IN HIS public character as a defense counsel in the courts of crime. Michael Brent subscribed solemnly to the legal fiction that the accused is presumed innocent until he is proved guilty. Mr. Brent not only subscribed to it; he argued it; he flaunted it before every jury he faced. It was part of his stock-in-trade.
But in his private character as an amiable young man who took neither himself nor his profession too seriously, Michael Brent regarded the theory as solemn rubbish.
"The law says to the accused, in effect. ‘You’re guilty. Now get busy and prove otherwise.’ And heaven help him if he doesn’t get a good lawyer. That’s where I come in.”
He aired this view in a dissertation to his clerk. Minton, one day shortly before he escaped the summer mugginess of Montreal and headed north for a holiday in the wilderness of Northern Quebec.
“Detectives.” said Minton, “suspect everybody. I’d hate to be a detective. They’re a suspicious lot. It’s their nature.”
“Good detectives.” amended Brent. “They take nothing for granted. A good detective approaches a case with an open mind. The system is simple. Take it for granted that everyone in reach of the affair is guilty, then eliminate on the basis of motive and opportunity and—bing!—you have your criminal.”
Michael Brent had no idea that he was to have an opportunity of testing the virtues of this technique. But the opportunity came, or rather forced itself upon him, before he had been long away from Montreal.
In the backwoods, at a luxury camp on Lone Wolf Lake of all places, he encountered murder, and in his subsequent emulation of the good detective he found it astonishingly, embarrassingly easy to suspect everybody.
As for eliminating on the basis of motive and opportunity —that was a ticklish business.
For there were so many possible motives, so many opportunities.
PETER HOPE built this camp back in '28, I believe,” said Grover Carey, tossing the stub of his cigar over the verandah rail. “He had plenty of money then. Built it as a summer home, a place where he could entertain his friends. That’s why there are so many guest cabins.”
“And the camp is all he has left?” said Michael Brent. “It’s all, according to accounts, but he seems satisfied. Hope was cleaned out in the crash. Wall Street sent him h; me in a barrel, but he hung on to this camp in spite of hell and high water. Lives here all the year round now and rents out the cabins to paying guests. He says the smartest thing he ever did was to build Lone Wolf Camp and keep it. He has his bush holiday all year now and it makes him a living.”
“The luxury has become a necessity.”
Michael Brent looked out over the river, gleaming silver in the August moonlight. Twenty feet below, the rapids danced with a soft, sullen roaring. Carey’s cabin, separated from the main body of the camp by the narrow stream, was deep in the shadow cast by a dark wall of pines, but the moonlight shone clearly on the scattered little cabins on the other bank, cast glittering bands of light on the river mouth and flung a shimmering highway across the great dark plain of water that was Lone Wolf Lake.
He had arrived just that afternoon and had been impressed by the beauty of the camp, by the comfort of his cabin, by the genial personality of his host. Brent had spent most of the afternoon sleeping, for it had been a long, tedious journey up the lake. He had made merely a casual acquaintance with the other guests, but Grover Carey was one of those fat, jolly, companionable men with whom one is on good terms from the first handshake. Carey had invited the lawyer over to his own cabin that evening for a drink and a chat.
“I guess you were asleep during the poker game this afternoon,” Carey chuckled. “Boy, oh boy, how that fellow Kennedy did put the skids under us! There’s a more or less perpetual game of five-and-ten here, and Kennedy was about eight dollars down on the books so we thought we’d give him a chance to get it back.”
“He is going out tomorrow morning, isn’t he? Kennedy is the good-looking chap I met at dinner?”
“Good-looking is right. And he knows it.” Brent placed Kennedy readily—a tall man with crisp, fair hair, the features of a matinee idol and a smooth, sophisticated charm. “Well, as I was saying,” rumbled Carey in his good-natured voice, “we thought we’d give him a chance to break even. And the balloon went up!”
“He got back his eight dollars?”
“Got it back ! Good Lord, the game got so hot that five-and-ten became too tame for us and we started playing table stakes. I was down sixty-five berries when I quit. Duke Rose was two hundred to the bad, young Ted—that’s Hope’s nephew— was lucky to break even at all, and Hope was still trying to make a comeback playing showdown with Kennedy the last I saw.”
“Table stakes can be bad business.”
“Not for Kennedy this afternoon,” chuckled Carey. “At that,” he said, “we won’t be sorry to see him go. He’s too popular with the ladies. He just about broke up Tom Seldon’s happy home while he was here. Mike Monday, the guide, said he’d throw Kennedy in the lake if he didn’t leave his daughter alone—Pauline, the pretty little waitress, you know—and young Ted Hope just bums up every time he sees Kennedy talking to Miss Owen. Those slick-looking chasers can sure stir things up in a place like this.”
“That’s Kennedy’s place over there, isn’t it?” Brent indicated the log cabin immediately across the river. The moonlight was so bright that one could even distinguish the chairs and the sofa on the verandah. Kennedy was evidently at home, for the big living-room window was a bright rectangle of yellow light and every once in a while Brent had noticed figures moving beyond the screen.
“Yes, just above your own.”
“Who lives in the little place facing the lake?”
“Professor Winant and his wife,” answered Carey. “You didn’t meet them. Dry old stick, the professor, but he’s a good egg. He’s writing a book about rocks, and he certainly came to the right place to find ’em, I say. Up back of them, on the hill, are the Seldons and Miss Owen—she’s Mrs. Seldon’s sister.”
“Pretty girl,” remarked Brent. Her name, he remembered, was Ruth—a vivid, coppery-haired young creature in dark blue slacks and a crimson windbreaker.
“Ask Ted Hope,” rumbled Carey. “Quite a little romance there. Yes, Ruth is certainly a knockout. Mrs. Seldon isn’t bad looking either. They’re Buffalo people. Tom Seldon is a pretty good scout if you know how to take him, but he’s up here for his health—came near a nervous breakdown a few months ago, I believe. He is in the real-estate game and the last three years have driven him nearly nuts.”
“I shouldn’t wonder.”
“Jittery as a cat. And jealous of his wife, so there’s a tip for you.”
“I don’t need it.” laughed Brent.
Out on the lake they saw a moving light; then they heard the drumming of a launch.
“Seldon and old Mike went across the lake to look for a trout stream.” said Carey. He glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. "Ten o’clock. They're late.”
CAREY switched the subject from camp gossip to other matters. He was a loquacious soul and excellent company. He had been in the electrical supply business in Chicago, he said, but was now retired. He was a genial man with a contagious chuckle, a good-humored laugh and the gift of drawing an acquaintance out.
As they talked, Michael Brent saw the figure of a woman move in front of the screen door of Kennedy’s cabin across the river. About five minutes later a man appeared. He stood at the door for a moment lighting a cigarette. Then he came out and sat down in one of the verandah chairs, plainly visible in the moonlight.
It was getting chilly outdoors. Carey suggested that they go inside.
“I think I’ll run along home,” said Brent when they went into the big, comfortably furnished living room. “I want to get up early and have a go at those bass in the river mouth.”
Carey snapped on the switch of the radio. “I’ll go with you,” he volunteered. The light gleamed on his bald head. He had a pink, happy face with little laugh wrinkles from the corners of his eyes. “What time do you say?”
“Crack o’ dawn.”
“Good. Well, let’s have another drink before you go. How are you at mixing one?”
“Proficient,” admitted Brent, smiling, as he admired a huge mounted trout that was the only ornament on the wall above the fireplace.
“Then do your stuff,” Carey chuckled and led the way to the kitchen. The radio was warming up:
“—exactly fifteen minutes past ten o’clock, Eastern Standard Time,” declared an announcer dulcetly. Michael Brent set to work to the mounting blare of a distant orchestra. Carey said he would bring in the cushions and the couch blankets from the verandah in the meantime.
“Leave anything outdoors here overnight and it’s soaked by morning,” he said.
As Brent measured out the vermouth he experienced an agreeable contentment. He was going to like Lone Wolf Camp, he was sure. The radio’s musical bedlam shattered the deep silence of the wilderness night.
Carey came puffing in, his arms loaded. He tossed the blankets and cushions on the living room couch. Brent poured the cocktails.
“By the way,” said Carey, “you’ll be passing Kennedy’s shack, won’t you? Will you drop this money in for me as you go by?” He took a wallet from his pocket and extracted five ten-dollar bills. “I owe him fifty from this afternoon. If we’re going fishing in the morning, I might forget about it.”
Brent put the money in his pocket. “I must have an honest face. If Kennedy leaves camp tomorrow without his fifty, how will you know?”
Mr. Carey chuckled and beamed as he raised his cocktail.
“I’m a trusting soul,” he confessed. “I even trust lawyers.” His fat paunch shook as he wheezed with laughter at this happy thrust. “Well, here’s to crime.”
“It should be encouraged,” said Brent quite solemnly, raising his glass. “It gives me a living.”
They drank. A few moments later Michael Brent took his leave, promising to be at the river mouth without fail before sun-up.
But there was to be no bass fishing in the morning.
THERE WAS another cabin on that side of the river, but it was in darkness as Michael Brent went by. On the little bridge that spanned the stream, however, he encountered the cabin’s tenant homeward bound. Brent had met him at dinner that evening—a swarthy, thickset man by the name of Rose, nicknamed “Duke.” They merely exchanged “good nights,” Duke Rose responding to Brent’s greeting in a hoarse, loud voice, and went their ways.
Rose was a New Yorker, according to Carey, and like a fish out of water in the wilderness background of Lone Wolf Camp. He was always passionately declaiming his devotion to “dear old Broadway” and hoarsely expressing a longing for the clamor of Times Square, but he had been at Lone Wolf for three weeks now and showed no intention of immediate departure. Why he stayed on and on when he couldn’t swim, despised fishing, conducted himself with all the grace of a giraffe whenever he got into a canoe, suspected the virtues of fresh air and complained that the quiet of the bush kept him awake at nights, was one of the camp’s little mysteries.
Michael Brent went on down the trail among the trees. Slanting bars of moonlight fell across the path. The pine needles were soft underfoot. Just before he came in sight of Kennedy’s cabin he heard the sharp slam of a screen door ahead.
He remembered the money Carey had given him to deliver. He came around a bend in the trail and saw Kennedy’s place before him. It was a neat, spacious log cabin, completely enclosed by a wide verandah. Moonlight shone on the sloping roof. Brent felt the roll of money in his pocket and stepped up the trail to the screen door.
He knocked, and as he did so he was conscious of footsteps on one of the side trails among the trees on the slope. They stopped suddenly.
The cabin was silent. Michael Brent rapped again, Beyond the screen he could see that the living-room door was open and that there was a light in the room.
Still no response. The place was very quiet, deathly quiet. He could see the big living room, the stone fireplace, the deep, comfortable chairs, the gay jackets of books on a shelf, the open door leading to the verandah that overlooked the river.
“Anyone home?” he called out.
No reply. He tried the screen door. It was not fastened. It occurred to Brent that Kennedy might have gone up to Hope’s cabin, perhaps to settle his account preparatory to leaving in the morning. At any rate he had fifty dollars for the man and there could be no objection to his leaving it on the table with, perhaps, a note of explanation.
Michael Brent opened the door, stepped up on to the verandah and called out again. Deep silence.
He went into the living room and put the crisp bills on a small table beside the door, then groped in his pocket for a pencil. He couldn’t find one, but he saw a writing desk below the bookcase and spied pen and ink. Brent transferred the money to the writing desk, weighed it down with the inkwell and, standing up, scribbled:
“In your absence I am leaving $50, entrusted to me for delivery by Mr. Carey,” and signed his name.
After all, he wondered, would it be safe? If any prowler came along, took the money and left the note, he would be in an awkward position. Perhaps he had better go up to Hope’s cabin and look for . . .
Michael Brent stood there, quite motionless, the pen in his hand and stared at something he saw on the floor of the verandah, just beyond the open door. A queer little chill went over him.
The white light of the big gasoline lamp hanging from the ceiling shone brightly on a wet, straggling rivulet of red, as if a bottle of red ink had been upset out there on the verandah and the liquid had gone flowing across the smooth boards.
But Brent knew it wasn’t red ink. As surely as if he had seen the hidden source, he knew that the ruddy little stream was blood.
His fingers trembled a little as he put down the pen, strode forward and stepped carefully over the telltale stream out on to the verandah.
Steve Kennedy was sitting there in the brilliant moonlight that illuminated his handsome dead face. He was huddled in one of the big home-made chairs, huddled as if shrinking from the death that had come on him so swiftly. The skirts of his dressing gown trailed in a pool of blood on the floor. His hands gripped the front of his pyjama coat, wrenched open to reveal a deep, knifelike wound just below the heart.
KENNEDY was dead. There was no pulse, although the body was still warm. He was beyond help.
Michael Brent was no stranger to scenes of violence. There was that affair in Massachusetts, the affair of the man with the black fingertips and the very small grave; the Mount Royal case, too, the tragedy of the girl in the red hat, when Michael Brent had been obliged to go down into streets of shadow to save a client from the gallows. To him a dead body was a fact; murder was a problem.
He was calmer as he stood there looking down at Steve Kennedy than he had been when he caught sight of that bloody tricklet on the floor. Michael Brent was a slim, erect man in the middle thirties; the lamplight shone on curly black hair, a clever, rather pallid face; as he stood there, his head cocked a little on one side, his expression thoughtful and puzzled, he might have been back in his own office considering some knotty point in a client’s defense.
Everything must be left strictly alone. That was the first essential. This was a police matter, obviously. And then it occurred to him that there was no telephone at Lone Wolf and no police officer within fifty miles. Peter Hope must be notified at once. Michael Brent stepped gingerly back into the living room and went out by the front way.
Peter Hope’s home was one of the largest of the cabins at Lone Wolf, a long log structure in the hillside clearing that overlooked the lake. Michael Brent hurried down a trail through the pines to the clearing. There was a light in Hope’s cabin, and when Brent knocked sharply at the door, the deep, rich voice of the master of Lone Wolf called: “Come in.”
Peter Hope was sitting at a table with a deck of cards spread out before him when Brent entered. He got up at once, a big, commanding figure of a man in the late fifties, hair already silvery white, his genial face bronzed by exposure to sun and wind. He emanated that mysterious quality known as personality. He was no back-slapper, and no professional host; but he had a hearty laugh, a ready smile and a gift for making people feel at their ease with him.
“Why, hello, Mr. Brent!” he said resonantly. “Come right in. Glad to see you.” And one felt that he meant it. “Are you quite comfortable down there? Anything I can do for you?”
“I just dropped in at Mr. Kennedy’s place,” said Brent, quietly. “I’m afraid there’s been some trouble.”
Hope’s smile faded as he saw that Brent’s manner was serious.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “I hope Steve hasn’t got himself into some mess on his last night in camp.”
Peter Hope blinked incredulously.
“What’s that? Kennedy’s dead? No!”
“Stabbed through the heart, sitting out on his verandah. I just came from there.”
Peter Hope seemed dazed.
“You’re not kidding, are you, Mr. Brent? This isn’t a practical joke?”
“I wish it were,” returned Brent gravely.
“When was this? How did it happen? A fight? Were you there?”
Brent explained how he had spent the evening with Grover Carey, how he had dropped in at Kennedy’s cabin to deliver the money and how he had discovered the man’s body. Hope was greatly agitated.
“I’ll go down right away.” he said jerkily. “Wait a minute. I’ll get Ted up.”
He vanished into one of the other rooms and Brent heard him arousing his nephew, young Ted Hope.
Waiting, the lawyer made note of the time. It was twenty minutes of eleven. Then his keen eyes took in the scattered cards on the table. He made a mental note of the presence of a pocket magnifying glass such as prospectors use. It was the only object on the table aside from the cards. The cards all lay bottom up.
Peter Hope emerged from the other room and struggled into his coat.
“Just having a game of solitaire when you came in,” he grunted. “Great Scott, Mr. Brent, you’re sure there isn’t some mistake? You say he was stabbed !”
Brent nodded. Hope shook his head anxiously and wrenched open the door. They hurried down the trail, Hope plying his companion with questions. Brent replied abstractedly. He might have been tempted to ask the master of Lone Wolf why he made use of a magnifying glass in a solitaire game but for the fact that the cards had been scattered in a haphazard fashion without the slightest resemblance to any solitaire layout known to man.
I DISTURBED nothing,” Michael Brent said when they went into Kennedy’s cabin. “The man is just as I found him.” He had already explained how the trickle of blood had drawn him out to the verandah.
Peter Hope gazed silently at the body. In life Steve Kennedy had been a very handsome man, tall, well-built, with crisp fair hair and perfect features. Now, with his eyes staring glassily, his mouth hanging open and that terrible wound . . .
“Murdered !” whispered Hope. “It couldn’t have been suicide. He had no reason. Besides, a man wouldn’t kill himself that way. And to think I was playing cards with him in this very cabin just this afternoon !”
Brent went back into the living room. He had seen a flashlight on the mantelpiece. He got it and returned to the verandah, playing the beam of light on the floor near the dead man’s feet.
“What are you doing?”
“Weapon,” returned Brent. Gently he shook out Kennedy’s dressing gown. “Not here.”
The front and side verandahs of the cabin were well screened, but this back gallery overlooking the river was open and merely railed with cedar poles, with an opening above the steps leading to the ground not two feet below. Kennedy had been sitting at the top of the low steps, about two feet back from the gallery’s edge. Brent turned the light on the flooring and the steps.
There was a thin smear of red leading to the top of the steps in a straight unbroken line. At the extreme edge of the first step was another bloodstain.
“The police will have to be notified,” said Michael Brent, looking down at the straight, slender bloodstreak. "That will take time, I suppose.”
“There’s no telephone,” Hope answered. “I’ll have to send the word down by the mail boat when it calls in on the return trip in the morning. That’s the boat you came up on today. It goes on up to Leroi, lays over there tonight and then goes back. Weekly service.”
Michael Brent went back into the living room and sat down.
“Let’s take it easy,” he suggested. “This is a bad business. I assume you want it cleared up. If the police come in here after the crime is cold and fail to get at the bottom of the affair, it’s going to be unpleasant for everyone. We'll all be under suspicion more or less.”
“Yes, it’s got to be cleared up.”
“What’s your opinion, Mr. Hope? Who killed him?
Hope stared moodily into the fireplace.
“Kennedy was pretty strong with the women, you know. That always makes for trouble. But I can’t imagine anyone going so far as to kill him.”
“I’ve had a little experience in murder cases,” said Brent diffidently. “Muddled my way through a couple of ’em. Want me to take charge?”
“I wish you would. I'm all at sea, Mr. Brent.”
“Who is Kennedy? What do you know of him? When did he come here?”
“He came here—let me see—on the sixth of August. I remember it because Mr. Carey came here on the fifth, came up on the mail boat, and Kennedy and Duke Rose blew in on a hired launch next day.”
“Rose and Kennedy were friends, then?”
“No, they just happened to meet at the foot of the lake, found they were both heading for Lone Wolf and had both missed the weekly boat. Total strangers to me and to each other. Kennedy said he was from Philadelphia.”
“You say there was trouble over the women?”
“Well—Kennedy seemed to regard every pretty woman as a challenge. And unfortunately three of the women in the camp are pretty.”
HOPE hesitated. “I'm in a difficult position, Mr. Brent. I'm talking about my own guests, you understand. I wouldn’t say anything very serious developed. He did make a strong play for young Pauline— that’s the waitress, daughter of old Mike Monday who works for me—but she’s a level-headed kid and. while I imagine she was flattered a little and played up to him out of sheer devilment, I think it was all on the surface. Mike got sore about it and told Kennedy to leave her alone, and Adelard Frenette went around with blood in his eye for a few days, but it blew over.”
“Who is Frenette?”
“The guide. Hot-tempered young Frenchman. He’s crazy about Pauline and I think they’re engaged.”
“Ruth? Oh, she flirted with Kennedy just like any girl will do. All in fun. She’s straight as a string. I can’t see her getting messed up in any affair.”
Hope’s eyes were evasive.
“Brent, that’s hard to say. There was something—I can’t deny it. Kennedy and Seldon had an awful row and there’s no question that Mrs. Seldon fell hard for Kennedy when he first came to camp. But a lot of it may have been Seldon’s imagination. He’s a queer, moody, irritable type.”
The screen door opened and Ted Hope hurried up on to the verandah and entered the room. He was a good-looking young fellow of about twenty-five, healthy, husky, with tousled black hair and a smoothly tanned skin. Ted had lost no time in scrambling into his slacks and shirt and hurrying down from his uncle’s cabin. He was breathing quickly and his eyes had a scared look.
“Is Kennedy really dead?” he asked quietly.
Michael Brent indicated the outer door. Ted looked out on to the verandah for a while, then turned away, his face shocked and serious.
“What happened?” he asked blankly.
“He was stabbed,” said Peter Hope. “It’s murder, lad.”
Michael Brent got up. He leaned against the fireplace and his eyes took in the details of the room—the big club chairs, the rug, the bookshelves, the table with pen and ink, an ashtray, an empty glass, a set of poker chips in a round rack. Aimlessly he bent down and picked up a card that lay on the floor at his feet. He put it on the mantel.
“I think we had better question everyone, Mr. Hope. The murder was committed some time within the past hour, for Carey and I saw Kennedy come out on to the verandah and sit down.” Then he frowned thoughtfully. “At least, I assume it was Kennedy.” “Should we round up everyone and ask them to come here?”
“It isn’t necessary. Ted can stay here and hold the fort. Don’t mind, Ted?”
The young man shrugged. “Not a pleasant job. But if I can be of any use—”
“There’s a saying,” remarked Michael Brent, “that the murderer always returns to the scene of the crime. One never knows. But don’t disturb anything, please.”
“I won’t, sir.”
Michael Brent was just turning away from the fireplace when he noticed a few scraps of blue paper on the hearth, a little distance from the smoldering embers of the fire.
He picked up the fragments, glanced at them. The paper was smooth, heavy and watermarked. All but one of the four scraps were irregular about the edges and completely blank. The exception, larger than the others, was a triangular slip with two straight, clean-cut sides, the third being ragged. Running slightly from the torn corner was a thin, black, printed line, and above it the letters “Pe” written in ink.
Brent tossed the scraps back into the fireplace again—all but one. That he kept in his palm and unobtrusively tucked into his pocket a moment later.
“Where shall we go first?” said Hope.
“The Seldons, I think.”
THROUGH the open living-room window of the Seldon cabin came a hysterical, feminine voice:
“But I wasn’t! I wasn’t there, Tom. You’ve got to believe me.”
“I don’t know whether to believe you or not.” The man’s tones were brittle and rasping. “One thing’s certain, we’ve got to sit tight ...”
Presumably he walked into another room or turned away from the window, for the remainder of the utterance was muffled. Michael Brent and Hope, who had paused at the foot of the steps, went on up on to the verandah.
Ruth Owen, slim and boyish in slacks and a white silk shirt, answered Hope’s knock. The lamplight shone on her coppery hair.
“Why, it’s Mr. Hope! And—Mr. Brent, isn’t it? This is nice of you. Do come in.”
Michael Brent felt that she carried it off very well. But he had examined too many witnesses, recalcitrant, hostile, secretive, nervous, brazen—all sorts and degrees of them—to fail now in recognizing this particular manner. Casual, wide-eyed innocence and the witness steeled on guard. It was usually overdone. In this case the slight tremor of the girl’s voice gave it away. And when he came into the room he sensed the atmosphere of tensity and realized that he was a bearer of second-hand news.
Tom Seldon, standing in the kitchen doorway, called out a greeting. He was a nervous, black-browed little man with a furrowed forehead and tight line about the corners of his mouth. Constance Seldon, a little past her first youth but still pretty in spite of tell-tale creases of worry, got up from the couch:
“Do come in. Tom’s just back from his fishing trip across the lake. He’s been telling us about it. He got some lovely trout. Sit down, Mr. Hope. And how do you think you are going to like Lone Wolf, Mr. Brent?”
She chattered nervously, thrusting chairs forward, picking up a magazine, straightening a rug with her toe.
“Sorry. It isn’t a social call, folks,” mumbled Hope. “In fact, it looks as if we’ve got a bad mess on our hands.”
Seldon stared from the doorway, expectantly. Mrs. Seldon looked puzzled.
“Why, what’s happened?” asked Ruth.
“Steve Kennedy’s been murdered,” Hope answered bluntly.
Michael Brent missed none of the reactions. That was why he was there. Tom Seldon striding forward, his shocked exclamation, “What’s that? Kennedy!” Mrs. Seldon, her hand to her mouth, her eyes big, saying “Good heavens!” and collapsing weakly into a chair; Ruth, her pretty face registering astonishment and horror: “Oh, surely not—murdered !”
Hope told them. There was an excited clamor. Shock, surprise, bewilderment. Dozens of questions. And beneath it all, that undercurrent of strain and tension.
“But who could have done such a thing?” cried Mrs. Seldon. And her husband demanded: “Are you sure it was murder?”
“If he had committed suicide,” said Hope, "we would have found the knife.”
Michael Brent asked no questions. He stood quietly in the background during the tumult. If anyone had any theories he did not advance them. Seldon, Brent learned, had returned from his fishing trip within the past hour. Seldon picked up his hat and coat and offered to go with them when they left, but his wife objected.
“You’re not stepping out of this cabin, Tom!” she declared. “If there’s a murderer running around loose, you’re not leaving us alone.”
When Michael Brent and Hope finally departed Michael Brent was settled in his original conviction. The Seldons and Ruth Owen had played their parts well, but they had received the news like actors upon a stage. And he hadn’t forgotten that overheard fragment of conversation, “But I wasn’t! I wasn’t there, Tom ! You’ve got to believe me!” and Tom Seldon’s decisive answer: “We’ve got to sit tight.”
Yes, he reflected, for all their horrified ejaculations, they had not been really astonished. Kennedy’s death had been already known to them.
DUKE ROSE was a grotesque figure in purple-striped pyjamas a good deal too large for him. They got him out of bed, for Michael Brent particularly wanted to speak to the New Yorker.
“Kennedy bumped off!” exclaimed Duke hoarsely, his eyes bulging. “No kiddin’? Well, what d’you know about that!”
“He was stabbed,” said Michael Brent icily. “Got any ideas, Mr. Rose?”
Duke’s eyes were wary.
“How do you mean, got any ideas? Why should I know anything about it?”
“Kennedy got his about ten minutes before I met you coming across the bridge,” snapped Brent. “We’re checking up on everybody. Where were you?”
Silky diplomacy wasn’t the medicine for this sort of witness. Brent had handled Duke Rose’s kind before.
“Say, what is this?” demanded Duke. “Am I on the spot or somethin’? Sure, I was over across the river. I went over to the cookhouse for some cigarettes and then I went down to the dock when I heard the boat comin’ in.”
“Did you pass Kennedy’s cabin on the way back?”
“No, I came up the other path. What’s I the idea, heh? Why should I knock Kennedy off? I never had no quarrel with him. He was a good guy.”
“You’ve been on the other side of the river all evening.”
“Sure, and I been sittin’ in the cookhouse talkin’ to Loo and the Frenchie all the time, see, except when the boat come in,” rapped Duke. “Listen, mister, I don’t like your manner." His underlip was truculently out-thrust, his voice hoarser than ever. “Whadd’ya mean bustin’ in and practically tellin’ me I bumped off a guy, heh?”
“Take it easy, Duke,” advised Hope placatingly, with a nervous glance at Brent. After all, the man was a camp guest. “We’re just checking up—”
“Yeh? Well, you don’t need to check up on me. You go over and ask Loo if I wasn’t sittin’ right in his cookhouse for the past two hours. Go and ask him.”
“How much did you drop in the poker game this afternoon?” asked Brent.
“Two hundred berries and what’s it to you?” rasped Duke.
"Pay it?” Brent’s voice was acid, insulting.
“Sure I paid it !” yelled Duke. “Say, what is this? Who do you think you are—the district attorney or somethin’? You better sew up your lip, mister, or I’m liable to hand you one in the mush.”
“Did you see anyone coming out of Kennedy’s place when you went past?” asked Brent swiftly.
“I—didn’t I tell you I never went past?” The badgered Duke’s eyes were green with wrath. “I never saw the guy after I pulled out of the game this afternoon. I wasn’t near his shack. Do you get that or have I got to write it out for you?”
“Oh, you can write, can you?”
Duke’s voice was deadly. He appealed to Hope.
“Now look here, captain, have I gotta put up with this? Have I gotta stand for this bird makin’ cracks like that?”
“Honestly, Mr. Brent,” ventured Hope, “I don’t think—”
“What brought you up here, Rose?” snapped Brent, unheeding. “What’s your racket? Are you on the lam? Did The Stem get too hot for you?”
“I’m gonna sock you,” snarled Duke. He lunged forward, fists clenched, but Hope stepped in front of him and grabbed his arms.
“Please!” begged Hope. “Hold it, Duke. Mr. Brent doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“Oh, no? ’ Duke Rose growled at Brent over Hope’s shoulder. “Lemme tell you, wise guy, I’ve got as much right to be here as the next man. Can't a fella take a little holiday without smart babies like you figurin’ he musta took a runout powder or somethin’?”
Mr. Rose, fuming and truculent, was definitely aggrieved. It was plain, too, from Peter Hope’s expression that he felt Brent had acted tactlessly and without justification.
“How about it?” demanded Brent, sneering. “Want to tell us anything before the cops get up here tomorrow or the next day and dig into your record?”
“Lissen, Mr. Hope, have I got no rights in my own cabin or haven’t I? Just let go of my arms for a second and let me give this wise guy the bum's rush. He’s got it comin’ to him.”
“I don’t like this, Mr. Brent,” said Hope, worried. “After all, just because you met Duke coming across the bridge—it doesn’t prove anything.”
“Okay, okay,” replied Brent wearily. “Sorry, Duke. It’s just my manner. I’m a lawyer when I’m working, you know. I figured that if you knew anything I might make you sore enough to talk, that’s all.”
Duke Rose was a little relieved and mollified.
“Yeh, well if I knew anything I’d tell you,” he grumbled. He was beginning to get into his clothes, muttering warmly to himself, when they left.
They aroused Grover Carey, who flatly refused to believe them at first and then hurled a barrage of excited questions at them as he scrambled into his clothes.
“Why, we saw him, Brent! We saw him coming out on to the verandah. And he was dead when you got there? Couldn’t have been ten minutes later.” Mr. Carey was babbling as he laced up his shoes.
“If Kennedy was the man we saw coming out on the verandah,” said Brent, “he was murdered some time between ten-fifteen and half past.”
“If he was the man? Of course he was. The moonlight was bright as day. We couldn’t see his face, of course, but he stood there in the doorway for a second with the light behind him—oh, I’d take my oath it was Kennedy. Why, it was so clear—good lord, Brent, if we hadn’t gone indoors we’d have seen it happen.”
“Just sheer luck for the murderer,” Brent admitted. “Well, it’s up to everyone in camp to prove their whereabouts in that quarter hour. I think we can safely pin it down to that time. You knew Kennedy better than I did, Carey. You’re sure he was the man we saw come out on to the verandah.”
“Positive. Same height, same build. I’d swear to him at twice the distance. Many’s the night he used to sit out there having a smoke before he went to bed.”
Duke Rose was waiting for them when they went back up the trail to the bridge.
WITH THE exception of the Winants, whom no one thought to arouse, Michael Brent found an excited gathering in the cookhouse, which became the community centre for the moment. Ruth Owen and the Seldons were there. So was Pauline, the pretty waitress; Frenette, the guide, and old Mike Monday, the foreman. Everyone seemed to be talking at once, Pauline and Adelard Frenette with French-Canadian volubility, old Mike trying to get in an occasional comment edgewise, Mrs. Seldon close to hysterics, Loo the Chinese cook, shrilly trying to make himself heard above the general uproar.
“I’ve turned this over to Mr. Brent,” announced Hope, when the clamor died at their entrance. “He’s a lawyer and he understands these things. We’ve got to find out who killed Kennedy, and if Mr. Brent asks any questions I hope none of you think he’s trying to pin it on you. But we’ve got to get at the truth.”
“Fair enough,” said Seldon. His nervous eyes swept the room. Brent noticed that his hands were trembling. He saw that Ruth Owen’s grave, calm eyes were watching those hands, too. “When are you going to send for the police, Mr. Hope?”
“First thing in the morning, when the mail boat comes in.”
“Where is Ted?” asked Ruth.
“With the body,” returned Brent. “I’m going down to Kennedy’s place in a few minutes to look through his effects. They may throw some light on the crime. In the meantime I’d like to know one thing— which of you three ladies was in Kennedy’s cabin tonight?”
Seldon reddened. His fingers clenched, his head jerked forward. “Look here—” he blurted, just as Pauline spoke up.
“I was there, Mr. Brent,” she said quietly. Seldon’s jaw dropped. He looked confused. Michael Brent regarded him calmly and silently for a moment, then turned to the little waitress. Pauline was small and dark, red-lipped, full-figured, with black eyes “At what time, Pauline?”
“About ten o’clock. I was here, talking to Loo and Adelard, when I remember I did not put fresh towels in Mr. Kennedy’s cabin this afternoon. So I took them down.”
The girl was perfectly self-possessed and spoke clearly, with only a trace of accent.
“Anyone go with you?”
Pauline smiled a little. “No. I went alone.”
“Mr. Kennedy was alive then?”
“Oh, but yes!”
“Did you stay long?”
“About two, three minutes. Mr. Kennedy said he was sorry he had to go away from Lone Wolf. I said I hoped he would come back again some day. We said good night. That was all.”
“He was alone?”
“Did he seem disturbed or worried or angry about anything?”
Pauline frowned thoughtfully. “No, he act just the same as always.”
“Did you meet anyone when you were going to the cabin or going away?”
The girl shook her head. “No one, Mr. Brent.”
“You say you went there at about ten o’clock. How do you fix the time?”
“It was ten o’clock exact when I was there. Mr. Kennedy said he was going to bed early to have a good sleep because he had a long trip ahead of him in the morning. He looked at the clock when he said that. It was just ten.”
“By the way, how was he dressed? Pyjamas and dressing gown?”
The girl shook her head. “No—” she gestured expressively, “he was all dressed. Trousers, shirt, slippers.”
BRENT thanked her. He looked around.
“Did anyone else call on Kennedy this evening?”
“Well, I dropped in on him at about nine,” said Peter Hope. “He fixed up his bill and got a receipt. I was there about five or ten minutes. He certainly seemed normal enough to me. Sorry to leave, as Pauline says, but hoped he’d be able to get back next season.”
No one spoke.
“I’m to take it, then,” said Brent, “that of all the people in this room, Pauline was the last to see Kennedy alive.”
“By gee, m'sieu,” mumbled old Mike Monday resentfully. “You be careful w’at you say. My girl, she’s good hones’ girl. She never kill him if dat’s w’at you mean.”
He tugged doubtfully at his tobacco-stained mustache. He was a short, wizened old fellow with a mahogany skin. His faded old eyes were reproachful. Brent was conscious, too, of the sharp, bitter stare of young Adelard Frenette, the guide. He was a tall, lithe young man, sharp-featured, deeply-tanned, and he leaned against one of the tables, gripping the edge with tense fingers. There was a slowly mounting fury in his eyes.
“Certainly not,” returned Brent curtly. “I didn’t mean that. I’m merely pointing out that if anyone else did see Kennedy after ten o’clock they’re doing Pauline an injustice by keeping quiet about it.”
“You saw him after ten o’clock yourself,” cut in the hoarse voice of Duke Rose.
“Yes, and I was on the other side of the river when I saw him, and Mr. Carey is here to prove it,” snapped Brent.
“Okay. But that let’s Pauline out.”
“Someone else was in that cabin between ten and ten-thirty. Someone left that cabin a few minutes before I found the body.”
No one said anything.
“Unless somebody here is covering up,” Brent said, “it boils down to either Ted or one of the Winants.”
“Well, I can alibi Ted,” declared Hope cheerfully. “He was with me right in my own cabin from ten o’clock on. Before ten, in fact. As for the Winants—that’s too ridiculous. That nice old couple !”
“Seein’ we’re all under the gun,” broke in Duke Rose again, “why have we got to take your say-so that somebody came out of Kennedy’s place just before you got there? Or that he was dead when you got there, for that matter.”
“Lay off that stuff, Duke,” advised Carey. “Mr. Brent's trying to get to the bottom of this business and it’s up to us to help him. That is,” he added significantly, “if we want him to get to the bottom of it.”
“I’m just as anxious to get to the bottom of it as you are, see!” rasped Duke hotly. “I’m tired of all these cracks. I didn’t knock the guy off.”
Michael Brent turned to Hope. “Have you a big flashlight?”
Hope went out into the kitchen and returned with a powerful electric lantern. Brent took it and moved toward the door.
“Want me to go along?” asked Hope.
“I think I’d better handle this myself for a little while, if you don’t mind.”
Michael Brent let himself out of the cookhouse, switched on the lantern and went down the trail. He didn’t want any help just then. He was following the technique of the ideal detective, as he had glibly explained it to Minton that day back in Montreal—“take it for granted that everyone in reach of the affair is guilty, then eliminate.”
The process of elimination, he suspected, was going to be involved and difficult. It is easier to expound a theory than to apply it.
To be Concluded