered," supplied Cummings coolly as the president's voice lapsed.
"Well," Whipple accepted it, "he swaggered in and put it all over us. There he was, a man fresh from the deathbed of a suicide father; that father's funeral yet to occur. I, personally, hadn't the heart to question him or raise objections. I was dazed."
"Dazed," Dykeman snapped up the word and worried it, as a dog worries a bone. "Of course, we were all dazed. It was so open, so shameless—that's why he got by with it. Making use of his position as heir, less than forty eight hours after his father was shot."
"After his father shot himself," Whipple's lowered tone was a plea. "After his father shot himself."
"Huh!" snorted Dykeman. "If a man shoots himself, he's been shot, hasn't he? Hell! What's the use of whipping the devil round the stump that way? Boyne, you can stand with us, or you can fight us."
"Boyne's with us—of course he's with us," Whipple broke in, his words a good deal more confident than his tone or the look of his face.
"Well, then," Dykeman ground out, "when our thief of a teller splits that one hundred and eighty seven thousand with his man Gilbert—shut up, Whipple—shut up! You can't stop me—we're going to know about it. We'll get them both then, and send them across. And we'll recover one hundred and eighty seven thousand dollars that belongs to the Van Ness Avenue bank."
"Good night!" I got to my feet. "This lets me out. I can't deal with men who make a scrap of paper of their contracts as quick as you gentlemen do."
"Stop, Boyne—you haven't got it all," Dykeman ordered me.
"Yes, wait, Mr. Boyne," Whipple came in. "You haven't a full understanding of the enormity of this young man's action. Mr. Cummings has something to tell you which, I think, will—"
"Nothing Mr. Cummings can say," I shut them off, "will alter the fact that I am employed by Captain Worth Gilbert at your recommendation—at your own recommendation—that I have been away more than a week on his business, and have not yet had an opportunity to report to him personally. When I've seen him, I'll be ready to talk to you."
"You'll talk now or never—" Dykeman's shrill threat was interrupted by the shriller bell of the telephone. He yanked the instrument to him, and the "Hello!" he cried into it had the snap of an oath. He looked up and shoved the thing in my direction. "Calling for you, Boyne," he snarled.
There was deathly stillness in the room, so that the whir of the great stones in the mill came to us insistently. I stood there, they all watching me, and spoke into the transmitter.
"This is Boyne."
"Hold the receiver close to your ear so it won't leak words." The warning wasn't needed; I thought I knew the voice. "Press the transmitter close to your chest. Listen—don't talk; don't say a word in reply to me. I'm in the telephone booth outside. I must see you just as soon as I can. I'll be at the Little Italy restaurant—you know, don't you? on Fisherman's Wharf—in ten minutes. If you can come, and alone, find me there. I'll wait an hour. If you can't come now, you must see me this evening after working hours."
"I'll come now," I raised the transmitter to say, and quickly over the wire came the answer,
"I told you not to speak—in there! This is Barbara Wallace."
I went away from there.
Looking about me, I had guessed that pretty much every man in the room believed that it was Worth Gilbert with whom I had been talking over the phone. Dykeman's trailers would be right behind me. Yet to the last, Whipple and his crowd were offering me the return trip end of my ticket with them; if I would come back and be good, even now, all would be forgiven. I sized up the situation briefly and took my plunge, shutting the door after me, glancing across the long room to see that Barbara Wallace's desk was deserted. Nobody followed me from the room I had just left. I walked quickly to the outer door.
Little Pete switched on his engine as I leaped into the car. My "Let her go!" wasn't needed to make him throw in his clutch, and give me a flying start straight ahead down the broad plank way of the Embarcadero. Looking back as we hit the belt-line tracks, I saw a small car with two men in it, shoot out from one of the wide doorways of the plant; but as we rounded the cliff-like side of Telegraph Hill, my view of them was cut off. Things had come for me thick and fast. I felt pretty well balled up. But the girl had used secrecy in appointing this interview; till I could see further into the thing, it was anyhow a safe bet to drop them.
"Pete," I said, "lose that car behind us. Only ten minutes to slip them and land me at Fisherman's Wharf. Show me what-for."
He grinned. Between Montgomery and the bay, north of California Street, there are many narrow byways, crowded with the heavy traffic of hucksters and vegetable men, a section devoted to the commission business. Into its congestion Pete dove with a weasel instinct for finding the right holes to slip through, the alleys that might be navigated in safety; in less than the ten minutes I'd specified, we were free again on Columbus Avenue, pursuit lost, and headed back for the restaurant on the wharf.
"Boss," Little Pete was hoarse with the excitement he loved, as he laid the roadster alongside the Little Italy, "was it on the level, what you fed the lawyer guy? Ain't you wise to where Captain Gilbert is? I've saw him frequent since you've been gone."
"How many times is 'frequent,' Pete?" I asked. "And when did the last 'frequent' happen?"
"Twice," sulkily. I'd wounded his pride by not taking him seriously; but he added as I jumped down from the machine. "I druv him up on the hill, 'round the place where you an' him—an' her—went that day."
Pete didn't need to use Barbara Wallace's name. The way he salaamed to the pronoun was enough; the swath that girl cut evidently reached from the cradle to the grave, with this monkey grinning at one end, and me doddering along at the other.
I gave a moment to questioning Pete, found out all he knew, and went into the restaurant, wondering what under heaven Barbara Wallace would say to me or ask me.
The Little Italy restaurant is not so bad a place for luncheon. If one likes any eatables the western seas produce, I heartily recommend it. Where fish are unloaded from the smacks by the ton, fish are sure to be in evidence, but they are nice, fresh fish, and look good enough to eat. And the Little Italy is clean, with white oil-clothed tables and a view from its broad windows that down-town restaurants would double their rent to get.
Just now it was full of noisy patrons, foreigners, mostly; people too busy eating to notice whether I carried my head on my shoulders or under my arm.
In a far corner, Barbara Wallace's eyes were on me from the minute I came within her sight. She had ordered clams for two, mostly, I thought, to defend the privacy of our talk from the interruptions of a waiter, and I was hardly in my chair before she burst out,
"Where's Worth? Why wasn't he in that office to defend himself against what they're hinting?"
"I suppose," I said dryly, "because he wasn't given an invitation to attend. You ought to know why. You work for Dykeman."
"I work for Dykeman?" she repeated after me in a bewildered tone. "I'm bookkeeper in the Western Cereal Company's employ, if that's what you mean. You understood so from the first."
"You know I didn't," I reproached her hotly. "Do you think I'd have let you on the inside of this case if I'd known it was a pipe line direct to Dykeman?"
And on the instant I spoke there came to me a remembrance of her saying that Sunday morning as we pulled up before the St. Dunstan that she went past the place on the street car every day getting to her work at the Western Cereal Company. Sloppy of me not to have paid better attention; I knew vaguely that Dykeman was in one of the North Beach mills.
"Fifty-fifty, Barbara," I conceded. "I should have known—made it my business to learn. And Dykeman has questioned you—"
"He has not!" indignantly. "I don't suppose he knows Worth and I are acquainted." I could have smiled at that. There were detectives' reports in Dykeman's desk that recorded date, hour and duration of every meeting this girl had had with Worth and with myself. Besides, Cummings knew. It must have been through Cummings that she learned what was about to take place in Dykeman's private office. What had she told Cummings?
I was ready to blurt out the question, when she fumbled in her bag with little, shaking hands, drew out and passed to me unopened the envelope addressed to Worth, with my detailed report of the Skeels chase.
"I did my best to deliver it," she steadied her voice as she spoke. "He wasn't at the Palace. He wasn't at Santa Ysobel. He didn't communicate with me here."
My edifice of suspicion of Barbara Wallace crumbled. Cummings had not learned through her that I was unsuccessful in the south; nor had she spilled a word to him that she shouldn't, or they'd have had the dope on where Worth had found that suitcase, and thrown it at me quick.
"Barbara," I said, "will you accept my apologies?"
"Oh, yes," she smiled vaguely. "I don't know what you're apologizing for, but it doesn't matter. I hoped you would bring me news of Worth—of where he is."
"When did you see him last?"
"On the day of the funeral. I hardly got to speak to him."
Little Pete's news was slightly later. He'd taken Worth up to the Gold Nugget and dropped him there. Thursday, Worth was at the Nugget for more than an hour. On both occasions, Pete was told to slip the trailers, and did. That meant that Worth was working on the Clayte case—or thought he was. I told her of this.
"Yes—Oh, yes," she repeated listlessly. "But where is he now? And awful things—things like this meeting—coming up."
"What besides this meeting?"
"At Santa Ysobel."
"What? Things that have happened since the boy's gone? You couldn't get much idea of the lay of the land when you were down there Wednesday, could you?"
"Oh, but I could—I did," earnestly. "Of course it was a large funeral; it seemed to me I saw everybody I'd ever known. At a time like that, nothing would be said openly, but the drift was all in one direction. They couldn't understand Worth, and so nearly every one who spoke of him, picked at him, trying to understand him. Mrs. Thornhill's cook was already telling that Worth had quarreled with his father and demanded money. I shouldn't wonder if by now Santa Ysobel's set the exact hour of the quarrel."
"Me for down there as quick as I can," I muttered, and Barbara, facing me sympathetically, offered,
"I've a letter from Skeet Thornhill," she groped in her bag again, mumbling as women do when they're hunting for a thing, "It came this morning.... Mrs. Thornhill's no better—worse, I judge.... Oh, here it is," and she pulled out a couple of closely scribbled sheets. "The child writes a wild hand," she apologized, as she passed these over.
The flapper dashed into her letter with a sort of incoherent squeal. The carnival ball was only four days off. Everybody was already dead on his, her or its feet. The decorations they'd planned were enough to kill a horse—let alone getting up costumes. "As usual, everything seems to be going to the devil here," she went on; "Got a cannery girl elected festival queen this time. Ina's furious, of course. Moms had a letter from her that singed the envelope; but I sort of enjoy seeing the cannery district break in. They've got the money these days."
Nothing here to my purpose. Barbara reached forward and turned the sheet for me, and I saw Worth Gilbert's name half way down it.
"Doctor Bowman is an old hell-cat, and I hate him." Skeet made her points with a fine simplicity. "Since mother's sick, he comes here every day, though what he does but sit and shoot off his mouth and get her all worked up is more than I can see. Yesterday I was in the room when he was there, and he got to talking about Worth—the meanest, lowest-down, hinting talk you ever heard! Said Worth got a lot of money when his father died, and I flared up and said what of it? Did he think Mr. Gilbert ought to have left it to him? That hit him, because he and Mr. Gilbert used to be good friends, and he and Worth aren't. I sassed him, and he got so mad that just as he was leaving, he hollered at me that I better ask Worth Gilbert where he was at the hour his father was shot. Now, what do you know about that? That man is spreading stories. A doctor can set them going. He's making his messy old calls on people all day, and they, poor fish-hounds, believe everything he says. Though mother didn't. After he was gone, she just lay there in her bed and said over and over that it was a lie, a foolish, dangerous lie! Poor mumsie, she's so nervous that when the grocer's truck had a blow-out down in the drive, she nearly went into hysterics—cried and carried on, something about it's being 'the shot.' I suppose she meant the one when Mr. Gilbert killed himself. Wasn't that queer? Any loud noise of the sort sets her off that way. She lies and listens, and listens and mutters to herself. It scares me." She closed with, "Please don't break your promise to be here through this infernal Bloss. Fes."
"Good advice, that last," I said slowly, as I laid the letter on the table, keeping a hand on it. "You'll do that, won't you, Barbara?"
"I had intended to. I was given leave from this afternoon. But—well—I'd thought it over, and almost made up my mind to go back to my desk."
Barbara Wallace uncertain, halting between two courses of action! What did it mean?
"See here, Barbara; this isn't a time for Worth Gilbert's friends to slacken on him."
"I hadn't slackened," she said very low. And left it for me to remember that Worth apparently had.
"Then you're needed at Santa Ysobel," I urged.
"But you're going, aren't you, Mr. Boyne?"
"Yes. As soon as I can get off. That doesn't keep you from being needed. Worth's one of the most efficiently impossible young men I ever tried to handle. Maybe he's not any fuller of shocks than any other live wire, but he sure does manage to plant them where they'll do the most harm. Cummings, Dykeman—and this Dr. Bowman down there; active enemies."
"They can't hurt Worth Gilbert—all of them together!"
"Wait a minute. I'm going to Santa Ysobel to find the murderer of Thomas Gilbert. That means a stirring to the depths of that little town. This underneath-the-surface combustion will get poked into a flame—she's going to burst out, and somebody's going to get burned. We don't want that to be Worth, Barbara."
"No. But what can I do—what influence have I with him—" she was beginning, but I broke in on her.
"Barbara, you and I are going to find the real murderer, before the Cummings-Dykeman bunch discover a way into and out of that bolted study. Those people want to see Worth in jail."
There was a long pause while she faced me, the rich color failing a little in her cheeks.
"I see," speaking slowly, studying each word. "And as long as we didn't find out how to enter and leave the study, we have no way of knowing how hard or how easy it's going to be for them to find it out. We—" her voice still lower—"we can't tell if they already know it or not."
"Yes we can," I leaned forward to say. "The minute they know that—Worth Gilbert will be charged with murder."
I hit hard enough that time to bring blood, but she bled inwardly, sitting there staring at me, quite pale, finally faltering,
"Well—I can't stop to think of his having followed Ina Vandeman south—on her wedding trip—if he needs me—and I can help—I must—" she broke down completely, and I sat there feeling big-footed and blundering at this revelation of what it was that had put that clear, logical mind of hers off the track, left her confused, groping, just a girl, timid, distrustful of her own judgment where her heart was concerned.
"Was that it all the time?" I asked. "Well, take it from me, Worth's done nothing of the sort. He's been playing detective, not chasing off after some other man's bride."
Up came the color to her cheeks, she reached that mite of a hand across to shake on the bargain with,
"I'll go straight down this evening. You'll find me in Santa Ysobel when you come, Mr. Boyne."
"At the Thornhills'?" It might be handy to have her there; but she shook her head, looking a little self-conscious.
"I'm taking that spare room at Sarah Capehart's. Skeet wanted me, and I have an invitation from Laura Bowman; but if—well, seeing that this investigation is going to cover all that neighborhood, I thought I'd rather be with Sarah."
The level-headed little thing! Pete and I had the pleasure of taking her out to her home where she had her packing to attend to. On the way she spoke of an engagement with Cummings for the theater Saturday night.
"And instead, I suppose I shall be at the carnival ball. Shall I tell him that in my note, Mr. Boyne? Is it all right to let him know?"
"It's all right," I assented. "You can bet Cummings is due down there as soon as Worth shows up; and that must be soon, now."
"Yes," Barbara agreed. Her face clouded a little. "You noticed in Skeet's letter that they're expecting Ina to-morrow."
Poor child—she couldn't get away from it. I patted the hand I had taken to say good-by and assured her again,
"Worth Gilbert hasn't been in the south. I wonder at you, Barbara. You're so clear headed about everything else—don't you see that that would be impossible?"
Then I drove back to my office, to find lying on my desk a telegram from the young man, dated at Los Angeles, requesting me to meet him at Santa Ysobel the following evening!
Wednesday evening I pulled into a different Santa Ysobel: lanterns strung across between the buildings, bunting and branches of bloom everywhere, streets alive with people milling around, and cars piled high with decorative material, crowded with the decorators. The carnival of blossoms was only three days ahead.
At Bill Capehart's garage they told me Barbara was out somewhere with the crowd; and a few minutes later on Main Street, I met her in a Ford truck. Skeet Thornhill was at the wheel, adding to the general risk of life and limb on Santa Ysobel streets, carrying a half a dozen or more other young things tucked away behind. Both girls shouted at me; they were going somewhere for something and would see me later.
Getting down toward the Gilbert place, just beyond the corner, I flushed from the shadows of the pepper trees a bird I knew to be one of Dykeman's operatives. Watching his carefully careless progress on past the Gilbert lawn, then the Vandeman grounds, my eye was led to a pair who approached across the green from the direction of the bungalow. No mistaking the woman; even at this distance, height and the clean sweep of her walk, told me that this was the bride, Ina Vandeman. And the man strolling beside her—had he come with her from the house, or joined her on the cross-cut path?—could that be Worth Gilbert?
I sat in the roadster and gaped. The evening light—behind them, and dim enough at best—made their countenances fairly indistinguishable. At the gap in the hedge, they paused, and Mrs. Vandeman reached out, broke off a flower to fasten in his buttonhole, looking up into his face, talking quickly. Old stuff—but always good reliable old stuff. Then Worth saw me and hailed, "Hello, Jerry!" But he did not come to me, and I swung out of the machine to the sidewalk.
I heard the sobbing of the Ford truck; it went by, missing my runningboard by an inch, stopped at Vandeman's gate and Skeet discharged her cargo of clamor to stream across the sidewalk and up toward the bungalow. I saw Barbara, in the midst of the moving figures, suddenly stop, knew she had seen the two over there, and crossed to her, with a cheerful,
"He's here all right."
"Oh, yes," not looking toward the gap in the hedge, or at me. "He came on the same train with—with them."
Then some one from the porch yowled reproachfully for her to fetch those banners pronto, and with a little catching of breath, she ran on up the walk.
I turned back. Worth and Ina had moved on. Bronson Vandeman, well groomed, dressed as though he had just come in off the golf links, his English shoes and loud patterned stockings differentiating him from the crude outdoor man of the Coast, had joined them on the Gilbert lawn; his genial greeting to me let his bride get by with a mere bow, turning at once back to her house by the front walk. But rather to my annoyance, Vandeman came bounding up the steps after us. I judged Worth must have invited him.
Chung carried my suitcase upstairs, and lingered a minute in my room. I'll swear it wasn't merely to get the tip for which he thanked me, but with the idea of showing me in some recondite, Oriental fashion that he was glad I'd come. This interested me. The people who were glad to have me in Santa Ysobel at this time belonged on the clean side of my ledger. Then I went downstairs to find Vandeman still in the living room, sprawled at ease beside the window, looking round with a display of his fine teeth, reaching a hand to pull in the chair Worth set for me.
"Well, Jerry," that young man prompted, indicating by a careless gesture the smokers' tray on the table beside me, "there is time before dinner for the tale of your exploits. How's my friend Steve?"
I began to select a cigar, and said shortly,
"It's all in reports waiting for you at my office."
"Yes." Worth ignored my irritation. "Tell it. What'd you do down south?"
"Just back from the south yourself, aren't you?" I countered.
"Sure," airily. "But I wasn't there to butt in on your game. Did you find that Skeels was Clayte?"
I merely looked over the flame of my match at that small-town society man, smiling back at me with a show of polite interest.
"Go on," Worth interpreted. "Vandeman knows all about it. I tried to sell him a few shares of stock in the suitcase, so he'll take an interest in the game; but he's too much the tight-wad to buy."
"Oh, no," deprecated Vandeman. "Just no gambler; hate to take a chance." He ran his fingers through his hair, tossing it up with a gesture I had noticed when he came back from the dance at Tait's.
"All right—apology accepted," Worth nodded. "Anyway, you didn't. Well, Jerry?"
Vandeman waited a moment with natural curiosity, then, as I still said nothing, giving my attention to my smoke, moved reluctantly to rise, saying,
"That means I'd better chase along and let you two talk business."
"No. Sit tight," from Worth.
I was mad clear through, and disturbed and apprehensive, too. I managed a brief, dry statement of the outcome in the south. Worth hailed it with,
"Skeels lurks in the jungle! Life still holds a grain of interest."
"Why the devil couldn't you keep me advised of your movements?" I demanded.
"Dykeman's hounds," he grinned. "Had them guessing. They'd have picked me up if I'd gone to your office."
"You could have written or wired. They've picked you up anyway," I grunted. "One's on the job now. Saw him as I came in."
"Eh? What's that?" cried Vandeman, a man snooping in the shrubbery outside getting more attention from him than one dodging pursuit three hundred miles away. "What do you mean, hounds?" and when he had heard the explanation of Dykeman's trailers, "I call that intolerable!"
"Oh, I don't know." Worth reached over my shoulder for a cigarette. "Lose 'em whenever I like."
I wasn't so certain. There were men in my employ he couldn't shake. Perhaps those reports in Dykeman's desk might have offered some surprises to this cock-sure lad. My exasperation at Worth mounted as I listened to Vandeman talking.
"Those bank people should do one thing or another," he gave his opinion. "Just because you got gay with them and handed them their payment in the suitcase it left in, they've no right to have you watched like a criminal. In a small town like this, such a thing will ruin a man's standing."
"If he has any standing," Worth laughed.
"See here," Vandeman's smile was persuasive. "Don't let what I said out in front embitter you."
"I'll try not to."
"Mr. Boyne"—Vandeman missed the sarcasm—"when I got back to this town to-day, what do you suppose I found? The story going around that a quarrel with Worth, over money, drove his father to take his own life."
"That's my business here," I nodded. And when he looked his surprise, "To stop such stories."
He stared at me, frankly puzzled for a moment, then said,
"Well, of course you know, and I know, that they're scurrilous lies; but just how will you stop them?"
I had intended my remark to stand as it was; but Worth filled in the pause after Vandeman's question with,
"Jerry's here to get the truth of my father's murder, Bronse."
"Murder?" The mere naked word seemed to shock Vandeman. His sort clothe and pad everything—even their speech. "I didn't know any one entertained the idea your father was murdered. He couldn't have been—not the way it happened."
"Nevertheless we think he was."
"Oh, but Boyne—start a thing like that, and think of the talk it'll make! They'll commence at once saying that there was nobody but Worth to profit by his father's death."
"Don't worry, Mr. Vandeman." He made me hot. "We know where to dig up the motive for the crime."
"You mean the diaries?" Worth's voice sounded unbelievably from beside me. "Nothing doing there, Jerry. I've burned them."
I sat and choked down the swears. Yet, looking back on it, I saw plainly that Jerry Boyne was the man who deserved kicking. I ought never to have left them with him.
"You read them and burned them?" said Vandeman.
"Burned them without reading," Worth's impatient tones corrected.
"Without reading!" the other echoed, startled. Then, after a long pause, "Oh—I say—pardon me, but—but ought that to have been done? Surely not. Worth—if you'd read your father's diaries for the past few years—I don't believe you'd have a doubt that he committed suicide—not a doubt."
Worth sat there mute. Myself, I was rather curious as to what Vandeman would say; I had read much in those diaries. But when it came, it was the same old line of talk one hears when there's a suicide: Gilbert was a lonely man; his life hadn't been happy; he cut himself off from people too much. Vandeman said that of late he believed he was pretty nearly the only intimate the dead man had. This last gave him an interest in my eyes. I broke in on his generalities to ask him bluntly why he was so certain the death was suicide.
"Mr. Gilbert was breaking up; had been for two years or more. Worth's been away; he's not seen it; but I can tell you, Boyne, his father's mind was affected."
Worth let that pass, though I could see he wasn't convinced by Vandeman's sentimentalities, any more than I was. After the man had gone, I turned on Worth sharply, with,
"Why the devil did you tell that pink-tea proposition about your dealings with the Van Ness Avenue bank?"
"Safety valve, I guess. I get up too heavy a load of steam, and it's easy to blow it off to Vandeman. Told him most of it in the smoker, coming up. You'll talk about anything in a smoker."
"Oh, will you?" I said in exasperation. "And you'll burn anything, I suppose, that a match'll set fire to?"
"Go easy, Jerry Boyne." His chin dropped to his chest, he sat glowering out through the window. "Cleansing fires for that sort of garbage," he said finally. "I burned them on the day of his funeral."
THE TORN PAGE
My coming had thrown dinner late; we were barely through with the meal and back once more in the living room when the latch of the French window rattled, the window itself was pushed open, and a high imperious voice proclaimed,
"The Princess of China, calling on Mr. Worth Gilbert."
There stood Ina Vandeman in the gorgeously embroidered robes of a high caste Chinese lady, her fair hair covered by a sleek black wig that struck out something odd, almost ominous, in the coloring of her skin, the very planes of her features. Outside, along the porch, sounded the patter of many feet; Skeet wriggled through the narrow frame under her tall sister's arm, came scooting into the room to turn and gaze back at her.
"Doesn't she look the vamp?"
"Skeet!" Ina had sailed in by this time, and Ernestine followed more soberly. "You've been told not to say that."
"I think," the other twin backed her up virtuously, "with poor mother sick and all, you might respect her wishes. You know what she said about calling Ina a vamp." And Skeet drawled innocently,
"That it hit too near the truth to be funny—wasn't that it?"
Through the open window had followed a half dozen more of the Blossom Festival crowd, Barbara and Bronson Vandeman among them. Ina paid no attention to any one, standing there, her height increased by the long, straight lines of the costume, her bisque doll features given a strange, pallid dignity by the raw magnificence of its crusted purple and crimson and green and gold embroidery and the dead black wig.
"Isn't it an exquisite thing, Worth?" displaying herself before him. "Bronse has a complete Mandarin costume; we lead the grand march as the emperor and empress of Mongolia. Don't you think it's a good idea?"
"First rate." Worth spoke in his usual unexcited fashion, and it was difficult to say whether he meant the oriental idea or the appearance of the girl who stood before him. She came close and offered the cuff of one of her sleeves to show him the embroidery, lifting a delicate chin to display the jade buttons at the neck.
Barbara over on the other side of the room refused to meet my eye. Mrs. Bowman, a big fur piece pulled up around her throat, shivered. I met half a dozen Santa Ysobel people whose names I've forgotten. I could see that Bronson Vandeman socially took the lead here, that everybody looked to him. The room was a babel of talk, when a few minutes later the doorbell rang in orthodox fashion, and Chung ushered Cummings in upon the general confusion. Some of the bunch knew and spoke to him; others didn't and had to be presented; it took the first of his time and attention. He only got a chance for one swipe at me, a low-toned, sarcastic,
"Made a mistake to duck me, Boyne."
I didn't think it worth while to answer that. Presently I saw him standing with Barbara. He was evidently effecting a switch of his theater engagement to the ball, for I heard Skeet's,
"Mr. Cummings wants a ticket! He'll need two! Ten dollars, Mr. Cummings—five apiece."
"No, no—Skeet," Barbara laughed embarrassedly. "Mr. Cummings was just joking. He'll not be here Saturday night."
"I'll come back for it," hand in pocket.
"It's a masquerade—" Barbara hesitated.
"Bring my costume with me from San Francisco."
"I'm not sure—" again Barbara hesitated; Skeet cut in on her,
"Why, Barbie Wallace! It's what you came to Santa Ysobel for—the Bloss. Fes. ball. And to think of your getting a perfectly good man, right at the last minute this way, and not having to tag on to Bronse and Ina or something like that! I think you're the lucky girl," and she clutched Cummings' offered payment to stow it with other funds she had collected.
At last they got themselves out of the room and left us alone with Cummings. He had carried through his little deal with Barbara as though it meant considerable to him, but I knew that his errand with Worth was serious, and put in quickly,
"I intended to write or phone you to-morrow, Cummings."
"Well," the lawyer worked his mouth a bit under that bristly mustache and looked at Worth, "it might have saved you some embarrassment if you'd been warned of my errand here to-night—earlier, that is. I suppose Captain Gilbert has told you that I phoned him, when I failed to connect with you, that I was coming here—and what I was coming for?"
"I didn't tell Jerry," Worth picked up a cigarette. "Couldn't very well tell him what you were coming for. Don't know myself."
The words were blunt; really I think there was no intention to offend, only the simple statement of a fact; but I could see Cummings beginning to simmer, as he inquired,
"Does that mean you didn't understand my words on the phone, or that you understood them and couldn't make out what I meant by them?"
"Little of both," allowed Worth. Cummings stepped close to him and let him have it direct:
"I'm here to-night, Captain Gilbert, as executor of your father's estate. I have filed the will to-day. I might have done so earlier, but when I inventoried this place (you remember, the day before the funeral—you were here at the time) I failed to locate a considerable portion of your father's estate."
"You failed to locate? All the estate's here; this house, the down-town properties. What do you mean, failed to locate?"
"I was not alluding to realty," said Cummings. "It's my duty to locate and report to the court the present whereabouts of seventy-five thousand dollars worth of stock in the Van Ness Avenue Savings Bank. Can you declare to me as executor, where it is? And, if any other person than your father placed it in its present whereabouts, are you ready to declare to me how and when it came into that person's possession?"