The Cat's Paw

by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

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Chapter XI - I.O.U.

Ted Rodgers shut off his engine, sprang from the car and in ten strides had gained the old negro’s side.

“Stop a moment!” And at the stern command in his voice Oscar halted. “I am convinced that you know more of Miss Susan Baird’s death than you have admitted, Oscar, and—” his voice deepened, “you are going to tell me the truth.”

Oscar cast a frightened glance upward. Rodgers’ determined expression was not one to encourage evasion.

“Suttenly, Sah, suttenly. Wha-what truf do yo’ wish, Sah?” he stammered, politeness uppermost in spite of his confusion of mind.

Rodgers’ gaze grew in intensity as he studied the old man. The latter’s eyes had shifted from his interrogator to the mansion and his black face had become mottled grey in color. As the silence lengthened, Oscar’s apprehension increased and his [Pg 140]fingers fumbled nervously with his cane. For the life of him he could think of nothing to say. The sound of Rodgers’ voice came as so vast a relief that at first he failed to take in what he was saying.

“You testified at the inquest, Oscar,” Rodgers stated slowly, “that after serving a midday dinner on Sunday you left ‘Rose Hill.’ But you did not tell Coroner Penfield that you returned here on Sunday night—”

“I didn’t, Sah—fo’ Gawd, I didn’t!” Oscar raised a trembling hand. “I only jes’ passed along the street down yonder—”

“And what did you see?” demanded Rodgers, his eyes sparkling. His chance shot in the dark had told.

Oscar’s answer was slow in coming. Moving closer to Rodgers, he laid one shaking hand, knotted from rheumatism, on his shoulder. The gesture, half involuntary, held something pathetic in its mute appeal.

“Massa,” he began, and his voice grew wistful. “Whose side is yo’ on? Is yo’ fo’ de police o’ fo’ Miss Kitty?”

Rodgers whitened as he met the old man’s direct gaze. At last there was no shifting in Oscar’s eyes. Man to man they faced each other—master and servant—each dominated with one desire: to serve one woman.

“I would give my life for Miss Kitty,” Rodgers’ deep voice carried conviction.

“An’ yo’ won’t let no harm come to her?”

“No.” The reply rang out clearly. Oscar’s harassed expression altered.

“Gawd bless yo’, Sah!” He touched Rogers’ hand reverently. “Ole Mandy an’ me, we’s needed help de worst way. Hadn’t nowhar to turn; now—” he drew a long breath of relief. “Now yo’ kin find Miss Kitty’s red coat—”

“Miss Kitty’s red coat?” echoed Rodgers, staring in astonishment at Oscar. “What in the world—”

“Yessir.” Oscar blinked rapidly. “Yo’ ’member dat dar coat Miss Kitty was so fond o’ wearin’?—I heard yo’ an’ she argyfying ’bout it bein’ pink ’stead o’ red.”

“I know the one you mean,” replied Rodgers impatiently. “Well, what about it?”

“It’s done gone!” Oscar raised his hand and dropped it in a gesture indicative of despair. “An’, Mister Rodgers, we’s got ter find dat ar coat fo’ de police.”

Rodgers stared at him for a full moment. There was no doubting Oscar’s sincerity. His face was beaded in perspiration and his eyes, twice their normal size, were alight with earnest appeal.

“Please, Sah, don’t ax me no mo’ questions,” he [Pg 142]pleaded. “Jes’ find dat coat an’ we’ll know who killed ole Miss.”

“Upon my word!” Rodgers shook a bewildered head. “What are you driving at, Oscar?”

“Find dat coat, Sah, an’ then yo’ll know all. ’Deed, Massa, I ain’t lyin’.” Oscar’s voice shook with feeling. “Please, Sah, do as I ax. It’s fo’ Miss Kitty.”

“Very well.” Rodgers came to a sudden decision. “I’ll do my best to aid Miss Kitty, even if I do it blindfolded. But, see here, Oscar, wouldn’t it be simpler to ask Miss Kitty for her coat?”

“She mustn’t know nawthin’!” Oscar spoke in genuine alarm. “She—she ain’t had it fo’ mos’ some time—” His lips trembled a bit and he touched them with the tips of his fingers. “The coat ain’t with none o’ her clothes, ’cause I’se searched the house, Massa, an’ Miss Kitty’ll be everlastin’ grateful to yo’. But—” his voice dropped to a husky whisper—“yo’ git it befo’ de police does.”

Engrossed in their conversation, Rodgers had failed to note that Oscar had gradually edged his way to the top step. With an agility which took Rodgers completely by surprise the old negro whisked down the walk which skirted the mansion and disappeared from sight.

With an oath Rodgers pursued him down the walk, only to reach the side door and have it [Pg 143]slammed in his face. Repeated knocking brought no response, and after circling the mansion in the hope of finding an entrance, if not a glimpse of Oscar, he finally returned to his car and started for Washington much perturbed in mind.

On reaching Washington, Rodgers ran the car toward Pennsylvania Avenue, stopping en route to purchase a can of Mobiloil. It did not take him long to drive to a garage in an alley to the south of the Avenue. At his hail the owner of the small shop came out.

“How’dy, Mr. Rodgers,” he exclaimed, touching his soiled cap. “How’s the car going?”

“All right, but I want the oil drained out, Sam,” handing, as he spoke, the can of Mobiloil to the mechanic. “How is business?”

“Oh, so so.” Sam glanced about the wide alley. “Pull up to this side, Sir; I can get at the car better here.”

Leaving the car, after he had complied with Sam’s request, Rodgers stood watching him for a few minutes, but his thought would stray back to Kitty Baird and he lost interest in both the car and the mechanic. Lighting a cigarette, he strolled down the alley to where it opened into Pennsylvania Avenue. The sight of hurrying pedestrians and swift-moving vehicles proved only a brief diversion as his [Pg 144]mind again returned to Kitty and the unsolved problem of her aunt’s mysterious death.

Oscar’s conduct was a puzzle which he wanted time to think out. That the old man knew more of the circumstances of Miss Susan Baird’s death than he was willing to divulge was self-evident. Rodgers was thoroughly convinced that Oscar was devoted to Kitty. What then, did he mean to infer by saying that he, Rodgers, must find Kitty’s red coat before the police secured it? In what possible way was the coat connected with Miss Baird’s death?

The blare of a motor horn almost in his ear caused Rodgers to jump to one side as an army truck drove out of the valley and turned into Pennsylvania Avenue. Not having time to look where he was going, Rodgers collided with a dummy figure placed in front of a second-hand clothes store. As Rodgers picked up the figure he found that its wax face had come in contact with the pavement and was decidedly damaged. With an impatient sigh he entered the store and was met by the proprietor.

“I knocked over your dummy,” he explained, drawing out his leather wallet. “It got a bit damaged. How much—?” and he opened a roll of Treasury bills.

“Wait; I’ll go see the dummy first,” and the proprietor bustled out of the shop.

As Rodgers turned to accompany him, his eyes [Pg 145]fell upon a red coat lying on the counter. He had the faculty of carrying a color in his mind’s eye, also of noticing minute details. The coat looked like Kitty’s—with a single stride he was at the counter—the coat was Kitty’s. It was a stylishly cut garment, of a rough finish cloth, with large patch pockets and a scarflike collar with fringe on the ends. To make assurance doubly sure Rodgers examined the black and gold buttons of Japanese handiwork. He had admired them too often to be mistaken. How came Kitty’s coat in that store? A voice at his elbow caused him to wheel about.

“The face is kinda mussed up,” announced the proprietor. “Five dollars will cover it.”

“Five dollars!” fumed Rodgers, then paused. “Oh, all right—” handing him the money. “How much is this coat?”

“Twenty dollars.” The proprietor had caught sight of Rodgers’ generous roll of greenbacks. “It’s a nice coat; good as new, ’cept for the torn lining and a few faded spots. It’s just what any lady would want. She could reline—”

“I’ll take it,” cut in Rodgers and the proprietor accepted his money with a wry face. Why had he not asked more? It was not often that so biddable a purchaser wandered into his shop. “By the way,” Rodgers paused in the doorway. “How long have you had this coat?”

“Two—no, three days.” The proprietor paused to consider. “The woman came early in the morning and somehow the coat got misplaced in my stock. I was putting it in the window on display just as you arrived.”

“Was the woman known to you?” asked Rogers. Both men were on the sidewalk by that time.

“Not she—never laid eyes on her before and wouldn’t know her again if I was to see her.” The proprietor was in a happy mood; not often had he taken in twenty-five dollars so easily. “Well, I hope your lady likes the coat. So-long,” and he nodded affably, as Rodgers turned into the alley.

There was still five minutes’ work to be done on the car and Rodgers spent them in hurrying Sam into completing the job without further waste of time, and it was with a feeling of satisfaction that he laid the coat on the seat and took his place behind the steering wheel. He had to slow up for traffic as he started out of the alley into Pennsylvania Avenue. A hail close at hand caused him to look around and he recognized the proprietor of the second-hand clothes store approaching.

“Hey! Just a minute,” called the latter, and Rodgers pulled up at the curb and waited for him. “Say, mister, my wife fancies that coat, so if you don’t mind I’ll return you the twenty dollars,” and he held out the money.

Rodgers eyed him in astonishment. “I prefer to keep the coat,” he said. “Sorry I can’t oblige you.”

“But, see here,” the man protested. “I’ll give you two extra dollars. Come now, that’s fair; twenty-two dollars. Money don’t often turn over in your plans quite so fast, does it?” with a faint leer. “Here’re the extra dollars.”

“Thanks, but I don’t want them,” dryly.

“Oh!” The proprietor looked blank. “’Spose we make it twenty-five?”

“Nothing doing.”

“How about thirty dollars?” persisted the man. “Oh, I’m no piker,” observing Rodgers’ expression. “When I want a thing I am willing to pay for it.”

“And just why do you want this coat so particularly?” asked Rodgers, his suspicion aroused.

“I told you my wife wants that coat.”

“Well, she can’t have it.” Rodgers released the clutch and the car shot down the Avenue, leaving the dealer in second-hand clothes standing with mouth agape, gesticulating wildly after him.

It was but a short distance to the Bachelor where he had an apartment, and Rodgers paid small regard to traffic regulations until he reached there. He wasted some valuable moments in finding parking space near the building and he was in no amiable frame of mind when he finally hurried through the swing door of the front entrance. The elevator [Pg 148]boy was nowhere visible and Rodgers collected his letters from his mail box; then, tucking the red coat under his arm, he went over to the staircase and mounted it two steps at a time until he reached the third floor. As he turned his latch-key and threw open the door of his apartment he heard his name called and whirled around. Ben Potter was walking toward him from the direction of the elevator shaft.

“Glad I caught you, Ted,” he remarked, ignoring Rodgers’ curt manner. Not waiting for an invitation, he stepped into the apartment and walked through the short hall into the large room which served Rodgers as a combination living and dining room. “I came to apologize for my surly behavior in Craige’s office this morning, old man.”

“Your apology is due to Miss Baird rather than to me,” replied Rodgers stiffly.

“I spoke in haste—without thought,” Potter admitted amiably. “Let’s drop the matter, Ted. Can you dine with us to-night? I’ll get Kitty to come also.”

“I have an engagement to-night, thanks.”

Potter’s florid complexion turned a warmer tint and he averted his gaze so that Rodgers might not detect the sudden rage which his eyes betrayed.

“Sorry; but you’ll come some other time, per[Pg 149]haps,” he mumbled. “Nina’s greatly interested in hearing of all that you have done for Kitty.”

“I—done for her?” Rodgers turned and eyed his companion sharply. Potter had perched himself on the end of the lounge with the evident intention of remaining, and was leisurely rolling a cigarette.

“Sure—you have accomplished a great deal for Kitty,” Potter affirmed with emphasis. “You found the will which gave her a fortune. To put it poetically, the beggar maid is now an heiress and a prey to fortune hunters.”

Rodgers’ eyes blazed. “Your remarks are offensive,” he exclaimed.

Potter straightened up. “Are you trying to fasten a quarrel on me?” he demanded hotly.

“I intend to make you speak more respectfully of Miss Baird,” retorted Rodgers, his anger at white heat. “If that means a fight—well, I’m ready,” and he tossed the red coat on the nearest chair to have his hands free.

Potter’s big frame relaxed against the cushioned back of the lounge as he forced a laugh. “You are too damned quick to take offense,” he protested. “Why, Kitty’s my cousin. I’d be the first to take her part.”

“And yet you insinuate—”

“Nothing,” with a patience meant to exasperate. “What are you doing with Kitty’s red coat?”

Rodgers met the unexpected question with unmoved countenance.

“You are mistaken,” he said. “It is not Miss Baird’s coat.”

“It isn’t?” Potter’s rising inflection expressed doubt. “Let me see it?” And he reached forward a grasping hand.

With a quick movement Rodgers pulled the coat beyond Potter’s reach. The next second he was staggering backward from a crashing blow delivered as Potter, who had gathered himself for a spring, swung forward upon his feet. Rage at the treacherous attack was a stimulant to Rodgers and he met Potter’s second onslaught with a swift right-hander. The scientist was no easy antagonist and for the moment he had the better of the rough and tumble fight; then as the younger man got his second wind he gave back and Rodgers pinned him against the wall.

“You yellow dog!” Rodgers half sobbed the words in his rage as he shifted his grip to the man’s throat.

The movement gave Potter his opportunity. Wrenching his right hand free he jerked a revolver from his coat pocket and brought the butt against Rodgers’ temple with stunning force. Rodgers [Pg 151]sagged backward, then regained his balance as Potter’s revolver again descended on his head. With a low moan he sank back, overturning a chair in his fall.

As Potter bent over the half-conscious man a resounding knock at the apartment door caused him to start upright. One hasty glance about the room showed him that the window overlooking the fire-escape was open. Potter’s eyes sought the red coat. It lay on the floor, half hidden under Rodgers. Stooping over, he seized one of the sleeves and tugged at it.

The action aroused Rodgers from his stupor and with such strength as remained he grasped the sleeve also. It was an unequal tug-of-war. Potter’s cry of triumph was drowned by repeated knocking on the door and the sound of raised voices demanding admittance. Not daring to remain longer, he released his hold on the coat sleeve and bolted through the window and down the fire-escape as an agile elevator boy climbed through the pantry window from an adjoining balcony and popped into the living room. He stopped aghast at sight of Rodgers, torn and bleeding, and the chaotic condition of the overturned furniture.

“My Lawd! What’s been a-happenin’?” he gasped. “We heered ructions an’ I got de police.”

“Police!” The last word penetrated Rodgers’ reeling senses, and his eyes sought the red coat sleeve which he still grasped.

“Yes; they’re at the do’ now,” as renewed pounding echoed through the place.

“Go and let them in,” commanded Rodgers; then, as the boy dashed down the hall, he staggered to his feet over to the small dumb-waiter shaft which was used to carry garbage cans, milk bottles and packages to the apartment. But one idea was uppermost—the police must not get Kitty’s red coat. He had just time to open the door and thrust the red coat down the chute and close the door again before two policemen appeared in the room. Stars were dancing before Rodgers’ eyes and he brushed his hand across his forehead. He must think—think— Should he have Potter arrested? No, he would settle the score between them without police aid. His hands clenched at the thought and he straightened up in spite of the increasing sense of faintness which caused his knees to sag under him.

“What’s happened?” demanded the foremost policeman. “Who attacked you?”

“A burglar, evidently,” replied Rodgers, sinking down in the nearest chair. “I walked in on him. He went that way—” indicating the fire-escape.

“Chase down and see if you can catch him, Mike,” ordered the first speaker. “I’ll search the apartment for any clues. Here—” observing Rodg[Pg 153]ers’ half-fainting condition—“Good Lord, he’s keeled over!”

An hour later Rodgers, his cuts treated by Dr. McLean, and finally left alone by a too-solicitous policeman, went down into the basement of the apartment house. He had no difficulty in locating the opening to the dumb-waiter shaft. Looking inside, he found it empty.

“What is it, Mr. Rodgers?” inquired the janitor’s wife, a young colored girl who acted as laundress for the tenants.

“I’m looking for a red coat which I accidentally dropped down the chute, Cora,” Rodgers explained.

“Mercy, Sir, I wish I’d known that was yours,” she exclaimed. “It was on top of a pile of trash and was so raggety that I just put the whole business in the furnace.”

Rodgers stared at her aghast, then, collecting his wits, he dashed by her and into the furnace room. The light from a hot fire half blinded him as he flung open the furnace door. Lying on the flagging close to the opening was a portion of the red coat—the rest was ashes. Rodgers jerked out the piece of red cloth, and flinging it on the cement floor, stamped out the smoldering flames. Paying no attention to Cora’s lamentations, he hurried upstairs, the precious piece in his hand.

Once more in his apartment and with the door [Pg 154]safely locked, he dropped down on the lounge and regarded all that remained of the coat, as his thoughts returned to Oscar and his fervid request that he “find Miss Kitty’s red coat.” In what way was the red coat involved in the mystery of Miss Baird’s death? Why had the dealer in second-hand clothes wished so ardently to buy it back? How had it gotten into his hands in the first place? Above all, why did Ben Potter wish to gain possession of it?

Rodgers’ head swam with the effort to find an answer to the enigma. Sinking back against the cushions, he ran his hand over the piece of red cloth. It was the front breadth of the coat and its patch pocket that had remained intact.

As Rodgers’ fingers strayed inside the pocket his thoughts turned to Kitty Baird—beautiful Kitty Baird—his best beloved. His restless fingers closed over a small wad of paper pressed deep in the coat pocket. A second later he had smoothed out the paper and, carrying it to the light, strove to read the writing upon it. A whistle escaped him.

“An ‘I.O.U.,’” he exclaimed. “Devil take it, the signature’s undecipherable!”


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