THAT MULDREW was not taking me completely into his confidence I had more than suspected for some time, and, as usual in my association with him, it annoyed me.
Making every allowance for his experience, as for the natural reticence of his profession, did not lighten the sting. I therefore fell back on the one source of assistance I was free to claim--Conrad Sperring.
When I reached the hotel, Hammerton was in the office, keeping out of sight. I would have missed him had he not sent a clerk to call me back just as I was entering an elevator. He looked surprisingly humble and apologetic.
"Good friend as you are, Lillie," he said, "I can’t dissociate you from the police. And every policeman I see about the hotel makes me shudder. I hope I have your promise to make nothing of this last affair of mine. It’s a devil of a position for me, as you can see. It will do me and the hotel a lot of harm until the murderer of that man. Lightfoot—Netherwood, I mean--is cleared up. I can't understand the indifference of the police, and yet there’s always one hanging about. Surely they can see that none of the gang are here now; not likely to be, with so many officials about. Anders gone, and Netherwood, and now Jefferson that’s all there could be. Mr. Sperring told me what happened last night. It looks as if I was wrong— about them not using the hotel. I mean.”
He touched his bandaged head and winced.
"I wouldn’t have gone to the police with this thing if it hadn’t been for Mr. Sperring, you can gamble on that. The way Muldrew took it, I’m sorry now that l went. I'll be all right in a few days.”
“Sperring,” I said, “showed his good sense. These things can’t be let pass, you know. Trust Muldrew to find out if the attack on you had any connection with the murder. He’s got something up his sleeve.” In reality I was talking to convince myself more than Hammerton. “Some of these days he’ll strike and strike hard. That’s his way.”
Hammerton’s one eye brightened. “It’s the first promising word I’ve heard since the murder.” He glanced about the office. "Has he given you any hint?” he whispered.
I told him Muldrew hadn’t told me all he knew.
“But I’m not depending on him. These policemen never tell anything they don’t have to. But there’s Sperring. He’s bound to have an idea, and his guesses have been uncannily near the mark. I’m going to see him now.”
As I neared the door of Sperring’s room I could hear the tapping of his typewriter, and when I knocked he called absent-mindedly to come in. For a moment or two he stared through me, then, coming to earth, threw his arms about me with boyish delight.
“I was praying for you,” he cried, thrusting his copy in the table drawer. “I knew you’d come; I’m a great believer in prayer. After what happened to Hammerton you’d have to come, eh? Tiger,” he said soberly, “it has a funny look. It adds a complication for which I was unprepared. Of course we have to face the fact that Hammerton is amorous, which means exposure to risks that a reasonable man hesitates to face. But just now, if there was an eclipse I’d know it had something to do with that murder.” He began to pace about the room. “And yet I can’t see where Hammerton comes in. I wondered if it might be resentment at the help he gave the police? But, come to think of it, he gave mighty little help and that only when Muldrew forced it. What does Muldrew think of it?”
I TOLD him Muldrew had given no evidence of thinking much of anything about it, that the man just took it in the day's work.
“That’s too bad,” Sperring lamented. “I’ve faith in Muldrew. It was I who made Hammerton take the story to him . . .Tiger, I’ve a hunch that when we land on Hammerton’s assailant we’ll not be far from the murderer of Aaron Netherwood. I can see only one spot of light.” I asked what it was.
“That Hammerton was to be got out of the way. Not killed, you understand, but incapacitated. Wait,” as I interrupted. “The fellow who attacked him had a gun. If he had wished to kill Hammerton he could have shot. It’s not enough to say he feared the noise; in that part of the city a get-away would have been simple. No, he carried a gun only to defend himself should Hammerton prove tougher than expected.”
“It still tells me nothing,” I confessed.
“No? Suppose I’m right—that Hammerton was only to be disabled—what difference would that make to anyone? I believe Muldrew would leap to the answer. It would leave the hotel with no active manager. See the point? Perhaps they see that Hammerton suspects they’ve been using the hotel, and they’re not prepared to give it up as a meeting-place. Or perhaps they wish the way clear to break into Room 322. They’ve tried other means. Hammerton is watching that room—I see it myself. The fact that Muldrew wishes to keep the murderer out of that room is enough to convince one that the murderer wishes to get in. Do I make myself clear?”
I was surprised that he had struck so deeply into facts as I knew them.
“The one fact that rather discounts your theory, Conrad, is that the murderer did succeed somehow in getting into that room last night. We hadn’t told you that.”
Sperring stared at me.
“But how—how could he get in? Muldrew has the keys. Did he smash the door? He couldn’t have done that, because I’ve seen the door today.”
“I can’t even guess how he managed it,” I confessed.
“Does Muldrew know?”
I had to admit that I didn’t know. “I don’t understand Muldrew; he seemed so unconcerned about it. But he said he wouldn’t have missed knowing it for worlds.”
“He said that? Ah—yes. You see what it means? Muldrew has arranged things so the murderer would fail in what he was after.”
‘‘But what could the fellow want? Muldrew and I have been through the room again and again with a fine-toothed comb. Muldrew put a new lock on, of course, but that was merely official procedure—or a dab at more mystery. The police always seal the place where a crime occurs.”
But Sperring would not have it. ‘‘Because,” he explained whimsically, ‘‘if that’s so, every theory of mine goes kiting. I couldn’t bear that.”
SOME ONE knocked on the door, and a moment later Muldrew was in the room. He and Sperring faced each other, a sly smile about the lips of each. Sperring bowed low.
“So now, with three experts, the mystery is solved. We’ll walk right out and pick up the murderer of Aaron Netherwood.”
“Don’t hurry me. Sperring.” Muldrew sat down and threw his hat on the table. “Let’s be sportsmen. Three against one? It isn’t to be thought of. I like to give even a murderer a chance. To confess,” he added, with a grin.
Sperring, after a wink at me, took another chair.
“We were just talking about you, Mr. Muldrew. This Hammerton affair crowds him into the picture now. I sent him down to you because I didn’t wish to take advantage of you.” He smiled. “Tiger and I have been poking about for an explanation that has an atom of reason. I have to confess we haven’t been conspicuously successful.”
Muldrew examined his watch. “Let’s all get together somewhere tonight and thresh this thing out. I’ll give up the whole evening to it. Something has to be done quickly.”
Sperring and I were delighted and said so.
Muldrew dialled a number. In his oiliest tones he said:
“Is that you, Mrs. Netherwood? . . . Not yet, but we’re not lying down on the job. By the way, may I bring some friends to your house tonight to talk things over? Just three or four; Sperring and Lillie, for instance? They’ve been working with me on the case ... I knew you’d consent . . . At seven forty-five? Thank you.”
With a look of sly satisfaction he hung up. “If you can afford the time now. Tiger, there’s a little job we can finish before night. Coming?”
Downstairs, he stopped at the office long enough to tell Hammerton what we planned. As an afterthought he invited him to join us, and Hammerton accepted eagerly.
“If only we had Mona and Jerry to complete the thing,” I lamented as we passed to the street.
Muldrew started when I spoke, as if he had forgotten me.
“Yes, Tiger, if we only had them. And now I want you to go to your room and write. Put down everything connected with the case that you remember. I may have forgotten little clues. Bring it to me at Mrs. Netherwood’s at half-past seven. That’ll give me time to glance over it before the others come. Don’t forget a thing, but don’t mention the case to anyone. I want your mind clear for your own impressions only.” He added with a chuckle. “If we don’t clear this business up, I’ll go to selling bonds.”
I WAS knocking at Mrs. Netherwood’s door a minute or two before half-past seven, and the attitude of Mrs. Netherwood as she let me in only added fuel to the fire of my anticipation. No longer was she brusque and unfeeling; all her hardness and grimness had vanished. Excitement equal to my own burned in her eyes, in her trembling manner, and she would not look at me.
She led me, not to the studio where we had gone before but to the dining room in the rear. Even before I noticed Muldrew, I saw that the room had been rearranged for the gathering.
Muldrew sat behind a small table near the far end of the room. At his back was the sideboard with its top cleared, and beside it, partially concealed by Muldrew’s big frame, some other piece of furniture shrouded in a dust cover. I took it to be one of Netherwood’s choice antiques. Half a dozen chairs were ranged somewhat formally about the walls, the line broken by a small table before one of them, on which were laid pencils and a pad of cheap paper. To my right as I entered, a low door led, l took it, to a cupboard beneath the stairs rising from the hall outside.
Mrs. Netherwood had not spoken a word, and now she closed the doo
Muldrew had lifted his face absentmindedly. The table before him was covered with a cloth that lumped here and there with the out line of objects beneath.
“Well, Tiger, this is fine,” he said. “A few seconds early, aren’t you?”
“So like the opening of a third act,” I scoffed.
He laughed. “That’s commendation from an expert. Thanks. I’m hoping it is the third act. Can you suggest any improvement?"
I threw on the table the bundle that was my story, fifteen typewritten pages. I had, I thought, made a good job of it. A carbon copy reposed in a drawer at home for later use in The Star when the time came.
“You’ll have your hands full getting through all that before the others come,” I said.
Muldrew picked up the bundle casually, frowning at it as if he failed to understand. “Oh—your inventory. Good." He thumbed the pages. “Hm-m-m! This is entirely from your own head, Tiger? No assistance?"
I told him I had done as he said seen no one since morning and talked to no one. There hadn’t been time. Even my meals I had snatched at a near-by lunch counter. “Twelve thousand words doesn’t leave much time for gossip, Gordy.”
He tossed the bundle on the sideboard behind him. “The others,” he said, “will be here in a few minutes.”
I closed my teeth against the anger that surged within me. A whole day rivetted to the task he had set me, seeing no one. snatching my meals, cudgelling my brain for everything that had the remotest bearing on the murder of Aaron Netherwood--and then to have it tossed aside as if it were the imposition of a ruthless teacher on a naughty pupil !
Behind me in the hall I could hear Mrs. Netherwoo
“Is that part of the stage property?" I asked.
He turned and stared at the bulky sheet. "It belongs to them—” Before he could say more the knocker sounded loudly outside and we forgot everything else. Muldrew pointed in suppressed excitement to the nearest chair.
“Sit there, Tiger—there!”
In that deliberate arrangement I read further mystery.
The door opened and Mrs. Netherwood ushered in Conrad Sperring. He entered with his usual friendly smile, but his round face shone with expectation and he stared curiously around the room. Mrs. Netherwood had retired as silently and suggestively as before.
“I know I’m a bit ahead of time,” Sperring said apologetically, “but I couldn’t wait any longer. It’s starting to rain, too.”
Muldrew had risen, his smiling welcome more cordial than I expected. I could see how much he counted on Sperring’s assistance, and it increased my respect for him that he made no attempt to conceal it.
“I’m glad you’re early,” he said. He pointed to the chair before which was set the small table, with pencils and paper. “You’d better take that chair, Sperring. I had it prepared for you. loiter on. the notes you make may be valuable. And might I ask that you make a pretty close record of things?”
Sperring responded with frank but flushing pride.
Muldrew’s recognition was unexpected but welcome. Perhaps a trifle pompously, he seated himself.
We talked in a desultory, jerky fashion, plainly filling in time and anxious for the others to arrive. Muldrew was uneasy, for again and again he referred to his watch.
“Hammerton is late,” he muttered. "I’ll warrant he’s more prompt about his own business. I want to get started. I must go at eight-forty, and w'e’re going to be crowded for time, I’m afraid. Did you see Hammerton, Sperring?”
Sperring made a face.
“Not I. Nor likely to. I've given the office notice that I’m leaving tomorrow. No, not the city; I’m not likely to do that till this case is cleared up. But I’m fed up on Hammerton’s grouches about my typewriter. The Florence Hotel, in spite of its swell face, is not the place to hold me if I can’t have a free hand with my work. Hammerton and I don’t click, that’s all.”
Muldrew was frankly surprised.
“I don’t have any great affection for him myself, but he seems such a lightweight. I wouldn’t make him think he was important enough to drive me away. He’s egotist enough now—”
The knocker sounded and Hammerton entered. He rushed in, thrusting Mrs. Netherwood aside.
As he entered I rose involuntarily from my chair, staring at him. Inside me, something seemed to snap. Hammerton had pulled up just inside the door, glaring from one to another of us with his single uncovered eye. Mrs. Netherwood stood behind him, facing Muldrew. She had not left the room this time; instead, she closed the door behind her and waited.
“Sorry, awfully sorry if I’m late,” Hammerton stammered. "Darned nuisance getting here at all just at our busiest hour. I never was more needed at the hotel. I told you, Mr. Muldrew, there’d be trouble.” He flopped into the chair Muldrew indicated and leaned forward on his knees, sullen and resentful.
“What sort of trouble now?” Muldrew enquired.
“I warned you about those fellows in 308. They’ve skipped.”
Muldrew looked puzzled.
"I don’t see what I could have done about it. You made no charge-- ”
"I told you there was something crooked there,” Hammerton broke in angrily. “They had something to conceal in that room—that’s why they wouldn’t let anyone in. Say, can’t w'e get started? I’ve got to get back to the hotel.”
Mrs. Netherwood had come softly to the chair beside me and seated herself, prim and silent, her hands gripped in her lap, lips compressed. Outside in the hall there was a furtive rustle of movement, then the door opened sharply and Mona Netherwood and Jerry Inkerley walked in.
I STARED. Sperring stared. Even Hammerton, though only remotely interested and knowing next to nothing about their disappearance, noticed our surprise and looked startled and expectant. Mrs. Netherwood and Muldrew simply sat and looked about. Mrs. Netherwood was holding herself, against what I could not guess; Muldrew was completely calm, even smiling.
Sperring was first to recover. Springing to his feet, he rushed to Jerry and seized his hand.
“By Jove, Inkerley, it’s good to see you—you and Miss Netherwood. And”—with an apologetic grin—“I don’t care a hoot if it knocks over another silly theory of mine. I was distressed about you guess I tried to ease my distress by imagining absurd things about you both. I even had you both murdered at the last.”
Jerry surprised me. He was, I thought, surly at such a welcome. But I was ready to forgive him when I remembered his fooli
Sperring turned to me with his deprecatory smile.
"Tiger, forget all my postulates and deductions. I’ve been a fool. Inkerley, I publicly apologize. Go on, Muldrew, get started and cover my shame.”
He bowed stiffly to Mona— he had not mistaken the origin of Jerry’s surly manner and returned to his chair behind the table, fussily arranging pad and pencils.
Hammerton looked bewildered and uncomfortable, and not a little anxious at being out of things. Once I caught him eyeing Sperring in a troubled way. Jerry and Mona had taken chairs across the room from Mrs. Netherwood and me. Sperring and Hammerton sat at the end. one on each side of the door leading to the cupboard under the stairs. The two newcomers had not spoken a word. A tense stillness filled the room.
Muldrew cleared his throat. He smiled at Sperring.
“My little surprise, Sperring. At any rate. I’ve interested you—even if my theories, like some of yours, fall to the ground. Let me say. however, that, from what evidence l have, you've never been far astray; certainly not so far as your modesty claims. Miss Netherwood and Inkerley are explained. Last night they turned up at Inspector Armitage’s. They were waiting for me when I came from the counterfeiters' headquarters. They offered me a chance to add punch to our little gathering this evening. I was in debt to you all for co-operating with me. My one regret is that they have so little to tell.
“I brought you here for a purpose more definite — perhaps I should say a hope more definite—than I probably showed. I feel quite certain that, from the patchwork of clues and information in our possession, we may produce a solution of the mystery surrounding the murder of Aaron Netherwood. First of all, let’s forget the counterfeiters and concentrate on the greater crime. Let’s even forget our suspicion—our conviction—that the counterfeiters had anything to do with the murder.”
HE EXAMINED his watch. His opening words had drawn my attention from Jerry and Mona. Now I returned to Hammerton, my brain tumbling dizzily. For some time I had tried to catch Muldrew'’s eye but he refused to look at me.
"I promised,” Muldrew continued, “to give as well as take ; in other words, to give you my own theories ... Of course we know Netherwood was connected in some way with the counterfeiters. We can take Jefferson’s word for that, as well as what that connection was. How he became associated with them we have no way of knowing, but a mysterious visitor frequently came to this house after night to see him, a visitor Netherwood was anxious to hide even from his family. This visitor must have been one of the gang, probably the leader himself, and in time he prevailed on Netherwood to undertake the drawings for the plates they required. My opinion is that Netherwood resisted the lure for a long time; that when at last he yielded he left home and settled at the Florence Hotel. Criminal as he turned out to be, he was unwilling to involve his family in his crime. I am satisfied that he kept in that cabinet in his bathroom the tools of his new task.”
“I thought,” Sperring murmured, “you were eliminating the counterfeiters for the time being and concentrating on the murder.”
Muldrew moved uncomfortably. “Yes, yes. But these thoughts were in my mind. They provide a foundation for what happened.”
“How,” I asked, “was that cabinet emptied before we reached the room?”
Muldrew smiled. “The murderer did it—before he left the room.”
“He hadn’t time. We haven’t yet worked out how he had time even to escape, let alone clean out the room.”
“It’s that point,” Muldrew declared, “that we’ve come here to discuss. Perhaps it’s the main point. We’ll leave it for the time being for something simpler. Let me unfold my fancies. The reason for Netherwood's murder may be explained in several ways. Sperring has suggested some of them. If we discredit Jefferson’s story, then we may blame the murder on him. He was an acknowledged hijacker, a thief from thieves—the most dangerous task in the world. Jefferson we know to have been without fear and with few qualms. He may have murdered Netherwofxl to get possession of the plates, or Netherwood may have been custodian of the false notes—though I can’t believe that. I believe Jefferson spoke the truth.”
Sperring said: “Isn’t it possible Jefferson himself was one of a gang?”
“You mean of another gang, a rival one? Of course that may be so —except that hijacking is in essence a one-man game, and Jefferson was essentially a one-man operator. We have had no evidence of a confederate.”
“There are the Darlings,” I suggested. “Don’t forget them.”
Muldrew said he was not forgetting them.
“I still think,” Sperring insisted, “that Netherwood was killed by one of his own gang.”
“I was coming to that,” Muldrew said. “He may have threatened to give up the work. I’m convinced that his wife and daughter were much more to him than they thought— there’s that soiled photograph to prove it. Nothing is more likely than that his conscience regained control. He was, I believe, a sensitive man, at heart a family man. If he dropped out, where might his conscience lead him? Possibly to exposure of the whole affair—or even probably.”
Muldrew stopped once more to consult his watch. His interest in the watch fascinated as it bewildered me.
Sperring put in: “There’s another possibility. Having the plates, the gang had no further use for Netherwood and murdered him to get rid of a danger—and of one with whom they had to share profits. They’d be utterly ruthless, that gang.”
MULDREW was interested. “I’m glad you thought of that. I’ve had it in mind. At any rate, we can accept it that Aaron Netherwood was murdered by one of the counterfeiters’ gang, of which he himself was a member.”
“It’s plain enough who did it.” I urged, “it was Anders. He had the next room. No one but he could get out of 322 and into his own room without being seen.”
“But,” Sperring puzzled, "he himself was murdered, later. And don’t forget that awful cackle in the darkness. That wasn’t Anders.”
“Anders was murdered by the leader, of course,” I said. “I can vouch for that. But the leader was neither Anders nor Jefferson, and no one else could have escaped from 322.”
“One other thing we know,” Muldrew continued. “The Florence Hotel was one of their headquarters—”
“You can’t prove that,” Hammerton protested. “That’s only guessing. Besides, what if it was?”
“That’s so,” Sperring agreed. “It really doesn’t concern the hotel. Isn’t it possible that Jefferson, too, was a member of the gang; murdered, like the others, by the leader—this man of the awful laugh—to get all the money in his ow'n hands and wipe out any possibility of exposure? Jefferson may have had an ambition to become leader or to get control of the money.”
Hammerton was listening eagerly. “That sounds most reasonable to me.” Anything that drew the discussion from his beloved hotel he was prepared to support.
“To me, too,” Muldrew admitted; but he looked none too happy about it.
Sperring made a grimace. “But where does that land us?”
“It tightens the mystery,” Muldrew declared, “to a single angle.”
For a time no one spoke. We were absorbed in the various theories advanced and struggling for new ones of our own, I suppose. I know I was. It seemed to me that I had contributed little of value. Sperring bit savagely at a pencil.
“I’m still hazy, Muldrew, about parts of that first night in the factory. You followed some one. Was it . . . But Anders was ahead. Have you no idea who it was?”
Muldrew explained that it was Jefferson, but the information failed to clear the haze for Sperring.
“It certainly proves he was not in the gang—at that time,” he said. “Anders must have known he was being followed.”
“Of course. And I knew he knew. It was my one hope of finding out things. I’ve taken that chance before. What they wished, of course, was the key to Room 322. I guessed it in time to throw away the one I carried. The other was in my desk at the office.”
Sperring’s admiration showed in his face. “Clever, that.” He turned to Jerry. “Couldn’t we get your story, Inkerley? Muldrew has it already, of course. We’re at a disadvantage. I can only guess—and I may guess wrong.”
It was Muldrew who replied. “What they can tell won’t help. Their experience was unpleasant but unenlightening. At least, it doesn’t tell me anything of value. By a carefully laid plot, they were inveigled away—”
“Exactly what happened to me,” Hammerton exclaimed. Strangely enough, none of us seemed to have thought of the coincidence.
“Inkerley’s car,” Muldrew went on, “was waylaid and the two were taken captive and held in that factory where later the gang took Tiger and me. It was Miss Netherwood we heard screaming while we were helpless . . . That’s all. They never saw anyone without a mask.”
Sperring groaned. “Are we never to get behind this cloud?”
Muldrew was speaking again:
“Somehow, Jefferson escaped. He was thrown off the bridge, apparently helpless, but he managed to get away and find his way back to the factory last night. It was he released the pair—Miss Netherwood and Inkerley. I don’t think it was all pity for them—or for me when he released me—but satisfaction at getting ahead of the gang he was trying to hijack. Inkerley thinks he did recognize Anders, but he isn’t sure—and it doesn’t matter now.”
“So all we get from them,” Sperring sighed, “is a character for a hijacker who failed before he died to throw much light on anything. But why were they captured at all? I can’t see what they—”
“My impression,” continued Muldrew, “is that the murderer wished to lead the police up a blind lane, to throw suspicion on them until he could get clear away with the money. And he killed Anders for the same reason that he killed Netherwood —or because he suspected him of releasing Miss Netherwood and Inkerley. But to return to the murder.” Again he looked at his watch, and an eager whisper went around the room.
SPERRING shuffled his papers, placing one carefully before him, ready for notes. “May I ask a few questions? How was the murder committed?”
“With the dagger we found on the table, of course.”
The reply seemed unworthy of Muldrew, but Sperring concealed his scorn.
“Yes, of course, but—”
With a swift movement, Muldrew swept from the table the white cover. Three daggers lay there, the three that had figured so intimately in the case. For several moments we stared.
Sperring raised himself slightly to see. “Ah, yes. I wish someone would explain those daggers to me.”
"As you know,” Muldrew said, “Mrs. Netherwood sent them at her husband's request. It was the part of his collection he regretted leaving behind. He had made a fad of old knives and daggers . . . And. who knows, perhaps he saw in them some protection against the dangers to which his work exposed him. There never could have been any real friendliness between the gang and a man like Netherwood.”
Sperring was satisfied. “But how was the murder committed so the murderer could clear out the room in time to escape?”
Muldrew appeared not to hear. He lifted the Japanese dagger with the carved ivory handle. The ugly stain of Aaron Netherwood’s life blood was on it.
“You’ve all seen this. This one,” taking up the stiletto, “almost ended one of the policemen--Jameson.”
“The policeman who slept on the couch when he was set to guard that room?” Sperring asked. “I said the murderer must be anxious to get in there again. Something he wanted--a clue to destroy."
“Of course.” Muldrew laid the stiletto down. “A clue to destroy. The open window, for instance he may have thought we failed to notice that."
But Sperring shook his head. “There’s more to it than that.”
Muldrew took up the dagger with the deer’s-foot handle.
“This one did for Jefferson.” He threw a furtive glance at his watch. “There’s another dagger—the fourth. Mrs. Netherwood sent four to her husband at the hotel. The fourth . . . We’ll find it on the murderer of Aaron Netherwood !”
A touch of drama. I thought, and little else. We regarded one another questioningly and I fancied Sperring tried to hide a smile.
"And when you find it.” he said, "it may be to the accompaniment of that awful laugh.”
"I hope not !” I cried, remembering that it was always a triumphant laugh. “I’m still all at sea about what was done in that room after Mr. Netherwood ’s murder the dagger laid neatly on the table, the hands folded across his chest . . . ”
"A murderer with a sense of decency." Muldrew reflected. "A murderer who knew he had lots of time. Not only did he rifle the cabinet and the desk, but he even went through the dead man’s pockets. It was all carefully arranged . What the murderer could not arrange was the condition of the blood. One ain’t prevent blood coagulating in time. There was unmistakable coagulation. proving that the murder had not been committed less than half an hour before we found the body."
"But, Gordy,” I protested, "we heard the cries."
“Certainly the cries -more proof of the carelessness of the most cunning murderer. Netherwood’s lips plainly showed they had been held too tightly for him to cry out. Yet we heard him." Again that look at his watch. “You wonder?”
He turned and thrust a hand through a slit in the cloth that covered the mysterious object behind him. There was a click, a dull thud, a droning, then a shriek:
"Help! Help! He’s killing me!”
I gripped the arms of my chair, dizzy to faintness. The two women had leaped to their feet and stood with clasped hands and bulging eyes, their faces white and drawn. Incredulous, horrified. Jerry Inkerley stared at Mona Netherwood. Hammerton, too, had risen and backed into a corner.
Muldrew swept the cover off and revealed the radio that had stood in Netherwood’s room, the radio in which Muldrew had been so interested.
On Sperring the effect was startling. As the cry rang out he surged forward, and as the radio came into view he made a quick movement with his right hand.
We were all so intent on the scene before us that we failed to notice that the door of the cupboard beneath the stairs had opened. As Sperring moved someone leaped on him from behind and a pair of powerful arms held him helpless.
I had turned at the sound. Sperring’s captor was one of the men from Room 308 who had roused Hammerton’s suspicion!
Hammerton, too, recognized them, for with an oath he dashed for the door. But a second man sprang from the cupboard and tripped him up. falling on him and pinioning him. Hammerton the smallish man with the protruding chin, who had carried the torch that night in the room where Jefferson fought so hopelessly.
I stared at Muldrew. He stood behind the table, gun in hand, a stiff smile on his face. Coming out now, he caught Sperring’s hand and wrenched from it —a jackknife dagger that worked with a spring. One edge of the blade was saw-toothed.
He held it up. "The fourth dagger!” he announced.
I BLINKED. Muldrew turned to me with an indulgent smile. Then, running his hands over Sperring’s pockets, he produced my reporter’s badge and handed it to me.
“The case is over,” he said.
To me it was something worse than a nightmare. Sperring, my author friend, a double murderer, the maniac of the awful laugh, leader of a gang of counterfeiters, fiend incarnate! To the others it meant little but the end of the mystery. Mona was in Jerry’s arms, and Mrs. Netherwood looked on hungrily, biting her lip.
Sperring had ceased to resist. He was smiling.
“You laugh last, Muldrew. I underestimated you.” He turned those bland eyes on me. “I’m sorry, Tiger; I had grown to like you. But you won’t forget me you won’t forget. And try to remember that I could have killed you, as I did the others. It was I released you the night we held you in the factory. I let you off last night in the same place when I might have shot you -or used the fourth dagger. I was keeping it for Muldrew if he came too close. That’s all. I pass from the picture.”
Hammerton struggled madly. “Yes, you brute. It was you who waylaid me last night. You thought to get rid of me as you did the rest of the gang. I’ll tell all I know.” Sperring’s lip curled. “You would.” He turned to Muldrew. “He never was a gangster: never had the courage. The worst you can do to him is ten years or so and he hasn’t earned it. Oh, what a plot! What a plot for a story ! Should I laugh once more for you?” He grinned in our faces.
The handcuffs were on both and Muldrew waved them away. The rest of us sat numbed in our chairs, the first spasm over. Muldrew sank back, wiping his face. He sighed.
“He isn’t all bad. Sperring isn’t,” he said. "That’s the sad part of my job there are no gradations to murder. Sperring will pay the utmost penalty.”
I reached out to him an appealing hand. "What’s the story, Gordy? I’m dazed.”
“Sperring,” he said, “is not Conrad Sperring, the author. Several things about him made me suspicious the first time we met and I wired a magazine. Conrad Sperring. I was told, is in Europe: has been there for a month. After that it was easy. Where Sperring —I’ll continue to call him that where he failed was in detail; mostly detail over which he had no control. The blood gave the thing a way but it took me a long time to reconcile its condition with the time that had elapsed since we heard those cries. It was the open window convinced me that everything was planned. Netherwood’s cries were intended to be heard. Why? Why but to mislead? Take that in conjunction with the coagulated blood, and I reasoned that it must be to mislead in the time the murder was committed. But how was that possible?
“At first I clung to the belief that it was not Netherwood we heard. But Miss Netherwood’s complete assurance blocked that line. There’s the explanation.” He pointed to the radio. “It’s very simple. They were his cries all right, but they came by electrical transcription, which is nothing but a record broadcast from some station. By the number to which the dial w'as turned I knew the name of the station, and I discovered that it had been broadcasting at the very hour of Netherwood ’s death one of a series of crime stories. Of course it was easy then to trace back to Netherwood the part of one actor in these stories. I arranged with a local station to secure that record from the station that originally broadcast it, and to put the same cries on the wire at a designated moment tonight. Sperring, you see, knew of those records, and took advantage of this one to murder Netherwood just before it was to be broadcast, so that he could be far from the scene of the murder —a perfect alibi—when the cries for help seemed to place the crime at a time later than it really occurred.”
“But,” I queried, “how could that be done? He was in his room on the floor above when the cries came over the air. And they came from the machine in Netherwood’s room, yet when we entered immediately afterward we found the machine disconnected. the wires cut.”
"That was the cunning of it. It was also one of the clues he could not destroy. Here is how it was done, with Sperring safe on the floor above: The electrical connection that manipulated the machine was not the socket in the baseboard in Netherwood’s room. Sperring had cut the connection there and tacked the socket end of the wire to the machine so that no one would notice. Then the end of the wire working the radio was lightly spliced to another wire that ran along the baseboard of Netherwood’s room into his bathroom and from there up through the ceiling beside the water pipes to Sperring’s own bathroom on the floor above. That was the real energy connection.
“Just before the broadcast hour Sperring went to Netherwood’s room, murdered him, made the connection, cleaned away every bit of evidence of the counterfeiting, and. raising the window so that Netherwood’s cries would be heard on the street, retired to his own room and turned on the radio at the proper time by screwing it into his own light socket.
“The cries for help over, all Sperring had to do was to drag loose from his bathroom the light connection he had made downstairs with the radio wire. Next instant he was leaning from his window in full view of the street, the perfect alibi. You may remember that the first time I called on Sperring in his room —you were there at the time. Tiger—I made an excuse to get into his bathroom, and there I saw a small hole drilled down through the floor.”
“But we saw some one in the room last night, Gordy. How did he manage it?”
“That was Sperring. He climbed down the electric sign from his own room. You may recall we noticed the flashing was more rapid. Hammerton had arranged that to make it more blinding from the street. There was small chance of Sperring being seen, and if he was he would be taken for an electrician making repairs. Some of the bulbs were dead . . . Hammerton was helping Sperring, thinking Sperring was anxious to get in to destroy evidence against the gang, not because he knew who had murdered Netherwood. That murder was Sperring’s private little game to comer the profit of the counterfeit money, and to remove the risk of terrified or disloyal companions. What he was really after in the room was to reconnect the radio to the socket in the wall and to turn the dial from a revealing number . . . Anders, Netherwood, Hammerton, and, I believe, the Darlings, as w'ell as a few less important ones who have escaped us, were members of the gang.”
“How did you come to suspect Sperring, Gordy?” I asked.
“I noticed how he edged about the room, always working toward the radio. I was interested even before that because he alone, of all those whose lighted rooms were in the front of the hotel, lifted his window at the cries. The alibi was too obvious. Then, it was Sperring who short-circuited the wires. When we found those raw ends I understood. You remember he dropped his pencil just before the lights went out. When he stooped to pick it up he touched the two raw ends together. Of course it blew the fuse instantly.
“All the time he tried through you. Tiger, to keep in touch with what I was doing, what I knew or suspected. That was why I kept some things from you but gave you a free hand with the rest—enough to deceive you. In fact, all I did conceal was the impersonation.”
"It was Hammerton,” I said, “whom I saw enter the hotel last night and thought the police would be able to arrest. What a fool I’ve been. And Sperring, with a guilty conscience, thought it might be he I was after. Hammerton telephoned him a warning from the office when Flavelle and I were waiting to go through the rooms, and Sperring waylaid me, as arranged, in the linen room and got my badge.”
“That first night you followed me, Tiger,” Muldrew said, “I was on my way to the hotel. We had had it under observation for some time, since we had traced many of the counterfeit bills there. We purposely hid our suspicions.”
“But why,” Mrs. Netherwood enquired, “did they kill Aaron?”
“Because, I’m firmly convinced, he was insisting on his share of the profits. That’s why he could send you nothing before.”
There was still much to clear up.
“But Sperring—he showed up at the factory last night only a few minutes after he got away in that vat of water?”
“I noticed that —a different suit of clothes from what he wore when he left us to go to the Silver Platter. He must have had a change somewhere near the factory. You remember how wet his hair was? You thought it perspiration. Even under pressure he was so clever that there were times when he almost convinced me. Oh, about those men in 308; I had them take that room, and in the night they moved the radio in there from 322. Then early this morning they let it down from the window and it was brought here. Is it all clear now?” he asked.
“Clear as mud,” I growled. “The only thing clear about it is that I’m going to have to ask for a raise to get a wedding present for Jerry. And the bigger the raise, the better the present.”
I grinned at Jerry, and, by Jove, he grinned back!