A panel truck bearing the name Raytex Company turned in and parked at the Seaboard Trust’s side entrance.
The street was narrow and short, between tall buildings. At the moment it was free of pedestrians. There was one other car, a maroon coupé, parked near the next comer. A man sat behind its wheel, reading a newspaper.
The whole of that side of the street was occupied by the bank building. On the other was an office building, its first floor side windows bearing identical signs: For Rent.
Two men were in the panel truck. The driver was elderly. He wore a blue uniform and cap with a holstered gun on his belt. The other was youthful, little more than an overgrown boy, unarmed. He got out and went to the bank entrance. The uniform bank guard admitted him, greeting him by name. A few minutes later the boy came out carrying a small brown leather bag.
Nonchalantly the kid tossed the bag onto the truck’s seat and got in beside it. The driver started the motor. This was routine work for these two. For months they had come for, and transported uneventfully, the Raytex weekly payroll of forty thousand dollars. Neither of them gave that red coupé a thought. Neither noticed that its motor started simultaneously with the truck’s motor.
The lad slammed the door and the truck pulled away. It gathered speed in second, turned out to pass the coupé at the same moment in which the red car was swung carelessly out from the curb. There was the shriek of brakes — a crash — and both cars stopped. Only then did the truck driver’s hand go to his gun.
He drew it and got out. He crouched tensely behind the hood watching the man in the maroon coupé get out smiling ruefully. The other was tall and well-dressed, handsome in a dark, rugged, masculine way. His hands were empty. He seemed to have no interest save in the damage to both vehicles, which was slight. Apparently he didn’t even see the gun that covered him.
The bank guard, poised uncertainly in the side entrance of the bank, sheathed his own gun and turned back inside. It was just a running together — couple of smashed fenders — no trouble.
That’s what the driver of the Raytex truck decided as the other came around to talk to him. He slipped his pistol back into its holster.
“My fault,” the man from the coupé said. “Entirely due to my carelessness. I was thinking of something else.”
“Yeah, Mister, that’s right,” the truck driver agreed with relief.
“My name,” the other said, “is … But here. Let me show you my operator’s license. You can take its number, and my name and address to your boss. Tell him to send me the bill for damages. I’ll pay it. That okay?”
“Why, sure. Mister.” The driver extended his hand for the card.
The other pulled back his overcoat, thrust his hand inside and brought out a gun. He shot the driver through the head and turned his blazing gun on the boy. Unhurried, yet with swift efficiency, he killed them both and took the payroll bag and got back into his still running coupé It whipped around the corner and was gone.
The bank guard regained the street in time to see its rear bumper disappear.
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The Man At The Window
The man who stood at the window of the second floor lavatory was well-dressed, prosperous looking. But there was on his dark-eyed, black-browed face a frown of bitterness and desperate worry.
He was staring down into the street, but actually he did not see the only thing there was to be seen: a maroon coupé with a man sitting in it. Nor did his eyes move toward the bank entrance when a panel truck stopped there.
The man in the lavatory seemed wrapped in gloomy thoughts. He stood with his hands clenched behind him, head bent, a picture of defeat and dejection. Then there was a crash beneath him.
He saw the accident only after it had happened. He saw the driver of the truck get out, and the one from the red coupé. He saw that man clearly, for he faced the office building when he emerged from his car. But the man in the lavatory soon lost interest. Still staring at the scene of the crash, he ceased to see it or the two men — until the shots rang out.
He looked up sharply then. But the red coupé was gone before the dazed man at the window fully realized that what he had witnessed was murder and robbery. And then panic seemed to seize him. He turned pale. He spun about, rushing to the door only to close it again when he saw someone coming down the long corridor.
He stood there trembling until the footsteps passed on. In his obvious excitement he whispered aloud, as though to convince himself.
“But I can’t report it. I’ve got to get out of here. They’ll hold me as a witness for God knows how long. I’ve got to get home and fix things up — somehow — tomorrow.”
When he finally went out and toward the elevator bank, seen only from behind, his resemblance to the killer in the maroon coupé was striking. They were of about the same height and build and age. Both wore dark gray overcoats and homburg bats. The hair of both was dark, tinged with gray at the temples.
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Robbery and Double Murder
That happened at about four o’clock.
A few minutes later a wet snowfall began. By five it was much colder and the snow had turned into a howling blizzard.
The early evening news commentators played up the robbery and double murder. One of them stated:
Police officials reveal that they have a good description of the killer, furnished by the bank guard. He is said to be a tall man, of distinguished appearance, rather swarthy, and well dressed in a dark gray overcoat and slate gray homburg hat. His car is a maroon coupé of unknown make and model. The man is believed to have made good his escape from the city area, but police say they have a positive clue to his escape route. Although the blizzard now raging hampers the pursuit, hope is held out for an early capture.
Rose Hewitt finished drying her dinner dishes to the accompaniment of the radio.
She was alone in the big farmhouse. She was a remarkable pretty girl, her short, curly, chestnut hair full of coppery highlights. Her eyes were brown and her lips full and red. A house-dress of colorful gingham set off a lissome figure unaffectedly.
But for all the howling wind, and the sure knowledge that Pop and Alan would not get home tonight, Rose was unafraid. She had the staunch self-reliance of a farm-bred girl. She had often stayed alone, since her mother’s death, while her father and younger brother trucked produce a hundred miles to the city’s markets.
This morning they had loaded the truck with hogs. Pop had said it might be midnight before they got home. But since nightfall, when the snowstorm had reached blizzard proportions. Rose had ceased to expect them tonight.
But all the chores were done. She had her radio, the telephone, electric lights, and an oil burner in the basement The Hewitt farm was a model of modern comfort Rose rather looked forward to reading as late as she pleased, stretched out on the hearth rug before the living-room fireplace. She smiled as she put away the dish-pan. But her smile faded at the sudden urgent knock at the kitchen door.
“Pop,” she thought, “and Alan! They had come back! They must be frozen!”
Rose ran to fling open the door. A swirl of wind and stinging snow whooped in. A man stumbled in with a small brown leather bag in his hand. Rose forced the door closed and turned to stare wide-eyed at the stranger who stood panting, beating the snow from his dark overcoat, shaking it from his derby hat. His ears and nose were red with cold. His dark hair, touched with gray at the temples, was powdered with quickly melting flakes. Rose saw a tall man, an exceedingly good-looking and mature man, who smiled at her and said:
“Whew! I only walked from that cut a few hundred yards down the road — but I almost didn’t make it.”
Rose said, “The snow-fence is down, then. The cut’s drifted over. Your car got stuck?”
He answered ruefully, “Yes. I tried to bull my way through the drifts — got to where I couldn’t go either forward or back, and wound up in the ditch — no chains,” he added, his keen eyes leaving her to sweep the kitchen and probe through into the dark dining room. He had an alert, listening air, but Rose’s thought was momentarily not on him.
She murmured, “Oh, I hope Pop and Alan didn’t start out in this and get caught!”
The stranger’s eyes jumped back to hers.
“Your father is … ?” he began inquiringly, and Rose finished it.
“And my brother. They went to the city this morning. I’m alone, but … Then, as though realizing an awkward situation for the first time, she stopped and flushed faintly.
The man said, “I’m truly sorry to put you in such a position. I — but have you a telephone? Maybe I could get a tow-car. Maybe … “
Rose smiled again. “Certainly not,” she said. “I mean, of course we have a phone. But I wouldn’t turn you — or even a stray dog — out into this storm. You couldn’t get a wrecker anyway. It would have to come all the way from Kennaston.”
“Thanks,” the man smiled, too, revealing teeth that looked whiter by contrast to his rather dark complexion and black brows . “My name is Paul Hebner., I live in Kennaston. I went to the city on business this morning, and was on my way home. If you’ll let me just sit here in the kitchen for tonight, I’ll be only too glad to pay for the — uh … “ he halted lamely, seeing her eyes go proud at the -mention of payment.
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Rose said, “Come into the living room, Mr. Hebner. We have an extra bedroom in the old parlor across the hall. I’m Rose Hewitt.”
“Thanks a lot,” he said. “But if you don’t mind, I’d like to phone my mother and let her know I’m safe.”
“Of course. The phone’s in the dining room. It’s one of the old-fashioned kind. You crank it, and the operator will get your number.”
Rose snapped on the light for him and went on into the living room that was half lighted by the glowing hickory embers in the big fireplace. She heard the jingle of the phone bell repeated in a few seconds, and then again. But Rose paid no particular attention. She was thinking excitedly; she felt adventurous and tingly. But suddenly her breath caught.
That hold-up! she thought. The radio said that the murderer was a tall, swarthy, distinguished-looking man wearing a dark gray overcoat. And the stolen payroll money had been in a small brown bag.
She sat frozen with fright. This man was tall, swarthy, wearing … Then she relaxed. Paul Hebner’s hat was a derby, not a homburg. How stupid of her! She breathed again and smiled. But that deep sigh caught in her throat when the front doorbell rang insistently.
She sat erect and motionless. Rose Hewitt was aware then of the silence in the dining room. She heard the beating of her own heart and felt the faint trembling of the house in the storm. Everything was suddenly changed. The feeling of delightfully novel anticipation was gone and one of vague dread was in her heart.
But her realistic mind scoffed at that fear. If the cut were blocked with snow she might have a dozen refugees from the storm before daybreak. There was another one at her door now. Certainly there was safety in numbers.
Paul Hebner’s voice from the dining room — where he was waiting for his call to be put through — completed her change of mood.
“Somebody else at the door, isn’t there, Miss Hewitt?”
“Yes,” she answered, rising quickly and turning toward the reception hail. She unlocked one of the double doors. The wind, and the man outside, did the rest. He was literally blown into the house. Again Rose slammed the door and turned to face a stranger.
Again she saw a tall man whose face was red with the stinging cold and snow — but whose hair and eyes and brows wore black. She saw a dark gray coat and a slate-gray homburg hat. Her heart stopped when she saw the briefcase.
The radio hadn’t said it was a briefcase. The radio had said only that the payroll money had been in a brown leather bag.
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Mister — Mister …
Rose couldn’t speak.
The man said thickly, as though his lips were stiff with cold, “The road is blocked — down there … “ he pointed vaguely. “I saw your light — the only one around. I had to have shelter. I’m sorry to butt in like this, but … .”
He left the sentence in the air. Rose made frantic effort to pull herself together. This, she knew with some intuitive feminine sixth sense, was the man — the murderer, the thief. But he must not know that she knew. He must not know that she was here with no one but a stranger to protect her. Suddenly she saw what she must do.
Rose heard herself murmur, as though she were another person listening to a play, “Well, of course. Come in to the fire. My husband will fix you a drink.”
The man took off his hat and beat the snow from his coat as Paul had done.
Already, she thought, I think of him as Paul. She was surprised at herself. She thought almost hysterically, It is exciting. Its like a play and I’m the heroine. Paul’s the hero — my husband. This man is a murderer, and if he suspects that I know he’ll kill us both as he killed that old man and the boy in the truck.
But the thought that that last was undoubtedly true, if this man were the murderer, had a sobering effect that steadied her.
Rose led the newcomer into the living room. Paul Hebner was standing in the dining-room doorway as though just starting into the room. His hands were in his coat pockets. His eyes and mouth were thin, and even in her uncertainty and fright Rose saw that he did not so much as glance at her.
Rose said slowly, “This is Mister — Mister … “
But the other man did not supply his name, nor look at her. His face was a square and rugged composite of lines and planes. These men Rose thought, were like two strange fighting dogs facing each other stiffly, each waiting for the other to decide what it was to be — peace or battle.
Why? she thought. Why do they look at each other like that? Is it because I’m alone that they resent each other? Is it because Paul Hebner recognizes the description of this man?
The stranger’s eyes gave way first. His eyes flicked to her and Rose saw in them something she could not interpret: surprise, a tinge of fear, sudden determination, all deep-lying and perhaps all three combined.
The stranger spoke first.
“Oh,” he said. “Excuse me, Mrs. — “
“Hebner,” she said, flashing a look at Paul Hebner, her eyes eloquent.
“Mrs. Hebner,” the other repeated. “My name is Mer — Merrill. James Merrill.”
He turned his gaze back to Hebner, but Rose had not missed that hesitation over his name.
“Your wife very kindly asked me in. There’s a sort of gully down the road where it has drifted over completely. I was barely able to back my car up to your lane before I slid off into the ditch. I’d certainly appreciate your letting me use your phone. I — I’ve got to go on through, somehow.”
Hebner bent a strange, dark, penetrating look on Rose Hewitt. It was unreadable. She held her breath, trying by sheer will to transfer her frantic thoughts to him. Merrill also glanced keenly at her, narrowly, secretly, but Rose did not see that. Hebner’s thin mouth curved finally in a smile. He said:
“The phone, I regret to say, isn’t working, Mr. Merrill. I just tried to put through a rail — wires must be down somewhere … . But you’re welcome. Take off your things and sit down … . Rose, will you get me that bottle of — “
“Oh, yes,” she grasped at his cue, smiling in her vast relief. “The whiskey, dear, or the brandy?”
“Which do you prefer, Merrill?” “Why, either. Whatever you drink.”
“Good. Excuse us a moment.”
Paul Hebner backed through the doorway and Rose followed him.
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I’m Frightened, Mr. Hebner
“Oh, thank you!” she whispered fervently. “I knew you’d understand and play up to me. I — I’m frightened, Mr. Hebner. That man — I’m almost sure … Did you hear a news broadcast tonight?”
“Why, no — Rose,” he stood dose to her in the darkness. He took both her hands in his. “But I saw that you were afraid of Merrill for some reason. What is it?”
“Turn the light on,” he said. “Move around. Pop’s whiskey is in the cupboard. There’re glasses there. I’ll get ice cubes.”
And she told him of the hold-up and brutal double murders.
Hebner mixed three drinks. His eyes were narrow, his mouth, thin, while he listened. Rose finished:
“We’ve got to keep him here until, somehow, we can get a call through to the sheriff without his suspecting. Do you think, after we all seem to go to bed, that I could . . . ?”
“But you forget,” Hebner interrupted, “that the phone is dead. I couldn’t get through to my sister when I — “
Rose screamed. She clung to Paul Hebner. He crouched back, flinging her away from him to swing toward the diningroom door. But it was empty and he laid rough hands’ on her again. Rose sobbed and -pointed to the outside kitchen door.
“A face,” she quavered huskily, “I saw a face outside — watching us. A man.” She trembled in his arms.
James Merrill appeared suddenly in the dining-room doorway, staring with the same intense concentration with which he’d first looked at Paul Hebner. But Hebner seemed not to see him there. Without a word Hebner pushed Rose urgently aside and plunged toward the door. He flung it open and rushed out into the swirling storm, disappearing instantly.
“What is it?” Merrill asked tautly.
Rose pointed and whispered, “Out there — something — I don’t know.” And Merrill wheeled around to the door and went out, his face darker with some inner strong emotion.
In spite of fear, Rose thought, Now! He’s gone. Look in that briefcase — see if the money’s there — then you’ll know.
But her heart quailed from it.
Suppose he came back before Paul. Who was that man who peered in at the door? A confederate of Merrill’s? Suppose — she went frigid with fear at that thought — suppose one of them kills Paul.
But a fascination she could not resist drew her into the living room. An urge that was stronger than fear led her there. Merrill’s’ briefcase leaned against the chair on which lay his hat and coat. Rose ran to it and picked it up.
Her fingers clumsy with her excitement she unbuckled one strap and then the other. She pressed the metal latch — and all but fainted at the hoarse cry from the kitchen.
“Mrs. Hebner! Mrs. Hebner!”
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The Outside Skulker
Sobbing, fumbling worse than before, Rose got the straps rebuckled. The brown briefcase was locked; she could not have opened it anyway. But she must not let him know that she had tried to.
“Coming,” Rose gasped. “Coming!”
She rose and flung herself back through the dining room, to stop, paralyzed afresh with terror, in the kitchen doorway.
Merrill was bent and staggering under Paul’s weight. Paul’s face, the whole front of him, was covered with snow. Bright blood dropped in horrible shiny blobs from the wound on his head to the linoleum.
He was dead, Rose thought wildly.
She had been right in her fear. Merrill, or that skulker outside, had killed him. She was utterly defenseless now.
Rose Hewitt heard a scream that she knew was her own without being aware that she had screamed. She saw Merrill’s face working in thick, harsh speech. It took her a while to understand him.
“Don’t stand there yelling,” Merrill said. “I don’t think he’s badly hurt — just knocked out, but where shall I take him?’’
Still Rose could not move, or speak.
“Damn it,” Merrill shouted, “what ails you? I tell you a tree limb broke off in the wind and hit him when it fell. Where shall I take him?”
But Rose was not fooled. Merrill had hit Paul Hebner, or shot him. Suddenly, she was released from her spell of terror. Pop’s shotgun was in the kitchen pantry. She must get it, load it, kill this man. But above all, she must keep her head.
“Bring him in here,” Rose said, turning to lead the way. “Put him on the davenport,” she directed when they were in the living room.
Sobbing — and that was no act — she bent over Hebner. She turned his head until she could see the bloody gash. It was not a bullet wound. She saw now that he was breathing. Perhaps, she thought wildly, he too was acting, only feigning unconsciousness in order to wait for a better chance. She must play her part.
Rose turned to Merrill. “I’ll get hot water, bandages,” she said, “Please stay with him.”
But Merrill stopped ‘her. “Wait a minute. Why did he rush out like that? What made you scream?”
Rose had all but forgotten that face at the kitchen door. Now she recalled that Merrill was not the only danger. But she felt that she must hide that knowledge. The skulker must have come with Merrill — must be connected with him in some way. If he were not, why hadn’t he come in? But if Merrill knew that she had seen him, then he might kill her now.
Rose said, “I thought I saw sparks flying in the wind. I thought our chimney was on fire . . . But I must get hot water and antiseptic. I’ll only be a minute.”
“Oh,” Merrill said, “sparks … “ His eyes went from her to Paul Hebner and back again, furtive and suspicious. But he later let her go.
Rose fled to the kitchen. She turned on the hot water faucet. With a frantic glance over her shoulder she went into the pantry and closed the door. The gun was there, but it was not loaded.
Shells — where were they? She couldn’t find them. She remembered then that Pop and Alan both had talked about the shortage of shells this Fall. Only farmers could get them, and then only one box for shooting hawks and weasels. Maybe the shells were all gone. But then she remembered that Pop got powder and shot and had reloaded some fired shell-cases. Distinctly Rose recalled his doing it, sitting at the kitchen table and swearing about the lack of something.
She rummaged frantically from shelf to shelf. On the top one she found them in an old coffee tin — red shell-cases with corroded brass ends. These were the ones. She fumbled two into the gun and closed the breech. With the gun’s muzzle extended before her she crept across the kitchen, holding her breath. She crossed the dining room — screamed again as she went through into the living room.
The gun barrel was caught in the hand that stabbed out from beside the doorway. It was torn from her hands. Her fingers had been hooked about both triggers, but the gun had not fired. Even as she screamed and turned to run Rose remembered the safety. She hadn’t pushed it off.
Merrill caught her halfway across the dining room. Savagely she fought him with nails and teeth and fists. She raked his face once from hair to chin. But his snarl of pain was lost in the red-flaming explosion in her head as his fist hit her … .
Rose, half conscious, watched the preparations for her own death, and Paul Hebner’s. Her wrists were tied behind her and her ankles were bound with linen table napkins. Sheer horror possessed her, paralyzed her. Merrill was going to set fire to the house. He must have been listening at the kitchen door when she’d told Paul of her recognition of him. He was going to cover his trail with fire. Rose wondered if he would shoot them first.
Paul still lay motionless on the davenport with one arm and hand trailing to the floor. A dark stain marred the davenport beneath his head. His eyes were closed and Rose could not see whether he breathed or not.
Merrill emptied the kitchen wastebasket beside the hearth. He crumpled up newspapers. He had brought kindling froth the kitchen wood-box and he added that to the pyre.
His breathing was harsh and quick when he turned and packed up Hebner’s overcoat. He put it on, and then his own over it. He put on Pop’s artics and hunting cap, turning the cap’s ear-flaps down. He threw his own hat, and Paul’s derby, into the fireplace. Then he started packing paper-banded bundles of banknotes into the pockets of both overcoats.
Rose saw the money for the first time. It was stacked on the coffee table. A heavy, short-barreled revolver lay beside it. Pop’s shotgun was on the floor almost within reach of Paul’s lax hand, where it had fallen when Merrill tore it from her. And the sight of the gun — so near — their only chance — aroused her from the terrible apathy that held her.
Oh God, Rose thought, why doesn’t Paid come to and grab that gun? I don’t want to die. Please, God, make him come to!
Without knowing it, or consciously willing it, Rose found herself fighting against the tightly knotted napkins at her ankles and wrists. She was sobbing. Merrill paused to watch her, looking at her with eyes that were hardly sane. But soon he went on stuffing the money into his pockets until it was all gone from the table. He turned back to the fireplace.
He picked up the shovel from the fireplace set and filled it with live coals. Rose watched him, not breathing. Merrill turned — and froze thus, crouching, holding the shovel rigid with both hands.
“I am curious,” the man in the doorway said, “to know just how you fit in.”
A wordless cry came from Rose Hewitt’s lips. This man’s thin, hard, youthful face was the one she had seen at the kitchen door, muffled to the chin in a scarf, coat collar turned up, hat brim turned down and snow laden. This was the skulker she had glimpsed briefly, but the gun in his hand was pointed at James Merrill. And with a sobbing strangling sound in his throat Merrill flung the shovelful of burning embers at the man in the doorway and dived for his gun on the table.
Flame streaked from the skulker’s gun. James Merrill stopped as though he had hit a wall. He staggered backward and his heel caught on the rug. He set down heavily with his back against the breast of the fireplace. His hands clawed beneath the two coats, clutching at his abdomen.
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The Smell of Cordite
The man in the doorway swept coals and ashes from his coat, stamping them with his feet, scattering the pile of paper and kindling. The smell of cordite mingled with the acrid odor of burning wool. No one spoke. With his eyes on Merrill the stranger picked up the gun from the table. He bent to recover the shotgun, and Paul Hebner’s hand-swung leg hit his arm.
The force of the blow spun him around, sent him staggering across the room to butt into a chair and fall. Hebner got the shotgun. Rose screamed. She saw Hebner go to the floor and rise, the gun held hip high in both his hands. There was a dull dick, and two roaring shots — but not the deep-throated blast of the shotgun.
Paul Hebner did not dutch at his body as Merrill had done. Rose saw the two holes in his face, one in his forehead and one under his left eye. The shotgun bit the floor. Hebner’s whole body jerked and stiffened. He twisted sidewise and fell with a thud that shook the house. Again there was awful silence.
Merrill sat holding himself with both hands, his face grey, his eyes fixed on the corpse of Paul Hebner. Then they lifted to the stranger as he rose, and terror was in James Merrill’s eyes. He moaned.
“I — I saw it — the robbery,” he spoke hoarsely. “I was in — office building — other side of the street — window. I recognized Hebner — when I came in here.”
“Ah … “ the stranger breathed. “So you followed him, figuring on hi-jacking him. The drift down the road stopped him and gave you your chance.”
“No,” Merrill said, “no, I — it was coincidence. I didn’t follow — didn’t know — but he was here when I came in.”
“Go on. Who are you? What’s your angle?”
“Embezzlement,” Merrill’s voice was flat and hopeless. “Bank — in Kennaston. I’m cashier. Gambling. I took a few hundred, thinking I’d win and could pay back. I lost … . It went on — more and more. State examiners coming — I had to cover … . I went to the city to try to sell some stocks I’d bought. It was no go. I couldn’t raise enough — not by half. But I — I didn’t have any part in that murder and hold-up. Stuff in my briefcase — proof. I’m — name’s Merritt — William Merritt. Please — I confess — get me a doctor.”
The stranger said something that Rose Hewitt didn’t hear, because she fainted then.
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Back to Consciousness
She was in the kitchen when she came back to consciousness. She was lying on the floor, and the stranger was rubbing her face and neck with a handful of melting snow.
“Lie still,” he ordered, when he saw that she was awake. “You’re okay. I’m a cop — Joe Conner — from the city.”
“A cop … ?” she repeated. “But — but I didn’t understand. Mr. Hebner — he seemed so … “
“He killed a man and a kid,” Conner said, “unnecessarily and in cold blood, for a forty grand payroll. I trailed him this far on a hunch. You see, miss, we knew the killer was in a red coupé that stopped the payroll truck by ramming into it A toll-bridge attendant remembered such a car coming through a few minutes after the time of the hold-up. It had a bashed-up fender.
“I knew the guy would ditch that car as soon as he could steal another — and he did. I found the coupé, and picked up a broadcast about the stolen one. He’d’ve ditched that one, too, but the snow caught him. I figured he’d leave the through highway at the first good intersection. The Kennaston road was it. That was my hunch.”
Wide-eyed, dazed as much by this miracle as by her former terror, Rose stammered, “But I … How did … ?”
“I slid off the road.” Joe Conner said, “half a mile on the other side of your lane. There’s ice under all this snow. I was walking up here when I saw this fellow Hebner coming from the other way. It’s my business to look at all the angles, so I went on down the road looking for his car. It was the one reported stolen.”
“But Merrill,” she said. “He was … “
“Merrill,” Conner corrected, “was desperate enough to grab at any straw, even though it involved murder. An embezzling bank cashier, he knew he was headed for jail anyway. He was on his way back to Kennaston, and the snow stopped him here, as it did Hebner.”
“Merrill witnessed the hold-up, unknown to us. He was in the city trying to sell some not-so-hot stocks he has in that brief-case. When he came in, he recognized Hebner at once. He knew Hebner would have that payroll loot with him, and all he had to do was to murder you and Hebner and make off with the money. Then he could replace what he’d stolen from his bank and be safe.
“When you saw me and yelled, and Hebner rushed out, that gave Merrill his chance; I saw him conk Hebner. But I couldn’t fit him into the picture because I didn’t know he’d seen the hold-up. That’s why I hadn’t come in to arrest Hebner before. I saw Merrill’s arrival, of course, but I was in Hebner’s car at the time. Begin to catch?”
“Y — yes,” Rose said. “But Merrill — is he dead, too?”
“No. He’s got a hole through his stomach, but he may pull through if the doctor I phoned can get through to here.”
“You — phoned?” she questioned.
Joe Conner grinned, and it changed his stern face utterly. It showed beautiful teeth, crinkles at the comer’s of his eyes, and a dimple in his left cheek. He looked almost as young as her brother Allan, and twice as handsome.
Joe Conner said, “Sure. I’m full of hunches. I had one that the first thing Hebner would do here would be to wreck the phone. It was easy with that horse-and-buggy job you’ve got He just opened the box by unscrewing one set-screw, and disconnected two wires inside — probably when you went to let Merrill in. I hooked die wires up again and — presto!”
“No,” Rose said. “He told me he wanted to phone his mother to let her know he was… Joe!” suddenly her voice tightened, “I just thought of something! When he mentioned it again, he said he couldn’t get through to his sister. I should have caught that slip. But when Merrill came in, I could only think that he answered perfectly the description of the murderer that I heard on the radio. I didn’t think that any smart crook would change his appearance as much as he could, as soon as he could.”
Conner nodded, then took two shotgun shells from his coat pocket.
“Where’d you get these?” he asked.
“They’re Pop’s,” Rose answered. “I got the gun from the pantry after Merrill brought Hebner back into the house. But he — “
Joe Conner grinned wryly.
“Well, tell your Pop thanks,” he said, “for forgetting to put new percussion caps into them when he reloaded them. Otherwise, Hebner would have got me when he kicked me and picked up the gun. See?”
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Rose Is A Pretty Name
He held out the shells and Rose saw the small holes in the ends of the brass cases where the caps should have been.
She said, “I remember now. After he got the shells all reloaded, Pop found he couldn’t get any caps … . But, Joe, you’ll spend the rest of the night with me, won’t you? You’ll … Oh!”
Suddenly she felt her face and neck go fiery hot. Rose covered her face with her hands and wished she could go through the floor.
“I mean,” she cried, “Mister Conner. And I mean stay here until Pop gets home. Because I — “
She looked at him between her fingers and he was grinning again.
“Sure,” he said, “I know what you mean. But why not Joe? I like the way you say it. What’s your name?”
“Rose is a pretty name,” he said judicially. “It suits you. Now how’s for letting me see you on your feet? You’ve been lying all over the place ever since I got here.”
Rose held out her hands and he pulled her to her feet. They smiled at each other.
~ The End ~