DEATH ON THE STRAIGHTAWAY
RANDALL PATTERSON’S bright blue cabriolet cost him $8,000. It was heavy and fast, the hood so high that the driver's angle of vision came to earth 100 feet beyond the headlights. Never mind, it was handsome and arrogant; a car for a handsome and arrogant young man. Randall Patterson kicked it into a rush down the curving driveway of the Forbes place, lurched sharply round into the Balentine turnpike, which runs straight as geometry from Cornwall nine miles to the village of Dangerfield, four lanes, good cement. It was a bright day, too early for traffic. Easy as yawning, he let her out to sixty, to seventy. To the sleepy hiker with the weary thumb he looked like life as it ought to lx*. Actually, Randall Patterson was poisoned with disappointment, fie felt old (he was 28) and the future was darkness. Last night Helen Forbes, beautiful, rich, had said no, and meant it. That was a fact, no matter how often he turned it over in his mind. It was a fact that complicated life, now and for ever. A fraction of an ounce of further pressure on the accelerator. Eighty miles an hour . . .
From the other, the Dangerfield end of that straightaway, Hattie Bickerton, with four hens in a crate beside her, directed her flivver toward Cornwall. Hattie had once taught school. Now she was a pensionnaire. Besides that, she was a raiser of poultry, a psychologist, observer of life, a spinster. In plain words she was the biggest gossip in Dangerfield. Black hairs grew here and there on her chin. Blue, youthful eyes looked out from smile wrinkles. She sat straight as a ramrod as she drove, the two brown pom¡x>ns on her round hat bobbing about in the breeze. She was thinking that when she delivered the hens to Miss Anderson at the Forbes mansion she just might learn a bit more about Randall Patterson and Miss Helen. Not to tell nor to write, just to know'. There was something of the pure artist about Hattie. She liked her gossip for its own sake. When she saw the bright blue car she stopped.
It was upside down, four wheels turning. In the bright air drifting aw'ay over the coarse tidal grass there was a thinning haze of dust.
Randall Patterson had a crooked, hollow-cheeked face, and the nose had been broken in an airplane crash; but he
was handsome, oh, he was handsome even in wide-eyed death, tawny hair draggled with oil and earth. Hattie bent down over him. His hands lay above his head. The backs of both were deeply scratched. She sniffed and the brown ix>mix>ns danced on her hat; she hunted with nose and eyes, pounced on his right lapel. A posy was pinned there, a tiny bouquet, one yellow rosebud, one white gilly flower, a green leaf for background—odd but charming.
‘T11 be confounded,” Hattie said, thus reaching her extreme of profanity in one jump; and she straightened her meagre inches, looked carefully all about, began to walk in widening circles around the body. All she found was a grey and lavender hat box and the cover of same; inside the box, the usual pasteboard oval, was a ruddy, sticky stain. She was thoughtfully studying this when a cop arrived on his motorcycle.
“Hattie Bickerton !” said he. “Good morning.”
He was Bob Harris, formerly a Dangerfield boy, indeed liad been a pupil of hers in the fourth grade. He was a boy still, she thought, so proud of his uniform; but she watched as if respectfully while he listened and felt for heartbeat. When he took out and wiped a pocket mirror she spoke: “Mercy sakes, Robert, use your eyes; the boy’s dead, look at those dilated pupils. Dead’s beef, he is,”
Bob Harris put the mirror away. “Speedin?”
“Like a bullet”
“You witnessed it?”
“No,” dryly, “that's a deduction. After his front wheels hit sand the car travelled through the air like a bird for thirty feet. Then it bounced and rolled over three times.” They looked along the still deserted highway, broad and smooth—and safe.
“Musta been crowded over by some southpaw driver going toward Cornwall.”
Hattie shook her head.
“He was alone on the highway. For five minutes I waited for gas at Ike’s station a mile away and nobody passed going this way.”
“Alone and all at once he turns off? He was drunk.” “Smell,” Hattie said. “Or maybe your nose wouldn’t tell you, since you’ve had a drink already this morning. I don’t use it and I can smell liquor a block away. He hadn’t tasted any.”
“Then a front tire blew out.”
“Maybe it did; but if it did, somebody came along and mended it because all the tires are tight full of air now.”
^AFFICER HARRIS scratched his brown curls. He was young and handsome, too. Between them, the dead youth and the live, little Hattie Bickerton stood, her brown pompons bobbing, impersonal, thoughtful.
"Robert, you had better get along to a telephone.”
He didn’t like her tone, which was peremptory. It reminded him of school.
“Don’t rush me, Miss Hattie. Now', look, he was driving smack in the middle of the cement; here’s the mark where all at once he turned. The question is, why did he turn? Maybe the steering gear bust.”
"Maybe a meteor hit him,” Hattie suggested insincerely. “That’s possible, too. Steering gears on cars like that one don’t break, and you know it.”
“Well, w'ell, there was a cause to it. There musta been.”
“Did you notice the young man’s expression, Robert? It’s scared. It’s terrified. What did he see to make him look like that?”
“What are you getting at, Miss Hattie?”
Look at this.” She showed him the blood-stained hat box.
He said: “Some other car throwed it away.”
Threw, Robert! And the scratches on his hands?” Most natural thing in the world, Miss Hattie. He stuck ’em through the windshield.”
“He was wearing goggles. They’re lying beside him.”
( And that,” he smiled, “says what?”
That says the windshield wras lying flat the way he liked it when he was speeding so he could feel the strong wind in his face. So he didn’t put his two hands through the windshield. I’ll wrager you’ll find every bit of that shatterproof glass sticking inside the frame anyway. You get along to a telephone, Robert,” she said. “But wait, get out your notebook. ” He got it out. “Take down the license number.”
Say, I know that. I can do this.” Nevertheless he waited once he had the number scribbled down.
Name s Randall Patterson, age twenty-eight. Week-end guest of Helen Forbes. She lives in the big white house at Beach Point; she s an orphan, twenty years old, ward of ranny Burke, and she’ll have seven million dollars next year.
You re a gossip, ’ Bob Harris said, “and you always was a gossip, I must say. What’s all that got to do with this accident?
First place, I m not a gossip; second place, this wasn’t an accident.
"What was it, then?”
“It was,” she hesitated. “It was—deliberate. We’ll prove that. He was well known as an aviator. Everybody knows he’s engaged or almost engaged to Helen Forbes. You’d better telephone, Robert, and get your name in the papers.”
“Did he have seven million?”
“He had his nerve—and his good looks. Good-by.”
“I’m looking for something.” She went away from the road in short quick steps, head down; but before he had kicked his motorcycle engine into life another idea had come to her, and to his surprise he saw her run back to her flivver, saw her climb in and rattle off toward Cornwall at what was, for her and for the car as well, a very high rate of speed.
npiIE THREE SONS of Dr. Curley had all at one time -*■ or another been taught by Hattie Bickerton, so she and Dr. Curley were old friends. He was, besides being a general practitioner, the coroner, and as medical officer would act in the Patterson case. To him Hattie went next morning with a present of a dozen fresh eggs, the small kind that he liked specially, under one arm, and under the other a square box of some sort wrapped in paper.
He listened to her attentively, even respectfully, for she had several times helped both him and the district attorney with her enormous, detailed knowledge of other people’s business, and with her homely good sense as well.
Dr. Curley whistled, nodding his head slowly. He said:
“They’re here now. Which one shall we question first?”
Hattie wanted the girl first.
Helen Forbes was a beauty, slim and dark. She was
withdrawn, seemed older than she was. In her expression was that stupefaction, that stunned look that comes from great wealth with its assurance of all material things. She was simply, almost shabbily dressed, without jewellery, and she was small; nevertheless power walked into the room with her, the power of great wealth, and even Hattie was deferential.
She answered questions directly, literally, her slightly bulging eyes half veiled.
"No, Randall Patterson never drank. His heart was sound. If he had heart trouble how could he have gone after altitude records? He was quite healthy, I believe.” Dr. Curley cleared his throat.
“You and he were engaged to lx* married, were you not?” “We were not.”
“But the newspapers . . .”
‘They were wrong. I liked him. He said he liked me.” Her tone left it hanging there.
“Ah, yes,” Dr. Curley said uncertainly,
“Doctor, I am very wealthy, as you, as everybody knows He w-as not. He was in debt to his ears. He had been grounded for six months for reckless flying. One or two among his creditors held cheques that were not—very good. He was in deep trouble. Perhaps he liked only my money. Do you see?”
Hattie hitched forward to the edge of her chair so that her feet would touch the floor.
“Miss Forbes, he, Mr. Patterson, left your house very early yesterday morning, did he not?”
“It couldn’t have been long after sunrise.”
“Did you see him—say good-by to him?”
“No. Not as he left. As a matter of fact we had talked till late—till three o'clock about.”
For a minute Miss Hattie asked no question. Dr. Curley was silent, too. The girl raised heavy lids. Her eyes were not dark but light grey, though the lashes were black. She said:
“Shall I tell you what we talked about?”
“If you don’t mind, Miss Forbes,” Hattie said.
“Love,” said Helen Forbes. “His for me, that is. It was
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not a general conversation. He asked me to marry him. I said no.”
Hattie looked at Dr. Curley, returned her clear blue eyes to the girl. She said:
“You refused him? Did Miss Burke know this?”
“Yes, I told her. She asked me, in fact.” “I have only one more question, Miss Forbes, if you do not mind. Did you give a flower, or rather a tiny bouquet, to Mr. Patterson vesterdav morning?”
“You were not talking in the garden at three o’clock, then?”
“Certainly not. But I know, I happen to know, where the boutonniere came from. I heard voices under my window. I had not slept and I got up, looked out. Miss Burke was there. She often rises early. Mr. Patterson, who I believe had not slept at all, was with her. She was pinning the flowers in place. I remember because it surprised me.” “Why?”
“The hour for one thing; and she did not care very much for him. In fact she had repeatedly warned me against him. Several years ago he was in Wall Street. For a time he was customer’s man for Miss Burke’s own office. She is a stockbroker, as perhaps you know. She told me he was—not to be trusted.”
Helen Forbes had been quite calm, even impersonal, but that was training and will power. Now they saw her with hurried fingers dig in her bag for a handkerchief, realized that she was crying.
“I sent him to his death,” she said, biting her lips.
Hattie watched her, waited a little while, then:
“Your theory is that he committed suicide, deliberately sending his car off the highway?”
“Doctor, may I ask Miss Burke a question or two. No, you stay, Miss Forbes.”
rT'HERE HAD been gossip about Miss Burke during the twenty-five years she had been confidential secretary for Miss Forbes’s money-grubbing father, but the gossip never suggested that she might be more to him than his—secretary. She had one vice: power. Her face was boney; her mouth thin-lipped and tight; her iron-grey tweed was cut square, no feminine nonsense about it or about her; she wore high black shoes with thick soles. Her eyes, small pupils under eyebrows like opposing check marks, frowning, looked through glasses, the sort that ride noses of senators and famous attorneys, large oval lenses, downtending.
“Who is this?” Miss Burke’s “this” was for Hattie.
“Miss Bickerton, formerly of the Board of Education,” Dr. Curley said blandly. “She assists me from time to time in—cases.” The big business woman and the small poultry dealer looked straight at each other.
“I hapixmed to be the first to look over the wreck of Mr. Patterson’s car, Miss Burke. You need not answer my questions, of course, but if you will be so kind, that will simplify the formality of the inquest.”
Miss Burke did not answer.
“Tell me, if you will, does nepeta cataría grow wild about the Forbes place, or is it cultivated?”
“I haven’t the least idea what you are talking about.”
“I see that in sober truth you do not. You are not a garden enthusiast?”
“I haven’t the time.”
“Perhaps you’d be better for some such healthful hobby.” Hattie had hitched herself near to the doctor’s broad desk and now she leaned her elbows on it, her posture quite like the one she took when she hearkened to the gossip of her neighbor across the board fence. W ith that same kind of interest, unemotional but intense, she looked at Miss Burke as she put her second question :
“Why did you use a hat box?”
Miss Burke sat like a woman carved in stone. Her long face was grey.
“And still,” said Miss Burke evenly, “I do not understand you.”
Hattie turned to Dr. Curley.
“Doctor, what young man would carry anything in a hat box? Why should lie have it with him in the back seat of his cabriolet? 1 Particularly a box from Lorna Le Brun of Boston, specialist in dignified hats? That is to say elderly hats, hats like Queen Mary’s? In their order, let me tell you what interested me at the wreck: First, Mr. Patterson’s hands, both badly scratched, not by glass but as if by claws—or very sharp nails. Next, that posy in his buttonhole, fresh, you know, fragrant. It hadn’t been there many minutes. Finally the empty, blood-stained hat box. The stain was inside only . . . Oh, yes,” to Miss Forbes who had softly exclaimed, horrified, “there was blood there. From those three clues I deduced a fourth, but could not find it.
“Then it was that I had the inspiration to drive rapidly to the Forbes place, to deliver my chickens to Miss Anderson at the lodge. She is a town girl, was one of my pupils—she was terrible at arithmetic, but never mind now—and we visited for a few minutes there by the big gates. While we were there, as I had expected, along came a weary, bewildered—”
Miss Burke stood up. She said to Dr. Curley:
“I for one have had enough of this old gossip’s fantasy. If you don’t mind I’ll—”
“Sit down, Miss Burke!” Hattie said, in the tone she had used for years to the scoundrels of the fourth grade, and to Miss Burke’s own surprise, she sat down. As she did so, Hattie stripped the paper from the wicker cage at her feet, opened and lifted therefrom a large Siamese tomcat. “Weary, bewildered, he came through the Forbes gate,” Hattie said. “When I didn’t find his body by the wreck I thought, ‘he’s set out for home already,’ and I climbed into my car to beat him there.”
AT SIGHT of that characteristic sooty face and those pale blue eyes, so like and so unlike the ordinary cat, Dr. Curley drew back with a subdued exclamation of j repugnance.
Dropped to the floor, the animal spoke in . a voice peculiarly penetrating. He said:
“Mrar?” and jumped immediately into Miss Burke’s lap, began to purr.
She started violently. A curious thing happened to her face. It trembled, the cheeks, the corners of her mouth.
“Miss Burke, you pinned that posy on the lapel of Mr. Patterson’s coat. Just before he climbed into his car you put a hat lx)x in on the back seat. In the box was that cat; his whole attention occupied by a piece of raw meat, quite bloody. The lurching of the car at the sharp turn into the highway, a turn always taken at high speed by the young gentleman who was used to the velocity of airplanes, rolled the box on to the floor of the car, thus tossing its flimsy lid and releasing the cat just at the moment when the young man’s whole attention was occupied in accelerating toward sixty miles an hour or more, as he always did.”
Miss Forbes was completely still, her grey eyes direct, unmoving on Hattie.
Miss Burke’s masculine chin was up. She had conquered the muscles of her face, but not its color.
“It was Miss Anderson who told me, Dr. Curley, that Mr. Patterson had a flaming horror of cats, bad or worse than some people have for snakes.”
“Told you when?”
“A week ago. And only the day before yesterday, Monday afternoon, Miss Anderson—and Miss Burke, too—saw him jump shuddering out of a chair in the garden because a cat had touched his leg; he and Miss Forbes had some sharp words about it. j
The young gentleman was holding a crystal teacup in his hand, the saucer in the other. Both went flying and smashed among the low-growing phlox of the rock garden.
“What happened on the highway we do not actually know, but we can guess. The cat—loathsome, mind you, as a bloated ¡ adder to poor Patterson—crawled through the space between the two front seats. There was no wind down there and speed as you know is relative. The cat had no point of comparison; he was travelling within what the physicists call a ‘closed system,’ and so far as he could see might have been at home in the drawing-room.
“The point is he liked something about Mr. Patterson, something that impelled him to get even closer. Now Mr. Patterson may have first felt him—crawling in his lap perhaps, or perhaps he saw him in the rear vision mirror. We do know that wildly, blind with unreasonable repugnance and fear, Mr. Patterson grabbed with both hands for the animal—and caught it. The scratches prove that. And then—well, then the car was turning over and over in the air.”
Hattie put her chin down on the back of her hand.
“Miss Burke, you murdered Randall Patterson.”
“The cat killed him.” Miss Burke’s voice came from a dry, tight throat. It was a croak. “The cat,” she repeated.
“The cat?” wondered Hattie. “Did he fear the young man’s knowledge of years of embezzlement? Did he, Miss Burke?”
nPIIAT NIGHT the district attorney, Dr.
Curley, Officer Bob Harris and Hattie Bickerton discussed the possibility of prosecution for murder in a case so completely circumstantial. This discussion proved academic, for Miss Burke, in her rooms at the Hotel Clarendon-Wyckoff, took Tieroin that same night and never woke again.
Miss Forbes went to Europe, and if she had lost a guardian and a suitor it was a bad, parasitic guardian, a disloyal friend—as Hattie pointed out—and the suitor she did not want. And if all friends, all lovers in the future were to be also in greater or less degree similarly tainted, well, Hattie said,
you can’t have everything. If you have seven millions of dollars, perhaps you can’t have much else.
Dr. Curley asked: “How did you know Miss Burke had appropriated Helen Forbes’s money?”
“I didn’t,” Hattie confessed, “but I knew that Randall Patterson had been rejected, that Miss Burke knew he had. Then he wasn’t killed because she feared his control of Helen’s fortune. The only other possible motive must be related to the one sin her kind of woman would be capable of—greed. Simple. I knew he liad once worked for her because Miss Anderson’s gossip included that fact. I took a chance.”
A week later Officer Bob Harris came up behind Hattie’s flivver on the motorcycle. He bawled, “Get over,” and she did.
“Oh, not your license. What the devil is nepeta cataría?"
“A leaf of it was in that posy Miss Burke pinned on poor Mr. Patterson.”
“Yes, I know that. What /sit?”
“Catnip, Robert. Trust an old maid to know the smell and look of catnip !”