Although the official headquarters of Miss Madelyn Mack's one-woman detective agency is a modest two-room suite in an office-building on Fifth Avenue, she spends the majority of her days relaxing comfortably in a small chalet on the bluffs overlooking the Hudson River. From the exterior, "The Rosary" is built along the architectural lines of a Swiss chalet, with ivy climbing its picturesque walls and roses flourishing in its gardens. Once inside, however, a visitor could be forgiven for assuming that they were in some Victorian museum of historical oddities and foreign relics. Madelyn refers to her collection merely as "souvenirs" or "mementos," but as her closest companion, I flatter myself that I know the truth.
Like any successful hunter-- Madelyn Mack keeps trophies.
Look around her sitting-room: the gaze catches on a revolver, unloaded now, which once belonged to Morton, the murderer. It rests on a few charred pages from a long-lost seventeenth-century manuscript, nestling companionably with the pearl-handled hilt of a flick-knife, discovered in the stomach of a gaffer dolphin. Similar bits of bric-a-brac litter Madelyn's rooms, none arranged according to any sort of scheme; only Madelyn's whim. Trash and treasure lie together, and a bit of junk sits adjacent to a precious jewel. If, as curator, she ascribes to any particular philosophy, I confess it escapes me.
There is, however, one room free of Madelyn's collection of clutter-- or at least, in this one room, it is restricted to a tall, antique oaken cabinet. In Madelyn's study stands a true cabinet of curiosities, and I had always assumed that it contained the real jewels of Madelyn's collection.
Behind the glass panes, a visitor to Madelyn's study may see, among other relics, a ragged length of rope, spattered with indigo stains, which saved the sanity of the All Star Imperial Russian Ballet's prima ballerina; a yellow silk garter which proved the alibi of an Italian count; and a set of bright red whiskers and a beard made of false hair, which were presented as evidence in the most infamous murder-trial of our new century.
One morning in early summer, I happened to be at Madelyn's side when she unlocked the cabinet and tucked inside a perfectly ordinary piece of plain writing-paper. One side contained a few brief words in English. The other displayed the fateful message written in the dead man's cipher. In silence, Madelyn propped the letter up, then closed the cabinet door and rested her hand casually against it.
"Madelyn," I said, "it is a lovely day. Let us go out into the garden--"
But I am getting ahead of myself. Well, that is easily fixed; I will begin again.
According to logic, a story should begin at the beginning. According to my editors at the Bugle, a story should begin with the lurid description of an occurrence that is appalling, mysterious, or sensational-- or preferably, all three.
For once, I will ignore the dictates of my editors, and begin at the beginning.
Unprompted and unexpected, Madelyn Mack had driven down into the City to draw me from my modest digs, sweep me off my feet, and carry me away to "The Rosary," as was often her habit in those days.
Perhaps the invitations had come my way slightly more often since I had broken off my engagement to Mr. Thorndyke Preston, late last winter-- but perhaps, I told myself, I was seeing connections where none existed. Perhaps Madelyn's true motivation had more to do with the time of year; the icy winter and wet, chilly spring were over, and Madelyn's flower-garden was in full bloom. She was as proud and ready to show off the fruits of her creation as a new mother is of her child. (Though admittedly she could be as brutal with her pruning-shears as any fairy tale's wicked stepmother.)
I could almost think of Thorny now without a pang of regret and yearning. I had made the right decision by returning his ring-- that I knew without a doubt. I had yearned for a dream, cried for it, fought for it, and won it... and I had found, as others before me surely had, and others after me surely would, that the day-to-day living of a dream can be almost unbearably mundane. I had wanted my dream of love; I had wanted, I think, the tears and the agony of wanting as much as I had wanted the thrill of his hand covering mine, and his smile finally answering my smile. I had not spent my winter and springtime grieving the loss of love-- I had been grieving for the loss of a dream.
As always, I could only wonder if Madelyn knew the secrets of my heart. She had proved talented as a mind-reader in the past-- indeed, I had not even had to speak to her of the broken engagement! She had somehow simply known-- though I do not know how she managed to deduce it. From that day forward, however, she had never spoken of Thorny in my presence.
But-- as I said-- my broken heart was behind me now. It was a beautiful early summer; Madelyn's rose-garden was a perfumed riot of red and pink. Thoughts of winter moonlight sparkling on the snow were far away. Madelyn and I were spending the day outside, curled up in two wooden deck-chairs in the shade of the maple trees.
Madelyn was studying an account of a mysterious unsolved murder-- or so she claimed. The 'Suite no. 2' from the Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloé" was playing on her portable phonograph, and Madelyn could never resist the call of great music.
I, on the other hand, did not have a poetic soul, and was writing up my notes on an embezzling case which Madelyn had solved the month before. It was not going well-- but I defy any writer, no matter their literary genius, to make such a case as that one interesting to the general Sunday-supplement reader. I, of course, had no chance, not being a genius! No matter how I worked it over, it came out flat and dull. Even as I struggled, I knew it would be another manuscript for the hat-box in my closet, rather than 'copy' for the desk of my editor at the Bugle.
"I agree, Watson; the modern criminal is certainly an unimaginative fellow," Madelyn announced solemnly, and I was startled into a laugh. "And yet," she exclaimed, closing her book with a decisive snap, "I am not entirely joking! There is the knife in the back-alley, the poisoned candy disguised as a love-gift, the gang-leader shot down by his rival on a bustling street-corner-- there are motives as common as light-bulbs on a Broadway marquee, and as unoriginal as the plays they advertise."
"I should write a play about you," I said, and Madelyn scoffed aloud. "Well, and why not? But do you remember," I said, "that you once promised to provide me with 'material' for a feature-story on the topic of Murder As A Fine Art?"
"Why the sudden interest? Have you marked anyone in particular for death?"
"My interest is purely intellectual," I replied loftily.
"Your interest is purely financial, and your readers' interest purely ghoulish," Madelyn said crabbily. She was always this way when she went too long between cases. If a puzzle did not arise soon, she would be off on one of her jaunts, traveling to the far corners of the world for weeks or months on end. Madelyn's greatest challenge, unfortunately, was boredom, and not even the luxury and comfort of "The Rosary" could keep her at home when her mind and spirit were chafing for stimulation.
"I suppose if there is someone you have marked for death," I said, "it would hardly be to your advantage to give away your murderous secrets in the pages of the Bugle. I will let you off the hook for now-- but I reserve the right to reel you in again in the future."
Madelyn smiled, then looked over my shoulder curiously. I followed her gaze. Susan Bolton, Madelyn's housekeeper, clad in her usual austere black gown, was making her way into the garden.
"There's a young lady to see you, Miss Madelyn."
Madelyn raised an eyebrow, but otherwise made no move to shift from her comfortable repose. "What sort of young lady? Very wealthy and very worried, I assume?"
Susan only smiled. "Shall I show her into the study?"
"No, indeed! I may not run an everyday sort of business, but I do keep everyday business-hours. It is Saturday, and my guests may take me as they find me. Show her into the garden, please, Susan."
Susan nodded and bustled back towards "The Rosary." I cast an inquiring look in Madelyn's direction.
"You deduce that she is wealthy because she intrudes upon your hideaway without so much as a telephone-call to ensure that anyone will be at home to receive her," I suggested. "And you deduce that she is worried because she has come straight-away, rather than phoning."
"You know my methods, Nora!" Madelyn said, her mood already lifting.
"Is she one of your neighbors, do you think?"
"I doubt that I would have made her acquaintance, in that case. This neighborhood is far too high-toned for its inhabitants to cultivate a self-employed private detective," Madelyn said. "I quite prefer it that way, of course. They come to me when they need me, though!"
"I'm sure they do," I said, but quieted as Susan appeared again, leading a young woman down the path to where Madelyn and I reposed.
In appearance, she was nothing out of the ordinary. Hair the color of cinnamon, narrow green eyes and a long nose, just this side of skinny; and yet she had a commanding aura, not unlike Madelyn's. You sensed, somehow, the force of a strong personality just barely contained; though a delicate female by appearance, she was obviously not to be taunted or toyed with. That she was well-to-do was easily confirmed by her finely pleated skirt, fine green silk sash, and blouse of Russian chiffon. She did not speak at first, perhaps waiting for Madelyn to greet her.
Oddly, Madelyn remained silent, her expression utterly blank.
"Miss Mack," the stranger finally said, "I apologize for the intrusion..." She stopped, as if she did not know how to go on. It was not unusual to see some amount of hesitation in those who came to seek Madelyn Mack's assistance, but she did not seem shy or meek-- her silence had a stubborn quality to it, nearly resentful.
"Miss Sabrina Worthington, I believe," Madelyn said carelessly. "You have need of my assistance?" She paused. "That is-- I assume this is not a social call."
Miss Worthington stood still, as if unsure whether to trust Madelyn with the details of her difficulty. Even now, as a reputable and established detective, with many published accounts of her insight and ingenuity, there were still potential clients who were hesitant to entrust their cases to a lone female detective. But somehow Miss Worthington's hesitation did not seem quite of that particular shade, and my puzzlement grew deeper.
"It is not. I would be very grateful for a few moments of your time," Miss Worthington finally said.
"Of course," Madelyn said. "Sit down, please. Miss Worthington, this is Miss Nora Noraker, of the Bugle. You may speak freely in front of her; she is quite trustworthy, and has been helpful in many of my cases. Nora, this is Miss Sabrina Worthington; I am sure you know her current circumstances." Madelyn turned her attention back to Miss Worthington, and I surreptitiously pulled my notebook into my lap. Yes, I knew of Sabrina Worthington-- daughter of a deceased Texas cattle-man, potential heir to his nearly uncountable millions, and currently embroiled in a bitter dispute over the terms of his will!
"As you perhaps know," Miss Worthington said, her gaze flickering from Madelyn to myself, "my father left my mother when I was quite young, and she eventually sought a divorce. He re-married eventually, to a much younger lady. Until the day my mother died, she held firmly to the belief that he had grown to deeply regret his decision. I never-- But she must have been correct; in his will, the vast majority of his estate has been left to me. However, my father's second wife, Cecelia, is contesting the will. She claims that it is a forgery."
"Yes, so I have read," Madelyn said. "There is only one copy of the will, and unfortunately for you, Miss Worthington, both of the witnesses pre-deceased your father, is that correct?"
Sabrina answered with a nod.
"And without any will," I added, "the second Mrs. Worthington inherits-- I believe this is correct-- half your father's fortune?"
"Slightly more than half, yes; that appears to be the case," Miss Worthington said with some distaste. "Then, just yesterday afternoon, I received-- this."
She reached into her pocket-book and pulled out a plain white envelope. As she handed it to Madelyn, the diamonds set into her gold watch-bracelet sparkled in the sunlight. Though I longed to cross to Madelyn's side and peer over her shoulder as she opened the envelope and removed the plain sheet of paper inside, I remained still. From my current position, I could see only that there were a few words on one side, and a longer message on the other, although the writing appeared strange. Madelyn looked at both sides carefully, then returned her attention to Miss Worthington.
"Do you know this handwriting?"
"No," Miss Worthington said. "Yesterday I searched through every bit of correspondence in my father's office, to see if I could locate any similar messages, or any reference to such a cipher-- but I found nothing."
"You never knew your father to use any kind of cipher or code in his communications with others?"
"As I said-- I did not know him well, and I was certainly never privy to his business affairs."
"Interesting," Madelyn said, perusing the letter. "Quite interesting!"
"My fiancé, Mr. Timothy Dawson, advised that I should call in some sort of expert; it seemed advisable to me to choose that expert based on their capacity for discretion," Miss Worthington said, leaning heavily on the word, "as well as any sort of ability for... solving puzzles."
I was busy making a note of Miss Worthington's fiancé's name-- as far as I knew, their engagement had not been announced, and perhaps I could pass it on as a 'scoop' to the society editor at the Bugle. However, when Miss Worthington called Madelyn's skill 'puzzle-solving' I looked up, startled.
Madelyn did not snap or snarl, however. She tapped the letter against the table, her expression placid. "You did not attempt to decode it yourself?"
Miss Worthington stared. "Mathematics were never my strong suit, Miss Mack."
"Nor Mr. Dawson's?"
"He is the athletic type." Miss Worthington said shortly.
Madelyn shrugged mildly. "Well, some people enjoy such pastimes, others do not." She rose. "I will keep this letter, if I may. And now, Miss Worthington, would you like to see my rose-garden before you go?"
Miss Worthington stood still, clearly displeased with Madelyn's quick dismissal, and wrestling with her temper. Madelyn merely watched, still smiling, almost sweetly.
Madelyn's new client finally spoke. "Do you think--"
"I strongly suspect you will need no further proof to probate your father's will," Madelyn said. "Will you see the rose-garden? No? Let me show you to the door, then." Leaving the letter on the arm of her chair, she walked away, towards the house. After a moment, Miss Worthington followed.
As soon as they were out of sight-- possibly sooner-- I pounced on the letter. On one side, four short words: Use your father's cipher.
On the other side, reproduced exactly as it was written there:
xyul gcmm qilnbchanih: sio qcff zchx nby jliiz nbun sio lykocly ch nby muzy iz nby vumygyhn iz u vocfxcha nbun siol zunbyl ihwy iqhyx; nby bymjylom wfov ih qymn zilns-mypyhnb mnlyyn. nbyly cm u goluf ih nby qymn quff iz nby vumygyhn, xyjcwncha nby xuoabnyl iz nby wujnuch iz nby bymjylom, ncyx ni nby gumn. ohxyl byl lcabn ziin, sio qcff zchx nby bcxxyh wigjulngyhn. jfuwy siol nlomn ch hi ihy. ai ufihy. nby wigvchuncih cm nqyfpy mypyh nqyhns-nqi. u zlcyhx.
When Madelyn returned to the garden, she found me so engrossed in the mysterious letter that her hand on my shoulder caused me to shriek aloud.
"Well, Nora, what do you make of it?"
"Nothing," I said. "What do you make of her?"
Madelyn was silent for a long moment, then muttered, "I hope that watch-bracelets are not becoming the style." Her tone grew more heated as she spoke. "Dripping with diamonds, at two o'clock in the afternoon? I confess I find it quite tasteless."
She broke off, encountering my shocked expression.
Madelyn herself tended to dress somewhat eccentrically, in ensembles of either all white, or all black. She was a striking figure, and knew how to accentuate her best features, but she had never been a fashion-plate-- nor, to my knowledge, had that ever been something she aspired to. Nor had she ever been the type to make catty comments about another woman's appearance, or choice of attire.
I stared at Madelyn quizzically. Ignoring me, she laid a few sheets of paper on the table, copied out the coded message on a fresh sheet, and began-- as Miss Worthington had said-- to solve the puzzle.
I could not see what she was writing, as it was upside-down, but as she began to jot down a translation underneath the encoded cipher, my jaw dropped. "How on earth are you doing that?"
"Absurdly simple," Madelyn said, scribbling busily. "Common cryptograms are quite impractical for messages of any great length. Look at the message," she said, pushing the original across to me. "Do you see any repeated words?"
"Er," I said, and studied it carefully for a moment. "Sio, three times, and siol, also twice-- does that count? Oh! Perhaps 'the' and 'then'-- try it, Madelyn!"
"Well done, Nora!" Madelyn said. "Look what that gives us, if we apply your analysis to the third word of the message... Ah, it gives us utter nonsense," she said. "Try again."
Embarrassingly, I could think of nothing else. "Why the third word?"
"How many letters in Miss Worthington's surname?"
I am not a match for Madelyn's intellect, but I flatter myself that in the few seconds that passed after Madelyn's abrupt question, I neither counted on my fingers or moved my lips. "...Eleven. Oh! It's 'Worthington'-- Dear Miss Worthington!"
"Yes. And the words you picked out, Nora, are therefore 'you' and 'your'." Madelyn continued to scribble. "By a simple process of elimination, other letters can be deduced, and the puzzle easily solved..."
When Madelyn had finished, the message read as follows:
Dear Miss Worthington: You will find the proof that you require in the safe of the basement of a building that your father once owned; the Hesperus Club on West Forty-Seventh Street. There is a mural on the west wall of the basement, depicting the daughter of the captain of the Hesperus, tied to the mast. Under her right foot, you will find the hidden compartment. Place your trust in no one. Go alone. The combination is twelve seven twenty-two. A Friend.
"The Hesperus!" I exclaimed. "Why the Hesperus Club has been closed for nearly a year!"
"A gambling house, wasn't it?" Madelyn said, cocking her head at me.
"One of the most infamous," I said, casting my mind back to the previous autumn. "You were on one of your journeys at the time, I believe. The raid was a tremendous operation-- twenty-five detectives, men stationed up and down the block, at every exit, and even on the roof, who entered through the skylights! I believe your old nemesis Lieutenant Perry was one of the men on that raid, before his move to the murder-squad..."
"Hm," Madelyn said. "And what of the allegation that Harold Worthington owned this gambling-den?"
"Well, certainly nothing was ever published to that effect," I said. "And if there were rumors, I never heard them. Certainly, businessmen have leased or rented properties before and not known that they were being put to such a use. Though if he were keeping important documents there, presumably he could not have been unaware... It certainly explains why the message is encrypted. Do you think Miss Worthington knows, or would it come as a shock?"
Madelyn ignored the latter question. "I suspect a more obvious and simultaneously more complex solution," she said quietly. "Nora, if I may impose on you to such an extent, you will return this letter to Miss Worthington. With, of course, my most fervent apologies for being utterly unable to decode it."
"Of course," I said, reaching for it.
"Not tonight," Madelyn said, tidying the papers away. "Tonight, I think, you and I will have dinner in town. It has been ages since we explored Bohemia, and there are a few cafés I have been meaning to try out."
"Well, tomorrow, then?" I said.
Madelyn smiled. "Friday, I think."
"Madelyn! They will never believe it took you a week to admit defeat."
"Oh," Madelyn said, "Sabrina Worthington will believe it. I think she understands that sort of pride," she added, when I looked at her curiously.
The Bugle kept me busy in the week that followed. I saw Madelyn only once more before that fateful Friday night. I had made a trip out to the Eighteenth Precinct station house on West Fifty-fourth street, to interview a young patrolman who had shot and captured, at great risk to himself, an armed and dangerous double-murderer. As I made my way out of the building, I was startled to see Madelyn approaching the great stone doorway that marked the entrance to the building. Waving gaily, I made my way to her side.
"Madelyn, what are you doing here?" My initial pleasure at this unexpected encounter was sharply curtailed by a closer inspection of Madelyn's face. Her eyes were reddened, and her complexion oddly pallid. It did not seem possible that she could be so drawn and pale, unless she had not allowed herself to sleep even a wink since I had last left her at "The Rosary."
"And how was young Chadwick?" Madelyn asked, her voice slightly hoarse. "Fully recovered from his thrilling ordeal?"
I frowned, my eyes fastened on the locket around Madelyn's neck. I did not like to see her wear it, for I knew that it was not merely an ornamental piece of jewelry; it contained the small brown berries of the cola plant, a powerful stimulant that Madelyn resorted to when a case required her attention for days on end.
"Have you made much progress investigating the Hesperus Club?" I asked, with no great hope that Madelyn would decide to answer. And of course, as I had expected, she evaded the question.
"You have still reserved your Friday evening for me, have you not? Patience, Nora! All will be revealed."
For once, Madelyn's easy conversational parries did not amuse or mystify me. Her face, ghostly and drawn, and her voice, strangely harsh, made her look suddenly older than her years. I could see the danger in her habits, perhaps better than Madelyn could herself. Not for the first time, I searched my soul for the words that would convey my worry, and my fear for her. But it was useless. She would merely laugh and ignore me, as she had done so many times before. Gripped by frustration, I employed a different strategy, "They say Officer Chadwick will be presented with a medal for his valor; the ceremony is Friday," I said. "I may attend. The Bugle will surely appreciate the follow-up... and Officer Chadwick is quite a dashing figure. I'm sure you understand. You can always fill me in afterward."
"Of course I can hardly compete with the handsome hero of the Eighteenth," Madelyn said easily, and for a terrible moment I wondered how little my companionship really meant to her, if she could accept my absence so easily. But Madelyn disposed of my doubts completely with her next few words, delivered in her strange, hoarse voice. "But it is rather sudden, Nora, isn't it? Or is Officer Chadwick meant to provoke jealousy in more than one of your--" She stopped herself, pressing a hand to her temple, as if she had a headache.
I was not inclined to be sympathetic. "What can you possibly mean?"
Madelyn's eyes widened, and she blinked rapidly, bringing one hand up to rub at her obviously burning eyes. "Nora, I--" She stopped, looking vulnerable, then reached out to touch my wrist in an uncharacteristically comforting gesture. "I am sorry. I don't mean to bring up the past. You were far too good for him, Nora, you do know that, don't you? He'll come to understand it in time."
At first I did not understand her meaning, and then it struck me like a thunderbolt. I could not speak, but only stared, open-mouthed. Madelyn had it backwards-- she thought Thorny had thrown me over! How could she have come to such a conclusion? The pitying, sympathetic look on her face was infuriating.
"You have no idea what you are talking about," I said furiously. "How dare you imply that I would use my profession as a ploy to advance some romantic intrigue! But then, you have always treated my work as a mere hobby-- a nuisance, except when it enables me to be helpful to you!"
Turning on my heel, I walked away, a fierce indignation burning in my heart. For once, I had triumphed--! I had gotten the last word with Madelyn Mack.
Why, then did I feel so wretched?
Of course I had not actually been invited to the ceremony where the heroic Chadwick would be presented with his medal. And yet my pride refused to allow me to telephone Madelyn and meekly ask to rejoin her investigation. I was sulking-- I admit it, sulking!-- when the phone rang on Friday afternoon. I leaped at it like a life-preserver.
"Nora," Madelyn said, "I must apologize--"
"No, no!" I protested, drenched in relief as sweet as cool water in the desert. "Madelyn, say no more of it, please."
"I only meant to ask if you are, perhaps, free tonight after all," Madelyn said. "If so, I would appreciate your assistance in clearing up this mystery."
"Of course," I said, "of course!"
Hurriedly dressing, I rushed out, onto the Elevated and the Subway which would take me out of the City. Before my small tiff with Madelyn, I had used my free time and my resources at the Bugle to research the Hesperus Club and the Worthington family-- as I journeyed, my heart sang with the silent hope that tonight I would manage, somehow, to be of some small use.
Of course, more likely, I would be quite useless; surely Madelyn had already forged ahead and solved the case without me, and I was merely needed to record her great triumph. I sighed as I arrived at the suburban station, and began the walk to Madelyn's chalet. Somehow the thought was not as thrilling as it once had been. But I was the one who benefited the most from our arrangement; I had no right to insist on terms.
The night was turning cool, and Madelyn was stretched out on her leopard-skin rug, basking in the glow of a slow-burning fire as Susan showed me in. She sat up, stretching her hands out, and I let her take me by both hands and pull me down to sit with her. We studied each other intently for a moment, and did not speak. I was reassured to see Madelyn's eyes no longer bloodshot, but fresh and lively, and her complexion rosy and pink. Madelyn's examination of my face was no less close; oddly, she seemed curious, as if I were a stranger. Whatever she saw, however, clearly satisfied her, for she released my hands and smiled, reclining again.
"Thank you for coming, Nora dear!" she said, then gazed upward dreamily. "I have 'phoned Miss Worthington. She expects you within the hour."
I nodded slowly, leaning back against a handy armchair.
"I suppose," Madelyn continued lightly, "all things considered, I should be flattered to come in a close second to a double-murder capped by a shoot-out on Broadway. Now," she said, "shall I tell you all, or would you prefer to wait for events to unfold in their due course?"
I pressed my lips together for a moment, waiting to speak until I could match Madelyn's matter-of-fact tone. "Don't explain now, I beg you. It's much more thrilling when the mystery remains mysterious to the end."
Madelyn beamed. "Isn't it? Now, on your way-- John will drive you, dear."
I enjoyed the summer breeze and the view as Susan's husband John Bolton chauffeured me, in Madelyn's motor-car, to Miss Worthington's home. In order to present a more convincingly innocent facade, I put all thoughts of gambling-dens and forged wills out of my mind. As we arrived, I observed Miss Worthington's home, Mapleview. It was quite imposing: an exterior of grey stone masonry walls, capped by a tall central tower. The elaborately crafted furnishings and tall columns in the main hallway only added to the opulent feel.
As I waited in the sitting room, I pulled the letter from its plain envelope and studied it once again. Looking on it with fresh eyes, something occurred to me. Although I had never devoted much thought to the science of cryptography-- would it not have been immensely more difficult to decrypt the cipher if the words had simply been run together, blurring separate words into one great mass of letters? How would you find individual words? Perhaps it showed that the sender of the letter was unfamiliar with ciphers... Or perhaps there was some other reason; perhaps it meant nothing.
After a few minutes, Sabrina Worthington entered the room and greeted me coolly. She did not sit, but stood at the mantel to hear my report. Certainly I had expected her displeasure. What I had not expected to detect in her reaction was a sort of unsurprised resentment, a thinning of the mouth and a narrowing of the eyes-- as though for some reason she suspected the truth. She thanked me kindly enough for my trouble, however.
"Please tell Miss Mack not to concern herself further. She may certainly send me her bill, if she wishes, for the time and the trouble she has taken."
I nodded, and asked idly what further steps might be taken in the matter. As though it hardly mattered one way or the other, she shrugged and told me.
"My fiancé, Mr. Dawson, is bringing an expert up to the house tonight," she said in an off-hand manner. "One of his Athletic Club acquaintances is an assistant professor of mathematics, and something of an amateur cryptographer. He is apparently quite interested in the conundrum this note represents. We should have a translation by tomorrow, at the latest."
"Wonderful! Miss Mack thought that turning to a professional in such matters would certainly be your logical next step," I said. "But--" I began, then stopped.
Miss Worthington turned to look at me quizzically, and I continued.
"I only wished to say-- be sure not take any hasty action, once you are certain of the note's contents. Whoever sent it may not be a friend."
Miss Worthington nodded slowly. Her hand moved to the arm of her chair, as though she were about to stand, but then she stopped, and looked me in the face for the first time since I had walked into the room. "You are quite close to Madelyn, aren't you?"
The familiarity in her tone, and her use of Madelyn's first name, confused me. I have said before that in my opinion, very few people-- perhaps a dozen or so, in the whole wide world-- had ever been given the gift of knowing the real Madelyn Mack. Although Madelyn had trusted me with so much-- there were days and times when I was not quite sure I could honestly count myself among those who could say that they truly knew her. "We have known each other some years now," I said carefully. "I have been privileged to be able to observe her at her chosen work. I believe she is a true genius."
"Her chosen work!" Miss Worthington blurted out. She shook her head. "I apologize, Miss Noraker, but even by your own accounts, detective work was not Madelyn's life-long aspiration."
A possible motivation for Miss Worthington's strange attitude suddenly dawned on me. "Did you know her before--?" I stopped. The circumstances under which Madelyn's family had lost its money, forcing Madelyn to abandon higher education and pursue a job as a store-detective, are not well-known even now. Though Madelyn had never asked me to avoid the subject, I did not publicize it in my writings.
"Before her father lost the family fortune at the roulette-wheel and the poker-table, and died a broken man, leaving Madelyn alone, destitute, and friendless?" Miss Worthington said, her tone icily cold. "Yes, I did. As much as anyone can know her. I won't have you think I ended our friendship because of the scandal, Miss Noraker. Or because she was no longer wealthy. I tried to help her, and she would have none of it. She--" Miss Worthington pressed her lips together. When she spoke again, she might have been discussing the dinner-menu, so calm and reflective was her voice. "It was a shock to realize that I never knew Madelyn at all. I think you'll come to that realization one day. I think it will be sooner than you expect."
I said nothing, and glanced towards the door.
"Perhaps Madelyn's capacity for true friendship hardly concerns you," Miss Worthington said. "Perhaps, as a professional newspaperwoman, you merely see Madelyn as a source of thrilling stories you can peddle to the yellow papers. A sort of living oil-well, or diamond-mine."
"Perhaps you--" I said, then bit back the words. Not for nothing, I realized, had this woman reminded me of Madelyn. I would be better off giving her no more weapons to use against me.
"Hm. Or perhaps you'd be better off if you did think of her that way..." Miss Worthington said, and there was something almost pitying in her tone. "What is the expression? 'Take it from one who knows,' Miss Noraker. Good evening." With no further words, she rose and left me.
When I returned to "The Rosary," mentally rehearsing my report, Madelyn was in her study, sitting at her broad mahogany desk. A smudged blue cloth was spread out in front of her, littered with small bottles and brushes, and she was carefully disassembling her gleaming revolver. My blood thrilled slightly, as I assume a hound's does when it hears its master's horn; outwardly, of course, I assumed a casual look.
"Well?" Madelyn said.
"You failed to mention that you and Miss Worthington were old chums at school."
"So I did." Madelyn remained focused on her work. "Well?"
"She had quite a lot to say about you. But I suppose you have no interest in hearing it, since it's irrelevant to the case," I said, settling comfortably into the red leather armchair facing Madelyn's desk. "Shall I tell you--"
"We moved in different circles," Madelyn said. "Sabrina Worthington had a mind naturally tuned to the efficient absorption of knowledge. She flourished in the cultivated intellectual collegiate atmosphere."
"It was perhaps unfortunate that our particular college was co-educational," Madelyn said, her expression quite serious. "I found it quite distracting."
I laughed aloud. "Miss Madelyn Mack, the Sweetheart of Sigma Chi?"
"Is it so impossible to believe?" Madelyn said, attention still fixed on her revolver.
I gamely considered the idea, but soon gave it up. No, I could not imagine the serious, focused woman that I knew as a gay and frivolous girl, attending endless dances and dinners, scheming to give her chaperones the slip, keeping a half-dozen men on the string... Then again, one of Madelyn's most obvious qualities was her boundless energy. A less mature, less self-controlled version of Madelyn might indeed have been a challenge to any potential chaperones...
"I retract my statement; you were undoubtedly a terror," I said. "Of course, as a college girl, I imagine you did not carry a revolver in your hand-bag."
Madelyn had finished cleaning her pistol as we spoke. Now she began to load it. One after another, six gleaming bullets slipped into place, guided by her deft fingers. "I suppose Sabrina finds it quite amusing that it will never be necessary for her to apply her fine mind to anything more complicated than the seating arrangements at a dinner-party," she said, "while I have been forced to live, quite literally, by my wits. Well, she is right, it is ironic. On the other hand, I have never been engaged to an utter scoundrel of a confidence trickster."
"What do you mean?" I sat up straight in my chair, astounded.
"Timothy Dawson." Madelyn's voice held an uncharacteristic sneer. "I have looked into his past. If he is the Harvard-educated heir of a Western oil-man, I am the Empress of China."
"But can it be coincidence that--"
"Strange encrypted letters and an impostor invading Miss Worthington's life? Of course it is not coincidence!" Madelyn interrupted. "He is in league with the woman with the most to lose in this battle over the will-- the second Mrs. Worthington."
Despite the fact that my career required me to delve into all manner of crime-- to immerse myself daily in the foul acts of blackmailers, poisoners and cold-blooded murderers-- I was still capable of being shocked by Madelyn's suggestion. "That's infamous! You mean he's a spy in her house? Why, the rat!" A terrible thought dawned on me. "Madelyn," I said, "I left the letter there! Dawson and a friend-- a cryptographer!-- are surely working to decipher it even now!"
Madelyn smiled at me like a Mona Lisa.
"Nora," she said, "who do you think sent that letter?"
"I don't know," I said, "some comrade of Sabrina's father, who did not want his attendance at a gambling-house to be known publicly--?"
Madelyn dismissed that possibility with a shake of her head. "Ridiculous. How can this mysterious 'friend' of Sabrina Worthington's know for certain that the letter remains in its hiding place, after the fateful raid on the Hesperus Club? He would have had to see it there with his own eyes to be sure. Why not remove it and send it to Sabrina? Why not send some hireling now, and send the proof directly to Sabrina, rather than cryptic letters?"
My breath caught in my throat, and my mind whirled. "You think it's a trap...! But, Madelyn, this makes less sense than before. Why would Dawson advise Sabrina to get the letter deciphered by an expert, if he is truly in league with Mrs. Worthington? Couldn't he just pretend to decrypt it himself?"
"I doubt it fits the persona he has assumed... and yet, you have also put your finger on the most mysterious part of this whole puzzle," Madelyn said-- and that was all she would say on the matter. "But if you are free to accompany me this evening, I believe we can clear them up."
I shook my head, the revelations I had just heard still whirling about my brain. "Oh, Madelyn, what nonsense! I am here, aren't I? You know I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Madelyn had parked her motor-car some blocks away from the Hesperus Club, and we had muffled ourselves in dark cloaks. They were not entirely necessary, as the night was a warm one, but Madelyn had insisted. My face was hidden by a felt cloche hat, and I kept my gaze low; Madelyn wore a broad-brimmed affair with a gray veil over her face.
We proceeded on foot until we arrived at the fateful intersection just short of Forty-seventh Street. Madelyn stopped me there with a touch of her hand, and we glanced down the street at the boarded-up windows and dusty stoop of the once-infamous gambling den. It was a rather typical three-story brownstone, with a wide stoop, dark windows, and broad, unassuming-looking doors.
I could not read Madelyn's expression through the barrier of her veil. "A year ago," I ventured in hushed tones, "the Hesperus Club was one of the most well-attended and luxurious gambling houses in New York, and now--!"
Madelyn nodded and turned away. Proceeding one block down, she led me to an alley between two buildings on Forty-sixth Street. We were swallowed up by the shadows, vanishing from the sight of any possible observer. A rickety, ill-constructed board fence barred our way, but Madelyn pushed it easily aside and slipped past, holding it away from the brick so that I could slip in after her.
Now we stood in the back garden of the brownstone. To my surprise, rather than descend the few steps to the entrance of the basement, where the mural depicting the lovely shipwreck victim awaited us, Madelyn headed for one of the windows on the first floor. Finding an oversized terra-cotta flower pot, she turned it upside-down, climbed atop its base and applied her eye to the window. When she raised her hand, I saw the hint of a "jimmy" in her hand, that short but heavy tool no modern burglar finds himself without. Madelyn's was a dull black.
"Did you paint that jimmy black in order to match tonight's stylish house-breaking ensemble?" I asked sardonically, my hands raised to catch Madelyn if she should slip from her perch.
"Nonsense!" Madelyn said. She grunted as the window-frame shrieked in protest, then gave under the pressure with a loud crack. I flinched; Madelyn did not. Her nerves were, I knew well, made of stronger stuff. She climbed in through the opening she had created, and I followed after.
We found ourselves in a large, empty room; if I recalled correctly, it had once been used as a pool-room. There were no large mahogany tables here now; no lavish carpets or expensive paintings on the walls, only a few piles of ragged, moth-eaten fabric in one corner, that might once have been dust-cloths for the furniture that had now been removed. The smell of rot and decay was thick in the air. Dust coated every surface, and cobwebs decorated every crevice. Madelyn gathered her skirts, hoisting the hems above her ankles, and I did likewise as we crossed through the large room, stopping at a large set of double doors, hanging open.
The front hallway was just as deserted as the pool-room. I crossed to the vestibule, placing my hand against the looming oaken door. Set just inside the deceptively defenseless wooden front door of the brownstone, this second line of defense was reinforced by metal strips and studded with heavy bolts. Splintered and cracked in places, it showed the signs of having been attacked by powerful ax-blows.
Here in the main hall, I could see the windows that looked out onto the street-- once protected, as the window in the kitchen must have been, by finely worked iron grilles bolted to the interior of the wall. Bare, ragged spots around the circumference of each window were the only remnants of these once fierce defenses.
A great staircase behind us led upwards, towards what had once been the prize attractions of the Hesperus Club-- its great roulette wheel, its busy poker tables and faro boxes. I turned towards Madelyn to speak, but found her frozen. I stilled as well, straining my hearing, but heard nothing except my own breathing.
Madelyn lifted a finger slowly to her lips, then drew her veil back down to conceal her face. Moving carefully, I followed Madelyn back towards the great wide door that led into the pool-room. She motioned for me to conceal myself; I slipped behind the door, and she joined me, her body pressing against mine from shoulder to knee.
I could hear it now, close as we were-- a strange scratching sound, like rats in the wall, coming from the front door. For what seemed like an eternity, we two waited there, for whatever would happen next. Madelyn's head was tipped back against the wall as she listened, her lips parted slightly. She looked like some modern incarnation of Diana the Huntress, eyes alight and a faint flush of excitement on her cheeks. Her fingers curled slowly into mine, warm through the thin leather of her driving-gloves, and she squeezed my hand steadily-- urging patience, perhaps. I squeezed back in silent agreement.
I was only rarely granted the privilege of seeing Madelyn at these moments, which I personally thought were her finest. Not her public announcements of triumph at the climax of a case, which were generally controlled, solemn, and intellectual-- those were for her clients, and for my notebook, to be turned into column-inches for the whole world to wonder at. No, these moments were unexpected revelations-- when Madelyn's stand-offish quality vanished, when her coldness melted away and was replaced by the flame dancing in her eyes, by the cobra's grace in her movements as she sought her prey. Madelyn, on the hunt, was glorious, and these moments were hers alone, never shared-- except, sometimes, when they were shared with me.
Finally came the noise of the front door latch clicking open. Someone entered the wreck of the Hesperus Club-- but I could not see! Pressing closer to Madelyn, my cheek almost against hers, squinting in the dim light, I finally saw who had joined us here.
It was a young man, well-dressed, blond hair brushed back from a tanned face. A thick gray muffler was wound around the lower half of his head, masking his features from my sight.
Madelyn turned, her lips brushing against my ear, and mouthed, "Mr. Timothy Dawson."
I nodded, breathless, and she turned away again. Mr. Dawson paused inside the second doorway and carefully tucked some shining object-- too long for a key, perhaps a lock-pick?-- back into a small leather case, which he stowed in his pocket. Movements swift and sure, he strode quickly past our hiding-place, not into the pool-room but to another short hallway. I heard the creak and bang of a heavy trap-door being lifted, and then the sound of footsteps descending into the basement.
My all-consuming desire was to follow on his heels. But, trapped between Madelyn and the door-- I could not move from the spot.
I drank in the sight of Madelyn's profile until the spell was broken by a faint crash. It was the sound-- I assumed-- of Timothy Dawson breaking into the hidden compartment, as the dead man's cipher had directed. But I was mistaken in my assumption. Madelyn knew the true source of that muffled struggle, and she darted from our hiding-place with alacrity.
"Quickly, Nora!" she said, heading not for the stairs, but for the front door! I did not glance back, but followed blindly.
"Why?" I panted, chasing Madelyn out of the front door, down the broad front steps, onto the sidewalk, and, bizarrely, up the steps of the respectable-looking brownstone next door to the Hesperus Club! Madelyn did not knock or try the door, but drew her revolver and fired twice, shooting out the lock. The noise was tremendous in the still summer night, and I reeled back, my hands clapped to my ears. Shouldering the heavy door aside, Madelyn burst into the lavishly appointed vestibule, and I-- as always-- followed, puzzled and amazed.
The layout of this house seemed similar to the former Hesperus Club; across an empty hall and directly in front of Madelyn was a broad double door, not unlike the one Madelyn and I had used for a hiding-place. It was to these doors that Madelyn strode. Revolver still gripped in one fist, she grasped one of the brass door-handles and pulled it wide. A faint, intermittent flashing, like a lightning-bug, was coming from some device on the desk topped with a small glass bulb.
I saw movement in the dimness-- the curtains were all drawn-- and Madelyn lifted the gun. "I warn you-- no!"
The figure froze, and Madelyn reached over, not taking her eyes from it, and flicked on the lights. I flinched at the sudden illumination-- Madelyn did not. When I regained my eyesight, I stared at the figure revealed inside. It was a woman! She was tall, but crouched over the desk, giving her the appearance of a cat, or some nocturnal creature, frozen in the head-lights of an oncoming motor-car. Her dark eyes and red lips stood out almost eerily from a face as drawn and pallid as a corpse's. Somewhat bizarrely, she was dressed rather formally in a black lace gown, its bodice spangled with sequins and jet beads, and there were strings of jet beads woven into her pale blonde hair. The fringe on the sleeves and neckline continued to swing, though she had frozen like a shop-keeper's dummy as soon as Madelyn had pointed the gun in her direction.
"Nora," Madelyn said calmly, "the contents of that desk-drawer, please!"
I moved to obey her command, but then, over the pounding of my heart, I heard footsteps approaching from behind me! There were several large men hastily mounting the front steps, from the sound of it. I whirled, unarmed but willing to defend Madelyn from any attempt at an ambush. Of course, I should have known by Madelyn's bored expression that nothing was occurring here that she had not anticipated-- for, to my utter surprise, the leader of the men approaching our position was Madelyn's old foe, Lieutenant Perry!
"Well?" Madelyn demanded of him, then swung the dazzling glare of her attention towards me, like a searchlight. "Nora, may I remind you--"
"Yes, yes!" I replied, and moved obediently towards the drawer of the desk, my gaze torn between the pallid woman in the black lace gown, and the gruff lieutenant as he made his report to Madelyn. Inside the drawer, rattling against the wood as I pulled it open, was a pearl-handled revolver, smaller and more delicate in appearance than Madelyn's, but-- I had no doubt-- equally as deadly.
"It all went off just as you said, Miss Mack," Lieutenant Perry said, "though you could have waited for my men to arrive at their positions before you shot the door down!" He gestured to me as I carefully wrapped the revolver in my handkerchief and removed it from the desk drawer. "The Sergeant will take that, Miss Noraker!"
I handed it to the affable Sergeant-- with no small amount of relief!-- and backed away from the mysterious woman, who still had not taken her burning eyes from Madelyn.
"I would have waited," Madelyn said meekly, "but I was only thinking of Miss Noraker." She smiled. "If she will write such blood-and-thunder for the Bugle, best give her the dramatic events to justify the overblown adjectives."
"Well, really!" I said, but no one was paying attention to me. Madelyn stepped forward. "Gentlemen-- and lady-- may I introduce Mrs. Cecelia Worthington?" The second Mrs. Worthington's mouth opened slightly, but Madelyn continued, gesturing to the strange contraption of buttons and wires on the desk.
"If you will examine these controls," Madelyn said, "and have these wires traced to their source-- you will see that this light flashes when there is movement in the basement of the Hesperus Club." She turned her attention to Lieutenant Perry again. "No-one has entered this house tonight, except Mrs. Worthington? And no-one has left?"
"Not a soul, Miss Mack. I have men on every exit who can vouch for that."
"Then I would advise you to arrest Mrs. Worthington. The charge, of course, being the attempted murder of Timothy Dawson."
"Dawson!" Mrs. Worthington gasped. "What do you mean, Daw--" She silenced herself, pressing her crimson lips tightly together.
"Ah, you know him, then?" Madelyn leaned across the desk, but Mrs. Worthington jerked her head to the side, avoiding Madelyn's gaze, and would not be led.
Lieutenant Perry motioned to his subordinate, who moved to Mrs. Worthington's side and began to fasten a pair of handcuffs onto her delicate wrists.
"But, Madelyn," I said, moving to her side. "Those wires that go to the basement of the Hesperus Club-- what is their purpose?"
"Come," Madelyn said, her hand curling around my wrist for a moment. "I'll show you."
We dashed out of the room like two girls freed from the school-room; but my light-hearted glee in Madelyn's triumph lasted only a moment. The street outside was crowded with two patrol-cars, an ambulance, and a dozen or so men milling about in front of the steps.
One of the uniformed policemen threw his arm in front of Madelyn, blocking her way as she attempted to mount the steps of the Hesperus Club.
"Harriman!" Madelyn shouted past him, and a red-faced, red-mustached plainclothes detective appeared at the top of the stairs and motioned to his uniformed comrade to let us pass. "Detective Harriman," Madelyn repeated breathlessly as we reached the empty, ruined hall, "where is Dawson? Where's your man?"
"He's still down there in that damned death-trap!" Detective Harriman said, coughing violently as he spoke. "We've got the end of the hose back, but it doesn't move! If he dies down there, Miss Mack--" he began threateningly-- but Madelyn did not stay to hear the rest. She whirled away before he could finish, once again in furious motion, and raced into the abandoned pool-room.
Frozen, I watched as she whipped aside one of the ragged cloths, revealing a strange mask-like apparatus, oddly accessorized with strange flexible tubes. She rushed back into the room, tearing her hat-pin free and casting it away, and flinging her hat and cloak to the bare floor-boards.
"This way!" she said, and headed for the recessed stairwell where we had seen Timothy Dawson descend into the basement. As we approached, a toxic, horrible reek caught me off-guard, sending me into a coughing-fit, and Madelyn retrieved my handkerchief from my fist and pressed it over my mouth and nose. "Help me with this," she said, coughing as well, "and get the end of the hose to good air-- and then get away quickly, Nora! It's poison-- poison gas! Do you understand?"
Poisonous gas--! I nodded, my eyes streaming with tears, still clasping my handkerchief over my face. Clumsily, I helped Madelyn lift the strange apparatus over her head, and then to cinch a rubberized neck-piece tightly about her throat. For a moment I stared helplessly into the smoked-glass eyes of the hideous mask, and then Madelyn gently pushed me away.
Grasping the far end of the flexible air-tube, I backed away from the top of the stairwell as Madelyn began her descent. The air-tube was not very long, but once I reached the end of the hallway, a cross-breeze revived me somewhat-- Harriman, clearly a quick-thinking fellow, had opened the front doors wide, and men were scrambling to open every window that could be reached. He crossed to my side, still cursing under his breath, and put a comforting hand on my shoulder.
"Miss Noraker, isn't it? Don't cry, girlie--"
"It's the gas, you idiot!" I snapped in a masterful tone that would have done Madelyn proud.
"Of course it is," he said soothingly. Mentally, I revoked the adjective 'quick-thinking' that I had applied to him moments earlier. "Now, put that down and come away."
"No!" I said, clutching Madelyn's air-tube despite my dizziness and pounding head. "That's what happened to your man, isn't it? He pulled the tube after him-- he couldn't get good air! I'm staying right where I am, thank you!"
Detective Harriman shook his head, teeth gritted beneath his red mustache. Though his coughing-fits were worse than mine, he stood by me until Madelyn emerged, dragging a figure in a similar hood-and-tube contraption. Harriman dove forward as soon as she was in sight, hoisting the man over his shoulder and making a run for the waiting ambulance. There was no sign of Dawson, and I could only assume he remained below. With a shudder, I put it out of my mind-- for now, there was nothing to be done.
Coughing, tears still trickling from my eyes, I helped Madelyn stagger out into the vestibule, and there I helped her to remove the neck-piece and hood. Her curls bounced, disheveled, as she swung her head free, and her face was bright with sweat, but as she sucked in great breaths of air, she was laughing, light-headed, eyes feverish. For the first time, I realized that Madelyn Mack would be the death of me someday-- and that I wanted, desperately, to kiss her.
I was still reeling from the strange revelation of my subconscious some ten minutes later, as Madelyn, Detective Harriman and I waited in front of the Hesperus Club for the gas to dissipate. Though Madelyn was explaining the night's events with her usual electric style, it was somehow hard to focus. Every time I looked at her, I felt a blush heat my cheeks. Hopefully the two detectives before me would attribute it to the warm night and my recent exertions.
"Some time ago," Madelyn said, "the men who ran the Hesperus Club made excavations in the basement, attempting to tunnel from that house to this one, which they also owned." She gestured from one to the other. "What they discovered, however, was an old sewer-drain, leaking poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas. A tunnel became impractical, but they could still turn their discovery to their advantage. They sealed it up-- but not too well!-- and then hid the opening behind a false wall, similar to the kind used to conceal safes and other hiding-places. In case of a raid, once their clients and employees had fled, if the police investigated their basement, and tampered with that wall... Well, the chaos that followed would certainly delay any pursuit."
"The devils!" Harriman interjected.
"Indeed," Madelyn said, her eyes still dangerously bright. "But credit must be given to the officers who performed the raid on the Hesperus Club! If they had been more observant, they might have discovered the false wall, and all been suffocated."
"Certainly!" Harriman said, and then frowned. Madelyn turned to me.
"As you know, Nora, I delayed the return of Miss Worthington's letter for one week-- and I did not waste a moment of that week! It seemed odd that the letter directed her to the basement; this led me to suspect a tunnel, the better to abduct Miss Worthington without a trace if she were foolish enough to enter that room alone. I also discovered that the Hesperus Club itself was under near-constant observation from one person or another in the rooms next door-- oh, yes, Mrs. Worthingon had at least one confederate besides Dawson," she asided to Harriman, who made a note of it. "It took some ingenuity to discover a way to get inside the Hesperus without being seen by those watchers, but I managed it-- and almost gassed myself to death as a result."
"Oh, God!" I cried, remembering that day when I had encountered Madelyn outside the Eighteenth Precinct station-house. Her reddened eyes, sickly pallor, and hoarse voice-- these were not the symptoms of stimulant abuse, but the aftermath of a horrible fate nearly averted. I shuddered, tears springing to my eyes as I imagined what could have happened-- my dear friend lying dead in the basement below, her body quickly buried by criminals, her fate never discovered! I could not bear it, and quickly pushed those thoughts away.
Madelyn nodded solemnly. "During my ordeal, I had observed the copper wires leading into the wall. Clearly, they led next door, to the brownstone and the ominous watchers there. I was desperately lucky that I did not alert them to my presence with my crude fumbling in the basement-- Dawson must have been reporting on Sabrina Worthington's movements, at least some of the time. When her potential victim was otherwise engaged, Mrs. Worthington saw no need to sit and stare at her alarm-system."
"Like a cat at a mouse-hole," I murmured, chilled by the image.
"Indeed. I racked my brains to come up with some defense against the poisonous atmosphere, and solved the problem by procuring the safety-hoods. Hiding one here, I turned one over to Detective Harriman, for the use of his man," Madelyn said. "And then--!" She broke off.
I reached out, pressing her hand in mine. "It is all right, Nora," she said softly. "You could not have known."
"No, of course not. I am not a genius. But for your information," I said irrelevantly, "Thorny Preston did not throw me over-- I threw him over!"
As dawn was beginning to break, Timothy Dawson's body was removed from the basement. Madelyn watched, her appearance outwardly placid, but I could see in the set of her jaw that she was not taking this easily.
"What will you tell Miss Worthington?" I asked quietly.
Madelyn looked at me. She had found her hat while we waited, and now, wordlessly, she pulled her veil down over her face.
"We know," she said, her voice as cool as a lecturer in mathematics, "that Dawson was not entirely in the second Mrs. Worthington's confidence, or else he would have known that the basement of the Hesperus contained a deadly trap. Why did he come here tonight? Sabrina will have to decide. Did he mean to find the proof and deliver it to the young Miss Worthington? Or did he mean to find it and destroy it, proving his devotion to her father's second wife? Or, perhaps, like a true master of the con-game, he had no real loyalties, and wanted the letter in order to extort money out of one. Or both. Why not? We can't know now-- we can't know."
"Mrs. Worthington will surely be convicted of his murder," I said quietly.
"Another glorious victory for Madelyn Mack!" Madelyn said bitterly. "But perhaps your readers would rather see me stumble, for once. Unspeakable Hubris of Madelyn Mack Causes Man To Die Grotesque Death! I sense your fingers itching for your type-writer already."
"How dare you!" I said. "That is the worst headline I have ever heard. No editor would approve it! Madelyn Mack Sends Man To Hideous Doom In Gambling-Den, perhaps."
Madelyn burst into laughter, somewhat high and shrill-- she was still recovering from her ordeal, I realized with a pang of sympathy. She clapped a hand over her mouth to muffle her laughter, and I put my arm around her shoulder, and led her away, hailing a cab as soon as one drew near. For once, it was my role to be the rescuer.
Madelyn rested her head on my shoulder, dozing slightly as the cab made its way towards the bluffs over the river, and I tried to push away the confusing thoughts spinning through my mind.
Susan was bustling in the kitchen when we arrived, and I turned Madelyn over to her tender care. I could not bring myself to try to sleep yet. I went out to the rose-garden, coat and boots and hat still on, and paced in the strange clear light of the early morning. I thought about Madelyn, and I thought about Thorny, and about dreams, and I thought about what happens upon waking...
At breakfast the next morning, Madelyn was unusually remote. I tried a few times to engage her in conversation without success, then gave up and devoted myself to my coffee and toast. But when Susan delivered the morning papers and Madelyn's mail, Madelyn put the Herald down and simply looked for a long moment at one particular letter, her expression masked with something more than her usual reserve. I looked at Madelyn inquiringly, and she passed the letter across to me without opening it. It felt slightly heavier than a normal piece of correspondence, as though there were an enclosure... and the name on the return-address was Sabrina Worthington. I studied the envelope for a moment more, but I am not a handwriting-expert, and could deduce nothing from Sabrina Worthington's hand except that it had been steady and unrushed.
Startled, I handed the letter back, and Madelyn sighed shortly and opened it. The first thing she removed from the envelope was a bank check. She raised an eyebrow at it, and again, passed it across the breakfast-table to me without comment. My reaction was nowhere near so controlled.
"Good Lord, Madelyn!" I exclaimed, fumbling and nearly depositing Sabrina Worthington's check into the remains of my breakfast. The amount was-- if not the most extravagant fee Madelyn had ever received for a case-- certainly far more generous than I ever would have expected.
"I did not send her a bill, of course. But Sabrina pays her debts," Madelyn said quietly. I handed the check back and she tucked it away in the envelope. Resting her head on her hand, she poked wearily with her fork at the last of her eggs, then pushed her plate away. Finally, she raised her eyes to mine. "Well, Nora--"
"I'll stay for lunch, if you don't mind," I said quickly, before Madelyn could intimate that I might be too busy to remain at "The Rosary" for the rest of the day. "The atmosphere here is always so conducive to my writing," I added. Madelyn looked startled for a moment, and then smiled for the first time that day.
"Another souvenir for my collection," she said, drawing the second enclosure from the envelope. It was the letter containing the Dead Man's Cipher.
Despite my assertion, I did very little writing that afternoon. Instead, I followed Madelyn about "The Rosary" like a cat, never paying her any direct attention that she might object to, but always lurking somewhere in the corner of her eye.
At one point, a few of Harriman's men arrived to deliver the prototype safety-hoods that Madelyn had used to such effect in the basement of the Hesperus.
"These are only samples, of course," she told me, running her hand over one of them. "They were sent to an acquaintance of mine who manufactures hospital equipment, in hopes that he would be able to drum up interest here in the City. When I contacted him, looking for some sort of portable air-tank, he said they would be quite the thing." Madelyn stopped, as if she had run out of words somehow, then rallied. "And they were."
"An amazing invention," I said, holding up the hideous face of the safety-hood. I could not quite imagine a fire-man encumbered with such a device, but I could easily see how it might be of use in a mine-disaster, or perhaps for sewer-workers, or utility men fixing gas-leaks. It was quite heavy, however, and with a groan I put it down again. "With a few pictures by the right illustrator, it would make quite a good subject for a scientific-interest article in the Bugle's Sunday supplement! I wouldn't like to wear one on Easter Sunday, though."
"Yes, it is a bit cumbersome," Madelyn said. "I assume the inventor will improve the design, if he can get the funding."
She sounded oddly pessimistic; I looked up. "Why do you say 'if'?"
"The inventor," Madelyn said, "happens to be a Negro gentleman from Kentucky."
"Is he really!" I said, intrigued. "That makes the story even better."
"Oh-- see if your editors think so!" Madelyn said cynically. I chose not to argue the point. "Crime they want," Madelyn continued, still clearly in the grips of her dark mood, "murder they want, your readers-- your public! But educated, scientific men across the country have rejected this inventor's idea merely because--" She frowned, caught in the grip of some complicated thought, then shook her head. "No... It's not a death I would wish on anyone, Nora. Not even Timothy Dawson, thief and a swindler though he was."
"I'll write it anyway," I said. "The Bugle isn't the only game in town, and if they won't publish it, I'll find someone who will." Madelyn looked at me oddly, and I looked away, blushing. "That invention saved your life; I will be its best promoter, no matter whose laboratory it may have come from! And just so you know-- I will keep writing your stories, too. Do you think I'd give up on you because--"
"Because I caused a man's death?"
"And you talk of hubris!" I said. "You don't control the universe, Madelyn Mack. You couldn't have known the detective in the safety-hood would panic and collapse!"
"I should have done it myself, been there myself! Harriman wouldn't let me," Madelyn muttered. She looked up at me, her expression suddenly fierce, and relief swept through me at the look in her eyes. "Next time he'll know better," she said.
"There's my Madelyn!" I said heartily.
With a faint smile, Madelyn turned to the far wall of her study, and placed the encrypted letter inside her cabinet of prizes. It was some time before I ventured to break the silence in that dimly lit room.
"Madelyn," I said, "it is a lovely day. Let us go out into the garden, and sit in the shade under the maple trees."
Madelyn nodded, but did not move, looking again into the cabinet. "I swear to you now, Nora, I will never again denigrate the lack of creativity among the criminal classes," she said seriously. "I have my Watson-- I won't demand a Moriarty as well."
For a moment I could not speak. "I-- Am I really?"
Madelyn cocked her head, regarding me curiously. "Of course you are, you silly thing! ...Why, Nora, you are blushing!"
I shrugged, not knowing what to say, and turned away, heading out toward Madelyn's garden.
"I quite like his writing, of course," I said, chattering aimlessly as we passed through the rows of rose-bushes together. "People wrote plays about Holmes too, you know. Remember, I told you I'd put you in a play? Perhaps I still will. Plays make money." I was dangerously close to mentioning Thorny Preston, I realized, and veered away from the topic. "The story would have to change to fit the medium, of course."
"Of course," Madelyn said agreeably. She reclined in her deck-chair with her usual queenly air. I propped myself up, put my notebook on my knees and began to scribble.
"You would be," I said, "unknown to all, secretly a countess from some obscure European locale... or perhaps a spiritualist medium, who solves cases by gathering clues from the Beyond..."
Madelyn laughed, and my heart sang to hear it; I continued to scribble nonsense in my notebook, adding in the most melodramatic and unlikely turns from every popular Broadway production I had ever seen, or read a review of. It was a surprisingly engaging process, and I lost myself in my work. After a few long minutes, I looked up.
"Can I marry you?" I asked.
"People would talk!" Madelyn blurted, then blushed scarlet. I had never seen her turn so red. I began to stammer.
"Why-- no! In the play!" I explained hurriedly. "There's always a romantic conclusion, you know--! People like it, when-- Can I marry you in the play?" Oh, God, what was I saying? "Marry you off, I mean!"
"No!" Madelyn said emphatically. "Put it out of your head, Nora!"
"Sherlock Holmes lets people marry him in the plays," I argued.
Madelyn shook her head. Rising, she came to my deck-chair, sat at my feet, and took my notebook out of my hands. "Now, let me see what you have done to me!"
She stopped, frowning, and cocked her head. I chuckled at her daunted expression. First she scowled at me, and then at the cryptic cipher revealed in the pages of my notebook. Madelyn, of course, had always employed a secretary to run her Fifth Avenue office. Unlike me, she had never taken dictation or done copying for a living-- and so, she had never learned to decode that mysterious cipher known as short-hand.
"What a pity," I said. She was very close to me, and her proximity was quite affecting, but I struggled to keep my tone light. "I am sure Sherlock Holmes knew short-hand."
Madelyn closed the notebook, letting it fall to the grass at our feet. "I," she said, looking deeply into my eyes, "am not Sherlock Holmes."
"No," I said, trembling slightly now, like a rabbit hypnotized by the gaze of a snake, "you are not."
"A romantic conclusion!" Madelyn scoffed. "Marry me off! I would like to see you try!" She peered at me closely, and I tried to meet her gaze boldly, but I could not.
"I would--" I began, looking away, but I did not know how to finish my sentence... and I never found out.
Madelyn put a hand on the seat-back of the chair, next to my head. Her other hand landed somewhere around my waist. She leaned in, slowly, and I stared back, nearly cross-eyed-- and Madelyn kissed me.
It was passionate from the first, I admit! My eyes fluttered closed as Madelyn slid her hand up to cup my face, holding me still in a gesture of unconscious, casual mastery. There could be no mistaking the motive driving this delirious kiss-- it was not friendship on Madelyn's part, nor comfort on mine, but desire on both sides, long denied. When she finally ended the kiss, I would have been breathless from the mere physical sensation, if I had not already been breathless with surprise.
"Madelyn!" I said. The whole world seemed to spin about me.
"Why did you end your engagement to Thorny Preston?" Madelyn demanded, and I burst into laughter.
"Surely you know why!"
Madelyn smiled a cool, triumphant smile-- but she could not stop herself from kissing me again, quickly, and sheer relief was written across her features when she pulled back yet again.
"I won't write a play about you," I told her. "I don't need the money, and I don't wish to change you into someone else. Just let me help you, dear Madelyn!" I found her hand and pressed it between mine. "Let me stand by your side-- let me be part of your story! That's all I want."
"Part of the story!" Madelyn said. "There is no story without you, Nora. Good Lord, I thought you knew that. I tried to escape you so many times," she said, and her controlled voice broke, strangely. She shook her head violently, looking up at the trembling maple leaves that veiled us from the world. "I traveled the world to get away-- but I always came back, I couldn't stay away--!"
"Madelyn!" I said, and gathered her in my arms, thrilling at my own boldness.
Quite soon-- and for some time after-- neither of us had any need for words.