His Carefully Forged Chain
A hasty survey assured Ridgely that he was alone on the star-lit country road. With a sigh of satisfaction, he plunged swiftly into the brush which skirted the roadside. There he paused, alert, until his straining ears convinced him that his movements had been unobserved. Then he made himself comfortable for his brief vigil.
Crouching there, he reviewed minutely his actions so far, and his plans for what was to come. There was yet time, if he had erred, if there was a flaw, to withdraw quietly. It was merely a matter of waiting for another night. To be confronted with the damage wrought by an overlooked trifle when it was too late would be agonizing. And his very confidence disquieted him, made him feel that there was something amiss.
Yet he could find no weak link in his carefully forged chain. His left hand, dropping into his coat pocket, found the bottle of cyanide of potassium solution securely corked and ready to assume its role. His automatic weighed heavily in the other pocket, well oiled and loaded. The light mask which now covered the upper half of his face was really of no importance; just an extra precaution which discounted the possible, but highly improbable, intrusion of some pedestrian.
The cyanide, he felt sure, no one would be able to trace. Several weeks before he had stolen a couple of small lumps — quite enough for his purpose — from the private laboratory of a friend who rode the hobby of chemistry. Few people knew of the existence of the little attic laboratory; fewer still were aware of his acquaintance with its owner, and the man himself was ignorant of the fact that his supply had been levied on.
Since the deadly stuff had been dissolved and bottled, and the bottle scrupulously cleaned, he had taken pains to avoid touching it bare handed. Right now his left hand was gloved with rubber. There would be no finger-prints to damn him.
Footprints need give him no concern. The roadway was dry and reasonably hard. The discoverers of the corpse would quickly obliterate any slight clews of a definite nature that he might thus leave. The keenest of sleuths could examine the scene of his crime to their hearts' content. They would learn nothing.
He had made no attempt to establish an alibi. And in this, he was satisfied, he had acted wisely. The business of trying to demonstrate that you were where you were not is, usually, a dangerous undertaking. It involves either the employment of confederates or the use of complicated subterfuges which must either function with precision or turn into veritable boomerangs. The collapsing alibi is too often the royal road to the electric chair. Ridgely knew that there was just one person who could be relied on to be forever silent on this night's work — himself. Better to take the chance of the authorities being unable to prove that he was on the spot at the time than to assume the burden of proving that he was not.
And, anyway, most of the precautions he had taken were no doubt unnecessary. They represented merely his forethought in forestalling unlooked for disaster before it occurred. The chances were that the case would be looked on as just what it seemed on the surface — suicide. There would probably be little more than a perfunctory inquiry, an inquest at which every fact produced would seem to demonstrate conclusively that the man took his own life. Ridgely prided himself that the idea of killing a man by forcing him to kill himself was a master stroke.
A man found dead on the road, dead from the effects of poison, and with the bottle containing that poison clutched tightly in his stiffened hand, is obviously a suicide. There is no reason to suspect foul play unless someone is known to have a strong motive for putting the unfortunate one out of the way. And, to the best of Ridgely's knowledge and belief, Maury hadn't an enemy in the world — save himself.
And, thanks to his consistent and flawless dissimulation, his secret was his own. Outwardly he had been quite friendly with Maury. Not too friendly — just enough so to he counted really indifferent. In the rare event of murder being suspected and a murderer sought for, there would be no reason for alarm.
One other only might possibly connect him with the night's events. Maury's wife! Jean Maury and Ridgely shared a rather guilty secret. She could assign to him a motive. But here again he was confident that perfect technique had practically nullified the danger of aroused suspicion. By guarding every word, by well planned and controlled actions, he had assured her belief that he — like herself — was a harmless flirt. Not once had she been permitted to glimpse the terrible passion that was his; never had she been allowed to plumb the depths of his crafty and daring nature. He was safe on that score. Under the pretence of carefully guarding her reputation he had concealed their affair from outsiders, and to her herself he had made the matter, seem trivial.
There was one circumstance, however, that might cause comment. And as he thought of it, Ridgely grinned. While it was true that no one, apparently, had a motive for slaying Maury, it was equally true that the man had no apparent motive for killing himself. Happy, care-free, comfortably wealthy and well satisfied with life, people might wonder that he should court death.
Ridgely grinned. For it was to this, to his mind, the weakest point of his whole coup, that he had devoted the most thought, expended the greatest effort. He had supplied the motive! Here was the artistic triumph of the whole thing. Here was the finishing touch.
For the suspicions of the authorities would be allayed before they were aroused. During the three months that he had known the Maurys he had quietly, unobtrusively collected specimens of John Maury's handwriting. And by diligent practice he had enabled himself to imitate the man's scrawl so perfectly that he had no fear of the fraud being detected. Not only the writing itself had he studied minutely, but the style, the tricks of speech. Beyond doubt, the missive he had evolved with so much care would pass unquestioned as the dead man's own work.
He drew forth an envelope, and by the light of his electric torch scrutinized with pride and satisfaction the letter he had written. The envelope was addressed to Mrs. John Maury:
My Dear Jean:
I am sorry, terribly sorry, for the notoriety this thing will cause. I realize that you will be shocked. I am asking your forgiveness. For four years I have suffered in silence, Jean, for our marriage was a bitter mistake. I did not love you. I realized it when it was too late. I've done my best to conceal the fact from you, but I know I could not go on living a lie much longer. I am taking the easiest way out. It is only just that I should suffer for my own sin.
As he replaced the letter in its envelope, Ridgely chuckled. He would place this missive in the man's pocket after he had fallen, and there was the motive all ready to satisfy the most critical. Scandal-loving eyes scanning Maury's past for sensational disclosures of his implied double life would not dwell too closely on the method of his taking off. Furnish —
He stiffened. The soft thud of moving feet on the hard road reached his ears, growing steadily louder. He knew it was Maury. The moment had come!
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Ridgely's hand closed resolutely over his automatic. Maury, he knew, was unarmed. He slipped soundlessly to the very edge of the copse and waited until the approaching form was only a few feet from his ambush. Then he sprang out, weapon leveled, barring the way.
There was a startled oath as Maury caught sight of the ominous figure before him. Ridgely's gruff command to throw up his hands was instantly obeyed. The surprise was complete.
"Don't speak" — Ridgely rather hoped that his disguised voice would completely mask his identity, but it didn't matter, really — "do as you're told. You are going to sleep for an hour or so while I clean you and make my getaway."
"Really," Maury was regaining his nerve, "I haven't enough about me to make it worth your while — "
"Shut up!" Ridgely's command was curt, as he advanced toward his victim, the deadly bottle in his gloved left hand. He extended it toward Maury.
"Drink it," he growled, determinedly.
Maury lowered one arm and took the bottle hesitatingly.
"What is it?" he asked, falteringly.
"Chloral hydrate, if you must know," responded Ridgely, in tones of well-feigned sulkiness.
"Enough to put you out for a couple of hours. Knockout drops. Take your choice. Drink it, and go out for a couple of hours, or — " he waved the automatic suggestively, "go out for keeps."
"Look here," began Maury, "I'll promise — "
"Drink it!" Ridgely snapped, savagely.
Without further parley Maury raised the bottle to his lips. It was only an instant, really, but to Ridgley, waiting anxiously, it seemed hours before the body crumpled to the roadway. Then, swiftly, he went to his victim, pocketing his automatic. His gloved hand inserted the letter into Maury's pocket, he noted that the bottle was tightly gripped in the dead man's hand, and noiselessly he stole away from the place.
A short cut through a little woodland brought him out onto a main road. Without haste he wended his way toward the summer hotel. He was jubilant. Maury was out of his way. He had only to wait the proper moment to increase the ardor of his courting. He felt that the widow would lend an attentive ear.
He passed no one on the road. Everything was coming his way. As he gained his room unobserved he was whistling softly. Not a pang of remorse came to sear his conscience. Ridgely wasn't that kind. He turned in and slept like a top.
He was awakened by a sharp knocking on the room door. Bright sunlight was streaming in through the thinly curtained windows. A hasty glance at the clock told him that it was after ten. The knocking continued insistently.
He sprang out of bed and reached for his bathrobe.
"Just a minute!" he called, as he hurriedly pulled a comb through his tousled hair.
An instant later, fairly presentable, he was gazing inquiringly at the tall young man who had pushed in through the partly opened door.
Even before the other had introduced himself, Ridgely knew that his caller was a detective. Something must have gone wrong, he thought, and his mind went racing swiftly over the details of the evening before, seeking to find and forestall the consequences of a slip. He was not panicky.
His visitor was speaking. "John Maury was found dead on the road late last night, Mr. Ridgely."
Ridgely carefully side-stepped a possible trap.
"An accident?" he asked, in perfectly done surprise and concern.
"No," replied the other. "He was murdered."
Ridgely concealed his dismay. How in the devil had they reached that conclusion so soon in the face of his carefully prepared evidence to the contrary?
"Murdered!" he echoed, blankly. "How? By whom?"
The tall young man sat down, watching Ridgely narrowly. His right hand had dropped carelessly into his pocket. He leaned forward slightly, and spoke swiftly.
"By you, Mr. Ridgely," he replied, evenly. "No. Don't interrupt. You set a very pretty stage, my friend, and you have been careful — careful to a fault. It was your little finishing touch that betrayed you. That, and a woman's vanity. Mrs. Maury is a very beautiful woman with a very plain name. It has been her little failing to hide that fact. Her name is not Jean, Ridgely, it's Jane. And Maury never called her anything else in private. When she saw that letter you so cleverly left she knew Maury had never written it despite the excellent forgery. For he hated the name Jean as much as she disliked Jane. She is a big enough woman to admit her own shortcomings, and — . Shall I read the warrant?"
~ The End ~