Death Points A Finger
by Will Levinrew
Published by the Mystery League, New York and London.
Other books by Will Levinrew (William Levine) are Poison Plague (1929), Murder on the Palisades (1930), Murder from the Grave (1930), and For Sale—Murder (1932)
The tempo was increasing to its highest pitch for the day. That highly complicated organism, a daily newspaper, which is apparently conceived in the wildest disorder, was about to "go to bed." Twenty typewriters were hammering out their finishing touches and concluding paragraphs to new stories. New leads were being written to old stories.
News machines, telegraph machines, two tickers were adding their quota to the infernal din. Male and female voices were punctuating the grimy air with yells of "copy boy". The men at the horseshoe shaped copy desk were echoing the cry. Boys rushed up to some of the typewriters, and, almost before the type bars ceased their clicking on the last words of a sentence, snatched out the sheet of copy paper from the machine.
The floor, tables, desks, chairs presented an appearance that would have made the owner of a respectable junk shop blush. Discarded copy paper and newspapers, cigarette stubs, burnt matches, strewed the floors. Coats and hats dumped anywhere, littered the desks and battered chairs.
As an obligato to the din, there came from deep in the bowels of the building the rumbling of the huge presses that were throwing out the papers of an earlier edition; a rumble that was felt as well as heard.
Suddenly, as if by magic, the din ceased; "dead line" had been reached. One lone typewriter came to a chattering halt. Men and women rose from their machines, where they had been sitting tense. Cigarettes were lit; the workers relaxed. There began a subdued chatter. Chaff and banter were exchanged, freely, good humoredly.
Only the visible evidence of a former disorder remained. The room was still untidy and grimy. Papers in unbelievable profusion heaped the floors and desks. The rumble in the basement ceased. In a few moments it began again. It was running off the final edition.
James Hale, star reporter on the New York Eagle, who had a few minutes ago been the personification of dynamic activity, was now trying to get a rise out of Marie LaBelle, editor of the Heart Balm column.
Marie was sitting slumped in the chair in front of the typewriter, trying to ignore his jibes. At the side of Marie's desk were the literary effusions from love sick males and females that were the daily grist of "her" department.
Marie glowered at Jimmy, perspiring profusely over Jimmy's witticisms. On the night before, there had been a crap game in which Pop Fosdick, head of the Eagle morgue, had participated. Pop had been a cub when Greeley, Bennett and Dana had been names to conjure with in the newspaper field. Pop still lived in his youth. He had an encyclopedic memory for names, places and dates, which made him so valuable in the morgue.
When a reporter was too lazy to look up some needed information himself, he would ask Pop. Pop would glower, growl, swear—and to hear him was a treat—and get the necessary data. On the night before, in the crap game, Pop had cleaned up the entire gang and broken up the game.
Marie LaBelle was cursing fluently the luck that on that occasion had seemed to run all in one direction—with Pop Fosdick. Marie hitched up the left half of his suspenders and began his old plaint:
"Think of that old geezer, old enough to—"
"Oh, I don't know," broke in one of the listeners. "It doesn't take much to see sevens—, and elevens. Even Pop—"
"I don't mean that," lied Marie. "I wasn't thinking of his luck last night. I was thinking of the remarkable manner in which a man of his age conducts that morgue. It isn't just memory either. He seems to have an uncanny intelligence about—"
"A man of his age," scoffed Jimmy. "He isn't the only one. I know one man who is, I believe, older than Pop—"
"We all know who that is, of course," jeered Roy Heath, the rewrite man, with his soft southern drawl. "Jimmy is now going to effuse about Professor Herman Brierly. Now, down South, in God's own country there are really remarkable old men. I grant that Professor Brierly is quite a chap for a Yankee; one would think he was a Southerner, but must we listen to—"
Pat Collins, a newcomer to the staff of the Eagle, interrupted.
"Shut up, Roy. I've heard a lot about this Brierly, but I know very little about him. Does Jimmy know him personally?"
"Know him?" drawled Heath. "Pat, to hear Jimmy talk, you'd think he created Brierly. Go on Jimmy, you got an audience."
Jimmy bristled. Roy had touched a sensitive spot, but he saw that this was just the superficial cynicism of the newspaperman. He saw the respectful interest that even these hardened reporters could not disguise. They shared his genuine admiration for the remarkable old scientist.
"Come on, Jimmy," urged Pat. "Tell me."
"You yellow journalists, with your minds running on lurid headlines, can hardly appreciate a man of his kind. Professor Herman Brierly is one of the four foremost scientists in the world today. He shuns publicity, really shuns it, and it is only because of his participation in several remarkable criminal cases that he has become generally known.
"He's nearly eighty years old. He doesn't wear glasses and I believe he still has all his teeth. He is little more than five feel tall, but built like a miniature Apollo; bushy white hair; deeply sunken blue eyes that seem to dissect one with sharp knives, and bushy black eyebrows.
"He has a passion for pure thought and has the finest analytical faculty of any man I know. He can truly be said to 'specialize' in a great many subjects. To him the distance from cause to effect or from effect to cause is a short and a simple one. He has not a superior in physics, chemistry, anatomy, physiology and the sciences generally. He is as familiar with the microscope as the ordinary man is with a pencil.
"It was some years ago that I got him interested in criminology. To his mind each crime is merely a scientific problem which he goes about solving as if it were any other scientific problem. It is only recently that he has begun to take an active interest in the human phases of criminology.
"He hates newspapers, newspapermen and loose thinking. He connects the last, loose thinking, with newspapers and reporters. I got in with him because his chief assistant and adopted son, John Matthews, was a classmate of mine in the university. John, if he lives long enough, will be as great a scientist as his chief. John, or Jack as I call him, is over six feet tall and would have made any professional heavyweight step some if he had taken to the ring as a profession.
"To see and hear the two of them is a treat. It reminds one of a battleship being convoyed by a clean cut little motor launch. And to hear them! The old man is constantly deploring—"
At this moment there cut through the abnormal quiet of the smoky city room the deep growl of its autocrat, "Iron Man" Hite. Jimmy stopped. Hite was calling his name. No one who was not deaf ever let Hite call him twice.
"Hey, Hale," roared the voice.
Jimmy reached the dais of the man who was said to be the best and the cruellest city editor in the newspaper game.
"Jimmy, your vacation begins next week, doesn't it?"
Jimmy nodded and looked at his superior expectantly. Hite continued:
"Your little tin god, Professor Herman Brierly, is spending the summer up in Canada, isn't he?"
Jimmy nodded again.
"Howdje like to spend your vacation up there with Brierly at the paper's expense?"
Jimmy made no effort to hide the suspicion in his eyes. He had heard of Greeks bearing gifts, particularly when the Greek took the shape of his city editor.
"What do you mean, my vacation at the paper's expense? I get my pay during my two weeks' vacation, don't I?"
"Yes, but the paper is willing to pay all the expenses of your vacation besides. What do you think of that?"
The suspicion in Jimmy's eyes grew deeper. He knew his city editor. There was—Hite cut in on his reflections.
"A swell chance for you to spend part or all of your vacation with Professor Brierly and your friend, Matthews. District Attorney McCall is up there too. Brierly is in McCall's shack." He was becoming enthusiastic. "Just think of a vacation at the paper's expense in—"
"I was planning to spend my vacation elsewhere," said Jimmy coldly. "Besides, Professor Brierly doesn't want any visitors. He needs a rest. Jack consented to go up there with the Professor only on condition that McCall doesn't talk shop. I've got my vacation all planned."
"But Jimmy, up there where Brierly is you can get the best ale in the world—and beer—say, just thinking of it makes my mouth water. If you must drink you ought to go up there for a spell instead of drinking this needled beer and the lousy hootch you get in the speakeasies. And that lake up there, Lake Memphremagog, is one of the most beautiful in the world. Just the thing for a newspaperman. Why Jimmy—"
"All right, I'll bite. What do you want me to do up in Canada—on my vacation."
"Who the hell said I want you to do anything on your vacation? That's the chief trouble with this newspaper game; it makes people so damn suspicious."
"Oh, yeah. Tomorrow, Friday, I draw three weeks' pay and my two weeks' vacation begins. You want me to go up to Canada and spend my vacation with Professor Brierly, where the air of Lake Men—whatever the name is, is salubrious and where they have delicious, wholesome beer and ale. I go up there, get healthy and strong, recuperate from this hectic newspaper life and return. When I return, I submit a bill for the fare, and other expenses and the beer and ale. And you pay this expense account. And it ends there, does it? During this two weeks you don't want me to see anybody or do anything or dig up any story for the paper, do you. Is that the program?"
"Sure, that's the program exactly. But you won't object, will you, Jimmy, if I ask you to drop in on someone in a camp near Brierly's. Just drop in once, that's all, and file a little story. It's right near Lentone, Vermont Is that too much to ask?"
"I knew it! There is a joker somewhere. Just drop in once and file a little story. You've got a correspondent up there, for a little story. If it's a big story, the A.P. will get it or the paper can send a man up there. What the hell do you want to spoil my vacation for?"
"But this isn't a story, Jimmy. It's got point about it that makes it a swell feature story, mebbe a fine human interest yarn, see. And it won't interfere with you at all."
Hite's strong teeth clenched his corn cob pipe, his jaw jutted out like a crag; his eyebrows bristled.
"Say, what the hell is all this yappin' about. You pampered pets give me a large pain. I'm askin' you to do somethin'. Either you do it or you don't. Somebody told you you're a star reporter and you believe it. You're developin' a temperament, like a prima donna. I'm payin' you a compliment by giving you a swell feature story; I'm sendin' you where you'd probably like to go anyway; I'm payin' your expenses for your vacation. I'm payin' for all the beer and ale you can guzzle and you balk. What the—"
Jimmy mentally ducked under the gathering storm. Hite was the only human being of whom he was afraid. A vacation up in Canada at the paper's expense wasn't so bad after all. As for the story, he could probably clean it up in a couple of hours, whatever it was. What could possibly happen up there that would take too much of his time? He interjected soothingly.
"Oh, all right, all right, I suppose I'll have to go. What's it all about?"
"No, you don't have to go. This is your vacation. This paper," virtuously, "doesn't impose on its men. I wouldn't dream of—"
"All right, chief, all right, I'll go. I don't have to go. But I'm just aching, just yearning to go. What is it?"
Hite glowered at him for a moment. His joke wasn't working out quite as planned. Still it would be swell to have Jimmy up there. There ought to be a great feature story in it anyway, particularly on July Fourth, and perhaps a swell follow-up the next day.
His ugly, rugged features returned to normal. He put away his pipe. He said, holding up the clipping:
"There's gonna be a reunion of fourteen men in the camp of Isaac Higginbotham, in Quebec, a few miles north of Lentone, Vermont. The fourteen are all that remain of a group of two hundred and thirty-seven, all of them veterans of the Civil War. Most of the two hundred and thirty-seven were Confederates, but there were a few Union men among them.
"They have a reunion every July 4th. They're mostly northern Confederates. There have been hints for the past twenty years or so that there's something in the group that's strange. It's never got out, because newspapermen never really got after it and covered their reunions. The reasons that first got them together are obscure, but one thing that holds them together is a Tontine insurance policy. It—"
"Tontine?" broke in Jimmy.
"Yeah, Tontine. Don't you know what Tontine insurance is?" he asked with mild surprise. "In Tontine insurance a group of persons get together, pay a lump sum or periodically, with the understanding that the sole survivor takes the whole pot. Understand?"
Jimmy nodded. He repressed a grin. His eyes had caught on Hite's desk a volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume XXIII, TAB-UPS. He would look at that volume himself later and learn all about Tontine insurance.
"Well, Jimmy, among these fourteen survivors are some of the foremost men in the country, men who have served their country in various capacities, a few of them just ordinary poor men. Can't you see what a swell feature story this can be for the Fourth. Patriots all of them: Northern and Southern Confederates, Union men from the North and the South. Why Jimmy—"
Jimmy nodded. His eyes took on the gleam they always held when there was a good story in sight. Canada, with Professor Brierly available, with Jack Matthews, with good beer and ale and the possibility of a good story, with all expenses paid, might be a good idea after all.
About two-thirds of the thirty-odd miles of Lake Memphremagog lies in Canada, Province of Quebec. The lower third lies in Vermont, with Lentone near its extreme southern tip, Magog at its northern extremity.
A few miles above the international border on its eastern shore nestled the rough, comfortable camp that District Attorney McCall, of New York, had turned over for the use of his friend, Professor Brierly, and the immediate members of his household. These comprised John Matthews, Professor Brierly's adopted son and principal assistant; Matthews' sister, Norah, who had recently lost her husband; her four-year-old son, Thomas, and Professor Brierly's housekeeper, Martha, who had been quite certain that without her capable presence, the old savant would be grossly neglected, suffer and die.
Jimmy Hale had elected to drive. July Fourth of that year falling on a Friday, he had decided to start his vacation, nominally, on the following Monday, July 7, actually, on the morning of July second. He argued logically that it might take several of his vacation days to clean up the story. Hite not offering any objections to this, Jimmy started shortly after midnight, Wednesday morning.
The fates were unkind to him. He ran into a rain storm in Connecticut, which followed him through most of Massachusetts. Shortly after he left Brattleboro, Vermont, behind him, he asked two separate individuals for the shortest road to his destination. Each gave him instructions that varied considerably from the other. He decided to follow the direction of the one who looked most intelligent and became lost.
He crossed the Connecticut River several times. His geography being rather sketchy, he became confused by the fact that he appeared to be in New Hampshire part of the time. Then he got lost in Canada, which feat is fairly easy for the stranger.
It was nearly six o'clock in the morning of July third, when he found the camp, about two miles off the road. He bumped over rutted paths through rough, plowed and unplowed fields several miles before he finally arrived. A friendly fox-terrier puppy fawned on him and friskily led him to a porch.
Jimmy was red-eyed, tired, haggard and in a vicious temper when he reached the camp. He knew it was his destination because, on a wide porch facing the west, he came upon his friend and former schoolmate, John Matthews, snugly rolled in his blankets, sound asleep. Jimmy took this sleep as a personal affront. As if jeering at his own sleeplessness, Matthews emitted a faint snore.
Jimmy cat-footed it down to the lake, scooped up a bucketful of water and went back to Matthews.
The blond young giant awoke sputtering and strangling. Through the haze he saw something that reminded him of his friend Jimmy Hale, red-eyed, dust-covered, grinning at him. He himself was lying in a pool of water. Jimmy was flourishing a bucket and hissing.
"Get up you lazy dog, get up. What you mean sleeping on such—"
This ended in a frightened squawk. Matthews leaped. One long arm grasped Jimmy. Then both hands had him. Jimmy was carried struggling to the homemade wharf. Thence he was flung into the sparkling waters of the lake. When his head emerged Matthews flung a cake of soap at him.
"Here, you need this, you're dirty."
The puppy, thinking this was a good game, yelped and frolicked.
Out of a window above the sleeping porch there popped a bushy white head, a remarkably high wide brow, deeply sunken blue eyes and, as if accentuating the rest of the remarkable features, bushy black eyebrows.
An irascible voice, in clear, crisp accents came down.
"What is this, what is this, what is this abominable disturbance?"
"Oh, nothing, Professor," responded Matthews. "A tramp came around and—"
"A tramp, here?" Just then the dripping form of Jimmy emerged from the water. "What's that? Who is that? Dear me, it looks like Mr. Hale."
The bushy white head disappeared. In a short time, the old man, clad in pajamas of somber hue, appeared at the door.
Matthews was staring at Jimmy in well simulated disbelief and surprise. "By gosh, you're right, Professor. It does look like Hale. Now who would have thought—"
Professor Brierly glared at his young protege suspiciously. He stared at Hale.
"But, Mr. Hale is all wet and so are you. Your bedding is—now what kind of prank is that? I came up here for a rest. I—"
"Yes, Professor, Mr. Hale is all wet. He's that way frequently, you know."
"Mr. Hale is—why Mr. Hale you look tired, you're caked with mud. We did not know you were coming."
Hale briefly explained that he had been taking an involuntary lesson in the geography of the New England states and part of Canada; that he had been driving for something more than twenty-four hours. Professor Brierly hospitably insisted that he take a bath and a rest.
Considerably refreshed, Hale awoke in time for luncheon, when he was introduced to the other members of the household, Norah, Matthews' sister and her little boy Thomas, a nut brown youngster of four summers, between whom and Professor Brierly there had grown up a vast friendship. Thomas addressed the old scientist familiarly as "Pop" an appellation that Professor Brierly would have resented fiercely if used by anyone else.
Politeness forbade him from inquiring for whom the vacant chair at the table was standing when there was a crunching of the gravel outside appraising them of the coming of a visitor. The figure of McCall, District Attorney of New York, loomed through the doorway. They had been conscious for some minutes past of the increasing roar of a small outboard motor which had stopped outside their own, door.
McCall grasped the hand of the newspaperman.
"Well, well, look who's here! A regular family reunion. All that's necessary to make this complete is a murder or two and it would be like old times indeed. What brings the representative of the press here?"
Jimmy briefly told McCall the reason for his visit. McCall nodded and turned to Professor Brierly.
"This is a coincidence, Professor, or, not so much of a coincidence at that. Judge Higginbotham's camp is about two miles down the lake here. I know the judge; my father and the judge's family have spent their summers here for a number of years. Judge Higginbotham heard that you were here and he asked me to tell you that he and the rest of his group would be honored to have you join them on their reunion. This takes place formally tomorrow, July Fourth. Then it is their custom to spend about a week together."
"Swell," glowed Hale, "then you can tell me something about it. I looked in our morgue and couldn't get much. While there are reams and reams written about the individual members of the group, dead and living, there is almost nothing of them as a whole."
McCall's face clouded momentarily, then it cleared. Jimmy's quick eyes noted this momentary disturbance of the District Attorney's placid exterior. His newspaperman's keen mind filed it away. Professor Brierly was leaning forward showing more than his usual interest. He said:
"I shall be happy, of course, to avail myself of the opportunity to meet face to face such an interesting group of men, men who have had such a large share in making the history of this country, in the Civil War and since. But surely, Mr. McCall, such men do not hold an annual reunion with their Tontine insurance agreement as the sole tie to hold them together. These men must be above such things. What is there, aside from the insurance, that has held this group together for sixty-five years?"
"Oh, so you heard about this Tontine insurance, did you?" asked McCall.
"I told Professor Brierly about it, Mac," stated Jimmy.
"Oh, I see. Well, you're right, Professor. This is not the thing that holds them together." He ground his cigarette stub into a tray and taking out his pipe, began meditatively filling it. He lit it carefully and took a thoughtful puff or two. He continued:
"If you've read your history you will remember that at one time, toward the end of that dreadful struggle, the Civil War, all males, from about the age of sixteen upwards, were either drafted or enlisted on both sides. Boys of fourteen in active combat service were fairly common. Father and sons often fought side by side. What is still more deplorable is the fact that often brothers, and even fathers and sons, fought on opposite sides."
McCall puffed more slowly. He was apparently choosing his words carefully.
"What I want to make clear is that thousands of boys in their teens, as young as thirteen and fourteen, were in active combat service. The conditions at that time, of course, were such that boys matured much earlier than they do now.
"Imagine if you will, Camp Douglas, near Chicago, northern prison for Confederate soldiers, where seven thousand prisoners of war were quartered. Picture several hundred prisoners taken at Fort Donelson, including men from Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, sent to Douglas soon after their capture; shivering in the snow in the center of the parade ground, wearing upon their backs all the colors of the rainbow, ragged garments intended for a much warmer climate, frames all unaccustomed to the rigors of a northern winter. A week before, these men were fighting under the serpent flag of Douglas.
"Understand that if you will. Fiery Southerners, among them boys, to whom restraint was particularly galling. What more natural than an attempted prison break." McCall paused uncertainly and continued: "The jail break failed but the abortive attempt bound the ringleaders even closer together than the common cause they were defending.
"About a year after that came the end of the war. With the assassination of Lincoln, there began a period in our history of which none of us can be proud. The damnable Reconstruction Act, the 'carpet baggers,' with the years of consequent misery brought to the South, whose sons fought with the same patriotic motives and feelings as those of the North.
"It was then that this little group was born; they numbered originally two hundred and thirty-seven, Southerners most of them, and a few who had fought for the Union. They were sworn to give their lives, if necessary, to prevent corrupt politicians having their way with the South.
"All of these were between seventeen and eighteen years of age. One of them explained to me since that they did not want older men because they were afraid that such would not take their Quixotic notions seriously enough. Among them was Lorenzo Tonti, direct descendant of the Tonti, of insurance fame. The youngster had been brought to the United States by one of the followers of Garibaldi, the Italian liberator, who spent a few years in New York City about 1852.
"This youngster explained to his comrades the Tontine insurance plan. To boys of that age, fresh from war, this species of gambling seemed very attractive. Thus was born, sixty-five years ago, a group of more than two hundred men."
His audience had been listening to him with keen interest. Each showed it in his own way. To all of them the glamorous background was irresistibly appealing. But Jimmy Hale, the newspaper man, sensed something that did not appear on the surface. He asked challengingly:
"Why were you disturbed, Mac, when I asked you to tell me about it. There is nothing in what you have said that should have caused you any uneasiness."
McCall smiled whimsically.
"Ever the prying newspaperman, eh? There is something I'd rather not tell you, but since you're going to find it out by yourself—trust Jimmy Hale for that—I'd better let you have it first-hand."
"In the attempted jail break I told you of, they were betrayed by one or more of their own men, their own comrades in Douglas prison. The traitors were released and went over to the Union side. This is a phase of their story that none of the men care to talk about.
"The men who failed in the thwarted jail break were later released in an exchange of prisoners and the fortunes of war brought them, as guards to Libby Prison. To that prison there came a group of Union prisoners, among whom there were one or more of the men who had betrayed them.
"They had a peculiar system in Libby Prison at that time. When a group of Union prisoners was brought there, all the members of the group was given one number; they lost their individuality, so far as the prison was concerned, completely."
"One number?" queried Matthews.
"Yes, one number. Just bear that in mind. All the members of the batch of prisoners in question were given the same number. This group was given the number '14.' That is the way they were known to the officers and prison guards.
"Our friends of the Tontine group were never quite certain who had betrayed them. They suspected several men, among them, some of the prisoners who were brought to Libby Prison and given the number '14.' Later they were certain of it. At the end of the war, each one of them received the following communication:
"None of you will enjoy the fruits of your insurance any more than you did the unsuccessful jail break. 14."
"Since that time, during the entire sixty-five years, when misfortune, sickness, accident, loss or death happened to any member of the Tontine group, the surviving members of the group would each receive a sheet of paper, on which was printed in large characters, the number '14,' just that, nothing more."
McCall stopped; his features were drawn and tense. He continued:
"Do you see the dreadful possibilities in this thing? During the past two years, out of seven deaths, five were reported as suicides. After each death all the survivors received the terrible blank sheet of paper with the number '14.' These men are not easily scared. They have all gone through a lot and are able to face things.
"But more. You may put it down to the fact that as a prosecutor, I am naturally suspicious. To me, the Tontine insurance agreement presents dreadful possibilities. Each of the survivors has a powerful motive in—" He shook his head somberly.
"What does the fund amount to now, Mr. McCall?" Asked Professor Brierly.
"Several million dollars. Add to that the fact that in the stock market crash of October of last year, those members of the group who had money, lost it. It is a nice philosophical and psychologic speculation as to whether the man who had money and lost it or the man who never had it, will more readily commit murder for it. I tell you, folks, I don't like it. This is out of my jurisdiction as prosecutor. I am going there because I am friendly with several of the survivors. But I don't like it."
"Just what or whom do you suspect, Mac?" breathlessly asked Jimmy.
"I don't know," snapped McCall. The normally calm, collected prosecutor was evidently very much wrought up. "Here is a vendetta, regular Italian or Corsican style that has followed these men for sixty-five years. Of the five suicides during the past two years—who knows that they are really suicides. I—I tell you what," he wiped his brow. "I'll be glad to have Professor Brierly there."
Jimmy looked curiously at McCall. This was a mood so unlike the competent prosecuting officer.
Professor Brierly and Matthews shared Jimmy's wonder. Matthews said:
"You talk like a superstitious woman, Mac. What has happened recently that makes you—"
"This diabolical '14' has chosen, during the past few years, the reunion of this group to make himself, or themselves, felt. Nothing has happened recently to make me feel this way. But depend on it, the group will have some communication from '14.' These men, remember, are worldly men who are not easily scared, but the thing is getting on their nerves. I can see it and feel it when I talk to them. When do you plan to go there, Jimmy?"
"Guess I'd better go the first thing tomorrow morning," stated Jimmy, seeing that McCall wanted to change the subject. "The earlier I go the sooner this thing will be cleaned up. From what you say, Mac, I'm beginning to think that I'll have more than a feature story."
"All right, I'll come for you tomorrow morning. You could manage for yourself probably, but it may make things easier if I go down there with you."
"That's good of you, Mac. I know some of them but you know how it is—a newspaper man coming for a story."
"Very well, I'm running along. I'll call for you in the morning, Jimmy. And Professor, don't let the representative of the press disturb your rest with his vivid yarns."
"Don't worry, Mr. McCall," drawled Matthews; "if he doesn't behave himself, you'll find him among the missing tomorrow."
Norah took the little boy out to play and the three men, Professor Brierly, Matthews and Jimmy were left at the table. A silence fell on the group after the departure of McCall, each absorbed in his own thoughts. It was apparent to Jimmy that McCall's story had made as profound an impression on the other men as it had on him.
Jimmy looked curiously at Professor Brierly, who was rolling a bread pill under his fingers in a mood of deep abstraction. To Jimmy this gesture was of special significance, because it was one which Professor Brierly disliked. He never did it himself and Jimmy had heard him reprove Matthews for doing it. The newspaper man caught Matthews' glance. Jack was going to make a facetious remark, when the old man murmured as if thinking aloud:
"Seven deaths, five of them suicides. Strange, strange!"
"You suspect, Professor—"
The old man came out of his fit of abstraction with a start. "I suspect nothing. I never suspect without a sufficient basis of fact. I am very much interested in the story McCall told us. It is very, intriguing. An American vendetta! Possible, of course, for we have our Kentucky mountain feuds. McCall's suggestion is an unpleasant one.
"What dread horror does this mysterious '14' impose that will impel five such men out of twenty-one to commit suicide? The alternative is still more dreadful, Hale. In our criminal investigations, we have come across many instances of careless autopsies. We have come across many instances of loosely written reports by medical and other official examiners."
He shook his head and fell silent for a moment. Then he went on: "Think of it. On the one hand, a man, or men whose hate grew and grew for sixty-five years, until it became an obsession or outright mania. On the other hand, a fund of several million dollars."
"You suggest, Professor, you suggest—can death be produced so that it looks like suicide?"
"Of course it can."
"In five cases, Professor, within such a short time?"
"In five cases or five hundred cases, but here, this sort of thing is all right for a highly speculative imaginative newspaper man. Both you and McCall infected me with your—let us go outside and enjoy the sunshine."
For a time that afternoon, Jimmy forgot the conversation at the lunch table. He saw Professor Brierly and Matthews in new surroundings. And the charm of it stole in on him and made him forget temporarily the errand on which he came.
* * * * *
Professor Brierly was watching the movements of a lizard with detached interest when his little friend sat down beside him and began, glumly, pushing his toes in and put of the gentle ripples that lapped the shore.
Beautiful Lake Memphremagog, bisected by the international border, lay before them. On the opposite side a motor launch skirted the shore looking unreal against the dark, impenetrable wooded background. In the middle distance a canoe with two figures in it rose and fell lazily in the gentle swell.
Professor Brierly's deeply sunken, bright blue eyes looked with paternal affection at the little figure at his side. The lips under the tip-tilted nose formed, faintly, a pout. It was unusual for Tommy to sit so long beside "Pop" without asking a thousand questions. One of the reasons Tommy liked Professor Brierly so much was that the latter always answered his questions. And the answers were amplified with tricks that were so fascinating.
The professor's associates would have been amused as was Matthews' and the boy's mother, at the old man's painful efforts to use short words easy of comprehension. Professor Brierly never made the mistake of treating the boy or his questions lightly. He always gave them serious consideration; he always treated the boy with the grave courtesy due an equal.
After the silence had lasted a painfully long time, Professor Brierly asked:
"Anything wrong, Thomas?" The old scientist's concession to the amenities did not extend to calling the youngster "Tom" or "Tommy."
The little chap nodded.
"Yes, Pop, something very wrong, very, VERY wrong."
Professor Brierly's features showed appropriately grave concern. "What is it?"
"Uncle Jack, he—he—won't let me peddle."
"He won't let you what?"
"He won't let me peddle, peddle the boat." He pointed a grubby finger toward the canoe that was tied to the small wharf.
"Oh, you mean, he won't let you paddle the canoe."
"Yes, Pop, he won't let me peddle."
"Paddle is the word, Thomas; say paddle."
"No, no, Thomas, paddle, PADDLE!"
Any other person but Thomas would have received an outburst of wrath from the old scientist Professor Brierly again demonstrated his deep love for the boy by abandoning the subject of pronunciation and returned to the major issue.
"You say, Thomas, that he won't let you peddle—er—paddle?"
Thomas glumly shook his head.
"But, Thomas, I cannot understand. I saw him teach you to paddle. He made you a small paddle himself."
"Well, he won't let me."
"Did John tell you why?"
"He just won't let me. He says I can't peddle all alone by myself till I c'n swim'n dive real good. I wanna peddle all alone by myself like them." He pointed to two canoes in the distance, each propelled by a lone figure.
"Well, Thomas, can you swim as well as Uncle John?"
"Sure, I c'n swim real good, mebbe not so good as Uncle Jack but-I wanna peddle all alone by myself."
The crunching of the gravel under heavy steps interrupted the two pals. Big, blond, athletic John Matthews was coming down the embankment that led from the rustic sprawling cabin.
"John," said Professor Brierly, gravely, "Thomas here, has a complaint against you."
"Zat so?" A huge hand seized the slack of Thomas's shorts and the boy was heaved up to the muscular shoulder. The two faces were now on the same level and twinkling gray blue eyes were looking into grave brown ones.
"Did you squeal on Uncle Jack, Tommy?"
The brown eyes were looking at him steadily, fearlessly. "I didn't squeal, Uncle Jack, I jes tole Pop"—A grubby hand began rumpling the tousled head. "I tole Pop you won't let me peddle—'n when you learn me to swim'n dive will you let me peddle all alone by myself?"
When Norah rowed out to the forty-two foot launch, two hours later, she witnessed a curious spectacle. As she climbed over the rail she saw her brother standing at the opposite rail holding a long pole, at the end of which there hung out into the water, out of her sight, a strong wash line.
Her brother seemed to be getting vast amusement out of what he was doing. Professor Brierly and Jimmy Hale were standing near by, interested spectators.
Norah stepped around the wheel house, asking:
"What are you doing, Jack?"
She was treated to Jack's good humored grin as he turned to face her.
"I'm fishin', Norah, fishin'. See—"
He heaved up the thick pole. There was a squealing from the hidden end of the rope. Then, to Norah's shocked eyes, there appeared the squirming, wriggling form of her young son trussed up in a harness that held him about his shoulders and thighs and left his arm and legs free.
Norah rushed forward.
Tommy yelled excitedly.
"Oo, mummie, Uncle Jack's learnin' me to swim. Watch. Lemme down, Uncle Jack 'n show Mummie."
"John Matthews," Norah called in her sternest tones, "let Tommy down, this minute. Suppose the rope broke, suppose—"
"Just watch, Norah. He's gettin' to be a reg'lar Weismuller. Ready Tommy."
With a look compounded of maternal love and pride, Norah watched the little form struggle through the water at the end of its odd fishing line.
This was followed by a diving lesson. There was much splashing, squealing and fun. Every time the little form disappeared beneath the water a big form followed it. When the little head appeared above the surface sputtering, the other was near by to be confidently clasped.
It was not the casual interest of the feature story that now inspired Jimmy Hale, on his way the following morning with his friends to the camp of Isaac Higginbotham. Jimmy's vivid imagination was keyed to its highest pitch. Decidedly this trip to Canada seemed very much worth while, even to a star reporter. What McCall had intimated the day before whetted his appetite. He thrilled at the thought that he was on the scene where a big story might be in the very making. He exulted further at the thought that Professor Herman Brierly was to be with him.
It lacked a few minutes before nine o'clock on the morning of July fourth, when the launch operated by Matthews docked at the small wharf of the Higginbotham camp. Nestled on a small bay of land on the eastern shore of the lake, with the thick foliage forming a dark, somber background, the rambling building comprising the camp formed an ideal place and setting for this type of retreat.
Behind and to one side there loomed a huge rocky outcropping that some volcanic disturbance in the past had cast up. At the edge of this rocky eminence there seemed literally to hang a huge boulder. It appeared from below that only a touch of the hand or a strong wind would send this boulder crashing destructively down on the porch.
The wide porch facing the lake was occupied when the launch tied up at the wharf. It became at once apparent to the visitors that all, or most of the survivors of the strange group were on the wide verandah.
The quiet conversational murmur among the men ceased as the visitors mounted the shallow steps. One rose to greet them. Jimmy could not mistake the venerable head with its white hair surmounting the still erect figure of the famous jurist. Jimmy had seen photographic reproductions of Justice Isaac Higginbotham too often to be in doubt.
The host smiled at McCall. His air was gracious and winning as he held his hand out to Professor Brierly. Before McCall had time to affect the introductions, Justice Higginbotham said:
"Introductions are hardly necessary. I am honored to have Professor Brierly beneath my roof, and this, I am sure," turning toward Matthews, "is Professor Brierly's associate, Mr. Matthews?"
Jack bowed, acknowledging the distinguished jurist's smile. Justice Higginbotham turned toward Jimmy inquiringly, while the murmur of introductions among the other men was going on.
A rich, deep voice interrupted:
"Mr. Hale, isn't it? Of the New York Eagle?"
It was Thomas Marshall, former ambassador to the Court of St. James, who knew and remembered Jimmy. Another voice, with more than a tinge of the brogue of the Emerald Isle, called out, joining the smaller group:
"Jimmy Hale, or I'm a Swede." Jimmy was glad to see the rosy smiling features and portly figure of former Police Commissioner of New York, McGuire. "What can there be in the meeting of a number of prosy old men, Jimmy, that brings a star reporter all the way up here? Or—oh, I see—you're a friend of Professor Brierly, of course, and Brierly's camp is right up the lake here. McCall's shack, isn't it?"
Jimmy nodded. "Yes, I'm spending part of my vacation at Professor Brierly's camp, but frankly, I'm here at the request of my city editor to cover the reunion of your group."
Jimmy intercepted the swift interchange of glances between the three men, with whom he now formed an isolated group, apart from the others.
Justice Higginbotham said: "You say, Mr. Hale, that you are up here to cover this reunion?"
"And that you are a member of the staff of your paper and not a local correspondent?"
Once more Jimmy noticed the interchange of a significant glance between the men. Clearly they were not at ease. There was an air of tension, of expectancy. Jimmy's swift glance that took in the other members of the group noted the same tenseness among the rest. As he had come upon the porch, he had mentally counted the men there. He had been told there were fourteen survivors. There were only eleven men on the porch. August Schurman, whom he knew by sight, was not there. Morris Miller, the eccentric retired art dealer, whom he also knew, was also absent.
Jimmy shook himself, mentally. This was absurd. He was permitting the things that McCall had told him to get on his nerves. He brought his mind back to the three men with whom he was standing at the edge of the porch. Justice Higginbotham was saying:
"But come, Mr. Hale, this is not very gracious of me. Let me introduce you to those whom you do not know. Since you are acquainted with Marshall and McGuire you may know some of the others. And Mr. Hale, I recall you young men were being facetious at the entrance of this country in the World War over the names of men recruited into the average company or regiment; you regarded them as distinctly un-American names. That was rather amusing to us old veterans, amusing for reasons that perhaps most young persons would not understand. Just what is an American name?
"Now I am going to run over the names of the men who are on the porch beside us three. Stand by, Mr. Hale!"
With a faint twinkle, he rattled off the following:
"Vasiliewski, Rochambeau, LaRoque, Goldberg, Tonti, Ross, Thomas, Fletcher. And"—There was a pause, a break. The twinkle in the fine eyes was gone. The features of the three turned grave. He concluded his sentence haltingly:
"—Three are not here. They are—Schurman, Miller and Wrigley. But come along, I will introduce you."
Jimmy was puzzled over the fact that, in varying form, the other members of the group expressed astonishment at a member of the staff of a New York paper being there. The venerable insurgent, former speaker of the House, present United States Senator Frank Ross, after a swift glance at Justice Higginbotham, blurted out:
"From the staff of the Eagle you say, Mr. Hale. How could you know in time—"
He cast a startled look in the direction of Justice Higginbotham. Senator Ross subsided, uneasily.
Mr. Marshall ended the painful scene. He addressed the entire group:
"Gentlemen, we all know, of course, that the modern newspaper man is not a peeping Tom, an impertinent individual, who pries into the affairs of others. Mr. Hale honorably represents an honorable profession. I have known him personally for a number of years and I'll vouch for him. He was sent here by his city editor to cover our reunion. That he comes here at such an unfortunate time is a coincidence. We may speak to him frankly. We are perhaps exaggerating and magnifying what is at worst only a normal thing in the lives of old men. We have all lived our lives and death is—" He paused and at several nods from members of the group he turned to Jimmy.
"You come at an unfortunate time, Mr. Hale. Fourteen men were to have gathered here for our reunion. At all our reunions all our members are either present or in some way accounted for. When, for some reason any one of us is unable to come, there is an adequate explanation." He paused, his words were now coming more slowly. Jimmy was now acutely conscious of an air of painful expectancy.
"There are only eleven of us here this morning, Mr. Hale. Two of the eleven arrived this morning, early this morning. Until an hour ago we had not heard from the three missing men. At eight o'clock, about an hour ago, we received a telephone message to the effect that August Schurman, of New York, was found dead in his room. He committed suicide."
The pause that now ensued was painful. The scene before Jimmy was unreal. Eleven old men, not one of them less than eighty-two years of age, men who had seen, lived and suffered much, were looking at him, each in his own way showing his reaction to the scene. Justice Higginbotham turned an apologetic, whimsical smile to Professor Brierly:
"You and I, Professor, and I am sure, the rest of us, can and do look at death calmly. I am sorry to inflict this sort of thing on you, but there are circumstances about this that make it rather painful. The fact that we have not heard from the other two men, Miller and Wrigley, takes on rather ghastly importance."
Once more there was a painful pause. Jimmy's mind was phrasing words to describe the scene. The eleven old men, waiting to hear from the other three. The dead stillness of the group, hardly breathing; the mask-like features of Lorenzo Tonti, the suffused features and protuberant eyes of Fletcher, the high cheek bones of Stanislav Vasiliewski, the somber look of former Police Commissioner McGuire, upon whose normally smiling countenance gloom sat so ill.
Jimmy's mind also found words and phrases to describe the sparkling waters of Lake Memphremagog, the wooded western shore in the distance. The few boats floating on the surface of the water looked unreal. The faint soft beat of a distant motor equally false. Jimmy hardly breathed; he had a vague unformed desire to hold this scene, to prolong it. There was a silence that was almost painful. Eleven men waiting, waiting for—what?
The shrill ringing of the telephone in a distant part of the house came with the effect of a sudden blow. Schooled as were most of these men to suppress their emotions, some of them started at the first burst of metallic sound. Jimmy caught the looks that some of them cast at one another. In those looks there was hesitance, and quickly suppressed fear.
A grizzled, white-headed negro came to the door. He addressed Justice Higginbotham.
"For you, suh. Lentone callin'."
As Judge Higginbotham followed the darky through the door one of the men sprang to his feet; Jimmy later identified him as Jules Goldberg, a retired clothing manufacturer. Goldberg snapped:
"What in the world are we afraid of? Are we children? We went through Antietam, Bull Run, Gettysburg. Those of us who were rebels suffered in the hell of Douglas prison. I and other Union soldiers went through the terrible agonies of Libby Prison, where men died like rats on Bell Island. And now we act like frightened women at the sound of a telephone bell that may tell us of the death of one of our comrades. Of course we will die! We will all die; we have lived longer—"
His tirade was cut short. Judge Higginbotham was coming through the door. The speaker wheeled about to face him. Some of the others leaned forward tensely. Justice Higginbotham unconsciously came to a dramatic halt in the doorway. His features were etched into grave lines. It did not bear the kind, mild look that was its wont. He glanced over the faces of his comrades and their visitors. Jimmy was to carry this scene with him for a long time.
The man in the doorway nodded simply. He took a few steps onto the porch. He said:
"Morris Miller was found dead in his bed a short time ago. The report says suicide."
As if impelled by one muscular impulse, every man on the porch stood up, the one exception being Professor Brierly. They formed a strange group, men of all sizes, all of about the same age, all of them either bald or silvery white. One of them, Hiram Fletcher, towered above the rest, even towered above John Matthews' six feet of lanky muscular height.
Slowly, wordlessly they subsided to their seats. But James McGuire, former Police Commissioner of New York, sprang to his feet. He growled:
"Goldberg is right; we are acting like children. In the name of God let us face this thing the way men ought to face it and lay dead the bugaboo, if it is a bugaboo, or face squarely the facts, if there's really something in it to fear. Let us once and for all do away with this damnable thing. If it's a shadow let's exorcise it. If it's something else, let's find out what it is. None of us believe in ghosts. Well—"
He turned swiftly to Professor Brierly.
"Professor, it's a great break for us that you're here. Won't you help us, won't you—"
Judge Higginbotham chimed in.
"Yes, Professor, your presence here is fortunate, almost providential. You can help us. Your interest in such things and your success in the solution of many apparently insoluble affairs is known to all of us. While we are between us able to cope with most of the things that arise, you, an outsider, without having your emotions involved may see more clearly than we, aside from your undoubted talents in this direction."
"Tell him the story, Isaac, tell him the story," broke in William Flynn, who, up to this time, had not spoken. "Let us have the benefit of Professor Brierly's opinion anyway."
"I have taken the liberty," said McCall, "of indicating to Professor Brierly the history of your group. He knows at least the outlines of the story that gave birth to your organization. I've also told him about the abortive jail break and your communications from '14.'"
"Just what do you gentlemen fear?" asked Professor Brierly. "What Mr. McCall told me is after all fairly vague, certainly nothing to cause practical men to react as—as you seem to. You receive notice that one of your friends has died; he committed suicide. An hour later you receive word that another also committed suicide. Certainly death in men of your age is not uncommon. Suicide, of late, according to the records, is also common, fairly common. You seem to fear some personal malign influence at work. The fact that up to yesterday there were fourteen out of an original two hundred and thirty-seven seems to disprove such a theory. I have not available actuarial figures, but it seems to me that fourteen out of two hundred and thirty-seven, about six per cent, is a fairly high record of longevity. Are you certain that you have not permitted yourselves to brood on this '14' until it has become an obsession?"
Senator Ross spoke up.
"Would all of us brood on this, Professor? Are we the kind of men to permit—"
"Each of you individually might not, Senator," stated Professor Brierly. "All of you together, talking of it, thinking of it, might, much more easily than each of you singly. There is a mass hysteria that is just as potent in a small group as in a large gathering." He spoke more gently. "I am sorry. This is not the question. You are all disturbed. Let us first learn if the thing that disturbs you has substance or is a mere shadow. That is the thing you all desire, is it not?"
Several nods and a murmur of assent indicated their agreement with this.
"Very well, then, about this number '14.' Is that real or is it mythical?"
Justice Higginbotham answered slowly.
"At one time, Professor, it was real enough, but," turning to Marshall, "When did we last hear of—"
Marshall answered promptly:
"We have not heard of Amos Brown—alive, since 1902."
"But," spoke up Stanislav Vasiliewski, quietly, "have we proof of his death?"
"That's it," growled McGuire, "We have not. We have not heard of him alive, nor do we know that he is dead. We know in police circles that men can disappear for a great many years. We have received those damnable notes with the number '14.' That's no proof that he's alive, but—"
Professor Brierly, always impatient at speculation, interrupted.
"Let us start this inquiry at the nearest point. Let us begin with the known, if possible, and work forward or backward to the unknown. About which phase of this entire matter are you gentlemen principally disturbed?"
The eleven old men exchanged glances. Senator Ross spoke.
"Between our reunion last year, which broke up about July tenth, until fifteen minutes ago, nine of our group died, seven of them are said to have committed suicide. We have not yet heard from '14' about the two deaths of which we heard this morning, but judging from past experiences we will, sooner or later.
"Call this number '14' mythical if you will, Professor, until we have evidence to the contrary. Nevertheless, seven suicides out of such a small group is disturbing—to say the least."
"Unusual, at any rate," commented Professor Brierly. "Just what, if anything, do you suspect?"
"Well, Professor," said Justice Higginbotham, "I, for one, should like to have indubitable proof that these men really committed suicide."
Professor Brierly's deeply sunken, penetrating blue eyes swept around the circle of faces. He nodded:
"Oh, I see. That should be easily determined, certainly with respect to the last two."
"But," objected Lorenzo Tonti, leaning forward, his swarthy features etched in lines of earnest thought, "we have it on competent medical authority that these men committed suicide. What right have we to question that?"
"We have it on medical authority," tartly interposed Professor Brierly, "but I am not certain it is competent medical authority. I have seen too many careless autopsies made and read too many loosely written reports to have abiding faith in such things."
McCall nodded emphatically.
"Professor Brierly is right there, of course. I have seen, in my official capacity, the things he mentions."
"So have I," chimed in Higginbotham, Fletcher and McGuire.
"Very well, then," said Professor Brierly. "We will not indulge in guesses, conjectures or surmises. Such things are likely to induce an unhappy state of mind. Schurman, you say lives in New York. We shall go to New York if we have to. Is there not something nearer, something—"
"Morris," interrupted several members of the group, "lives in Lentone." Judge Fletcher corrected, "right outside of Lentone."
"Then," stated Professor Brierly, "that is the place to begin, as soon as we know what we are looking for. One of you gentlemen, I am certain, can obtain the necessary permission to have me verify the official verdict of suicide. When we have done that, we shall have cleared away much doubt and uncertainty." His speech was now crisp, clear, incisive. "Is there any reason why we cannot do this at once?"
"No," said Justice Higginbotham slowly, "there is not. But we are waiting to hear from the only one of our members unaccounted for,—Wrigley." Jimmy noticed that while their mood had lightened during the past few minutes in the interchange with Professor Brierly, the mention of the name of the missing member brought back the atmosphere of gloom and doubt.
"Tell me all you care to tell me, Judge, of the inception of your group. Sometimes talking about a thing to an outsider helps. You gentlemen have brooded on this too long. Let us see if we can help clear it up."
Justice Higginbotham told in elaborate detail what McCall had sketched briefly. His deep voice, the remarkable voice that had handed down so many important decisions from the highest tribunal in the land, rolled on, with the gentle lapping of the waters of the lake against the small wharf, a faint obligate Jimmy was to remember this scene for a long time; it was etched on his memory very clearly.
He sensed that the old jurist was talking against time. While he seemed absorbed in his tale as were the others, this absorption was only superficial. With their inner senses they all seemed to be waiting, waiting for the dread news of their missing comrade.
These old men, everyone of whom showed his uneasiness in his own way, had each lived more than three-quarters of a century. Some of them showed their age very distinctly, mentally and physically. Jimmy could see their attention wander from the absorbing tale as Justice Higginbotham unfolded it, one of the most glamorous that Jimmy had ever heard.
Suddenly, in the middle of a sentence, Justice Higginbotham stopped talking. From the room facing on the porch there had come the faint whirring that was a prelude to the striking of the old-fashioned clock. Then came the deep tones of the hour.
Jimmy remembered now that when the clock had struck an hour before there had come the telephone message appraising the group of the death of Morris Miller.
The last stroke was still reverberating when the staccato jangling of the telephone bell drew a number of the old men to their feet. As if by a common impulse, as if they expected to get the answer to their spoken question through their eyes, every person on the deep porch, turned in the direction of the telephone. They looked as if they expected to see the dread message or messenger through the walls between them and the instrument.
The white-headed, grizzled negro came to the door. He spoke to Justice Higginbotham:
"Fo' you, suh. Je'sey City callin'."
As Justice Higginbotham arose to answer the call, Antoine Rochambeau spoke, his voice breaking to a faint croak:
"Jersey City is the home of Wrigley." The speaker was looking at Professor Brierly with burning eyes, a hectic flush flaming in his drawn cheeks. Professor Brierly looked at him sharply. He swiftly stepped to his side, laying his hand soothingly on his shoulder. The flush subsided, the man's tense body relaxed. He shook his head mumbling.
Fourteen pairs of eyes were looking toward the doorway as Justice Higginbotham once more returned, and came to an unconscious dramatic pause. He nodded, as if in confirmation of a statement.
"Wrigley was drowned yesterday noon at Bradley Beach, a seaside resort on the New Jersey coast about one mile south of Asbury Park."
While he was talking, Jimmy heard the squealing of brakes on the other side of the house. A motor car had come to a stop in front of the camp.
The eyes of the entire group turned in that direction. At Justice Higginbotham's announcement several of the men had stood up. They now dropped back into their seats. There was a long pause. To Jimmy it seemed that they all held their breath. The negro came to the door, in his hand a sheaf of telegrams. His eyes swept over the entire group.
He held them out to Justice Higginbotham who had stepped aside from the doorway to make way for him.
"Telegrams for you all. They didn't phone, suh, 'cause you done tole 'em not to phone no telegrams. De man am waitin' foh an ansuh."
Justice Higginbotham selected one of the telegrams and ripped open the flap. There was no change in his fine mobile features, but his eyes were fixed on the message for a long time. He was brought to himself by the negro.
"Am they any reply, Jedge?"
Justice Higginbotham, without raising his eyes from his message said, gently:
"No, Charley, no reply." Turing to the rest of the group he said, still gently: "My message is just the word 'fourteen,' that's all, just 'fourteen.' The other messages are probably—but you'd better look yourselves." He walked about the group and gave each of his ten associates one of the envelopes. He then held out his message to Professor Brierly. Jimmy saw the message. It bore the word, 'fourteen'; it had no signature.
Jimmy gripped the arms of his chair as he looked about the other men on the porch. There was a rustling and tearing of paper as flaps were ripped open. Some of them did it quickly, some of them held their envelopes for a short time before opening them.
When the rustling ceased, Thomas Marshall stood up. He said grimly to Professor Brierly:
"Here is your case, Professor, all complete. You've got it now with all the trimmings."
With John Fletcher, former Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, at one end of a telephone, official red tape was quickly and effectively cut. Professor Herman Brierly was given the powers and privileges necessary for an independent investigation.
Less than an hour after the receipt of the telegrams, Professor Brierly, accompanied by McCall, Matthews and Jimmy Hale, was at the office of the medical examiner, who was charged with making the official report on deaths by other than natural means.
Dr. Simpson showed the old savant marked respect. Parts of the story had leaked out somehow and the knowledge that behind Professor Brierly were such distinguished names had its effect, apart from the weight that the old scientist's own name carried.
The four men were led into a small bare chamber, behind the office of the medical examiner, where all the earthly remains of Morris Miller lay on an enameled metal slab.
Dr. Simpson drew aside the sheet, saying:
"I've not yet had time to make a post mortem, Professor, but that will be only a formal gesture in this case. This is obviously suicide."
Professor Brierly, who did not mince words when engaged in a scientific investigation, took one look at the hole in the temple with its encircling powder marks. He snapped:
"This is obviously not suicide; certainly not, if this wound was the cause of death, which neither you nor I at present know. Have you the weapon with which this was done?"
Dr. Simpson reddened.
"The police have that, sir."
"And the bullet—oh, of course you have not extracted that. We will do it together, if you please."
Professor Brierly began taking off his coat and vest, Matthews doing likewise.
Dr. Simpson said tartly:
"Since you know so much about it without examination, and are so cock sure that it isn't suicide, why bother with such trifles as the weapon and the bullet. You might have sat down and written a thesis about it without even seeing the body."
Professor Brierly whirled on him bristling. Matthews, coat and vest in hand, slid between them. They were of equal height. Matthews looked at the other and said softly:
"Doctor, it isn't safe or wise to talk to Professor Brierly that way when I'm around. We don't want any trouble. You were told to give Professor Brierly the fullest opportunity and help in making this post mortem. We don't need your help, but it would be wiser not to interfere."
Dr. Simpson was looking into a pair of dangerously cold blue eyes. Nothing made Matthews as angry as an affront to the man who was more than father to him. Dr. Simpson saw the rippling muscles, he saw the clean cut jaw; he remembered the names of the men who were behind this investigation. He retreated gracefully.
"Oh, all right, but it disturbs a professional man to have his word questioned so lightly. I have some reputation—just a minute, I'll bring the instruments."
Jimmy asked Matthews:
"How long will this take, Jack?"
"Perhaps an hour, Jimmy, why do you ask?"
"Nothing, I want to go out and use the phone. I'll be back before you're through."
For the past half hour Jimmy had been outwardly calm, but inwardly raging with impatience. Minutes became a matter of supreme importance now. James Hale, the newspaper man, now had a big story, and it was important to catch the Eagle's home edition if possible. This was July Fourth. On this day, while they issued a paper, they kept only a skeleton staff. With nothing big breaking they were likely to put the home edition to bed and call it a day, leaving just a man or two in the office for emergencies, similar to the early morning dogwatch.
He also took a malicious satisfaction in shooting something into the office that would keep them all on the jump for the rest of the day and perhaps late into the night.
Jimmy, accustomed to thinking in headlines, had been formulating a head for the story; he was now murmuring it to himself as he hurried to a public telephone: DEATH POINTS A FINGER, DEATH POINTS A FINGER, over and over again. He saw those words, in letters three inches high, flaming across the top of the front page.
When the pleasant far-away voice of the operator said: "New York Eagle" Jimmy barked: "'Lo Ann, gimme the city desk quick, will you."
"Mr. Hite's wire is busy, will you wait a minute, Mr. Hale?"
"Can't Ann. I got to catch the home, put whoever Hite's talkin' to on another wire and gimme the chief."
Jimmy had made a request that he would have made only in dire emergency; he felt he was justified. He heard a faint clicking, then came Hite's familiar growl:
"Are you drunk, Jimmy? What the hell can be so important that you must cut in—mebbe you think I'll stop the presses for a feature story. I—I said I'd pay the expenses of the trip, not for useless, expensive telephone calls. You could have mailed—"
"'Scuse me, chief. I got a wow of a story. When's the home going to bed?"
"Just gone; didn't I tell you—"
Jimmy found an effective way of stopping this flow of talk. He cut in, saying:
"One, perhaps three of this Tontine group have been murdered during the past twenty-four hours."
The growl that came over the wire was a scream. Jimmy jerked the instrument away from his ear.
The explosion kept ringing in his ear painfully. Hale repeated slowly:
"One, perhaps three of the Tontine group were murdered during the past twenty-four hours."
The growl that now answered him was Hite's normal voice, with the tense undertone it held when he had a big story. Jimmy heard Hite's voice faintly; the city editor was giving orders to the pressroom that would stop the presses. For the next fifteen minutes there would be feverish but orderly activity.
"All right, Jimmy, just gimme the flash so I'll have enough for a head; the copy desk's all gone. Then I'll put you on Roy's wire and you can give him the story."
Jimmy, with the capacity of the trained newspaper man to tell a big story in a few words, told Hite enough in four sentences to furnish material for a headline. Then, with malicious satisfaction, he said:
"There's a New York end on this, chief."
This he knew would have the effect of keeping in the office everybody who had not yet gone home and might even cause a scurrying about that would call in others, thus spoiling whatever plans they had made for the rest of the day. Newspaper men have no union hours. He added as an afterthought: "I got a swell head for this, chief. DEATH POINTS A FINGER."
The answer to this was a grunt. There was a click and Roy Heath's soft southern drawl came floating over the miles of wire. There was a stream of invective. Jimmy's past, present and future were depicted in pointed billingsgate, all done in good English. Roy had planned a pleasant afternoon and evening with a lady who had just finished a triumphant musical comedy engagement. And now—Jimmy wickedly cut in on this by saying:
"This is a swell obit, Roy." There is nothing the newspaper man hates to do as much as an obituary. The cub's early training is obtained on the obituary column. Roy took a fresh start, but he was cut short, evidently by Hite, whose desk was near the rewrite man's.
"All right, shoot if you got anything to say."
Jimmy, for the next thirty minutes, sketched the vivid story, so fresh in his mind over the miles of wires between them, interrupted from time to time by the growing excited ejaculations from Roy Heath, as he sensed the "scoop" qualities of the story. He ended:
"Tontine is spelt—"
"I know how to spell it and I know what it is. I got some education. I ain't a damn ignorant Yankee."
"One of the members of this group is Lorenzo Tonti, a direct Descendant of the man who devised this insurance. The fund now amounts to about several million dollars. During all this time, whenever there was an accident, injury or death to a member of this group, each of the survivors received in an envelope a sheet of paper with the number '14' on it.
"This bunch had an annual reunion on the Fourth of July, a gesture to show the real patriotism of Southerners—"
"What do you mean 'gesture'? They are the only real patriots in the country."
"Fourteen survivors were to have met at the camp of Isaac Higginbotham, former justice of the United States Supreme Court. Eleven came. At eight o'clock this morning a telephone message came telling of the suicide of one of them, August Schurman, retired art dealer, of New York. At nine o'clock there came a telephone message telling of the suicide of another, Morris Miller, of Lentone, Vermont. At ten o'clock there came a message telling of the drowning of Herbert Wrigley, retired manufacturer, at Bradley Beach, New Jersey.
"Just as they received word of the third death there came a batch of telegrams, one for each of the eleven survivors, with the word 'fourteen' on each telegram, just that, nothing else, just 'fourteen.'
"We just saw the body of Morris Miller. The medical examiner pronounced it suicide. Professor Brierly, after looking at the bullet wound in the temple, says, that if that wound caused death, it is not suicide. And you betcher life what Professor Brierly says is so. Me and the Prof are now gonna make an exhaustive investigation and give you our findings. Got it all?"
The monosyllabic grunt coming over the wire showed Jimmy that Roy Heath had taken it all. Jimmy knew that there would now come from Heath's clicking typewriter keys an amplified and elaborated story that would take the breath of all who read it. Shortly the halted presses would resume their roar and pour out an edition that would startle the country.
Soon other papers would take up the burden. This was a story of major importance. There was thrill, glamour, romance, drama, everything that goes to make the big newspaper event. And it was.
At the police station, where the investigators and the reporters were sent by Dr. Simpson, they were told that Detective Brasher, who had the case in hand, was still at the home of Morris Miller, finishing his examination.
They had no difficulty finding the Morris home. He had built, years before, a house which was called by the natives for miles around, "Miller's Folly," to resemble a medieval castle. Miller had gone to the extent of building a draw bridge in front of the house, which was let down and drawn up regularly morning and night.
The rear of the house was on a high point facing the western shore of Lake Memphremagog, with only a narrow strip of land separating it from the waters of the lake. The blankness of the entire rear facade of the structure was broken only by one window, built into a deep embrasure. Above the window was a small circular opening about the size of a porthole.
Detective Brasher was cordial to the visitors. He had been notified of their coming.
He led the way to the room on the third floor where the body had been found that morning.
"Nothin' to it, Professor," said Brasher, "nothin' to it. Mr. Miller used this room to write and read in and the next room for sleeping. You see it is a sort of suite, with a bath room and everything.
"This room is just as we found it this mornin' when we broke in. Mr. Miller was lyin' on the couch there, the bed in the next room is made up like the maid left it; it hadn't been slept in. He was lyin' on his back with a hole in his temple—oh, you saw that. All right.
"Well, his arm hung down over the edge of the couch, and the revolver was on the floor where he dropped it. There was his finger marks on it all right and no one else's. The gun is there," pointing to a table, among miscellaneous odds and ends, "and nobody touched it. The door was locked from inside and so was the window of the bedroom. They tell me he always slept with the door and window locked."
"How did he get air during the night?" asked McCall.
"Through that." Brasher was standing on the threshold separating both rooms and was pointing to the porthole in which was fixed a circular fan. Brasher continued:
"We came here about eight o'clock, or mebbe a quarter after. Mr. Miller used to get up very early. When he wasn't down for breakfast this mornin' and the people down stairs knowin' he had an appointment with Judge Higginbotham, they came up and called. When there was no answer to their callin' and knockin' they called us up.
"Me and another man from headquarters, we broke the door open and we found him like I tell you. Doc Simpson says he was dead about five or six hours when we found him. That makes it about three o'clock when he kills himself. You see the servants had all gone after dinner; gone to a movie. A shot fired in this room couldn't be heard down stairs. I tried it.
"No, there's nothin' to it, Professor. It's a dead open and shut case. Mr. Miller committed suicide, don't need any scientific sharps to tell that."
Professor Brierly nodded absently. He was gazing about the room. Then he walked to the library table, on which lay the revolver. He stooped over it and turned to the detective.
"May I examine this weapon, Mr. Brasher?"
"Sure, help yourself."
"It is certain, Mr. Brasher, that there are no finger prints on this weapon other than those of Mr. Miller?"
"That's certain. Our finger print man hasn't had the experience of the big city men, but he's a good man, just the same, and knows what he's talkin' about."
"And he said what, about the finger prints?"
"He said that there were Mr. Miller's finger prints all over the gun, that part of Mr. Miller's thumb print, his right thumb was on the trigger, showin' that that's the way he must have pulled the trigger, with his thumb, understand?"
"We will take this for granted, Mr. Brasher. Now, did any one disturb the barrel of the weapon, remove the shells or—"
"No, Professor, nothin' like that was done, the gun is there just as we found it. We know a little about guns but we ain't expert, get me, and we thought we'd leave it till—"
Professor Brierly was not listening. He gingerly picked up the weapon from the table, using his handkerchief, and removed the cylinder, which held one empty shell and five loaded ones.
With a deftness and a certainty of movement, remarkable in a man of his age, he removed one of the bullets from a shell, using his knife for the purpose. He first examined the bullet and compared it with one he took from his vest pocket. Then he spilled the powder into the palm of his hand, examined and sniffed that. He looked up.
Brasher was beginning to show a little impatience. He said:
"Like I said, there's nothin' to it, Professor, nothin' at all. Miller committed suicide."
Professor Brierly shook his head gently.
"I am afraid you are wrong, Mr. Brasher. There is a great deal to it. One thing, seems certain. If Mr. Miller killed himself, it is reasonably certain that it was an accident; that he did not intend to do so. And, off hand, although I am not prone to giving snap judgment, I should say that the chances are enormously against his either having shot himself by accident or design."
"But, Professor, there was Mr. Miller on the couch, his gun near his hand, where he dropped it. The door and window were locked, not only locked, but bolted, from inside; Mr. Miller was a very suspicious man; that's why he built this tower.
"In addition to this, he had a burglar alarm on the door, he didn't need one on the window.
If you look out the window in the next room you'll see that it would take a bird, or anyhow, something that can fly, to get at it. A monkey couldn't get at the window, to say nothing of getting in.
"When we came this morning, the door was bolted and the alarm was on. The window was as you see it, bolted from inside. As for that ventilating thing, a baby couldn't get in. There were powder marks around the bullet hole. So, how—"
Professor Brierly was not listening. He walked into the bedroom, followed by the others. He examined the walls and floors. He went to the window, submitting each pane to a careful scrutiny. He looked carefully at the sill. Then he went to the door, with its jagged scars showing from the recent assault upon it by the police. He returned once more to the window. He opened it—it swung outward on a hinge—and looked out a long time.
When he withdrew his head from his long scrutiny, even Matthews, who knew him best, could not tell from his demeanor if he had what he was seeking. For that matter, Matthews was completely in the dark as to what his mentor and foster father was looking for.
Professor Brierly turned to Brasher, who had followed him into the room and was following his movements with cynical amusement.
"Who takes care of these rooms, Mr. Brasher; I mean who cleans them?"
"I don't know, but there's a sort of housekeeper. I'll get her up here."
"Do so, please."
A thin, middle-aged woman, dressed in somber black, appeared. She looked from one to the other of the group of men. There was no emotion visible on her thin features, except for a tinge of defiance. She was introduced as Mrs. Horsnall.
"Mrs. Horsnall," asked Professor Brierly, "who cleans these rooms?"
"The maid, Ella."
"When did she clean these rooms last?"
"Are you sure she cleaned them properly?"
"She did that, or she would have heard from me. I looked at the rooms myself after she was through. I always look after the work of the help around here."
No one present doubted that she did a thorough job of looking after things.
"Have any repairs been done in these rooms recently, Mrs. Horsnall?"
"Repairs, how do you mean?"
"Well, such things as locks, hinges, lights, windows, and so forth."
"No. We've got a man of all work who takes care of such things. He hasn't been in these rooms since last spring; he replaced that fan in the hole there." She pointed to the ventilator.
"How is it there is no screen on the window? There are mosquitoes around here, are there not?"
"Yes, sometimes. But Mr. Miller never opened the window, except at night sometimes, when there wasn't any light in the room and that only for a short time. You see, he was queer that way. He was afraid of being shot at."
"Did Mr. Morris have any revolvers, Mrs. Horsnall?"
"Yes, he had three or four."
"Is that one of them?"
"I don't know. I wouldn't know one from the other. I never touched them; I was afraid of them."
"And you are quite certain, Mrs. Horsnall, that no repairs were made in the rooms since last spring and that no one except you, the maid, Ella, and Mr. Miller himself were in these rooms since last spring?"
"I'm sure of that, sir."
"Will you send the maid, Ella, up here, Mrs. Horsnall, and, thank you."
Ella, a sulky young woman of Irish extraction, came and verified everything Mrs. Horsnall had said. Professor Brierly took her over practically the same ground as he had the older woman.
Professor Brierly dismissed her and went back to the window, which he submitted once more to a careful scrutiny. He absently picked at the outer edges of the panes with his fingers. He turned to Detective Brasher, saying, apologetically:
"I came up to this beautiful country for a rest and a vacation; I did not think I should have any need for any revolvers. Can you tell me where I can get one like this and shells like these?" He pointed to the table.
Brasher looked at him suspiciously.
"Sure, Professor, you can get them at Hinkle's sporting goods store, in town. Hinkle carries everything, but," belligerently, "what about your sayin' that Miller didn't kill himself?"
"If you mean by 'killing himself,' that he committed suicide, I can safely say, even now, with the incomplete information I have, that he did not kill himself. There is a possibility that he was handling the weapon and accidentally discharged it. But the surrounding circumstances make that highly improbable."
He paused for a moment and asked, abruptly: "Is there any objection to my looking about the grounds?"
"None at all, Professor, but do you mind telling me what you want a gun like this for?"
"Certainly not. I should like to make some tests with it."
"Professor, I've heard a lot about you. I'd like to work with you. I'm a rough neck, a man without education, just a hard working detective, but I do the best I can. I'd like to—"
Brasher paused, floundered and reddened. There was a soft gleam in the deeply sunken bright blue eyes of the old scientist. He nodded.
"Of course, I'll be happy to have your help. I will just look about—"
"I'll go with you, Professor, and there's no reason why you can't have this gun, if it will help you."
"That will be fine, Mr. Brasher. It is just the thing I need." He waited while the weapon and the shells were wrapped in a paper. Matthews took the parcel and the five men went outside.
Professor Brierly nodded with satisfaction when he looked up at the rear facade of Miller's Folly. Near the edge of the roof, was a chimney. A plumb line dropped from the center of the chimney would drop about three feet to the right of the only window in the blank, forbidding wall.
"I see," commented the old man, "a chimney. I did not know." He turned to Brasher. "You offered to help, young man; here is your chance. At the rear of the chimney, near its base, particularly the two rear angles, you will find fresh marks. The chimney is probably scuffed as though a rope had been drawn tightly about it and pulled back and forth. You will find the edges of the roof, coincident with the sides of the chimney, also scuffed as though a rope had been pulled across the edge with quite a weight at its end. You—"
Brasher did not hear the end. He was racing around the side of the building. In a short time they saw his figure on the edge of the roof clinging to the chimney. Then he crawled to the edge and leaning far forward, he gazed intently at something that the men below could not see.
Brasher looked down and nodded his head so violently that he nearly threw himself from the roof. He came racing around the side of the house in a short time.
"You're right, Professor; it's just like you said. I begin to see—"
Professor Brierly was pointing at a spot on the wall about three feet from the ground. There was a scar in the cement joining the stones. The scar was a small hole about large enough to hold a man's small finger. The scar ran obliquely from above, downward and inward.
Professor Brierly was saying:
"There are a number of these scars running up in a staggered arrangement, one above the other, about a foot apart, literally. I saw some of these scars from the window above and one especially deep one. It is fairly obvious—"
"I get you, Professor, I get you. You think—"
Professor Brierly shook his head.
"I shall tell you definitely what I think when I have made the tests with the revolver. Can we get shells like these at Hinkle's? I shall need some more."
Professor Brierly chose to keep his own counsel on the way to Lentone and thence to their camp on the lake. Arrived there, he did not waste much time. Taking a number of sheets of paper, he shot at them from varying distances with the revolver found in Miller's room. Beginning by holding the muzzle an inch from the cards, he gradually increased the distance inch by inch until he was shooting from a distance of twelve inches. Then he shot from a distance of fifteen, twenty, twenty-five and thirty inches.
He now turned to the men who had been watching him.
"I can now say definitely that Mr. Miller was shot with the muzzle somewhere between twelve and fifteen inches from his temple. I still do not understand why the killer approached so close without—"
"Morris Miller was almost stone deaf," interrupted Brasher.
"Ah, that accounts for it; that clears up something that puzzled me."
"Since you three have conspired to make me take an interest in crime," his glance swept Jimmy, Matthews, and McCall, "I have gone rather exhaustively into matters that hitherto only interested me casually. I spent two months in the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory of Northwestern University. Among the subjects I took up were powder marks.
"It was obvious to me at the first glance at the wound that it was not self-inflicted. I felt reasonably certain that the weapon was held a greater distance from the head than it would be held if the victim contemplated suicide. That is why I suggested the possibility that he had held the weapon and it had gone off by accident. That seemed a remote possibility, but still a possibility.
"Powder marks tell quite an interesting story to the student. Black powder will not leave the same marks at the same distance, either in kind or degree, as will smokeless powder. The same kind of powder fired from a weapon with a short barrel will leave burns that differ radically from those fired from a long barrel. The amount of powder also will make a difference.
"Black powder is merely a physical mixture of three ingredients. The charcoal which goes into its composition is not burned at the time of firing and remains unchanged. Each little unburned charcoal grain becomes a secondary projectile, which leaves its mark not only on the surface that received the bullet if it is close enough, but also makes little pits on the base of the bullet.