Authors: Robert Bruce Sinclair
Conway looked at them incredulously. “What did you do, bribe that couple to change their story?”
“Wait a minute, Conway—” Ramsden half-rose from his chair. “We’ve taken enough lip from you.”
“He’s naturally disappointed,” Bauer said placatingly, “after getting away with it this long. But don’t you go talking about bribes,” he said sternly to Conway. “You ought to know by this time that a man like me don’t have to pull stuff like that. Matter of fact, it was you tipped me off. You remember, you were talking about rebroadcasts this morning? It must of been your unconscious, thinking about it. Anyhow, I did a little checking up.
“Remember, we were here in this office the day the body was found, and I said this Elsie Daniels told me they’d been listening to Senator Taft when they saw the car being parked. Well, somebody” — there was a barely perceptible glance at Ramsden — “figured that made it ten o’clock, because that’s when most people here heard the speech. But” — the sergeant paused professorially — “that was not a fact. When I got the real fact, this afternoon, all I had to do was take it and the other facts I had, and put ’em together right, like I told you. Senator Taft’s speech was broadcast from two local stations here at ten o’clock, all right. But those were rebroadcasts. By looking up the radio logs at the newspaper, I find out it was broadcast at
o’clock from a Denver station which not many sets can pick up out here. But whaddaya know? Elsie’s family just got a big new radio that can get it, as I proved this afternoon. And to top it off, the Denver station is practically right next to KNX on the dial, which is what Elsie usually tuned to, on account of the music.
“The other day, when I told Elsie and her boy friend it was ten o’clock when the car stopped, they both said, ‘Oh, it couldn’t of been as late as that.’ I figured that was because they’d been mushing and lost track of the time, but it turns out they were right. What happened was, they intended to tune in KNX, but, not being used to the new radio, they didn’t hit it right on the nose. What they got instead was Denver. So today when I asked ’em again what time they thought it was, they were positive it wasn’t ten. So it must of been nine, which all adds up and makes sense. At nine-o-four, or very close to it,” he was addressing Conway now, “you parked your car with your wife’s body in it, and got out and walked away.”
“I have to hand it to you, Sergeant, for figuring that out,” Davis said. “It’s brilliant.” Conway expected Bauer to take a bow, but instead he ploughed along with his recital.
“You got out of the car,” he continued, “and walked up to Santa Monica Boulevard—”
“Wait a minute,” Conway interrupted. “The car wasn’t parked at nine o’clock because it was still in the parking lot. And I didn’t park it at nine or ten or any other time, because I couldn’t have. Why don’t you look for the man who did — at least you know he had a mustache and was practically hunchbacked.”
Davis’s glance at Ramsden was somewhat disconcerted.
They muffed that one,
Conway thought. Bauer, however, did not hesitate.
“There’s a dozen five-and-tens and souvenir stores along Santa Monica and Hollywood Boulevard open that time of night,” he said. “And they all sell those disguise kits for kids. You parked around a corner on a dark street, locked the car, went into one of those places, paid your quarter, trimmed the mustache a little, and stuck it on. All you have to do to look like a hunchback is hunch up your coat, hunch over your shoulders, and, see?” — the sergeant demonstrated — “I’m a hunchback.
“Another thing, just so you know I haven’t missed any details,” the detective continued to Davis, “he had a hat when he got out of the parked car. Naturally, to help hide his face. What happened was this: he left the hat in the car with her coat, so he had no hat in the drugstore. He wears the hat when he gets out of the car, after he’s parked it, and when he gets a couple blocks away from it, he takes off the mustache, throws it away, rips up the hat and gets rid of the pieces, and arrives at the theatre with no hat. I did a little looking around his house the other day — not a sign of a hat anywhere.”
“I haven’t worn, or owned, a hat since I came to California — like thousands of other men,” Conway said.
“Well, you coulda bought that, too,” Bauer said. “But I’m surprised a man like you would go in for kid stuff like that disguise. I s’pose you were pretty rattled, though. Must of been, to think we’d pay any attention to that.”
Conway resolutely refused to let himself become panicked. But he could feel that all-too-familiar constriction of the throat begin to come on, and he wondered how much longer he could continue this show of nonchalance.
“Anyhow, you walked up to Santa Monica Boulevard, which took you about twenty minutes,” the detective continued, and then added to Davis, “I checked that. You were shot with luck, because a trolley car came along there at nine twenty-two, which was just about when you hit Santa Monica, and got you back to the theatre at nine-thirty — just in time to let you see the audience leaving the theatre after the picture.”
“No trick to it at all,” Conway said. “All I had to do was to be in two places at the same time.”
“The doorman let you into the lobby,” Bauer went on, “you went into the theatre, threw the glove under a seat, got the manager, and let him watch you find the glove. All very neat.”
“To say the least,” Conway said.
“Then you went to the parking lot, found your car gone, which it certainly was — it had been gone for an hour and a half — went through the motions of looking for your car and your wife — very convincingly, I got to hand it to you — called the police, got on a trolley and went to the police station. Eight? Eight.”
The facts were so wrong, and the deductions made from them so ridiculous, that Conway could almost relax. That he was suspected at all was disturbing, but they were, as yet, so far from knowing the real facts of the murder that he saw no reason to be too perturbed.
“You have a great future as a fiction writer,” he said to Bauer. “That makes a very nice story — except that at nine-o-four I was in the movie with my wife, and at nine-thirty I walked with her to the parking lot and the car was there. How do you explain that?”
“Very simply,” Davis said. “
the fiction writer. You weren’t in the movie at nine-o-four, or any other time, because you didn’t go back to the theatre after you left the drugstore. The doorman remembers you when you started to go in and your wife found out you were early, and called you an idiot, and walked off, with you following her. But he didn’t see you come back.”
“We went back just before the picture started. There was a crowd going in.”
“And neither he nor anyone else saw you leave,” Davis continued. “And you said you left before the end of the picture, so there was no crowd coming out then.”
“He was—” Conway stopped himself in time. He had said they had left only a minute before the end of the picture; if he said that the doorman was at the popcorn counter when they left, his lie might be revealed, which could lead to other disclosures.
“How could the doorman be expected to remember everyone who walked past him in the course of the evening?” he said. “You’d have a fine time convincing a jury I wasn’t in the theatre just because the doorman doesn’t remember my going in or coming out.”
“You’ve got something there,” Davis agreed. “That would be quite an assignment. But” — he paused and smiled affably — “the joke’s on you. Because I don’t have to prove you
in the theatre. You just go ahead and try to prove you
. We haven’t been able to, and” — the smile vanished utterly — “you won’t be able to either,
because you weren’t there.
But — I
prove everything eke.” He took a long drag on his cigarette and looked at Conway speculatively. “And
, do you want to play ball?”
“You’re nuts!” Conway said, but he was rigid with terror. He had selected the seats in the theatre with a view to being inconspicuous, so that their early exit would not be noticed; their leaving had attracted no attention, which he had counted as an added bit of luck. He had foreseen no need of having to prove his presence in the theatre, for he could not have imagined that a muddle-headed detective would manage to prove, to a presumably sane district attorney, that the crime had taken place an hour earlier than it actually had.
The muddle-headed detective spoke. “Mind if I say something to him?” he asked Davis.
“Like I told you,” he said to Conway, “I take an interest in my clients. You’re not really a client now, of course, but I’m still interested in you. Naturally, you shouldn’t of killed her, but I can see extenuating circumstances.”
“You’re seeing double,” Conway said.
“I knew there was something phoney when I saw that glove you said she sent you to get. And, of course, I was right. But that’s one of the things makes me think it wasn’t premeditated, because if you’d planned it, you’d of figured out something better than that, you being a writer and all, so I’m right on that one, too. Well, if it wasn’t premeditated, it wasn’t first-degree murder. So, if you play ball with the D. A., maybe he’ll let it go at second-degree. Can’t ask for more than that.” He turned to Davis. “How about it?”
“There do seem to have been some extenuating circumstances,” Davis said. “Of course, I can’t promise anything, but I’ll talk to the boss. In fact, I’ll definitely recommend that we accept a plea of second-degree — if you’ll co-operate.”
“You’re all insane,” Conway said, and his voice shook with real outrage, the righteous indignation of the artist who has created a perfect work, only to have it misunderstood, distorted, perverted, by a crass and ignorant public. “This whole idiotic accusation stems from the fact that this chowderhead detective, advised by his cretin girl friend, thinks it’s unnatural for a woman to get upset about losing a glove — even an old, worn one. From that magnificent start, he’s gone on to a series of asinine deductions, based on falsified facts. I knew my wife had withdrawn the money from the bank — I didn’t know she had it with her in the drugstore, but that discovery would hardly put me into a homicidal rage. I knew nothing at all about Taylor until I was told about him this morning in this office — and I still don’t know if it’s true. I was in the theatre at nine o’clock, and the car was parked at ten. I don’t
that,” he hastened to add, “but that’s what you’ve said right along, and I do know it wasn’t parked at nine, because it was in the parking lot, and my wife was alive, at nine-thirty. And there aren’t any extenuating circumstances, because there aren’t any circumstances at all.”
Conway found that he was convincing himself, which, after all, was not too surprising, because everything he had said was true. “All this ‘evidence’ you think you have is phoney from start to finish,” he continued, “and if you’re silly enough to take me into court, I’ll prove it to any jury in the world — unless they’re all raving lunatics.”
“He don’t know what he’s saying,” Bauer said.
“Okay, Conway.” Davis turned to Ramsden. “Book him,” he said, and started for the door, then stopped and addressed Conway again. “If you change your mind, let me know. But make it quick, because if you’re going to stick to your story, and won’t co-operate, I’m going to let you have the works.”
By noon of the next day Conway had had a session with the district attorney himself, been arraigned, and spent an unpleasant hour with a phalanx of reporters and photographers. He had only just been locked up in his cell when a small, round-faced man appeared at the barred door. A uniformed policeman retreated to a discreet distance.
“I’m John Henry Gates,” the man said.
Conway reacted at the mention of the name of the most celebrated criminal lawyer on the Coast. “Looks like you’re in a jam,” the man continued.
“Maybe it’s not as bad as it looks,” Conway ventured.
Gates’s finger traveled lightly up and down one of the iron bars of the door. “These things aren’t licorice, you know. Look,” he said, “I haven’t got much time — I’ll be late for my golf game as it is. I don’t suppose they’ve given you a chance to get hold of an attorney yet?”
“No,” Conway said. “I’ve been trying to think who to—”
“Never mind the salestalk,” the lawyer said. “I’ve already been sold. That sister-in-law of yours is a very persuasive wench. Found her waiting for me when I got up this morning, so she had breakfast with me. Very easy to look at across a breakfast table, she is — wouldn’t mind quite a spell of that, myself. Anyway, she talked me into this, which took some pretty good talking — or something. That detective, Bauer — nice guy, even if he is a little conceited — filled me in on the details, and then I talked to the D. A. I wanted to get the dope from them, see what the chances were, before I saw you — didn’t want to get your hopes up thinking I’d take the case, till I knew myself whether there was any point in it. But it shouldn’t be too tough.”
“I’m glad to hear you say that,” Conway said. “I’ve been getting a little worried.”
“I’ll go over all the details with you tomorrow,” Gates said. “But before tomorrow, we get Miss Betty out of town.” Conway started to protest, but the attorney stopped him. “I know — she’s just a very good friend, but some people might not think so. Back to Topeka for her tonight.”
“I suppose you’re right,” Conway conceded. “Can I see her before she goes?”
“She’s waiting now — it’s foolish, but she insisted. Just be sure you don’t play any big love scene.” Conway nodded his acquiescence.
“Just one more thing for now. Have you got a clean record?”
“What do you mean?”
“Police record. Ever been arrested?”
“Nothing worse than overtime parking.”
“Good. Were you in the war?”
“Three and a half years.”
“N-no.” The hesitation was almost imperceptible, but the attorney caught it.
“Come on, don’t have any secrets from me, boy. What was it?”
“Dishonorable discharge? Don’t try to hold out on me.”
“Like hell it was.” Conway’s voice swelled with his indignation, but he lowered it after the momentary outburst. “It’s — well, I had sort of a crack-up just at the end, and I was in a hospital for about six months.”
The attorney’s face lighted up. “Wonderful!” he said.
Conway looked at the attorney in horror. “You wouldn’t use that?”
“Wouldn’t use—? What are you talking about? Certainly I’ll use it, and you’ll be very thankful we’ve got it to use.”
“But you can’t — you can’t do that. I won’t let you.”
“Look, boy, if I take you on, I’ll do things my way, I’ll use what I want, and conduct the case as I see fit. I’m doing you a favor, and don’t you forget it. There’s no money in it for me, and there’s certainly no glory in pleading a guy guilty to second-degree murder.”
Conway stared at the attorney, speechless for a moment. “Wait a minute—” He faltered.
“From what they told me,” Gates continued, “I figured I could get you off with ten years — less good behavior time, that’d be around seven. But a shell-shocked war hero, temporary insanity — if you wind up with more than five years in a nut-hut, I’ll go back to chasing ambulances.”
For a moment the picture of Helen, grinning with sardonic satisfaction, drove every other thought from Conway’s mind. Was she to win, after all? Could she still drive him into that padded cell she had threatened?
“I don’t blame you for being sensitive about the insanity gag,” the attorney went on, in a more sympathetic tone. “But on a straight guilty plea, even with the extenuating circumstances, you
get twenty years. I think I can do better than that for you, but even if it were ten—”
Conway forced himself to be calm, to forget about Helen, to face the real issue. “There’s been a slight misunderstanding here, Mr. Gates,” he said. “I’m not going to plead guilty, because I’m innocent. This whole thing is a frame — they had to pin this on someone, so they’ve dreamed up a lot of phoney evidence—”
“It didn’t sound phoney to me,” the attorney said. “You and I don’t have to play games, you know — I’m your lawyer.”
“I don’t want a lawyer who’ll get me off with ten years — or five,” Conway shouted. “I want one who believes I’m innocent.”
“Then you better get one.” Gates started away, then turned. “Although personally I don’t know any members of the California Bar who are under six years of age.”
Stunned, Conway watched the attorney disappear down the corridor, and was conscious of a rising tide of misgivings within himself. John Henry Gates was a shrewd, a brilliant attorney. It was unbelievable that he should be taken in by the mass of falsehoods Bauer and an assistant district attorney had fabricated. But could it be, Conway wondered, that others might believe this distortion of facts — that he was really in danger from this incredible fiction? His mind reeled in a turmoil of indecision.
The officer, who had left with Bates, reappeared, followed by Betty. When she caught sight of Conway she hurried past the policeman and was at the cell door in an instant.
“Oh, darling, are you all right?” Her hands sought his, but the wire netting that covered the bars limited their contact to the fraction of a fingertip. The policeman leaned against a cell across the corridor, in sight, but out of earshot.
“I’m fine,” Conway said, “now that I’ve seen you.”
“Why didn’t you tell me, my darling?”
“Tell you what?”
“You knew I knew you
done it,” she said. “But I didn’t know
— I didn’t know how you’d made them think you hadn’t. If only you’d told me, I wouldn’t have been such an idiot — I’d never have mentioned that wretched rebroadcast.” She was pleading for understanding and forgiveness, and her eyes were moist as she went on. “I couldn’t guess that everything depended on that.”
“It didn’t. The whole thing’s ridiculous. Please don’t blame yourself, my sweet.”
“You’re here, behind these bars so that I can’t even touch you. That’s not ridiculous,” she said, and there was no sign of tears now. “But — we can’t think about that... They say that Gates is the best man out here. How did you like him?”
“He wants me to plead guilty to second-degree.”
“Well, naturally,” she said.
“Look, Betty,” he said earnestly. “The car wasn’t parked at nine-four, as they claim now. I was in the theatre with Helen then, and we got in the car in the parking lot at nine-thirty.”
“Darling, please don’t,” she begged. “Not to me — you don’t have to. Bauer told me the case they’ve got. He likes you — and he says your only chance is to plead guilty. Gates thinks he can get you off with seven or eight years.”
“Whose side are you on?” Conway demanded. “Mine or Bauer’s?”
“I know how you feel,” she said gently. “But don’t say things like that. I love you, and you’re the only person in the world I care about. But I also know what Gates and Bauer think — that you have no choice but to plead guilty. They know, I know, the district attorney knows — the jury would know. Oh, my dearest, I couldn’t bear it if you — if—” The tears came now, and there was no doubting her sincerity.
“Did you say you loved me?” he asked.
“You know I do.”
“Gates seemed pretty sure he could get me off with seven years. Maybe — maybe even less.”
“It’s so much better than taking a chance.”
“Would you wait for me?”
“I’d marry you this minute if you wanted me to — and if we could. But that would be putting a noose around your neck.”
“I know that. But would you wait for me?”
“I couldn’t help myself,” she said. “I love you.”
Conway looked at the lovely face, and into the warm, fervent eyes, and forced himself to confront reality. “We’re talking like schoolkids,” he said harshly. “You can’t promise to wait five or seven or ten years.”
“And if you could, and did, wait, you can’t promise to love me then,” he went on with relentless logic. “Nobody in the world could.”
could,” she said. “But if you don’t believe me, what do you want me to do?”
“Do you think you can go on loving me until after the trial?”
“You can’t do that — you can’t take a chance on—”
“I’ve taken one chance — I’ve got to take another. Go back to Topeka, Betty, tonight. That’s the one thing Gates said that made sense. Just don’t fall in love with anybody else for a few months.”
“Darling, I won’t let you do this on my account. I’ll—”
“I’m not doing it just on your account. But I can’t let them get away with this — it would be a miscarriage of justice. If I let them lock me up for seven years, I’d be really insane. Don’t worry, my sweet — I’ll see you in Topeka.”
Arthur Conway sat, his head in his hands, as Assistant District Attorney Davis swung into the conclusion of his summing up to the jury. Conway wondered why he had ever thought of it as a perfect murder: it didn’t sound like one as Davis told it.
“The one thing you have to decide is whether this defendant has told the truth,” Davis said.
Conway reflected that he had told the truth, and practically nothing but the truth. Not, of course, the whole truth, although, in a way, he had been closer to it than the prosecution.
“... How can anyone believe this man’s story that he was in the theatre at the time the murder car was parked by the murderer?” Davis continued.
Conway wondered. His own attorney — the one he had engaged when Gates refused to take the case except on his own terms — hadn’t believed him; had urged him to accept the prosecutor’s offer right up until the opening of the trial. But — might there be one —
— of those twelve men and women who
“... His only defense, his only alibi, is that he was in the theatre at that time. But he has been unable to produce one single witness to support that alibi...”
That was true, too. And there had been no way to shake the testimony of the couple who established the time the car had been parked; no way, that is, except to reveal that he himself had parked it at ten.
“... We have shown that the defendant had a motive — two motives, in fact...”
All the motives in the world except the right one,
“... The defendant has claimed that he and his wife were on good terms — a bald-faced He, for she hated the defendant, intended to divorce him and planned to marry Taylor. When he discovered, in the drugstore, that she had withdrawn the money from the bank, she saw no reason for any further concealment, and she told him about Taylor. And then he strangled her — murdered her in cold blood.”
How can he he so wrong, and yet so convincing,
Can’t they realize that if it had been that way, I could have divorced her? I wouldn’t have had to kill her.
He found himself looking at the entire proceedings in a detached fashion, rather like a critic watching a somewhat implausible play. He still found it hard to believe that he could be convicted of a crime, even though he had committed it, on such a web of utterly false and circumstantial evidence.
“... I ask you, ladies and gentlemen, to remember one further thing. The murdered woman is not on trial here. If she took money from their bank account which was not all hers, there are laws covering theft, and this defendant could have found redress in the courts. If her conduct with Taylor was not above reproach, there are laws which provide for divorce. Instead of invoking the law, this man murdered her, and there are laws covering that, too. Your duty is to see that this man pays the penalty the law provides for murder.”
The jury was back in less than two hours with its verdict. Guilty. Murder in the First Degree. Without recommendations.
After his appeal had been denied he received a note, unsigned, but postmarked Topeka. “I wish you’d believed me,” it read, “because I’m going to go on loving you all my life.” But he told himself that the message was intended to convey more solace than truth; that it could not be an accurate prophecy.
But until the end — which came shortly after he entered the gas chamber at San Quentin — Conway vowed that he was the victim of the foulest miscarriage of justice in the history of California. And, in a sense, he was.
Was, that is, if you view justice as a sort of game, played strictly according to rules, with the method, and not the ultimate result, the important thing. If, on the other hand, you string along with the dictionary definition, then Conway received no more nor less than justice, for he was rendered what was his due. So, in a sense, justice was served, too.