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The Finger of Guilt by J. J. Stagg
Theft

The Finger of Guilt

by J. J. Stagg

Black Mask | April 1922 THE RED FILE | Mar. 25, 2018 | Vol. 9, No. 33

There was, at the time, an epidemic of jewelry robberies. The pestilence had attacked Scofield's six times in four months; but the disease never "took." The six hold-ups failed and in every instance the robbers were caught. But would Judson Farris succeed where others had failed?

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

An Epidemic of Jewelry Robberies

There was, at the time, an epidemic of jewelry robberies. The pestilence had attacked Scofield's six times in four months; but the disease never "took." The six hold-ups failed and in every instance the robbers were caught. Scofield's had a system of locks and alarms that appeared to be unbeatable.

Then along came Judson Farris. Scofield's occupies the ground floor of a building on Maiden Lane. The store takes care of the retail business. To the rear of the store is a private office in which Mr. Scofield himself sells jewelry at wholesale; he also serves his more extravagant retail clients.

Judson Farris entered the shop, handed a letter to one of the clerks and asked that it be delivered to Mr. Scofield. The clerk walked to the rear of the store and entered the private office. A few minutes later he returned and announced that Mr. Scofield would see Mr. Farris at once.

Farris stepped into the private office, and as he closed the door, he noted absently that there was a latch attached to it. The latch was unique in appearance. It looked somewhat like the disc of a safe. When the mechanism was set, it was necessary only to close the door in order to destroy the combination. The door could then be opened only if the brass knob on the latch was turned and twisted in a certain way. To be sure, the combination was a simple one. Mr. Scofield, when ushering a person out of the room, could manipulate the latch so speedily that the client seldom became aware that he had been locked in.

Farris, however, was little concerned with locks. He appeared to be quite indifferent to his surroundings. Such indifference was easy to affect, for the room was so sparsely furnished that everything could be taken in at a single glance.

Running parallel with the front wall was a low mahogany counter which divided the room approximately in half. In the space before the counter were three chairs; behind the counter were two flat-top desks. Two vaults were built into the rear wall.

Scofield, who had been seated at one of the desks, came forward to the counter and stretched out a hand in greeting. He said he was always glad to be of service to any of Mr. Moffat's friends. (Scofield was a member of the yacht club of which Moffat was president ; it was Moffat who had written the letter of introduction for Farris.)

Farris said he wanted to buy a lavalliere. Scofield inquired as to the amount Farris wished to spend and Farris replied he didn't care to go over ten thousand.

Scofield went into the right vault, the door to which was open. The walls of the vault were lined with small drawers. Scofield pulled out two of the drawers. As he returned to the office, he glared frankly at Farris, who had half-turned and was looking up at a picture.

Scofield considered himself a shrewd judge of character. Farris was a tall, well-groomed man with a collar-ad face.

"Shallow," mused Scofield, "but trustworthy and prosperous."

The two trays were placed upon the counter. In one of them were a dozen platinum chains; in the other, a dozen diamond pendants.

"These are assorted lots," explained Scofield. "Please indicate your choice of the pendants, so that I can bring you another tray of pendants which are made along the lines of the one you like."

Farris made his decision quickly. He chose a pendant which consisted of four graduated blue-white diamonds set in a small petal design. "You need bring no other samples, Mr. Scofield. This is one of the prettiest drops I have ever seen."

Farris thereupon made his choice of a chain. Scofield took the chain and the pendant out of the trays, ran the chain through the loop at the top of the pendant and dangled the lavalliere before Farris.

"How much will that set me back?" Scofield consulted the tags. "Seventy-three hundred, Mr. Farris. Eight hundred for the chain and sixty-five hundred for the drop."

Farris remarked that he had with him a certified check for ten thousand and that if Mr. Scofield cared to, he could call up the Second National for verification. The deal seemed to be completed. Then Farris changed his mind.

"I think that yellow diamonds would look prettier on a platinum chain," he said. "Could you let me see — ?"

"Certainly," replied Scofield.

He picked up the two trays and took them into the vault. After a moment he came back and placed a pendant in the palm of Farris' right hand. "This is the exact counterpart of the one you chose, except that it has yellow stones."

Farris looked at it a moment and then said, "Put it on the chain, Mr. Scofield, so that I can see how it — " Scofield glanced up sharply. "I left the platinum chain and the blue-stone pendant with you, Mr. Farris."

"You are mistaken, Mr. Scofield. I gave the lavalliere to you and you took it with you when you went into the vault."

For a moment Scofield remained undecided. Then he went quickly into the vault, pulled out two drawers and came back with them into the office.

"As you can see, Mr. Farris, the trays on each of these drawers have hooks for one dozen pieces. I make it a rule never to display a tray which is not filled. As soon as one piece is sold, another piece is taken from our stock and put in the tray. In each of these trays one piece is missing. There are only eleven chains and eleven pendants."

"You may have dropped the lavalliere on the floor," suggested Farris. "I know positively you had it in your left hand when you walked away from the counter to the vault."

Scofield began running a hand through his sparse hair. There was no doubt about his being nervous. He finally pushed a button which summoned a clerk. (The clerk had to unlock the latch with a key from the store side of the office door.)

"Bring in the vacuum," ordered Scofield.

The vacuum cleaner was run over every inch of the floor before and behind the counter. It was also run over the aisle in the vault. Some little dust was sucked in, but no lavalliere.

After the clerk had left the room, the flustered Scofield ventured, "You may have put the lavalliere into one of your pockets, Mr. Farris." Then he added — "By mistake."

"That suggestion is a trifle — crude — isn't it?"

"But don't you see, Mr. Farris, under — under the circumstances, you — you must have — "

"Now see here, Mr. Scofield, I came to buy a lavalliere, not to be insulted. If you can produce the lavalliere, we'll complete the deal. Otherwise I must bid you good-day!"

At this, Scofield became a trifle panicky. "No, no! You can't leave till the lavalliere has been found. And there's no use trying — the door is locked."

Farris shrugged his shoulders, lighted a cigar, and sat down. "This is a new one on me. I didn't know jewelers made prisoners of their clients."

Scofield paced nervously back and forth behind the counter. He knew it would be useless to plead further with the obdurate Farris. Finally Scofield pushed a hidden button under his desk. A red light flashed over the police signal box in the street. After a few minutes, Gorman, a uniformed policeman, and Joe Deagon, one of the private detectives hired by a jeweler's association to patrol Maiden Lane, were admitted to Scofield's office.

Scofield explained the situation. Deagon decided that under the circumstances the lavalliere must be on the person of either Scofield or Farris. Thereupon Scofield turned all of his pockets inside out. The detective then insisted that Farris submit to a search.

Farris emphatically refused to suffer this indignity. This put the next move up to the jeweler. He was faced with the alternative of permitting Farris to walk out of the shop, or having him arrested. And Scofield was in no mood to let seventy-three hundred dollars slip through his hands without making some decided gesture of self-defense.

"I don't want to order your arrest, Mr. Farris," began Scofield, apologetically, "but if you — "

"Logically, that is the only solution," agreed Farris at once. "I'm as anxious to have this thing settled as you are. But I make this one condition: you will have to take me to the police station in a taxi, or if you wish, you may send for the wagon. And as we go from this office, I insist that I be surrounded on all sides. I want to make it impossible for Mr. Scofield even to hint that I might, at any time, have passed the lavalliere to someone else."

The condition was complied with. Farris was taken to the station in a taxi. Mr. Scofield, Detective Deagon and Officer Gorman accompanied him.

After Farris had given his name to Captain Loury, the latter consulted a small memorandum book. Thereupon the captain called up Headquarters on the phone. As the captain put up the receiver again, he said to Farris.

"We have orders that in the event a Mr. Judson Farris is arrested. Headquarters be notified at once. I believe Detective James McKeane, a special-squad man, is personally interested in you."

"Nice fellow, James," smiled Farris. "I shall be glad to meet him again."

Detective McKeane reached the station after some twenty minutes. Once again Scofield rehearsed the circumstances under which the lavalliere disappeared. An immediate search was decided upon; Farris himself invited Scofield to be present.

When a detective from headquarters executes a search, he makes a thorough job of it. Farris was taken into a private room and ordered to strip. He was wearing a minimum of clothing: a Palm-beach suit consisting of coat and trousers, a straw hat, a silk shirt, shoes, stockings and underwear.

Every square inch of this clothing was examined with the greatest care. A microscope was used; button by button, seam by seam the search proceeded — nothing was overlooked. A long, thin double-edged dagger was used to pry and probe for false heels or soles on the shoes. … The clothing yielded two handkerchiefs, four cigars, a silver match case, a watch and fob, seventy cents in change and a bill case. In the latter were three single bills and a certified check for ten thousand dollars.

They ran a comb through Farris' hair; they looked in his mouth; they poked into his ears. Mr. Scdfield himself was satisfied that if Farris had had so much as a grain of salt on his person, McKeane would have found it.

Farris was left to dress in the private room; Scofield and the detectives Gorman and McKeane came out into the main room of the station.

"He may have swallowed — " began Scofield, gloomily.

"Don't be absurd," cut in McKeane. "If a man swallowed a twenty-inch platinum chain, it would kill him."

"What are you going to do?" asked Scofield.

"Let him go," replied McKeane, promptly.

"Let him go! But man, don't you see that the circumstances being what they are, he must have stolen the lavalliere?"

"If you wish to be personally responsible for his detention, and if you will prefer the charges yourself, of course we will hold him. But since you can't prove he has the lavalliere, I don't see how you can get a conviction — or even an indictment by the grand jury. You must admit that he has carefully protected himself. No one was present in your office but yourself — and for a few moments one of your clerks. And you have said that the clerk was never near enough to Farris to have the lavalliere passed to him. On the way here, Farris was protected by a policeman and one of your own detectives. And he was searched in your presence."

But a man doesn't lose seventy-three hundred dollars without a struggle.

Scofield held a forty-minute conversation with his lawyer over the phone. The lawyer's advice was that it would be a loss of time and energy to press charges. "The certified check proves that Farris came to make a bona-fide purchase. And since you have not one iota of proof that he has the necklace, it would be futile to — "

Scofield banged the receiveronto the hook and bustled out of the police station. McKeane informed Farris that he would not be held.

As Farris reached the door to the station, McKeane asked,

"As a personal favor, Judson old boy, would you mind telling me what you did with that lavalliere?"

Farris lighted a cigar.

"Are you hinting, Jim, that you or the captain might be wanting to buy it from me?"

After Farris had gone, Captain Loury remarked, "The finger of suspicion certainly points in his direction."

"Not the finger of suspicion," said McKeane, "the finger of guilt. But what can we do about it?"

Back to Top

Chapter 2

The Deception at Mrs. Ellingwood's

Claude Lange gathered in the cards which had been tossed upon the table. He arranged the deck in two stacks; then he ripped each stack in half. He threw.the bits into the air, rose and stumbled away from the table. Another deck of cards was produced and the game went on. The club members were accustomed to Lange's idiosyncrasies.

An hour later, when Farris was leaving the club, Lange came up to him and asked if he could see Farris alone for a few moments.

"Certainly," replied Farris, "but if it's about a loan — "

"It's not — a loan."

When they were in a room of Farris' apartment on One Hundred and Twentieth Street, Lange said, simply, "I know a woman who has a pear-shaped emerald drop on a platinum festoon. The drop alone, because of its unique design, is worth upward of fifteen thousand. Does that interest you?"

Farris regarded the other through narrowed eyes. Lange, he knew, had lost heavily that evening, and it was obvious that the loss had unnerved him. There had been rumors that with Lange's next disastrous plunge, he would be disinherited and disowned. Farris guessed that it was the fear of such a calamity that had driven young Lange to flirt with crime.

"I don't quite get you, Lange," said Farris.

"Cut-out the innocence stuff! I've heard about Scofield's lavalliere — we're members of the same yacht club. I'm making no insinuations. Maybe the lavalliere was not stolen — in that case, you're not the man I want to talk to. You needn't be afraid to be frank. There are no witnesses — I couldn't prove anything on you, nor you on me. If you're really handy at making jewels disappear, say so."

''What's your proposition?" asked Farris.

"Mrs. Ellingwood is giving a weekend party at her place in Great Neck. I can have you invited. If you get the stone, I get half the profits. Yes or no?"

Farris answered that he would be glad to be one of the guests at Mrs. Ellingwood's week-end party.

Mrs. Ellingwood entertained some ten guests. Farris and Lange arrived on Friday evening in the latter's car. Saturday passed and Sunday forenoon; in all that time, Mrs. Ellingwood had worn no jewelry of any kind except her rings.

Then Lange drew Farris aside in the garden and confided, "I've taken the liberty to look about a bit in the house. There's a strong box in Mrs. Ellingwood's boudoir — "

"So I noticed myself," smiled Farris. "But the box is about ten-by-twelve-by-fourteen inches and it weighs several pounds. It could hardly be hidden under a Palm-beach suit. And even if we could get it out of the house, it would probably be missed at once and we'd have to run for it. And that's one rule I never break — I never run away. I don't like the idea of being hunted."

"Well — couldn't you open the strong box somehow — ?"

"All it takes is a little skill and a hairpin and — "

"Then why not — ?"

"And time," finished Farris. "I'd have to be certain no one would disturb me for at least half an hour. Of course, Mrs. Ellingwood stays downstairs with her guests. But there's the maid — she's in and out of the boudoir all the time."

Lange thought it over.

"Suppose — suppose that after dinner this evening, I succeed in coaxing the maid to take a spin in my car — "

"Excellent — if you can manage it."

"I don't think she'll take much coaxing," grinned Lange.

Lange's evening, up to a certain point, was a grand success. The maid slipped in and out of the house unobserved. The two motored over an hour and Lange was not required to keep more than one hand on the wheel. But when, on returning, he again drew Farris aside, he could tell by the latter's downcast expression that the plan had gone awry.

"There was someone on the upper floor all the time," said Farris. "I didn't have the chance to go anywhere near the boudoir."

The next morning the party broke up and Farris and Lange returned to the city.

The day was a rather hectic one for young Lange. He spent it trying to borrow the money with which to pay off the IOU's he had written during his last disastrous poker game. But Lange met with no success; his friends were unanimously of the opinion that it was a bad investment to lend him money.

Lange was haunted by the fear that some of his creditors might become obstreperous and threaten to sue. And he was now on his good behavior; any notoriety would serve to break the truce existing between him and his father.

His only asset was his car, which might bring two thousand dollars. He was in debt for over five thousand. If Farris had only succeeded in getting that emerald drop —

At nine o'clock, Mrs. Cartwright called up Lange on the phone.

"Mrs. Ellingwood had me on the long distance wire a short while ago," said Mrs. Cartwright. "She had intended going to the opera this evening, and she wanted to wear her festoon. She found that her strong box had been forced open and that the emerald drop had been clipped from the festoon. It's upset her terribly. The last time she used the strong box was on Thursday, so she can't be sure that one of her week-end guests is the thief. She's going to put a private detective on the case and instruct him not to bother any of her friends until every other possibility has been run down … ."

Farris had tricked him! Lange went into a paroxysm of fury. He paced his room repeating, "The skunk double-crossed me!" The deception was apparent; Farris had denied the theft so as to avoid the necessity of sharing the proceeds. And the enraged Lange decided not to let Farris get away with it.

Immediate action was necessary. He would confront Farris and demand his share of the profits. If Farris tried to bluff … Lange took a revolver out of his bureau. It would be dangerous to match wits with a man of Farris' cunning. But Lange, urged on by his lack of funds and by his anger against Farris, did not reflect long upon the risk. He was in the mood to play a desperate game and to kill, if necessary.

So the reckless Lange went forth on the quest which could end in but one way — disastrously . . .

Farris admitted Lange into his apartment, led him into the sitting-room and then offered him a glass of wine. Lange impatiently waived his claim to hospitality and told Farris about Mrs. Cartwright's phone call.

"What rotten luck!" exclaimed Farris. "Someone else beat us — "

"You stole that pendant!" cut in Lange. "I'm here to demand a split!"

"Are you suggesting that I may have — ?"

"You double-crossed me!"

Farris became nettled at the other's insolence. "I could throw you out of here, you know!"

"You could try! But it'll be a man-sized job to get me out of here before I'm convinced you haven't that stone."

"If it'll ease you any, you might search the place. Don't mind me. I'll have a few drinks while you're enjoying yourself."

That, in Lange's opinion, showed Farris' hand. Farris had already disposed of the stone. There was nothing Lange could do … he could not even threaten blackmail. He was beaten. He had made it possible for Farris to attempt the job — and now Farris had cheated him out of his share.

Lange went momentarily mad with rage. Every semblance of self-control went from him. He lashed out furiously and caught Farris a stinging blow on the side of the head.

"You're going to take a beating!" cried Lange.

But Farris met his rush with a straight-arm jolt to the wind which sat Lange neatly upon his haunches. Infuriated, the tears of chagrin streaming down his face, Lange drew his gun as he staggered to his feet.

Farris closed in. They wrestled. Farris slipped and in his attempt to keep the gun from being twisted against his chest, he unfortunately put his hand over the front of the barrel just as Lange pulled the trigger.

His left hand crushed by ball and powder, Farris backed away. He reached his desk and jerked at a drawer. Lange sent a second bullet through Farris' left shoulder. Farris fell. From a sitting position, he reached into the drawer and fetched his revolver.

Quite deliberately he aimed at Lange who was sneaking out of the room. He fired and Lange crumpled to the floor. Then Farris, too, lapsed into unconsciousness.

A woman in the next apartment telephoned for the police.

Back to Top

Chapter 3

The Artificial Finger

The next morning, Detective McKeane, after a visit to the hospital, called in the district attorney and announced that both Farris and Lange would pull through.

"And even though he's already disposed of the jewels, I got a confession covering the Scofield and Ellingwood robberies," said McKeane. "Look here — know what this is?"

The district attorney looked at the curious thing McKeane had handed him and shook his head.

"It's all shot to pieces — doesn't look like much now. But it was once the most perfect artificial finger ever fashioned by man! It took Farris one year to make it — and he was an expert at the manufacture of artificial limbs. Lost his own finger in an accident — the finger next to the pinky on the left hand. Cut off just above the knuckle. Well, he took his own finger and made a plaster mold of it. In the mold, he made this artificial finger of rubber and other substances. Feel it … you can't tell it from flesh. Look at the ridges — the veins painted in … and he could get a perfect finger-print with it! It will stand a microscopic test! It is hollow — that's where he hid the lavalliere!"

"But how was the finger kept — ?"

"He made a thin silver ring which fitted snugly around his stump; this silver ring was threaded. Inside the open end of the artificial finger he had another silver ring, also threaded … he simply screwed the finger on — and off! Matter of a few seconds! ^The artificial finger came over the stump: there was a slight visible line, which was painted flesh-color and then protected again by a gold band ring he always wore around the place where the finger and the stump joined."

"And the finger was perfect in every respect — ?"

"But two. By sight or touch it could not be distinguished from a flesh and * bone finger. And by a few month's practice, he had even learned to move it! You see, with his stump, he could move it up to the first joint. The other joint he manipulated by pressure with his pinky. But in these two respects the finger was wanting: it did not take temperature, and if you squeezed hard, you could press it together. But in these latter respects, he was in little danger, since he shook hands with his right hand, of course, and there was no other reason why anyone should ever feel his left. Try to imagine me searching that guy for a lavalliere!"

"H'm. I should say it's a good thing he's in for a long siesta!"

"Well … he's already promised that when he gets out he's going to make an artificial hand to replace the one Lange blew off of him. Then, he says, he'll be able to hide half a jewelry store. … "

~ The End ~


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