Colton scowled when the red jack failed to turn up, but the mouth corners smiled when the ace of diamonds slid between the sensitive fingers to take its place in the top row of Mr. Canfield's famous game. The deuce followed, the red jack immediately after; then the problemist looked up toward the doorway of the library.
"Well, Shrimp?" he smiled.
"They's the theatrical papers yuh wanted." The red-headed, freckle-faced boy with the slightly-twisted nose came forward with an armful of big magazines and newspapers, the front pages of which were adorned with full-length portraits of stage celebrities. Before he quite reached the table he stopped short, eyes crackling their excitement. "Snakes! You're gettin' it, Mr. Colton! They's the four of hearts and the five of spades. Don't stop now."
Colton laughed. "All right, Shrimp. Do you want to do a little detective work for me?"
"Do I?" The eyes danced with eagerness. "Ain't I been studyin'? Nineteen steps from the kitchen t' the first chair in the dinin'-room. Six-"
"I know," assured Colton hastily. "But you take those papers to your room and write down the names of all the vaudeville actors-men, you know-who have quit the stage within the last two months; where they have gone, and why, if possible."
"Snakes!" The boy's face showed his disappointment. "Nick Carter never had t' do that."
"He never had to count steps for a blind man, either," smiled Thornley Colton. "You do that and there'll probably be some real detective work-shadowing, disguises, and the rest of it."
There was no answer. The boy had taken a firmer grip on the papers, and was already out of the room.
The four of hearts and the five of spades had been placed when Sydney, face broad in a smile, entered.
"What's the matter with The Fee'?" he demanded. "He ran past me as though he were on his way to a fire." Thames always referred to Shrimp as The Fee, because the red-headed, freckle-faced boy had become part of the Colton household after a particularly baffling case, at the conclusion of which the joy of capturing the murderer had been overshadowed by the blind man's sorrow for the broken-nosed boy who had jumped between him and a vicious blackjack. And Shrimp had been his fee for the case. As the boy's mother was the murdered one, and his father the murderer, there had been no one to object.
Before Colton had a chance to voice his laughing explanation, the tinkling telephone-bell on the desk demanded attention. At the first words the thin lips tautened to a straight line, the voice became pistol-like in its crispness, the muscles under the pale skin of the face became tense.
The problemist had a problem.
"When? Last night. All right. Still that two-wire burglar connection on the safe? Never mind further details. We'll be right down."
As his hand dropped the receiver on the hook a finger pressed the garage bell button that would bring his machine instantly at any hour of the day or night.
"Get your hat and coat, Sydney," he ordered curtly. "We're going to the Berkley Trust Company. Somebody's gotten away with half a million in negotiable bonds!"
"Half a million?" gasped Thames.
"So they said. Didn't wait for details." Colton grabbed his private phone-book of often-needed numbers, and ran his fingers down the backs of the thin pages on which the names and numbers had been heavily written with a hard pencil. As Sydney hurried out he heard the curt voice give a number over the phone. And it was fully five minutes before Colton took his place in the car.
In the smooth-running machine, with the wooden-faced Irish chauffeur at the wheel, Sydney Thames voiced the question: "Last night, you said?"
"Yes, the second act came sooner than I expected," broke in Thornley Colton. "I underrated the man." And the expression on the pale face augured ill for some one.
The funereal atmosphere of the Berkley Trust Company could be felt as they entered. In the office of the third secretary, the white-haired president of the institution stopped his nervous pacing to mumble a greeting in tremulous accents. First Vice-President Simpson's grave face broke into a smile of welcome. Norris raised his bowed head from his hands, and came forward joyfully, pleadingly. The red-faced man who had been standing over him kept a step away, but always near enough to touch him with an outstretched hand.
"My God, Mr. Colton! They think I'm guilty!" There was agony unutterable in Morris's voice.
"Ridiculous!" snapped Simpson, his heavy-lidded eyes half closed. "Mr. Colton will soon put this detective right."
The problemist nodded a grim acquiescence, and took the outstretched hand of Norris. "I know better," he said kindly. The red-faced man gave voice to a grunt, and Colton instantly swung around to face him. "So you've cleaned it up already, Jamison?" he asked mildly.
"Nobody said he was guilty," growled the red-faced central-office man significantly. "I just been questionin' him, that's all."
"And accusing him with every question!" snapped Colton. "Like the rest of your kind, you haven't the intelligence to suit your methods to the crime. Every crime must be worked according to the old Mulberry Street formula. That didn't change with the modern Centre Street building."
"But we know enough not to make any cracks till we get all the information," sneered Jamison. "We don't hand out that know-it-all stuff till we know something!"
"True," smiled the problemist with his lips, but there was no smile in his tone. Two hectic spots glowed in his cheeks, the muscles worked under the pale skin. "What do you think, President Montrose?" The white-haired president halted his pacing once more, and stroked his Vandyke.
"The first stain on the unsullied escutcheon of the Berkley Trust Company," he groaned. "In all of the half century-"
"I know all that!" broke in Colton impatiently. "What happened? Why are the police here instead of the protective-agency men?"
"I was excited," moaned the president. "It was the first thing that occurred to me. In all the half century of-"
"I guess we were all excited," interjected Simpson, his lips twisted in a wry smile. "I know I was up in the air. I came down here, happier than I ever was before in my life, to arrange for a short vacation to take a wedding trip. Now this comes up. When I came to my senses I telephoned for you, because I want the robbery solved as soon as possible. The little girl has banked so much on our little time."
"Too bad," murmured Colton. "Tell me the story, Norris." Before he could get an answer he turned to Thames, who always stayed discreetly in the background when Colton was on a case. "See that no one goes near that safe, Sydney; I may want to examine it."
"Kind of dropped that bluff of bein' blind, ain't you?" sneered Jamison, who was one of the hundreds of persons in New York who would not believe that Thornley Colton was really sightless. And the problemist did not deign to explain that once he had been in a room and touched its objects with his cane his trained brain held the correct mental picture for ever.
"The bonds were fifty in number, ten thousand each, government fours, negotiable anywhere," began Norris, licking his dry lips to make the words come easier. "They were the bulk of the Stillson estate, on which I was working. We are settling it up. As third secretary my work is with trusts and estates. It was necessary to have everything finished by tonight. I worked late yesterday, so late that the bonds and other papers could not go into the time-locked vaults, and I had to be at work on them this morning before the clock-release time."
"Is it customary to keep valuable bonds in the small safe in this office?" interrupted Colton.
"It is not unusual. The safe is practically as strong as the big vaults, and only lacks the clocks. This office is really part of the vault itself, the walls are windowless, and of four-foot concrete reinforced by interlocked steel rails. The sheet-steel door, the only entrance to the room, opens into a small cage that is occupied during the day by Thompson, head of the trust and estate routine clerks, and at night by one of our two watchmen. The watchmen never leave it, because it often happens that valuable papers and bonds are left out of the big vaults so that we can work on them before nine o'clock, the hour set on the vault's clocks. To get to the steel door of this office one would have to enter the outer and inner steel cages, the steel-barred door of the small ante-room, besides setting off burglar-alarms on all, disturbing the watchman, and ringing the bells in the burglar-alarm department of the Bankers' Protective Association, of which we are a member. And there was no sign of a break, the safe was opened with the combination that only Mr. Montrose and Mr. Simpson and myself know."
"The watchman could get to this door without any trouble?"
"Both have been in the employ of the bank for forty years. They are absolutely above suspicion. Both are illiterate. Even though they could enter the office, they could not open the safe, and even if they did that they would not know enough to steal all the notes I had made regarding the estate, or the bonds that have so utterly vanished. They have been sent for, however, and should be here any minute."
"Were the notes you made stolen, too?"
"All of them."
"Any of the other employees of the bank know the bonds were in this safe?"
"All have access to this room, at any time?"
"Only Thomas, the head of the T. and E. clerks."
"He grew up with the bank."
"You require other clerical assistance at times?"
"Thomas takes the papers from this office, and the clerks get them from him outside. All must be returned to me before closing time. I carefully checked over every one last night before any of them went away."
"Any one in here yesterday while you were at work on the papers; any one who could have seen the bonds?"
For a moment there was no answer; then it came, almost in a whisper: "Miss Richmond and her mother were in for a few moments-"
"And I was, too, by Jove!" The interruption came from Simpson. "And I remember asking you how you were getting on with the Stillson estate. I just finished my part when I went away. I guess I really held them up longer than I should."
"Has Miss Richmond been sent for?" Colton paid absolutely no heed to the first vice-president.
A grunting laugh from the detective. "She sure has, bo. After I found out this guy's stage lady had been in here with a tailor's suit-box after closin' time, my partner went right up to her hotel."
"By Heaven! You-" Norris rose to his feet, face black with fury. Colton 's hand on his shoulder forced him back into the chair. Sydney Thames, to whom all women were angels, clenched his fists.
"Is that true?" There was a new tone to Colton 's voice.
Norris seemed to recognise the menace. "She isn't guilty, I tell you! She can't be. She's-Listen, man! She's my wife!"
"Your wife!" They all echoed it. The detective with laughing triumph; President Montrose with horror; Sydney Thames in dazed surprise; Simpson with a half-suppressed, significant gasp.
"We were married two days ago; but it was to be a secret until the end of her season."
"How long ago was she sent for?"
The detective answered: "My side kick ought to be back now. We was on the job there, all right, all right."
Voices outside came to their ears-the harsh, commanding voice of a man, the half-subdued sobbing of a woman. The door was thrown open, and Rhoda Richmond, opera-singer, and wife of Norris, was half pushed, half carried into the small room.
"Good work, Jim!" grinned Jamison. "Did she put up a howl at the hotel?"
"Hotel?" growled the other scornfully. "No hotel for her. I had a lot of luck or I'd never've got her. She was boardin' a boat fer South America that sails in an hour."
"It's a lie!" Norris screamed the words as he leaped toward the man whose rough hand was clenched around the slim arm of the girl. Sydney Thames, obeying Colton 's silent signal, forced him back, his own hands trembling. The problemist without a word untwisted the central-office man's fingers, and gently seated the girl in a chair at the long table.
"Who the-" The blustering detective was cut off suddenly.
"We've had enough of your strong-arm methods!" Colton 's voice was hard as flint. "We'll get some facts now." The hardness vanished; in its place came gentle sympathy. "When did you get the message, Miss Richmond?" he asked.
The voice seemed to have the reassuring effect of a pat on the head of a hurt child. With an effort the girl controlled her sobs, and answered as though it had been the most natural question in the world: "An hour ago-over the telephone-I thought I recognised How-Mr. Norris's voice. He wanted me to meet him at the Buenos Aires dock. He had to go to South America secretly, he said, and I must tell no one. I hurried to the dock without even telling mother. I waited for an hour, but he did not come; then I decided to go aboard and see if he had missed me and gone to his state room. This man-said Howard had-robbed-I thought-" She broke down again.
"I guess that's bad!" grinned Jamison gloatingly. "In another hour there'd of been a clean getaway."
"The whereabouts of the bonds doesn't seem to worry you!" snapped Colton sarcastically.
"The stuff ain't never far away from the guy that took it," growled Jamison. "When you get through your know-it-all talk we'll sweat that out, all right."
"Did you have a tailor's suit-box with you yesterday?" asked Colton abruptly of the girl.
"Yes. I called to see if my new walking-suit was finished. It was all ready to be sent to my home, but when I saw the poor, tired little boy who would have to carry it I took it myself. The tailor is just around the corner, on the avenue; that is why mother and I dropped in here."
"Of course," nodded Colton, his teeth snapping together as he seemed to sense the derisive grins on the faces of the detectives. "Did you recognise the bonds among the papers on which Mr. Norris was working?"
"Oh, he showed them to me, and we laughingly spoke of what we could do with half a million dollars. Then, when he took mother out to show her around the bank-I was too tired-I picked one up and read it."
"Rhoda!" cried Norris. He could realise the present significance of yesterday's innocent words.
"That'll be about all from you!" scowled Jamison. "If this guy wants to third-degree her, and cinch it for us, let him."
"An' if he don't cinch it this will." The other detective pulled a paper from his pocket. "Here's the Buenos Aires 's passenger list, and here's Mr. and Mrs. Frank Morris, who booked yesterday, added in pencil. Morris for Norris! Slick enough to be almost good."
Every one in the room but Colton seemed to be shocked into a state of stupefied rigidity.
"Now-" Jamison said that word in the tone one uses to introduce some especially clever thing, and accompanied it with a sarcastic glance toward the blind man, who tapped his trouser leg with his cane in thoughtful silence. "If you ain't got no objection we'll take these two to headquarters, and get a line on where they got the stuff cached." He paused suggestively, mockingly.
The permission came, with a deprecatory wave of the cane, and a smile that was menacing in its very suaveness. "Go as far as you like, Jamison. Don't be too gentle with them."
"My God, Mr. Colton! You don't think-" The words choked in Norris's throat.
"I think you had better go." The problemist's tone was peculiarly quiet. "Jamison and his partner have the reputation of being the two wealthiest detectives in the department. No one knows how they got it, but they've enough to give you and your wife a twenty-thousand-dollar nest egg each on a false-arrest suit. Isn't that worth a few hours' discomfort? I can prove your innocence when they have gone. They worry me here."
Simpson whistled, and turned it into a jerky laugh. "Gad, that was clever!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, is that so!" The detectives chorused it, in their voices sarcasm-and just a tinge of something else, too. Colton knew the one thing that would make them stop and think.
"Are you going?" snapped Colton.
"We'll see them two watchmen first," growled Jamison.
"Good!" The problemist laughed at the sudden change. "I think you'll have quite a crowd to take down to headquarters if you hang around long enough. Before I started I telephoned to the burglar-alarm telegraph department of the protective agency to get hold of the men who answered the alarm that rang in from this office early this morning."
"What burglar-alarm?" snarled Jamison. He whirled on the white-haired president. "Why didn't you tell us there was an alarm rung in?"
"Really"-the Vandyke received several severe yanks-"I didn't know it. We do not receive the clock reports and emergency alarm sheets until about noon. Er-Mr. Colton, might I ask where you got this information?"
"I telephoned for it," answered Colton curtly. "If these policemen hadn't been so anxious to make arrests, and the robbery hadn't been too obvious for their thick heads, they might have investigated. But they are just headquarters men; the obvious arrest is the one they always make. Feet make good central-office men, not heads. Ah, here are the men, all together."
They came in slowly, two old men first; one with straggly, white whiskers that concealed the weak chin and grew up around the faded, watery eyes; the other's parchment-like face a network of wrinkles. Honesty shone from every part of them; the weak, helpless honesty of their kind.
As Colton took each man's hand with a murmured greeting he felt it tremble in his. The aged watchmen knew that something had happened; something that concerned them and the bank they had guarded so long. The two men from the burglar-alarm company nodded to the two detectives, and their eyes narrowed as they shook the hand of the problemist. Both knew him, and both knew this had been no common summons. Thornley Colton never bothered with common things. Sydney Thames had pulled two chairs up to the table, and the old men sat down. Colton lighted a cigarette thoughtfully, then he spoke: "This morning, gentlemen, that small safe was robbed of five hundred thousand dollars' worth of government bonds." His slim cane, apparently held idly between his fingers, touching the chair of the man nearest him, felt the watchman's involuntary jump. The others saw the old jaws drop, saw the watchmen glance helplessly at each other, their trembling fingers picking at worn trouser-knees. Colton heard the gasp of the two protective-agency men.
"I knowed it!" quavered the white-whiskered watchman. "I knowed something'd happen when Mary took sick."
"Who's Mary?" queried Colton interestedly. The others crowded forward.
"She's Mary, my wife. She's been scrubbin' the bank floors fer thirty years, an' nobody ever said a word against her." He glanced at them all with pathetic belligerence. "She even picked up the pins she found on the floor, and put 'em in a box on the cashier's desk."
"That's true," laughed Simpson. "It's the joke of the bank."
"And she was taken sick last night?" Thornley asked gently.
"A week ago." The other watchman answered, while the first brushed his dry lips with his work-gnarled hand. "Mrs. Bowden, she's got the consumption, and lives across the hall from us and-"
"Where do you live?" interrupted Colton.
" Sixteen hundred Third Avenue. I been boardin' with him an' his wife fer thirty years. Mrs. Bowden's been doing' Mary's work. We didn't say nothin' about Mary bein' sick, 'cause she might get laid off. An' Mrs. Bowden's awful poor." His voice was a childish, quavering treble.
"Last night, after Mrs. Bowden had gained your confidence, you allowed her to scrub Mr. Norris's office?" encouraged Colton.
Norris started. "I'd forgotten that!" he ejaculated. A motion from Colton commanded silence.
"Yes," trembled Mary's husband. "John opened the door, an' started to punch his clocks, an' I stayed in the ante-room, like I allus do, to watch Mrs. Bowden. Then somehow the door got closed. An' Mrs. Bowden got scared there in the dark. She screamed an' cried till it was real sad. But John had the key, an' he had to punch his clocks on the minute, er Mr. Montrose'd be mad when he got the records next day. An' I couldn't leave my place in the ante-room. So I encouraged her, sayin' that John'ld be back in half an hour an' let her out. She quieted after a while, an' didn't scream so loud, but I could hear her stumblin' around. Then John had to run to the front door to see who was knockin', an' he let these gentlemen in. The burglar-alarm on the safe had rung, they said, an'-"
"Never mind that part," halted Colton. "One of these men will tell me that part."
"We was called at seven-eighteen," began the taller of the two Bankers' Protective Agency men, "by the safe bell. The safe is connected with one wire, and under the carpet, running all around the safe, is a thin steel plate connected with the other. A man standing near enough to touch the safe forms a connection that rings our gong. In the daytime, of course, we pull the switch. We got here, and found the door locked, an' we could hear moaning. This guy"-he indicated the one with the straggly beard-"unlocked the door, and behind it was a woman, her skirt pinned up around her, laying on the floor, frightened to death. When she seen us she jumped to her feet with a little screech, and muttered something about thanking God."
"You were satisfied that she was frightened?"
"Sure! But we didn't let it go at that. We snapped on every light, and examined the room. Nothing had been touched. We frisked the woman, gentle, of course, but enough to know that she hadn't a thing on her. We finally got it out of her that she'd fell against the safe trying to find the door in the dark. She didn't know enough to snap on a light."
"She couldn't have had fifty ten-thousand-dollar bonds on her person?"
Both men laughed. "Gee, Mr. Colton," laughed the short one. "She was so frail you could almost see through her. She couldn't hardly have hid a cigarette paper without making a hump."
"What happened then?"
"She picked up the pail she had-it was full of dirty scrub water, and the yellow bar of soap was bobbing around in it-and John, here, took her into the cashier's cage. We hung around, talking, an' watching her scrub and weep into the pail until it was time fer her to go home. She was so all in I put her on a car."
"Urn!" Colton puffed his cigarette in silence; then he turned to Jamison and his partner. "Looks mighty suspicious, doesn't it, Jamison? I'd advise you to arrest these four men and get the woman. Five hundred thousand is likely to make any honest man a crook."
"Some kidder, ain't you?" sneered Jamison. "I know Pete, there, an' if he says it was all right, it was. We got the guilty parties first off, an' we'll get the stuff, too!"
The smile went from Colton's lips instantly. "You arrest them, and we'll start false-arrest proceedings in an hour!" he warned. "You leave Morris and Miss Richmond here! Any one but a fool detective would know they weren't guilty."
As he said the last word he jumped toward the safe, ran his highly sensitive fingers over the steel surface, knelt down, brushed the heavy carpet lightly with his finger-tips. The two hectic spots on his cheeks glowed redder; the nostrils quivered like those of a hound on the scent, even the eyes, behind the great, round, smoked glass lenses seemed to shine. Silently they watched him. He lowered his face almost to the floor, the cane was laid down, and his hand gave the carpet a resounding slap. They crowded closer. One hand went to his hip-pocket, a handkerchief brushed the hard-wood floor under the safe, between the edge of the rug and the wall. He rose, touched the burning end of his cigarette ever so lightly to the linen handkerchief that was now covered with a fine yellow powder.
"See it! See it!" he snapped. "You couldn't before because it was the same colour as the hard-wood floor."
"It's wood-polish powder, used for cleaning the varnished wood," sneered Jamison, stepping forward. "We don't want-"
"Smell it, then!" The blind man thrust the handkerchief under the central-office man's nose. "Do you recognise it now? It's sulphur. Ordinary powdered sulphur. The thing that would tell any man how the bonds were taken out of the office. Go to a drug store and find out what sulphur is used for."
He thrust the handkerchief into his coat-pocket, brushed off the knees of his trousers, and picked up his stick.
"Come, Sydney," he said quietly. "We've finished."
Before the astonished men could make move or protest he hurried from the office, automatically counting the steps. He jumped into the waiting machine, Sydney Thames followed, and as Simpson and Jamison ran to the door, he snapped: "Home, John!" to the Irish chauffeur, and the machine sped away.
Around the first corner he leaned forward.
"Sixteen hundred Third Avenue-quick!" he ordered.
"You don't think those two old watchmen guilty?" asked Thames, in surprise.
"No!" The tone was almost brusque. "Merely an unimportant detail I want to clear up,"
"You certainly left that crowd in the office at sixes and sevens." Thames laughed at the recollection.
"I intended to. That's why I went into all those details. I wanted to leave every one up in the air, especially the two detectives. They'll begin to think now. And they won't let any one get away before we have made this call. I want to think, now."
Sydney Thames knew the moods of the blind man; knew he could expect no explanations, or even replies, until Colton was ready to give them; so they sped in silence to the upper East Side.
Soon they were on upper Third Avenue. Overhead the clanking 'L' trains pounded their din into the two men's ears. The streets were crowded with their heterogeneous mass of men, women, and children. The rusty fireescapes staggered drunkenly across the dirty, red tenement-fronts.
The look of tense concentration left Colton's face.
"A far cry from the luxurious, staidly conservative Berkley Trust, eh, Sydney?" He smiled, leaning back in the cushions, puffing his cigarette as though untroubled by a serious thought; his eyes, behind the smoked library glasses, seemingly fixed on the narrow strip of blue sky overhead.
The car came to a stop.
"Is this it, John?"
"Th' saloon on th' corner is fifteen-ninety-four, sorr."
"Lead the way, Sydney." Again the twin red spots glowed in Colton's white cheeks, he jumped to the sidewalk, his slim stick tapping his trouser-leg eagerly.
Thames stepped along beside him, close enough for his coat-sleeve to touch that of Thornley Colton. And with that slight touch to guide him the problemist followed; for Thornley Colton was a trifle sensitive over his blindness, and nothing made him angrier than an attempt to lead him. Sydney found the entrance, between a second-hand-clothing store and a pawnbroker's shop. As he stopped to make sure of the weather-dimmed, painted number the clothing-store proprietor popped out, rubbing his dirty palms together, and coughing apologetically.
"On which floor does Mrs. Bowden live?" asked Colton sharply.
"Der fourf, front. You maybe like some clo'es?"
"Is her husband watchman at the Berkley Trust Company?"
"He's dead. You means Mrs. Schneider, across the hall. Her man watches. Dere boarder also. You like a elegant skirt for der poor vimens. Such a-"
Thames opened the door, and they left the clothing man in the middle of his sentence. In the dark hall Sydney made his way cautiously. Colton, cane lightly touching the heels of the man ahead, followed unhesitatingly. The journey up the rickety steps was torture to Colton. To his doubly acute ears and sense of smell the odours, the squalling of half-starved babies were terrible, but his brain automatically counted the steps so that he would have not the slightest difficulty in finding his way back to the automobile.
"Schneider first," whispered Colton, as Thames stopped in the fourth-floor hall.
In the dim light Thames saw that they were standing between two doors.
"I don't know which it is, but I'll take a chance." He knocked on the one at his left.
The one behind immediately popped open.
"Mrs. Bowden's gone away," shrilly proclaimed a tottery old woman, bobbing her head.
"Could you give us her address?" asked Colton, doffing his hat and bowing politely.
"Laws!" The woman's fluttering hand set her spectacles farther askew, in a hurried effort to straighten them. "She's gone to spend the day with her sister in Brooklyn. Them boys of mine pestered her till she's near sick. And she bein' so delicat' an' out late last night washin' dishes at the church sociable."
"Are you Mrs. Schneider?"
The darkness hid the smile the reference to the "boys" had caused.
"I'm her. Be you the Associated Charities? Mis' Bowden said she'd asked fer help. She came here two weeks ago, after losin' her job in the department store on account of her weak lungs. She had to take in odd day's work. Asthma, she calls it, but I ain't fooled on consumption. Two of my-"
"And you helped her by pretending you were ill?" interrupted Colton.
"I was sick fer two days." The woman hastened to set him right. "But she was so powerful glad to earn a few cents fer her asthma snuff, not that it is asthma. My sister's brother-"
"Of course she left the key with you until her return?" Colton left the sister's brother in mid-air.
"Yes; but-" There was just a shade of suspicion in the voice.
"As agents of the Associated Charities we must make an examination of the room, to prove that she is really in need of financial help," assured Colton gravely. "We can wait until she returns, of course, but this is the last application day for this month."
"Laws! I'll get it right away." She darted back into the room with surprising agility, and returned a moment later with an iron key tied to a broken-tined fork.
"There's no need of bothering you, Mrs. Schneider," declared Colton earnestly, as Thames took the key.
"Laws! Soon's I get these pataters on I'll be right with you. My boys had to go down to their bank-" The rest of the sentence was lost, for as she turned to the stove Colton had jerked Thames from the door.
"Quick!" he whispered. In an instant the key was in the lock, and the door was open. Colton pushed his way in, his cane touching the scarred, tumbled bed and the one broken chair. "Where's the trunk?" he queried, cane feeling around.
"No sign of one, nor a case."
"Damn!" snapped Colton. "The bureau drawers! See what your eyes find."
Thames had the top drawer open almost before he had finished. He whistled in amazement. "Nothing but an empty pill-box, with no druggist's label, three quills with the feathers cut off, and a tuft of cotton. What the-"
"Those are what I want! Put them in your pocket!" The tenseness went out of his voice; it became politely ingratiating, for his keen ears had heard the woman coming. "There is no doubt that Mrs. Bowden is in need of our assistance, Mrs. Schneider," he said smoothly. "Er-is that some of her asthma snuff in the top bureau-drawer?"
She ran past him, and bobbed her head over the open drawer. "Yes, sir; there is a little sprinkled over the bottom. You got mighty powerful eyes, mister." She nodded vigorously at the blind man. He had not been within five feet of the bureau. "She's dead set on it bein' asthma, but my sister's brother was-"
"Do you know anything against Mrs. Bowden's character?" Again the sister's brother was left dangling.
"Laws, no. She's that frightened she's afraid of her own shadow. I'm the on'y one in the house she took to, an' even me she kept at a distance." Another vigorous nod. "An' so modest! Laws, she wouldn't ha' come into the halls half dressed, like some of the other women does. An' clean! Laws! She lugged all her clo'es over to her sister's in Brooklyn today, to be washed in their Thirtieth Century Washer; not that I – "
"Ah, thank you, but we have four other calls to make." And, bowing gravely, Colton backed from the room, and hurried toward the head of the stairs, followed by Thames and the shrill-voiced encomiums of the woman.
They took their places in the car silently, and it was not until they had left the noise of the avenue for the quiet of the side-streets that Colton spoke.
"What do you think of it, Sydney?" asked the problemist gravely.
"I'm completely at sea," confessed Thames, with a shake of his head. "It looked awfully bad for Norris when we arrived at the bank. Then that South American boat business. How did you know she had received a message?" he asked suddenly.
"Didn't. But I knew Miss Richmond, or rather Mrs. Norris. Common sense would have told any one that could be the only reason for her presence at the dock. Jamison and his kind don't use common sense. They use the old policeman's formula; arrest the logical suspect and then convict him. With persons like Norris and his wife, each half doubting, half suspecting, either would have confessed to save the other. It was an ideal arrest, from the police view-point."
"Then you seemed to involve the two watchmen and the two men from the protective agency. Jamison will have a whole waggon-load."
"He'll take no one," answered Colton. "I know him. He'll spend the rest of the day trying to find out what I was talking about. Then he'll telephone to headquarters, and they'll send men to find out who sent the message to Miss Richmond, and to locate Mrs. Bowden."
"There's the woman, Thorn!" Thames spoke nervously, excitedly. "She took a dress-suit case, presumably full of clothes, to her 'sister' in Brooklyn. The bonds-"
"You forget that the agency men saw her come out of the room empty-handed; they even searched her, and one put her on the trolley." Colton smiled curiously. "This was wholly a man's job, Sydney. The work of the rarest kind of criminal; a detailist. This crime, while perfectly simple, is, I think, unique in its attention to details. That's why it interests me."
"Simple!" ejaculated Thames. "Simple? You speak as though you knew the guilty man."
"I do. Perfectly. I knew last night."
"Last night? The-"
"The robbery was committed early today. Exactly."
"Why-why-" Helpless amazement was in Sydney Thames's voice. "Why don't you arrest him? Why all this-"
"Simply because I would be laughed at. I haven't the proof-yet. The usual criminal stumbles on his opportunity, and seizes it in a haphazard fashion. The rare criminal, the detailist, attends to every detail; works his problem out with the shrewdness and forethought of a captain of finance, plans a coup months ahead. Then he creates the opportunity. You must understand, Sydney, that half a million is worth a few months' work."
"But suspicion points only to Miss Richmond, Norris, and this Mrs. Bowden."
"Suspicion points to every one," corrected the problemist. "Doesn't it seem suspicious that President Montrose should call in the police when he would naturally take all steps in his power to avoid publicity? Doesn't the very eagerness of the central-office men to arrest Norris and his wife seem queer? Isn't there a bit of suspicion in Simpson's confession that he delayed the Stillson estate until Norris was compelled to work after hours on them? Doesn't Miss Richmond's story that she was carrying her suit home to save work for a delivery boy seem highly improbable and unwoman-like? How about Norris telling his wife of the bonds? An unbusinesslike proceeding in the case of half a million's worth of negotiable bonds, truly. Didn't the two men who answered the early-morning alarm seem a bit too sure that nothing was wrong? Weren't the two watchmen in the conspiracy to pretend that Mrs. Schneider was ill, so that a woman whom they had known but two weeks could gain access to the bank? Doesn't the finding of an unlabelled pill-box, three featherless quills, and surgeon's cotton in the otherwise empty room of a woman dying with tuberculosis strike you as strange? As a further detail in this crime of details, doesn't my confession that I knew the criminal before the crime was committed seem a trifle like guilty knowledge?" He smiled broadly.
"Great Scott, Thorn!" Sydney Thames's voice trailed off in a whistle of pure bewilderment. "You've involved every one."
"Oh, no." Colton snapped his cigarette into the street. "Not every one. An unfortunate vaudeville actor will appear on the scene as soon as I get the list on which I left Shrimp busily at work."