Washington society, or such portions of it as had known Miss Susan Baird in her lifetime, was agog over the latest development in the Baird tragedy; while Washingtonians personally unacquainted with the spinster were equally interested from motives of curiosity in the filing of her will. And all Washington, figuratively speaking, rubbed its eyes and read the newspapers assiduously, without, however, gaining much satisfaction. News from Police Headquarters was scant, and reporters resorted to theories in place of facts in trying to solve the murder of the “Miser of Rose Hill.” Miss Susan Baird, in death, had emerged from the obscurity which had shrouded her in life.
Inspector Mitchell leaned forward in his chair, rested his elbows on the highly polished mahogany table-top and contemplated Mrs. Parsons with speculative interest. Three quarters of an hour before he had received a telephone message requesting him [Pg 117]to call upon her on, as her servant had stated, urgent business. He had spent ten minutes in conversation with Mrs. Parsons and had not received the faintest inkling as to why she wished to see him.
“May I ask, Madam,” he began with direct bluntness, “what it is that you wish to see me about?”
Mrs. Parsons looked across the “den” to make sure that the door was closed. Satisfied on that point, she turned her attention to the inspector.
“I am anxious to have your bureau undertake a certain investigation for me,” she said. “I will gladly meet all expenses, no matter how large they may be.”
“Just a moment,” broke in Mitchell. “Do you mean a private investigation?”
“Yes, I suppose so,” somewhat doubtfully. “You might term it that. I want certain information about a—a person’s past career—”
She stopped as Mitchell shook his head.
“We are public officials, Madam, employed by the District Government,” he explained. “What you require is a private detective.”
“But are they not untrustworthy?” she questioned. “I was told they very often sold you out to the person you wished watched.”
“There are crooks in all trades, Madam,” replied Mitchell. “There are also honest men. You are not obliged to pick a crooked detective to work for you.”
“That is just it— Can you recommend a trustworthy person to—to—”
“To what, Madam?” as she came to a stammering halt.
“To learn certain facts in a person’s life.” She plucked nervously at her handkerchief as she waited for his answer.
“You will have to be more explicit, Madam,” he said gravely. “Whose past life do you wish investigated and why?”
Mrs. Parsons paused in indecision; then with an air of perfect candor addressed the impatient inspector.
“Of course you will respect my confidence,” she began. Mitchell nodded. “There is a certain man in Washington who has gained a welcome in the most exclusive homes,” she paused. “I believe him to be an adventurer.”
“Come, Mrs. Parsons, that is not being very explicit,” remonstrated Mitchell. “To whom are you alluding?”
“A man calling himself Edward Rodgers.”
Mitchell sat back and regarded her in unconcealed surprise.
“Edward Rodgers,” he echoed. “You surely do not mean Edward Rodgers, the handwriting expert?”
“I do.” His profound astonishment was a sap to [Pg 119]her vanity, and she could not restrain a smile. It vanished suddenly as a thought recurred to her. “You have promised, Inspector, not to repeat what I tell you. I depend upon you to keep your word.”
“Of course.” Mitchell reddened. “I don’t break confidences, Madam. But you have said too much not to say more. What are your reasons for claiming that Edward Rodgers is an adventurer?”
Mrs. Parsons did not reply at once and Mitchell studied her with covert interest. She was dressed in exquisite taste and the delicate rose-tint of her complexion had been applied with such consummate skill that even the uncompromising glare of a March morning betrayed no signs of make-up to the sharp eyes of her visitor. Mitchell had always been more or less susceptible to women’s wiles, and his stiff official manner had thawed perceptibly when she had welcomed him with a cordiality very gratifying to his amour propre.
“Some years ago,” Mrs. Parsons spoke in so low a tone that Mitchell was obliged to lean forward to catch what she said. “My husband, then a practicing attorney in San Francisco, had a client, Jacob Brown, a man of supposed wealth and standing in the community. Gradually, I do not know why, certain business transactions in which Brown was involved became questionable, but it was not until the Holt will case—”
“The Holt will case!” Inspector Mitchell drew back sharply. “Hah! Jake Brown—‘Gentleman Jake?’”
“Yes, just so.” She looked at him admiringly. “You have an excellent memory, Inspector.”
“Where crime is concerned,” he admitted, with a touch of pride. “Let me see, Gentleman Jake was one of the beneficiaries in Colonel Holt’s will at a time when his financial affairs were in bad shape—”
“In fact, Gentleman Jake was a ruined man—” she supplemented softly.
“Exactly.” Mitchell warmed to his subject. “And according to the will, Colonel Holt left him a hundred thousand dollars. Then along came a nephew who dug up another will and claimed that the one leaving the legacy to Gentleman Jake was a clever forgery.”
“And the nephew won his case through the expert testimony of Edward Rodgers, handwriting expert,” added Mrs. Parsons. “Gentleman Jake was sent to the penitentiary and—”
“Died before his term was up,” Mitchell completed the sentence for her.
“But before he died he sent for my husband,” Mrs. Parsons paused, then spoke more rapidly. “Jake Brown trusted my husband: he had stood by him and aided in his defense. On his death-bed Jake confessed—”
“That his Holt will was a forgery,” interrupted Mitchell, pleased that he could again piece out her story and thereby prove his recollection of the case.
“That was his public confession,” Mrs. Parsons lowered her voice. “What he told my husband under pledge of secrecy was that the second will was also a forgery.”
“Second will?” sharply. “You mean the will produced by the nephew?”
“Well, good gracious!” Mitchell rubbed his head, perplexed in mind. “Why wasn’t it proven a forgery then?”
“Because its legality was never questioned. You will recall that Colonel Holt’s nephew produced letters and documents to prove his claim, and—” with a quiet smile—“every one’s attention was centered on Jake Brown and the will he fostered. Jake knew his will was a forgery and his entire effort was to evade the law. It was not until he was serving his sentence that Jake’s suspicions were aroused, and it was one of his fellow convicts who gave him the tip.”
“And what was the tip?” asked Mitchell, as she paused.
“That Edward Rodgers turned his expert knowledge of handwriting and his skillful penmanship to good account—” calmly.
“Jake told my husband that Edward Rodgers examined the spurious will when it was first offered for probate and discovered that it was a forgery. Keeping his knowledge to himself, Mr. Rodgers communicated with Colonel Holt’s nephew and, for a consideration, drew up the will leaving all Colonel Holt’s fortune to the nephew—”
“Oh, come,” Mitchell’s smile was skeptical. “The nephew, as next of kin, would have inherited the property when the first will was proven a forgery; for in that event Colonel Holt died intestate.”
“But there was another relative who should have shared Colonel Holt’s fortune in case the Colonel died without leaving a will,” she explained.
“Thus, to inherit his uncle’s wealth the nephew had to produce a will in his favor,” she went on. “It was clever to present a second spurious will under the protection, you might say, of a detected forged will around which interest centered. As far as I know, the second will was so cleverly drawn that it never aroused suspicion.”
“And thus the nephew inherited his uncle’s money.” Mitchell stroked his chin thoughtfully. “What was Gentleman Jake’s object in telling this—” he hesitated, torn between a sense of politeness and unbelief, “this story to your husband?”
“Jake said that he confided in him hoping that Mr. Parsons could catch Edward Rodgers tripping some day and send him to the ‘pen,’” she replied.
“Did your husband place any faith in Jake’s yarn?” he asked. “A cornered crook, like a cornered cat, will fight—and lie.”
“On his death-bed?” She shook her head. “I think not. What had Jake to gain then?”
“Well, did your husband take any steps in exposing the second will?” asked Mitchell.
“My husband,” her expression altered to one of deep sadness, “was killed in an automobile accident shortly after.”
“Oh,” Mitchell coughed slightly to cover his embarrassment. “Oh.”
“Amos often discussed his cases with me,” she added. “And Gentleman Jake’s statements had aroused him to an unusual degree. He was thunderstruck at the effrontery of the crime and at its cleverness.”
“It was a clever scheme,” acknowledged Mitchell, “and probably succeeded through its very boldness. But, pardon me, Madam, you have brought forward no proof to substantiate your story.”
“I am coming to that.” Mrs. Parsons rose and walking over to a closet, beckoned to the inspector. Opening the door, she knelt down before a small [Pg 124]safe used to hold her table silver. From one of its compartments she took out a worn envelope.
“I forgot to tell you,” she stated, shutting the door of the safe, “that the fellow convict who gave the tip to Gentleman Jake was up for burglary. Some time previous to his arrest he had entered Edward Rodgers’ apartment in San Francisco and, among other things, stolen these papers. He sent them to my husband when released from the ‘pen.’ See for yourself,” and she handed the envelope to Mitchell.
Returning to his old seat, Inspector Mitchell shook the contents of the envelope on the table, then laying it down he picked up a yellowish paper, which bore the signature: “John Holt” written over and over. The reverse was a letter in a stiff, Spencerian handwriting:
Call at my office to-morrow. I plan to destroy my last will, and would like you to locate my nephew, Leigh Wallace, for me.
Without comment Mitchell laid aside the letter and picked up another paper. It bore the same signature, traced in varying forms of completeness, and [Pg 125]in one corner the name, “Leigh Wallace,” was repeated again and again. The third and last paper was in the stiff handwriting of the letter signed by John Holt, and read:
I, John Holt, being in good health and of sound mind, do hereby revoke all other instruments and do declare this to be my last will and testament. I give and bequeath to my nephew, Leigh Wallace—
The remainder of the page was blank except for a large smudge of ink.
Inspector Mitchell laid the three sheets of paper side by side and examined them with care.
“Leigh Wallace,” he said smilingly. “Is he any relation to the Major Leigh Wallace over whom Miss Baird and her niece, Miss Kitty, are said by Oscar to have quarreled on Sunday shortly before Miss Baird’s murder?”
“He is the same man.” Mrs. Parsons pushed aside the vase of flowers standing on the table so that she could obtain an unobstructed view of Mitchell and the papers lying in front of him. “Strange, is it not, that Major Leigh Wallace and Edward Rodgers should both be in Washington and both interested in the Baird murder?”
“Why strange?” Inspector Mitchell was not to [Pg 126]be drawn. “All Washington is interested in Miss Susan Baird’s death.”
“But not with such a personal interest.” Mrs. Parsons’ voice was honey sweet. “Edward Rodgers has promised to aid in tracing her murderer. Also, Colonel Holt was Kitty Baird’s uncle.”
“What—then she is the other relative you alluded to—?”
“Yes.” She paused. “Colonel Holt died intestate and his property should have been divided equally between his nearest of kin, Kitty Baird, and her cousin, Leigh Wallace.”
“But the forged will gave the entire fortune to Wallace,” Mitchell spoke slowly.
“Which he has squandered,” she added. “Leigh Wallace is cursed with an inherited vice—a craze for gambling.”
Inspector Mitchell raised his head and regarded Mrs. Parsons. The silence lasted fully a minute, then picking up the three papers he replaced them in the worn envelope and pocketed it.
“You have given me valuable information,” he said, rising. “It will not be necessary to call in a private detective. Good morning, Mrs. Parsons.”
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