The Toxin Of Death by Arthur B Reeve

Story type: Literature

The note of appeal in her tone was powerful, but I could not so readily shake off my first suspicions of the woman. Whether or not she convinced Kennedy, he did not show.

“I was only a young girl when I met Mr. Thornton,” she raced on. “I was not yet eighteen when we were married. Too late, I found out the curse of his life–and of mine. He was a drug fiend. From the very first life with him was insupportable. I stood it as long as I could, but when he beat me because he had no money to buy drugs, I left him. I gave myself up to my career on the stage. Later I heard that he was dead–a suicide. I worked, day and night, slaved, and rose in the profession–until, at last, I met Mr. Pitts.”

She paused, and it was evident that it was with a struggle that she could talk so.

“Three months after I was married to him, Thornton suddenly reappeared, from the dead it seemed to me. He did not want me back. No, indeed. All he wanted was money. I gave him money, my own. money, for I made a great deal in my stage days. But his demands increased. To silence him I have paid him thousands. He squandered them faster than ever. And finally, when it became unbearable, I appealed to a friend. That friend has now succeeded in placing this man quietly in a sanitarium for the insane.”

“And the murder of the chef?” shot out Kennedy.

She looked from one to the other of us in alarm. “Before God, I know no more of that than does Mr. Pitts.”

Was she telling the truth? Would she stop at anything to avoid the scandal and disgrace of the charge of bigamy? Was there not something still that she was concealing? She took refuge in the last resort–tears.

Encouraging as it was to have made such progress, it did not seem to me that we were much nearer, after all, to the solution of the mystery. Kennedy, as usual, had nothing to say until he was absolutely sure of his ground. He spent the greater part of the next day hard at work over the minute investigations of his laboratory, leaving me to arrange the details of a meeting he planned for that night.

There were present Mr. and Mrs. Pitts, the former in charge of Dr. Lord. The valet, Edward, was also there, and in a neighbouring room was Thornton in charge of two nurses from the sanitarium. Thornton was a sad wreck of a man now, whatever he might have been when his blackmail furnished him with an unlimited supply of his favourite drugs.

“Let us go back to the very start of the case,” began Kennedy when we had all assembled, “the murder of the chef, Sam.”

It seemed that the mere sound of his voice electrified his little audience. I fancied a shudder passed over the slight form of Mrs. Pitts, as she must have realised that this was the point where Kennedy had left off, in his questioning her the night before.

“There is,” he went on slowly, “a blood test so delicate that one might almost say that he could identify a criminal by his very blood-crystals–the fingerprints, so to speak, of his blood. It was by means of these ‘hemoglobin clues,’ if I may call them so, that I was able to get on the right trail. For the fact is that a man’s blood is not like that of any other living creature. Blood of different men, of men and women differ. I believe that in time we shall be able to refine this test to tell the exact individual, too.

“What is this principle? It is that the hemoglobin or red colouring-matter of the blood forms crystals. That has long been known, but working on this fact Dr. Reichert and Professor Brown of the University of Pennsylvania have made some wonderful discoveries.

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“We could distinguish human from animal blood before, it is true. But the discovery of these two scientists takes us much further. By means of blood-crystals we can distinguish the blood of man from that of the animals and in addition that of white men from that of negroes and other races. It is often the only way of differentiating between various kinds of blood.

“The variations in crystals in the blood are in part of form and in part of molecular structure, the latter being discovered only by means of the polarising microscope. A blood-crystal is only one two-thousand-two-hundred-and-fiftieth of an inch in length and one nine-thousandth of an inch in breadth. And yet minute as these crystals are, this discovery is of immense medico-legal importance. Crime may now be traced by blood-crystals.”

He displayed on his table a number of enlarged micro-photographs. Some were labelled, “Characteristic crystals of white man’s blood”; others “Crystallisation of negro blood”; still others, “Blood-crystals of the cat.”

“I have here,” he resumed, after we had all examined the photographs and had seen that there was indeed a vast amount of difference, “three characteristic kinds of crystals, all of which I found in the various spots in the kitchen of Mr. Pitts. There were three kinds of blood, by the infallible Reichert test.”

I had been prepared for his discovery of two kinds, but three heightened the mystery still more.

“There was only a very little of the blood which was that of the poor, faithful, unfortunate Sam, the negro chef,” Kennedy went on. “A little more, found far from his body, is that of a white person. But most of it is not human blood at all. It was the blood of a cat.”

The revelation was startling. Before any of us could ask, he hastened to explain.

“It was placed there by some one who wished to exaggerate the struggle in order to divert suspicion. That person had indeed been wounded slightly, but wished it to appear that the wounds were very serious. The fact of the matter is that the carving-knife is spotted deeply with blood, but it is not human blood. It is the blood of a cat. A few years ago even a scientific detective would have concluded that a fierce hand-to-hand struggle had been waged and that the murderer was, perhaps, fatally wounded. Now, another conclusion stands, proved infallibly by this Reichert test. The murderer was wounded, but not badly. That person even went out of the room and returned later, probably with a can of animal blood, sprinkled it about to give the appearance of a struggle, perhaps thought of preparing in this way a plea of self-defence. If that latter was the case, this Reichert test completely destroys it, clever though it was.” No one spoke, but the same thought was openly in all our minds. Who was this wounded criminal?

I asked myself the usual query of the lawyers and the detectives– Who would benefit most by the death of Pitts? There was but one answer, apparently, to that. It was Minna Pitts. Yet it was difficult for me to believe that a woman of her ordinary gentleness could be here to-night, faced even by so great exposure, yet be so solicitous for him as she had been and then at the same time be plotting against him. I gave it up, determining to let Kennedy unravel it in his own way.

Craig evidently had the same thought in his mind, however, for he continued: “Was it a woman who killed the chef? No, for the third specimen of blood, that of the white person, was the blood of a man; not of a woman.”

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Pitts had been following closely, his unnatural eyes now gleaming. “You said he was wounded, you remember,” he interrupted, as if casting about in his mind to recall some one who bore a recent wound. “Perhaps it was not a bad wound, but it was a wound nevertheless, and some one must have seen it, must know about it. It is not three days.”

Kennedy shook his head. It was a point that had bothered him a great deal.

“As to the wounds,” he added in a measured tone “although this occurred scarcely three days ago, there is no person even remotely suspected of the crime who can be said to bear on his hands or face others than old scars of wounds.”

He paused. Then he shot out in quick staccato, “Did you ever hear of Dr. Carrel’s most recent discovery of accelerating the healing of wounds so that those which under ordinary circumstances might take ten days to heal might be healed in twenty-four hours?”

Rapidly, now, he sketched the theory. “If the factors that bring about the multiplication of cells and the growth of tissues were discovered, Dr. Carrel said to himself, it would perhaps become possible to hasten artificially the process of repair of the body. Aseptic wounds could probably be made to cicatrise more rapidly. If the rate of reparation of tissue were hastened only ten times, a skin wound would heal in less than twenty-four hours and a fracture of the leg in four or five days.

“For five years Dr. Carrel has been studying the subject, applying various extracts to wounded tissues. All of them increased the growth of connective tissue, but the degree of acceleration varied greatly. In some cases it was as high, as forty times the normal. Dr. Carrel’s dream of ten times the normal was exceeded by himself.”

Astounded as we were by this revelation, Kennedy did not seem to consider it as important as one that he was now hastening to show us. He took a few cubic centimetres of some culture which he had been preparing, placed it in a tube, and poured in eight or ten drops of sulphuric acid. He shook it.

“I have here a culture from some of the food that I found was being or had been prepared for Mr. Pitts. It was in the icebox.”

Then he took another tube. “This,” he remarked, “is a one-to-one- thousand solution of sodium nitrite.”

He held it up carefully and poured three or four cubic centimetres of it into the first tube so that it ran carefully down the side in a manner such as to form a sharp line of contact between the heavier culture with the acid and the lighter nitrite solution.

“You see,” he said, “the reaction is very clear cut if you do it this way. The ordinary method in the laboratory and the text-books is crude and uncertain.”

“What is it?” asked Pitts eagerly, leaning forward with unwonted strength and noting the pink colour that appeared at the junction of the two liquids, contrasting sharply with the portions above and below.

“The ring or contact test for indol,” Kennedy replied, with evident satisfaction. “When the acid and the nitrites are mixed the colour reaction is unsatisfactory. The natural yellow tint masks that pink tint, or sometimes causes it to disappear, if the tube is shaken. But this is simple, clear, delicate–unescapable. There was indol in that food of yours, Mr. Pitts.”

“Indol?” repeated Pitts.

“Is,” explained Kennedy, “a chemical compound–one of the toxins secreted by intestinal bacteria and responsible for many of the symptoms of senility. It used to be thought that large doses of indol might be consumed with little or no effect on normal man, but now we know that headache, insomnia, confusion, irritability, decreased activity of the cells, and intoxication are possible from it. Comparatively small doses over a long time produce changes in organs that lead to serious results.

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“It is,” went on Kennedy, as the full horror of the thing sank into our minds, “the indol-and phenol-producing bacteria which are the undesirable citizens of the body, while the lactic-acid producing germs check the production of indol and phenol. In my tests here to-day, I injected four one-hundredths of a grain of indol into a guinea-pig. The animal had sclerosis or hardening of the aorta. The liver, kidneys, and supra-renals were affected, and there was a hardening of the brain. In short, there were all the symptoms of old age.”

We sat aghast. Indol! What black magic was this? Who put it in the food?

“It is present,” continued Craig, “in much larger quantities than all the Metchnikoff germs could neutralise. What the chef was ordered to put into the food to benefit you, Mr. Pitts, was rendered valueless, and a deadly poison was added by what another- -“

Minna Pitts had been clutching for support at the arms of her chair as Kennedy proceeded. She now threw herself at the feet of Emery Pitts,

“Forgive me,” she sobbed. “I can stand it no longer. I had tried to keep this thing about Thornton from you. I have tried to make you happy and well–oh–tried so hard, so faithfully. Yet that old skeleton of my past which I thought was buried would not stay buried. I have bought Thornton off again and again, with money–my money–only to find him threatening again. But about this other thing, this poison, I am as innocent, and I believe Thornton is as–“

Craig laid a gentle hand on her lips. She rose wildly and faced him in passionate appeal.

“Who–who is this Thornton?” demanded Emery Pitts.

Quickly, delicately, sparing her as much as he could, Craig hurried over our experiences.

“He is in the next room,” Craig went on, then facing Pitts added: “With you alive, Emery Pitts, this blackmail of your wife might have gone on, although there was always the danger that you might hear of it–and do as I see you have already done–forgive, and plan to right the unfortunate mistake. But with you dead, this Thornton, or rather some one using him, might take away from Minna Pitts her whole interest in your estate, at a word. The law, or your heirs at law, would never forgive as you would.”

Pitts, long poisoned by the subtle microbic poison, stared at Kennedy as if dazed.

“Who was caught in your kitchen, Mr. Pitts, and, to escape detection, killed your faithful chef and covered his own traces so cleverly?” rapped out Kennedy. “Who would have known the new process of healing wounds? Who knew about the fatal properties of indol? Who was willing to forego a one-hundred-thousand-dollar prize in order to gain a fortune of many hundreds of thousands?”

Kennedy paused, then finished with irresistibly dramatic logic;

“Who else but the man who held the secret of Minna Pitts’s past and power over her future so long as he could keep alive the unfortunate Thornton–the up-to-date doctor who substituted an elixir of death at night for the elixir of life prescribed for you by him in the daytime–Dr. Lord.”

Kennedy had moved quietly toward the door. It was unnecessary. Dr. Lord was cornered and knew it. He made no fight. In fact, instantly his keen mind was busy outlining his battle in court, relying on the conflicting testimony of hired experts.

“Minna,” murmured Pitts, falling back, exhausted by the excitement, on his pillows, “Minna–forgive? What is there to forgive? The only thing to do is to correct. I shall be well–soon now–my dear. Then all will be straightened out.”

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“Walter,” whispered Kennedy to me, “while we are waiting, you can arrange to have Thornton cared for at Dr. Hodge’s Sanitarium.”

He handed me a card with the directions where to take the unfortunate man. When at last I had Thornton placed where no one else could do any harm through him, I hastened back to the laboratory.

Craig was still there, waiting alone.

“That Dr. Lord will be a tough customer,” he remarked. “Of course you’re not interested in what happens in a case after we have caught the criminal. But that often is really only the beginning of the fight. We’ve got him safely lodged in the Tombs now, however.”

“I wish there was some elixir for fatigue,” I remarked, as we closed the laboratory that night.

“There is,” he replied. “A homeopathic remedy–more fatigue.”

We started on our usual brisk roundabout walk to the apartment. But instead of going to bed, Kennedy drew a book from the bookcase.

“I shall read myself to sleep to-night,” he explained, settling deeply in his chair.

As for me, I went directly to my room, planning that to-morrow I would take several hours off and catch up in my notes.

That morning Kennedy was summoned downtown and had to interrupt more important duties in order to appear before Dr. Leslie in the coroner’s inquest over the death of the chef. Dr. Lord was held for the Grand Jury, but it was not until nearly noon that Craig returned.

We were just about to go out to luncheon, when the door buzzer sounded.

“A note for Mr. Kennedy,” announced a man in a police uniform, with a blue anchor edged with white on his coat sleeve.

Craig tore open the envelope quickly with his forefinger. Headed “Harbour Police, Station No. 3, Staten Island,” was an urgent message from our old friend Deputy Commissioner O’Connor.

“I have taken personal charge of a case here that is sufficiently out of the ordinary to interest you,” I read when Kennedy tossed the note over to me and nodded to the man from the harbour squad to wait for us. “The Curtis family wish to retain a private detective to work in conjunction with the police in investigating the death of Bertha Curtis, whose body was found this morning in the waters of Kill van Kull.”

Kennedy and I lost no time in starting downtown with the policeman who had brought the note.

The Curtises, as we knew, were among the prominent families of Manhattan and I recalled having heard that at one time Bertha Curtis had been an actress, in spite of the means and social position of her family, from whom she had become estranged as a result.

At the station of the harbour police, O’Connor and another man, who was in a state of extreme excitement, greeted us almost before we had landed.

“There have been some queer doings about here,” exclaimed the deputy as he grasped Kennedy’s hand, “but first of all let me introduce Mr. Walker Curtis.”

In a lower tone as we walked up the dock O’Connor continued, “He is the brother of the girl whose body the men in the launch at the station found in the Kill this morning. They thought at first that the girl had committed suicide, making it doubly sure by jumping into the water, but he will not believe it and,–well, if you’ll just come over with us to the local undertaking establishment, I’d like to have you take a look at the body and see if your opinion coincides with mine.

“Ordinarily,” pursued O’Connor, “there isn’t much romance in harbour police work nowadays, but in this case some other elements seem to be present which are not usually associated with violent deaths in the waters of the bay, and I have, as you will see, thought it necessary to take personal charge of the investigation.

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“Now, to shorten the story as much as possible, Kennedy, you know of course that the legislature at the last session enacted laws prohibiting the sale of such drugs as opium, morphine, cocaine, chloral and others, under much heavier penalties than before. The Health authorities not long ago reported to us that dope was being sold almost openly, without orders from physicians, at several scores of places and we have begun a crusade for the enforcement of the law. Of course you know how prohibition works in many places and how the law is beaten. The dope fiends seem to be doing the same thing with this law.

“Of course nowadays everybody talks about a ‘system’ controlling everything, so I suppose people would say that there is a ‘dope trust.’ At any rate we have run up against at least a number of places that seem to be banded together in some way, from the lowest down in Chinatown to one very swell joint uptown around what the newspapers are calling ‘Crime Square.’ It is not that this place is pandering to criminals or the women of the Tenderloin that interests us so much as that its patrons are men and women of fashionable society whose jangled nerves seem to demand a strong narcotic.

“This particular place seems to be a headquarters for obtaining them, especially opium and its derivatives.

“One of the frequenters of the place was this unfortunate girl, Bertha Curtis. I have watched her go in and out myself, wild-eyed, nervous, mentally and physically wrecked for life. Perhaps twenty- five or thirty persons visit the place each day. It is run by a man known as ‘Big Jack’ Clendenin who was once an actor and, I believe, met and fascinated Miss Curtis during her brief career on the stage. He has an attendant there, a Jap, named Nichi Moto, who is a perfect enigma. I can’t understand him on any reasonable theory. A long time ago we raided the place and packed up a lot of opium, pipes, material and other stuff. We found Clendenin there, this girl, several others, and the Jap. I never understood just how it was but somehow Clendenin got off with a nominal fine and a few days later opened up again. We were watching the place, getting ready to raid it again and present such evidence that Clendenin couldn’t possibly beat it, when all of a sudden along came this–this tragedy.”

We had at last arrived at the private establishment which was doing duty as a morgue. The bedraggled form that had been bandied about by the tides all night lay covered up in the cold damp basement. Bertha Curtis had been a girl of striking beauty once. For a long time I gazed at the swollen features before I realised what it was that fascinated and puzzled me about her. Kennedy, however, after a casual glance had arrived at at least a part of her story.

“That girl,” he whispered to me so that her brother could not hear, “has led a pretty fast life. Look at those nails, yellow and dark. It isn’t a weak face, either. I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole thing, the Oriental glamour and all that, fascinated her as much as the drug.”

So far the case with its heartrending tragedy had all the earmarks of suicide.

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