from Short Stories
by Ellis Parker Butler
On the sixteenth of September, a clear but dark Sunday night, a man whose face was partly hidden by his coat collar and a muffler, rang the bell at the home of a citizen of Quercus Grove, Illinois, not many miles from Chicago. He had but a few seconds to wait before the door opened and the owner of the house stood before him. The visitor raised the pocket of his overcoat in which his right hand was hidden and pointed it at the citizen's stomach. The citizen's hands went up.
"Burch," he said in an exceedingly deep voice, evidently assumed and meant to disguise his own, "I've got a gun on you. One word out of you and you are dead. Get your hat and come with me."
Instead of showing the fear that would have been natural under the circumstances the man called Burch grinned.
"It's all right, Smith," he said in a heavy whisper. "The folks haven't come home from church yet. I'll get my coat and hat and be with you."
The coat and hat of Rothwell Burch were on a rack near the door and he backed toward them, still holding up his hands. The man he had called Smith stood in the door, in full light from the lamp within, and as Rothwell Burch drew on his coat a neighbor named Illig passed. He saw the man standing in the door and he saw Burch getting ready to go out. He thought nothing of it at the moment and went home.
Presently Rothwell Burch came out and the visitor closed the door, always keeping the automatic in his pocket pointed toward Burch.
"Put your hands in your overcoat pockets and keep them there," said Smith. "Keep close to me, on my right side. If we meet anyone look straight ahead and don't say anything."
Their way led them six or eight blocks to the main street and two blocks down the main street to Burch's store. Twice, on the residence street, they passed citizens; once it was a Mr. Froarty and his wife and the other time it was a man named Kreck, not known to Mr. Burch. As they neared Mr. Froarty and his wife Mr. Burch whispered to Smith, "I know these people," and Smith steered him across the street just before meeting. Froarty called out, "Hello Burch!" but Mr. Burch did not answer Froarty supposed he had not been heard.
The main street was rather deserted. The motion picture audiences were still the theaters and church had not yet let out. One or two did see Mr. Burch and Smith and noticed them, but it happened that none of these knew Burch well enough to speak to him. The two proceeded to the door of the jewelry store owned by Burch; while Smith shielded him with his body Mr. Burch opened the door. The two went in and Burch locked the door on the inside.
One light burned before the large safe at the rear of the store, but it did not illuminate the front of the store to any extent. There were lights in the windows, but the windows were shut off from the store by mahogany screens. As soon as the two men were inside the store Smith crouched down back of one of these screens and drew the revolver from his pocket, and, as if under orders and fear of death, Burch drew the shades on the door and the windows. As soon as this was done Smith stood up. He still held the revolver toward Burch, but he grinned.
"A little speed now," he said.
"I'll hurry," Burch agreed.
Before the counter were revolving stools of a height to allow a customer to examine easily any articles placed on the tops of the showcases, and Smith seated himself on the stool nearest the safe and watched while Burch worked the combination lock and swung the doors open. From one of the compartments of the safe Burch took a brown outing-flannel bag and into this he emptied the contents of one tray and another. From the money drawer he took what cash there was, but he put this in his pocket. In the same drawer were a dozen small envelopes containing unset stones and these he put in the bag.
All this while Smith kept the revolver pointed at Burch.
"I wish you would point that thing down," Burch complained now, "I'm afraid of it."
"Come out from there!" Smith cried in answer. Burch had taken a step behind the counter. His intention had been to get a piece of string with which to tie the bag. He looked at Smith and for the first time fear was in his eyes.
"Bert!" he exclaimed, and the name was both an exclamation and a question, but Smith laughed.
"Don't get the willies, Roth," Smith said to Burch. "You're going to be mighty closely questioned about this business, don't you forget, and I don't want you to do anything you'll tell about and be sorry for. I don't let you go behind a counter because there might be a gun there, don't you see? And you don't tie a string around the bag. I won't let you. I make you hand it to me and then put your hands up. Hands up, Roth!"
"They're up," said Burch, putting them up when Smith had taken the bag. "Now turn around. Down on your knees," Smith said.
"I don't suppose I could have a cushion," Burch asked. "This is going to be tiresome before someone comes."
"We can't have everything," Smith told him. "Not in this world."
He took from his pocket a roll of picture wire and reeled off a number of yards. This he wrapped around the knob of the combination lock, drawing it taut and knotting it with the wire doubled. He tried it and found it sustained his entire weight without snapping, and he next bound Burch's wrists so that he could rest his weight on the knob by grasping it, if Burch wished. He then passed the ends of the wire under Burch's arms and to his ankles, and these he also wired. With more wire he bound Burch's elbows to his sides.
"Try it," he told Burch, and the merchant tested the snare.
"It would cut my wrists off before I could do anything with it," he said. "I wish you would put that confounded gun down," he added. This time Smith obeyed him. He placed the revolver on the counter beside the remainder of the wire and asked Burch where his handkerchief was, and Burch told him it was in a hip pocket. Smith found it there and folded it into a gag and Burch opened his mouth and took it in.
"I've got to have another," Smith said.
"It's the only one I have," Burch told him and Smith said he guessed he would have to use his own. He took it from his pocket and examined it carefully and found a laundry mark in one corner. To get rid of this he took his penknife, cutting off the corner. He burned this carefully with a match, crushing the ash on the floor. He even went so far as to pick up the ash between his fingers after he had crushed it, but it was nothing but ash. He then bound this handkerchief around Burch's head, making him open his mouth and take the handkerchief between his jaws. Thus Burch was sufficiently gagged.
In all this Smith had touched nothing but the knob of the safe and he now ran his arm between Burch and the safe and polished the knob with his coat sleeve.
"You can tell them I did that, Roth," he said. "I'll be on my way now. Your wife will be pretty sure to ring up the store when she comes in, and you want to be exhausted from yelling when help comes."
He saw his knife on the showcase and put it in his pocket.
"I don't think there is anything else," he said. "It may take some time to get rid of this stuff, but I'll get word to you as soon as it is safe. Your half of the money will be where we agreed."
He picked up his revolver then. The brown bag was in his pocket. He looked around to see if he had forgotten anything -- left any telltale thing or sign -- but he had not. As he moved his foot, however, he found it entangled in the picture wire and he kicked to free his foot from it. The wire clung and tautened, he felt a pull on the revolver and at the same instant an explosion sounded and Burch, who had been looking around at him seemed to jump and then cave forward against the safe, hanging by his wrists. Smith stood aghast, with open mouth. It was a full minute before he dared approach the merchant. Burch was dead.
Even in the panic of that moment Smith had the thought that he must not touch the dead man and that he must not leave the revolver there. He backed to the door of the store, listened to hear if anyone was passing, slipped out and locked the door behind him. Down the street the two theaters were pouring out their crowds and instinctively Smith knew this was better than an almost vacant street. He hurried toward the crowd and made his way through that coming in his direction until he joined those going the other way. He accepted their pace then and went with them until he came to the street that turned down to the railway station, there he turned and sauntered slowly. He was badly upset, quite horrified, by what had happened, but he waited, sitting on a trunk on the platform until the Chicago-bound train pulled in.
On the outskirts of Chicago, where the train first stopped, he got off and took the elevated to near his hotel. He walked to the hotel, went directly to the elevator and to his room. He rapped twice on the door and when it opened he stood face to face with a man so like him that he might have been looking in a mirror. He went in and closed the door.
"What's the matter, Bert?" this second man asked. "Did anything go wrong? You look funny."
"Bert," said Smith, "something terrible has happened. I killed a man."
"You killed --?" exclaimed the other, all possible horror in his face and voice. "That's awful!"
"Not so loud!" whispered Smith. "Can't you see it's dangerous to shout out like that? I killed a man, I tell you! I've got to tell you about it; you've got to get out of here without anyone seeing you, if it's possible. Did you call up the office from time to time like I told you?"
"Yes; here's a list of all I did. I had paper sent up and tipped the boy a dime; I had a bottle of mineral water sent up at nine and gave that boy a quarter. He asked me if I wanted anything else and I said no; then he asked if I needed a corkscrew and I said, 'Do I look as if I did?'"
He went over the list, telling Smith just what he had asked for and who had come and what was said each time.
"They thought you were me?" Smith asked anxiously.
"They called me 'Mr. Smith,'" said the other. "They'll swear you were here Bert."
"Yes. You only need to get out of the hotel, then. You can go down the hall to the left to the stairs and out that way. Bert, what I told you about going down there to meet a woman whose husband might be up here looking for me was all a lie. There's a man down there who is in wrong with his creditors -- or was. He's the man I killed, a man named Rothwell Burch. We fixed it up, Bert, that I would stage a robbery, go to his house with a gun, make him go to the store and open the safe, make him hand me the stuff he had in the safe. Then I was to tie him there and get away and when I could cash in for the jewel stuff he was to have half. The other half was to be mine. But my gun went off, Bert. It was an accident -- I swear that -- but it killed him."
"It's terrible! It's awful!" said the other, "I had a premonition that something terrible was going to happen, Bert. When you asked me to come here tonight something said to me, 'Don't!' I've never been mixed up in anything wrong -- never -- but the way you put it about the woman you said you were going to meet, and bow you were only trying to help her --"
"You don't know about me, Bert. I've gone queer ways since we were kids. I was right up against it, Bert. I had to have money. Now I'm a murderer. But you won't be brought into this, Bert. They won't get me. There's not a chance of that. I wasn't there; I was here."
He looked at the list of items that was to establish his alibi.
"You called George Lentz on the phone, I see. That was almost the very minute the -- the accident happened, Bert. Tell me more about that. Tell me every word that was said. Was it a girl or a man at the switch downstairs you gave the number to?"
For an hour longer they talked of these things and then the man who had masqueraded as Egbert Smith while Egbert Smith was in Quercus Grove shook Egbert Smith's band, holding it long.
"I hope it all comes out right, Bert," he said. "As right as it can come out now. If I can do anything else you know you can count on me. Who can you count on if not your brother?"
The brothers were Egbert Smith and Elbert Smith, their father having so named hem because they were born the same hour. This alibi the unfortunate murderer of Rothwell Burch had prepared appeared to be perfect beyond attack. There seemed little chance that anyone would suspect Egbert Smith in the first place. He had, he felt sure, left no clues behind him. If, by any chance, anything in Quercus Grove suggested that Egbert Smith might possibly be concerned in the affair, the alibi was sound. It could be substantiated that Egbert Smith was in the hotel at Chicago at the very moment the murder and robbery had taken place.
Elbert Smith, the brother, had no trouble on leaving the hotel. He was shocked and frightened by what his brother had done, but he felt it his brotherly duty to protect Egbert. He returned to his bachelor flat on the South Side without any notice having been taken of his absence, and he prepared to go on living his simple life as if he knew nothing of what had taken place. The murder of Rothwell Burch was discovered before morning. Mrs. Burch and her daughter returned from church and found Mr. Burch not at home. They tried to telephone the store, but got no answer and were not much worried, as Mr. Burch sometimes spent a Sunday evening playing chess with one of his friends. At midnight, however, he should have been home and Mrs. Burch telephoned to the home of Mr. Sassaway, the chess friend. The inquiries following this presently led to the discovery of the body of Mr. Burch and the police were prompt in taking measures. Almost their first act was to telephone Chicago asking the aid of the Chicago detective police and early in the morning Sterling Steele and Jim Fogarty were in Quercus Grove and at work. The later editions of the Chicago morning papers contained the story of the murder with photographs of Burch, of the store and the usual pictorial matter, "the X marks the spot," and so on.
At eleven o'clock Monday morning as Egbert Smith was showing a Chicago jeweler his line of jewelry an officer entered the store, touched his arm and told him he was under arrest. Egbert Smith turned and stared at the man.
"Arrest? Me?" he exclaimed with every evidence of amazement. "You must have made some mistake; I'm Bert Smith," and he gave his firm's name and told his business.
"That's right," agreed the officer.
"You're the man we have to take."
"But, look here!" exclaimed Smith. "What's this all about?"
"You know well enough."
"I certainly do not," Smith said, turning to his customer. "I don't know what this is, George, but I suppose I've broken some regulation. Put my stuff in your safe until I come back, will you? Now, where do we go from here?" he asked the officer cheerfully enough.
"You know where you go," declared the officer.
The trip to Quercus Grove was made in an automobile and on the way down the three officers who went in the car did their best to get a confession from Smith. They tried to get him to say anything that would indicate that he knew something about the murder, but they had no success whatever. Smith would do nothing but ask where he was being taken and what he was being taken for, until the car drew up before Burch's store in Quercus Grove.
"Has anything happened to Burch?" he asked them, putting a hand on the arm of one of the men. "If that's it, I know why you have brought me here. But that's all nonsense."
"What do you mean by that?" the officer asked.
"You probably found a letter from me asking Burch if it would be all right for me to see him last night," said Smith. "I did write him something of the sort; I can probably remember the exact words if you give me time. But that's a fool thing to arrest a man for. Burch wanted me to come down and look over some stones he had here and tell him if I could sell them and I wrote him, 'Will Sunday, September 16, suit you,' or words to that effect, but he wrote me not to come. 'I have made other arrangements,' he wrote me. So that was off. I haven't been out of Chicago for four days. I think I can account for every hour, almost every minute."
The reporters, however, were quick to photograph Smith and his picture was played up large in the newspapers -- "Arrested in Murder of Quercus Grove Gem Dealer." For several days Smith was the most important topic of the news and photographs of him from every side were printed and reprinted. He was subjected to the closest possible examination by Sterling Steele and Jim Fogarty and a dozen detectives sought to break down his alibi, but without the least success. It developed that Burch was practically bankrupt, that Burch had undoubtedly hoped to stage a fake robbery and profit by it, and it seemed probable that he had approached Smith with that in mind, but had made his arrangements with some other man and that this other man had killed him.
"Let him go," Sterling Steele ordered and Smith was set at liberty, but two men were detailed to keep him in view.
"And what do you think of it now?" Jim Fogarty asked the young detective.
"I'm up in the air, Jim," admitted Sterling Steele. "We've got to eliminate Smith. His alibi is complete. He was in his room at the hotel in Chicago when this thing happened. These Quercus Grove people -- Illig and Froarty and his wife could not swear they saw Smith; the most they would say was that it was some man like him. Smith is out of the picture. We can forget him. And it could not be suicide; Burch could not truss himself up in that way and could not shoot himself in the back. A man was seen with him."
"It was no professional," said Jim Fogarty.
"No. Not unless he has tried to make it look like an amateur job," Steele agreed "What's this?"
The question was to the Chief of Police of Quercus Grove, who had entered the room where Steele and Fogarty were in conference, a small office in the city hall.
"I don't know whether it amounts to anything," said the chief, "but it's sort of interesting. It beats all how many cranks turn up when there's a case, don't it?"
Steele took the letter the chief handed him and read it aloud to Fogarty and then handed Fogarty the printed sheet that had been folded in with the letter. This paper was scrap from some small country weekly of the "patent inside" sort and at the head of one of the columns was a cut of the portrait of Bert Smith. Under the cut were the orders, "Bert Smith, Accused of Murder of Rothwell Burch at Quercus Grove, Ills., Sunday, September 16th."
"This came with it in a separate cover," the chief said, and he handed Steele an unmounted snapshot photograph. Steele looked at this long. He took it to the window and studied it for a full minute.
"A remarkable likeness," he said and took up the letter again. The letter was dated from a small town in Iowa and was signed by one Joel Carter, with the words "Willowbrook Farm," printed at the head of the letter sheet.
I noticed in the paper, the letter read, a picture of Bert Smith and word that he was accused of murder on Sept. 16, Sunday, and maybe somebody has cooked up trouble for Bert to make things mean for him, but I know and can swear he wasn't anywhere near Quercus Grove on that day and date because he was right here. And nobody can fool me about that picture of him. It is Bert Smith. And I'm sending you a photograph of him that my daughter took the Sunday I'm talking about. I have known Bert Smith a good many years and he wouldn't hurt a kitten, On Sunday, Sept. 16, Bert was here at my farm all day. We invited him out and he came and he spent the night here. He slept in the same bed with my son Roger, and he didn't go to bed until midnight because we were talking. He was up at six o'clock for breakfast. Me and my family are ready to swear to all this.
Steele took up the snapshot photograph again and compared it with that of the Bert Smith who had established his perfect Chicago alibi.
"A remarkable resemblance," he said. "I should say the two men were twins."
"But it is nothing to us," said Jim Fogarty. "This town the farmer wrote from is two hundred and twenty miles from here. Even if their Bert Smith took the whole six hours they thought he was in bed he could not have got here and back there again."
"If the story this Joel Carter tells is the truth," said Steele. "We don't know that it is. Fogarty, we are getting nowhere in this case, are we? We are up against a stone wall, are we not? We have had to eliminate Bert Smith because of his perfect alibi. There is one chance -- and it is one in a thousand perhaps -- that we might learn something by looking into this new Bert Smith pocket. Suppose, for example, that this Joel Carter is not telling the truth?"
"And this Bert Smith of his is the one we have turned loose?" said Fogarty.
"That is the idea," said Steele. "Suppose there are two Bert Smiths, and they are twins. Suppose one plans to come here and rob Burch and arranges with his twin to be in Chicago and establish an alibi by impersonating for one night this robber twin. It is done and the alibi is established and is error-proof and perfect. But suppose the other twin thinks he must have an alibi, too. He arranges with this farmer for that. Fogarty, this looks to me like a case of too much alibi! I'm going to see this Willowgrove farmer."
"You can get a train to Chicago in ten minutes, Mr. Steele," said the chief. That's the quickest way to get to Iowa points."
"I'll wire you, Fogarty," Steele said, and he tucked Joel Carter's letter into his pocket and hurried to catch the train to Chicago.
In Willow Center, Iowa, Sterling Steele had no trouble in learning all the facts he wanted to know concerning Joel Carter. Joel Carter was a breeder of high-grade cattle and a man of substance and reputation. He lived on a farm his father had owned before him and, as Steele was told, his word was as good as his bond. Steele drove out to the farm and he found Joel Carter to be all that had been said. He was a man past middle age, somewhat heavily built and honest of countenance. He repeated to Steele what he had written in his letter. His wife and son and daughter substantiated the facts he had written.
"The way I looked at it," Carter said, "was that somebody was trying to play Bert Smith a dirty trick. Bert is a cattle-buyer and a mighty sharp one and competition is hot in that line. There's to be a big sale out near Des Moines this week and Bert was going there and he told me he had been commissioned to buy a lot of stock. I figured that some other cattle-buyer was trying to keep Bert away from that sale."
"That may be so," said Steele. He was telling Carter nothing. "You never heard him speak of having a twin brother?"
"Twin brother? No; Bert never spoke of his folks that I remember," Carter said. "He's got a wife and a baby and he lives at Lone Oak, over in Illinois, when he's at home. I've telegraphed him there once or twice. But he never said anything about any brothers."
"How did he come to spend the night here?"
"I had some cattle I wanted him to look over," Carter said, "and he stopped off here, so I asked him to stay over night."
"And where did he go from here?"
"I don't rightly know, but it seems as if he said he had to run in to Chicago," Carter said.
"Well, it is clear enough he had nothing to do with the murder," Steele told Carter, and he telegraphed the same word to Fogarty, but Steele did not return directly to Quercus Grove. He went to Lone Oak, in Illinois. Here be visited first the local hotel and he ate his dinner seated opposite the hotel owner, a cheerful, over-fat boniface, who liked nothing better than a willing listener.
"You've lived here a long time," Steele suggested.
"All my life, and my folks before me," said the hotel man. "Born and raised right here, friend."
"I shouldn't wonder if you knew the Smiths -- the Bert Smiths?" Steele primed him.
"I sure do!" agreed the hotel man. "Bert's a fine fellow, and he's got a fine wife. I've known Bert all my life; we were boys together right here in Lone Oak. We were sort of a gang together when we were kids, the four of us."
"Four?" Steele inquired.
"Me and the three Bert Smiths," explained the hotel man. "They was triplets -- Egbert, Elbert and Edbert their father named them, but we called all three of them Bert for short. And alike as three peas, too. I never could tell one from the other except by their clothes. Egbert is the one got into this murder muss the other day; I sort of lost track of him until I heard of him in the papers the other day.
Edbert is the cattle-buyer that lives here. The other one, Elbert, is in some sort of business in Chicago."
"In Chicago?" said Sterling Steele, rising and putting a hand in his pocket for money to settle his dinner bill. "Do you know his address?"
"No, I don't," said the hotel man, taking the money Steele handed him, "but I dare say Bert Smith's wife does; Elbert was here about two months ago on a visit to them."
"Thank you," said Sterling Steele. "I won't want a room; I'm leaving town. Where can I rent a car?"
From Mrs. Edbert Smith, who wept as she gave it, Sterling Steele obtained the Chicago address of Elbert Smith and a few hours later he walked into a house in one of the South Side streets of Chicago.
"Who is it?" a voice from the living room inquired of the woman who had opened the door, and Sterling Steele walked into the living room. In three chairs there sat the three Bert Smiths.
Too much alibi is as bad as none at all.