Inspector Mitchell felt extremely pleased with himself as he hurried along Seventeenth Street in the direction of the Munitions Building. In his interview with Mrs. Augustus Murray of Georgetown, an hour before, he had been unable to shake her confidence in her claim that she had met Major Leigh Wallace leaving the Baird mansion on Sunday afternoon about five minutes past five o’clock. Mrs. Murray supplemented her original statement with the information that the Major never had the decency to apologize to her, when he ran against her in his blind haste.
Upon leaving Mrs. Murray, Inspector Mitchell went at once to Major Wallace’s boarding house where he learned that he had missed the young officer by ten minutes only.
“He’s gone to the Army Dispensary in the Munitions Building for treatment,” Mrs. Harris, the landlady, informed him. “Dear knows, I hope the [Pg 240]treatment does him some good. The way he moans in his sleep is something awful.”
“Ah, is Major Wallace troubled with insomnia?” asked Mitchell.
“I don’t know what he’s troubled with.” Mrs. Harris was not blessed with an even temper, and when it was aroused generally vented her ill-humor on the first person encountered. “His room is next to mine and the partition is mighty thin. It makes my flesh crawl to hear him moan and when he cries out, ‘Kitty!’ and again, ‘That damned cat,’ I just have to pound on the wall and wake him up.”
“Perhaps he has an antipathy to cats,” remarked Mitchell, restraining a smile.
“Mebbe he has; anyway I can’t say that I’m sorry he’s going—”
“Out west somewhere,” vaguely. “If you hurry you may catch Major Wallace at the Dispensary; he’s usually there about two hours.” And taking the broad hint Mitchell bowed himself out of the boarding house.
Unable to secure a taxicab at the Dupont Circle stand in place of the police car and Allen, whom he had sent on an errand earlier in the morning, Mitchell boarded a southbound street car and, standing on the forward platform, kept a sharp look-out for Major Wallace. He reached the corner of H Street, [Pg 241]however, without catching up with him, and leaving the car continued on down Seventeenth Street.
So absorbed was Inspector Mitchell in his own thoughts that he failed to return Mrs. Parsons’ bow as her motor passed him on its way up the street. At a word from Mrs. Parsons, her chauffeur swung the touring car around and up to the curb just as Mitchell started to cross D Street. The sound of his name caused him to glance around and he saw Mrs. Parsons beckoning to him.
“Can I give you a lift, Inspector?” she asked as he approached. “You appear to be in a hurry.”
“Thanks.” Mitchell wasted no superfluous words but seated himself with alacrity by Mrs. Parsons’ side.
“Where to, sir?” questioned the chauffeur, touching his cap as he closed the door.
“Munitions Building—that is,” and Mitchell turned inquiringly toward Mrs. Parsons, “if it won’t take you out of your way?”
“Not at all,” Mrs. Parsons’ smile was most engaging. “The car and I are at your service, Inspector. I have no engagements this morning.” She paused to wave her hand to the occupants of a passing car, then turned once more to the silent inspector. “Has anything new developed in the Baird murder mystery?”
“Only what was in the morning newspapers,” answered Mitchell guardedly.
Mrs. Parsons’ gay laugh interrupted him. “I applaud your caution,” she said. “The morning newspapers contained no news whatever. Perhaps my question was overstepping etiquette, but how about the other matter about which I consulted you? I mean Edward Rodgers and his erstwhile friend, Major Leigh Wallace. What of them?”
Mitchell considered the pretty widow before replying. Her limpid brown eyes were raised to his with an appealing earnestness that was irresistible.
“I am on my way to see Major Wallace now,” he said. “I had hoped to overtake him before he reached the Munitions Building.”
“Not by walking, surely,” she laughed. “Major Wallace is driving his car to-day and he seldom keeps within the city’s speed limit. And to-day was no exception judging from the way he passed me on the way downtown.”
“Indeed?” He turned so that he could face her as they talked. “His landlady informed me that Major Wallace plans to leave shortly for the west.”
Mrs. Parsons raised her eyebrows in polite surprise. “So soon,” she murmured. “How odd! And—” her voice gained in sharpness, “does Edward Rodgers also plan to leave Washington?”
“I don’t know what he had planned,” with quiet [Pg 243]emphasis. “But he is not going anywhere just now.”
“Because he was shot last night.”
Mrs. Parsons’ convulsive jump almost precipitated her out of the car as the chauffeur made the turn into the street leading to the Munitions Building.
“What—what did you say?” she stammered.
“I did not mean to startle you,” Mitchell spoke contritely, alarmed by her pallor. “I thought that you had heard the news.”
“I have heard nothing—” she spoke rapidly, clipping her words. “There was nothing in the morning paper—”
“No, we didn’t give it out to the press.”
“Then how did you expect me to know anything of the shooting?”
“I thought Miss Kitty Baird might have telephoned to you—” Mitchell was watching her closely. “She didn’t, eh?”
“No.” Mrs. Parsons sat back more comfortably in her car. “Was Mr. Rodgers killed?”
Mitchell shook his head. “Seriously injured,” he said soberly. “It’s a bad business.”
“How did the shooting occur?” she asked. The car had stopped before the lower entrance to the Munitions Building, but Mrs. Parsons motioned to [Pg 244]her chauffeur to wait as he started to open the car door.
“Oh, some one was skylarking in Rock Creek Park and shot Mr. Rodgers as he and Miss Kitty Baird were motoring home last night,” explained Mitchell. “Another case of an innocent bystander.”
“It was an accident, then.” Mrs. Parsons raised her scented handkerchief and touched her lips. “I thought—it just occurred to me that he might have tried suicide.”
Mitchell regarded her fixedly for a second. “You haven’t a great admiration for Edward Rodgers,” he remarked dryly. “No, it was not a case of suicide.” He stepped to the sidewalk. “Thanks very much, Mrs. Parsons, for bringing me down. Good morning.”
Mrs. Parsons controlled her impulse to stop him.
“Good morning,” she answered, and her voice was honey sweet, but her chauffeur, happening to meet her glance, quailed at the flash of rage which darkened her eyes and then was gone. “‘Rose Hill,’ Perkins.” The sharp command caused him to thank his stars that he had left his engine running. Mrs. Parsons’ uncertain temper had not endeared her to her servants.
The trip to Georgetown consumed less than ten minutes and Mrs. Parsons had assumed her ordinary expression of tranquil boredom when Perkins [Pg 245]returned with the message that “Miss Baird would be happy to see Mrs. Parsons.”
It was the first time Mrs. Parsons had been to call upon Kitty since the murder of her aunt, and she could not repress curious glances about her as she passed Mandy and went into the familiar library. She had hardly seated herself before the sound of a light footstep on the staircase leading down from the gallery into the library caused her to look up and she saw Kitty.
“My dear child!” she exclaimed, advancing with outstretched hands which Kitty grasped while submitting gracefully to the dainty kiss which accompanied her greeting. “My heart aches for you. Your face tells me how you have suffered!” and she traced the dark circles under Kitty’s eyes with her finger-tip. “Is there nothing I can do for you?”
Kitty did not reply at once; instead she busied herself in pulling forward a chair. She was given to acting upon impulse and Mrs. Parsons’ unexpected appearance clinched a half-formed resolve made in the early hours of the morning while watching by Edward Rodgers’ bedside.
“There is something you can do,” she said, and her smile was very winning. “Tell me why you wrote a note of warning to Leigh Wallace?”
The question was unexpected and Mrs. Parsons was taken off her guard.
“He showed it to you!” she gasped. “How dared he?”
Kitty watched the color come and go in Mrs. Parsons’ white cheeks with interest. It was seldom that the widow showed emotion. “I am waiting for an answer to my question,” she reminded her quietly.
“Let Leigh Wallace supply the answer.” Mrs. Parsons had herself in hand again. “He can—if he has not already left town.”
Kitty did her best to repress a start, but the keen eyes watching her under half-closed lids detected it.
“Suppose we leave Leigh out of the question,” Kitty controlled her voice admirably. “Would you rather answer me or the police?”
“The police?” Mrs. Parsons laughed tolerantly. “Dear child, the strain you have been under distorts your ideas. Why the police?”
“Because they are endeavoring to solve the mystery of my aunt’s murder.” Kitty nothing daunted by the older woman’s evasions was determined to fight in the open. “I am convinced, Mrs. Parsons, that Leigh—and you—have a guilty knowledge of that crime.”
Only the most astute observer could have translated the swift change in Mrs. Parsons’ expression. Even to Kitty’s prejudiced ears her low amused laugh rang true.
“You have dug up a mare’s nest,” Mrs. Parsons replied. “To think that you should consider that I had a hand in poor, dear Miss Susan’s death! Why, my dear, it would be insulting if it was not ludicrous.”
Kitty flushed with wrath; Mrs. Parsons’ ridicule was hard to bear. After all, was the widow right—had she dug up a mare’s nest? There was nothing but that note of warning to Leigh Wallace to connect her in the slightest degree with the tragedy.
“Will you tell me to what your note referred,” she asked, “if not to my aunt’s murder?”
“You overstep my patience.” Mrs. Parsons drew herself up with a displeased gesture. “I decline to be questioned further on the subject.”
“Miss Baird—” the interruption came from the doorway and both Kitty and her guest whirled around to see a white-capped nurse watching them. “Mr. Rodgers keeps calling for you. Will you come, please?”
“Yes, immediately.” Kitty was half way to the door when Mrs. Parsons addressed her with eagerness in her voice.
“Is Mr. Rodgers here?” she asked.
“Yes.” Kitty’s impatience was marked. “We brought him here after the—the accident. Dr. McLean thought it best not to move him to a hospital. Please don’t detain me.”
“But, my dear,” Mrs. Parsons paused just in front of her. “Are you here alone—unchaperoned?”
“My cousin, Nina Potter, came last night to be with me—”
“Oh, I am relieved,” Mrs. Parsons purred out the words. “No one can afford to defy the conventions. If your cousin was not here, I would volunteer myself—”
“Thanks—excuse me, Mrs. Parsons—” The portières opened and closed behind her vanishing figure and Mrs. Parsons found herself alone in the library.
Raising her gold lorgnette Mrs. Parsons took a prolonged survey of the throne-shaped chair standing in its customary place behind the tea table. It required but little stretch of the imagination to visualize Miss Susan Baird presiding over the tea cups, her hawklike nose and piercing eyes. In spite of the warmth of the library, Mrs. Parsons shivered and drew her costly fur coat more closely about her.
With some hesitancy she approached the tea table and scanned the antique silver tea service. She had admired it on many occasions. Taking up the teapot she reversed it and tried to decipher the hall mark; failing to do so she examined first the cream pitcher and then the sugar bowl. As she lowered the bowl, she glanced across the tea table and saw two [Pg 249]large yellow eyes regarding her from the throne-shaped chair.
Mouchette stood in the chair with her fore-paws resting on the table and her fluffy tail was lashing itself into a fury. It was the cat’s evident intention to spring upon the table and Mrs. Parsons retreated precipitously. She hated cats. As she passed the table, she dropped the sugar bowl on its polished surface. The bowl skidded, half righted itself, then fell to the floor, the heavy rug deadening the noise. With it went a small object unseen by Mrs. Parsons who, not stopping to pick up the bowl, proceeded into the hall.
Mouchette, surprised by Mrs. Parsons’ rapid retreat, stood where she was for an instant, then jumped lightly to the floor and sniffed at the sugar bowl. Going over to the small object lying by the bowl she sniffed at that, stretched out an inquisitive paw, gave it a gentle pat, watched it roll a short distance, then convinced that she had a plaything after her own heart, the cat proceeded to roll it hither and yon.
Mrs. Parsons was making straight for the front door when she caught sight of some one in the parlor, the door of which stood ajar. With a quiet air of authority she entered the room. So silently did she move that not until Nina Potter turned away from the Florentine cabinet was she aware of Mrs. [Pg 250]Parsons’ presence. The ivory chessman which she held slipped from her fingers and shattered on the hardwood floor.
“Oh, what a pity!” Mrs. Parsons’ air of concern sat prettily upon her. “My dear Nina, did I startle you? I am so distressed.”
“You did,” admitted Nina with a rueful smile. “The quinine I have taken for my cold has made me quite deaf. Does Kitty know that you are here?”
“I have just seen her,” Mrs. Parsons selected a chair and motioned Nina to one beside it. She did not propose to have her call cut short. She had found her source of information. “Kitty had to go upstairs to be with Edward Rodgers. When did the shooting occur?”
“Late last night.” Nina moved uneasily; she knew Mrs. Parsons’ predilection for scandal.
“And where—” with gentle insistence.
“In Rock Creek Park.” Nina’s hoarse voice rasped Mrs. Parsons’ ears. She was sensitive to sound. “Ben was here when Kitty returned with Ted Rodgers, and he came right home and brought me back to stay with Kitty.”
Mrs. Parsons eyed her in silence, noting every detail of her pretty morning dress as well as the unusual redness of her eyelids and the nervous twitching of her hands.
“How fortunate for you,” she exclaimed. Nina [Pg 251]looked up and caught her eyes; for a moment their glances held, then Nina looked away.
“I don’t catch your meaning,” she faltered.
“No?”—with a rising inflection which implied doubt, and Nina blushed painfully. Mrs. Parsons avoided looking at her; instead she inspected the furniture in the parlor and shuddered. “Such taste in decoration,” she said calmly. “But then Kitty can change all that with the fortune Miss Susan Baird left to her. What a sensation the news of her wealth has made in Washington! Has no one asked you how Miss Baird acquired it?”
Nina’s color slowly ebbed away. The eyes she turned on Mrs. Parsons were like some hunted animal.
“You—you know?” she stammered.
Mrs. Parsons nodded her head.
“Confide in me, my dear Nina,” she spoke with a world of sympathy in voice and manner. “I know that I can aid you.”