Chapter Ten. The Phone Call from Nowhere
"Somebody groaning!" gasped Miss Cornelia. "It's horrible!"
The detective stepped up and took the receiver from her. He listened anxi6usly for a moment.
"I don't hear anything," he said.
"1 heard it! I couldn't imagine such a dreadful sound! I tell you - somebody in this house is in terrible distress."
"Where does this phone connect?" queried Anderson practically.
Miss Cornelia made a hopeless little gesture. "Practically every room in this house!"
The detective put the receiver to his ear again.
"Just what did you hear?" he said stolidly.
Miss Cornelia's voice shook.
"Dreadful groans - and what seemed to be an inarticulate effort to speak!"
Lizzie drew her gaudy wrapper closer about her shuddering form.
"I'd go somewhere," she wailed in the voice of a lost soul, "if I only had somewhere to go!"
Miss Cornelia quelled her with a glare and turned back to the detective.
"Won't you send these men to investigate - or go yourself?" she said, indicating Brooks and Billy. The detective thought swiftly.
"My place is here," he said. "You two men," Brooks and Billy moved forward to take his orders, "take another look through the house - don't leave the building - I'll want you pretty soon."
Brooks - or Jack Bailey, as we may as well call him through the remainder of. this narrative - started to obey. Then his eye fell on Miss Cornelia's revolver which Anderson had taken from beside Fleming's body and still held clasped in his hand.
"If you'll give me that revolver - " he began in an offhand tone, hoping Anderson would not see through his little ruse. Once wiped clean of fingerprints, the revolver would not be such telling evidence against Dale Ogden.
But Anderson was not to be caught napping. "That revolver will stay where it is," he said with a grim smile.
Jack Bailey knew better than to try and argue the point, he followed Billy reluctantly out of the door, giving Dale a surreptitious glance of encouragement and faith as he did so. The Japanese and he mounted to the second floor as stealthily as possible, prying into dark corners and searching unused rooms for any clue that might betray the source of the startling phone call from nowhere. But Bailey's heart was not in the search. His mind kept going back to the figure of Dale - nervous, shaken, undergoing the terrors of the third degree at Anderson's hands. She couldn't have shot Fleming of course, and yet, unless he and Billy found something to substantiate her story of how the killing had happened, it was her own, unsupported word against a damning mass of circumstantial evidence. He plunged with renewed vigor into his quest.
Back in the living-room, as he had feared, Anderson was subjecting Dale to a merciless interrogation.
"Now I want the real story!" he began with calculated brutality. "You lied before!"
"That's no tone to use! You'll only terrify her," cried Miss Cornelia indignantly. The detective paid no attention, his face had hardened, he seemed every inch the remorseless sleuthhound of the law. He turned on Miss Cornelia for a moment.
"Where were you when this happened?" he said.
"Upstairs in my room." Miss Cornelia's tones were icy.
"And you?" badgeringly, to Lizzie.
"In my room," said the latter pertly, "brushing Miss Cornelia's hair."
Anderson broke open the revolver and gave a swift glance at the bullet chambers.
"One shot has been fired from this revolver!"
Miss Cornelia sprang to her niece's defense.
"I fired it myself this afternoon," she said.
The detective regarded her with grudging admiration.
"You're a quick thinker," he said with obvious unbelief in his voice. He put the revolver down on the table.
Miss Cornelia followed up her advantage.
"I demand that you get the coroner here," she said.
"Doctor Wells is the coroner," offered Lizzie eagerly. Anderson brushed their suggestions aside.
"I'm going to ask you some questions!" he said menacingly to Dale.
But Miss Cornelia stuck to her guns. Dale was not going to be bullied into any sort of confession, true or false, if she could help it - and from the way that the girl's eyes returned with fascinated horror to the ghastly heap on the floor that had been Fleming, she knew that Dale was on the edge of violent hysteria.
"Do you mind covering that body first?" she asked crisply. The detective eyed her for a moment in a rather ugly fashion - then grunted ungraciously and, taking Fleming's raincoat from the chair, threw it over the body. Dale's eyes telegraphed her aunt a silent message of gratitude.
"Now - shall I telephone for the coroner?" persisted Miss Cornelia. The detective obviously resented her interference with his methods but he could not well refuse such a customary request.
"I'll do it," he said with a snort, going over to the city telephone. "What's his number?"
"He's not at his office; he's at the Johnsons'," murmured Dale.
Miss Cornelia took the telephone from Anderson's hands.
"I'll get the Johnsons', Mr. Anderson," she said firmly. The detective seemed about to rebuke her. Then his manner recovered some of its former suavity. He relinquished the telephone and turned back toward his prey.
"Now, what was Fleming doing here?" he asked Dale in a gentler voice.
Should she tell him the truth? No - Jack Bailey's safety was too inextricably bound up with the whole sinister business. She must lie, and lie again, while there was any chance of a lie's being believed.
"I don't know," she said weakly, trying to avoid the detective's eyes.
Anderson took thought.
"Well, I'll ask that question another way," he said. "How did he get into the house?"
Dale brightened - no need for a lie here.
"He had a key."
"Key to what door?"
"That door over there." Dale indicated the terrace door of the alcove.
The detective was about to ask another question - then he paused. Miss Cornelia was talking on the phone.
"Hello - is that Mr. Johnson's residence? Is Doctor Wells there? No?" Her expression was puzzled. "Oh - all right - thank you - good night - "
Meanwhile Anderson had been listening - but thinking as well. Dale saw his sharp glance travel over to the fireplace - rest for a moment, with an air of discovery, on the fragments of the roll of blue-prints that remained unburned among ashes - return. She shut her eyes for a moment, trying tensely to summon every atom of shrewdness she possessed to aid her.
He was hammering at her with questions again. "When did you take that revolver out of the table drawer?"
"When I heard him outside on the terrace," said Dale promptly and truthfully. "I was frightened."
Lizzie tiptoed over to Miss Cornelia.
"You wanted a detective!" she said in an ironic whisper. "I hope you're happy now you've got one!"
Miss Cornelia gave her a look that sent her scuttling back to her former post by the door. But nevertheless, internally, she felt thoroughly in accord with Lizzie.
Again Anderson's questions pounded at the rigid Dale, striving to pierce her armor of mingled truth and falsehood.
"When Fleming came in, what did he say to you?"
"Just - something about the weather," said Dale weakly. The whole scene was, still too horribly vivid before her eyes for her to furnish a more convincing alibi.
"You didn't have any quarrel with him?"
"He just came in that door - said something about the weather - and was shot from that staircase. Is that it?" said the detective in tones of utter incredulity.
Dale hesitated again. Thus baldly put, her story seemed too flimsy for words; she could not even blame Anderson for disbelieving it. And yet - what other story could she tell that would not bring ruin on Jack?
Her face whitened. She put her hand on the back of a chair for support.
"Yes - that's it," she said at last, and swayed where she stood.
Again Miss Cornelia tried to come to the rescue. "Are all these questions necessary?" she queried sharply. "You can't for a moment believe that Miss Ogden shot that man!" But by now, though she did not show it, she too began to realize the strength of the appalling net of circumstances that drew with each minute tighter around the unhappy girl. Dale gratefully seized the momentary respite and sank into a chair. The detective looked at her.
"I think she knows more than she's telling. She's concealing something!" he said with deadly intentness. "The nephew of the president of the Union Bank - shot in his own house the day the bank has failed - that's queer enough - " Now he turned back to Miss Cornelia. "But when the only person present at his murder is the girl who's engaged to the guilty cashier," he continued, watching Miss Cornelia's face as the full force of his words sank into her mind, "I want to know more about it!"
He stopped. His right hand moved idly over the edge of the table - halted beside an ash tray - closed upon something.
Miss Cornelia rose.
"Is that true, Dale?" she said sorrowfully.
Dale nodded. "Yes." She could not trust herself to explain at greater length.
Then Miss Cornelia made one of the most magnificent gestures of her life.
"Well, even if it is - what has that got to do with it?" she said, turning upon Anderson fiercely, all her protective instinct for those whom she loved aroused.
Anderson seemed somewhat impressed by the fierceness of her query. When he went on it was with less harshness in his manner.
"I'm not accusing this girl," he said more gently. "But behind every crime there is a motive. When we've found the motive for this crime, we'll have found the criminal."
Unobserved, Dale's hand instinctively went to her bosom. There it lay - the motive - the precious fragment of blue-print which she had torn from Fleming's grasp but an instant before he was shot down. Once Anderson found it in her possession the case was closed, the evidence against her overwhelming. She could not destroy it - it was the only clue to the Hidden Room and the truth that might clear Jack Bailey. But, somehow, she must hide it - get it out of her hands - before Anderson's third-degree methods broke her down or he insisted on a search of her person. Her eyes roved wildly about the room, looking for a hiding place.
The rain of Anderson's questions began anew.
"What papers did Fleming burn in that grate?" he asked abruptly, turning back to Dale.
"Papers!" she faltered.
"Papers! The ashes are still there."
Miss Cornelia made an unavailing interruption.
"Miss Ogden has said he didn't come into this room."
The detective smiled.
"I hold in my hand proof that he was in this room for some time," he said coldly, displaying the half-burned cigarette he had taken from the ash tray a moment before.
"His cigarette - with his monogram on it." He put the fragment of tobacco and paper carefully away in an envelope and marched over to the fireplace. There he rummaged among the ashes for a moment, like a dog uncovering a bone. He returned to the center of the room with a fragment of blackened blue paper fluttering between his fingers.
"A fragment of what is technically known as a blue-print," he announced. "What were you and Richard Fleming doing with a blue-print?" His eyes bored into Dale's.
Dale hesitated - shut her lips.
"Now think it over!" he warned. "The truth will come out, sooner or later! Better be frank now!"
If he only knew how I wanted to be - he wouldn't be so cruel, thought Dale wearily. But I can't - I can't! Then her heart gave a throb of relief. Jack had come back into the room - Jack and Billy - Jack would protect her! But even as she thought of this her heart sank again. Protect her, indeed! Poor Jack! He would find it hard enough to protect himself if once this terrible man with the cold smile and steely eyes started questioning him. She looked up anxiously.
Bailey made his report breathlessly.
"Nothing in the house, sir."
Billy's impassive lips confirmed him.
"We go all over house - nobody!"
Nobody - nobody in the house! And yet - the mysterious ringing of the phone - the groans Miss Cornelia had heard! Were old wives' tales and witches' fables true after all? Did a power - merciless - evil - exists outside the barriers of the flesh - blasting that trembling flesh with a cold breath from beyond the portals of the grave? There seemed to be no other explanation.
"You men stay here!" said the detective. "I want to ask you some questions." He doggedly returned to his third-degreeing of Dale.
"Now what about this blue-print?" he queried sharply.
Dale stiffened in her chair. Her lies had failed. Now she would tell a portion of the truth, as much of it as she could without menacing Jack.
"I'll tell you just what happened," she began. "I sent for Richard Fleming - and when he came, I asked him if he knew where there were any blue-prints of the house."
The detective pounced eagerly upon her admission.
"Why did you want blue-prints?" he thundered.
"Because," Dale took a long breath, "I believe old Mr. Fleming took the money himself from the Union Bank and hid it here."
"Where did you get that idea?"
Dale's jaw set. "I won't tell you."
"What had the blue-prints to do with it?"
She could think of no plausible explanation but the true one.
"Because I'd heard there was a Hidden Room in this house."
The detective leaned forward intently. "Did you locate that room?"
Dale hesitated. "No."
"Then why did you burn the blue-prints?"
Dale's nerve was crumbling - breaking - under the repeated, monotonous impact of his questions.
"He burned them!" she cried wildly. "I don't know why!"
The detective paused an instant, then returned to a previous query.
"Then you didn't locate this Hidden Room?"
Dale's lips formed a pale "No."
"Did he?" went on Anderson inexorably.
Dale stared at him, dully - the breaking point had come. Another question - another - and she would no longer be able to control herself. She would sob out the truth hysterically - that Brooks, the gardener, was Jack Bailey, the missing cashier - that the scrap of blue-print hidden in the bosom of her dress might unravel the secret of the Hidden Room - that -
But just as she felt herself, sucked of strength, beginning to slide toward a black, tingling pit of merciful oblivion, Miss Cornelia provided a diversion.
"What's that?" she said in a startled voice.
The detective turned away from his quarry for an instant.
"I heard something," averred Miss Cornelia, staring toward the French windows.
All eyes followed the direction of her stare. There was an instant of silence.
Then, suddenly, traveling swiftly from right to left across the shades of the French windows, there appeared a glowing circle of brilliant white light. Inside the circle was a black, distorted shadow - a shadow like the shadow of a gigantic black Bat! It was there - then a second later, it was gone!
"Oh, my God!" wailed Lizzie from her corner. "It's the Bat - that's his sign!"
Jack Bailey made a dash for the terrace door. But Miss Cornelia halted him peremptorily.
"Wait, Brooks!" She turned to the detective. "Mr. Anderson, you are familiar with the sign of the Bat. Did that look like it?"
The detective seemed both puzzled and disturbed. "Well, it looked like the shadow of a bat. I'll say that for it," he said finally.
On the heels of his words the front door bell began to ring. All turned in the direction of the hall.
"I'll answer that!" said Jack Bailey eagerly.
Miss Cornelia gave him the key to the front door.
"Don't admit anyone till you know who it is," she said. Bailey nodded and disappeared into the hall. The others waited tensely. Miss Cornelia's hand crept toward the revolver lying on the table where Anderson had put it down.
There was the click of an opening door, the noise of a little scuffle - then men's voices raised in an angry dispute. "What do I know about a flashlight?" cried an irritated voice. "I haven't got a pocket-flash - take your hands off me!" Bailey's voice answered the other voice, grim, threatening. The scuffle resumed.
Then Doctor Wells burst suddenly into the room, closely followed by Bailey. The Doctor's tie was askew - he looked ruffled and enraged. Bailey followed him vigilantly, seeming not quite sure whether to allow him to enter or not.
"My dear Miss Van Gorder," began the Doctor in tones of high dudgeon, "won't you instruct your servants that even if I do make a late call, I am not to be received with violence?"
"I asked you if you had a pocket-flash about you!" answered Bailey indignantly. "If you call a question like that violence - " He seemed about to restrain the Doctor by physical force.
Miss Cornelia quelled the teapot-tempest.
"It's all right, Brooks," she said, taking the front door key from his hand and putting it back on the table. She turned to Doctor Wells.
"You see, Doctor Wells," she explained, "just a moment before you rang the doorbell a circle of white light was thrown on those window shades."
The Doctor laughed with a certain relief.
"Why, that was probably the searchlight from my car!" he said. "I noticed as I drove up that it fell directly on that window."
His explanation seemed to satisfy all present but Lizzie. She regarded him with a deep suspicion. "'He may be a lawyer, a merchant, a Doctor...'" she chanted ominously to herself.
Miss Cornelia, too, was not entirely at ease.
"In the center of this ring of light," she proceeded, her eyes on the Doctor's calm countenance, "was an almost perfect silhouette of a bat."
"A bat!" The Doctor seemed at sea. "Ah, I see - the symbol of the criminal of that name." He laughed again.
"I think I can explain what you saw. Quite often my headlights collect insects at night and a large moth, spread on the glass, would give precisely the effect you speak of. Just to satisfy you, I'll go out and take a look."
He turned to do so. Then he caught sight of the raincoat-covered huddle on the floor.
"Why - " he said in a voice that mingled astonishment with horror. He paused. His glance slowly traversed the circle of silent faces.