Jack London’s short stories in the Post concerned adventurers, criminals, workingmen, society folks, and — sometimes — wild animals. In “The Benefit of the Doubt,” from 1910, a class-concerned sociologist gets a hands-on lesson in justice and corruption when he ducks in to the wrong dive bar in his hometown.
Published on November 12, 1910
With a current magazine under his arm, Carter Watson strolled slowly along, gazing about him curiously. Twenty years had elapsed since he had been on this particular street, and the changes were great and stupefying. This Western city of three hundred thousand souls had contained but thirty thousand when, as a boy, he had been wont to ramble along its streets. In those days the street he was now on had been a quiet residence street in the respectable working-class quarter. On this late afternoon he found that it had been submerged by a vast and vicious tenderloin. Chinese and Japanese shops and dens abounded, all confusedly intermingled with low bars and boozing kens. This quiet street of his youth had become the toughest quarter of the city.
He looked at his watch. It was half past five. It was the slack time of the day in such a region, as he well knew, yet he was curious to see. In all his score of years of wandering and studying social conditions over the world he had carried with him the memory of his old town as a sweet and wholesome place. The metamorphosis he now beheld was startling. He certainly must continue his stroll and glimpse the infamy to which his town had descended.
Another thing: Carter Watson had a keen social and civic consciousness. Independently wealthy, he had been loath to dissipate his energies in the pink teas and freak dinners of society, while actresses, race-horses and kindred diversions had left him cold. He had the ethical bee in his bonnet and was a reformer of no mean pretension, though his work had been mainly in the line of contributions to the heavier reviews and quarterlies and to the publication over his name of brightly, cleverly written books on the working classes and the alum-dwellers. Among the twenty-seven to his credit occurred titles such as, If Christ Came to New Orleans, The Worked-Out Worker, Tenement Reform in Berlin, The Rural Slums of England, The People of the East Side, Reform Versus Revolution, The University Settlement as a Hotbed of Radicalism and The Cave Man of Civilization.
But Carter Watson was neither morbid nor fanatic. He did not lose his head over the horrors he encountered, studied and exposed. No hare-brained enthusiasm branded him. His humor saved him, as did his wide experience and his conservative, philosophic temperament. Nor did he have any patience with lightning-change reform theories. As he saw it, society would grow better only through the painfully slow and arduously painful processes of evolution. There were no short cuts, no sudden regenerations. The betterment of mankind must be worked out in agony and misery just as all past social betterments had been worked out.
But on this late summer afternoon Carter Watson was curious. As he moved along he paused before a gaudy drinking place. The sign above read, The Vendome. There were two entrances. One evidently led to the bar. This he did not explore. The other was a narrow hallway. Passing through this he found himself in a huge room filled with chair-encircled tables and quite deserted. In the dim light he discerned a piano in the distance. Making a mental note that he would come back some time and study the class of persons that must sit and drink at those multitudinous tables, he proceeded to circumnavigate the room.
Now at the rear a short hallway led off to a small kitchen, and here, at a table, alone, sat Patsy Horan, proprietor of The Vendome, consuming a hasty supper ere the evening rush of business. Also, Patsy Horan was angry with the world. He had got out on the wrong side of bed that morning, and nothing had gone right all day. Had his barkeepers been asked, they would have described his mental condition as a grouch. But Carter Watson did not know this. As he passed the little hallway Patsy Horan’s sullen eyes lighted on the magazine he carried under his arm. Patsy did not know Carter Watson, nor did he know that what he carried under his arm was a magazine. Patsy, out of the depths of his grouch, decided that this stranger was one of those pests who marred and scarred the walls of his back rooms by tacking up or pasting up advertisements. The color on the front cover of the magazine convinced him that it was such an advertisement. Thus the trouble began. Knife and fork in hand, Patsy leaped for Carter Watson.
“Out wid yeh!” Patsy bellowed. “I know yer game!”
Carter Watson was startled. The man had come upon him like the eruption of a jack-in-the-box.
“Adefacin’ me walls,” cried Patsy, at the same time emitting a string of vivid and vile, rather than virile, epithets of opprobrium.
“If I have given any offense, I did not mean to — ”
“But that was as far as the visitor got. Patsy interrupted.
“Get out wid yeh; yeh talk too much wid yer mouth!” quoth Patsy, emphasizing his remarks with flourishes of the knife and fork.
Carter Watson caught a quick vision of that eating fork inserted uncomfortably between his ribs, knew that it would be rash to talk further with his mouth, and promptly turned to go. The sight of his meekly retreating back must have further enraged Patsy Horan, for that worthy, dropping the table implements, sprang upon him.
Patsy weighed one hundred and eighty pounds. So did Watson. In this they were equal. But Patsy was a rushing, rough-and-tumble saloon fighter, while Watson was a boxer. In this the latter had the advantage, for Patsy came in wide open, swinging his right in a perilous sweep. All Watson had to do was to straight-left him and escape. But Watson had another advantage. His boxing and his experience in the slums and ghettos of the world had taught him restraint.
He pivoted on his feet and, instead of striking, ducked the other’s swinging blow and went into a clinch. But Patsy, charging like a bull, had the momentum of his rush, while Watson, whirling to meet him, had no momentum. As a result, the pair of them went down with all their three hundred and sixty pounds of weight, in a long, crashing fall, Watson underneath. He lay with his head touching the rear wall of the large room. The street was a hundred and fifty feet away, and he did some quick thinking. His first thought was to avoid trouble. He had no wish to get into the papers of this his childhood town where many of his relatives and family friends still lived.
So it was that he locked his arms around the man on top of him, held him close and waited for the help to come that must come in response to the crash of the fall. The help came — that is, six men ran in from the bar and formed about in a semicircle.
“Take him off, fellows!” Watson said. “I haven’t struck him, and I don’t want any fight.”
But the semicircle remained silent. Watson held on and waited. Patsy, after various vain efforts to inflict damage, made an overture.
“Leggo o’ me an’ I’ll get off o’ yeh,” said he.
Watson let go, but when Patsy scrambled to his feet he stood over his recumbent foe ready to strike.
“Get up!” Patsy commanded.
His voice was stern and implacable, like the voice of one calling to judgment, and Watson knew there was no mercy there.
“Stand back and I’ll get up,” he countered.
“If yer a gentleman get up,” quoth Patsy, his Celtic eyes aflame with wrath, his fist ready for a crushing blow.
At the same moment he drew his foot back to kick the other in the face. Watson blocked the kick with his crossed arms and sprang to his feet so quickly that he was in a clinch with his antagonist before the latter could strike. Holding him, Watson spoke to the onlookers.
“Take him away from me, fellows. You see I am not striking him. I don’t want to fight. I want to get out of here.”
The circle did not move or speak. Its silence was ominous and sent a chill to Watson’s heart. Patsy made an effort to throw him, which culminated in his putting Patsy on his back. Tearing loose from him, Watson sprang to his feet and made for the door. But the circle of men was interposed like a wall. He noticed the white, pasty faces, the kind that never see the sun, and knew that the men who barred his way were the night prowlers and preying beasts of the city jungle. By them he was thrust back upon the pursuing, bull-rushing Patsy.
Again it was a clinch, in which, in momentary safety, Watson appealed to the gang. And again his words fell on deaf ears. Then it was that he knew fear. For he had known of many similar situations in low dens like this, when solitary men were manhandled, their ribs and features caved in, themselves beaten and kicked to death. And he knew further that if he were to escape he must neither strike his assailant nor any of the men who opposed him.
Yet in him was righteous indignation. Under no circumstance could seven to one be fair. Also, he was angry, and there stirred in him the fighting beast that is in all men. But he remembered his wife and children, his unfinished book, the ten thousand rolling acres of the up-country ranch he loved so well. He even saw in flashing visions the blue of the sky, the golden sun pouring down on his flower-spangled meadows, the lazy cattle knee-deep in the brooks, and the flash of trout in the riffles. Life was good — too good for him to risk it for a moment’s sway of the beast. In short, Carter Watson was cool and scared.
His opponent, locked by his masterly clinch, was striving to throw him. Again Watson put him on the floor, broke away, and was thrust back by the pasty-faced circle to duck Patsy’s swinging right and effect another clinch. This happened many times. And Watson grew even cooler, while the baffled Patsy, unable to inflict punishment, raged wildly and more wildly. He took to batting with his head in the clinches. The first time, he landed his forehead flush on Watson’s nose. After that the latter, in the clinches, buried his face in Patsy’s breast. But the enraged Patsy batted on, striking his own eye and nose and cheek on the top of the other’s head. The more he was thus injured the more and the harder did Patsy bat.
This one-sided contest continued for twelve minutes. Watson never struck a blow and strove only to escape. Sometimes, in the free moments, circling about among the tables as he tried to win the door, the pasty-faced men gripped his coat-tails and flung him back at the swinging right of the on-rushing Patsy. Time upon time and times without end he clinched and put Patsy on his back, each time first whirling him around and putting him down in the direction of the door and gaining toward that goal by the length of the fall.
In the end, hatless, disheveled, with streaming nose and one eye closed, Watson won to the sidewalk and into the arms of a policeman.
“Arrest that man!” Watson panted.
“Hello, Patsy!” said the policeman. “What’s the mix-up?”
“Hello, Charley!” was the answer. “This guy comes in — ”
“Arrest that man, officer!” Watson repeated.
“G’wan! Beat it!” said Patsy.
“Beat it!” added the policeman. “If you don’t I’ll pull you in.”
“Not unless you arrest that man. He has committed a violent and unprovoked assault on me.”
“Is it so, Patsy?” was the officer’s query.
“Nah. Lemme tell you, Charley, an’ I got the witnesses to prove it, so help me God. I was settin’ in me kitchen eatin’ a bowl of soup, when this guy comes in an’ gets gay wid me. I never seen him in me born days before. He was drunk f — ”
“Look at me, officer,” protested the indignant sociologist. “Am I drunk?”
The officer looked at him with sullen, menacing eyes and nodded to Patsy to continue.
“This guy gets gay wid me. ‘I’m Tim McGrath,’ says he, ‘an’ I can do the likes of you,’ says he. ‘Put up yer hands.’ I smiles an’, wid that, bill, bill, he lands me twice an’ spills me soup. Look at me eye. I’m fair murdered.”
“What are you going to do, officer?” Watson demanded.
“Go on, beat it,” was the answer, “or I’ll pull you sure!”
Then the civic righteousness of Carter Watson flamed up.
“Mr. Officer, I protest — ”
But at that moment the policeman grabbed his arm with a savage jerk that nearly overthrew him.
“Come on, you’re pulled!”
“Arrest him, too!” Watson demanded.
“Nix on that play,” was the reply. “What did you assault him for, him apeacefully eatin’ his soup?”
Carter Watson was genuinely angry. Not only had he been wantonly assaulted, badly battered and arrested, but the morning papers without exception came out with lurid accounts of his drunken brawl with the proprietor of the notorious Vendome.
Not one accurate or truthful line was published. Patsy Horan and his satellites described the battle in detail. The one incontestable thing was that Carter Watson had been drunk. Thrice he had been thrown out of the place and into the gutter, and thrice he had come back, breathing blood and fire and announcing that he was going to clean out the place.
EMINENT SOCIOLOGIST JAGGED AND JUGGED
was the first headline he read on the front page, accompanied by a large portrait of himself. Other headlines were:
CARTER WATSON ASPIRED TO CHAMPIONSHIP HONORS
CARTER WATSON GETS HIS
NOTED SOCIOLOGIST ATTEMPTS TO CLEAN OUT A TENDERLOIN CAFE
CARTER WATSON KNOCKED OUT BY PATSY HORAN IN THREE ROUNDS
At the police court next morning, under bail, appeared Carter Watson to answer the complaint of the People versus Carter Watson for the latter’s assault and battery on one Patsy Horan. But first the prosecuting attorney, who was paid to prosecute all offenders against the People, drew him aside and talked with him privately.
“Why not let it drop?” said the prosecuting attorney. “I tell you what you do, Mr. Watson. Shake hands with Mr. Horan and we’ll drop the case right here. A word to the judge and the case against you will be dismissed.”
“But I don’t want it dismissed,” was the answer. “Your office being what it is, you should be prosecuting me instead of asking me to make up with this — this fellow.”
“Oh, I’ll prosecute you all right,” retorted the other.
“Also you will have to prosecute this Patsy Horan,” Watson advised; “for I shall now have him arrested for assault and battery.”
“You’d better shake and make up,” the prosecuting attorney repeated, with a threat in his voice.
The trials of both men were set for a week later, on the same morning, in Police Judge Witberg’s court.
“You have no chance,” Watson was told by an old friend of his boyhood, the retired manager of the biggest paper in the city. “Everybody knows you were beaten up by this man. His reputation is most unsavory. But it won’t help you in the least. Both cases will be dismissed. This will be because you are you. Any ordinary man would be convicted.”
“But I do not understand,” objected the perplexed sociologist. “Without warning I was attacked by this man and badly beaten. I did not strike a blow. I — ”
“That has nothing to do with it,” the other cut him off.
“Then what is there that has anything to do with it?”
“I’ll tell you. You are now up against the local police and political machine. Who are you? You are not even a legal resident in this town. You live up in the country. You haven’t a vote of your own here. Much less do you swing any votes. This dive proprietor swings a string of votes in his precinct — a mighty long string.”
“Do you mean to tell me that this Judge Witberg will violate the sacredness of his office and oath by letting this brute off?” Watson demanded.
“Watch him,” was the grim reply. “Oh, he’ll do it nicely enough! He will give an extra-legal, extra-judicial decision abounding in every word in the dictionary that stands for fairness and right.”
“But there are the newspapers,” Watson cried.
“They are not fighting the administration at present. They’ll give it to you hard. You see what they have already done to you.”
“Then these snips of boys on the police detail won’t write the truth.”
“They will write something so near like the truth that the public will believe it. They write their stories under instruction, you know. They have their orders to twist and color, and there won’t be much left of you when they get done. Better drop the whole thing right now. You are in bad.”
“But the trials are set.”
“Give the word and they’ll drop them now. A man can’t fight a machine unless he has a machine behind him — and shall I tell you a secret? Judge Witberg pays the taxes on Patsy Horan’s resort.”
“You don’t mean it?”
“No, I don’t. I am just telling you.”
But Carter Watson was stubborn. He was convinced that the machine would beat him, but all his days he had sought social experience, and this was certainly something new.
The morning of the trial the prosecuting attorney made another attempt to patch up the affair.
“If you feel that way I should like to get a lawyer to prosecute the case,” said Watson.
“No, you don’t!” said the prosecuting attorney. “I am paid by the People to prosecute, and prosecute I will. But let me tell you: You have no chance. We shall lump both cases into one, and you watch out!”
Judge Witberg looked good to Watson. He was a fairly young man, with an intelligent face, smiling lips and wrinkles of laughter in the corners of his black eyes. Looking at him and studying him, Watson felt almost sure that his old friend’s prognostication was wrong.
But Watson was soon to learn. Patsy Horan and the two of his satellites testified to a most colossal aggregation of perjuries. Watson could not have believed it possible without having experienced it. They denied the existence of the other four men. And of the two that testified, one claimed to have been in the kitchen, a witness to Watson’s unprovoked assault on Patsy, while the other, remaining in the bar, had witnessed Watson’s second and third rushes into the place as he attempted to annihilate the unoffending Patsy. The vile language ascribed to Watson was so voluminously and unspeakably vile that he felt they were injuring their own case — it was so impossible that he should utter such things. But when they described the brutal blows he had rained on poor Patsy’s face, and the chair he demolished when he vainly attempted to kick Patsy, Watson waxed secretly hilarious and at the same time sad. The trial was a farce; but such lowness of life was depressing to contemplate when he considered the long upward climb humanity must make.
Watson could not recognize himself, nor could his worst enemy have recognized him, in the swashbuckling, roughhousing picture that was painted of him. But, as in all cases of complicated perjury, rifts and contradictions in the various stories appeared. The judge somehow failed to notice them, while the prosecuting attorney and Patsy’s attorney shied off from them gracefully. Watson had not bothered to get a lawyer for himself, and he was now glad that he had not.
Still, he retained a semblance of faith in Judge Witberg when he went himself on the stand and started to tell his story.
“I was strolling casually along the street, your Honor,” Watson began, but was interrupted by the judge.
“We are not here to consider your previous actions,” bellowed Judge Witberg. “Who struck the first blow?”
“Your Honor,” Watson pleaded, “I have no witnesses of the actual fray, and the truth of my story can only be brought out by telling the story fully — ”
Again he was interrupted.
“We do not care to publish any magazines here,” Judge Witberg roared, looking at him so fiercely and malevolently that Watson could scarcely bring himself to believe that this was the same man he had studied a few minutes previously.
“Who struck the first blow?” Patsy’s attorney asked.
The prosecuting attorney interposed, demanding to know which of the two cases lumped together this was, and by what right Patsy’s lawyer, at that stage of the proceedings, should take the witness. Patsy’s attorney fought back. Judge Witberg interfered, professing no knowledge of any two cases being lumped together. All this had to be explained. Battle royal raged, terminating in both attorneys apologizing to the court and to each other. And so it went, and to Watson it had the seeming of a group of pickpockets ruffling and bustling an honest man as they took his purse. The machine was working, that was all.
“Why did you enter this place of unsavory reputation?” was asked him.
“It has been my custom for many years, as a student of economics and sociology, to acquaint myself — ”
But this was as far as Watson got.
“We want none of your ologies here,” snarled Judge Witberg. “It is a plain question. Answer it plainly. Is it true or not true that you were drunk? That is the gist of the question.”
When Watson attempted to tell how Patsy had injured his face in his attempts to bat with his head, Watson was openly scouted and flouted, and Judge Witberg again took him in hand.
“Are you aware of the solemnity of the oath you took to testify to nothing but the truth on this witness stand?” the judge demanded. “This is a fairy story you are telling. It is not reasonable that a man would so injure himself, and continue to injure himself, by striking the soft and sensitive parts of his face against your head. You are a sensible man. It is unreasonable, is it not?”
“Men are unreasonable when they are angry,” Watson answered meekly.
Then it was that Judge Witberg was deeply outraged and righteously wrathful.
“What right have you to say that?” he cried. “It is gratuitous. It has no bearing on the case. You are here as a witness, sir, of events that have transpired. The court does not wish to hear any expressions of opinion from you at all.”
“I but answered your question, your Honor,” Watson protested humbly.
“You did nothing of the sort,” was the next blast. “And let me warn you, sir, let me warn you that you are laying yourself liable to contempt by such insolence. And I will have you know that we know how to observe the law and the rules of courtesy down here in this little courtroom. I am ashamed of you.”
And, while the next punctilious legal wrangle between the attorneys interrupted his tale of what happened in the Vendome, Carter Watson, without bitterness, amused and at the same time sad, saw rise before him the machines, large and small, that dominated his country, the unpunished and shameless grafts of a thousand cities perpetrated by the spidery and verminlike creatures of the machines. Here it was before him, a courtroom and a judge bowed down in subservience by the machine to a divekeeper who swung a string of votes. Petty and sordid as it was, it was one face of the many-faced machine that loomed colossally in every city and state, in a thousand guises overshadowing the land.
A familiar phrase rang in his ears: “It is to laugh.” At the height of the wrangle he giggled once aloud, and earned a sullen frown from Judge Witberg. Worse a myriad times, he decided, were these bullying lawyers and this bullying judge than the bucko mates in first-quality hellships, who not only did their own bullying but protected themselves as well. These petty rapscallions, on the other hand, sought protection behind the majesty of the law. They struck, but no one was permitted to strike back, for behind them were the prison cells and the clubs of the stupid policemen — paid and professional fighters and beaters-up of men. Yet he was not bitter. The grossness of it was forgotten in the simple grotesqueness of it.
Nevertheless, hectored and heckled though he was, he managed in the end to give a simple, straightforward version of the affair, and despite a belligerent cross-examination his story was not shaken in any particular. Quite different it was from the perjuries of Patsy.
Both Patsy’s attorney and the prosecuting attorney rested their cases, letting everything go before the court without argument. Watson protested against this, but was silenced when the prosecuting attorney told him that he was the public prosecutor and knew his business.
“Patrick Horan has testified that he was in danger of his life and that he was compelled to defend himself,” Judge Witberg’s verdict began. “Mr. Watson has testified to the same thing. Each has sworn that the other struck the first blow; each has sworn that the other made an unprovoked assault on him. It is an axiom of the law that the defendant should be given the benefit of the doubt. A very reasonable doubt exists. Therefore, in the case of the People versus Carter Watson the benefit of the doubt is given to said Carter Watson and he is herewith ordered discharged from custody. The same reasoning applies to the case of the People versus Patrick Horan. He is given the benefit of the doubt and discharged from custody. My recommendation is that both defendants shake hands and make up.”
In the afternoon papers the first headline that caught Watson’s eye was:
CARTER WATSON ACQUITTED
In the second paper it was:
CARTER WATSON ESCAPES A FINE
But what capped everything was the one beginning:
CARTER WATSON A GOOD FELLOW
In the text he read how Judge Witberg had advised both fighters to shake hands, which they promptly did. Further, he read:
“‘Let’s have a nip on it,’ said Patsy Horan.
“‘Sure!’ said Carter Watson.
“And arm in arm they ambled to the nearest saloon.”
Now from the whole adventure Watson carried away no bitterness. It was a social experience of a new order and it led to the writing of another book, which he entitled Police Court Procedure: A Tentative Analysis.
One summer morning a year later, on his ranch, he left his horse and clambered through a miniature canyon to inspect the rock ferns he had planted the previous winter. Emerging from the upper end of the canyon he came out on one of his flower-spangled meadows, a delightful, isolated spot screened from the world by low hills and clumps of trees. And here he found a man, evidently on a stroll from the summer hotel down at the little town a mile away. They met face to face and the recognition was mutual. It was Judge Witberg. Also it was a clear case of trespass, for Watson had trespass signs up on his boundaries, though he never enforced them.
Judge Witberg held out his hand, which Watson refused to see.
“Politics is a dirty trade, isn’t it, Judge?” he remarked. “Oh, yes! I see your hand, but I don’t care to take it. The papers said I shook hands with Patsy Horan after the trial. You know I didn’t; but let me tell you that I’d a thousand times rather shake hands with him and his vile following of curs than with you.”
Judge Witberg was painfully flustered, and as he hemmed and hawed and essayed to speak, Watson, looking at him, was struck by a sudden whim, and he determined on a grim and facetious antic.
“I should scarcely expect any animus from a man of your acquirements and knowledge of the world,” the judge was saying.
“Animus?” Watson replied. “Certainly not. I haven’t such a thing in my nature. And to prove it let me show you something curious, something you have never seen before.” Casting about him, Watson picked up a rough stone the size of his fist. “See this? Watch me.”
So saying, Carter Watson tapped himself a sharp blow on the cheek. The stone laid the flesh open and the blood spurted forth.
“The stone was too sharp,” he announced to the astounded police judge, who thought he had gone mad. “I must bruise it a trifle. There is nothing like being realistic in such matters.”
Whereupon Carter Watson found a smooth stone and with it pounded his cheek nicely several times.
“Ah!” he cooed. “That will turn beautifully green and black in a few hours. It will be most convincing.”
“You are insane,” Judge Witberg quavered.
“Don’t use such vile language to me,” said Watson. “You see my bruised and bleeding face? You did that with that right hand of yours. You hit me twice — biff, biff. It is a brutal and unprovoked assault. I am in danger of my life. I must protect myself.”
Judge Witberg backed away in alarm before the menacing fists of the other.
“If you strike me I’ll have you arrested,” Judge Witberg threatened.
“That is what I told Patsy,” was the answer. “And do you know what he did when I told him that?”
And at the same moment Watson’s right fist landed flush on Judge Witberg’s nose, putting that legal gentleman over on his back on the grass.
“Get up!” commanded Watson. “If you are a gentleman, get up — that’s what Patsy told me, you know.”
Judge Witberg declined to rise, and was dragged to his feet by the coat-collar, only to have one eye blacked and be put on his back again. After that it was a red Indian massacre. Judge Witberg was humanely and scientifically beaten up. His cheeks were boxed, his ears cuffed, and his face was rubbed in the turf. And all the time Watson exposited the way Patsy Horan had done it. Occasionally and very carefully the facetious sociologist administered a real bruising blow. Once, dragging the poor judge to his feet, he deliberately bumped his own nose on the gentleman’s head. The nose promptly bled.
“See that!” cried Watson, stepping back and deftly shedding his blood all down his own shirtfront. “You did it. With your fist you did it. It is awful. I am fair murdered. I must again defend myself.”
And once more Judge Witberg impacted his features on a fist and was sent down to grass.
“I will have you arrested,” he sobbed as he lay.
“That’s what Patsy said.”
“A brutal [sniff, sniff] and unprovoked [sniff, sniff] assault.”
“That’s what Patsy said.”
“I will surely have you arrested.”
“Speaking slangily, not if I can beat you to it.”
And with that Carter Watson departed down the canyon, mounted his horse and rode to town.
An hour later as Judge Witberg limped up the grounds to his hotel he was arrested by a village constable on a charge of assault and battery preferred by Carter Watson.
“Your honor,” Watson said next day to the village justice, a well-to-do farmer and graduate thirty years before from a cow college, “since this Sol Witberg has seen fit to charge me with battery, following upon my charge of battery against him, I would suggest that both cases be lumped together. The testimony and the facts are the same in both cases.”
To this the justice agreed, and the double case proceeded. Watson, as prosecuting witness, first took the stand and told his story.
“I was picking flowers,” he testified — “picking flowers on my own land, never dreaming of danger. Suddenly this man rushed upon me from behind the trees. ‘I am the Dodo,’ he says, ‘and I can do you to a frazzle. Put up your hands.’ I smiled; but, with that, biff, biff, he struck me, knocking me down and spilling my flowers. The language he used was frightful. It was an unprovoked and brutal assault. Look at my cheek. Look at my nose. I could not understand it. He must have been drunk. Before I recovered from my surprise he had administered this beating. I was in danger of my life and was compelled to defend myself. That is all, your Honor, though I must say in conclusion that I cannot get over my perplexity. Why did he say he was the Dodo? Why did he so wantonly attack me?”
And thus was Sol Witberg given a liberal education in the art of perjury. Often from his high seat he had listened indulgently to police court perjuries in cooked-up cases; but for the first time perjury was directed against him, and he no longer sat above the court, with bailiffs, the policemen’s clubs and prison cells behind him.
“Your Honor,” he cried, “never have I heard such a pack of lies told by so barefaced a liar — ”
Watson here sprang to his feet.
“Your Honor, I protest. It is for your Honor to decide truth or falsehood. The witness is on the stand to testify to actual events that have occurred. His personal opinion upon things in general and upon me has no bearing on the case whatever.”
The justice scratched his head and waxed phlegmatically indignant.
“The point is well taken,” he decided. “I am surprised at you, Mr. Witberg, claiming to be a judge and skilled in the practice of the law, and yet being guilty of such unlawyerlike conduct. Your manner, sir, and your methods remind me of a shyster. This is a simple case of assault and battery. We are here to determine who struck the first blow, and we are not interested in your estimates of Mr. Watson’s personal character. Proceed with your story.”
Sol Witberg would have bitten his bruised and swollen lip in chagrin had it not hurt so much. But he contained himself and told a simple, straightforward, truthful story.
“Your Honor,” Watson said, “I would suggest that you ask him what he was doing on my premises.”
“A very good question. What were you doing, sir, on Mr. Watson’s premises?”
“I did not know they were his premises.”
“It was a trespass, your Honor,” Watson cried. “The warnings are posted conspicuously.”
“I saw no warnings,” said Sol Witberg.
“I have seen them myself,” snapped the justice. “They are very conspicuous. And I would warn you, sir, that if you palter with the truth in such little matters you may darken your more important statements with suspicion. Why did you strike Mr. Watson?”
“Your Honor, as I have testified, I did not strike a blow.”
The justice looked at Carter Watson’s bruised and swollen visage, and turned to glare at Sol Witberg.
“Look at that man’s cheek!” he thundered. “If you did not strike a blow how comes it that he is so disfigured and injured?”
“As I testified — ”
“Be careful,” the justice warned.
“I will be careful, sir. I will say nothing but the truth. He struck himself with a rock. He struck himself with two rocks.”
“Does it stand to reason that a man, any man not a lunatic, would so injure himself and continue to injure himself by striking the soft and sensitive parts of his face with a stone?” interposed Watson.
“It sounds like a fairy story,” was the justice’s comment. “Mr. Witberg, had you been drinking?”
“Do you ever drink?”
The justice meditated on this answer with an air of astute profundity.
Watson took advantage of the opportunity to wink at Sol Witberg, but that much-abused gentleman saw nothing humorous in the situation.
“A very peculiar case, a very peculiar case,” the justice announced as he began his verdict. “The evidence of the two parties is flatly contradictory. There are no witnesses outside the two principals. Each claims the other committed the assault, and I have no legal way of determining the truth. But I have my private opinion, Mr. Witberg, and I would recommend that henceforth you keep off of Mr. Watson’s premises and keep away from this section of the country — ”
“This is an outrage!” Sol Witberg blurted out.
“Sit down, sir!” was the justice’s thundered command. “If you interrupt the court in this manner again I shall fine you for contempt. And I warn you I shall fine you heavily — you, a judge yourself, who should be conversant with the courtesy and dignity of courts. I shall now give my verdict:
“It is a rule of law that the defendant shall be given the benefit of the doubt. As I have said, and I repeat, there is no legal way for me to determine who struck the first blow. Therefore, and much to my regret” — here he paused and glared at Sol Witberg — “in each of these cases I am compelled to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt. Gentlemen, you are both dismissed.”
“Let us have a nip on it,” Watson said to Witberg as they left the courtroom; but that outraged person refused to lock arms and amble to the nearest saloon.
Illustrated by P.V.E. Ivory (©SEPS)
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Featured image: Norman Rockwell / SEPS
When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. His detective stories sold all over the globe, especially those with his most famous defense attorney protagonist, Perry Mason. His no-nonsense prose and neat, satisfying endings delighted detective fans for decades. Gardner wrote several stories that were serialized in the Post. In Country Gentleman, his 1936 serial “The Thread of Truth” follows a fresh D.A. in a clergyman murder case that comes on his first day on the job.
Published on October 1, 1936
District Attorney Douglas Selby and Sheriff Rex Brandon, both newly elected in a bitter campaign which swept Sam Roper and his henchman out of authority in Madison City, agreed that they must not muff their first important case. For while The Clarion, and incidentally the lovely young reporter, Sylvia Martin, were loyally supporting Selby, the opposition newspaper, The Blade, was alert for a chance to blast the fighting young newcomer into disgrace.
The death of Rev. Charles Brower, apparently of an overdose of sleeping potion, in Room 321 of the Madison Hotel did not look like an important case. Sleek George Cushing, manager of the hotel, insisted that the little minister had died a natural death. Selby thought so, too, until Mrs. Charles Brower arrived to declare positively that the man was not her husband. Yet the minister’s effects included many things identifying him as Charles Brower, including an unfinished letter in his portable typewriter addressed to the wife, who was repudiating him.
There were also in the dead man’s belongings an expensive camera; a sheaf of clippings about Shirley Arden, famous actress of Hollywood, less than one hundred miles away; and another batch of clippings concerning litigation in the Madison City courts over the Perry estate.
Who was the little minister, if he were not Charles Brower? Douglas Selby set out to find the answer. He discovered that the impoverished minister had left, in the hotel safe, a rose-perfumed envelope containing five thousand dollars. He discovered that Shirley Arden, incognito, had occupied a fifth-floor room, from which Selby himself had seen the minister emerge on the day before his death. And then — the examining physician reported the cause of death — a murderous dose of morphine.
Selby rang Sheriff Brandon on the telephone and said, “Have you heard Trueman’s report on that Brower case?”
“Yes, I just talked with him. What do you think of it?”
“I think it’s murder.”
“Listen, Doug,” Rex said, “we’ve got to work fast on this thing. The Blade will start riding us.”
“That’s all right. We’ve got to expect to be roasted once in a while. But let’s chase down all the clues and see if we can’t keep one jump ahead of the knockers. Did you get in touch with the San Francisco optician?”
“Yes, I sent him a wire.”
“Better get him on the telephone and see if you can speed things up any. He may be able to give us some information. Now, here’s another thing. Room 323 had been rented to a Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith, of Hollywood. I told Cushing to get their address from the register. I wish you’d get that information; telephone the Hollywood police station and see if you can get a line on the couple. If you can’t, wire the motor-vehicle department and find out if a Leslie Smith, of Hollywood. owns an automobile, and get his residence from the registration certificate. Also, see if a Leslie Smith had a car stored in one of the garages near the hotel.”
“Of course,” the sheriff pointed out, “he might have been using a fictitious name.”
“Try it, anyway,” Selby said. “Let’s go through the facts in this case with a fine-tooth comb. They can’t expect us to be infallible, Rex. Lots of murders are never solved, even in cities where they have the most efficient police forces. What we have to guard against is slipping up on some little fact where a Blade reporter can give us the horselaugh. Figure the position we’ll be in if The Blade solves this murder while we’re still groping around in the dark.”
“I get you,” Brandon said grimly. “Leave it to me. I’ll turn things upside down and inside out.”
“One other thing,” Selby said. “When you get George Cushing in the sweatbox, he’ll probably give you some information about a certain picture actress who was in the hotel. You don’t need to bother about that. We don’t want any publicity on it right at the present time, and I’ve been in touch with her manager. They’re going to be up here at eight o’clock tonight at my office. I’ll find out if there’s anything to it and let you know. You’d better arrange to sit in on the conference.”
“Okay,” Brandon said, “I’ll get busy. You stick around and I’ll probably have something for you inside of half an hour.”
As the district attorney hung up the telephone his secretary brought him a telegram from the chief of police of Millbank, Nevada.
ANSWERING YOUR WIRE MARY BROWER FIVE FEET FOUR INCHES WEIGHT ONE HUNDRED SIXTY POUNDS AGE AS GIVEN TO REGISTRATION AUTHORITIES FIFTY-TWO RESIDES SIX THIRTEEN CENTER STREET THIS CITY LAST SEEN LEAVING FOR RENO TO TAKE PLANE FOR LOS ANGELES REPORTED TO FRIENDS HUSBAND HAD DIED IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WAS WEARING BROWN SUIT BROWN GLOVES AND DARK BROWN COAT TRIMMED WITH FOX FUR STOP CHARLES BROWER ECCENTRIC PASTOR NO DENOMINATION CONDUCTED STREET SERVICES FOR YEARS THIS CITY AND DENVER WORKED WITH DELINQUENTS AND UNFORTUNATES STOP RECENTLY HAS BEEN SOLICITING FUNDS FROM BUSINESSMEN AND OTHERS TO ERECT NONDENOMINATIONAL CHURCH STOP LARGEST CONTRIBUTOR WAS STOCKBROKER IN DENVER WHO HAD KNOWN BROWER FOR YEARS BECAME FINANCIALLY INVOLVED THROUGH UNFORTUNATE SPECULATION AND CREDITORS THREATENED TO ATTACH CONTRIBUTION IN BROWER’S HANDS UPON GROUND DONATION NOT COMPLETED UNTIL CHURCH CONSTRUCTED STOP BROWER WITHDREW MONEY FROM BANK AND DISAPPEARED CLAIMING NERVOUS BREAKDOWN FRIENDS BELIEVE HE IS SEEKING TO AVOID DISASTROUS LITIGATION AND WILL RETURN WITH CONTRACT FOR BUILDING AWARDED STOP IS FIVE FEET SEVEN INCHES TALL WEIGHS ONE HUNDRED THIRTY FIVE POUNDS HAS GRAY EYES AND HIGH CHEEKBONES REGISTERED AS REPUBLICAN GIVING AGE AS FIFTY-SIX DRIVING SMALL NINETEEN TWENTY EIGHT SEDAN LICENSE SIX FIVE FOUR THREE EIGHT LAST SEEN WEARING BLUE SERGE SUIT SOFT COLLAR SHIRT BLUE AND WHITE TIE AND TAN LOW SHOES HAS SMALL TRIANGULAR SCAR BACK OF RIGHT EAR
Selby looked at the wire, nodded and said, “There’s a man who knows his job.”
Amorette Standish let her curiosity show in her voice.
“Were you wondering if she really is Mrs. Brower?”
“I was,” he said.
“And the dead man?” she asked. “Was he Mr. Brower?”
“I don’t think so. The woman says he isn’t, and the description doesn’t fit. Ring up the coroner and ask him to look particularly for the small triangular scar mentioned in the wire. I don’t think he’ll find it, but we’ll look anyway.”
As his secretary took the telegram and left the room, Selby got to his feet and began a restless pacing of the office. At length he sat down at his desk and started scribbling a wire to the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada.
“Ascertain if possible,” he wrote, “if Brower had a friend, probably a minister, between forty-five and fifty-five, about five feet five inches, weight about hundred and twenty, small-boned, dark hair, gray at temples, small round bald spot top and back of head. Interested in photography. Probably had made several fruitless attempts to sell scenarios Hollywood studios. Interested in motion pictures. Last seen wearing black frock coat, well-worn and shiny black trousers, black high shoes. Eyes blue. Manner very self-effacing. Enunciation very precise, as though accustomed public speaking from pulpit. Owns Typco portable typewriter. Wire reply earliest available moment. Important. Thanks for co-operation.” Selby gave the telegram to Amorette Standish to be sent. His telephone was ringing before she had left the office. He took down the receiver and heard Sheriff Brandon’s voice.
“Have some news for you, Doug,” the sheriff said.
“Found out who he was?”
“No, not yet.”
“Talk with that optician in San Francisco?”
“Yes. He got my wire, but had been pretty busy and had just hit the high spots going over his records. He hadn’t found anything. I don’t think he’d been trying very hard. I put a bee in his bonnet, told him to check over every prescription he had in his files if necessary. He said the prescription wasn’t particularly unusual. I told him to make a list of every patient he had who had that prescription and send me a telegram.”
“What else?” Selby asked.
Brandon lowered his voice.
“Listen, Doug,” he said cautiously, “the opposition are going to try to put us on the spot.”
“Go ahead,” Selby said.
“Jerry Summerville, who runs The Blade, has imported a crack mystery man from Los Angeles, a fellow by the name of Carl Bittner. He’s been a star reporter for some of the Los Angeles dailies. I don’t know how much money it cost, or who’s putting it up, but Summerville put in the call this morning and Bittner is here in town now. He’s been asking questions of the coroner and trying to pump Cushing.”
“What did Cushing tell him, do you know?”
“No. He pulled a fast one with Cushing. He said he was a special investigator and sort of gave Cushing to understand he was from your office. Cushing talked a little bit. I don’t know how much … Suppose we could throw a scare into this bird for impersonating an officer?”
“Special investigator doesn’t mean anything,” Selby said slowly. “Let’s go slow on bothering about what the other people are doing, Rex, and solve the case ourselves. After all, we have all the official machinery at our disposal, and we’ve got a head start.”
“Not very much of a head start,” the sheriff said. “We collect the facts and the other fellows can use them.”
“We don’t need to tell them all we know,” Selby pointed out.
“That’s one of the things I wanted to ask you about. Suppose we clamp down the lid on information?”
“That’s okay by me.”
“All right, we’ll do it. Now here’s something else for you. Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith are phonies. They gave an address of 3350 Blair Drive. There isn’t any such number. There are about fifty automobiles registered to Leslie Smiths in various parts of the state.”
“Okay,” Selby said after a moment, “it’s up to you to run down all fifty of those car owners.”
“I was talking with Cushing,” Brandon went on, “and he says they were a couple of kids who might have been adventuring around a bit and used the first alias that came into their heads.”
“Cushing may be right,” Selby rejoined, “but we’re solving this case, he isn’t. It stands to reason,that someone got into the minister’s room through one of the adjoining rooms. That chair being propped under the doorknob would have kept the door of 321 from opening. Both doors were locked on 323. I’m inclined to favor 319.”
“But there wasn’t anyone in 319 at the time.”
Selby said, “Let’s make absolutely certain of that, Rex. I don’t like the way Cushing is acting in this thing. He’s not co-operating as well as he might. Suppose you get hold of him and throw a scare into him.
“And here’s something else,” Selby went on. “I noticed that the writing on the letter which had been left in the typewriter was nice neat typewriting, almost professional in appearance.”
“I hadn’t particularly noticed that,” the sheriff said, after a moment, “but I guess perhaps you’re right.”
“Now, then, on the scenario, which was in his briefcase,” Selby pointed out, “the typing was ragged, the letters in the words weren’t evenly spaced. There were lots of strike-overs and the punctuation was rotten. Suppose you check up and see if both the scenario and the letter were written on the same typewriter.”
“You mean two different people wrote them, but on the same machine?”
“Yes. It fits in with the theory of murder. By checking up on that typing we can find out a little more about it. Now, Rex, we should be able to find out more about this man. How about labels in his clothes?”
“I’m checking on that. The coat was sold by a firm in San Francisco. There weren’t any laundry marks on his clothes. But I’ll check up on this other stuff, Doug, and let you know. Keep your head, son, and don’t worry. We can handle it all right. G’by.”
Selby hung up the telephone as Amorette Standish slipped in through the door and said in a low voice, “There’s a man in the outer office who says he has to see you upon a matter of the greatest importance.”
“Won’t he see one of the deputies?”
“What’s his name?”
Selby nodded slowly. “Show him in,” he said.
Carl Bittner was filled with bustling efficiency as he entered the room. Almost as tall as Selby, he was some fifteen years older. His face was thin, almost to the point of being gaunt; high cheekbones and thin lips gave him a peculiarly lantern-jawed appearance.
“I’m Bittner,” he said. “I’m with The Blade. I’m working on this murder case. What have you to say about it?”
“Nothing,” Selby said.
Bittner raised his eyebrows in surprise. “I’ve been working on some of the large dailies in Los Angeles,” he said. “Down there the district attorney co-operates with us and gives us any information he has.”
“It’s too bad you left there, then,” Selby said.
“The idea is,” Bittner went on, “that newspaper publicity will frequently clear up unexplained circumstances. Therefore, the district attorney feels it’s good business to co-operate with the newspapers.”
“I’m glad he does.”
“Don’t you feel that way?”
“There’s some chance we could identify the body, if you’d tell us everything you know.”
“Just what information did you want?”
“Everything you know,” Bittner said, dropping into a chair, lighting a cigarette and making himself thoroughly at ease.
“So far,” Selby said, “I have no information which would enable me to identify the dead man.”
“Don’t know anything about him, eh?”
“Virtually not a thing.”
“Wasn’t he mixed up with some Hollywood picture actress?”
“I’m asking you.”
“And I’m asking you.”
“Don’t some of your investigations lead you to believe there’s a picture actress mixed up in the case?”
“I can’t very well answer that question.”
“As yet I haven’t correlated the various facts.”
“When do you expect to correlate them?”
“I don’t know.”
Bittner got to his feet, twisted his long mouth into a grin and said, “Thank you very much, Mr. Selby. The Blade will be on the street in about two hours. I’ll just about have time to get your antagonistic attitude written up against the deadline. Call me whenever you have anything new. Good-by.”
He slammed the door of Selby’s office triumphantly, as though he had succeeded in getting the district attorney to say exactly what he wanted said.
Selby switched on the lights in his office and read the terse telegram he had received from the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada:
BROWER HAD MANY FRIENDS AMONG MINISTERS IMPOSSIBLE IDENTIFY FRIEND MENTIONED FROM DESCRIPTION
He consulted his wrist watch. Shirley Arden and Trask should arrive to keep their appointment within fifteen minutes.
Selby spread out The Blade on his desk. Big headlines screamed across the front page: SHERIFF AND DISTRICT ATTORNEY BAFFLED BY CRIME. NEW AND INCOMPETENT OFFICIALS ADMIT HELPLESSNESS — REFUSE AID OF PRESS — UNIDENTIFIED CLERGYMAN MURDERED IN DOWNTOWN HOTEL!
There followed a more or less garbled account of the crime, but that which made Selby’s jaw clench was a column of “Comment” under the by-line of Carl Bittner, written with the technique of a mud-slinging metropolitan newspaper reporter.
“When the district attorney, Selby, was interviewed at a late hour this afternoon,” the article stated, “he admitted he had no information whatever which would be of any value in solving the murder. This, in spite of the fact representatives of The Blade have been able to uncover several significant facts which will probably clear up the mystery, at least as to the identity of the murdered man.”
“For some time a rumor has been rife that a prominent Hollywood picture actress figures in the case, that for reasons best known to himself District Attorney Selby is endeavoring to shield this actress. Pressed for information upon this point, Selby flew into a rage and refused to answer any questions. When it was pointed out to him that an identification of the victim, perhaps a solution of the crime itself, depended upon enlisting the aid of the press, he obstinately refused to divulge any information whatever, despite his admission that he was groping entirely in the dark.
“It is, of course, well known that whenever the breath of scandal fastens itself upon any prominent actress great pressure is brought to bear upon all concerned to hush matters up. The Blade has, however, pledged itself to discover the facts and give the news to its readers. It is to be regretted that the district attorney cannot recognize he is not a ruler, but a public servant. He is employed by the taxpayers, paid from tax moneys, and has taken an oath to faithfully discharge the duties of his office. He is young, untried and, in matters of this sort, inexperienced. Citizens of this community may well anticipate a carnival of crime as the crooks realize the type of man who has charge of law enforcement.”
“During the campaign, Selby was ready enough with his criticisms of Roper’s methods of conducting the office; but now that he has tried to take over the reins, his groping, bewildered attempts to solve a case which Roper would have taken in his stride, show only too well the cost to the public of discharging a faithful and efficient servant merely because of the rantings of some youth whose only qualification for the position is that he wants the prestige which goes with the title.”
A bitter column on the editorial page dealt with the fact that, as had been predicted by The Blade, Rex Brandon and Douglas Selby, while they were perhaps well-meaning, were utterly incompetent to handle a murder case such as the mysterious death of the unidentified clergyman. Had the voters retained Sam Roper in office, the editorial said, there was little doubt but what that veteran prosecutor would have by this time learned the identity of the dead man and probably had the murderer behind bars. Certainly the community would have been spared the humiliation of having a sheriff and a district attorney engage in such a comedy of errors as had resulted in bringing to an unfortunate woman the false information that her husband was dead. Roper would undoubtedly have made an investigation before jumping at such a false and erroneous conclusion.
Selby squared his shoulders.
All right, they wanted to fight, did they? Very well, he’d fight it out with them.
He heard a knock on his door and called, “Come in.”
The door opened and Selby saw a man nearly six feet tall, weighing well over two hundred pounds, smiling at him from the doorway.
The visitor wore a checked coat. His well-manicured hands adjusted the knot of his scarf as he smiled and said, in a deep, dramatic voice, “Ah, Mr. Selby, I believe? It is a pleasure.”
“You’re Trask?” Selby asked.
The big man bowed and smiled.
“Come in,” Selby said, “and tell Miss Arden to come in.”
“Miss Arden — er — er — unfortunately is not able to be present, Mr. Selby. As you may or may not know, Miss Arden’s nerves have been bothering her somewhat of late. She has been working under a terrific strain and … ”
“Where is she?” Selby interrupted, getting to his feet.
“At the close of the shooting this afternoon,” Trask said, “Miss Arden was in an exceedingly nervous condition. Her personal physician advised her … ”
“Where is she?”
“She — er — went away.”
“To the seclusion of a mountain resort where she can get a change in elevation and scenery and complete rest.”
“I am afraid I am not at liberty to divulge her exact location. The orders of her physician were most explicit.”
“Who’s her physician?”
“Dr. Edward Cartwright.”
Selby scooped up the telephone. “You come in and sit down,” he said to Trask; and, into the telephone, “This is Douglas Selby, the district attorney, speaking. I want to talk with Dr. Edward Cartwright in Los Angeles. I’ll hold the wire.”
Standing with his feet spread apart, his jaw thrust forward, the receiver of the telephone held in his left hand, he said to Trask, “That’s what I get for giving a heel like you a chance to double-cross me. It won’t happen again.”
Trask strode toward him, his eyes glowering with indignation. “Are you referring to me?” he demanded in a loud, booming voice. “Are you calling me a heel? Are you intimating that I double-crossed you because Miss Arden’s health has been jeopardized by overwork?”
“You’re damned right I am,” Selby said. “I’ll tell you more about it when I’ve talked with this doctor on the telephone.”
Into the telephone he said, “Hello! Rush through that call.”
A woman’s voice said, “Doctor Cartwright’s residence.”
Selby listened while the long-distance operator said, “The district attorney’s office at Madison City is calling Doctor Cartwright.”
“I’m afraid Doctor Cartwright can’t come to the telephone,” the woman’s voice said.
Selby interrupted. “I’ll talk with whoever’s on the phone,” he said.
“Very well,” the operator told him.
“Who is this?” Selby asked.
“This is Mrs. Cartwright.”
“All right,” Selby said, “this is Douglas Selby. I’m the district attorney at Madison City. You put Doctor Cartwright on the telephone.”
“But Doctor Cartwright has given orders that he is not to be disturbed.”
“You tell Doctor Cartwright he can either talk on the telephone or I’ll have him brought up here and he can do his talking in front of a grand jury.”
“But — you couldn’t do that,” the woman protested.
“That,” Selby remarked, “is a matter of opinion. Please convey my message to Doctor Cartwright.”
“He’s very tired. He left orders that … ”
“Convey that message to Doctor Cartwright,” Selby said, “or I’ll get a statement from him which will be made at my convenience rather than at his.”
There was a moment’s pause and the woman’s voice said dubiously, “Very well, just hold the phone a moment.”
Trask interrupted to say, “You can’t do this, Selby. You’re getting off on the wrong foot. Now I want to be friendly with you.”
“You,” Selby told him, “shut up. You promised me to have Shirley Arden here at eight o’clock. I’m already being put on the pan for falling for this Hollywood hooey. I don’t propose to be made the goat.”
“If you’re going to be pasty about it,” Trask said with an air of injured dignity, “it happens that I know my legal rights in the premises and . . .”
A man’s voice said “Hello” on the telephone, and Selby said, “Shut up, Trask … Hello! Is this Doctor Cartwright?”
“You’re the Doctor Cartwright who attends Shirley Arden, the picture actress?”
“I have attended her on occasion, yes.”
“When did you last see her?”
“What’s the object of this inquiry?”
“Miss Arden was to have been in my office this evening. She isn’t here. I want to know why.”
“Miss Arden was in an exceedingly nervous condition.”
“When did you see her?”
“About three o’clock.”
“What did you tell her?”
Doctor Cartwright’s voice became very professional. “I found that her pulse was irregular, that her blood pressure was higher than should have been the case. There was some evidence of halitosis, indicating a nervous indigestion. She complained of migraine and general lassitude. I advised a complete rest.”
“Did you advise her specifically not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I advised her not to engage in any activity which would cause undue excitement or nervousness.”
“Did you advise her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I advised her to seek a secluded mountain resort where she could be quiet for a few days.”
“Did you advise her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“I told her that it would be unwise for her to … ”
“Never mind that,” Selby said, “did you tell her not to keep her appointment with me?”
“She asked me if it wouldn’t be inadvisable for her to subject herself to a grueling interrogation after taking an automobile ride of some hundred miles, and I told her that it would.”
“Specifically, what did you find wrong with her?”
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss my patient’s symptoms. A matter of professional privilege, you know, Mr. Selby. But I felt that her health would be benefited by a complete change of scenery.”
“For how long?”
“Until she feels relief from some of the symptoms.”
“And what are the symptoms?”
“General lassitude, nervousness, a severe migraine.”
“What’s migraine?” Selby asked.
“Well, er — a headache.”
“In other words, she had a headache and said she didn’t feel well, so you told her she didn’t need to keep her appointment with me, is that right?”
“That’s putting rather a blunt interpretation on it.”
“I’m cutting out all of the verbal foolishness,” Selby said, “and getting down to brass tacks. That’s the effect of what you told her, isn’t it?”
“Well, of course, it would have that effect and … ”
“Thank you, doctor,” Selby said tersely, “you’ll probably hear more from me about this.”
He dropped the telephone receiver down between the prongs of the desk phone, turned to Trask and said, “The more I see of this, the less I like it.”
Trask pulled down his waistcoat and became coldly dignified.
“Very well,” he said, “if you’re going to adopt that attitude, may I suggest, Mr. Selby, that in the elation of your campaign victory, you have, perhaps, emerged with a swollen concept of your own power and importance?
“As Miss Arden’s manager, I have received advice from the very best legal talent in Los Angeles as to our rights in the matter.
“Frankly, I considered it an arbitrary and high-handed procedure when you telephoned and stated that Miss Arden, a star whose salary per week amounts to more than yours for a year, drop everything and journey to your office. However, since it is her duty as a citizen to co-operate with the authorities, I made no vehement protest.
“The situation was different when it appeared that Miss Arden’s nerves were weakening under the strain, and that her earning capacity might be impaired if she complied with your unwarranted demands upon her time. I, therefore, employed counsel and was advised that, while you have a right to have a subpoena issued for her, compelling her attendance before the grand jury, you have no right to order her to appear for questioning in your office. Incidentally, it may interest you to know that a subpoena, in order to be valid, has to be served in person upon the witness named in the subpoena. I think I need only call to your attention the fact that Miss Arden has virtually unlimited resources at her command, to point out to you how difficult it would be for you to serve such a subpoena upon her. Moreover, she is under no obligation to obey such a subpoena, if to do so would jeopardize her health. You are not a physician. Doctor Cartwright is. His diagnosis of the condition of Miss Arden is entitled to far more weight than your hasty assumption that her headaches and nervous fits are unimportant.”
“I’m sorry to have to talk to you this way, but you asked for it. You’re a district attorney in a rather unimportant, outlying county. If you think you can pick up your telephone and summon high-priced picture stars, who are of international importance, to your city, quite regardless of their own health or personal convenience, you’re mistaken.”
Trask thrust out his jaw belligerently and said, “Have I made myself clear, Mr. Selby?”
Doug Selby stood with his long legs spread apart, hands thrust deep in his trousers pockets. His eyes burned steadily into those of Trask.
“You’re damned right you’ve made yourself clear,” he said. “Now I’ll make myself clear. “I have reason to believe that Miss Arden was in this city, registered in the Madison Hotel under an assumed name. I have reason to believe that a man who was murdered in that hotel called on Miss Arden in her room. I have reason to believe that Miss Arden paid him a large sum of money. Now you can force me to use a subpoena. You may be able to keep me from serving that subpoena. But, by heaven, you can’t keep me from giving out the facts to the press.
“You’re probably right in stating that Miss Arden’s salary per week is greater than mine for a year, but when it comes to a showdown, the ability to dish it out and to take it isn’t measured by salary contracts. I’m just as good a fighter as she is, just as good a fighter as you are — and probably a damned sight better. And you’re going to find it out.
“You’ve done a lot of talking about Miss Arden’s importance, about the fact that she’s an internationally known figure. You’re right in that. That’s the thing that gives you these resources you boast of, the money to hire bodyguards, to arrange for an isolated place of concealment where it would be hard to locate her with a subpoena.
“You overlook, however, that this very fact is also your greatest weakness. The minute the press associations get the idea Miss Arden may be mixed up in this case, they’ll have reporters pouring into town like flies coming to a honey jar. I didn’t want to make any public announcement until I’d given Miss Arden a chance to explain. If she doesn’t want to co-operate with me, that’s her lookout.”
Selby consulted his wrist watch. “It’s twelve minutes past eight. I don’t think Miss Arden’s got to any part of the state where she can’t get here within four hours’ fast driving. I’ll give you until midnight to produce her. If you don’t produce her, I’ll tell the press exactly why I want to talk with her.”
Trask’s face was a wooden mask, but his eyes showed a trace of panic.
“Young man,” he said, “if you did that, you’d be sued for criminal libel and defamation of character, you … ”
“You’re wasting time talking,” Selby said. “If you’re going to get Miss Arden here by midnight, you’d better get started.”
Trask took a deep breath, forced a smile to his face, came toward Selby.
“Now, listen, Mr. Selby,” he said in a conciliatory tone, “perhaps I was a little hasty. After all, you know, our nerves get worn thin in this picture business. Miss Arden’s trip to Madison City was highly confidential, but since you’re interested in it, I think I can explain to you just why she came and … ”
“I don’t want your explanation,” Selby interrupted coldly, “I want hers.”
Trask’s face flushed. “You mean to refuse to listen to what I have to say?”
“At times,” Selby said, “you’re rather good at interpreting the English language.”
Trask fumbled for a cigar in his waistcoat pocket.
“Surely,” he said, “there’s some way in which we can get together. After all … ”
“I’ll be available until midnight,” Selby interrupted. “In the meantime, Mr. Trask, I don’t think I need to detain you.”
“That’s final?” Trask asked, clamping his teeth down on the end of the cigar and giving it a vicious, wrenching motion with his wrist to tear off the end.
“That’s final,” Selby said.
Trask spat out the bit of tobacco as he reached for the doorknob.
“You’ll sing a different tune when we get done with you!” he said, and slammed the door behind him.
Selby called Cushing at the Madison Hotel.
“Cushing,” he said, “I want you to ask all of the regular roomers on the third floor if they heard any typewriting in 321 on Monday night or Tuesday morning. It’ll probably look better if you ask them.”
Cushing said, “This is giving the hotel an awful black eye, Doug. That publicity in The Blade was bad — very bad.”
“Perhaps if you’d kept your mouth shut,” Selby said, “the publicity wouldn’t be so bad.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some of the information must have come from you.”
“Impossible! I didn’t give out any information.”
“You talked to the chief of police,” Selby said. “You know where he stands with The Blade.”
“You mean the chief of police is double-crossing you?”
“I don’t mean anything except that some of the information in the newspaper didn’t come from the sheriff’s office, and didn’t come from mine. You can draw your own conclusions.”
“But he has the right to question me,” Cushing said, “just the same as you have, Doug.”
“All right, then, he’s the one to complain to, not to me.”
“But in your position, can’t you hush the thing up?”
Selby laughed and said, “You can gather just how much chance I have of hushing things up by reading the editorial page in The Blade.”
“Yes,” Cushing said dubiously, “still … ”
“Quit worrying about it,” Selby told him, “and get busy and question your guests on the third floor.”
“I don’t like to question the guests,” he protested.
“Perhaps,” Selby suggested, “you’d prefer to have the sheriff do it.”
“No, no, no; not that!”
“Then suppose you do it.”
Cushing sighed, said, “Very well,” in a tone which contained a complete lack of enthusiasm, and hung up the receiver.
Selby had hardly put the receiver back into place when the phone rang. He picked it up, said “Hello,” and heard a woman’s voice, a voice which was rich, throaty, and intimately cordial.
“Is this Mr. Douglas Selby, the district attorney?”
“I’m Miss Myrtle Cummings, of Los Angeles, and I have some information which I think you should have. It’s something in relation to the murder case which has been described in the evening newspaper.”
“Can you give it to me over the telephone?” Selby asked.
“Well, I’ll be here at my office until midnight,” he said.
There was something hauntingly familiar about the woman’s voice. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but it’s absolutely impossible for me to leave. For reasons which I’ll explain when I see you, I’m confined to my room, but if you could come and see me some time within the next half hour, I think it would be very advantageous for you to do so.”
“Where are you?”
“I’m in room 515 at the Madison Hotel. Do you suppose you could manage to come to my room without attracting any attention?”
“I think so,” he said slowly.
“Could you come right away?”
“I’m waiting for several rather important calls,” he said.
“But I’m sure this is most important,” she insisted.
“Very well,” Selby told her, “I’ll be over within ten minutes.”
He dropped the receiver back into place, put on his overcoat and hat. He closed and locked the office door, but left the light on, so that Rex Brandon would know he expected to return, in case the sheriff should call at the office. He parked his car a couple of blocks from the Madison Hotel.
It was one of those clear, cold nights with a dry wind blowing in from the desert. The stars blazed down with steady brilliance. The northeast wind was surgingly insistent. Selby buttoned his coat, pushed his hands into the deep side pockets and walked with long, swinging strides toward the hotel.
Luck was with him when he entered the hotel. Cushing was not in the lobby. The night clerk was busy with a patron. The elevator operator apparently saw nothing unusual in Selby’s visit.
“Going up to campaign headquarters?” he asked.
“Gee, that sure was something, having a murder case right here in the hotel, wasn’t it?” the operator said, as he slid the door closed and started the elevator upward.
Again Selby nodded. “Know anything about it?”
“Just what I’ve heard around the hotel.”
“What did you hear?”
“Nothing, except this guy took the room and was found dead. Cushing says it couldn’t have been a murder. He says it was just a case of accidentally taking the wrong kind of dope and that The Blade is trying to make a big thing of it. The Blade’s had a reporter snooping around here.”
“Chap by the name of Carl Bittner?” Selby asked.
“That’s the one. He’s got the boss sore at him. Cushing thought he was one of your men … and there’s things about the dump that Cushing don’t want printed.”
“What things?” Selby asked.
“Oh, lots of things,” the boy said vaguely. “Take this guy, Trask, for one. Anyone would think he owned the joint. And there’s a room on the fifth floor they never rent. A dame comes and goes on the freight elevator.”
The elevator stopped at the fifth floor.
Selby handed the boy a half dollar. “Thanks for the information,” he said. “I don’t want to be interrupted. I came here because I wanted to get away from telephone calls and people who were trying to interview me. Do you suppose you could forget about taking me up here?”
“Sure,” the operator said, grinning. “I can forget anything for four bits.”
Selby nodded, waited until the cage had started downward before he made the turn in the corridor which took him toward the room at the end of the corridor which they had used as campaign headquarters. When he saw there was no one in the hallway, he tapped gently on the door of 515.
“Come in,” a woman’s voice said. Selby opened the door and stepped into the room.
He knew at once that Shirley Arden had arranged every detail of the meeting with the training which years as an actress had given her.
The door opened into a sitting room. Back of the sitting room was a bedroom. In the bedroom a rose-colored light shed a soft illumination which fell upon the actress’ face in such a way that it turned the dark depths of her eyes into mysterious pools of romance.
She was attired in a tailored suit of pearl gray. Its simplicity was so severe that it served to center attention upon her face and figure. Had she been ten years older, she would have worn a gown so gorgeously designed that a woman looking at her would have said, “How wonderfully she’s dressed!” But with that pearl gray tailored outfit, men, looking at Shirley Arden, would only have said, “What a beautiful figure she has! How wonderful her eyes are!”
She was seated on the arm of an overstuffed chair, one gray-stockinged leg thrust out at such an angle that the curves caught the eye. Her lips were parted in a smile.
And yet, perhaps as a result of her Hollywood training, she overdid it. Perfect actress that she was, she underestimated the intelligence of the man with whom she was dealing, so that the effect she strove for was lost. Had she remained seated on the arm of the chair just long enough to have given him a glimpse of her loveliness, and then got to her feet to come toward him, he would have been impressed. But her very immobility warned him that the effect had been carefully and studiously planned.
“So,” Selby said, vigorously kicking the door shut behind him, “you were here all the time.”
She didn’t move. Her face was held so that the lighting did not change by so much as a hairline of a shadow. It was as though she had been facing a battery of lights for a close-up.
“Yes,” she said, “I was here. I didn’t want to talk with you unless I had to. I’m afraid Ben Trask didn’t handle the situation very diplomatically.”
“He didn’t,” Selby said. “How about your nerves?”
“I really am very nervous.”
“And,” Selby said, “I suppose the idea was to send Ben Trask over to bluff me. If he’d reported success, then you’d have actually gone into hiding.”
“I didn’t want to take any chances,” she told him. “Can’t you understand? Think what it means to me. Think of my position, my public, my earning capacity. Gossip is a fatal thing to a picture star. I couldn’t afford to have it known I was questioned in connection with the case.
“Ben is a very strong man. He’s always been able to dominate any situation he’s tackled. He makes my contracts for me, and it’s an open secret they’re the best contracts in Hollywood. Then he met you — and failed.”
She waited for the full dramatic value of that statement to manifest itself. Then, with that slow, supple grace which characterizes a stage dancer, she straightened her leg, swung it slowly forward, came to the floor as lightly as thistledown and walked toward him to give him her hand.
“It’s delightful, Mr. Selby,” she said, “to find you so human.”
His fingers barely touched hers. “It depends,” he told her, “on what you mean by being human.”
“I’m certain you’ll listen to reason.”
“I’ll listen to the truth,” he said, “if that’s what you mean.”
“After all, aren’t they the same thing?”
“That depends,” Selby said. “Sit down, I want to talk with you.”
She smiled and said, “I know I’m in your city, Mr. Selby, under your jurisdiction, as it were, but please permit me to be the hostess and ask you to be seated.”
She swept her hand in a gracious gesture of invitation toward the overstuffed chair beneath the floor lamp.
“No,” Selby said, “thank you, I’ll stand.”
A slight frown of annoyance crossed her face, as though her plans were going astray.
Selby stood spread-legged, his overcoat unbuttoned and thrown back, his hands thrust deep into his trousers pockets, his eyes showing just a trace of sardonic humor beneath a grim determination.
“After all,” he said, “I’m doing the questioning. So if anyone is going to sit in that chair beneath the illumination of that light, it’s going to be you. You’re the one who’s being questioned.”
She said defiantly, “Meaning, I suppose, that you think I’m afraid to let you study my facial expressions.”
He shrugged his shoulders and said, “I’m not wasting time thinking about it. Your facial expressions are going to be studied whether you like it or not.”
“Very well,” she said, and dropped into the overstuffed chair, carefully adjusting the light so that it beat down upon her face. Her smile was the smile of one who bravely faces injustice, nor was there any narrowing of the eyelids as her lips parted. “Go ahead, Mr. District Attorney,” she invited.
Selby stood staring at her steadily. “It happens,” he said, “that I saw that same expression in ‘Love Life.’ It was, I believe, the way you looked at your prospective father-in-law when he came to give you money never to see his boy again.”
She lost her fixed smile. For a moment there was blazing defiance in her eyes. Then her face became as a wooden mask.
“After all,” she said, “it’s the same face. And it would naturally hold the same expressions that you’ve seen in pictures.”
“Well,” he told her, “I’m not interested in your facial expressions. I’m interested in your answers to certain questions.”
“Go ahead and ask the questions.”
“You were here in the hotel Monday morning, were you not?”
“In this room?”
“Why did you come here?”
“On a matter of business.”
“What was the business?”
“I decline to answer that question. It’s a confidential matter.”
“With whom was your business to be transacted?”
“I also decline to answer that question.”
“Have you seen photographs of the man who was found dead in room 321?”
Selby pulled a photograph from his pocket, strode toward her and thrust it out in front of him.
“Look at it,” he said.
It was a moment before she lowered her eyes, as though schooling her face against showing any expression; then she glanced at the photograph, raised her eyes to his and nodded a slow, solemn nod.
“Know him?” Selby asked.
“I saw him.”
“In the hotel.”
“What part of the hotel?”
“In this room.”
Selby sighed and said, “Now that’s a lot better. When did you see him?”
“It was some time in the morning, shortly before ten o’clock, I think.”
“What was he doing?”
“He was talking with me.”
“What name did he give you? Was it the name under which he was registered, Charles Brower?”
She shook her head and said, “No, that wasn’t the name.”
“What name was it?”
She frowned thoughtfully for a moment or two and then said slowly, “No, I’m afraid I can’t remember what the name was, but I know it wasn’t Brower. It was something that sounded like Larry, or something of that sort. I think it had a ‘Larry’ in it.”
“In the last name?”
“You’re sure it wasn’t the first name?”
“No, it was the last name. I don’t think he told me his first name.”
“Why did he happen to come into the room here?”
“He knocked on the door. I went to the door to see who it was.”
“Had you ever seen him before?”
She hesitated once more for a moment, then very decisively shook her head and said, “No, I had never seen him before.”
“But you let him in?”
“Are you accustomed to admitting strangers to your room?”
“I want you to understand my position, Mr. Selby. You’re an educated man. You’re different from the rabble. You can appreciate the position of an actress. I’m really not my own boss. I’m owned by my public. One must, of course, use discretion, but, if you could have seen this man when he was alive, you’d have realized how harmless he was. And yet, harmless isn’t exactly the word I want. He was inoffensive, but it wasn’t merely a passive futility, if you understand what I mean, it was … well, he seemed to be at peace with the world and to be noncombative.”
“And so you let him in?”
“What reason did he give for knocking on the door?”
“He said that he’d seen me come in, that despite my attempt to avoid recognition he had realized who I was. He’d seen me get out of the automobile in front of the hotel and followed me to the freight elevator. In some way he’d discovered that I was in this room.”
“How long was it after you’d taken the room that he knocked on the door?”
“Less than half an hour. Perhaps fifteen minutes.”
“If he’d seen you taking the elevator, why didn’t he knock immediately?”
He told me that he realized it was an intrusion upon my privacy. He’d been trying to make up his mind to do it for several minutes. He said he’d stood outside of the door for several minutes before he knocked.”
“What time was this?”
“As nearly as I can place it, about a quarter to ten.”
“What did he want?”
“It was pathetic,” she said. “He wanted me to do a certain type of play which he said would be of great benefit to many people. He was so earnest that I couldn’t refuse to give him an audience. He said that he’d been one of my ardent admirers ever since I’d appeared on the screen. He’d seen me in every part I’d played.”
“Go on,” Selby said.
“He had a script which he’d written. He said that he’d been intending to come to Hollywood to present it to me personally.”
“Do you remember the title of this script?”
“What was it?”
“It was titled, ‘Lest Ye be Judged.’”
“Did you read it?”
“I glanced through it.”
“No, just casually.”
“Why didn’t you read it thoroughly?”
“In the first place, I knew that it would be no use. In the second place, I could tell from almost the first glance that it was hopeless.”
“Why was it hopeless?”
“The way it was written, the theme of it, everything about it.”
“What was wrong with it?”
“In the first place, it was propaganda. It wasn’t a play, it was a sermon. People go to churches to hear sermons; they go to theaters to be amused.”
“Did he want to sell you this?”
“No, he wanted to give it to me … Well, I don’t know whether he would have put a price on it or not … You see, the conversation didn’t get that far. He told me that he had consecrated his life to the service of humanity and he thought that this was a duty I owed to my fellow beings. The conversation was all on that plane, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes,” Selby told her, “I know what you mean.”
“Well, he showed me this script and asked me if I wouldn’t take it and use it as my next vehicle.”
“What did you tell him?”
“I explained to him that I was under contract to the studio; that I had absolutely nothing to say about plays; that the studio selected such plays as they thought would make good vehicles for me. They did that through a purchasing department which specialized upon that very thing. They didn’t allow me to even make suggestions, except minor suggestions at conferences where the continuity was being worked out.”
“Then what happened?”
“He tried to argue with me for a little while, but he soon realized that I was telling him the truth, that I had absolutely no power to select the plays in which I was to appear, that a recommendation from me would be virtually valueless.”
“And what did you tell him to do?”
“I told him he would have to submit it to the Hollywood office.”
“Did you tell him you thought the Hollywood office would turn thumbs down on it?”
“No. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. He was so earnest, so wrapped up in his play, it was really pathetic.”
The face of the actress showed an expression of sympathy, her voice was vibrant with emotion.
Staring at her, Selby was gripped by conflicting emotions. He knew, on the one hand, that she was a skillful actress, fully capable of portraying any emotion she chose; on the other hand, he realized that it would be exceedingly difficult for anyone who was fabricating what had happened at that interview to simulate such an emotion. Her manner radiated complete sincerity and that warm, rich sympathy which a broad-minded woman of the world would have held for the pathetic little parson who had brought his hopeless scenario to her.
Moreover, everything she had said tallied with the facts as Selby knew them. He hesitated a moment, then said, “That’s a very beautiful purse you have, Miss Arden.”
“Yes, isn’t it?” she exclaimed at once. “It.was given to me by the director who handled my last picture. I’m proud of it.”
“Do you mind if I look at it?”
“Not at all.”
She handed it over to Selby, who studied it, apparently lost in admiration for its beauty.
“How does it open?” he asked.
“This catch,” she said, “on top.” She snapped open the catch.
Selby peered inside, saw bills, lipstick, coin purse, handkerchief and compact.
“If you don’t consider I’m taking too much of a liberty,” he said and, before she could stop him, pulled out the handkerchief. He could hear her gasp as he raised the handkerchief to his nostrils.
Selby couldn’t tell the brand of perfume, but he did have a sufficiently discriminating sense of smell to know that this perfume was entirely different from that which had scented the five one-thousand dollar bills which had been found in the envelope the dead man had left in the hotel office.
“What’s the matter?” she asked with cold enmity. “Were you looking for something?”
“I was,” he told her, “interested in perfumes. I think that perfumes are indicative of personality.”
“I’m so glad you feel free to be perfectly informal,” she said sarcastically.
There was an awkward silence as he restored the handkerchief to her purse and handed it back to her.
“Was there,” she asked at length, “anything else I could tell you about the man?”
“I don’t know. Is there?”
“Not that I can think of.”
“Did he tell you where he was from?”
“Some little town in the northern part of the state, I think, but I can’t remember that.”
Selby stiffened to attention and said, “You mean in Nevada?”
She raised her eyebrows, then shook her head and said quite definitely, “No, it wasn’t in Nevada, I’m certain of that. Some little town in California.”
“And you can’t remember the name of the place?”
“No, it was in Northern California somewhere — a Riverdale, or something like that.”
“Riverview?” he asked.
She shook her head and said, “No, that wasn’t it; but there was a river in it, I think.”
“Your memory seems to be rather faulty, doesn’t it?”
Her laugh was throaty and musical. “The first time a fan stopped me to tell me how much he enjoyed my acting and asked for my autograph, I could tell you everything about him — what he had on, what he looked like, where he came from and all about him.
“Gradually I came to accept it as a part of the profession, and now … well, I won’t say that I’m bored, because one is never bored by expressions of appreciation from the public, but put yourself in my position. I’m called on to use every ounce of my energy in keeping fit, in acting, in being spontaneous and vivacious whenever I’m seen in public. I have to remember literally hundreds of newspapermen, cameramen, directors, supervisors, film executives and agents. Then there are quite a few people I meet whom I never expect to see again. They’re like — like telegraph poles whizzing by when you’re traveling on a Pullman train, if you know what I mean.”
“I see,” he said.
“They tell me things about themselves and I smile at them sympathetically and work my eyes; but all the time I’m thinking about my last income-tax return, how long I’m apt to be working on this present picture, whether the director is going to listen to what I have to say about the way I should say ‘Farewell’ to my lover in the picture, or whether he’s going to insist on doing it according to some standards which don’t register with me.
“I give the fan my autograph and turn loose my best smile on him. I know I’m never going to see him again, and he’s in sort of a daze anyway, dazzled by the mental concept of celebrity which he’s conjured up to wrap around me as an aura.”
Selby watched her narrowly and said, “You have rather a neat trick of turning phrases.”
“Have I?” she asked, smiling dazzlingly. “Oh, thank you so much.”
“I presume now,” he told her grimly, “if I’d only ask for your autograph the interview would be complete, and I could pass out of your life with the mental classification of a human telegraph pole whizzing by your Pullman car.”
She pouted and said, “Don’t say that.”
“Isn’t it true?”
She lowered her eyes and said slowly, “I don’t think any woman who ever came in contact with your powerful personality would readily forget you.”
“Our contact,” he said dryly, “has been rather remote and somewhat difficult to obtain.”
“Which,” she countered swiftly, raising her eyes to his, “is the main reason I will never forget it. Ben Trask is a wonder when it comes to working things. He’s good at diplomacy and at fighting. He can be either high-hat, belligerent, or very suave. He turned loose everything he had on you and it never even dented your armor. When Trask came back and told me that I had to submit to questioning, he was licked. The man was all washed up. I was literally thunderstruck. It’s the only time I’ve ever known him to make a complete and ignominious failure. I’d have remembered you even if I’d never seen you. And this has been far from a pleasant experience, you know.”
“The meeting with me?” he asked, eyes studying hers.
“Not that,” she said, smiling; “you know I didn’t mean it that way. I meant the worry and the anxiety.”
“Why the worry, if you merely met this man in such a casual manner?”
“Because,” she said, “he was killed. That was a shock to me. Whenever you talk with anyone and then learn of his death, you’re shocked. And, I may as well confess, there was a purely selfish reason. Competition is so keen among the stars that we must have a one-hundred-percent potential audience in order to get by. In other words, it takes all sorts of people to make a world. There are reformers, crusaders, fundamentalists, profligates, intellectual people and dumbbells. Whenever we do anything which antagonizes any one particular class, we narrow our potential audience by just that much.
“For that reason, no matter how great a star’s success may be, she never dares to let people get to gossiping about her. Moreover, because, in the past, scandals have been hushed up by the use of money and influence, whenever an actress’ name is connected with anything out of the ordinary, the public always feels that the real facts were hushed up. No matter how complete the subsequent vindication may be, there are always the ‘wise’ ones who will smirk and wink to show that they weren’t fooled any.
“If my name is connected with that of a murdered man, the big majority of newspaper readers would always remember the one item of gossip and entirely discount everything that might be said by way of explanation. People all over the country would glance at each other across the dinner tables and say, ‘Well, I see Shirley Arden’s company managed to quash the investigation on the Madison City murder. I wonder how much it cost them?’”
Selby said slowly, “I see.”
“So,” she said, laughing, “you can understand my attitude and something of my anxiety.”
Selby nodded. “Well,” he said, “I guess that about covers everything.”
She got to her feet, gave him her hand and said, “Will you believe me when I say it was a real pleasure to have met you, Mr. Selby?”
“Thank you,”, he said. “And, by the way, where did you get the five one thousand-dollar bills which you gave this minister?”
He was watching her as a hawk watches a moving clump of grass in front of a rabbit burrow. Coming as it did, his question took her by surprise. He saw her shoulders heave as she gave a quick gasp, but her face didn’t change its expression by so much as the twitching of a muscle. She raised gravely questioning eyes to his and said in a low, level voice, “Five one thousand-dollar bills? Surely, Mr. Selby, you’re making some mistake.”
“I don’t think I am,” he told her. “I think you gave this man five one thousand-dollar bills.”
“Oh, but I didn’t.”
“Why of course not! Why, whatever put any such idea as that into your head?”
“I had an idea that you might have done so.”
“Why, he was just a poor country minister. I’ll venture to say he’s working on a salary of less than a hundred dollars a month, and probably gets that paid partially in produce. That coat he was wearing was shiny, and worn quite thin at the elbows. Everything about him spoke of the pinch of insufficient finances. His collar was frayed, his shoes had been half-soled at least once, perhaps twice. His shirt had been mended around the neck, his tie was all frazzled at the edges.”
“You seem to remember a lot about him,” Selby said thoughtfully, “for one who has forgotten so much.”
She laughed and said, “Once more I must ask you to indulge in consideration for my psychological processes, Mr. Selby. Men who tell me how much they admire my acting are quite numerous, but it’s not very often one comes in contact with a man who’s so completely genuine, so whole-heartedly sincere as this man. Naturally, as a woman, I noticed his clothes.”
“And you didn’t give him any money?”
“Why certainly not. Good heavens, if you had only read that scenario.”
“I did read it,” he told her.
She laughed and said, “Well, that’s the answer to your question.”
Selby said slowly, “I may want to question you again. I’m not going to bother you to come up here, but I may come to see you. Where can I find you?”
“You can get me on the lot. Simply ask for Mr. Trask.”
“And get another run-around?” he asked.
She laughed and said, “Not from Ben. He knows when he’s licked.”
“And you’ll be where I can reach you through the studio?”
“At any time. I’ll leave word with the operator to connect you with Mr. Trask, and Benny will see that you get in touch with me … In fact, I’d really like to. You know, in our world of make-believe it’s not often one comes in contact with a personality which has no pretense.”
His eyes showed the question in his mind.
“You see,” she said, rushing into swift speech, “it isn’t that we’re four-flushers so much as we’re actors and actresses, and we deal in worlds of acting. Therefore, it becomes easy to simulate emotion. Therefore, frequently one finds it easier to pretend surprise or regret or interest, or perhaps anger, than to solve the situation by some other method. One unconsciously uses one’s natural weapons, just as a deer escapes danger by flight and a porcupine by thrusting out its quills.”
He laughed and said, “Well, Miss Philosopher, do you classify me as a deer or a porcupine?”
“As a very prickly porcupine,” she said. “When your quills are out, Mr. Selby, you’re exceedingly difficult to deal with.”
“Well,” he told her, “I’ll try and be more tractable in the future.”
“And if you’re in Hollywood, you will give me a ring?”
“If anything else turns up about which I want to question you, yes.”
“And must it be an official visit?”
“Surely,” he said, puzzled, “you didn’t mean otherwise?”
“Why not? I told you that I meet so few men who have no pretense in their make-up that it’s refreshing to meet someone who hits straight from the shoulder and never backs up.”
“Aren’t you depending a lot upon rather a hasty judgment of character?” he asked.
She laughed again and said, “If you could only have seen yourself standing with your legs spread apart, and your chin pushed forward! You looked like a man who expects to have to wade right through an avalanche and who is perfectly willing to do it.”
“Perhaps that,” he told her, “is just a pose.”
“No,” she said, “I know too much about poses. And you still haven’t answered my question. Must it be an official visit?”
“It’s rather unlikely that I’ll be in Hollywood,” he told her. “The duties of my office keep me chained down pretty well to this spot.”
“Very well,” she told him, with some indefinable expression in her dark eyes. “I won’t press the point. I’ve never had a legal training, but I can still tell when a witness is evading the question.”
She was standing close to him now, and, as she raised her eyes, he seemed to feel drawn as toward some powerful magnet. It was as though he had been staring into an inky pool which had suddenly widened and risen toward him.
He laughed uneasily and said, “As though you ever had to give an invitation twice.”
“Am I to take it that’s an acceptance?” she asked.
He bowed low over her hand and said, “Yes. Good night, Miss Arden.”
“Good night,” she said, and her voice held a rich, throaty timbre.
He left the room, gently closed the door behind him, and took two or three deep breaths before the matter-of-fact environment of the familiar hotel corridor recalled him to the duties of his everyday existence.
He walked to the elevator, and was just about to press the button when he sensed surreptitious motion behind him. He flattened himself in a doorway and stared back down the corridor.
Carl Bittner had climbed up the stairs. In his right hand he held a camera and a battery photo-flashlight. Slowly, cautiously, he tiptoed his way down the corridor.
Selby waited until the reporter had rounded the bend in the hallway, then he rang for the elevator. In the lobby he paused to telephone room 515.
“Be careful,” he warned, when he heard Shirley Arden’s voice on the wire; “a newspaper photographer is stalking the hallway.”
“Thanks,” she told him, “I’ve got my door locked.”
“Has anyone knocked?” he asked.
“Not even a tap,” she replied, “and thanks for calling.”
Puzzled, Selby left the hotel to fight his way into the windy night.
Sylvia Martin was waiting in front of the locked door of Selby’s office.
“Thought you were playing possum on me,” she said. “I’ve been knocking on the door. I even tried a kick or two.” And she glanced ruefully down at the toes of her shoes.
“No,” Selby said, “I was out on what might be described as an emergency call.”
“Anything new?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Why is it,” she asked, “that a friendly paper doesn’t get any of the breaks, while the opposition scores all the scoops?”
“Meaning,” she said, “that there’s something going on at the Madison Hotel.”
“What makes you think so?”
“A little bird told me.”
“I’d like to know more about your little bird.”
“If you must know, it’s someone who advised me that Carl Bittner, the crack reporter whom The Blade has imported to scoop you on a solution of the murder case, received a mysterious telephone call and then went rushing over to the hotel, carrying a camera.”
“Well?” he asked.
She said, “Let’s go in and sit down where we can talk.”
Selby unlocked the door. She followed him into his private office, perched on the edge of his desk, kicking one foot in a swinging circle.
“Come on,” she said, “what’s the lowdown?”
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you.”
“Have I got to wait until I read about it in The Blade tomorrow night?”
“The Blade won’t publish anything about it.”
“Don’t ever think they won’t. You’re acting like an ostrich, Doug, sticking your head in the sand and kidding yourself you’re hidden from view.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but there’s nothing I could tell you, Sylvia.”
“In the first place, what makes you think there’s something to tell?”
“Don’t kid me, Doug, I know there is. I suppose I can go over to the hotel and dig it out myself, if I have to, but it does seem to me that … ”
She broke off the sentence, but her foot swung more rapidly and in a wider arc, until she seemed to be viciously kicking at the atmosphere.
Selby said, “I’d like to, Sylvia; I’d like to take you into my confidence, but you’ve got your job and I’ve got mine. You’re representing a newspaper. It’s your duty to gather publicity. Anything that you get will be spread on the front page of that paper. I have to take that into consideration.”
“We supported you during the election. Don’t we get anything in return for it?”
“Certainly you do. You get any of the breaks I can give you.”
“A lot that means,” she said bitterly. “The city editor put me on this murder case. I’ve known you for years. I’ve fought for you ever since you turned those twinkling blue eyes of yours on me and smiled. The newspaper I represent helped put you in office. What do we get in return for it? Not one damned thing!”
She blinked her eyes rapidly.
“Please don’t cry, Sylvia,” he begged. “You don’t appreciate my position.”
She jumped to her feet and said, “You make me so mad I could cry. Don’t you see the position you’re in? Don’t you see the position that I’m in? Don’t you see the position my paper’s in?”
“I think I do.”
“No you don’t. I’ve been assigned to cover the activities of the district attorney’s office in connection with this murder case. I’m making a lamentable failure of it. The things I’ve found out could have been put in my city editor’s eye without making him so much as blink. The opposition newspaper has imported a crack reporter. That means I’m being pitted against a trained investigator from one of the big metropolitan dailies. It’s an opportunity for me to do something big. It’s also an opportunity for me to become the laughingstock of everyone in the newspaper business. I need every advantage I can get. And about the only advantage I’m supposed to have is your friendship.”
“Sylvia, I’m going to do everything I can for you, but . . .”
“That stuff makes me sick,” she declared. “You know as well as I do that you’re concealing something. You’re good enough to conceal it from me because I’m fair enough to trust you; but you’re not smart enough to conceal it from The Blade because they’re fighting you and are out on their own, getting their information independently.”
“What makes you think that they’re going to get any particularly startling information?” he asked.
“Will you swear to me that your business at the Madison Hotel wasn’t connected with some angle of this case?”
“No,” he said frankly, “it was.”
“And you saw someone there?”
“Whom did you see?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Because I can’t.”
“It wouldn’t be fair.”
He thought for a moment and then said lamely, “To the taxpayers, to the prosecution’s side of the case.”
“Bosh!” she told him. “You’re protecting someone. Who?”
“Suppose I should tell you,” he said, “that some person had become involved in this case who was entirely innocent of any connection with it except one brought about through casual coincidence? Suppose I should further tell you that the newspaper-reading public wouldn’t believe that such was the case if it were given any publicity? Suppose, because of my official position, I’d been able to get a complete and frank statement of facts, given to me in a sacred confidence? Would you want me to betray that confidence to the first newspaper reporter who asked me?”
She shook her head impatiently and said, “Now I’ll do some supposing. Suppose there’s an angle to this case which is going to be given inevitable publicity? Suppose the story is going to be published in a hostile newspaper tomorrow night? Suppose we’re going to be scooped on the thing? Don’t you think it would be more fair for you to give me the news than to withhold it?”
“But you wouldn’t want me to violate a confidence, would you?”
“Wouldn’t it be better for the person who gave you that confidence to have the facts correctly reported in a newspaper which didn’t deliberately try to distort them in order to belittle you?” Selby was thinking that over, when the telephone on his desk rang. He picked up the receiver and said “Hello.”
“Where the devil have you been?” Rex Brandon’s voice rasped over the wire. “I’ve been trying to call you at intervals for the last twenty minutes.”
“I took a quick run over to the Madison Hotel to investigate a development there.”
“Nothing that I can discuss with you now. It’s something we should talk over a little later. What have you got — anything?”
“Yes, I’ve got what may be a lead.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve been talking with that optician in San Francisco on the telephone. He’s got a long list of names who have that same prescription, or correction, or whatever it is you call it. Among them are two ministers. One of them’s a Reverend Hillyard, from some little church in San Francisco, and the other’s a Reverend William Larrabie, from Riverbend, California.”
Selby’s voice betrayed his excitement. “Hold everything,” he said. “That last name is the one we want.”
“How do you know?”
“From some checking up I’ve been doing. I know that the man’s name has the syllable ‘Larry’ in it and that he comes from a town in California that has a ‘River’ in its name.”
“Okay,” Brandon said. “What do we do next?”
TO BE CONTINUED (READ PART III)
Illustrations by Dudley Gloyne Summers
When he died, in 1970, Erle Stanley Gardner was the best-selling American fiction author of the century. His detective stories sold all over the globe, especially those with his most famous defense attorney protagonist, Perry Mason. His no-nonsense prose and neat, satisfying endings delighted detective fans for decades. Gardner wrote several stories that were serialized in the Post. In Country Gentleman, his 1936 serial “The Thread of Truth” follows a fresh D.A. in a clergyman murder case that comes on his first day on the job.
Published on September 1, 1936
The room held a subtle atmosphere of burnt-out activity. Physically, it had the littered appearance of a vacant lot from which a carnival had moved away. The walls were decorated with posters. “ELECT DOUGLAS SELBY DISTRICT ATTORNEY” screamed one poster. Above the words appeared the likeness of a handsome young man with curly hair, a devil-may-care glint in his penetrating eyes, and a forceful, although shapely, mouth. Hanging beside it, a twin poster showed a man some twenty-five years older, wearing a big sombrero, his leathery face creased into a friendly smile. It required a close inspection to show the hard determination of the gray eyes. That poster bore the words, “VOTE FOR REX BRANDON FOR SHERIFF.”
Half a dozen small desks and tables had been crowded into the room. They were littered with envelopes, pamphlets, windshield stickers, and other campaign paraphernalia.
Douglas Selby, newly elected district attorney, grinned across the room at Sheriff Brandon. It had been a bitterly contested battle, involving an election contest, a recount of ballots, and an action in mandamus. The actual election had been history for weeks, but the political backers of the two men had kept the room in the Madison Hotel for post-election activities.
Selby, crossing his long legs, ran his hand through his thick shock of curly hair and said, “Well, Rex, in fifteen minutes we start for the courthouse to take charge. Personally, now that it’s all over, I’m going to miss the fight of the campaign.”
Rex Brandon fished a cloth sack from his pocket, shook flakes of tobacco into a brown cigarette paper. His thick fingers rolled the cigarette with an expert twist. He moistened the edge of the paper with his tongue, stroked the cigarette into a smooth cylinder and said, “You’ll have plenty of fighting, son. It ain’t all over — not by a long ways.”
Selby had the knack of completely relaxing his muscles when he was at ease. He seemed as completely untensed as a cat sprawled in the sunlight. “Not much they can do once we get in office,” he drawled.
Sheriff Brandon snapped a match into flame with a quick flip of his thumbnail. “Listen, Doug, I’m twenty-five years older than you are. I haven’t got as much book learnin’, but I know men. I’m proud of this county. I was born and raised here. I’ve seen it change from horse and buggy to automobile and tractor. I remember when you’d never walk down the street without stopping three or four times in a block to pass the time of day with friends. Now things are different. Everyone’s in a hurry.”
The sheriff paused to apply the match to the end of his cigarette.
“What’s that got to do with us?” Selby asked.
“Just this, son: People used to know pretty much what was going on in the county and officeholders used to get a square deal. Now people are too busy and too selfish to care. They’ve got too many worries of their own to bother very much about seeing that other people get a square deal.
“If it was just politics, it wouldn’t be so bad. But during the last four years the doors have been opened to all the scum from the big cities. Chaps who haven’t been big enough to work a racket in the Big Time have drifted in with a lot of little, vicious, chiseling, crooked stuff. Sam Roper, the old district attorney, either got a cut or should have had one. You know that as well as I do.
“Now, then, it’s up to you and me to clean up this mess.”
“It’s already cleaned up,” Selby pointed out. “The crooks read their death sentences in the election returns. They’ve been getting out. Little hole-in-the-wall joints have closed up, or turned honest.”
“Some of ’em have, and some of ’em haven’t,” Brandon said. “But the main thing is that we’ve got to watch our step, particularly at the start. If we make just one major mistake, they’ll hoot us out of office.”
Selby looked at his watch, got to his feet and said grimly, “It’s going to take a lot of hooting to get me out of office. Come on, Rex, let’s go.”
Campaign headquarters had been located on the top floor of the Madison Hotel. As the two men stepped through the door into the carpeted hotel corridor, a door opened midway down the hall on the right-hand side. An apologetic little man, attired in a black frock coat and wearing a ministerial collar, slipped out into the hallway. He seemed to be tiptoeing as he walked rapidly toward the elevator and pressed the button.
It was several seconds before the elevator cage rumbled up to the top floor, and Douglas Selby utilized the time studying the little minister. He was between forty-five and fifty-five, and fully a head shorter than the district attorney. The small-boned frame seemed almost fragile beneath the shiny cloth of the well-worn frock coat.
As the elevator operator opened the sliding door, the little clergyman stepped into the cage and said, in the precise tones of one accustomed to making announcements from a pulpit, “The third floor. Let me off at the third floor, please.”
Selby and the sheriff entered the elevator. Over the top of the minister’s unsuspecting head, Rex Brandon gave the tall young district attorney a solemn wink. When the elevator had discharged its passenger at the third floor, the sheriff grinned and said, “Bet there’s more funerals than weddings where he comes from.”
The district attorney, immersed in thoughtful silence, didn’t answer until they were halfway across the hotel lobby. Then he said, “If I were going to indulge in a little deductive reasoning, I’d say his parish was controlled by one very wealthy and very selfish individual. That minister’s learned to walk softly so as not to offend some selfish big shot.”
“Or maybe he’s that way because his wife has a natural talent for debate,” the sheriff grinned. “But, say, buddy, don’t forget that this speculating business ain’t just a game. Did it ever occur to you that during the next four years whenever a crime’s committed in this county it’s going to be up to us to solve it?”
Selby took the sheriff’s arm and headed toward the white marble courthouse.
“You solve the crimes, sheriff,” he said, grinning. “I simply prosecute the criminals you arrest.”
“You go to the devil, Doug Selby,” the sheriff rumbled.
Douglas Selby had been in office just twenty-four hours. He surveyed the littered material on his desk, reached a decision and summoned his three deputies.
Waving them to seats, he studied the three men. Frank Gordon, full of a black-eyed, youthful enthusiasm; Miles Deckner, tall, gangling, slow of speech, with straw-colored hair; Bob Kentley, a holdover from the other regime, a studious, rather innocuous individual, with a bulging forehead, horn-rimmed glasses, and eyes which had a habit of staring intently at the floor near the tip of his shoe.
“Boys,” Selby said, “I’m tackling a job I don’t know much about. You boys have got to carry most of the load. You, Gordon, are full of energy and enthusiasm, with a great capacity for work. You don’t know as much about this job as I do, and that’s next to nothing. You, Deckner, aren’t as fast a worker as Gordon, but you’ve a certain native caution, which gives you a pretty good perspective. You, Kentley, were loyal to Sam Roper, the former district attorney. Frankly, the only reason I kept you on was because you knew the routine of the office. I suppose you’re wondering what your future is going to be. Is that right?”
Kentley kept his eyes lowered and nodded.
“Go ahead,” Selby said, “speak up.”
“I figure,” Kentley remarked sullenly, “that you’ll let me go as soon as I’ve broken in these other two deputies.”
“All right,” Selby told him, “forget it, and snap out of it. Quit being sullen. You aren’t ready to go out and tackle private practice. You need the job. You fought me during the campaign, but I figure you know something about the office, and I think you’re honest. I figure you worked against me because you wanted to hold your job. Now I’m going to give you a chance to hold it.
“You play ball with me and I’ll play ball with you. It’s up to you to instruct these boys in the duties of the office. Among you, you’ve got to handle the routine. I’m going to hold myself in reserve for the big things.
“Here’s a bunch of stuff which has piled up on my desk. There’s everything here, from a complaint about a neighbor’s dog scratching up a front lawn to a tip that a next-door house is a speakeasy. You boys take this stuff into the law library and divide it up. Don’t write any more letters than you have to — telephone people, get them to come in, reason with them, straighten things out by diplomacy. Don’t fight unless you have to. When you once start to fight, never back up. Remember that The Clarion will give us a square deal and The Blade will be fighting us all the way. You’ll make mistakes, but don’t let the fear of making mistakes keep you from reaching decisions. Whatever happens, don’t let anyone bluff you. Whenever you … ”
The telephone rang. Selby said, “Just a minute until I see what this is.”
He held the receiver to his ear and said, “Hello.”
Rex Brandon’s voice, sounding rather strained, said, “Doug, drop whatever you’re doing and come down to the Madison Hotel right away. They’ve found a dead man in one of the rooms.”
“What is it,” Selby asked — “murder, suicide or natural death?”
“They don’t know. They say it’s a minister … I have an idea it’s the same chap who rode down in the elevator with us yesterday.”
“Where are you now?” Selby asked.
“I’m at the City Hall, picking up the chief of police. We’ll get to the hotel a few minutes before you do. The room is number 321. Go right on up. We’ll meet there.”
Selby said, “Okay, Rex,” hung up the telephone receiver and turned to his deputies. “You boys go to it,” he instructed.
“You’ll have to handle the routine business of the office.”
Grabbing his hat, Selby raced down the marble corridor of the courthouse, took the steps of the wide staircase two at a time, jumped into his car and drove to the Madison Hotel.
He noticed that Brandon was ahead of him. The sheriff’s car, equipped with red spotlight and siren, was parked in the red “no parking” zone in front of the hotel. Moreover, a portion of the street was closed off where a force of men were installing one of the new ornamental lighting fixtures the city had recently purchased. Selby found himself caught in a traffic jam and it took him nearly ten minutes to extricate himself, find a parking place for his car and return to the hotel.
George Cushing, owner of the hotel, and the one to whom Selby had been indebted for the room used as campaign headquarters, approached with smiling affability.
A man in his early fifties, Cushing tried to maintain an air of smart, urban sophistication. He wore a pin-striped blue serge suit, meticulously pressed, and cut on a style which obviously had been designed for men twenty years his junior.
His pale, filmed eyes had puffy circles beneath them. His wan skin looked as though it had never known the sting of a biting wind, nor the warm touch of outdoor sunlight.
But those pale, filmed eyes could be coldly insistent, and ten years of hotel management had taught him not to be backward in his demands.
“Now, listen, Doug,” he said, “this is just a natural death, see? It isn’t a suicide. The man took a dose of sleeping medicine, but that didn’t have anything to do with his death.”
“What’s his name?” the district attorney asked.
“The Reverend Charles Brower. He came from Millbank, Nevada. I don’t want it to be suicide. That gets unpleasant newspaper notoriety for the hotel.”
Walking toward the elevator Selby hoped that the man would at least have tact enough to refrain from referring to campaign obligations, but Cushing’s well-manicured, pudgy hand rested on the sleeve of Selby’s coat as the door of the elevator opened.
“You know,” Cushing said, “I did everything I could for you boys during the election, and I’d like to have you give me the breaks.”
Cushing said, “The number’s 321,” and waved to the elevator operator to close the door.
On the third floor, Selby found no difficulty in locating 321. He knocked on the panels, and Rex Brandon’s voice called, “Is that you, Doug?”
“Go over to 323, Doug, and come in that way. That door’s unlocked.”
Selby walked to the adjoining room. It was a typical hotel bedroom. He saw that the connecting door into 321 was ajar. A long sliver had been smashed from the side of the doorjamb. Rex Brandon called, “Come on in, Doug.” Selby entered the room.
The little minister seemed strangely wistful as he lay cold and motionless on the bed. The eyes were closed and the jaw had sagged, but there was a smiling lift to the corners of the lips. The mantle of death had invested him with a dignity which his clerical garments had failed to achieve. The door had been locked and a chair propped against it in such a way that the back of the chair was braced directly underneath the knob of the door.
The room seemed filled with silence.
Otto Larkin, big, heavy-voiced chief of police, made haste to greet the district attorney.
“Everything’s just as we found it,” he assured. “He’d left a call for ten o’clock. The switchboard operator rang and rang and didn’t get any answer. A bellboy knocked and heard nothing. He tried a passkey and found the door was bolted from the inside. He climbed up and looked through the transom. He could see the man lying on the bed. He called to him two or three times and then reached inside and pushed down the transom. Then he saw that a chair had been propped under the doorknob. He notified Cushing. Cushing busted in through 323. That’s why the lock’s smashed. The connecting door has a double bolt, one on each side.
“Now, listen, Selby, I was pretty friendly with Sam Roper, and I supported him in the campaign. But I want to work with you boys now you’re in office. This is the first case we’ve had, so let’s not have any hard feelings that’ll keep us from working in harmony.”
Selby said, “All right. What’s that paper in the typewriter? It isn’t a suicide note, is it?”
“No,” Brandon said, “it’s a letter to his wife, Doug.”
The district attorney leaned over the machine and read:
My dearest wife: Well, I’ve been in Madison City a couple of days now, and so far haven’t accomplished much. I may be here another week, perhaps longer.
The weather has been perfect. A fine warm sun blazing down from a deep blue sky, windless days and cool nights.
I’ll have a surprise for you when I come back. If I can contact just the right people, we’re going to have our financial troubles completely eliminated. And don’t think they won’t listen to me. They’ll have to listen. I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.
I didn’t sleep well on the train. I had some sleeping medicine to take, but it didn’t do much good, so tonight I took a double dose. I think I’m going to sleep fine. In fact, I’m sleepy right now.
This is a busy little city, with a streetcar line and several nice hotels. It’s less than a hundred miles from Hollywood, and I am going to go there before I get back, if I can spare the time. I’m sorry you can’t be here with me. I’m getting pretty sleepy now. I think I’ll go to bed and finish this in the morning. I’m awfully sleepy, dear. I’ll have a nice rest tonight. I’m going to leave a call for ten o’clock in the morning. Tomorrow I’ll look around some more … No use, I’m too sleepy to see the keyboard now.
There followed a word which had been crossed out by x’s.
On the table near the typewriter was an envelope addressed to “Mrs. Chas. Brower, 613 Center Street, Millbank, Nevada.”
“Looks as though he took an overdose of the sleeping medicine,” Rex Brandon said. “We’ve checked up on the hotel register. He filled out a card when he checked in. He’s Charles Brower and he comes from Millbank, Nevada. He lives at 613 Center Street, the address on the envelope. So everything checks okay. The poor chap wanted to sleep … Well, he’s sleeping all right.”
Selby nodded. “Why do you suppose he locked the door and then propped a chair against it?” he asked. “
“You can search me,” Brandon answered.
“Have you notified the coroner?” Selby asked.
“Yeah, sure. He’s out on a funeral right now. We expect him in any minute.”
“Look through his things?” Selby asked of Brandon.
“Not yet. We were sort of waiting for the coroner.”
“I’ve been on lots of cases with Harry Perkins, the coroner,” Larkin said. “He ain’t a bit fussy about red tape. If we want to save time by taking a look through things, it’ll be all right with Harry. As a matter of fact, I don’t think there’s anything to it. He probably had a bum ticker and taking a double dose of sleeping medicine put him out.”
“I was wondering,” Selby said, “if perhaps he had something very valuable he was trying to guard. I still can’t see why he should have gone to all that trouble to lock the door and then prop the chair against it.”
Walking over to the bed, Selby gently turned back the bedclothes and said, “No sign of any foul play. Well, I guess it’s just a routine matter. We’ll notify his wife.”
“I told George Cushing to send the wife a wire,” Sheriff Brandon said.
The chief of police frowned slightly. “I’m sorry you did that, Sheriff. That’s one of the things the coroner likes to do. You know, he’s an undertaker, and he usually mentions in his telegrams that he can prepare the body for burial,”
The sheriff drawled, “Harry was out on a funeral and I wanted to get some action. He can send her a wire when he comes in, if he wants to.”
Selby looked around the room.
The dead man’s coat and vest were in the closet, carefully placed on a hanger. The trousers had been caught by the cuffs in the top of the bureau drawer, and hung down almost to the floor. A single suitcase was on the chair, open.
“That his only baggage,” Selby asked — “a suitcase and a portable typewriter?”
“There’s an overcoat and a brief case in the closet,” Brandon said.
“What’s in the brief case?” Selby asked.
“Just some newspaper clippings and some typewritten stuff; either a sermon or a story or something — a lot of words slung together.”
The suitcase, Selby found, was packed with scrupulous care. The garments were neatly folded. He noticed two clean shirts, some light underwear, several starched collars, a leather-backed and worn Bible, a pair of spectacles in a case bearing the imprint of a San Francisco optician, and half a dozen pairs of plain black socks. He saw an oblong pasteboard medicine box with a label on which had been written in pen and ink, “For Restlessness.” There was also a leather case containing an expensive, foreign-made miniature camera.
“Hello,” Selby said, “this is a pretty good outfit for a small-town minister to be sporting. They cost about a hundred and fifty dollars.”
“Lots of people like this guy was are camera fiends,” the chief of police pointed out. “A man has to have some hobby, you know. Heaven knows, his clothes are shiny enough, and the overcoat’s badly worn at the elbows.”
“Where was his wallet?” Selby asked.
“In his coat pocket,” Brandon said.
“Yes, a few printed cards bearing the name, ‘Charles Brower, D.D., Millbank, Nevada,’ ninety-six dollars in cash, and about two dollars in small silver. There’s also a driving license.”
Selby looked once more at the still figure on the bed.
Somehow, a feeling of indecency gripped him. The man had been a human being; had had his hopes, fears, ambitions, disappointments, and now Selby was prying into his private life.
“All right,” he said, “I guess there’s nothing to it. Have the coroner take charge. He’ll probably want an inquest. By the way, George Cushing would appreciate it if there wasn’t any publicity and no talk of suicide.”
He turned away toward the door of 321, noticed the splintered casing where the bolt had been forced, and said casually, What’s the room on the other side, Rex?”
“I suppose the same as this,” the sheriff remarked.
“I think it has a bath,” the chief of police volunteered. “The way the hotel is laid out, there’s a bath in between rooms, and the room can be rented either with or without a bath. This room didn’t have the bath connected with it, so the bath’s probably connected with the other room.”
Selby idly inspected the knurled knob on the door which led to the shut-off bathroom. He twisted the knob and said, “Let’s see if this door’s open on the other side.”
Suddenly he frowned, and said, “Wait a minute. This door wasn’t bolted. Did someone twist this knob?”
“I don’t think so,” Larkin said. “The bellboy reported to Cushing, and Cushing told everyone nothing in the room was to be touched.”
“Then why didn’t Cushing get in through 319? He could have unlocked the door from the other side and wouldn’t have had to force the other one open.”
“I think that room’s occupied,” Larkin said. “Cushing told me 323 was vacant, but someone’s in 319.”
A knock sounded on the door of 321. Brandon called out, “Who is it?”
“Harry Perkins, the coroner.”
“Go around to 323, Harry, and come in that way.”
A moment later the tall figure of the bony-faced coroner came through the connecting door.
Larkin made explanations.
“We were just looking around a bit, Harry. You were out on a funeral, and we wanted to make sure what it was. It’s just a combination of an overdose of sleeping medicine and a bum pump. There won’t be enough of an estate to bother with. The sheriff wired his wife. Perhaps you’d better send her another wire and ask her if she wants you to take charge.”
The sheriff said, “I’m sorry, Harry, I didn’t know you liked to send those wires yourself.”
“That’s all right,” the coroner said. He walked over to the bed, looked down at the still form with a professional air and asked, “When do I move him?”
“Any time,” Larkin said. “Ain’t that right, Sheriff?”
“I’m going back to the office,” Selby said.
Douglas Selby cleaned up the more urgent correspondence on his desk, went to a picture show, lay in bed and read a detective story. Reading the mystery yarn, he suddenly realized that it held a personal message for him.
Murder had ceased to be an impersonal matter of technique by which a writer used a corpse merely to serve as a peg on which to hang a mystery. Somehow, the quiet form of the wistful little minister lying in the hotel bedroom pushed its way into his mind, dominated his thoughts.
Selby closed the book with a slap. Why, he thought, was the little minister insidiously dominant in death? In life, the man, with his painfully precise habits, quiet, self-effacing, almost apologetic manner, would never have given Selby any mental reaction other than, perhaps, an amused curiosity.
Selby knew he had gone into the district-attorneyship battle primarily because of the fight involved. It had not been because he wanted to be district attorney. It was most certainly not because he wanted the salary. He had, of course, as a citizen, noticed certain signs of corruption in the preceding administration. Nothing had ever been proved against Sam Roper; but plenty had been surmised. There had been ugly rumors, which had been gradually magnified until the time had become ripe for someone to come forward and lead the fight. And the fact that Selby had been the one to lead that fight was caused more by a desire to do battle than by any wish to better the county administration.
Selby switched out the light, but the thought of what he had seen in that hotel bedroom persisted in his mind.
He tried to sleep and couldn’t, and even his futile attempt at slumber reminded him of the apologetic little man who had sought to woo sleep with a sedative. At twelve-thirty he put his pride to one side and called Rex Brandon on the telephone.
“Rex,” he said, “you’re probably going to laugh at me, but I can’t sleep.”
“What’s the matter, Doug?”
“I can’t get over that minister.”
“What about him, Doug; what’s the matter?”
“I can’t understand why he should have barricaded the door from the corridor, yet neglected to turn the knob in the door which communicated with the bathroom of 319.”
Brandon’s voice sounded incredulous. “For heaven’s sake, Doug, are you really worrying about that, or are you kidding me?”
“No, I’m serious.”
“Why, forget it. The man died from an overdose of sleeping medicine. The stuff he was taking was in that pasteboard box.”
“But why did he barricade his door as well as lock it?”
“He was nervous.”
“But that business of the pants being held in place in the bureau drawer,” Douglas persisted. “That’s an old trick of the veteran traveling salesman. No man who’d get nervous when he was away from home would do that.”
The sheriff said, “The man’s wife called up the coroner this afternoon. She’s coming on by plane. She told Perkins, Brower carried five thousand in insurance, and she seems to want to collect that in a hurry. She’s due here in the morning. She’s a second wife, married to him less than two years. His first wife died three or four years ago. Mrs. Brower said he’d had a nervous breakdown and the doctor advised a complete rest, so Brower took his flivver and started camping. He’d been raising money for a new church and had around five thousand dollars, but it had been too much of a strain on him. She thinks he must have had some mental trouble, to wind up here. So that shows everything’s okay. He took that sleeping medicine because he’d been nervous. There’s nothing to it.”
Selby laughed apologetically and said, “I guess it’s because we saw him in the hotel when he rode down in the elevator with us. Somehow, I couldn’t get over the feeling that if there had been … Well, you know what I mean, Rex — Oh, well, forget it. I’m sorry I bothered you.”
The sheriff laughed and said, “Better take two or three days and go fishing yourself, Doug. That campaign was pretty strenuous for a young chap like you.”
Selby laughed, dropped the receiver back on the hook and then fought with sleep for an hour. This sleep finally merged into a dead stupor, from which Selby emerged to grope mechanically for the jangling telephone.
It was broad daylight. Birds were singing in the trees. The sun was streaming through his windows, dazzling his sleep-swollen eyes. He put the receiver to his ear, said, “Hello,” and heard Rex Brandon’s voice, sounding curiously strained.
“Doug,” he said, “something’s gone wrong. I wonder if you can get over to your office right away?”
Selby flashed a glance at the electric clock in his bedroom. The hour was 8:30. He strove to keep the sleep out of his voice. “Certainly,” he said, making his tone crisply efficient.
“We’ll be waiting for you,” Brandon said, and hung up.
Selby reached his office on the stroke of nine.
Amorette Standish, his secretary, said, “The sheriff and a woman are in your private office.”
He nodded. Entering his private office, his eyes focused immediately upon a matronly, broad-hipped, ample-breasted woman of some fifty years, whose gloved hands were folded on her lap. Her eyes surveyed him with a certain quiet capability. There was the calm of cold determination about her.
Rex said, “This is Mary Brower, from Millbank, Nevada.”
Selby bowed and said, “It’s too bad about your husband, Mrs. Brower. It must have come as very much of a shock to you. I’m sorry there wasn’t any way we could have broken the news gently … ”
“But he wasn’t my husband,” the woman interrupted, with the simple finality of one announcing a very definite and self-evident fact.
“Then you have come here from Nevada because of a mistake?” Selby asked. “That certainly is … ”
He stopped mid-sentence. “Good Lord,” he said, and sat down in the swivel chair beside his desk to stare dazedly from the woman to Rex Brandon.
“You see,” the sheriff explained, “he had cards and a driving license in his wallet, and there was a letter he’d started to write to you, so we thought, of course, he was Charles Brower.”
“He isn’t my husband,” the woman insisted in the same tone of dogged finality. “I never saw him in my life.”
“But,” Selby pointed out, his mind groping through a sudden maze of contradictory facts, “why should he have written you if … How did he sign the register in the hotel, Rex?”
“As Reverend Charles Brower, 613 Center Street, Millbank, Nevada.”
Selby reached for his hat. “Come on, Rex,” he said. “We’re going down to get to the bottom of this thing.”
The woman in the faded brown suit with brown gloved hands still folded upon her lap, said, with dogged determination: “He is not my husband. Who’s going to pay my traveling expenses from Nevada here? Don’t think I’ll quietly turn around and go home without getting paid my carfare, because I won’t. I suppose I really could make serious trouble, you know. It was a great shock to me.”
A trimly efficient young woman clad in a serviceable tailored suit sat waiting in the outer office as Selby started out.
“Hello, Sylvia,” he said. “Did you want to see me?”
“I’m frightfully busy right now. I’ll see you sometime this afternoon.”
“Sometime this afternoon won’t do,” she told him.
Her laughing, reddish-brown eyes smiled up at him, but there was a touch of determination about her jaw. “You are now talking,” she said, “to Miss Sylvia Martin, a reporter on The Clarion, who has been ordered to get an interview, or else.”
“But can’t it wait, Sylvia?”
“Not a chance,” she told him.
“But, hang it, it’ll have to wait.”
She turned resignedly toward the door and said, “Oh, all right, if that’s your attitude, of course I’m not running the paper. My boss sent me out to get this interview, and he said it was vitally important; that if you wouldn’t co-operate with us … Well, you know how he is. If you want to antagonize him, it’s all right with me.”
The sheriff frowned at Selby and said, “Of course, Doug, I could start investigating this thing and … ”
Selby turned back toward his office and said, “Okay, come on in, Sylvia.”
She laughed when the door of his private office had clicked shut behind them. “Forgive me for lying, Doug?” she asked.
“About being sent to get an interview.”
“No, I was just playing a hunch.”
His face showed swift annoyance.
“Now don’t be like that,” she told him, “because it isn’t nice. Don’t take the duties of your office too seriously.”
“Snap out of it, Sylvia,” he told her. “Just what are you trying to do? I’m working on an important case, and you’ve thrown me off my stride.”
She crossed her knees, smoothed her skirt, produced a notebook and pencil and started making intricate little patterns on the upper left-hand corner of the page. “You know, Doug,” she said, “The Clarion supported you in the campaign. The Blade fought you. We want the breaks.”
“You’ll get them as soon as there are any breaks.”
“How about this minister’s wife?” she asked. “I’ve heard she won’t identify the body.”
“Well,” he asked, “what of it?”
Her eyes rested steadily on his. “Doug,” she said slowly, “you know what an awful thing it would be, if some important case turned up right at the start and you muffed it.”
He nodded. “What makes you think I’m muffing it, Sylvia?”
“Call it womanly intuition, if you want. You know how hard I worked for you during the campaign, and how proud I am you’re elected. I … ”
He laughed, and said, “Okay, Sylvia, you win. Here’s the low-down. That woman was Mrs. Mary Brower, of Millbank, Nevada, and she says the body isn’t that of her husband. And she’s inclined to be peeved about everything.”
“Where does that leave you?” she asked.
“Frankly,” he told her, “I don’t know.”
“But didn’t the dead man have a letter in his typewriter plainly addressed to his dear wife? And wasn’t the envelope addressed to Mrs. Charles Brower at Millbank?”
“That’s right,” Doug admitted.
“And what does that mean?”
“It might mean either one of two things,” Selby said slowly. “If the man who registered as Brower wanted to impress some visitor that he really was Brower, it would have been quite natural for him to write this letter and leave it in the typewriter as a part of the deception. Then he might have left the room for a moment, figuring his visitor would read the letter while he was gone.”
Sylvia Martin nodded her head slowly and said, “Yes, that’s right. Let me see if I can guess the other alternative, Doug.”
She held up her hand for silence, frowned at him in thoughtful concentration for a moment, then suddenly exclaimed, “I’ve got it.”
“What is it?”
“If someone was in the room after the man had died and wanted to make it appear the cause of death was an overdose of sleeping medicine, he couldn’t have hit on a better scheme than to write a letter like that and leave it in the typewriter.”
“Exactly,” Selby interrupted. “Thank heavens, you agree with me on that. It seemed such a bizarre theory that I couldn’t even entertain it.”
“But, if that’s true,” she pointed out, “the man who wrote the letter must have known the wife. Otherwise, he couldn’t have known the street address.”
Selby said, “No, the man could have gotten the address from the hotel registrations. However, supposing he didn’t, let’s now take a look at Mary Brower, a matronly, capable woman who certainly wouldn’t be cavorting around with people who’d want to murder her husband. She’s obstinate, perhaps a bit selfish, but certainly no Cleopatra.”
Sylvia Martin was staring at him with wide, fascinated eyes. “But let’s suppose you’re wrong, Doug. Suppose someone did know her rather well and wanted her husband out of the way. Suppose this dead man sensed something of the situation and was a close friend of the husband. The husband didn’t know anything at all about what was going on, so this friend came to the hotel to take the part of the husband, and in order to do so masqueraded as Charles Brower.”
Selby said slowly, “That’s a nice theory, Sylvia, and if you publish any part of it, your newspaper will be defendant in about a dozen libel suits. This Mrs. Brower looks like a perfectly capable woman.”
Sylvia left her chair and came to stand by his desk.
“Listen, Doug,” she said, “my boss got a straight tip that The Blade is laying for you on this case. Don’t muff it, Doug. Keep your head and outsmart them.”
“You mean The Blade knows something?” Selby asked.
“I don’t know what they know, but we’ve got a tip they’re going to stir up some trouble about this case. You know Otto Larkin, the chief of police, is friendly with the managing editor. I think Larkin would double-cross you in a minute, if he had a chance. Any stuff The Blade has must have come from him.”
“Larkin isn’t any Sherlock Holmes,” Selby pointed out.
“Just the same,” she said, “I’ve given you the tip. Tell me, Doug, will you let me know if anything new develops?”
“I won’t release any information for publication until I’m satisfied it won’t hamper a solution of the case,” he said slowly.
“But can’t you just talk things over with me, not for publication, and let me have something to say about whether it’s safe to publish them?”
“Well,” Selby told her, “we might do that.”
She closed her notebook and said, “It’s definite, then, that this Mrs. Brower insists the man is not her husband?”
“And,” she asked him slowly, “how do you know that this woman is Mrs. Brower?”
He eyed her speculatively for a moment and said, “Now that’s a thought.”
“I think,” she told him, “we can find out from our Nevada correspondents.”
“And I,” he told her, “will also do a little investigating.”
He saw her to the door, then said to Amorette Standish, “Take a wire to the chief of police at Millbank, Nevada, asking him for a description of the Reverend Charles Brower and of Mary Brower his wife. Also find out if he knows where both of them are at present. Tell him to wire.”
Selby strode into the coroner’s office and said, “Harry, I want to go over everything you took from that minister’s room.”
“The stuff is sealed up and in this room over here,” the coroner told him. “Funny thing about putting a wrong tag on him, wasn’t it? What a sweet spot I’d have been in, if I’d sent the body by express to Nevada.”
Selby said, “Well, either he wasn’t Charles Brower, or she isn’t Mary Brower. She looks genuine. You get Doctor Trueman to make an examination. And I want a thorough examination made. Have the contents of the stomach analyzed and analyze all of the vital organs to find traces of poison.”
“You don’t think it’s anything like that, do you?” the coroner protested.
“I don’t know what I think. I’m going to find out when I’ve got something to think on.”
“Aw, shucks, it’s just a case of mistaken identity. It’ll be all straightened out within another twenty-four hours.”
“Nevertheless,” Selby said, “I want to know just how the man died.”
He took the suitcase, the portable typewriter and the brief case which the coroner handed him.
Selby said, “I think you’d better sit in here with me, Harry, and make a list of all this stuff.”
“I’ve already listed it,” the coroner replied.
“How did you describe it?”
“Personal papers, newspaper clippings, and such stuff.”
“I think we’d better make a more detailed list.”
He sat down in the chair, cut the sealed tape, opened the brief case and took out a number of papers from the leather pockets. He started sorting the newspaper clippings.
“Here’s one of Shirley Arden, the motion-picture star,” he said, “showing her in her new play, Mended Hearts. Here’s another one of her in a ‘still’ taken during the filming of that picture. Here’s one of her in Page the Groom. Here’s some publicity about her from one of the motion-picture fan magazines. Why all the crush on Shirley Arden, Harry?”
The coroner said, “That’s nothing. We see that every day. Almost everyone has some favorite motion-picture star. People collect all sorts of stuff. You remember this chap said in his letter that he might go on to Hollywood? I’ll bet you he’s gone on Shirley Arden, and was hoping he’d have a chance to meet her.”
The district attorney, forced to accept the logic of the remark, nodded, turned to the rest of the papers.
“Hello,” he said, “here’s some newspaper clippings about the Perry estate.”
“I was wondering about that, too,” the coroner said. “I just took a quick look through them. That’s the Perry estate that’s being fought over in our Superior Court, isn’t it? It says the man who’s trying to prove he’s the heir is H.F. Perry. That’ll be Herbert Perry, won’t it?”
Selby read through the clippings and nodded.
“They aren’t clippings from our papers, are they?”.
“No. They’re Associated Press dispatches, sent out to a number of papers which subscribe for that service.”
“Why do you suppose he saved them?”
“That’s one of the things we’re going to find out.”
“What are they fighting about in that case, anyway?”
“Charles Perry,” Selby said, “was married and got an interlocutory decree of divorce. Then, before the final decree was issued, he went over to Yuma, and married an Edith Fontaine. At the time of the marriage she had a son, Herbert. Herbert took the name of Perry, but Charles Perry wasn’t his father. The marriage, having been performed while an interlocutory decree was in effect, and before a final decree had been entered, was void. That was years ago. Apparently Perry never knew his marriage wasn’t legal. His first wife died, but he never had another marriage ceremony with Edith. He died without a will, and his brother, H. Franklin Perry, is contesting Herbert Perry’s share in the estate.”
“Isn’t there some law about marriage not being necessary where people live openly as man and wife?”
“That’s a common-law marriage.” Selby said. “It doesn’t apply in this state.”
“Well, Perry thought he was married to her all right. He died first, didn’t he?”
“Yes, they were in an automobile accident. He was killed instantly. She lived for a week with a fractured skull and died.”
“So the boy doesn’t get any of the money?” Perkins asked. “I know the brother. He’s a veterinary. He treated my dog once. He’s a good man.”
“Who gets the money is something for the courts to decide,” Selby said. “What I’m wondering about right now is what interested Charles Brower in that particular case.”
“Do you think he was Brower?”
“No, Harry, I don’t. I’m just calling him that because I don’t know anything else to call him.”
Selby looked through other clippings. One of them, from a fan magazine, listed the motion-picture actors and actresses in the order of their popularity. Another one gave what purported to be a tabulation of the gross earnings of the various stars during the preceding year.
A second pocket in the brief case contained a sheaf of typewritten papers. Evidently the typewriting had been done on the minister’s portable typewriter. It was a ragged job filled with crossed-out words and strike-overs. The district attorney noticed that at the top of page 1 appeared a title reading, “Lest Ye Be Judged.”
There followed a story written in a laborious, pedantic style. Selby started to wade through the story. It was the story of an old, irascible judge, entirely out of sympathy with the youth of the day, who had passed a harsh judgment upon a delinquent girl who had come before him. The judgment had been entirely without understanding and without mercy. The girl, declared to be an incorrigible, had been sentenced to a reformatory, but friends rallied to her support, led by a man whose status was not entirely clear. He was referred to as a lover of humanity.
The district attorney, searching the manuscript for some clue which would indicate this man’s love might have had a more personal focal point, became lost in a maze of pointless writing. He finally gathered that the man was much older; that his love was, in fact, really impersonal. The girl had taken up the study of medicine in the second chapter and had become a noted surgeon before the end of the chapter.
In chapter three the judge’s granddaughter, suffering with a brain tumor, was taken to the “greatest specialist in the world,” and when the judge, tears streaming down his face, called to plead with the surgeon to do his best, he found that the surgeon was none other than the girl he had sentenced as an incorrigible.
There were several pages of psychological explanations, the general purport of which was that the girl had been filled with a certain excess of vitality, a certain animal energy which required a definite ambition upon which to concentrate. The man who had saved her had been shrewd enough to place her in school and to dare her to accomplish the impossible. The very difficulty of the task had served to steady her.
“What’s it about?” the coroner asked, when the district attorney had turned over the last page.
“It’s a proof of the old axiom,” Selby said, grinning, “that there lives no man with soul so dead who hasn’t tried to write a picture scenario.”
“That what it is?”
“That’s what it was probably intended to be.”
“I’ll bet you he figured on going down to Hollywood to peddle that scenario.”
“If he did,” Selby pointed out, “he certainly made a peculiar detour. He was sneaking into Hollywood by the back way.”
There were no further papers in the brief case. The district attorney closed it and the coroner taped and sealed it.
Once more Selby went into the suitcase.
“There aren’t any laundry marks on any of those clothes,” the coroner said. “Not even on his starched collars. Ain’t that a little peculiar?”
“Probably the first trip he’d made with these clothes,” he said, “or he’d have had them laundered somewhere. And he couldn’t have been away from home very long. Also, he must have a very efficient wife who’s a hard-working housekeeper. That all indicates a ministerial background.”
Selby inspected the small pasteboard box containing a long roll of paper in which five-grain tablets had been folded.
“This the sedative?” he asked.
“And one of these tablets wouldn’t have brought about death?”
“Not a chance,” the coroner said. “I’ve known people to take four of them.”
“What did cause death then?”
“Probably a bad heart. A double dose of this stuff might have helped bring on the heart attack.”
“You have Doctor Trueman check carefully on that heart attack,” Selby instructed. “I want to know, absolutely, what caused this man’s death.”
The coroner fidgeted uneasily, finally said, “I wonder if you’d mind if I gave you a little advice, Douglas.”
“Go ahead, Harry, dish it out,” Selby said with a smile, “and I’ll try and take it.”
“This is your first case,” the coroner said. “You seem to be trying to make a murder case out of it. Now I wouldn’t go putting the cart before the horse. There’s a lot of sentiment against you in this county, and a lot of it for you. The people who are for you put you in office. The people who are against you hate to have you in office. You go along without attracting any great amount of attention for a month or two, and pretty quick people will forget all about the political end of things. Then those who hated you will be smiling and shaking hands when they see you on the street. But you get off on the wrong foot, and it’s going to hurt. Your enemies will be tickled to death and you’ll lose some of your friends.”
Selby said, “Harry, I don’t care how this thing looks to you. I’m not satisfied with it.”
“You get to looking at dead people through a microscope and you’ll never be satisfied with anything,” the coroner objected. “Things never do check out in real life. This guy was registered under a phony name. Nothing to get excited about in that — lots of people do it.”
Selby shook his head and laid down what was to be his primary code of conduct during his term of office.
“Harry,” he said, “facts fit. They’re like figures. If you get all the facts, your debit column adds up the same as your credit column. The facts balance with the result and the result balances with the facts. Any time they don’t, it’s because we haven’t all of the facts, and are trying to force a balance with the wrong figures. Now take that typewritten letter, for instance. It wasn’t written by the same man who wrote the scenario. The typing in the letter is perfect, evenly matched and free of strike-overs. The scenario is a hunt-and-peck affair, sloppy and ragged. Probably they were both written on the same machine, but they weren’t written by the same person. That’s an illustration of what I mean by saying that facts must balance, if they’re going to support theories.”
The coroner sighed. “Well, I told you, anyhow,” he remarked. “Go ahead and make a murder out of it, if you want to. You’ll find it’ll be a boomerang.”
Selby grinned, thanked him, left the mortuary and went at once to the Madison Hotel.
In the manager’s private office Selby had a showdown with George Cushing.
“Otto Larkin,” Cushing said reproachfully, “tells me you’re making a mountain out of a molehill on this Brower case, Selby. I didn’t think you’d do that to me.”
“I’m not doing it to you, George.”
“Well, you’re doing it to my business.”
“I’m not doing anything to your business. I’m going to find out the facts in this case, that’s all.”
“You’ve already got the facts.”
“No, I haven’t. The facts I’ve had have been wrong. The man isn’t Charles Brower.”
“Oh, that,” Cushing said, with a wave of his hand. “That frequently happens. Lots of people register under assumed names for one reason or another, and sometimes, if people happen to have a friend’s card in their pockets, they’ll register under the name of the friend, figuring they can produce the card, if anyone questions them.”
“Whom did this man know in the hotel?” the district attorney asked.
Cushing raised his eyebrows. “In the hotel?” he asked. “Why, I don’t suppose he knew anyone.” “Whom did he know in town?”
“I couldn’t tell you about that. No one that I know of. A man who hadn’t done much traveling and came here from Millbank, Nevada, wouldn’t be apt to know anyone here in the hotel or in the town either.”
“When Sheriff Brandon and I were coming out of campaign headquarters on the fifth floor the other morning,” Selby said, “this preacher was coming out of a room on the fifth floor. It was a room on the right-hand side of the corridor, and I’d say it was somewhere between 507 and 519.”
Cushing’s face showed emotion. He leaned forward. His breathing was distinctly audible.
“Now listen, Doug,” he said, “why not lay off of this thing? You’re not doing the hotel any good and you’re not doing yourself any good.”
“I’m going to find out who this man is and I’m going to find out how he died and why he died,” Selby said doggedly.
“He’s some bird from Millbank, Nevada, or some nearby place,” Cushing said. “He knows this man Brower in Millbank. He knew Brower was away on a fishing trip, so he figured it would be a good time to use Brower’s name.”
“Who occupied those rooms on the fifth floor?” Selby insisted.
“I’m sure I couldn’t tell you.”
“Get your register.”
“Now, listen, Doug, you’re carrying this thing too far.”
The district attorney said, “Get the register, George.”
Cushing got up, started for the door, hesitated for a moment, then came back and sat down.
“Well,” Selby said, “go ahead, get the register.”
“There’s something about this,” Cushing said slowly, “that I don’t want made public. It doesn’t concern this case in any way.”
“What is it?”
“It’s something that won’t be shown by the register, but you’ll probably find out about it, if you get to nosing around … And,” he added bitterly, “it looks like you’re going to nose around.”
“I am,” Selby promised.
“There was a guest here Monday who didn’t want her identity known.”
“What room was she in?”
“Who was she?”
“I can’t tell you that, Doug. It hasn’t anything to do with the case.”
“Why don’t you want to tell me then?”
“Because she came here on business. It was rather a confidential business. She was trying to keep it from becoming known. She signed a fictitious name on the register and made me agree I’d say nothing about her having been here. She only stayed a couple of hours and then went back. Her manager, I think, stayed on a little longer.”
“Who was she?”
“I can’t tell you. She’s famous and she didn’t want the newspapers making a lot of hullabaloo about her. I don’t want her to think I’ve broken my promise. She comes here sometimes when she wants to get away from everything, and always has the same room. I sort of keep it for her … and … well, that’s why I’m telling you all this. I don’t want you stirring up any publicity about room 515.”
A sudden realization crystallized in Selby’s mind, a realization of something so weirdly bizarre that it didn’t make sense, yet was entirely on a par with the other developments in the case.
“That woman,” he said with the calm finality of one who is absolutely certain of his statements, “was Shirley Arden, the motion-picture actress.”
George Cushing’s eyes widened. “How the devil did you know?”
Selby said, “Never mind that. Tell me all you know.”
“Ben Trask, her manager and publicity agent, was with her. Miss Arden went in by way of the freight elevator. Trask saw that the coast was clear.”
“Did anyone in the hotel call on her?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Did Trask have a room here?”
“What is this room, a bedroom?”
“It’s a suite; a bedroom, sitting room and bath.”
“Any outside telephone calls?” Selby asked.
“I wouldn’t know. I can find out by looking up the records.”
Cushing fidgeted uneasily and said, “This preacher left an envelope in the safe. I had forgotten about it until this morning. Do you want me to get it?”
“What’s in it?”
“A letter or something.”
“Yes,” Selby said, “get it.”
“I’d like to have you sign for it.”
“All right, bring a receipt and I’ll sign.”
The hotel manager stepped from the office for a few moments, then returned with a sealed envelope, across the flap of which appeared a scrawled signature, “Charles Brower.”
“Wait here,” Selby told him, “while I open the envelope. We’ll list the contents.”
He slit the end of the envelope with a knife and pulled out several folded sheets of hotel stationery.
“Well,” he said, “this looks . . .”
His voice trailed into silence as his fingers unfolded the sheets of stationery. Five one-thousand-dollar bills had been folded between two sheets of hotel stationery.
“Good Lord!” Cushing exclaimed.
“You sure the minister put this envelope in the safe?” Selby asked.
“No chance for any mistake?”
Selby turned the bills over in his fingers. Then, as a delicate scent was wafted to his nostrils, he raised the bills to his nose; Pushed them across the table and said to Cushing, “Smell.”
Cushing sniffed of the bills. “Perfume,” he said.
Selby folded the bills back in the paper and slipped both paper and bills back in the envelope.
“Take a strip of gummed paper,” he said. “Seal up that envelope and put it back in the safe. That’ll keep the odor of the perfume from being dissipated. I’ll want to check it later. . . Now, then, who had room 319?”
“When the body was discovered, a man by the name of Block was in the room.”
“Where’s he from? What does he do, and how long have you known him?”
“He’s a traveling salesman who works out of Los Angeles for one of the hardware firms.”
“Has he checked out yet?”
“I don’t think so, but he’s just about due to check out.”
“I want to talk with him.”
“I’ll see if he’s in.”
“Who had the room before Block?”
“I’ve looked that up. The room hadn’t been rented for three days.”
“The room on the other side — 323?”
“That was vacant when the body was discovered, but had been rented the night before to a young couple from Hollywood, a Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Smith.”
“Get their street number from the register. See if this salesman is in his room. I want to talk with him. Seal that envelope and put it back in the safe.”
Cushing excused himself, and this time was gone some five minutes. He returned, accompanied by a well-dressed man in the early thirties, whose manner radiated smiling self-assurance.
“This is Mr. Block, the man who’s in Room 319,” he said.
Block wasted no time in preliminaries. His face wreathed in a welcoming smile, he gripped Selby’s hand cordially.
“I’m very pleased to meet you, Mr. Selby. I understand you’re to be congratulated on winning one of the most bitterly contested elections ever held in the history of the county. I’ve been covering this territory several years, and I’ve heard everywhere about the splendid campaign you were putting up. My name’s Carl Block, and I’m with the Central Hardware Supplies Company. I come through here regularly once a month, making headquarters here for a couple of days, while I cover the outlying towns. Is there any way in which I can be of service to you?”
The man’s manner exuded a ready, rugged friendliness. Sizing him up, Selby knew why he held such a splendid sales record, knew also that it would be next to impossible to surprise any information from him.
“You got in yesterday morning, Mr. Block?”
“About what time?”
“Well, I got in pretty early. I find that these days the business comes to the man who goes after it.”
“Hear any unusual sounds from the adjoining room?”
“Not a sound.”
“Thank you,” Selby said, “that’s all.” He nodded to Cushing and said, “I’m going back to my office, George. Don’t give out any information.”
Cushing followed him to the door of the hotel. “Now, listen, Doug,” he said, “this thing was just a natural death. There’s no use getting worked up about it, and remember to keep that information about Miss Arden under your hat.”
Selby said to Frank Gordon, “Frank, I want you to find out everything you can about the litigation in the Perry Estate.”
“I think I can tell you all about it,” Gordon said. “I know John Baggs, the attorney for Herbert Perry. He’s discussed the case with me.”
“What are the facts?”
“Charles Perry married Edith Fontaine in Yuma. The marriage wasn’t legal because Perry only had an interlocutory decree. He had the mistaken idea he could leave the state and make a good marriage. Edith Fontaine had a son by a previous marriage — Herbert Fontaine. He changed his name to Perry. Perry and his wife were killed in an auto accident. If there wasn’t any marriage, the property goes to H. Franklin Perry, the veterinary, a brother of Charles. If the marriage was legal, the bulk of the property vested in Edith on the death of Charles, and Herbert is Edith’s sole heir. That’s the case in a nutshell.”
“Who’s representing H. Franklin Perry?”
“Get a picture of the dead minister. See if either of the litigants can identify him.”
He picked up the phone and said to the exchange operator,” I want Sheriff Brandon, please. Then I want Shirley Arden, the picture actress.” In a moment he heard Rex Brandon’s voice.
“Just had an idea,” Selby said. “There was a pair of reading spectacles in that suitcase. Get an oculist here to get the prescription. Get a photograph of the dead man. Rush the photograph and the prescription to the optician in San Francisco whose name is on the spectacle case. Have him look through his records and see if he can identify the spectacles.”
“Okay,” Brandon said cheerfully. “I’m running down a couple of other clues. I’ll see you later on.”
Selby’s secretary reported, “Miss Arden is working on the set. She can’t come to the telephone. A Mr. Trask says he’ll take the call. He says he’s her manager.”
“Very well,” Selby said, “put Trask on the line.”
He heard a click, then a masculine voice saying suavely, “Yes, Mr. Selby?”
Selby snapped words into the transmitter. “I don’t want to say anything over the telephone which would embarrass you or Miss Arden,” he said. “Perhaps you know who I am.”
“Yes, I do, Mr. Selby.”
“Day before yesterday,” Selby said, “Miss Arden made a trip. You were with her.”
“I want to question her about that trip.”
Selby said, “I think you’d prefer I didn’t answer that question over the telephone. I want to see both you and Miss Arden in my office sometime before nine o’clock tonight.”
“But, I say, that’s quite impossible,” Trask protested. “Miss Arden’s working on a picture and … ”
Selby interrupted. “I have ways,” he said, “of getting Miss Arden’s statement. There are hard ways and easy ways. This is the easy way — for you.”
There was a moment’s silence, then the voice said, “At ten o’clock tonight, Mr. Selby?”
“I’d prefer an earlier hour. How about seven or eight?”
“Eight o’clock would be the earliest time we could possibly make it. Miss Arden is under contract, and … ”
“Very well,” Selby said, “at eight o’clock tonight,” and hung up before the manager could think of additional excuse.
He had hardly hung up the telephone before it rang with shrill insistence. He took the receiver from the hook, said “Hello,” and heard the calmly professional voice of Dr. Ralph Trueman.
“You wanted information about that man who was found dead in the Madison Hotel,” Trueman said.
“Yes. What information have you?”
“I haven’t covered everything,” Doctor Trueman said, “but I’ve gone far enough to be morally certain of the cause of death.”
“What was it?”
“A lethal dose of morphine, taken internally.”
“Of morphine!” Selby exclaimed. “Why, the man had some sleeping tablets … ”
“Which hadn’t been taken at all, so far as I can ascertain,” Trueman interrupted. “But what he had taken was a terrific dose of morphine, which induced paralysis of the respiratory organs. Death probably took place between midnight and three o’clock yesterday morning.”
“And when was the morphine administered?”
“Any time from one to two hours prior to death.”
“Well, I’m not certain about that,” Trueman said, “but there’s some chance a tablet containing the deadly dose might have been inserted in the box of sedative which the man was carrying with him. In that event he’d have taken the morphia, thinking he was taking an ordinary sleeping tablet. The tablets were wrapped in paper so that they’d naturally be taken in a consecutive order. I’ve made a very delicate test with some of the paper remaining in the box and get a definite trace of morphia.”
“Could that have been a possible error on the part of the druggist filling the prescription?” Selby asked.
“In a tablet of that size, with that amount of morphia,” Doctor Trueman said, “the chance of honest error would be just about one in ten million.”
“Then … then it was deliberate, carefully planned murder!” Selby said.
Doctor Trueman’s voice retained its professional calm. “That,” he observed, “is a matter of law. I’m merely giving you the medical facts.”
TO BE CONTINUED (READ PART II)
Featured image: Illustrated by Dudley Gloyne Summers.