He went away into the darkness, and I sat down on an empty box by the window and waited. Had any one asked me, at that minute, how near we were to the solution of our double mystery, I would have said we had made no progress—save by eliminating Wardrop. Not for one instant did I dream that I was within less than half an hour of a revelation that changed my whole conception of the crime.
I timed the interval by using one of my precious matches to see my watch when he left. I sat there for what seemed ten minutes, listening to the rush of the rain and the creaking of a door behind me In the darkness somewhere, that swung back and forth rustily in the draft from the broken windows. The gloom was infinitely depressing; away from Burton's enthusiasm, his scheme lacked point; his argument, that the night duplicated the weather conditions of that other night, a week ago, seemed less worthy of consideration.
Besides, I have a horror of making myself ridiculous, and I had an idea that it would be hard to explain my position, alone in the warehouse, firing a revolver into the floor, if my own argument was right, and the club should rouse to a search. I looked again at my watch; only six minutes.
Every one who has counted the passing of seconds knows how they drag. With my eyes on the room across, and my finger on the trigger, I waited as best I could. At ten minutes I was conscious there was some one in the room over the way. And then he came into view from the side somewhere, and went to the table. He had his back to me, and I could only see that he was a large man, with massive shoulders and dark hair.
It was difficult to make out what he was doing. After a half-minute, however, he stepped to one side, and I saw that he had lighted a candle, and was systematically reading and then burning certain papers, throwing the charred fragments on the table. With the same glance that told me that, I knew the man. It was Schwartz.
I was so engrossed in watching him that when he turned and came directly to the window, I stood perfectly still, staring at him. With the light at his back, I felt certain I had been discovered, but I was wrong. He shook the newspaper which had held the fragments, out of the window, lighted a cigarette and flung the match out also, and turned back into the room. As a second thought, he went back and jerked at the cord of the window-shade, but it refused to move.
He was not alone, for from the window he turned and addressed some one in the room behind.
"You are sure you got them all?" he said.
The other occupant of the room came within range of vision. It was Davidson.
"All there were, Mr. Schwartz," he replied. "We were nearly finished before the woman made a bolt." He was fumbling in his pockets. I think I expected him to produce an apple and a penknife, but he held out a small object on the palm of his hand.
"I would rather have done it alone, Mr. Schwartz," he said. "I found this ring in Brigg's pocket this morning. It belongs to the girl."
Schwartz swore, and picking up the ring, held it to the light. Then he made an angry motion to throw it out of the window, but his German cupidity got the better of him. He slid it into his vest pocket instead.
"You're damned poor stuff, Davidson," he said, with a snarl. "If she hasn't got them, then Wardrop has. You'll bungle this job and there'll be hell to pay. Tell McFeely I want to see him."
Davidson left, for I heard the door close. Schwartz took the ring out and held it to the light. I looked at my watch. The time was almost up.
A fresh burst of noise came from below. I leaned out cautiously and looked down at the lower windows; they were still closed and shuttered. When I raised my eyes again to the level of the room across, I was amazed to see a second figure in the room—a woman, at that.
Schwartz had not seen her. He stood with his back to her, looking at the ring in his hand. The woman had thrown her veil back, but I could see nothing of her face as she stood. She looked small beside Schwartz's towering height, and she wore black.
She must have said something just then, very quietly, for Schwartz suddenly lifted his head and wheeled on her. I had a clear view of him, and if ever guilt, rage, and white-lipped fear showed on a man's face, it showed on his. He replied—a half-dozen words, in a low tone, and made a motion to offer her a chair. But she paid no attention.
I have no idea how long a time they talked. The fresh outburst of noise below made it impossible to hear what they said, and there was always the maddening fact that I could not see her face. I thought of Mrs. Fleming, but this woman seemed younger and more slender. Schwartz was arguing, I imagined, but she stood immobile, scornful, watching him. She seemed to have made a request, and the man's evasions moved her no whit.
It may have been only two or three minutes, but it seemed longer. Schwartz had given up the argument, whatever it was, and by pointing out the window, I supposed he was telling her he had thrown what she wanted out there. Even then she did not turn toward me; I could not see even her profile.
What happened next was so unexpected that it remains little more than a picture in my mind. The man threw out his hands as if to show he could not or would not accede to her request; he was flushed with rage, and even at that distance the ugly scar on his forehead stood out like a welt. The next moment I saw the woman raise her right hand, with something in it.
I yelled to Schwartz to warn him, but he had already seen the revolver. As he struck her hand aside, the explosion came; I saw her stagger, clutch at a chair, and fall backward beyond my range of vision.
Then the light went out, and I was staring at a black, brick wall.
I turned and ran frantically toward the stairs. Luckily, I found them easily. I fell rather than ran down to the floor below. Then I made a wrong turning and lost some time. My last match set me right and I got into the yard somehow, and to the street.
It was raining harder than ever, and the thunder was incessant. I ran around the corner of the street, and found the gate to the White Cat without trouble. The inner gate was unlocked, as Burton had said he would leave it, and from the steps of the club I could hear laughter and the refrain of a popular song. The door opened just as I reached the top step, and I half-tumbled inside.
Burton was there in the kitchen, with two other men whom I did not recognize, each one holding a stein of beer. Burton had two, and he held one out to me as I stood trying to get my breath.
"You win," he said. "Although I'm a hard-working journalist and need the money, I won't lie. This is Osborne of the Star and McTighe of the Eagle, Mr. Knox. They heard the shot in there, and if I hadn't told the story, there would have been a panic. What's the matter with you?"
I shut the door into the grill-room and faced the three men.
"For God's sake, Burton," I panted, "let's get up-stairs quietly. I didn't fire any shot. There's a woman dead up there."
With characteristic poise, the three reporters took the situation quietly. We filed through the grill-room as casually as we could; with the door closed, however, we threw caution aside. I led the way up the stairs to the room where I had found Fleming's body, and where I expected to find another.
On the landing at the top of the stairs I came face to face with Davidson, the detective, and behind him Judge McFeely. Davidson was trying to open the door of the room where Fleming had been shot, with a skeleton key. But it was bolted inside. There was only one thing to do: I climbed on the shoulders of one of the men, a tall fellow, whose face to this day I don't remember, and by careful maneuvering and the assistance of Davidson's long arms, I got through the transom and dropped into the room.
I hardly know what I expected. I was in total darkness. I know that when I had got the door open at last, when the cheerful light from the hall streamed in, and I had not felt Schwartz's heavy hand at my throat, I drew a long breath of relief. Burton found the electric light switch and turned it on. And then—I could hardly believe my senses. The room was empty.
One of the men laughed a little.
"Stung!" he said lightly. "What sort of a story have you and your friend framed up, Burton?"
But I stopped at that minute and picked up a small nickel-plated revolver from the floor. I held it out, on my palm, and the others eyed it respectfully.
Burton, after all, was the quickest-witted of the lot. He threw open one of the two doors in the room, revealing a shallow closet, with papered walls and a row of hooks. The other door stuck tight. One of the men pointed to the floor; a bit of black cloth had wedged it, from the other side. Our combined efforts got it open at last, and we crowded in the doorway, looking down a flight of stairs.
Huddled just below us, her head at our feet, was the body of the missing woman.
"My God," Burton said hoarsely, "who is it?"