A Poison Case
The reporter, looking for trouble, caught a passing glimpse of his friend Larry Sullivan, detective and admirer of pretty women. Hurrying after the broad shoulders of Sullivan, jostling through the crowd of workers going home after their day's work, the reporter, who was just starting his daily task, knew something was up. Larry never walked that way unless he was on a case.
Like Alice following the rabbit, the reporter saw Larry duck into a subway kiosk, and disappear from the earth; but this was no wonder to a New Yorker. The reporter, with a dash forward, managed to push through the gate two paces behind the detective. With two bounds and a leap, he was inside the closing door of an express, pressing up against the detective.
"Why the hurry?"
Larry managed to turn his broad, good-natured face toward the reporter.
"Oh, it's you, is it?"
"Yes. What's up?"
Larry shook his head gravely. "Poison case." he said, in a low tone. "Old lady. Can't talk here. Wait!"
At Seventy-second Street, Larry was pushed out onto the platform, the reporter in front of him. The detective hurried up the subway steps into the dusk.
"Special detail," he said in explanation.
They walked west, and on a cross-street Larry found a brownstone front where he rang the bell and was admitted by a uniformed officer.
"Where's the body?" asked the detective.
"On the second floor," said Murphy the cop.
Followed by his shadow, Larry mounted to the second- floor front and entered a room which contained but one occupant — a dead body.
Hats off, the two stood for a moment contemplating the scene; then the detective, with a sigh, switched on more lights and pulled back the sheet. On the bed lay the body of an old woman, clothed in black silk. Even in death she seemed majestic; her face was tilted proudly and the staring eyes were stern.
"Where's the doctor?" called Larry, going to the door.
A man's voice answered. "He was called away, sir; he said there was no hope, that she was dead."
"Who're you?" asked Larry.
"The butler, sir. William Frinn."
Looking over the detective's shoulder, the reporter saw a tall, thin, dark-haired man of about thirty-five, with high cheek hones. From down the hall came the sound of sobs.
"That is the cook, sir, Margaret Brown."
"Anybody else in the house?"
"Anna the housemaid, sir. And Mr. Francis will be here shortly. He is the madame's nephew. Mr. Francis Small," added the butler, as Larry's lips opened.
"This lady is Mrs. Emma Wilton," said Larry, consulting a note-book. "Doctor said she'd been poisoned. Did he say what it was?"
Frinn shook his head. "No, sir. He said the chemist must make an examination."
Sullivan nodded. "Come inside," he said to Frinn. "I want to ask you some more questions — wait, better go into the next room. Switch off the lights," he said to the reporter.
Frinn answered the detective's questions. Mrs. Wilton was very wealthy. Yes, she was a widow, and had no children of her own. Yes, Mr. Francis Small, her brother's son, lived there. He was a chemist.
"Any idea who did this?" asked Larry.
"No, sir," he answered.
"H'm," said Larry.
After getting the details, the reporter left.
It was some weeks later that he obtained full knowledge of the case. From time to time, as the days ran into weeks, he would question Sullivan about it; but the detective was reticent.
It was Larry who volunteered the story of his own free will, one night after he had come off duty.
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This Bird Small
You kept asking me about that poison case — Mrs. Wilton, the old lady, y' know [said Larry]. Well, it's cleared up at last. I'll spill it-to you.
She was a widow, with no children living, and had plenty of jack. She lived there in that house, with her nephew, Francis Small, a medium-sized, brown-haired bird, with round head and glasses — he came in a little while after you left. He was about thirty.
He was very much broken up at the death of his aunt — or he acted that way. I had pumped Frinn the butler for all I was worth. He seemed to he holding something back, and I determined to find out what it was.
The maid and the cook were O.K. The cook was afraid they'd accuse her of poisoning the old lady.
Well, on the third floor this bird Small, who was an expert chemist and very smart in his line, had a laboratory of his own. I saw it that evening. It covered the whole of the top floor, and he had it all fitted out pretty, with all sorts of glass stuff and all kinds of chemicals labeled neatly in bottles and boxes on shelves.
An analysis was made by the department chemist; he found the old lady had been fed arsenic.
So far, no arrests had been made. I had men watching the house, and tailing the butler and Small. In Small's laboratory I found plenty of arsenic.
From the housemaid I learned something else. Small brought his aunt a box of candy from time to time; in her desk I found the remains of some candy she'd had.
After analysis, it proved to contain arsenic, the same form of arsenic as was in the jars in Small's laboratory. At that, I put him under arrest.
"I didn't do it," he kept saying. "It's terrible!"
The poor sap seemed to think he would be believed. He put up no fight at all, just came along like a lamb.
The motive was easy to find. The nephew came in for all Mrs. Wilton's jack; and he needed more money.
The candy would be enough to give him the juice. But after he had been arrested, I questioned the servants.
From them I drew out bit by bit more damning evidence against Small. The nephew often brought his aunt candy and fruit; he had a hot temper, and spent a great deal upon women. He was a wild guy in that way, and his aunt often worried about him. Also, he had big ideas. He was a great chemist all right, and had spent a lot of the old lady's money on expensive experiments. Just before she was poisoned they had had several violent quarrels, due to the fact that Mrs. Wilton would not give him enough cash to start a big manufacturing business of his own.
The evidence was iron-bound. I didn't have a doubt but what Small had slipped the old lady the arsenic.
But he wouldn't confess. And he had no idea of who might have done it, nor could he give me anyone else who might have a motive in killing the old lady.
Could you ask for a stronger case?
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A Chemist With A Brain In His Head
I was feeling pretty good on having got it worked I out so nice, when the department chemist, who'd done the analyzing in the case, took some of the wind out of my sails.
"There's only one thing makes me think maybe Small didn't do it," says Smith the chemist.
"And there's a dozen makes me think he did," says I.
"It sure looks like it," says he. "But I've been thinking it over. Was he drunk when he planted that arsenic?"
"Why, no," says I. "He wanted to croak her, and he did it that way, thinking we wouldn't get on to him."
"Ha, ha!" says Smith, not really laughing, but razzing me, "D'you think any chemist with a brain in his head would poison anybody with arsenic? Why, man, it's so damn easy to find you can dig up a body ten years gone and find it powdering the bones! It stays in the stomach lining, in hard white bits, and I can trace it with my eyes closed. No one but a damn fool or a drunken man would shoot anybody arsenic."
"Is that the only reason you got for thinking Small didn't do it?" says I.
"Yes. And it's a pretty good one, too, Larry," says Smith. "A man with Small's knowledge of poisons and chemicals could have used rare vegetable poisons that would have kept me working till doomsday, and I'd never have found them then. Even potassium cyanide would have been quicker and better, and by the time I got the body, it would have been gone. Maybe the sawbones would have been wise to it; but it goes to pieces in a few hours."
His words took hold of me. Did I want to have an innocent man get a couple of thousand volts through him?
I kept telling myself it was O.K.; that Small had done it and would confess soon. His lawyer was the only person we let see him.
Next day after my talk with Smith, I went to see the prisoner, who had been indicted. He was haggard, and very unhappy; he looked at me with sore eyes. He didn't seem to hold any grudge against me.
"How about coming across, Small?" says I, trying to be decent as possible. "The case is clear against you. You'll save a hell of a lot of trouble if you'll talk."
He shook his head. "My lawyer says I'm not to speak to anybody," says he.
"Why'd you use arsenic?" I asked him.
He shook his head again. "I didn't do it," he said.
I left him sitting on his bench with his head in his hands. I wandered out into the waiting-room — and say, there sat one of the niftiest little dames I ever saw. "Waiting to see a prisoner," says I to myself.
She was sitting there alone, a handkerchief over her eyes. Every once in a while she sobbed.
Beauty in distress always gets my goat. I went over to her, though it was none of my business.
"Excuse me, lady," says I, "but is there anything I can do to help you ?"
She turned up her tear-stained face. She was a nifty, believe me! Big blue eyes, light blonde hair, not bobbed, a neat little figure and a pretty soft voice.
"They — they won't let me see him," says she.
"Won't let you see who?" I asks her.
"Francis — Mr. Small."
I jumped a mile. "Oh," says I, "you're his sweetie, are you?"
She didn't get sore, she was too worked up. She just nodded and went on crying.
I sat down beside her.
"I'm interested in Mr. Small's case, too," says I softly. "It's a shame. I don't think he did it."
"Oh, I know he didn't," she cried. "He was too good and kind. He loved his aunt. They had little squabbles sometimes, but it didn't amount to anything. I know he didn't poison her."
"If he didn't," says I, "who did?"
She shook her head. "I don't know," says she.
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Miss Marie Simmons
Thinks I, I will tail you, little one, and see what happens. You see, Smith's words had got my goat and I wanted more proof that I was right. I got up and went off, after a word or two of sympathy, and waited for her to come out.
She did at last, and I followed her to a joint on the upper West Side where she had an apartment.
The janitor winked at me when I'd identified myself and asked him about her. "That's Miss Marie Simmons," says he.
"And what's the wink mean?" says I.
"She's got a sweetie, a good-looking young man with plenty of money, who pays her rent. He is away now, I guess, because I ain't seen him for some time."
"What's he look like?" I asked.
He told me. It was Small, without doubt.
Well, I couldn't blame him. She was a peach. I hung around there, hoping to get another glimpse of her, and about seven o'clock she came out and had a bite to eat in a restaurant, and then started back.
I was tailing her, thinking what a beauty she was and wondering why I'd been born poor, when I saw a tall bird step out of a doorway near her house and stop her.
At first, I thought he was a masher; then I saw that though she shrank from him a little, she knew him.
I managed to get within ten feet of them, as they turned into her doorway. I was right round the corner; they were standing in the outside hall having words,
" — why won't you?" the guy was saying — and as soon as I heard his voice I jumped, because I knew it. It was that butler, Frinn. He had gone off after we had cleared up the case, and, though we were to use him as a star witness in the trial, he had not been watched.
"Because I don't love you," the girl says.
"You love that dirty murderer, don't you?" Frinn says with a sneer. "He'll be dead soon. What will you do then?"
"I'll kill myself," says she.
Frinn laughed. "Oh, no you won't," says he. "Marie, you were a foolish girl to go with him. You should not have looked above your station; you see what it has brought you to."
The girl refused to talk to him any longer; she flung inside the house and I had just time to duck out of sight as Frinn, scowling and mumbling to himself, jazzed out of the doorway and up the street.
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Going Above My Station
Well, inside of ten minutes I was in the girl's apartment.
"Listen," says I sternly. "You come clean, little one. Come across. Who are you?"
"Why — " says she, starting to act indignant, but I stopped her.
"You little fool," says I, "d'you want to go to the station with me? D'you want to see your sweetie Small convicted of murder? Come clean, or it'll be hell for you all around, understand?"
"What — what do you want to know ?" says she faintly.
"I know you and Small were thick," says I quickly. "But where does this tall buzzard Frinn come in? What'd he mean by your going above your station?"
"Oh, that," says she, her eyes round when she saw I had overheard her talk with Frinn. "I used to be personal maid to Mrs. Wilton. William the butler was in love with me; he asked me to marry him and I nearly did. But then, Francis made love to me, and I jilted William. That's what he meant by my going above my station."
"F'heavens' sakes!" says I, with a yell.
There was the clue. There was the motive, and the man.
But it was a slender thread. Nothing proved, nothing but a shadow over the iron-bound case against Small.
How the hell was I to get Frinn — that is, if he had done it?
It took me an hour to figure it out. Then I told the girl what she was to do.
"Remember, it's the only way to save your sweetie," says I. "Play your part well."
The next evening she dressed herself up pretty, and went to Frinn's address, a boarding-house near Columbus Avenue. She got him easy enough, and brought him back to her apartment.
He was quiet at first; sat there smoking the cigarette she gave him. She took a seat beside him.
Then she gave him a drink or two.
"William," says she, softly, "I want to ask you to forgive me. That's why I brought you here. You were always good to me — too good, and I've been a foolish girl."
He was a little wary of her at first. "This is a sudden change from last night," says he.
Then she pulled what I thought was pretty hot stuff. "William," says she, clenching her little white fists, "I've found something out about — about Francis — Mr. Small. I — I loved him, and trusted him. And do you know what he has been doing? He had another girl and he has been lying to me all along. He has been making a fool of me. It nearly broke my heart; then I realized that I had never really loved him and it was easy to hate him. He made a fool of me, William. Oh, I'm so ashamed!"
And she started to cry. It was working pretty.
"I — I have no one to help me, no one to take care of me," says she, between sobs. "What will I do?"
"I'll take care of you, darling," he says. "Marry me." He was crazy for that girl, you could see it in his eyes. She threw her arms around his neck and kissed him. "I will," she says.
For an hour Frinn hugged her and kissed her, and she filled him full of liquor and bull. I was getting cramped up, hiding in the closet behind the couch, with a peek-hole I'd made to look through.
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I Poisoned The Old Lady
Frinn was getting drunk; he was basking in her smile, and she was soft-soaping him.
"I don't see why you didn't kill him, William," says she suddenly. "I would have, if I'd been you. I thought you weren't very brave to let me go the way you did."
Frinn didn't say anything for a moment; then he says, thickly, "I did kill him, Marie. At least, he's as good as dead."
"What do you mean?" says she.
Frinn hesitated. The girl prodded him with a word or two. "I hate him," says she. "Tell me, William. I love you. I wish you had killed him."
"I poisoned the old lady," says Frinn, suddenly, hissing the words so that I could scarcely hear. "I did it to get you back, honey. I planted the arsenic in that candy Small brought; I took it out of his laboratory. I did it for you, darling. He'll be convicted of murder and then we'll both have our revenge."
Hot dog! I stepped out from the closet then, and stood before him. He nearly passed out; he went yellow and green, and then a sickly white.
"What — " he gasps.
"You're under arrest," says I, "for the murder of Mrs. Wilton."
"God!" he gasped. Then he let out a scream. "You hell-cat!" he howled, making a pass at the dame, who had listened with gleaming eyes as she saw her sweetie Small saved from death.
She screamed; she was between me and the guy and I couldn't get him. He lunged at her with a knife, but I kicked it out of his hand and covered him.
"Stop!" says I, "or I'll shoot you full of lead."
"Damn you!" he yelled, and he came at me like a wild man. I fired, trying to wing him; got him in the arm, but he didn't stop, and we crashed over the couch and fell in a heap on the rug.
Well, there was quite a wrestling match for a time; he was wild, and goofy at that.
Even while I was battling, I was happy. Because I knew I had him for sure. If he had denied his confession it would have been hard to prove; he could have said he was filling the girl full of hop to make an impression.
At last, after he'd batted me around some, I got a strangle-hold on him, and put all my juice into it. He kicked and gasped; the girl had run screaming for help, but by the time the cop came I had Frinn subdued.
Larry stopped. The reporter had taken down the story. "You'll let me use it?" he said.
"Sure," said the big detective. "Help yourself. We've got Frinn cold. He came across and confessed again, when he saw there was no use. He'll get it. Small was released."
"And the girl?" asked the reporter.
"Oh, she's all right," said Larry. "I think Small's going to marry her. She surely saved his neck."
~ The End ~
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By Thrya Samter Winslow
(56 min read)
The Black Mask | Aug. 1922 | Vol. 5 No. 5
The story about the execution of Stuart Dennison shook Irma as she recalled her old life back in New York. Before she was Irma Martin. When she was Mrs. Stuart Dennison.
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