My first impulse was to rouse the house; my second, to wait for Hunter. To turn loose that mob of half-drunken men in such a place seemed profanation. There was nothing of the majesty or panoply of death here, but the very sordidness of the surroundings made me resolve to guard the new dignity of that figure. I was shocked, of course; it would be absurd to say that I was emotionally unstrung. On the contrary, I was conscious of a distinct feeling of disappointment. Fleming had been our key to the Bellwood affair, and he had put himself beyond helping to solve any mystery. I locked the door and stood wondering what to do next. I should have called a doctor, no doubt, but I had seen enough of death to know that the man was beyond aid of any kind.
It was not until I had bolted the door that I discovered the absence of any weapon. Everything that had gone before had pointed to a position so untenable that suicide seemed its natural and inevitable result. With the discovery that there was no revolver on the table or floor, the thing was more ominous. I decided at once to call the young city physician in the room across the hall, and with something approximating panic, I threw open the door—to face Harry Wardrop, and behind him, Hunter.
I do not remember that any one spoke. Hunter jumped past me into the room and took in in a single glance what I had labored to acquire in three minutes. As Wardrop came in, Hunter locked the door behind him, and we three stood staring at the prostrate figure over the table.
I watched Wardrop: I have never seen so suddenly abject a picture. He dropped into a chair, and feeling for his handkerchief, wiped his shaking lips; every particle of color left his face, and he was limp, unnerved.
"Did you hear the shot?" Hunter asked me. "It has been a matter of minutes since it happened."
"I don't know," I said, bewildered. "I heard a lot of explosions, but I thought it was an automobile, out in the street."
Hunter was listening while he examined the room, peering under the table, lifting the blankets that had trailed off the couch on to the floor. Some one outside tried the door-knob, and finding the door locked, shook it slightly.
"Fleming!" he called under his breath. "Fleming!"
We were silent, in response to a signal from Hunter, and the steps retreated heavily down the hall. The detective spread the blankets decently over the couch, and the three of us moved the body there. Wardrop was almost collapsing.
"Now," Hunter said quietly, "before I call in Doctor Gray from the room across, what do you know about this thing, Mr. Wardrop?"
Wardrop looked dazed.
"He was in a bad way when I left this morning," he said huskily. "There isn't much use now trying to hide anything; God knows I've done all I could. But he has been using cocaine for years, and to-day he ran out of the stuff. When I got here, about half an hour ago, he was on the verge of killing himself. I got the revolver from him—he was like a crazy man, and as soon as I dared to leave him, I went out to try and find a doctor—"
"To get some cocaine?"
"Not—because he was already wounded, and you were afraid it was fatal?"
Wardrop shuddered; then he pulled himself together, and his tone was more natural.
"What's the use of lying about it?" he said wearily. "You won't believe me if I tell the truth, either, but—he was dead when I got here. I heard something like the bang of a door as I went up-stairs, but the noise was terrific down below, and I couldn't tell. When I went in, he was just dropping forward, and—" he hesitated.
"The revolver?" Hunter queried, lynx-eyed.
"Was in his hand. He was dead then."
"Where is the revolver?"
"I will turn it over to the coroner."
"You will give it to me," Hunter replied sharply. And after a little fumbling, Wardrop produced it from his hip pocket. It was an ordinary thirty-eight. The detective opened it and glanced at it. Two chambers were empty.
"And you waited—say ten minutes, before you called for help, and even then you went outside hunting a doctor! What were you doing in those ten minutes?"
Wardrop shut his lips and refused to reply.
"If Mr. Fleming shot himself," the detective pursued relentlessly, "there would be powder marks around the wound. Then, too, he was in the act of writing a letter. It was a strange impulse, this—you see, he had only written a dozen words."
I glanced at the paper on the table. The letter had no superscription; it began abruptly:
"I shall have to leave here. The numbers have followed me. To-night—"
That was all.
"This is not suicide," Hunter said gravely. "It is murder, and I warn you, Mr. Wardrop, to be careful what you say. Will you ask Doctor Gray to come in, Mr. Knox?"
I went across the hall to the room where the noise was loudest. Fortunately, Doctor Gray was out of the game. He was opening a can of caviar at a table in the corner and came out in response to a gesture. He did not ask any questions, and I let him go into the death chamber unprepared. The presence of death apparently had no effect on him, but the identity of the dead man almost stupefied him.
"Fleming!" he said, awed, as he looked down at the body. "Fleming, by all that's sacred! And a suicide!"
Hunter watched him grimly.
"How long has he been dead?" he asked.
The doctor glanced at the bullet wound in the forehead, and from there significantly to the group around the couch.
"Not an hour—probably less than half," he said. "It's strange we heard nothing, across the hall there."
Hunter took a clean folded handkerchief from his pocket and opening it laid it gently over the dead face. I think it was a relief to all of us. The doctor got up from his kneeling posture beside the couch, and looked at Hunter inquiringly.
"What about getting him away from here?" he said. "There is sure to be a lot of noise about it, and—you remember what happened when Butler killed himself here."
"He was reported as being found dead in the lumber yard," Hunter said dryly. "Well, Doctor, this body stays where it is, and I don't give a whoop if the whole city government wants it moved. It won't be. This is murder, not suicide."
The doctor's expression was curious.
"Murder!" he repeated. "Why—who—"
But Hunter had many things to attend to; he broke in ruthlessly on the doctor's amazement.
"See if you can get the house empty, Doctor; just tell them he is dead—the story will get out soon enough."
As the doctor left the room Hunter went to the open window, through which a fresh burst of rain was coming, and closed it. The window gave me an idea, and I went over and tried to see through the streaming pane. There was no shed or low building outside, but not five yards away the warehouse showed its ugly walls and broken windows.
"Look here, Hunter," I said, "why could he not have been shot from the warehouse?"
"He could have been—but he wasn't," Hunter affirmed, glancing at Wardrop's drooping figure. "Mr. Wardrop, I am going to send for the coroner, and then I shall ask you to go with me to the office and tell the chief what you know about this. Knox, will you telephone to the coroner?"
In an incredibly short time the club-house was emptied, and before midnight the coroner himself arrived and went up to the room. As for me, I had breakfasted, lunched and dined on horrors, and I sat in the deserted room down-stairs and tried to think how I was to take the news to Margery.
At twelve-thirty Wardrop, Hunter and the coroner came down-stairs, leaving a detective in charge of the body until morning, when it could be taken home. The coroner had a cab waiting, and he took us at once to Hunter's chief. He had not gone to bed, and we filed into his library sepulchrally.
Wardrop told his story, but it was hardly convincing. The chief, a large man who said very little, and leaned back with his eyes partly shut, listened in silence, only occasionally asking a question. The coroner, who was yawning steadily, left in the middle of Wardrop's story, as if in his mind, at least, the guilty man was as good as hanged.
"I am—I was—Mr. Allan Fleming's private secretary," Wardrop began. "I secured the position through a relationship on his wife's side. I have held the position for three years. Before that I read law. For some time I have known that Mr. Fleming used a drug of some kind. Until a week ago I did not know what it was. On the ninth of May, Mr. Fleming sent for me. I was in Plattsburg at the time, and he was at home. He was in a terrible condition—not sleeping at all, and he said he was being followed by some person who meant to kill him. Finally he asked me to get him some cocaine, and when he had taken it he was more like himself. I thought the pursuit was only in his own head. He had a man named Carter on guard in his house, and acting as butler.
"There was trouble of some sort in the organization; I do not know just what. Mr. Schwartz came here to meet Mr. Fleming, and it seemed there was money needed. Mr. Fleming had to have it at once. He gave me some securities to take to Plattsburg and turn into money. I went on the tenth—"
"Was that the day Mr. Fleming disappeared?" the chief interrupted.
"Yes. He went to the White Cat, and stayed there. No one but the caretaker and one other man knew he was there. On the night of the twenty-first, I came back, having turned my securities into money. I carried it in a package in a small Russia leather bag that never left my hand for a moment. Mr. Knox here suggested that I had put it down, and it had been exchanged for one just like it, but I did not let it out of my hand on that journey until I put it down on the porch at the Bellwood house, while I tried to get in. I live at Bellwood, with the Misses Maitland, sisters of Mr. Fleming's deceased wife. I don't pretend to know how it happened, but while I was trying to get into the house it was rifled. Mr. Knox will bear me out in that. I found my grip empty."
I affirmed it in a word. The chief was growing interested.
"What was in the bag?" he asked.
Wardrop tried to remember.
"A pair of pajamas," he said, "two military brushes and a clothes-brush, two or three soft-bosomed shirts, perhaps a half-dozen collars, and a suit of underwear."
"And all this was taken, as well as the money?"
"The bag was left empty, except for my railroad schedule."
The chief and Hunter exchanged significant glances. Then—
"Go on, if you please," the detective said cheerfully.
I think Wardrop realized the absurdity of trying to make any one believe that part of the story. He shut his lips and threw up his head as if he intended to say nothing further.
"Go on," I urged. If he could clear himself he must. I could not go back to Margery Fleming and tell her that her father had been murdered and her lover was accused of the crime.
"The bag was empty," he repeated. "I had not been five minutes trying to open the shutters, and yet the bag had been rifled. Mr. Knox here found it among the flowers below the veranda, empty."
The chief eyed me with awakened interest.
"You also live at Bellwood, Mr. Knox?"
"No, I am attorney to Miss Letitia Maitland, and was there one night as her guest. I found the bag as Mr. Wardrop described, empty."
The chief turned back to Wardrop.
"How much money was there in it when you—left it?"
"A hundred thousand dollars. I was afraid to tell Mr. Fleming, but I had to do it. We had a stormy scene, this morning. I think he thought the natural thing—that I had taken it."
"He struck you, I believe, and knocked you down?" asked Hunter smoothly.
"He was not himself; and, well, it meant a great deal to him. And he was out of cocaine; I left him raging, and when I went home I learned that Miss Jane Maitland had disappeared, been abducted, at the time my satchel had been emptied! It's no wonder I question my sanity."
"And then—to-night?" the chief persisted.
"To-night, I felt that some one would have to look after Mr. Fleming; I was afraid he would kill himself. It was a bad time to leave while Miss Jane was missing. But—when I got to the White Cat I found him dead. He was sitting with his back to the door, and his head on the table."
"Was the revolver in his hand?"
"You are sure?" from Hunter. "Isn't it a fact, Mr. Wardrop, that you took Mr. Fleming's revolver from him this morning when he threatened you with it?"
Wardrop's face twitched nervously.
"You have been misinformed," he replied, but no one was impressed by his tone. It was wavering, uncertain. From Hunter's face I judged it had been a random shot, and had landed unexpectedly well.
"How many people knew that Mr. Fleming had been hiding at the White Cat?" from the chief.
"Very few—besides myself, only a man who looks after the club-house in the mornings, and Clarkson, the cashier of the Borough Bank, who met him there once by appointment."
The chief made no comment.
"Now, Mr. Knox, what about you?"
"I opened the door into Mr. Fleming's room, perhaps a couple of minutes after Mr. Wardrop went out," I said. "He was dead then, leaning on his outspread arms over the table; he had been shot in the forehead."
"You heard no shot while you were in the hall?"
"There was considerable noise; I heard two or three sharp reports like the explosions of an automobile engine."
"Did they seem close at hand?"
"Not particularly; I thought, if I thought at all, that they were on the street."
"You are right about the automobile," Hunter said dryly. "The mayor sent his car away as I left to follow Mr. Wardrop. The sounds you heard were not shots."
"It is a strange thing," the chief reflected, "that a revolver could be fired in the upper room of an ordinary dwelling house, while that house was filled with people—and nobody hear it. Were there any powder marks on the body?"
"None," Hunter said.
The chief got up stiffly.
"Thank you very much, gentlemen," he spoke quietly. "I think that is all. Hunter, I would like to see you for a few minutes."
I think Wardrop was dazed at finding himself free; he had expected nothing less than an immediate charge of murder. As we walked to the corner for a car or cab, whichever materialized first, he looked back.
"I thought so," he said bitterly. A man was loitering after us along the street. The police were not asleep, they had only closed one eye.
The last train had gone. We took a night electric car to Wynton, and walked the three miles to Bellwood. Neither of us was talkative, and I imagine we were both thinking of Margery, and the news she would have to hear.
It had been raining, and the roads were vile. Once Wardrop turned around to where we could hear the detective splashing along, well behind.
"I hope he's enjoying it," he said. "I brought you by this road, so he'd have to wade in mud up to his neck."
"The devil you did!" I exclaimed. "I'll have to be scraped with a knife before I can get my clothes off."
We both felt better for the laugh; it was a sort of nervous reaction. The detective was well behind, but after a while Wardrop stood still, while I plowed along. They came up together presently, and the three of us trudged on, talking of immaterial things.
At the door Wardrop turned to the detective with a faint smile. "It's raining again," he said, "you'd better come in. You needn't worry about me; I'm not going to run away, and there's a couch in the library."
The detective grinned, and in the light from the hall I recognized the man I had followed to the police station two nights before.
"I guess I will," he said, looking apologetically at his muddy clothes. "This thing is only a matter of form, anyhow."
But he didn't lie down on the couch. He took a chair in the hall near the foot of the stairs, and we left him there, with the evening paper and a lamp. It was a queer situation, to say the least.