The Clarion by Samuel Hopkins Adams - HTML preview
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The doorbell buzzed.
"That's the detective," said Dr. Surtaine to Hal. "Stay here."
He wormed himself painfully into an overcoat which concealed his scarified shoulder, and went out. In a few moments he and the officer reappeared. The latter glanced at the body.
"Heart disease, you say?" he asked.
"Yes: valvular lesion."
"Better 'phone the coroner's office, eh?"
"Not necessary. I can give a certificate. The coroner will be all right," said Dr. Surtaine, with an assurance derived from the fact that a year before he had given that functionary five hundred dollars for not finding morphine in the stomach of a baby who had been dosed to death on the "Sure Soother" powders.
"That goes," agreed the detective. "What undertaker?"
"Any. And, Murtha, while you're at the 'phone, call up the 'Clarion' office and tell McGuire Ellis to come up here on the jump, will you?"
Left to themselves, with the body between them, father and son fell into a silence, instinct with the dread of estranging speech. Hal made the first effort.
"Your shoulder?" he said.
"Nothing," declared the Doctor. "Later on will do for that." He brooded for a time. "You can trust Ellis, can you?"
"It's the newspapers we have to look out for. Everything else is easy."
He conducted the detective, who had finished telephoning, into the library, set out drinks and cigars for him and returned. Nothing further was said until Ellis arrived. The associate editor's face, as he looked from the dead girl to Hal, was both sorrowful and stern. But he was there to act; not to judge or comment. He consulted his watch.
"Eleven forty-five," he said. "Better give out the story to-night."
"Why not wait till to-morrow?" asked Dr. Surtaine.
"The longer you wait, the more it will look like suppressing it."
"But we want to suppress it."
"Certainly," agreed Ellis. "I'm telling you the best way. Fix the story up for the 'Clarion' and the other papers will follow our lead."
"If we can arrange a story that they'll believe—" began Hal.
"Oh, they won't believe it! Not the kind of story we want to print. They aren't fools. But that won't make any difference."
"I should think it would be just the sort of possible scandal our enemies would catch at."
"You've still got a lot to learn about the newspaper game," replied his subordinate contemptuously. "One newspaper doesn't print a scandal about the owner of another. It's an unwritten law. They'll publish just what we tell 'em to—as we would if it was their dis—I mean misfortune. Come, now," he added, in a hard, businesslike voice, "what are we going to call the cause of death?"
"Miss Neal died of heart disease."
"Call it heart disease," confirmed the other. "Circumstances?"
This was a poser. Dr. Surtaine and Hal looked at each other and looked away again.
"How would this do?" suggested Ellis briskly. "Miss Neal came here to consult Dr. Surtaine on an emergency in her department at the factory, was taken ill while waiting, and was dead when he—No; that don't fit. If she died without medical attendance, the coroner would have to give a permit for removal. Died shortly after Dr. Surtaine's arrival in spite of his efforts to revive her; that's it!"
"Just about how it happened," said Dr. Surtaine gratefully.
"For publication. Now give me the real facts—under that overcoat of yours."
Dr. Surtaine started, and winced as the movement tweaked the raw nerves of his wound. "There's nothing else to tell," he said.
"You brought me here to lie for you," said the journalist. "All right, I'm ready. But if I'm to lie and not get caught at it, I must know the truth. Now, when I see a man wearing an overcoat over a painful arm, and discover what looks like a new bullet hole in the wall of the room, I think a dead body may mean something more than heart disease."
"I don't see—" began the charlatan.
But Hal cut him short. "For God's sake," he cried in a voice which seemed to gouge its way through his straining throat, "let's have done with lies for once." And he blurted out the whole story, eking out what he lacked in detail, by insistent questioning of his father.
When they came to the part about the Relief Pills, Ellis looked up with a bitter grin.
"Works out quite logically, doesn't it?" he observed. Then, walking over to the body, he looked down into the face, with a changed expression. "Poor little girl!" he muttered. "Poor little Kitty!" He whirled swiftly upon the Surtaines. "By God, I'd like to write her story!" he cried. The outburst was but momentary. Instantly he was his cool, capable self again.
"You've had experience in this sort of thing before, I suppose?" he inquired of Dr. Surtaine.
"Yes. No! Whaddye mean?" blustered the quack.
"Only that you'll know how to fix the police and the coroner."
"No call for any fixing."
"So all that I have to do is to handle the newspapers," pursued the other imperturbably. "All right. There'll be no more than a paragraph in any paper to-morrow. 'Working-Girl Drops Dead,' or something like that. You can sleep easy, gentlemen."
So obvious was the taunt that Hal stared at his friend, astounded. Upon the Doctor it made no impression.
"Say, Ellis. Do something for me, will you?" he requested. "Wire to Belford Couch, the Willard, Washington, to come on here by first train."
"Couch? Oh, that's Certina Charley, isn't it? Your professional fixer?"
"Never mind what he is. You'll be sure to do it, won't you?"
"No. Do it yourself," said Ellis curtly, and walked out without a good-night.
"Well, whaddye think of that!" spluttered Dr. Surtaine. "That fellow's getting the bighead."
Hal made no reply. He had dropped into a chair and now sat with his head between his hands. When he raised his face it was haggard as if with famine.
"Dad, I'm going away."
"Where?" demanded his father, startled.
"Anywhere, away from this house."
"No wonder you're shaken, Boyee," said the other soothingly. "We'll talk about it in the morning. After a night's rest—"
"In this house? I couldn't close my eyes for fear of what I'd see!"
"It's been a tough business. I'll give you a sleeping powder."
"No; I've got to think this out: this whole business of the Relief Pills."
Dr. Surtaine was instantly on the defensive. "Don't go getting any sentimental notions now, Hal. It's a perfectly legal business."
"So much the worse for the law, then."
"You talk like an anarchist!" returned his father, shocked. "Do you want to be better than the law?"
"If the law permits murder—I do," said Hal, very low.
Indignation rose up within Dr. Surtaine: not wholly unjustified, considering his belief that Hal was primarily responsible for the tragedy. "Are your hands so clean, then?" he asked significantly.
"God knows, they're not!" cried the son, with passion. "I didn't know. I didn't realize."
"Yet you turn on me—"
"Oh, Dad, I don't want to quarrel with you. All I know is, I can't stay in this house any more."
Dr. Surtaine pondered for a few minutes. Perhaps it was better that the boy should go for a time, until his conscience worked out a more satisfactory state of mind. His own conscience was clear. He was doing business within the limits set for him by the law and the Post Office authorities, which had once investigated the "Pills" and given them a clean bill. Milly Neal should not put the onus of her own recklessness and immorality upon him. Nevertheless, he was glad that Belford Couch was coming on; and, by the way, he must telephone a dispatch to him. Rising, he addressed his son.
"Where shall you go?"
"I don't know. Some hotel. The Dunstan."
"Very well. I'll see you at the office soon, I suppose. Good-night."
All Hal's world whirled about him as he saw his father leave the room. What seemed to him a monstrous manifestation of chance had overwhelmed and swept him from all moorings. But was it chance? Was it not, rather, as McGuire Ellis had suggested, the exemplification of an exact logic?
The closing of the door behind his father sent a current of air across the room in which a bit of paper on the floor wavered and turned. Hal picked it up. It was the clipping from the "Clarion"—his newspaper—which Milly Neal had brought as her justification. One line of print stood out, writhing as if in an uncontrollable access of diabolic glee: "Only $1 A Box: Satisfaction Guaranteed"; and above it the face of the Happy Lady, distorted by the crumpling of the paper, smirked up at him with a taunt. He thought to interpret that taunt in the words which Veltman had used, aforetime:—
"What's your percentage?"