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THE CASE OF THE MYSTERIOUS MOLL
6 HOURS TO LIVE!
Margaret Annister, waiting death in the gas-execution chamber of Nevada City’s prison, had little hope that her last desperate appeal to the governor for reprieve or commutation would succeed. For since it had failed utterly in the hands of her attorney—and why not, in view of her unanimous conviction on the very first ballot of that mixed jury; and their unanimous decree of death on their second ballot; and, even more, the refusal of the State Supreme Court to find any error whatsoever in that trial?—how else could this last and final appeal fare in the hands of her only friend, Yerxa Indergaard? But she would know soon now, Margaret realized—with Yerxa’s return and admittance to this place——
Pacing this late June morning up and down the grim chamber, in her neatly fitting but hopelessly simple blue denim prison dress, Margaret had, oddly enough, little fear of that dreadful thing that was scheduled to descend on her now in 7—no—6 more hours. Six hours and 25 minutes! And Margaret knew exactly why she had no fear—no horror—no panic. For that hypodermic injection that Big Bella, the matron, had given her, before conducting her into this chamber earlier today, had, curiously, erased from Margaret’s mind and brain all ability to imagine the horrid picture of what was to happen in here at 5 P.M. that day.
Past events—events that had really happened—these were clear, and even crystal-clear, this morning, in Margaret’s partly-dazed mind. Events, for instance, such as that never-to-be-forgotten day when World War II had officially ended, with German and Japanese aggression banished for countless decades yet to come, and all business suspended, the world over, for 3 full days. Or even lesser events, such as that strange one that had occurred on the last day of her freedom, when that beautiful blonde woman—beautiful in spite of being somewhere in her late thirties—that woman with the face of a gangster’s moll—had peered at Margaret on the street—had leered at Margaret with that peculiarly triumphant look that had scorched Margaret’s soul. All so clear—these events of the past—yes! But events of totally unexperienced nature—yet to come—ah, these were different things for Margaret Annister. Indeed, as a result of that drug which had been sent into her veins, her mind worked more clearly than ever—she was certain of that; yet, when it came to trying to focus on that grim event the like, or even remote like, of which she had never experienced—her own death—it was as utterly impossible at this moment as though she were trying to grasp an object with a paralyzed, insensate hand. Nothing but blankness ensued. And she knew full well that imagination, that thing so often a blessing in Life, had been mercifully erased from her mind and nervous system. And that all that was left, indeed, of that stark horror she had felt yesterday and last evening was just an overpowering sadness—almost a despair—that she was not to continue on down that interesting road called Life; that the road she was now on did, and must, terminate suddenly in a dark woods—a foggy woods—she shook her head helplessly. For it remained since this morning a blurry, foggy woods, that was all. “Execution,” she knew it was called. Even—“execution by gas”! Exe—she gave it up. For to her the very concept had become but 3 difficultly grasped words that meant and conveyed but the simple sad idea of finis—end—termination—to Life.
She was face to face now, in her pacing, with the square, highly polished metal plate sunk, by its exact own thickness, and at eye-level, in the cement wall—that reflector-of-self vouchsafed to those unhappy persons who had to endure, for brief or longer while, in that chamber, by which to see themselves—before they went. Or perhaps they faced it, with eyes tightly averted, while they received the most hopeless of tidings, concerning futile final appeal, from the disc-like, hard-rubber speaking-device set rigidly, deeply, within a hemispherical sound-reflecting recess, in the cement just beneath the plate. Calmly, almost dispassionately, Margaret contemplated herself in that square shining surface.
Her throat and neck, rising generously and freely above the crudely hemmed upper edge of the blue denim prison dress, were white and smooth—as befit one who was but 25 years of age. They looked even more white in contrast with the jet ringlets that fell over their owner’s forehead. Even whiter yet because of the black eyes which now were gravely contemplating themselves—eyes possessing a definite upward slant at their outer corners, and comprising Margaret’s definite inheritance from that one Russian parent of hers which had almost caused her to be baptized Tanya! Except that——
She continued to stare drearily, with her full warm lips, encrimsoned a bit by the partly stimulating effects of that drug—lips inherited from her British parent—parted slightly in half-puzzlement. Knowing, with certainty, that the girl who stared equally as drearily back at her just was not—simply could not be—that person who now stood in front of the reflecting plate—that unhappy creature who had been accused, tried, convicted of that atrocious murder, by the most horrible and hopeless concatenation of circumstances—circumstances all welded viciously, cruelly together, in some utterly unexplainable and unfathomable manner —and for reasons even a thousand times more unfathomable—by that ruthless, malevolent seller of iron finger-rings who called himself——
But now a sharp explosive click sounded startlingly from the black disc-like speaking-device in that recess beneath the plate that Margaret was facing. From, indeed, the very gaping round mouthlike orifice in the disc. Showing that a circuit containing it had suddenly been closed. And the click was followed by a voice from the device.
“Step to the speaking-device, Annister—if you can,” it commanded sternly.
It was a woman’s voice. The voice, as Margaret knew, of Big Bella—Bella O’John—the deathwatch matron, who sat right now in the short corridor outside that chamber. A voice utterly devoid, because of decades of grim penal work, of any remnant of human sympathy. Or else—in this case—the voice of one who was completely convinced that the execution scheduled to take place here that day was one that was ten times rightfully deserved by its victim, and that——
“I—I am at the device—right now, Matron,” Margaret stammered.
“I see. Well, I am instructed, Annister, to keep you apprised of all developments in your—uh—plea to the governor; and so I want to say that I have definite word that your friend, Mrs. Indergaard, left the governor’s office ten minutes ago—so must be on her way here now.”
Margaret gazed hopelessly at the device, then spoke. “She failed—of course?”
“Now, now, Annister, I can’t say that. I don’t know.” The voice stopped. A sharp explosive click showed that the speaking-device had been cut off.
Margaret’s breath moved slowly, so slowly, within her. For she knew, deep, within her heart of hearts, the uselessness of Yerxa’s plea to Governor Chanrode Bayliss, particularly when the skilful combined plea-and-argument of Margaret’s attorney, Damascus Gilbride, now dead for nearly forty-eight hours from the heart attack that had followed that plea by some half-dozen hours, had failed so completely. Yerxa Indergaard’s mission could have but one result. Refusal!
She turned wearily away from the polished plate she was still facing and gazed drearily, instead, about the room where soon she was to die—if Yerxa failed—to die painlessly, she hoped. She tried to reflect gravely again on this specific aspect of things—could not—simply could not give it up. And, instead, surveyed the room where she was to die.
Just a huge cement-floored and cement-walled chamber it was, some twenty feet square. So starkly, so sparsely furnished that it practically was not furnished at all! Yet generously lighted by its one broad eight-foot-long window, containing double sheets of thick plate glass, with heavy vertical bars on its outside, and stout iron webbing on its inside—a window which, however, was not a “window” at all, since its metal frame, single and part of the construction of the very wall that held it, could not even be raised! Built completely, top, sides and bottom, of welded steel plates, the room’s one-foot-thick cement lining belied the sinister significance of that air-tight steel boxlike skeleton lying hidden back of its dirty grey surfaces, and revealed not in the least those more cunning touches of hermetic sealing in which the invisible 6-inch metal bushings that carried from the room the speaking and light-wires were both fused to the plates through which they passed.
At various points about the room’s walls, a foot or so from the floor in most cases—though, again, but one foot from the ceiling in other cases—were gaping, black, hornlike metal-lined orifices through which, at this particular moment, the fresh air filling the room was drifting, but through which, in due course, the lethal gas would pour instead!
But now again, from directly behind Margaret, came that explosive click in the speaking-device which betokened that the circuit had been thrown on. And Margaret, one slender hand flying automatically to heart, wheeled swiftly around and waited.
“Annister?” As before, the voice was that of Big Bella O’John. “Step to the speaking-device, please.”
“I—I have not yet left it, Matron.”
“Oh, I see. Well, in line with those instructions I have to keep you posted concerning your plea, I want to say that Mrs. Indergaard is reported now as being in the prison.”
Margaret’s heart gave the faintest of leaps within her. “In—in the warden’s office?” she asked, scarcely breathing.
“No. She has passed through the front-office building, and is headed for this rear wing.”
“Oh,” breathed Margaret, the surgings of faint hope rising within her. “That—that can mean that she flies straight to me because she has news—good news!”
“Now, Annister, don’t make deductions from points that warrant none. It’s only fair to tell you that any decision of the governor, concerning you, would be transmitted by him directly to the warden, and not left to a stranger to deliver.”
The faint hope that had risen, wraithlike, in Margaret, turned into a curious cold plummet that slithered leaden-like downward in her very soul.
“Yes, I understand,” she returned in a low voice. “I think I do. Has any decision yet been phoned to the warden?”
“He could not have gotten it, Annister, if it had. For the reason that he is in town at the moment—out of the prison—and not expected back till some thirty minutes from now.” The woman outside broke off peremptorily. “The point is that your friend will be here—any minute. Now pull yourself together as best you can. And in any event, don’t make things difficult for her as well as yourself. Are you ready to receive her?”
“Oh, I am—yes, Matron, I am!” was Margaret’s fervent, even frightened reply. “So ready! For right now the only thing in the entire world for me is to—to see Yerxa—no matter what—what news she has—no matter how bad it is. Seeing her, Matron, is—is just about the one thing in the world that will make me able to—to go through with this—appalling affair.”
“Yes, yes, I know. And I see that that drug is working—as much as it can be made to work in cases like yours. Well, I’ll bring your friend in the moment she gets here.”
A click. And the speaking-device went dead again.
And Margaret turned, for the second time—contemplating leaden-heartedly this sordid chamber in which she was going to have to receive her best and only friend. Who had not yet seen it, for the simple reason that her last meeting with Margaret had taken place early this morning in Margaret’s more comfortably furnished cell in the women’s wing of the prison. Poor Yerxa! How unalterably shocked she would be by this room and its stark furnishings. Margaret shook her head despairingly, and swept her own gaze forlornly about this awful place in which she was hostess.
No rugs on the cold cement floor. Unless perchance one counted the two narrow diagonally lying painted representations thereof!
No couch—nor bed—unless one counted the padded pallet, swung out by heavy chains from the corner of the room rightward of where Margaret now stood, and providing, at most, but something on which to fling oneself; but no blanket nor sheet upon it with which to commit suicide! Two chairs—and two only—heavy massive missionlike things, with flat handles, both stationed on the side of room opposite that broad window which itself gazed out only on a dreary, highwalled yardlet, scarce more than an interior closed court—chairs casually placed. Yet the very casualness of their positions was belied by the powerful angle irons that held their feet, by sunken bolts, to the floor!
Comforts—none! Other than the single iron slopjar held rigidly in the corner, leftwise of where Margaret stood, by the semi-circular iron band passing clear around it, and padlocked to the wall; and the iron basin, containing tepid water, on an iron shelf above it, the basin held firmly down by iron bands crisscrossing above it and padlocked to the shelf.
But now an interruption took place in Margaret’s despairing surveyal of her cheerless surroundings. None other than the hollow rattling sound of a powerful metal bolt being withdrawn, somewhere outside. And then, but a second later, the swinging forth, out of the wall opposite Margaret, of a huge five-foot circle—a circle whose lowest point was a foot or so above the floor—a circle that was painted a darkish grey to match the very cement around it, except that the circle was not cement, but was of metal—was, indeed, the inside surface of the special door which kept this chamber, at one certain hour, hermetically sealed. For, as it swung slowly inward, to the now discernible tune of the low whir of an invisible electric motor, and the almost noiseless purr of gearwheels, and well about, on what was evidently a single massive and apparently perfectly hung hinge, the door showed itself to be, in actuality, a great aluminum and steel pluglike affair, fully a foot and a half thick and even tapering ever so slightly outward from the room, and making the whole combination, door and casing, resemble nothing so much as the doors on submarines and on safety-deposit vaults. A powerful hand-wheel protruding from the machinery on the plug-end face and the polished wedgelike terminals of the sleeved radial arms were sufficient to reveal to the veriest neophyte in things mechanical how this particular door, when closed, could be drawn, by no more than the turning of that wheel and the engagement of those terminals with wedge-like steel apertures somewhere about the outer periphery of the whole, so tightly into the machined and conically-tapered door casing, that not a molecule—an atom—an electron—of lethal gas could pass out!
And the opening of that door also revealed, as now it swung clear about to almost the full extent of its swing, a view of what was a narrow stone corridor paralleling the wall, with a single lighted electric bulb, evidently suspended from its unseen ceiling, hanging almost across the circle, a worn armchair in the lower part thereof, and facing the door, and two phones, on a wall above that chair.
But now, before the great door, swinging inward, had come to almost silent rest against the wall which held it, the purr of the concealed motor ceased abruptly—the door came to an immediate stop—the clanking rattle of mechanism being completely released from interlocking mechanism sounded from somewhere—and from around the edge of the circle appeared the white-uniformed figure of O’John the deathwatch matron herself. Already stepping in over the circular threshold of the door. But quite alone, as Margaret, with heart that had momentarily almost ceased to beat, perceived. A huge woman O’John was, some forty-six years of age. Weighing full 280 pounds, and having to stoop appreciably so that her 6 feet of height could get through that circular doorway. From the waist of her stiffish white uniform swung the heavy bunch of keys which, as Margaret knew from having passed it once this morning, unlocked a powerful wooden door at the end of that short corridor, as well as more doors beyond. Heavy bushy reddish-brown eyebrows she had, that came together right over the bridge of her big nose. Her still bright red hair was done tight against her broad bovine-like head, but her eyes, in contrast to it, were cold, gelidly cold. Indeed her face, as she gazed queryingly across the room at Margaret, bore the look of a woman who felt that at last a young and pretty woman of her own sex had caught her just deserts in crime.
“No—not yet!” O’John said immediately. “She’s not here yet. I’m merely unhooking the door-operating mechanism at the outswing point—so that from now on it can be opened by hand. And sort of, at the same time, Annister, looking you over too—before this interview. To see that you are in proper condition for it.”
Apparently satisfied that everything in the room was in order, O’John swung her gaze directly and critically upon Margaret as she came across the room. Stopping finally in front of her. Surveying Margaret’s eyes. Nodding, at some condition she perceived in the pupils.
“Okay, apparently,” was the matron’s verdict. Now she stroked her chin, a bit troubledly. “And now I guess I’d better say a word or two, Annister—about this interview. It can only be, remember, limited in time. If the news she brings you if, by some—uh—some chance, good, like—like, say, a stay of execution—that time limitation wouldn’t worry you—no! But if the news were bad—”
“It—it is bad,” replied Margaret in a low voice. “For if—if it had been good, I’d have been notified somehow—that is, Matron, you would have—long before this, and——”
“Now, now, I told you why that would be quite impossible—with the warden himself not on the premises at the moment to take a direct call from the governor. And—but all right—good or bad, Annister—this particular interview can only be five minutes. Do you fully understand that?”
“Five minutes?” Margaret’s hand swept to her heart. “Oh surely, Matron, you won’t hold me to—” She stopped. Such hopes as she had concerning the outcome of Yerxa’s interview had been burning so low that their flame was well nigh invisible—but they had been at least burning; now the faint glow that had emanated from that burning seemed to die down—to cease. “Oh surely,” Margaret begged, “you—you don’t mean that, do you—Matron? If her news is bad? And because of it I can have only a few hours to live? Surely you–”
“Now stop that!” ordered O’John, sternly and peremptorily. “The point is, Annister, that instructions are instructions. Regardless of what news she brings. So all right, then, I’m going to let your friend in the minute she comes. You may be entirely alone with her. And you needn’t fear that anything either of you says will be listened to by that device in back of you. I shall, of course, have to click in once or twice during the interview—and listen for a mere second or so—just to see that everything is going along in here on—well—even keel and all; but the speaker-circuit won’t be kept open, as I shall assure your friend. Only remember—remember now—news good or news bad—five minutes only?”
“But oh,” Margaret cried, that invisible and practically non-existent flame of hope rising suddenly within her, “if—if by some chance she has good news, then—then I wouldn’t want her to remain with me even five seconds. I would want her to fly—to fly with it to the warden’s office—to tell him that he’s not—he’s not to—to—to——” Margaret passed a hand over her forehead.
And now Big Bella O’John, in front of her, was speaking.
“We’ll let the future determine all those things,” the matron was saying firmly. Now she felt for her keys; found them there at her waist. Half turned away. “All right, then.” And turning clear about this time, she proceeded across the floor to where that great round grey circle hung curiously poised as though a section of the wall itself had been neatly and firmly punched through by a giant thumb, and maneuvered herself through the opening, and was gone.
And now, alone again with herself, as she had been for many hours now, Margaret moved wearily over to the broad window and, lining her eyes up with two openings in the iron webbing, gazed forth over the dreary scene the view gave on to: a blank desolate court-like yardlet, no wider than the death chamber itself—since its high containing side walls were nothing more than extensions of the walls of the death chamber—and with almost no depth, since the farther wall that cut it off from everything lay but twelve scant feet or so off from the window, and was so inordinately high that it cut off all the rest of the prison—all, that is, but the clock on the far tower of the administration building, the gold hands of which, seen from here, marked the passing of the hours for those within.
Again Margaret passed a hand wearily over her forehead. How long now? How long before Yerxa would come—no!—for Yerxa would come. But if her news were bad—how many hours now—before—before——
Fascinated, Margaret swung her eyes again to that gold-handed tower clock, lighted up by the morning sun. Twelve minutes to eleven in the morning. Six more hours. Six hours and twelve minutes. Unless, perchance, dear God, Yerxa had won—a miracle had happened—in which——
But since Margaret had moved to the window, something had happened in the corridor outside. The arrival, no less—of someone. Someone who——
The advance news thereof was being heralded by two separate sounds—first, the rattle of the bolt being unleashed in the door; then, in turn, the click of the speaking-device—followed, almost immediately, by the news itself—in O’John’s voice, on the speaker.
“All right, Annister—Mrs. Indergaard is here. Go right in that door, Mrs. Indergaard.”
And as Margaret, catching her breath sharply, her hand flying once again to her heart, swung clear around and about, the better to watch that great circular door, which already had opened, she realized helplessly that now, this moment, her Destiny was being written; that now she was to see—perhaps for the last and final time in her life—her dearest and truest friend.
Her body almost rigid with suspense, her heart scarcely beating within her, Margaret stood exactly where she was, the better to read instantly, with her own feverish eyes, the story which, she realized well, would be told fully by Yerxa’s own frank and honest countenance, as the latter entered this chamber—of death.
Tensely, biting her lips now to keep from screaming at the top of her voice, Margaret waited—to learn her fate!
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