Story type: Literature
“They’re late this afternoon.”
“Yes. I think they might be on time. I wish they had made the appointment in a quieter place.”
“What do you care, Anita? Probably somebody else is doing the same thing somewhere else. What’s sauce for the gander is sauce for the goose.”
“I know he has treated me like a dog, Alice, but–“
There was just a trace of a catch in the voice of the second woman as she broke off the remark and left it unfinished.
Constance Dunlap had caught the words unintentionally above the hum of conversation and the snatches of tuneful music wafted from the large dining-room where day was being turned into night.
She had dropped into the fashionable new Vanderveer Hotel, not to meet any one, but because she liked to watch the people in “Peacock Alley,” as the corridor of the hotel was often popularly called.
Somehow, as she sat inconspicuously in a deep chair in an angle, she felt that very few of the gaily chatting couples or of the waiting men and women about her were quite what they seemed on the surface.
The conversation from around the angle confirmed her opinion. Here, apparently at least, were two young married women with a grievance, and it was not for those against whom they had the grievance, real or imagined, that they were waiting so anxiously.
Constance leaned forward to see them better. The woman nearest her was a trifle the elder of the two, a very attractive-looking woman, tastefully gowned and carefully groomed. The younger, who had been the first speaker, was, perhaps, the more dashing. Certainly she appeared to be the more sophisticated. And as Constance caught her eye she involuntarily thought of the old proverb, “Never trust a man who doesn’t look you in the eye or a woman who does.”
Two men sauntered down the long corridor, on the way from a visit to the bar. As they caught sight of the two ladies, there was a smile of recognition, an exchange of remarks between each pair, and the men hurried in the direction of the corner.
They greeted the two ladies in low, bantering, familiar terms–“Mr. Smith,” “Mrs. Jones,” “Mr. White” and “Mrs. Brown.”
“You got my card!” asked one of the men of the woman nearest Constance. “Sorry we’re late, but a business friend ran into us as we were coming in and I had to shunt him off in the other direction.”
He nodded toward the opposite end of the corridor with a laugh.
“You’ve been bad boys,” pouted the other woman, “but we forgive you –this time.”
“Perhaps we may hope to be reinstated after a little–er–tea–and a dance?” suggested the other man.
The four were all moving in the direction of the dining-room and the gay music.
They had disappeared in the crush about the door before Constance noticed that the woman who had been sitting nearest her had dropped an envelope. She picked it up. It was on the stationery of another fashionable hotel, evidently written by one of those who lounge in, and on the strength of a small bill in the cafe use the writing room. In a man’s hand was the name, “Mrs. Anita Douglas, The Melcombe Apartments, City”
Before she realized it, Constance had pulled out the card inside and glanced at it. It read:
MY DEAREST A—-:
Can you meet us in the Vanderveer to-morrow afternoon at four? Bring along your little friend.
With many * * * *
Mechanically Constance crumpled the card and the envelope in her hand and held them as she regarded the passing throng, intending to throw them away when she passed a scrap basket on the way out.
Still, it was a fascinating scene, this of the comedy and tragedy of human weaknesses, and she stayed much longer than she had intended. One by one the people had either gone to dinner in the main dining- room or elsewhere and Constance had nearly decided on going, too.
She was looking down the corridor toward the desk when she saw something that caused her to change her mind. There was the young lady who had been talking so flippantly to the woman with a grievance, and she was now talking, of all people, to Drummond!
Constance shrank back into her wicker chair in the protecting angle. What did it mean? If Drummond had anything to do with it, even remotely, it boded no good, at least.
Suddenly a possible explanation crossed her mind. Was it a side- light upon that peculiar industry of divorce as practiced in no place except New York?
It was not only that Constance longed for, lived by excitement. She felt a sense of curiosity as to what the detective was up to now. And, somehow, she felt a duty in the case. She determined to return the envelope and card, and meet the woman. And the more she thought of it the more imperative became the idea.
So it came about that the following forenoon Constance sought out the Melcombe Apartments, a huge stone and brick affair on a street which the uptown trend of population was transforming.
Anita Douglas, she had already found out by an inquiry or two, was the wife of a well-known business man. Yet, as she entered the little apartment, she noticed that there was no evidence about it of a man’s presence.
Mrs. Douglas greeted her unexpected visitor with an inquiring look.
“I was passing through the corridor of the Vanderveer yesterday afternoon,” began Constance, leaping into the middle of her errand, “and I happened to see this envelope lying on the carpet. I thought first of destroying it; then that perhaps you would rather destroy it yourself.”
Mrs. Douglas almost pounced on the letter as Constance handed it to her. “Thank you,” she exclaimed. “It was very thoughtful of you.”
For a moment or two they chatted of inconsequential things.
“Who was your friend?” asked Constance at length.
The woman caught her breath and flushed a bit, evidently wondering just how much Constance really knew.
“The young lady,” added Constance, who had put the question in this form purposely.
“Why do you ask?” Mrs. Douglas inquired in a tone that betrayed considerable relief.
“Because I can tell you something of her, I think.”
“A friend of mine–a Mrs. Murray. Why?”
“Aren’t you just a little bit afraid of–er–friends that you may chance to make in the city?” queried Constance.
“Afraid?” repeated the other.
“Yes,” said Constance, coming gradually to the point. “You know there are so many detectives about.”
Mrs. Douglas laughed half nervously. “Oh, I’ve been shadowed,” she replied confidently. “I know how to shake them off. If you can’t do anything else, you can always take a taxi. Besides, I think I can uncover almost any shadow. All you have to do, if you think you’re being shadowed, is to turn a corner and stop. That uncovers the shadow as soon as he comes up to the corner, and after that he is useless. You know him.”
“That’s all right,” nodded Constance; “but you don’t know these crooked detectives nowadays as I do. They can fake up evidence to order. That is their business, you know, to manufacture it. You may uncover a six-dollar operative, Mrs. Douglas, but are you the equal of a twenty-dollar-a-day investigator?”
The woman looked genuinely scared. Evidently Constance knew some things she didn’t know, at least about detectives.
“You–you don’t think there is anything like that, do you?” she asked anxiously.
“Well,” replied Constance slowly to impress her, “I saw your friend, Mrs. Murray, after you had left the Vanderveer, talking to a detective whom I have every reason to fear as one of the most unscrupulous in the game.”
“Oh, that is impossible!” persisted Mrs. Douglas.
“Not a bit of it,” pursued Constance. “Think it over for a moment. Who would be the last person a man or woman would suspect of being a detective? Why, just such an attractive young woman, of course. You see, it is just this way. They reason that if they can only get acquainted with people the rest is easy. For, people, under the right circumstances, will tell everything they know.”
The woman was staring at Constance.
“For example,” urged Constance, “I’m talking to you now as if I had known you for years. Why, Mrs. Douglas, men tell their most important business secrets to chance luncheon and dinner companions whom they think have no direct or indirect interest in them. Over tea-tables women tell their most intimate personal affairs. In fact, all you have to do is to keep your ears open.”
Mrs. Douglas had risen and was nervously watching Constance, who saw that she had made an impression and that all that was necessary was to follow it up.
“Now, for instance,” added Constance quickly, “you say she is a friend of yours. How did you meet her?”
Mrs. Douglas did not raise her eyes to Constance’s now. Yet she seemed to feel that Constance was different from other chance acquaintances, to feel a sort of confidence, and to want to meet frankness with frankness.
“One day I was with a friend of mine at the new Palais de Maxixe,” she answered in a low voice as if making a confession. “A woman in the dressing-room borrowed a cigarette. You know they often do that. We got talking, and it seemed that we had much in common in our lives. Before I went back to him–“
She bit her lip. She had evidently not intended to admit that she knew any other men. Constance, however, appeared not to notice the slip.
“I had arranged to meet her at luncheon the next day,” she continued hastily. “We have been friends ever since.”
“You went to luncheon with her, and–” Constance prompted.
“Oh, she told me her story. It was very much like my own–a husband who was a perfect bear, and then gossip about him that so many people, besides his own wife, seemed to know, and–“
Constance shook her head. “Really,” she observed thoughtfully, “it’s a wonder to me how any one stays married these days. Somebody is always mixing in, getting one or the other so wrought up that they get to thinking there is no possibility of happiness. That’s where the crook detective comes in.”
Anita Douglas, confidence established now, poured out her story unreservedly, as there was little reason why she should not, a story of the refined brutality and neglect and inhumanity of her husband.
She told of her own first suspicions of him, of a girl who had been his stenographer, a Miss Helen Brett.
But he was careful. There had never been any direct, positive evidence against him. Still, there was enough to warrant a separation and the payment to her of an allowance.
They had lived, she said, in a pretty little house in the suburb of Glenclair, near New York. Now that they were separated, she had taken a little kitchenette apartment at the new Melcombe. Her husband was living in the house, she believed, when he was not in the city at his club, “or elsewhere,” she added bitterly.
“But,” she confided as she finished, “it is very lonely here in a big city all alone.”
“I know it is,” agreed Constance sympathetically as they parted. “I, too, am often very lonely. Call on me, especially if you find anything crooked going on. Call on me, anyhow. I shall be glad to see you any time.”
The words, “anything crooked going on,” rang in Mrs. Douglas’s ears long after the elevator door had clanged shut and her new friend had gone. She was visibly perturbed. And the more she thought about it the more perturbed she became.
She had carried on a mild, then an ardent, flirtation with the man who had introduced himself as “Mr. White”–really Lynn Munro. But she relied on her woman’s instinct in her judgment of him. No, she felt sure that he could not be other than she thought. But as for Alice Murray and her friend whom she had met at the Palais de Maxixe–well, she was forced to admit that she did not know, that Constance’s warning might, after all, be true.
Munro had had to run out of town for a few days on a business trip. That she knew, for it had been the reason why he had wanted to see her before he went.
He had, in fact, spent the evening in her company, after the other couple had excused themselves on one pretext or another.
She called up Alice Murray at the number she had given. She was not there. In fact, no one seemed to know when she would be there. It was strange, because always before it had seemed possible to get her at any moment, almost instantly. That, too, worried her.
She tried to get the thing out of her mind, but she could not. She had a sort of foreboding that her new friend had not spoken without reason, a feeling of insecurity as though something were impending over her.
The crisis came sooner than even Constance had anticipated when she called on Anita Douglas. It was early in the afternoon, while Anita was still brooding, that a strange man called on her. Instinctively she seemed to divine that he was a detective. He, at least, had the look.
“My name,” he introduced himself, “is Drummond.”
Drummond paused and glanced about as if to make sure that he could by no possibility be overheard.
“I have called,” he continued, “on a rather delicate matter.”
He paused for effect, then went on:
“Some time ago I was employed by Mr. Douglas to–er–to watch his wife.”
He was watching her narrowly to see what effect his sudden remark would have on her. She was speechless.
“Since then,” he added quietly, “I have watched, I have seen–what I have seen.”
Drummond had faced her. Somehow the effect of his words was more potent on her than if he had not accused her by indirection. Still she said nothing.
“I can suppress it,” he insinuated.
Her heart was going like a trip-hammer.
“But it will cost something to do that.”
Here was a straw–she caught at it eagerly.
“Cost something?” she repeated, facing him. “How much?”
Drummond never took his eyes from her anxious face.
“I was to get a fee of one thousand dollars if I obtained some letters that had passed from her to a man named Lynn Munro. He has gone out of town–has left his rooms unguarded. I have the letters.”
She felt a sinking sensation. One thousand dollars!
Suddenly the truth of the situation flashed over her. He had come with an offer that set her bidding against her husband for the letters. And in a case of dollars her husband would win. One thousand dollars! It was blackmail.
“I–I can’t afford it,” she pleaded weakly. “Can’t you make it– less?”
Drummond shook his head. Already he had learned what he had come to learn. She did not have the money.
“No,” he replied positively, adding, by way of inserting the knife and turning it around, “I shall have to turn the letters over to him to-day.”
She drew herself up. At least she could fight back.
“But you can’t prove anything,” she cut in quickly.
“Can’t I?” he returned. “The letters don’t speak for themselves, do they? You don’t realize that this interview helps to prove it, do you? An innocent woman wouldn’t have considered my offer, much less plead with me. Bah! can’t prove anything. Why, it’s all in plain black and white!”
Drummond flicked the ashes from his cigar into the fireplace as he rose to go. At the door he turned for one parting shot.
“I have all the evidence I need,” he concluded. “I’ve got the goods on you. To-night it will be locked in his safe–documentary evidence. If you should change your mind–you can reach me at his office. Call under an assumed name–Mrs. Green, perhaps.”
He was gone, with a mocking smile at the parting shot.
Anita Douglas saw it all now. Things had not been going fast enough to suit her new friend, Mrs. Murray. So, after a time, she had begun to tell of her own escapades and to try to get Anita to admit that she had had similar adventures. It was a favorite device of detectives, working under the new psychological method by use of the law of suggestion.
She had introduced herself, had found out about Lynn Munro, and in some way, after he had left town, had got the letters. Was he in the plot, too? She could not believe it.
Suddenly the thought came to her that the blackmailers might give her husband material that would look very black if a suit for divorce came up in court.
What if he were able to cut off her little allowance? She trembled at the thought of being thus cast adrift on the world.
Anita Douglas did not know which way to turn. In her dilemma she thought only of Constance. She hurried to her.
“It was as you said, a frame-up,” she blurted out, as she entered Constance’s apartment, then in the same breath added, “That Mrs. Murray was just a stool pigeon.”
Constance received her sympathetically. She had expected such a visit, though not so soon.
“Just how much do they–know?” she asked pointedly.
Anita had pressed her hands together nervously. “Really–I confess,” she murmured, “indiscretions–yes; misconduct–no!”
She spoke the last words defiantly. Constance listened eagerly, though she did not betray it.
She had found out that it was a curious twist in feminine psychology that the lie under such circumstances was a virtue, that it showed that there was hope for such a woman. Admission of the truth, even to a friend, would have shown that the woman was hopelessly lost. Lie or not, Constance felt in her inmost heart that she approved of it.
“Still, it looks badly,” she remarked.
“Perhaps it does–on the surface,” persisted Anita.
“You poor dear creature,” soothed Constance. “I don’t say I blame you for your–indiscreet friendships. You are more sinned against than sinning.”
Sympathy had its effect. Anita was now sobbing softly, as Constance stole her arm about her waist.
“The next question,” she reasoned, considering aloud, “is, of course, what to do? If it was just one of these blackmailing detective cases it would be common, but still very hard to deal with. There’s a lot of such blackmailing going on in New York. Next to business and political cases, I suppose, it is the private detective’s most important graft. Nearly everybody has a past– although few are willing to admit it. The graft lies in the fact that people talk so much, are so indiscreet, take such reckless chances. It’s a wonder, really, that there isn’t more of it.”
“Yet there is the–evidence, as he called it–my letters to Lynn– and the reports that that woman must have made of our–our conversations,” groaned Anita. “How they may distort it all!”
Constance was thinking rapidly.
“It is now after four o’clock,” she said finally, looking at her wrist watch. “You say it was not half an hour ago that Drummond called on you. He must be downtown about now. Your husband will hardly have a chance more than to glance over the papers this afternoon.”
Suddenly an idea seemed to occur to her. “What do you suppose he will do with them?” she asked.
Mrs. Douglas looked up through her tears, calmer. “He is very methodical,” she answered slowly. “If I know him rightly, I think he will probably go out to Glenclair with them to-night, to look them over.”
“Where will he keep them?” broke in Constance suddenly.
“He has a little safe in the library out there where he keeps all such personal papers. I shouldn’t be surprised if he looked them over and locked them up there until he intends to use them at least until morning.”
“I have a plan,” exclaimed Constance excitedly. “Are you game?”
Anita Douglas looked at her friend squarely. In her face Constance read the desperation of a woman battling for life and honor.
“Yes,” replied Anita in a low, tense tone, “for anything.”
“Then meet me after dinner in the Terminal. We’ll go out to Glenclair.”
The two looked deeply into each other’s eyes. Nothing was said, but what each read was a sufficient answer to a host of unspoken questions.
A moment after Mrs. Douglas had gone, Constance opened a cabinet. From the false back of a drawer she took two little vials of powder and a small bottle with a sponge.
Then she added a long steel bar, with a peculiar turn at the end, to her paraphernalia for the trip.
Nothing further occurred until they met at the Terminal, or, in fact, on the journey out. On most of the ride Mrs. Douglas kept her face averted, looking out of the window into the blackness of the night. Perhaps she was thinking of other journeys out to Glenclair, perhaps she was afraid of meeting the curious gaze of any late sojourners who might suffer from acute suburban curiosity.
Quietly the two women alighted and quickly made their way from the station up the main street, then diverged to a darker and less frequented avenue.
“There’s the house,” pointed out Mrs. Douglas, halting Constance, with a little bitter exclamation.
Evidently she had reasoned well. He had gone out there early and there was a light in the library.
“He isn’t much of a reader,” whispered Mrs. Douglas. “Oh–it’s clear to me that he has the stuff all right. He’s devouring it, gloating over it.”
The sound of footsteps approaching down the paved walk came to them. Loitering on the streets of a suburban town always occasions suspicion, and instinctively Constance drew Anita with her into the shadow of a hedge that set off the house from that next to it.
There was no fence cutting it off from the sidewalk, but at the corner of the plot a large bush stood. In this bower they were perfectly hidden in the shadow.
Hour after hour they waited, watching that light in the library, speculating what it was he was reading, while Anita, half afraid to talk, wondered what it was that Constance had in mind.
Finally the light in the library winked out and the house was in darkness.
Midnight passed, and with it the last belated suburbanite.
At last, when the moon had disappeared under some clouds, Constance pulled Anita gently along up the lawn.
There was no sign of life about the house, yet Constance observed all the caution she would have if it had been well guarded.
Quickly they advanced over the open space to the cottage, approaching in the shadow as much as possible.
Tiptoeing over the porch, Constance tried a window, the window through which had shown the tantalizing light. It was fastened.
Without hesitation she pulled out the long steel bar with the twisted head, and began to insert the sharp end between the sashes.
“Aren’t–you–afraid?” chattered her companion.
“No,” she whispered, not looking up from her work. “You know, most persons don’t know enough about jimmies. Against them an ordinary door lock or window catch is no protection at all. Why, with this jimmy, even a woman can exert a pressure of a ton or so. Not one catch in a thousand can stand it–certainly not this one.”
Constance continued to work, muffling the lever as much as possible in a piece of felt.
At last a quick wrench and the catch yielded.
The only thing wrong about it was the noise. There had been no wind, no passing trolley, nothing to conceal it.
They shrank back into the shadow, and waited breathless. Had it been heard? Would a window open presently and an alarm be sounded?
There was not a sound, save the rustle of the leaves in the night wind.
A few minutes later Constance carefully raised the lower sash and they stepped softly into the house–once the house over which Anita Douglas had been mistress.
Cautiously Constance pressed the button on a little pocket storage- battery lamp and flashed it slowly about the room.
All was quiet in the library. The library table was disordered, as if some one in great stress of mind had been working at it. Anita wondered what had been the grim thoughts of the man as he pondered on the mass of stuff, the tissue of falsehoods that the blackmailing detective had handed to him at such great cost.
At last the cone of light rested on a little safe at the opposite end.
“There it is,” whispered Anita, pointing, half afraid even of the soft tones of her own voice.
Constance had pulled down all the shades quietly, and drew the curtains tightly between the room and the foyer.
On the top of the safe she was pouring some of the powder in a neat pile from one of the vials.
“What is that?” asked Anita, bending close to her ear.
“Some powdered metallic aluminum mixed with oxide of iron,” whispered Constance in return. “I read of this thing in a scientific paper the other day, and I determined to get some of it. But I didn’t think I’d ever really have occasion to use it.”
She added some powder from the other vial.
Constance had lighted a match.
“Stand back, Anita,” she whispered, “back, Anita,” she whispered, “back in the farthest corner of the room, and keep quiet. Shut your eyes–turn your face away!”
There was a flash, blinding, then a steady, brilliant burst of noiseless, penetrating, burning flame.
Anita had expected an explosion. Instead she found that her eyes hurt. She had not closed them tightly quick enough.
Still, Constance’s warning had been sufficient to prevent any damage to the sight, and she slowly recovered.
Actually, the burning powder seemed to be sinking into the very steel of the safe itself, as if it had been mere ice!
Was it an optical illusion, a freak of her sight?
“Wh-what is it!” she whispered in awe, drawing closer to her friend.
“Thermit,” whispered Constance in reply, as the two watched the glowing mass fascinated, “an invention of a German chemist named Goldschmidt. It will burn a hole right through steel–at a terrific temperature, three thousand or more degrees.”
The almost burned out mass seemed to fall into the safe as if it had been a wooden box instead of chrome steel.
They waited a moment, still blinking, to regain control over their eyes in spite of the care they had used to shield them.
Then they tiptoed across the floor.
In the top of the safe yawned a hole large enough to stick one’s hand and arm through!
Constance reached into the safe and drew out something on which she flashed the pocket light.
There was bundle after bundle of checks, the personal checks of a methodical business man, carefully preserved.
Hastily she looked them over. All seemed to be perfectly straight– payments to tradesmen, to real estate agents, payments of all sorts, all carefully labeled.
“Oh, he’d never let anything like that lie around,” remarked Anita, as she began to comprehend what Constance was after.
Constance was scrutinizing some of the checks more carefully than others. Suddenly she held one up to the light. Apparently it was in payment of legal services.
Quickly she took the little bottle of brownish fluid which she had brought with the sponge.
She dipped the sponge in it lightly and brushed it over the check. Then she leaned forward breathlessly.
“Eradicating ink is simply a bleaching process,” she remarked, “which leaves the iron of the ink as a white oxide instead of a black oxide. The proper reagent will restore the original color– partially and at least for a time. Ah–yes–it is as I thought. There have been erasures in these checks. Other names have been written in on some of them in place of those that were originally there. The sulphide of ammonia ought to bring out anything that is hidden here.”
There, faintly, was the original writing. It read, “Pay to the order of–Helen Brett–“
Mrs. Douglas with difficulty restrained an exclamation of anger and hatred at the mere sight of the name of the other woman.
“He was careful,” remarked Constance. “Reckless at first in giving checks-he has tried to cover it up. He didn’t want to destroy them, yet he couldn’t have such evidence about. So he must have altered the name on the canceled vouchers after they were returned to him paid by the bank. Very clever–very.”
Constance reached into the safe again. There were some personal and some business letters, some old check books, some silver and gold trinkets and table silver.
She gave a low exclamation. She had found a packet of letters and a sheaf of typewritten flimsy tissue paper pages.
Mrs. Douglas uttered a little cry, quickly suppressed. The letters were those in her own handwriting addressed to Lynn Munro.
“Here are Drummond’s reports, too,” Constance added.
She looked them hastily over. The damning facts had been massed in a way that must inevitably have prejudiced any case for the defense that Mrs. Douglas might set up.
“There–there’s all the evidence against you,” whispered Constance hoarsely, handing it over to Anita. “It’s all yours again. Destroy it”
In her eagerness, with trembling hands, Anita had torn up the whole mass of incriminating papers and had cast them into the fireplace. She was just about to strike a match.
Suddenly there came a deep voice from the stairs.
“Well–what’s all this?”
Anita dropped the match from her nerveless hands. Constance felt an arm grasp her tightly. For a moment a chill ran over her at being caught in the nefarious work of breaking and entering a dwelling- house at night. The hand was Anita’s, but the voice was that of a man.
Lights flashed all over the house at once, from a sort of electric light system that could be instantly lighted and would act as a “burglar expeller.”
It was Douglas himself. He was staring angrily at his wife and the stranger with her.
“Well!” he demanded with cold sarcasm. “Why this–this burglary?”
Before he could quite take in the situation, with a quick motion, Constance struck a match and touched it to the papers in the fireplace.
As they blazed up he caught sight of what they were and almost leaped across the floor.
Constance laid her hand on his arm. “One moment, Mr. Douglas,” she said quietly. “Look at that!”
“Who–who the devil are you?” he gasped. “What’s all this?”
“I think,” remarked Constance slowly and quietly, “that your wife is now in a position to prove that you–well, don’t come into court with clean hands, if you attempt to do so. Besides, you know, the courts rather frown on detectives that practice collusion and conspiracy and frame up evidence, to say nothing of trying to blackmail the victims. I thought perhaps you’d prefer not to say anything about this–er–visit to-night–after you saw that.”
Constance had quietly laid one of the erased checks on the library table. Again she dipped the sponge into the brownish liquid. Again the magic touch revealed the telltale name. With her finger she was pointing to the faintly legible “Helen Brett” on the check as the sulphide had brought it out.
He rubbed his eyes and stared again as the last of the flickering fire died away. In an instant he realized that it was not a dream, that it was all a fact.
He looked from one to the other of the women.
He was checkmated.
Constance ostentatiously folded up the erased vouchers.
“I–I shall not–make any–contest,” Douglas managed to gasp huskily.