The Cat's Paw

by Natalie Sumner Lincoln

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Chapter XVII - K.B.

Inspector Mitchell looked at the policeman standing in front of his desk with approval.

“You have done well, Donovan,” he exclaimed.

“Exactly at what hour was Major Leigh Wallace seen leaving ‘Rose Hill’ on Sunday afternoon?”

“Mrs. Murray claims that it was about five o’clock or a little after,” Donovan replied, consulting his notes.

“And why hasn’t she reported this before?”

“She’s been ill with the grippe, and all news of the murder was kept from her,” the policeman answered. “She told her boy to-day, after learning about Miss Baird’s death, to watch for me when I was on my beat. I went over to see her the moment my relief came. It wasn’t an hour ago,” looking at the office clock which registered half-past nine, “Mrs. Murray said she would be glad to talk to you to-morrow, but to-night she feels too weak.”

“Which is her house?”

[Pg 224]

“The one next to the Baird mansion on the east—this way—” Donovan moved his hands about to demonstrate his sense of direction. “It’s the house you have to pass to return to Washington.”

“Was Major Wallace in his car on Sunday afternoon?”

“No, sir, he was walking.” Donovan waited a moment before adding, “Mrs. Murray swears she knows Major Wallace well by sight; that she’s seen him too often waiting for Miss Kitty Baird to be mistaken. She was just stepping into her front walk when the Major brushed by her in such a devil of a hurry that he nearly knocked her down.”

Mitchell closed the drawers of his desk, locked them, and arose. “That is all now, Donovan,” he said. “Report at once if you obtain any further information. Don’t wait to come in person, telephone.”

“All right, Inspector,” and saluting, Donovan hurried away. The door had hardly closed after him before it opened to admit a plain clothes detective.

“Well, Welsh, what luck?” Mitchell asked eagerly.

“An old colored man did board the three o’clock train this afternoon for Front Royal, Inspector,” he reported. “The gatekeeper and one of the por[Pg 225]ters declared that he answered the description you furnished.”

“Was a woman with him?”

“No, sir; not that I can find out. Every one swears that the old man was alone.”

Mitchell considered the answer in silence. “There is nothing for it but a trip to Front Royal,” he said finally. “Go there, Welsh, and find out if Oscar Jackson arrived there to-day on the three o’clock train—no later train, mind you—from Washington. I understood Mr. Rodgers to say that Oscar is from Front Royal and has relatives living in its vicinity. Therefore he is known and I don’t anticipate that you will have difficulty in locating him. Keep me informed by telephone.”

“Very good, Inspector.” Welsh paused half way to the door as a thought struck him. “Did you get a message from Mr. Benjamin Potter?”

“No. What did he want?”

“He didn’t say.” Welsh again started for the door. “Just asked to have you call him up. Wasn’t his wife one of the witnesses at the Baird inquest?”

“She was—” Mitchell was already reaching for the telephone directory. “As you go out, Welsh, tell Allen to bring my car around at once.”

Getting the Potter apartment on the telephone was more difficult than Mitchell expected; the naturalist used a private wire and it was only by virtue of his office that Mitchell was supplied with the number by “Information.” Another wait ensued as Central claimed the wire “busy,” and it was with perceptible irritation that the Inspector answered the hoarse, “Hello,” that finally responded to his repeated calls.

“Can I speak to Mr. Potter?” he asked.

“Mr. Potter is out—” a violent cough interrupted the speaker. “Is there any message?”

“Who is speaking?”

“Mrs. Potter.”

“I beg pardon, Madam.” Mitchell moderated his voice. “This is Detective Headquarters—Inspector Mitchell on the ’phone. Your husband left word for me to telephone to him. Do you know what he wished?”

“No.” The curtness of her tone annoyed Mitchell.

“When will your husband return?” he asked, raising his voice.

“Very soon, I imagine.” There was a pause, and Mitchell concluded she was consulting her watch, for she went on, “It is nearly ten o’clock. Shall I have Mr. Potter call you?”

Mitchell considered before replying. “No. I may have to go out, so I will ring him up. Thank you, Madam; good night.” He barely caught her hoarsely echoed “Good night,” before hanging up the receiver.

Mitchell paused to jot down the Potters’ telephone number in his notebook, then, securing his hat and overcoat, made for the street. Only pausing to exchange a hasty greeting with a brother officer, he jumped into the police car.

“The Baird house in Georgetown, Allen,” he directed, and sat in impatient silence as they whirled through the city streets. He was tired of inaction. Whatever the hour he could not rest until he had interviewed Kitty Baird. Mitchell had gained his promotion to inspector through ability, backed by dogged determination. He had early decided that the mystery of Miss Baird’s murder could best be solved through watching Kitty Baird and, as he had expressed it earlier that evening to Coroner Penfield, “wringing the truth from her.”

“She benefited by her aunt’s death and, by heaven, she is the only one living who did,” he had declared. “And it stands one hundred to one that if she doesn’t actually know who bumped her aunt off, she can make a mighty accurate guess.”

Mitchell’s temper did not cool down on his arrival at “Rose Hill,” but on the contrary gathered heat as he stood before the front door and rang the bell with increasing vigor as the minutes lengthened. The door was finally opened a tiny bit, and through the crack a pair of beady black eyes peered at him in the uncertain light.

“Who’s dar?” demanded Mandy, her trembling tones belying her belligerent attitude as she braced herself so as to shut the door in case the caller pushed against it.

“Inspector Mitchell,” the latter announced briefly. “Let me in, Mandy.”

Slowly the door was pulled open, but it was not until the old servant could distinguish Mitchell’s features with the aid of the hall light that she stepped aside and allowed him to enter.

“What yo’ want?” she asked.

“To see Miss Kitty Baird.”

“At this time o’ night?” in scandalized surprise.

“That’s all right about the hour,” with marked impatience. “Go tell her I am here.”

Mandy wavered—the power of the law as represented by a policeman, not to mention an inspector, loomed large in her vision.

“Miss Kitty am out,” she announced briefly.

“At this hour?” Mitchell smiled skeptically. “Go call her, Mandy.”

“’Deed I’se tellin’ yo’ de truff,” she protested. “She went out wif Mister Edward Rodgers early in de evenin’, an’ she ain’t come back, ’cause I’se been awaitin’ up fo’ her.”

Mitchell stared at Mandy, then, putting out his hand, shut the front door.

“Go to bed,” he said, not unkindly. “I’ll wait here and let Miss Baird in when she returns.”

But Mandy did not budge. “Yo’ means well,” she said, somewhat mollified. “But I cain’t go to bed ’till Miss Kitty gets in. If yo’ care to set awhile, come right in to de lib’ry.”

Mitchell stopped her as she turned to go down the hall. “Let me stay in the parlor,” he said. “I can see Miss Baird and Mr. Rodgers when they drive up. I wish to speak to Mr. Rodgers as well as Miss Baird, and he may leave without entering the house.”

Mandy retraced her steps to a closed door. “De parlor’s been kep’ shut up so long I ’spects yo’ll freeze,” she said. “Dar ain’t much heat comes in hyar from de furnace.”

“That’s all right; I’ll keep on my overcoat.” Mitchell stepped briskly into the room. “Let me light the gas, Mandy,” as the old servant fumbled with the gas fixture, stiffened from lack of use. “Run along, now.”

“Yes, sir,” but Mandy lingered by the door. “I’ll be up in Miss Kitty’s bedroom—jes’ fetch a yell ef yo’ needs me, Mister Inspector.”

As he listened to Mandy’s halting footsteps growing fainter and fainter as she climbed wearily upstairs, Mitchell contemplated the large square room filled with “period” furniture. The old brocades [Pg 230]were shabby and the rugs worn, but there was an indefinable atmosphere of the refinement of a bygone generation which time and neglect had not destroyed.

Mitchell raised the shades in the windows overlooking Q Street and peered outside. No automobile except his own, waiting at the curb, was in sight. Satisfied on that point, he opened the window ever so slightly that he might be sure and hear a car drive up to the door, and then, to occupy his time, he wandered about the room and examined the many pieces of bric-a-brac on the mantel and in cabinets.

One cabinet in particular attracted his attention. It was a fine piece of Florentine workmanship and remarkably well preserved. The floor of the cabinet held miniatures of, presumably, ancestors of Miss Susan Baird, and after a cursory glance at them, Mitchell scanned the articles on the glass shelves. A set of carved ivory chessmen awoke his admiration and observing that the key was in the door of the cabinet he opened it. After examining the little chessmen, he turned his attention to the ivory checkers and then to the two ivory cups for holding dice. The carving on them was very fine and to see them better Mitchell carried them to the gas light.

Glancing at the red dice cup, he was surprised to find cotton stuffed inside it. Setting down the other [Pg 231]cup, Mitchell pulled out the layer of cotton and found a small bottle standing upright. It was held in the center of the cup by cotton packed around it. Drawing out the bottle he held it up to the light. It was almost empty. Mitchell pulled out the glass stopper and sniffed at the contents. A distinct smell of bitter almonds caused him to draw in his breath sharply.

“Prussic acid!” he muttered. “By God! And Miss Susan Baird was poisoned with a dose of it.”

There was no label on the small phial. Taking out his handkerchief Mitchell replaced the glass stopper, and wrapped his handkerchief about the phial. Putting it carefully in his pocket, he paused for a moment to take another look at the dice cups, then replaced them in the cabinet. He and two of his assistants had made a complete and searching examination of the parlor immediately after the discovery of the crime. Mitchell was willing to swear that neither cotton nor phial had been in the dice cup then. Who had hidden the incriminating evidence there? Who had had the opportunity to do so? Kitty Baird....

Mitchell frowned heavily as he ran over in his mind the list of callers at the Baird home since the tragedy became known. The house was under surveillance and he felt confident no one had evaded the watchful eyes of his operatives. He dismissed [Pg 232]the majority of callers—friends and acquaintances who had left cards and letters of condolence—and his thoughts centered on those whom old Oscar had admitted—Charles Craige, Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Potter, Edward Rodgers, and Major Leigh Wallace—but to the best of his knowledge the Major had not been inside the Baird house. He had seen Kitty and Wallace arrive that afternoon, but Wallace had departed without entering; therefore, he could not have had an opportunity to secrete the bottle of poison in the ivory dice cup.

But Mitchell’s puzzled expression did not lighten, instead it deepened. He was wrong, Wallace had been in the house after the discovery of the murder, for he had accompanied Dr. Leonard McLean to the house on Monday morning. Could the young officer have slipped unseen into the parlor and concealed the bottle of poison while he, Mitchell, and Coroner Penfield were superintending the removal of Miss Baird’s body from the library to her bedroom?

Bah! the idea was absurd. A man would not return to the scene of a murder with incriminating evidence in his pocket when he had had hours in which to throw away the poison without arousing suspicion. But supposing Wallace had, in the horror of the moment, forgotten the bottle? Mitchell shook his head in disbelief. Whoever perpetrated so cold-blooded and premeditated a crime was not [Pg 233]apt to overlook getting rid of the poison at the first opportunity.

With Wallace eliminated, Mitchell turned his thoughts to Kitty’s other callers—Ben Potter and his pretty wife, and Charles Craige, the brilliant lawyer and popular clubman. Mitchell smiled broadly—no possible motive linked them in any way, shape or manner with the crime. Edward Rodgers—Mitchell frowned as Mrs. Parsons’ confidences recurred to him. Whatever his connection with the Holt will case, nothing had occurred to associate Rodgers with the murder of Miss Baird. The fact that he was madly in love with her niece was patent to all, but it did not constitute evidence that he had a hand in murdering her aunt.

The exhaust from an automobile broke the stillness and Mitchell paused only long enough at the window to see that a car had stopped near his. The next second he was hurrying down the terraced steps, his mind made up. Kitty had quarreled with her aunt on Sunday afternoon; she had inherited her wealth, and she had had the greatest opportunity to slip the bottle of prussic acid into its hiding place unknown to any one. There were questions which Kitty alone could answer, and she must answer them immediately.

As Mitchell hurried to the side of the automobile, [Pg 234]its owner stepped on the running board and faced him.

“Mr. Potter!” exclaimed Mitchell. “Did they tell you at Headquarters that I was here?”

Potter peered at him in uncertainty for a second. “Oh, Inspector,” he said. “I’m glad to see you, but I had no idea you were here. The fact is,” lowering his voice as Allen, tired of waiting in Mitchell’s car, climbed out on the sidewalk and drew near the two men. “My wife called up Miss Baird and couldn’t get an answer. We both felt concerned about my cousin and I ran over to see if anything was the matter. Why are you here?”

“I wanted to talk to Miss Baird,” Mitchell answered. “However, she is out—”

“Out? At this hour?”

“Yes. Mandy told me that she was motoring with Mr. Rodgers,” explained Mitchell. “I decided to wait for her return, and when you drove up, I thought it was Mr. Rodgers.”

Potter’s expression hardened. “I don’t approve of Kitty going out at night with Rodgers without a chaperon,” he grumbled. “Nor is it proper for her to live in this lonely house with only ignorant servants.” He turned back to his car and lifted out a camera and several packages. “Kitty left these at our apartment on Saturday, and Nina asked me to [Pg 235]bring them to her before the chemicals get mixed with mine.”

“Chemicals,” repeated Mitchell softly. “What kind of chemicals?”

“For developing negatives.” Potter started for the house and Mitchell kept pace with him. “Kitty has quite a craze that way—does good work for an amateur. Some of her animal studies are excellent, especially of her cat, Mouchette.”

“Seems to me there are quite a number of poisons used in developing films and negatives,” Mitchell remarked thoughtfully.

“Yes, get all you want at a kodak shop. Kitty bought a new supply last Saturday,” Potter replied carelessly. “Good Lord! What’s that?”

The exclamation was drawn from him by the sound of a motor horn which grew in volume as the car approached nearer and both men looked down Q Street.

“Gee! Some one’s breaking the law!” exclaimed Allen, attracted by the oncoming car whose headlights brightened the whole street.

With a grinding of brakes and totally regardless of stopping on the wrong side of the street, the driver drew up to the curb close to the three men and Mitchell recognized Kitty Baird sitting behind the steering wheel.

“Come here, quick!” she called. “Quick!”

“Kitty!” Potter sprang to her side. “What’s wrong, child? What’s happened? Don’t look so terrified.”

“Ted has been shot!” Kitty was on the sidewalk and around the car with lightning speed. “Don’t stand there talking—help me carry Ted into my house and then go for a doctor.”

Mitchell brushed her unceremoniously aside and looked in the car. The sight of Rodgers’ unconscious form called for action.

“Come here, Allen,” he called. “Take hold—gently, man, gently.”

It seemed an age to Kitty before the three men carried their burden up the long terraced steps and into the house.

“Go up to the bedroom at the head of the stairs,” she directed. “Mandy,” to the colored woman who, aroused by the noise of tramping feet and voices, appeared at the top of the staircase. “Show them into the spare bedroom and help them get the bed ready for Mr. Rodgers. I’ll telephone at once for Dr. McLean.”

Twenty minutes later Kitty stood with clenched hands waiting for the surgeon’s verdict. She had paced the hall until physical exhaustion had called a halt.

“Will he live, doctor?” she asked. “Don’t keep [Pg 237]me in suspense.” And the agony in her eyes caused McLean to hurry his usually slow speech.

“Yes, if there are no complications—”

Kitty waited to hear no more. Turning abruptly, she stumbled toward her own room—she could not face any one just then. She had reached the end of endurance.

“Miss Baird,” Mitchell’s stern voice caused her to falter just outside her bedroom door. “Who shot Edward Rodgers?”

“I don’t know,” she stammered. “We were coming home through Rock Creek Park and a car dashed by us. I was blinded by its headlights. I heard a report—” she caught her breath sharply. “I turned and found Mr. Rodgers sitting unconscious—wounded as you found him. I brought him home—ah, I can’t talk to you now—go—go!” And she half walked, half staggered across the threshold of her bedroom and into Mandy’s sympathetic arms.

Mitchell went slowly downstairs and out into the street. Allen, his chauffeur, was standing by Edward Rodgers’ car, and at sight of the inspector waved a beckoning hand.

“See here, Sir,” he said, turning the rays of his electric torch into the body of the roadster. “See that!”

Mitchell stared at the revolver for several seconds. [Pg 238]It lay just under the gear shift. Putting on his gloves, Mitchell picked it up gingerly.

“Have you handled the revolver, Allen?” he asked.

“No, sir. After the doctor and the nurse came, I returned here and put out the headlights which Miss Baird had left burning; then I saw the revolver lying just there on the floor of the car.”

A step behind him caused Mitchell to turn around.

“Hello, what have you there?” asked Ben Potter.

“A revolver.” Mitchell held it so that Allen’s torch fell directly upon it. “And a revolver which has been recently discharged judging from the smell of burnt powder.”

Potter whistled, then bent down for a better look. “By heaven!” he exclaimed. “That’s Kitty’s revolver. I had her initials engraved upon it—see—”

And turning the revolver slightly, Mitchell was able to decipher the letters on the plate: “K.B.”


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