The Cat's Paw

by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

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Chapter V - At the Morgue

Coroner Penfield adjusted his glasses and gazed at the six men who composed the jury, as they filed into their places, and then turned to look at the spectators assembled in the room reserved for the coroner’s inquests at the District of Columbia Morgue. Not only Washington society was taking a deep interest in the inquiry into the death of Miss Susan Baird, but many other citizens of the national Capital, to whom the name of Baird meant nothing, and who had been unacquainted with the spinster in her lifetime. Every seat was taken in the large square room, and from his position on the elevated platform, where stood tables and chairs for the coroner, his assistant, the reporters, and the witnesses, Coroner Penfield saw Dr. Leonard McLean conversing with Inspector Mitchell of the Central Office.

The hands of the wall clock were within five minutes of ten, the hour at which the inquest had been [Pg 53]called, on Tuesday morning, when the outer door opened and Ted Rodgers stepped inside the room, followed a second later by Benjamin Potter. Observing two unoccupied seats on the second row they crossed the room, exchanging, as they did so, low-spoken greetings with friends and acquaintances who had come early to secure the most advantageous seats.

The swearing in of the jury by the Morgue Master required but a short time. Clearing his throat, Coroner Penfield outlined the reason for the inquest, and asked the jury if they had inspected the body of the dead woman.

“We have,” responded the foreman, and Penfield turned to the Morgue Master, who occupied a chair at the foot of the platform.

“Call the first witness,” he directed. “Inspector Mitchell.”

Hat in hand, the Inspector advanced to the steps and mounted to the witness chair, and was duly sworn by the Morgue Master. In businesslike tones he answered the coroner’s quickly put questions as to his identity and length of service on the Metropolitan Police Force and Detective Bureau.

“Did you find Miss Baird’s body?” asked the coroner.

“I did, Sir.”


“Yesterday, Monday morning, when summoned to her home in Georgetown.”

“How did the summons reach you?”

“By telephone.” Mitchell hesitated, and the coroner waited for him to continue before putting another question. “The message was to go at once to ‘Rose Hill,’ that a crime had been committed there.”

“Did the person talking on the telephone give his name?”

“No, Sir.”

“Did you ask his name?”

“I did, but she rang off instead of answering.”

“She?” inquiringly.

“I took the voice to be that of a woman,” explained Mitchell cautiously.

“Are you not certain that it was a woman speaking?”

“To the best of my belief it was.” Mitchell paused. “I am sure it was a woman’s voice.”

“Have you tried to trace the call?”

“Yes,” somewhat glumly. “But Central had no record of it.”

“Then it did not come over a public telephone?”

“No, Sir.”

“Was it on a limited service wire?”

“No. Central declares not,” responded Mitchell. “She insists that it must have been sent by some one using unlimited service.”

Penfield paused to jot down a note on his memorandum pad before again questioning the inspector.

“At what hour did the telephone call reach you?”

“At eight minutes past eight o’clock yesterday morning. I was in Police Headquarters and took the message myself,” tersely.

“At what hour did you reach Miss Baird’s home?”

“Fifteen minutes later. I took O’Bryan, a plain clothes man, and Patrolman Myers with me.”

“Tell us what you found when you reached the Baird house,” Coroner Penfield directed, settling back in his chair. Conscious that he had the undivided attention of every one in the crowded room, Mitchell spoke with slow impressiveness.

“We went up the front steps of the house and rang the bell; not getting any response we rang several times. I was just thinking that we had better try the back entrance when O’Bryan saw the key in the front door—”

“Wait.” Penfield held up his hand. “Do I understand that the key to the front door was left in the lock on the outside in plain view of every passer-by?”

“It wasn’t exactly in plain view,” protested Mitchell. “We didn’t see it at once, and the sidewalk is some distance from the house, which stands on a [Pg 56]high terrace. Passers-by could not see the key in the lock unless they ran up the steps and stood in the vestibule of the front door.”

“Was the door locked?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Was it a spring lock?”

“No, Sir.” Mitchell drew an old-fashioned brass key from his pocket and handed it to the coroner. “That lock, Sir, was made by hand many years ago. It’s the kind that if you lock the door, either from the inside or the outside, the door could not be opened unless you had the key to unlock it.”

“Then, Inspector, some person, on leaving the Baird house, locked the door on the outside, and thereby locked in any person or persons who might have been in the house at that time?”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Ump!” Penfield picked up the brass key and handed it to the foreman of the jury. “Did you find finger marks on the key?” he asked.

“No, not one.” Mitchell hesitated. “Whoever handled the key wore gloves.”

“Very likely.” Penfield spoke more briskly. “What did you discover inside the house, Inspector?”

“We found no one in the hall; so we walked into the parlor which is on the right of the front door. No one was there, so we kept on through the door opening into the rear hall, and from there walked [Pg 57]into the library.” Mitchell paused dramatically. “There we found Miss Baird’s dead body lying huddled up in a big chair in front of her tea table.”

“Had she been taking tea?”

“Yes, judging from the plate of sandwiches and cakes, and her nearly empty teacup.” Mitchell explained in detail. “There was a plate in front of her on which lay a half-eaten peach.”

“Was there evidence to show that some one had been having tea with Miss Baird?” inquired Penfield.

“Only one cup and saucer and plate had been used, Sir.”

“And the chairs, how were they placed?”

“About as usual, I imagine.” Mitchell looked a trifle worried. “There was no chair drawn up to the tea table, if you mean that. Only Miss Baird’s chair stood close by it.”

“What did you do upon the discovery of Miss Baird’s body?” asked Penfield, after a pause.

“Made sure that she was dead and not in need of a physician, then sent O’Bryan to telephone to the coroner, while Myers and I searched the house,” replied Mitchell.

“Did you find any one in the house?”

“No, Sir. It was empty, except for the dead woman and a cat.”

The inspector’s reply caused a stir of interest, [Pg 58]and one juror started to address him, then, conscious of attracting attention, decided not to speak.

“Did you find the windows and doors locked?” inquired Penfield, after a second’s thought.

“Yes; that is, those on the first floor and in the basement were locked,” explained Mitchell. “The windows on the second and third floors were unlocked, but closed. Sunday was a cold day,” he added.

“In your opinion, Mitchell, could the house have been entered from the second story?” asked Penfield.

The inspector considered the question before answering. “No, Sir, not without a ladder, and we found none on the premises. The house sets back in its own grounds, so to speak, and the neighboring houses are quite far away. There is no party wall, and no porch roof to aid a housebreaker.”

“That is all for the present, Inspector. As you go out, ask O’Bryan to come here.”

The plain clothes officer kept them waiting only a brief second. His testimony simply corroborated that of his superior officer, and Patrolman Myers, who followed him, added nothing of interest. Upon his departure from the platform, his place was taken by an old negro, who, with some difficulty, mounted the steps and hobbled across the platform to the witness chair.

“What is your name?” asked Coroner Penfield, who had waited in some impatience while the witness was being sworn.

“Oscar, Sah, please, Sah.”

“Oscar what?”

“Oscar Benjamin De Cassenove Jackson, Sah.”

“Well, Oscar, are you acquainted with the nature of an oath?”

“Laws, Sah, ain’t I been married mos’ forty years? My wife, she’s kinda handy wif her tongue,” and Oscar smiled, deprecatingly.

“I am not alluding to swearing,” exclaimed Penfield. “I mean the sort of oath requiring you to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.”

“Laws, Sah, I tells de truf every day o’ my life,” replied Oscar with some indignation. “’Tain’t no occasion to tell me that.”

“Very well.” Penfield spoke with sternness. “Remember, you are under oath to tell only the truth. When did you last see Miss Susan Baird alive?”

Oscar blinked at the abruptness of the question. “Sunday mawning, Sah, when I was servin’ dinner at one o’clock.”

“Did she appear to be in good spirits?” asked Penfield. “In good health—” he added, noting Oscar’s mystified expression.

“Yessir. She ate real hearty, and when I went in de lib’ry after dinner, she was jes’ as peaceful an’ [Pg 60]ca’m, a-sittin’ in that great easy chair o’ hers as if she never had had no words with Miss Kitty.”

“Oh, so Miss Baird had words with Miss Kitty—and who might Miss Kitty be?”

A startled look flitted across Ted Rodgers’ face, to be gone the next instant. He had followed the testimony of each witness with undivided attention, answering only in monosyllables the muttered remarks made to him occasionally by Ben Potter, whose expression of boredom had given place to more lively interest at sight of Oscar on his way to the witness chair.

“Who am Miss Kitty?” asked Oscar in scandalized surprise. “Why, Miss Baird’s niece. They live together, leastwise they did ’till yesterday. Poor ole Miss, she didn’t mean no harm—”

“No harm to whom?” questioned Penfield swiftly.

“To Miss Kitty. She jes’ said she wouldn’t have no such carrying-on,” explained Oscar.

“To what did she refer?”

Oscar favored the coroner with a blank stare. “I dunno, Sah. That’s all o’ de conversation that I overheard.”

Penfield regarded him attentively, but the old man’s gaze did not waver, and after a moment he resumed his examination.

“How long have you worked for Miss Baird?”

“’Most twenty years, Sah.”

“And what did you do for her?”

“I cooked, waited on de table, tended de fires and de garden, cleaned de house, an’ run errands,” ended Oscar with a flourish, and Penfield had difficulty in suppressing a smile. Oscar’s rheumatic legs did not suggest an agile errand boy.

“Who were the other servants?”

“Weren’t none,” tersely. “Miss Baird, she wouldn’t keep no yeller help, so Mandy, my wife, washed de clothes, an’ I done de rest.”

“Did you and Mandy sleep in Miss Baird’s house?”

“No, Sah. We lives in our own house, two blocks away.”

“What were your working hours?”

“Hey?” Oscar stroked his wooly head reflectively. “’Most all day,” he volunteered finally. “Mandy had one o’ her spells yesterday mawnin’ an’ I had ter get a doctah fo’ her, an’ that’s why I never reached Miss Baird’s ’til ’bout noon.”

“I see.” Penfield sat back in his chair and fumbled with his watch charm. Oscar as a witness was a disappointment, whatever his accomplishments as an all-round servant. “At what hour did you leave Miss Baird’s on Sunday?”

“’Bout half-past two,” answered Oscar, after due thought.

“And whom did you leave in the house?”

“Miss Baird and her niece, Miss Kitty.”

“No one else—no visitor?”

“No, Sah.”

“Think again, Oscar. Remember, you are under oath. Did either Miss Baird or Miss Kitty Baird have callers before you left on Sunday afternoon?”

“No, Sah, they did not, not while I was there.”

Penfield pushed back his chair and rose. “That will do, Oscar, you are excused. Hume,” to the Morgue Master. “Call Miss Katrina Baird.”


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