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"Hidden Death" from Best Detective Magazine

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Best Detective Magazine
Hidden Death
by Ellis Parker Butler

A few minutes after eleven at night my telephone bell rang, and when I took down the receiver I recognized Mrs. Burke's voice.

"Mr. Millbray," she said, with easily recognized agitation, "please come up to the house immediately. Mr. Burke has been murdered."

"I will be there in ten minutes," I answered.

As I hung up the receiver I turned to young Case, who was sitting before my fire, smoking a cigar.

"Burke has been murdered," I said. "Get your coat and hat on; I want you to come with me. This is probably the work of the water gang."

To explain what I meant I need only say that the "water gang" was a group of political crooks who had sold our city an out-of-date water plant for a sum ten times its value. The pumps, mains, and every other part of the water system thus foisted upon the taxpayers were in the most miserable state of decay. Young Case was a local politician of another stripe entirely, and, while the city was so accustomed to graft that it expected it everywhere, young Case had set out to awaken its anger and to put himself and other honest men into office by emptying those offices into the jails. To get evidence that would convict the crooks, he had come to me, for I am one of the professional detectives of our city, owner and manager of the Millbray Detective Agency.

When Case first visited me, he had in his pocket a sum of money that would have tempted any detective. It had been subscribed by a group of citizens who possessed civic pride enough to want to see the taxpayers get a fair run for their money. Case laid a stack of yellowbacks on my desk.

"Millbray," he said; "I want evidence to convict the whole gang or as many of them as can be convicted. There are twenty thousand dollars. I am going to put that money into the bank and give you a conditional order for it. The banker will honor the order when and as the conditions are met. For every man of the water gang convicted by your evidence, you will receive one thousand dollars."

"Why didn't you go to Burke?" I asked. I may say here that Burke was the one man I considered a rival in my line in our city. While he lived, he was one of the greatest detectives of his day. Now that he is dead, I think I may say he was one of the greatest detectives of all time, although he was hardly known. He did not seek fame. He had considerable wealth, for a fortune had been left him by an uncle ten years after he began his career as a detective. Burke, after he inherited this fortune, continued his work only because he loved it. I had an idea that if Case had gone to Burke and had put the matter of the water gang to him squarely, Burke might have taken it on without asking for remuneration. This and the fact that Burke was a marvelous detective made me ask Case the question.

"I did not go to Burke," said Case, "because I don't trust him. He is Irish and most of this gang are Irish."

I was inclined to say, "You don't know Burke," and I might have said, with equal truth. "You don't know the Irish," but I did not say either. If Case believed what he had said, it was none of my affair.

I considered Case's proposition for a few minutes. I did not like the idea of taking any case whatever on the terms he proposed. I like to be paid for my services, whether I get evidence sufficient to convict or fail. I am honest, and when I have a case in my hands I do good work on it. I figure that a workman is worthy of his hire. If I put in my time I deserve my pay. There are some cases I can solve and some I cannot, but I put the same time and thought on all of them.

"I will undertake the commission on the terms you have stated," I said at length, for I think rapidly. A detective has to.

Case placed the money in the bank as he had agreed, and he gave me the conditional order. I took the precaution to visit the banker, and he said it was all in good form. The money was there, and would be paid me if I earned it according to the terms of the contract. So Case waited for results. He got no results whatever. He got excuses and promises. In other words, I "stood him off" from day to day, excusing myself for having nothing definite and promising great developments the next day or in a week or at some vague time in the future. As a plain matter of fact, I did not do a thing in the matter. I "played him along," as the saying is.

Why? I'll say this much now. The twenty politicians composing the water gang were an extremely powerful and dangerous body of men. They were wily and shrewd and clever. Many of them were wealthy. They knew I had been engaged on the case. They must have known. I will tell you why. The morning after Case came to my office, the mail brought me an envelope containing twenty-five one-thousand-dollar bills. Not a word, not a scrap of paper; but I knew what that money meant; and why it was sent me. I fussed about a little and sent my men out on clues that I knew would lead nowhere, but I really did nothing to get evidence against O'Ryon and his gang.

That was why, at the end of three weeks, Case came to my house one evening. He was provoked, and I could not blame him, but I set about quieting him down again, giving him doses of soft talk and more promises. "Wait a while," was the burden of my song, and "Don't be impatient; these matters take time," was the chorus. I think I had hypnotized him with excuses, for he had quieted down and was smoking one of my good cigars when the telephone brought me that unexpected and shocking message.

In the instant between Mrs. Burke's call and my reply to her, my mind covered a whole network of facts, much simpler to me than they may seem to you, and I said to Case: "This is probably the work of the water gang."

We took a streetcar at my door and were at the Burke home in, probably, nine minutes from the time Mrs. Burke telephoned me. Call it nine minutes after eleven, at night, when we entered the door of her house. A policeman stood in the hall, and, as I learned later, another was stationed at the back door. Lieutenant Toole was waiting outside the study in which Burke had been murdered, but he had not been allowed to enter. Mrs. Burke had seen to that. She alone was in the room, and she had telephoned from there.

In the lower hall were grouped two women servants and the butler, all greatly agitated. The younger woman was weeping hysterically and had thrown her apron over her head to hide her face. The older one had her arm around her and was trying to comfort her. As Case and I entered the hall, the butler came forward and led the way to the next floor. There I met Lieutenant Toole. In the hall, on a settle against the wall, sat the murdered detective's two daughters, Myra and Edith. They were arm in arm, white and anguished. They looked at me with big, horror-stricken eyes. The butler stood with his hands clasped -- or, rather, clasping and unclasping -- as Toole, Case, and I entered the room.

Now, just one word about the house itself. It was built of pressed brick, and stood back twenty feet or so from the street. It was separated from the houses on either side by some forty feet on the east and sixty feet on the west. The room in which the murder had been done was at the rear of the second floor, in the northwest corner of the house. About twelve feet from the two north windows of the room stood an apple tree that rose almost to the roof of the house. The house, by the way, was full three stories, without an attic.

You may credit me with a detective's ability to see details quickly and surely. As I entered the room I saw that the door had been battered in and the instrument that had been used lay on the floor where it had been dropped. It was a heavy iron poker. Only one panel of the door was broken; this was an upper panel, just above the lock. The panel had evidently been loose -- it was an old house -- and had fallen in at the first or second blow. Mrs. Burke confirmed this.

The room itself was not large. It was about twelve by fourteen feet in size, with three windows, two on the north and one on the east. Between the east window and the north wall was a fireplace. It is not necessary to remember these details; they are of no special consequence. The important matter is that this room was Detective Burke's study. It contained a small table desk, a few books, and two chairs. It was here, Mrs. Burke told me, he locked himself in to think out tangled problems. He often sat here late at night. He had acquired the habit of locking himself in, when his daughters were small and apt to burst into the room, interrupting him. I think that is all that need be explained. The fireplace was an old-fashioned affair, with a grate for cannel coal, but there was no fire in it, although the kindling and coal were laid for one. The fireplace was of white marble, but, like many old fireplaces, the opening had a rim of cast iron, painted black. This rim was about a foot wide, and had an ornamental design. The dead man sat in one of the two chairs -- a rather large leather affair -- and he was toppled forward toward the grate. His feet were on a low iron fender, and this alone prevented him from falling to the floor.

As we entered, Mrs. Burke arose from the other chair. Her face was as white as death, but she controlled herself remarkably well. No doubt she had expected something like this a hundred times, her husband's profession being what it was. She came forward and gave me a hand that was as cold as ice.

"Well. Mr. Millbray," she said; "it has come at last. I called you the moment I saw poor Edward was dead."

"That was right," I said.

I knew she had not sent for me to condole with her, and my eyes were gliding from one part of the room to another, taking in the details hurriedly.

"I sent for you, for one reason," she said; "because Edward was alone in this room, locked in. There was no one and there has been no one in it since but myself and James."

"James is your butler?" I asked.


With Toole I examined the three windows. They were locked on the inside with a patent catch. It was evident enough that no one could have escaped by the windows and then have fastened them from the outside.

"About James," I said. "Did he come near these windows when he entered the room?"


"You are positive, Mrs. Burke? This is most important."

"He did not. I know what you mean. When I entered I ordered him to stay at the door. He did not come two steps into the room then; he has not been inside since. No one has touched the windows."

"And the door was locked on the inside?"

"Positively! I tried it before I entered. I unlocked the door myself. I put my arm through the broken panel and turned the key."

I knelt at the dead man's feet and put my head in the fireplace, looking upward. The examination seemed to offer no help.

"No man could have come down the chimney," I said. This was the truth; the flue was too narrow for the smallest boy to negotiate. "You see, Toole," I said to the officer. "This is one of those impossible cases. Burke has been shot in this room, and it is impossible that it could have been done here. There is no way in which a human being could have entered; there is no nook or corner in which a murderer could hide. There are no holes in the panes of the windows, either made by a bullet or through which a bullet could have entered. A man in this tree," I said, going to the north windows and indicating the apple tree, "would have been too far to the east to be within range of Burke where he was sitting. Now, Mrs. Burke, will you tell us just what happened?"

Although she was under great mental and nervous strain, she spoke calmly and without excitement. "Until about five minutes of eleven, Mr. Burke, myself, and our two daughters were sitting in the upper hall. You noticed we have a large fireplace there, and we use the hall as a living room. Mr. Burke likes -- liked -- to have me read aloud. I was reading a novel. When I had finished it, I said I was tired and would go to bed. Mr. Burke kissed me and the girls, and said he would work half an hour or so before following me. He called down to James to come up and fix the fire for the night. James asked Mr. Burke if he wished the fire lighted in the study, and Mr. Burke said it was not worthwhile, that he would not be there long. He went into the study and I heard him lock the door. That is a habit he had from the time when Myra and Edith were children. I stood a few minutes talking with the girls about tomorrow's affairs, and James bent over the fire. He had the heavy iron poker in one hand, turning a large coal, and the small shovel, filled with ashes, in the other. Then I heard the shot."

"In this room?" I asked.

"Yes, I knew it was in this room. I knew Mr. Burke had been shot. I have been afraid so many times, of this very thing. I jumped up and ran to the study. James followed me. I tried the handle, although I knew the door was locked. James said, 'Shall I break it open?' and I answered, 'Break this panel.' He struck the panel and knocked it out. I put my hand in and unlocked the door. Then I opened it and came in."

"Just what did you see, Mrs. Burke?" "I smelled powder smoke," she said.

"I don't think I saw smoke, but I may have. I smelted it quite plainly -- very strong it was. I ordered James to stay at the door and ran to my husband. He was just as you see him now, sitting in the chair, but toppled forward, and the wound was bleeding. He was quite dead. I walked to his table and telephoned to you. All this took less than a minute. Then I ordered James to run for the police. He went, and I sat in that chair until you came into the room."

"And you saw no revolver, no firearm of any kind?"

"Oh, nothing!"

"Of course," I said, as gently as I could; "you do not think there could be any motive for suicide?"

"Oh, none whatever!" she cried. "He was happy and well. No, it could not have been that."

"I am sure it could not have been, Mrs. Burke," I assured her. "Toole, what do you make of it?"

The officer had been walking about the room, peering under and into things, tapping the wall, examining the wallpaper, looking behind the few pictures and examining the windows. Now he bent down and studied the dead Burke and his position. He picked up an unlighted cigar that lay on the floor.

"Here is the match, Toole," I said, pointing to the floor at my side of the chair.

"Yes, poor man, he was just lighting his smoke," said Toole. The lieutenant was evidently not quite happy; I knew why.

"Well, out with it, man! Say it!" I ordered.

"It don't please me to have to say it, ma'am," he said to Mrs. Burke; "but since Mr. Millbray won't, it is my duty to. You say yourself you have not been out of the room. It is plain no shot was fired from outside, and equally plain no one left this study after Mr. Burke was killed. I don't mean anything bad. ma'am, but the gun he was shot with is not hidden here. That I'll vouch for. And it must be somewhere." He hesitated.

"Go on, Toole," I said. I kept an eye on young Case; his eyes were big. I could see he was puzzled, almost dazed, by the mysterious aspect of the affair.

"Well, ma'am," said Toole; "if the gun ain't here, and if it was not fired from outside, it must be -- on you, ma'am."

"What?" she exclaimed.

"You would, naturally, not want it to be known that your husband was a suicide, ma'am," said Toole, as kindly as possible. "Folks usually try to hide that. I will ask you, ma'am, before you go out of the room, to let us have you searched for the gun."

"Then your idea, Toole," I interposed, "is that Mr. Burke killed himself?"

"There's nothing else to it," returned Toole.

"What do you think, Case?" I asked.

"Me?" exclaimed the young lawyer. "Why, what can I tell? It is all impossible!"

"I wanted to hear you say that," I said. "You were complaining about my poor detective work this evening. I will show you something. I will write the name of the murderer on a slip of paper and give it to you now. You may look at it later."

I tore a page from my memorandum book, scribbled a name on it, folded the paper, and handed it to Case. He kept it in his hand.

"How long before I can look at it?" he asked.

"Will you give me a week in which to solve this mystery?"

"I will give you a month!" he exclaimed.

"I will take five minutes," I said. "Toole, Mrs. Burke need not be searched. She has not the pistol. I say pistol, rather than revolver, because it was a pistol and not a revolver."

"How do you know that?" demanded Case.

"It might be known by the form of the wound, but that is not how I know it. I have not examined the wound. In fact, Toole, Mr. Burke did not kill himself. He was killed."

"Well, I keep my own belief --" said Toole.

"One minute, Toole," I said. "Mrs. Burke, why did you telephone me rather than the police?"

"Because --" She looked at me to see whether I wished her to give the true reason. "Because I wanted the murderer caught. I was afraid the police might not --"

"Yes. Go on!"

"Might not want to catch him," she finished.

"Exactly!" I said. "That is what you would think, but I doubt if the police would fail in their duty in this case. However, you did well enough in sending for me. You also did well in remaining in this room after you entered it. You did well in sending James for the police after you had telephoned me. In fact, Mrs. Burke, you did exactly the right thing in every step you have taken. Toole, will you pick up that half-burned match and look at it? Nothing peculiar about it, is there?"

Toole picked up the match and examined it.

"Nothing," he said.

"You don't see a powder stain on it?"

"Well, there's a black speck here on one side that might be a powder mark," said Toole doubtfully. Case took the match and looked at it closely.

"So you don't see anything peculiar about the match," I scoffed at Toole. "Perhaps you see something peculiar about the marble of that mantel."

Toole turned his eyes that way.

"Do you see anything odd about the pile of coal and wood in the grate?" I asked, before he could answer my previous question. "No?" I said, not giving him time to reply. "Then, Toole, suppose you go up on the roof of this house and arrest James, the worthy butler, for the murder of Mr. Burke; or perhaps he will come down of his own accord."

I put my head to the grate and shouted up the chimney. "James!" I called. "Come down here and be arrested. It is all up with you!" Then I pushed Toole toward the door. "Hurry!" I cried. "Catch him on the way down! Catch him while he is still on the roof, if you can! It will be circumstantial evidence." Toole did hurry.

"Now, Case," I said, "if you will open that slip of paper I gave you, you will see that I wrote 'James' on it. In a minute or two Toole will bring James here, and, unless I am much mistaken, the fellow will confess. He will implicate the men I mentioned before I left my house -- the water gang."

It happened as I said. James was a poor fellow to make a criminal of; he was poor stuff to depend on. When I held the burned match before his eyes and pointed to the grate, he broke down and blubbered and told the whole story. The water gang had put him up to it, he said, pleading for mercy. He mentioned names and even the amount he had been paid for his work. He said he couldn't help himself.

I asked Mrs. Burke to go, seeing she was ready to collapse. Toole took James downstairs, placed him in the hands of his two officers, and returned.

"It is all wonderful, Millbray," said Case. "It exceeds anything I have ever read in fiction. It is the most marvelous exhibition of detective skill possible, but you have not yet told us how poor Burke was shot."

I walked to the fireplace and ran my hand along the meeting place of the cast-iron rim and the marble.

"See this, Case?" I asked. "See this red-brown discoloration that follows the crack between the iron and the marble? Even you could tell me what did that. Some one has scratched matches there hundreds of times. Now, who? Who but Burke? Sitting here with his feet on that fender, he could reach out his right hand and strike a match there more easily than on any other spot. The iron is too rough; the marble too smooth. The head of a match, scraped along this crack, would ignite instantly. Then see this hole."

I pointed to a hole in the cast-iron rim. On the opposite side of the fireplace there was a similar hole, but it was filled by the head of a bolt. Where the hole was, the bolt had evidently worked loose or been taken out.

"It was through this hole the bullet came," I explained. "Any man should know that. It points directly at Burke's heart, where he sits, and where he was in the habit of sitting. Therefore the pistol was on the other side of that hole. It was placed there, aimed at Burke's heart, and Burke was to discharge it himself and at himself. How? By lighting a fuse. For that reason a revolver was not used, but an old-fashioned pistol with a touchhole. The fuse led from this crack to the touchhole of the pistol. When Burke leaned forward and struck his match, the flash ignited the fuse, which, in turn, fired pistol. Burke was killed by a bullet that came through this hole and pierced his heart. It was a quick fuse. There is its ash on the coal in the grate. Now, who could place that pistol in that exact position? James, because he entered this room frequently to fix the grate and lay the fire. And why did James go to the roof, as I told Toole? Because he must have had a wire ready to jerk his contrivance loose and with which to haul it up the chimney, removing all traces of the manner in which Burke was killed. Toole, if you examine the chimney, I dare say you will find an old-fashioned pistol, just as I have said. That, Case, is an example of the inductive method of detecting crime."

Toole knelt at the fireplace, and in a moment dragged down a contrivance that had been wedged in the flue. He drew after it yards of strong wire that had extended up the chimney to the roof.

Case was thoroughly amazed. "It is wonderful! It is wonderful!" he repeated again and again, until I stopped him.

"Isn't it?" I said. "Reasoning all that from a burned match. You forget that the first thing I did when I entered the room was to look up the chimney. I saw the pistol arrangement and the wire then; and I rather suspected James, because Burke had told me James was in the pay of the water gang. You see, Case, when you engaged me to dig into that affair, I guessed that the grafters would learn, through some one in the bank, that you had employed me, and that they would be on the lookout for me. So I turned the case over to Burke. He obtained all the evidence that is needed to convict the gang, and, luckily, he wrote it out today and mailed it to me this evening. He telephoned me that just before you came to my house tonight."

"Burke did?" said Case, astonished by what I had just said.

"Yes, we have been in secret communication, ever since I turned the case over to him. We hoped, up to two days ago, that the water gang did not suspect he was on their trail. Then Burke discovered that they were aware he was after them. He discovered that James was in their pay. For that reason he asked Mrs. Burke to keep an eye on the man and report any suspicious actions. That was why Mrs. Burke telephoned me instead of the police. She knew Burke was working up the water-gang case for me."

"It is simple when one understands it," remarked Case.

"Very simple," I agreed. "Today Burke learned that James was an ex-cracksman, and that he had been a firearm expert in the English army some thirty years ago. If Mrs. Burke had been an ordinary woman, she would have been totally upset by the murder of her husband. She would have telephoned for the police, James would have gone to the roof and pulled the pistol arrangement up the chimney to safety, while some one was removing Burke's body to a bed. That is what a woman usually does first with a wounded man. By sending James for the police and by remaining in the study, Mrs. Burke spoiled his plan. No one but James would have noticed that Burke always struck his matches in the one place, and always sat with his feet on the fender. Tomorrow the solidarity of the water gang will fall to pieces, and we will have three or four squealers eager to give their companions away."

"You are sure?" asked Case. "You are sure that this is the finish?"

"I am. Graft is one thing, but murder is another. Those who were not in the murder plot will try to clear themselves by giving away their companions."

I was right. That was just what happened.

The twenty-five thousand dollars? I was never able to trace it to the men who sent it to me. I used it to endow the Burke Memorial Room in our best hospital.



Saturday, October 07 at 1:19:18am USA Central
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