JIM TARR PICKED up the cigar I rolled across his desk, looked at the
band, bit off an end, and reached for a match.
“Three for a buck,” he said. “You must want me to break a couple
of laws for you this time.”
I had been doing business with this fat sheriff of Sacramento County
for four or five years—ever since I came to the Continental Detective
Agency's San Francisco office—and I had never known him to miss an
opening for a sour crack; but it didn't mean anything.
“Wrong both times,” I told him. “I get them for two bits each, and
I'm here to do you a favor instead of asking for one. The company that
insured Thornburgh's house thinks somebody touched it off.”
“That's right enough, according to the fire department. They tell me
the lower part of the house was soaked with gasoline, but the Lord
knows how they could tell—there wasn't a stick left standing. I've got
McClump working on it, but he hasn't found anything to get excited
“What's the layout? All I know is that there was a fire.”
Tarr leaned back in his chair and bellowed:
The pearl push buttons on his desk are ornaments so far as he is
concerned. Deputy sheriffs McHale, McClump, and Macklin came to the
door together—MacNab apparently wasn't within hearing.
“What's the idea?” the sheriff demanded of McClump. “Are you carrying
a bodyguard around with you?”
The two other deputies, thus informed as to whom “Mac” referred this
time, went back to their cribbage game.
“We got a city slicker here to catch our firebug for us,” Tarr told
his deputy. “But we got to tell him what it's all about first.”
McClump and I had worked together on an express robbery several
months before. He's a rangy, towheaded youngster of twenty-five or six,
with all the nerve in the world—and most of the laziness.
“Ain't the Lord good to us?”
He had himself draped across a chair by now—always his first
objective when he comes into a room.
“Well, here's how she stands: This fellow Thornburgh's house was a
couple miles out of town, on the old county road—an old frame house.
About midnight, night before last, Jeff Pringle—the nearest neighbor,
a half-mile or so to the east—saw a glare in the sky from over that
way, and phoned in the alarm; but by the time the fire wagons got
there, there wasn't enough of the house left to bother about. Pringle
was the first of the neighbors to get to the house, and the roof had
already fallen in then.
“Nobody saw anything suspicious—no strangers hanging around or
nothing. Thornburgh's help just managed to save themselves, and that
was all. They don't know much about what happened— too scared, I
reckon. But they did see Thornburgh at his window just before the fire
got him. A fellow here in town—name of Henderson—saw that part of it
too. He was driving home from Wayton, and got to the house just before
the roof caved in.
“The fire department people say they found signs of gasoline. The
Coonses, Thornburgh's help, say they didn't have no gas on the place.
So there you are.”
“Thornburgh have any relatives?”
“Yeah. A niece in San Francisco—a Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge. She was up
yesterday, but there wasn't nothing she could do, and she couldn't tell
us nothing much, so she went back home.”
“Where are the servants now?”
“Here in town. Staying at a hotel on I Street. I told 'em to stick
around for a few days.”
“Thornburgh own the house?”
“Uh-huh. Bought it from Newning & Weed a couple months ago.”
“You got anything to do this morning?”
“Nothing but this.”
“Good. Let's get out and dig around.”
We found the Coonses in their room at the hotel on I Street. Mr.
Coons was a small-boned, plump man with the smooth, meaningless face
and the suavity of the typical male house-servant.
His wife was a tall, stringy woman, perhaps five years older than her
husband—say, forty—with a mouth and chin that seemed shaped for
gossiping. But he did all the talking, while she nodded her agreement
to every second or third word.
“We went to work for Mr. Thornburgh on the fifteenth of June I
think,” he said, in reply to my first question. “We came to Sacramento,
around the first of the month, and put in applications at the Allis
Employment Bureau. A couple of weeks later they sent us out to see Mr.
Thornburgh, and he took us on.”
“Where were you before you came here?”
“In Seattle, sir, with a Mrs. Comerford; but the climate there didn't
agree with my wife—she has bronchial trouble—so we decided to come to
California. We most likely would have stayed in Seattle, though, if
Mrs. Comerford hadn't given up her house.”
“What do you know about Thornburgh?”
“Very little, sir. He wasn't a talkative gentleman. He hadn't any
business that I know of. I think he was a retired seafaring man. He
never said he was, but he had that manner and look. He never went out
or had anybody in to see him, except his niece once, and he didn't
write or get any mail. He had a room next to his bedroom fixed up as a
sort of workshop. He spent most of his time in there. I always thought
he was working on some kind of invention, but he kept the door locked,
and wouldn't let us go near it.”
“Haven't you any idea at all what it was?”
“No, sir. We never heard any hammering or noises from it, and never
smelled anything either. And none of his clothes were ever the least
bit soiled, even when they were ready to go out to the laundry. They
would have been if he had been working on anything like machinery.”
“Was he an old man?”
“He couldn't have been over fifty, sir. He was very erect, and his
hair and beard were thick, with no gray hairs.”
“Ever have any trouble with him?”
“Oh, no, sir! He was, if I may say it, a very peculiar gentleman in a
way; and he didn't care about anything except having his meals fixed
right, having his clothes taken care of—he was very particular about
them—and not being disturbed. Except early in the morning and at
night, we'd hardly see him all day.”
“Now about the fire. Tell us everything you remember.”
“Well, sir, my wife and I had gone to bed about ten o'clock, our
regular time, and had gone to sleep. Our room was on the second floor,
in the rear. Some time later—I never did exactly know what time it
was—I woke up, coughing. The room was all full of smoke, and my wife
was sort of strangling. I jumped up, and dragged her down the back
stairs and out the back door.
“When I had her safe in the yard, I thought of Mr. Thornburgh, and
tried to get back in the house; but the whole first floor was just
flames. I ran around front then, to see if he had got out, but didn't
see anything of him. The whole yard was as light as day by then. Then I
heard him scream—a horrible scream, sir—I can hear it yet! And I
looked up at his window—that was the front second-story room—and saw
him there, trying to get out the window! But all the woodwork was
burning, and he screamed again and fell back, and right after that the
roof over his room fell in.
“There wasn't a ladder or anything that I could have put up to the
window—there wasn't anything I could have done.
“In the meantime, a gentleman had left his automobile in the road,
and come up to where I was standing; but there wasn't anything we could
do—the house was burning everywhere and falling in here and there. So
we went back to where I had left my wife, and carried her farther away
from the fire, and brought her to—she had fainted. And that's all I
know about it, sir.”
“Hear any noises earlier that night? Or see anybody hanging around?”
“Have any gasoline around the place?”
“No, sir. Mr. Thornburgh didn't have a car.”
“No gasoline for cleaning?”
“No, sir, none at all, unless Mr. Thornburgh had it in his workshop.
When his clothes needed cleaning, I took them to town, and all his
laundry was taken by the grocer's man, when he brought our provisions.”
“Don't know anything that might have some bearing on the fire?”
“No, sir. I was surprised when I heard that somebody had set the
house afire. I could hardly believe it. I don't know why anybody should
want to do that. . . .”
“What do you think of them?” I asked McClump, as we left the hotel.
“They might pad the bills, or even go South with some of the silver,
but they don't figure as killers in my mind.”
That was my opinion, too; but they were the only persons known to
have been there when the fire started except the man who had died. We
went around to the Allis Employment Bureau and talked to the manager.
He told us that the Coonses had come into his office on June second,
looking for work; and had given Mrs. Edward Comerford, 45 Woodmansee
Terrace, Seattle, Washington, as reference. In reply to a letter—he
always checked up the references of servants— Mrs. Comerford had
written that the Coonses had been in her employ for a number of years,
and had been “extremely satisfactory in every respect.” On June
thirteenth, Thornburgh had telephoned the bureau, asking that a man and
his wife be sent out to keep house for him, and Allis sent out two
couples he had listed. Neither couple had been employed by Thornburgh,
though Allis considered them more desirable than the Coonses, who were
finally hired by Thornburgh.
All that would certainly seem to indicate that the Coonses hadn't
deliberately maneuvered themselves into the place, unless they were the
luckiest people in the world—and a detective can't afford to believe
in luck or coincidence, unless he has unquestionable proof of it.
At the office of the real-estate agents, through whom Thornburgh had
bought the house—Newning & Weed—we were told that Thornburgh had come
in on the eleventh of June, and had said that he had been told that the
house was for sale, had looked it over, and wanted to know the price.
The deal had been closed the next morning, and he had paid for the
house with a check for $14,500 on the Seamen's Bank of San Francisco.
The house was already furnished.
After luncheon, McClump and I called on Howard Henderson—the man who
had seen the fire while driving home from Wayton. He had an office in
the Empire Building, with his name and the title Northern California
Agent for Krispy Korn Krumbs on the door. He was a big,
careless-looking man of forty-five or so, with the professionally
jovial smile that belongs to the traveling salesman.
He had been in Wayton on business the day of the fire, he said, and
had stayed there until rather late, going to dinner and afterward
playing pool with a grocer named Hammersmith—one of his customers. He
had left Wayton in his machine, at about ten thirty, and set out for
Sacramento. At lavender he had stopped at the garage for oil and gas,
and to have one of his tires blown up.
Just as he was about to leave the garage, the garage man had called
his attention to a red glare in the sky, and had told him that it was
probably from a fire somewhere along the old county road that
paralleled the state road into Sacramento; so Henderson had taken the
county road, and had arrived at the burning house just in time to see
Thornburgh try to fight his way through the flames that enveloped him.
It was too late to make any attempt to put out the fire, and the man
upstairs was beyond saving by then—undoubtedly dead even before the
roof collapsed; so Henderson had helped Coons revive his wife, and
stayed there watching the fire until it had burned itself out. He had
seen no one on that county road while driving to the fire. . . .
“What do you know about Henderson?” I asked McClump, when we were on
“Came here, from somewhere in the East, I think, early in the summer
to open that breakfast-cereal agency. Lives at the Garden Hotel. Where
do we go next?”
“We get a car, and take a look at what's left of the Thornburgh
An enterprising incendiary couldn't have found a lovelier spot in
which to turn himself loose, if he looked the whole county over.
Tree-topped hills hid it from the rest of the world, on three sides;
while away from the fourth, an uninhabited plain rolled down to the
river. The county road that passed the front gate was shunned by
automobiles, so McClump said, in favor of the state highway to the
Where the house had been was now a mound of blackened ruins. We poked
around in the ashes for a few minutes—not that we expected to find
anything, but because it's the nature of man to poke around in ruins.
A garage in the rear, whose interior gave no evidence of recent
occupation, had a badly scorched roof and front, but was otherwise
undamaged. A shed behind it, sheltering an ax, a shovel, and various
odds and ends of gardening tools, had escaped the fire altogether. The
lawn in front of the house, and the garden behind the shed—about an
acre in all—had been pretty thoroughly cut and trampled by wagon
wheels, and the feet of the firemen and the spectators.
Having ruined our shoeshines, McClump and I got back in our car and
swung off in a circle around the place, calling at all the houses
within a mile radius, and getting little besides jolts for our trouble.
The nearest house was that of Pringle, the man who had turned in the
alarm; but he not only knew nothing about the dead man, he said he had
never even seen him. In fact, only one of the neighbors had ever seen
him: a Mrs. Jabine, who lived about a mile to the south.
She had taken care of the key to the house while it was vacant; and a
day or two before he bought it, Thornburgh had come to her house,
inquiring about the vacant one. She had gone over there with him and
showed him through it, and he had told her that he intended buying it,
if the price wasn't too high.
He had been alone, except for the chauffeur of the hired car in which
he had come from Sacramento, and, save that he had no family, he had
told her nothing about himself.
Hearing that he had moved in, she went over to call on him several
days later—“just a neighborly visit”—but had been told by Mrs. Coons
that he was not at home. Most of the neighbors had talked to the
Coonses, and had got the impression that Thorn-burgh did not care for
visitors, so they had let him alone. The Coonses were described as
“pleasant enough to talk to when you meet them,” but reflecting their
employer's desire not to make friends.
McClump summarized what the afternoon had taught us as we pointed our
car toward Tavender: “Any of these folks could have touched off the
place, but we got nothing to show that any of 'em even knew Thornburgh,
let alone had a bone to pick with him.”
Tavender turned out to be a crossroads settlement of a general store
and post office, a garage, a church, and six dwellings, about two miles
from Thornburgh's place. McClump knew the storekeeper and postmaster, a
scrawny little man named Philo, who stuttered moistly.
“I n-n-never s-saw Th-thornburgh,” he said, “and I n-n-never had any
m-mail for him. C-coons”—it sounded like one of these things
butterflies come out of—“used to c-come in once a week to-to order
groceries—they d-didn't have a phone. He used to walk in, and I'd
s-send the stuff over in my c-c-car. Th-then I'd s-see him once in a
while, waiting f-for the stage to S-s-sacramento.”
“Who drove the stuff out to Thornburgh's?”
“M-m-my b-boy. Want to t-talk to him?”
The boy was a juvenile edition of the old man, but without the
stutter. He had never seen Thornburgh on any of his visits, but his
business had taken him only as far as the kitchen. He hadn't noticed
anything peculiar about the place.
“Who's the night man at the garage?” I asked him.
“Billy Luce. I think you can catch him there now. I saw him go in a
few minutes ago.”
We crossed the road and found Luce.
“Night before last—the night of the fire down the road—was there a
man here talking to you when you first saw it?”
He turned his eyes upward in that vacant stare which people use to
aid their memory.
“Yes, I remember now! He was going to town, and I told him that if he
took the county road instead of the state road he'd see the fire on his
“What kind of looking man was he?”
“Middle-aged—a big man, but sort of slouchy. I think he had on a
brown suit, baggy and wrinkled.”
“Smile when he talked?”
“Yes, a pleasant sort of fellow.”
“Yeah, but have a heart!” Luce laughed. “I didn't put him under a
From Tavender we drove over to Wayton. Luce's description had fit
Henderson all right, but while we were at it, we thought we might as
well check up to make sure that he had been coming from Wayton.
We spent exactly twenty-five minutes in Wayton; ten of them finding
Hammersmith, the grocer with whom Henderson had said he dined and
played pool; five minutes finding the proprietor of the pool room; and
ten verifying Henderson's story. . . .
“What do you think of it now, Mac?” I asked, as we rolled back toward
Mac's too lazy to express an opinion, or even form one, unless he's
driven to it; but that doesn't mean they aren't worth listening to, if
you can get them.
“There ain't a hell of a lot to think,” he said cheerfully.
“Henderson is out of it, if he ever was in it. There's nothing to show
that anybody but the Coonses and Thornburgh were there when the fire
started—but there may have been a regiment there. Them Coonses ain't
too honest-looking, maybe, but they ain't killers, or I miss my guess.
But the fact remains that they're the only bet we got so far. Maybe we
ought to try to get a line on them.”
“All right,” I agreed. “Soon as we get back to town, I'll get a wire
off to our Seattle office asking them to interview Mrs. Comerford, and
see what she can tell about them. Then I'm going to catch a train for
San Francisco and see Thornburgh's niece in the morning.”
Next morning, at the address McClump had given me—a rather elaborate
apartment building on California Street—I had to wait three-quarters
of an hour for Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge to dress. If I had been younger,
or a social caller, I suppose I'd have felt amply rewarded when she
finally came in—a tall, slender woman of less than thirty; in some
sort of clinging black affair; with a lot of black hair over a very
white face, strikingly set off by a small red mouth and big hazel eyes.
But I was a busy, middle-aged detective, who was fuming over having
his time wasted; and I was a lot more interested in finding the bird
who struck the match than I was in feminine beauty. However, I
smothered my grouch, apologized for disturbing her at such an early
hour, and got down to business.
“I want you to tell me all you know about your uncle—his family,
friends, enemies, business connections—everything.”
I had scribbled on the back of the card I had sent into her what my
“He hadn't any family,” she said; “unless I might be it. He was my
mother's brother, and I am the only one of that family now living.”
“Where was he born?”
“Here in San Francisco. I don't know the date, but he was about fifty
years old, I think—three years older than my mother.”
“What was his business?”
“He went to sea when he was a boy, and, so far as I know, always
followed it until a few months ago.”
“I don't know. Sometimes I wouldn't see or hear from him for several
years, and he never talked about what he was doing; though he would
mention some of the places he had visited—Rio de Janeiro, Madagascar,
Tobago, Christiania. Then, about three months ago— some time in
May—he came here and told me that he was through with wandering; that
he was going to take a house in some quiet place where he could work
undisturbed on an invention in which he was interested.
“He lived at the Francisco Hotel while he was in San Francisco. After
a couple of weeks he suddenly disappeared. And then, about a month ago,
I received a telegram from him, asking me to come to see him at his
house near Sacramento. I went up the very next day, and I thought that
he was acting queerly—he seemed very excited over something. He gave
me a will that he had just drawn up and some life-insurance policies in
which I was beneficiary.
“Immediately after that he insisted that I return home, and hinted
rather plainly that he did not wish me to either visit him again or
write until I heard from him. I thought all that rather peculiar, as he
had always seemed fond of me. I never saw him again.”
“What was this invention he was working on?”
“I really don't know. I asked him once, but he became so excited—
even suspicious—that I changed the subject, and never mentioned it
“Are you sure that he really did follow the sea all those years?”
“No, I am not. I just took it for granted; but he may have been doing
something altogether different.”
“Was he ever married?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Know any of his friends or enemies?”
“Remember anybody's name that he ever mentioned?”
“I don't want you to think this next question insulting, though I
admit it is. Where were you the night of the fire?”
“At home; I had some friends here to dinner, and they stayed until
about midnight. Mr. and Mrs. Walker Kellogg, Mrs. John Dupree, and a
Mr. Killmer, who is a lawyer. I can give you their addresses, if you
want to question them.”
From Mrs. Trowbridge's apartment I went to the Francisco Hotel.
Thornburgh had been registered there from May tenth to June thirteenth,
and hadn't attracted much attention. He had been a tall,
broad-shouldered, erect man of about fifty, with rather long brown hair
brushed straight back; a short, pointed brown beard, and a healthy,
ruddy complexion—grave, quiet, punctilious in dress and manner; his
hours had been regular and he had had no visitors that any of the hotel
At the Seamen's Bank—upon which Thornburgh's check, in payment of
the house, had been drawn—I was told that he had opened an account
there on May fifteenth, having been introduced by W. W. Jeffers & Sons,
local stockbrokers. A balance of a little more than four hundred
dollars remained to his credit. The cancelled checks on hand were all
to the order of various life-insurance companies; and for amounts that,
if they represented premiums, testified to rather large policies. I
jotted down the names of the life-insurance companies, and then went to
the offices of W. W. Jeffers & Sons.
Thornburgh had come in, I was told, on the tenth of May with $15,000
worth of bonds that he had wanted sold. During one of his conversations
with Jeffers he had asked the broker to recommend a bank, and Jeffers
had given him a letter of introduction to the Seamen's Bank.
That was all Jeffers knew about him. He gave me the numbers of the
bonds, but tracing bonds isn't always the easiest thing in the world.
The reply to my Seattle telegram was waiting for me at the
Continental Detective Agency when I arrived.
MRS EDWARD COMERFORD RENTED APARTMENT AT ADDRESS YOU
GAVE ON MAY TWENTY-FIVE. GAVE IT UP JUNE 6. TRUNKS TO SAN
FRANCISCO SAME DAY CHECK NUMBERS ON FOUR FIVE TWO FIVE
EIGHT SEVEN AND EIGHT AND NINE.
Tracing baggage is no trick at all, if you have the dates and check
numbers to start with—as many a bird who is wearing somewhat similar
numbers on his chest and back, because he overlooked that detail when
making his getaway, can tell you—and twenty-five minutes in a
baggage-room at the Ferry and half an hour in the office of a transfer
company gave me my answer.
The trunks had been delivered to Mrs. Evelyn Trowbridge's apartment!
I got Jim Tarr on the phone and told him about it.
“Good shooting!” he said, forgetting for once to indulge his wit.
“We'll grab the Coonses here and Mrs. Trowbridge there, and that's the
end of another mystery.”
“Wait a minute!” I cautioned him. “It's not all straightened out
yet—there're still a few kinks in the plot.”
“It's straight enough for me. I'm satisfied.”
“You're the boss, but I think you're being a little hasty. I'm going
up and talk with the niece again. Give me a little time before you
phone the police here to make the pinch. I'll hold her until they get
Evelyn Trowbridge let me in this time, instead of the maid who had
opened the door for me in the morning, and she led me to the same room
in which we had had our first talk. I let her pick out a seat, and then
I selected one that was closer to either door than hers was.
On the way up I had planned a lot of innocent-sounding questions that
would get her all snarled up; but after taking a good look at this
woman sitting in front of me, leaning comfortably back in her chair,
coolly waiting for me to speak my piece, I discarded the trick stuff
and came out cold-turkey.
“Ever use the name Mrs. Edward Comerford?”
“Oh, yes.” As casual as a nod on the street.
“Often. You see, I happen to have been married not so long ago to Mr.
Edward Comerford. So it's not really strange that I should have used
“Use it in Seattle recently?”
“I would suggest,” she said sweetly, “that if you are leading up to
the references I gave Coons and his wife, you might save time by coming
right to it.”
“That's fair enough,” I said. “Let's do that.”
There wasn't a tone or shading, in voice, manner, or expression, to
indicate that she was talking about anything half so serious or
important to her as a possibility of being charged with murder. She
might have been talking about the weather.
“During the time that Mr. Comerford and I were married, we lived in
Seattle, where he still lives. After the divorce, I left Seattle and
resumed my maiden name. And the Coonses were in our employ, as
you might learn if you care to look it up. You'll find my husband—or
former husband—at the Chelsea Apartments, I think.
“Last summer, or late spring, I decided to return to Seattle. The
truth of it is—I suppose all my personal affairs will be aired
anyhow—that I thought perhaps Edward and I might patch up our
differences; so I went back and took an apartment on Wood-mansee
Terrace. As I was known in Seattle as Mrs. Edward Comerford, and as I
thought my using his name might influence him a little, I used it while
I was there.
“Also I telephoned the Coonses to make tentative arrangements in case
Edward and I should open our house again; but Coons told me that they
were going to California, and so I gladly gave them an excellent
recommendation when, some days later, I received a letter of inquiry
from an employment bureau in Sacramento. After I had been in Seattle
for about two weeks, I changed my mind about the
reconciliation—Edward's interest, I learned, was all centered
elsewhere; so I returned to San Francisco—”
“Very nice! But—”
“If you will permit me to finish,” she interrupted. “When I went to
see my uncle in response to his telegram, I was surprised to find the
Coonses in his house. Knowing my uncle's peculiarities, and finding
them now increased, and remembering his extreme secretiveness about his
mysterious invention, I cautioned the Coonses not to tell him that they
had been in my employ.
“He certainly would have discharged them, and just as certainly would
have quarreled with me—he would have thought that I was having him
spied on. Then, when Coons telephoned me after the fire, I knew that to
admit that the Coonses had been formerly in my employ, would, in view
of the fact that I was my uncle's only heir, cast suspicion on all
three of us. So we foolishly agreed to say nothing and carry on the
That didn't sound all wrong—but it didn't sound all right. I wished
Tarr had taken it easier and let us get a better line on these people,
before having them thrown in the coop.
“The coincidence of the Coonses stumbling into my uncle's house is, I
fancy, too much for your detecting instincts,” she went on. “Am I to
consider myself under arrest?”
I'm beginning to like this girl; she's a nice, cool piece of work.
“Not yet,” I told her. “But I'm afraid it's going to happen pretty
She smiled a little mocking smile at that, and another when the
It was O'Hara from police headquarters. We turned the apartment
upside down and inside out, but didn't find anything of importance
except the will she had told me about, dated July eighth, and her
uncle's life-insurance policies. They were all dated between May
fifteenth and June tenth, and added up to a little more than $200,000.
I spent an hour grilling the maid after O'Hara had taken Evelyn
Trowbridge away, but she didn't know any more than I did. However,
between her, the janitor, the manager of the apartments, and the names
Mrs. Trowbridge had given me, I learned that she had really been
entertaining friends on the night of the fire—until after eleven
o'clock, anyway—and that was late enough.
Half an hour later I was riding the Short Line back to Sacramento. I
was getting to be one of the line's best customers, and my anatomy was
on bouncing terms with every bump in the road.
Between bumps I tried to fit the pieces of this Thornburgh puzzle
together. The niece and the Coonses fit in somewhere, but not just
where we had them. We had been working on the job sort of lopsided, but
it was the best we could do with it. In the beginning we had turned to
the Coonses and Evelyn Trowbridge because there was no other direction
to go; and now we had something on them—but a good lawyer could make
hash out of it.
The Coonses were in the county jail when I got to Sacramento. After
some questioning they had admitted their connection with the niece, and
had come through with stories that matched hers.
Tarr, McClump and I sat around the sheriff's desk and argued.
“Those yarns are pipe dreams,” the sheriff said. “We got all three of
'em cold, and they're as good as convicted.”
McClump grinned derisively at his superior, and then turned to me.
“Go on, you tell him about the holes in his little case. He ain't
your boss, and can't take it out on you later for being smarter than he
Tarr glared from one of us to the other.
“Spill it, you wise guys!” he ordered.
“Our dope is,” I told him, figuring that McClump's view of it was the
same as mine, “that there's nothing to show that even Thornburgh knew
he was going to buy that house before the tenth of June, and that the
Coonses were in town looking for work on the second. And besides, it
was only by luck that they got the jobs. The employment office sent two
couples out there ahead of them.”
“We'll take a chance on letting the jury figure that out.”
“Yes? You'll also take a chance on them figuring out that
Thorn-burgh, who seems to have been a nut, might have touched off the
place himself! We've got something on these people, Jim, but not enough
to go into court with them. How are you going to prove that when the
Coonses were planted in Thornburgh's house—if you can even prove that
they were planted—they and the Trow-bridge woman knew he was going to
load up with insurance policies?”
The sheriff spat disgustedly.
“You guys are the limit! You run around in circles, digging up the
dope on these people until you get enough to hang 'em, and then you run
around hunting for outs! What's the matter with you now?”
I answered him from halfway to the door—the pieces were beginning to
fit together under my skull.
“Going to run some more circles—come on, Mac!”
McClump and I held a conference on the fly, and then I got a car from
the nearest garage and headed for Tavender. We made time going out, and
got there before the general store had closed for the night. The
stuttering Philo separated himself from the two men with whom he had
been talking, and followed me to the rear of the store.
“Do you keep an itemized list of the laundry you handle?”
“N-n-no; just the amounts.”
“Let's look at Thornburgh's.”
He produced a begrimed and rumpled account book, and we picked out
the weekly items I wanted: $2.60, $3.10, $2.25, and so on.
“Got the last batch of laundry here?”
“Y-yes,” he said. “It j-just c-c-came out from the city t-today.”
I tore open the bundle—some sheets, pillowcases, tablecloths,
towels, napkins; some feminine clothing; some shirts, collars,
underwear, and socks that were unmistakably Coons's. I thanked Philo
while running back to the car.
Back in Sacramento again, McClump was waiting for me at the garage
where I had hired the car.
“Registered at the hotel on June fifteenth; rented the office on the
sixteenth. I think he's in the hotel now,” he greeted me.
We hurried around the block to the Garden Hotel.
“Mr. Henderson went out a minute or two ago,” the night clerk told
us. “He seemed to be in a hurry.”
“Know where he keeps his car?”
“In the hotel garage around the corner.”
We were within ten feet of the garage, when Henderson's automobile
shot out and turned up the street.
“Oh, Mr. Henderson!” I cried, trying to keep my voice level.
He stepped on the gas and streaked away from us.
“Want him?” McClump asked; and at my nod he stopped a passing
roadster by the simple expedient of stepping in front of it.
We climbed in, McClump flashed his star at the bewildered driver, and
pointed out Henderson's dwindling tail-light. After he had persuaded
himself that he wasn't being boarded by a couple of bandits, the
commandeered driver did his best, and we picked up Henderson's
tail-light after two or three turnings, and closed in on him—though
his car was going at a good clip.
By the time we reached the outskirts of the city, we had crawled up
to within safe shooting distance, and I sent a bullet over the fleeing
man's head. Thus encouraged, he managed to get a little more speed out
of his car; but we were overhauling him now.
Just at the wrong minute Henderson decided to look over his shoulder
at us—an unevenness in the road twisted his wheels— his machine
swayed—skidded—went over on its side. Almost immediately, from the
heart of the tangle, came a flash and a bullet moaned past my ear.
Another. And then, while I was still hunting for something to shoot at
in the pile of junk we were drawing down upon, McClump's ancient and
battered revolver roared in my other ear.
Henderson was dead when we got to him—McClump's bullet had taken him
over one eye.
McClump spoke to me over the body.
“I ain't an inquisitive sort of fellow, but I hope you don't mind
telling me why I shot this lad.”
“Because he was—Thornburgh.”
He didn't say anything for about five minutes. Then: “I reckon that's
right. How'd you know it?”
We were sitting beside the wreckage now, waiting for the police that
we had sent our commandeered chauffeur to phone for.
“He had to be,” I said, “when you think it all over. Funny we didn't
hit on it before! All that stuff we were told about Thorn-burgh had a
fishy sound. Whiskers and an unknown profession, immaculate and working
on a mysterious invention, very secretive and born in San
Francisco—where the fire wiped out all the old records—-just the sort
of fake that could be cooked up easily.
“Now, consider Henderson. You had told me he came to Sacramento
sometime early this summer—and the dates you got tonight show that he
didn't come until after Thornburgh had bought his house. All
right! Now compare Henderson with the descriptions we got of
“Both are about the same size and age, and with the same color hair.
The differences are all things that can be manufactured— clothes, a
little sunburn, and a month's growth of beard, along with a little
acting, would do the trick. Tonight I went out to Taven-der and took a
look at the last batch of laundry—and there wasn't any that didn't fit
the Coonses! And none of the bills all the way back were large enough
for Thornburgh to have been as careful about his clothes as we were
told he was.”
“It must be great to be a detective!” McClump grinned as the police
ambulance came up and began disgorging policemen. “I reckon somebody
must have tipped Henderson off that I was asking about him this
evening.” And then, regretfully: “So we ain't going to hang them folks
for murder after all.”
“No, but we oughtn't have any trouble convicting them of arson plus
conspiracy to defraud, and anything else that the Prosecuting Attorney
can think up.”
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