Black Mask | Sept. 1920 | Vol. 1, No. 6 read time:
word count: 9444
What is death, my dear inspectors? Who knows? No one but me. What is the human body? Only a prison in which the soul is confined — a piece of clay to be discarded at will. God kills when he wishes. Why not I? It suited my purpose to use the mortal form of Mrs. Winters, and I took it.
A woman, young, handsome, richly dressed, lay dead on the sidewalk. Over her stood a young man, hatless, his hair mussed, his face bruised and bleeding. Around them—the living and the dead—the crowd surged, held back by a little cordon of blue-coated policemen. A police automobile, its gong clanging raucously, dashed up to the curb and a tall, broad-shouldered man in plain clothes leaped out and elbowed his way through the throng of curiosity seekers to the sergeant in charge.
"Great Heavens, Casey!" he exclaimed, as his glance fell upon the face of the woman. "Do you know who she is?"
Casey touched his cap respectfully. "This chap here says that she's Mrs. Augustus Winters, the young wife that old Winters, the millionaire, married a couple of years ago. Used to be an actress before she married him, I understand. I don't know the lady myself, inspector."
The big man nodded. "He's right, Casey. It's Mrs. Winters all right."
He caught himself with a start. "No, by George, it isn't!"
The bareheaded young man with the bruised face interrupted. "You are wrong, sir. I know that it is Mrs. Winters."
The inspector gave him a quick look. "You mean that you think it is she. The fact of the matter is that Mrs. Winters died suddenly yesterday afternoon."
"You must be wrong," argued the other stubbornly. "I have waited on Mrs. Winters hundreds of times. I know her as well as I know myself. And she was alive and well ten minutes ago."
"Couldn't you be mistaken? I'll admit that this woman looks enough like her to be her double. Must be her sister."
"I insist that you are wrong, sir. I'll take my oath that this is Mrs. Winters lying there."
Inspector Des Moines scratched his chin reflectively. "It's got me beat!" he declared. "There's only one thing to do, under the circumstances, Casey—get the body to the morgue and send for old Winters to identify it. Ask him if his wife was a twin. And," turning to the young man, "you get your hat and come on with me to the station. I want to have a talk with you."
Seated at the big, flat-top desk in his well appointed office, Des Moines lighted a cigar in silence, offered another to his companion, then suddenly demanded:
"Now, come clean, young fellow. What's the story behind this affair? Let's have the straight of it."
The lad—he was scarcely more than a boy—gulped to hide his agitation.
"I—I—" he stammered.
The inspector smiled kindly. "Don't get scared, my boy. Don't get scared. Bless your heart, sonny, I know that you didn't kill the woman. I only want to get at the facts in the case as speedily as possible. Just forget my gruff way of speaking—it's my natural voice."
"I hardly know how to start," began the other, his fears vanishing under the inspector's kindly manner. "The lady—Mrs. Winters came into Harden & Company's store, where I am employed as head salesman in the jewelry department, and asked to be shown something rather 'nifty' in a diamond brooch. That was yesterday afternoon. She looked at a number of pieces, finally selecting one valued at thirty thousand dollars. She asked me to lay it aside for her, stating that she wanted her mother, who was buying it for her for a birthday present, to look at it before she made her final decision.
"This morning she returned and, coming into the store, requested that I accompany her to the curb with the brooch, as her mother, who was an invalid, was outside in the limousine. Of course, it was irregular, but she is an old customer—you know Harden & Company's policy—so I did as requested. I handed her the jewel case just as we reached the machine and she passed it in to the woman—whom I supposed was her mother—who was leaning back against the cushions. The curtains were down and the interior was in semi-darkness, so I did not get a clear view of the face of the lady.
"Just as she handed the other the jewel, the chauffeur, who had been keeping his engine running, leaned out and slugged me with something—a sandbag, I imagine. At the same time Mrs. Winters made a quick leap for the interior of the machine. But, involuntarily, as I fell I grasped her, and we went down in a heap together.
The chauffeur immediately started his machine and, before I recovered my wits, which had been largely knocked out of me, he was around the corner. I didn't even have an opportunity to get the number of the auto."
"We have already attended to that," interrupted the inspector. "Casey'll have it down in his notebook if anyone in the vicinity chanced to notice it. Were there many people on the sidewalk at the time?"
"They were constantly passing—the usual ten o'clock crowd."
"Um-m-m. All right, go ahead with your story."
"There is nothing more to tell. When I came to my senses—and I couldn't have been dazed more than a second or two—the machine was disappearing around the corner, as I just told you, and the woman was lying on the sidewalk beside me—dead. It must have been apoplexy, inspector, for I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that I didn't seize her hard enough to kill her." He hesitated, then continued, haltingly: "But what puzzles me is why Mrs. Winters—a woman of untold wealth— would stoop to aid in a crime like that."
He looked at the inspector for an answer to his question. The latter smoked in silence for a second. "That's what we've got to find out, my boy. You said your name was—"
"Oh, yes. And she got away clean with the jewelry did she? The other woman—the one in the machine—and the chauffeur?"
They were interrupted by a rap at the door. In response to Des Moines' gruff "Come in!" Casey entered, his good-natured, red face glowing with excitement.
"What the dickens do you know about it, sir?" he exploded. "Winters has identified the body, positively, as being that of his wife."
"But Mrs. Winters died yesterday afternoon."
"She did. But sometime during the night her body disappeared. And this morning they found the body of her maid, dead, in the casket from which the mistress had been taken!"
"Good God! Murdered?"
"Not a mark on her body."
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MBIN No: 55ccf75fb3901011515aef30
Length: ~ 25 pages (depending on ereader font and font size)
Original Publication: Black Mask | Sept. 1920 | Vol. 1, No. 6