When the bag was completely repacked and again securely locked, Bob Ede_limbed with it to the dusty attic. He reappeared, the trap-door was close_nd the stepladder removed. The three men faced one another, pleased wit_heir morning's work.
"It's after twelve," said Holley. "I must hurry back to town."
"About to make heartfelt suggestion you remain at lunch," remarked Chan.
Holley shook his head. "That's kind of you, Charlie, but I wouldn't think o_t. You must be about fed-up on this cooking proposition, and I won't spoi_our first chance for a little vacation. You take my advice, and make Ede_ustle his own grub today."
Chan nodded. "True enough that I was planning a modest repast," he returned.
"Cooking business begins to get tiresome like the company of a Japanese.
However, fitting punishment for a postman who walks another man's beat. If Mr.
Eden will pardon, I relax to the extent of sandwiches and tea this noon."
"Sure," said Eden. "We'll dig up something together. Holley, you'd bette_hange your mind."
"No," replied Holley. "I'm going to town and make a few inquiries. Just by wa_f substantiating what we found here today. If Jerry Delaney came out her_ast Wednesday, he must have left some sort of trail through the town. Som_ne may have seen him. Was he alone? I'll speak to the boys at the ga_tation, the hotel proprietor—"
"Humbly suggest utmost discretion," said Chan.
"Oh, I understand the need of that. But there's really no danger. Madden ha_o connection whatever with the life of the town. He won't hear of it. Jus_he same, I'll be discretion itself. Trust me. I'll come out here again late_n the day."
When he had gone, Chan and Eden ate a cold lunch in the cookhouse, and resume_heir search. Nothing of any moment rewarded their efforts, however. At fou_hat afternoon Holley drove into the yard. With him was a lean, sad-lookin_outh whom Eden recognized as the real-estate salesman of Date City.
As they entered the room, Chan withdrew, leaving Eden to greet them. Holle_ntroduced the youth as Mr. DeLisle.
"I've met DeLisle," smiled Bob Eden. "He tried to sell me a corner lot on th_esert."
"Yeah," said Mr. DeLisle. "And some day, when the United Cigar Stores an_oolworth are fighting for that stuff, you'll kick yourself up and down ever_ill in Frisco. However, that's your funeral."
"I brought Mr. DeLisle along," explained Holley, "because I want you to hea_he story he's just told me. About last Wednesday night."
"Mr. DeLisle understands that this is confidential—" began Eden.
"Oh, sure," said the young man. "Will's explained all that. You needn't worry.
Madden and I ain't exactly pals—not after the way he talked to me."
"You saw him last Wednesday night?" Eden suggested.
"No, not that night. It was somebody else I saw then. I was out here at th_evelopment until after dark, waiting for a prospect—he never showed up, th_owlife. Anyhow, along about seven o'clock, just as I was closing up th_ffice, a big sedan stopped out in front. I went out. There was a little gu_riving and another man in the back seat. 'Good evening,' said the littl_ellow. 'Can you tell me, please, if we're on the road to Madden's ranch?' _aid sure, to keep right on straight. The man in the back spoke up. 'How fa_s it?' he wants to know. 'Shut up, Jerry,' says the little guy. 'I'll atten_o this.' He shifted the gears, and then he got kind of literary. 'And a_ighway shall be there and a way,' he says. 'Not any too clearly defined, Isaiah.' And he drove off. Now why do you suppose he called me Isaiah?"
Eden smiled. "Did you get a good look at him?"
"Pretty good, considering the dark. A thin pale man with sort of grayis_ips—no color in them at all. Talked kind of slow and precise—awful nea_nglish, like he was a professor or something."
"And the man in the back seat?"
"Couldn't see him very well."
"Ah, yes. And when did you meet Madden?"
"I'll come to that. After I got home I began to think—Madden was out at th_anch, it seemed. And I got a big idea. Things ain't been going so well her_ately—Florida's been nabbing all the easy—all the good prospects—and I sai_o myself, how about Madden? There's big money. Why not try and interes_adden in Date City? Get him behind it. Worth a shot anyhow. So bright an_arly Thursday morning, I came out to the ranch."
"About what time?"
"Oh, it must have been a little after eight. I'm full of pep at that hour o_he day, and I knew I'd need it. I knocked at the front door, but nobod_nswered. I tried it—it was locked. I came around to the back and the plac_as deserted. Not a soul in sight."
"Nobody here," repeated Eden, wonderingly.
"Not a living thing but the chickens and the turkeys. And the Chinese parrot, Tony. He was sitting on his perch. 'Hello, Tony,' I said. 'You're a dam_rook,' he answers. Now I ask you, is that any way to greet a hardworking, honest real-estate man? Wait a minute—don't try to be funny."
"I won't," Eden laughed. "But Madden—"
"Well, just then Madden drove into the yard with that secretary of his. I kne_he old man right away from his pictures. He looked tired and ugly, and h_eeded a shave. 'What are you doing here?' he wanted to know. 'Mr. Madden,' _aid, 'have you ever stopped to consider the possibilities of this land roun_ere?' And I waltzed right into my selling talk. But I didn't get far. H_topped me, and then he started. Say—the things he called me. I'm not used t_hat sort of thing—abuse by an expert, and that's what it was. I saw hi_sychology was all wrong, so I walked out on him. That's the best way—when th_ld psychology ain't working."
"And that's all?" Eden inquired.
"That's my story, and I'll stick to it," replied Mr. DeLisle.
"I'm very much obliged," Eden said. "Of course, this is all between ourselves.
And I may add that if I ever do decide to buy a lot on the desert—"
"You'll consider my stuff, won't you?"
"I certainly will. Just at present, the desert doesn't look very good to me."
Mr. DeLisle leaned close. "Whisper it not in Eldorado," he said. "I sometime_ish I was back in good old Chi myself. If I ever hit the Loop again, I'_oing to nail myself down there."
"If you'll wait outside a few minutes, DeLisle—" Holley began.
"I get you. I'll just mosey down to the development and see if the fountain'_orking. You can pick me up there."
The young man went out. Chan came quickly from behind a near-by door.
"Get all that Charlie?" Eden inquired.
"Yes, indeed. Most interesting."
"We move right on," said Holley. "Jerry Delaney came out to the ranch abou_even o'clock Wednesday night, and he didn't come alone. For the first time _ourth man enters the picture. Who? Sounded to me very much like Professo_amble."
"No doubt about that," replied Eden. "He's an old friend of the prophe_saiah's—he admitted it here Monday after lunch."
"Fine," commented Holley. "We begin to place Mr. Gamble. Here's anothe_hing—some one drove up to the doctor's Sunday night and carried Shaky Phi_way. Couldn't that have been Gamble, too? What do you say, Charlie?"
Chan nodded. "Possible. That person knew of Louie's return. If we could onl_iscover—"
"By George," Eden, cried. "Gamble was at the desk of the Oasis when Louie cam_n. You remember, Holley?"
The editor smiled. "All fits in very neatly. Gamble sped out here like som_inister version of Paul Revere with the news of Louie's arrival. He and Shak_hil were at the gate when you drove up."
"But Thorn. That tear in Thorn's coat?"
"We must have been on the wrong trail there. This new theory sounds too good.
What else have we learned from DeLisle? After the misadventure with Delaney, Madden and Thorn were out all night. Where?"
Chan sighed. "Not such good news, that. Body of Delaney was carried far fro_his spot."
"I'm afraid it was," admitted Holley. "We'll never find it without help fro_omebody who knows. There are a hundred lonely canyons round here where poo_elaney could have been tossed aside and nobody any the wiser. We'll have t_o ahead and perfect our case without the vital bit of evidence—the body o_elaney. But there are a lot of people in on this, and before we get through, somebody is going to squeal."
Chan was sitting at Madden's desk, idly toying with the big blotting pad tha_ay on top. Suddenly his eyes lighted, and he began to separate the sheets o_lotting paper.
"What is this?" he said.
They looked, and saw in the detective's pudgy hand a large sheet of paper, partly filled with writing. Chan perused the missive carefully, and handed i_o Eden. The letter was written in a man's strong hand. "It's dated las_ednesday night," Eden remarked to Holley. He read:
"I want you to know of certain developments here at the ranch. As I've tol_ou before, Martin Thorn and I have been on very bad terms for the past year.
This afternoon the big blow-off finally arrived, and I dismissed him from m_ervice. Tomorrow morning I'm going with him to Pasadena, and when we ge_here, we part for all time. Of course he knows a lot of things I wish h_idn't—otherwise I'd have scrapped him a year ago. He may make trouble, and _m warning you in case he shows up in Denver. I'm going to take this letter i_own myself and mail it tonight, as I don't want Thorn to know anything abou_t—"
The letter stopped abruptly at that point.
"Better and better," said Holley. "Another sidelight on what happened her_ast Wednesday night. We can picture the scene for ourselves. Madden i_itting at his desk, writing that letter to his daughter. The door opens—som_ne comes in. Say it's Delaney—Delaney, the man P.J.'s feared for years.
Madden hastily slips the letter between the leaves of the blotter. He gets t_is feet, knowing that he's in for it now. A quarrel ensues, and by the tim_t's over, they've got into Thorn's room somehow and Delaney is dead on th_loor. Then—the problem of what to do with the body, not solved until morning.
Madden comes back to the ranch tired and worn, realizing that he can't dismis_horn now. He must make his peace with the secretary. Thorn knows too much.
How about it, Charlie?"
"It has plenty logic," Chan admitted.
"I said this morning I had some ideas on this affair out here," the edito_ontinued, "and everything that has happened today has tended to confirm them.
I'm ready to spring my theory now—that is, if you care to listen."
"Shoot," said Eden.
"To me, it's all as clear as a desert sunrise," Holley went on. "Just let m_o over it for you. Reconstruct it, as the French do. To begin with, Madden i_fraid of Delaney. Why? Why is a rich man afraid of anybody? Blackmail, o_ourse. Delaney has something on him—maybe something that dates back to tha_ambling house in New York. Thorn can't be depended on—they've been rowing an_e hates his employer. Perhaps he has even gone so far as to link up wit_elaney and his friends. Madden buys the pearls, and the gang hears of it an_ecides to spring. What better place than way out here on the desert? Shak_hil goes to San Francisco; Delaney and the professor come south. Louie, th_aithful old retainer, is lured away by Shaky Phil. The stage is set. Delane_rrives with his threat. He demands the pearls, money, both. An argumen_ollows, and in the end Delaney, the blackmailer, is killed by Madden. Am _ight so far?"
"Sounds plausible," Eden admitted.
"Well, imagine what followed. When Madden killed Delaney, he probably though_erry had come alone. Now he discovers there are others in the gang. They hav_ot only the information with which Delaney was threatening him, but they hav_omething else on him too. Murder! The pack is on him—he must buy them off.
They clamor for money—and the pearls. They force Madden to call up and orde_he Phillimore necklace sent down here at once. When did he do that, Eden?"
"Last Thursday morning," Eden replied.
"See—what did I tell you? Last Thursday morning, when he got back from hi_risly midnight trip. They were on him then—they were blackmailing him to th_imit. That's the answer to our puzzle. They're blackmailing him now. At firs_adden was just as eager as they were for the necklace—he wanted to settle th_hing and get away. It isn't pleasant to linger round the spot where you'v_one murder. The past few days his courage has begun to return, he'_emporizing, seeking a way out. I'm a little sorry for him, I really am."
Holley paused. "Well, that's my idea. What do you think, Charlie? Am I right?"
Chan sat turning Madden's unfinished letter slowly in his hand.
"Sounds good," admitted the detective. "However, here and there objection_rise."
"For example?" Holley demanded.
"Madden is big man. Delaney and these others, nobody much. He could announc_e killed blackmailer in self-defense."
"So he could—if Thorn were friendly and would back him up. But the secretar_s hostile and might threaten to tell a different story. Besides, remember i_sn't only the killing of Delaney they have against him. There's th_nformation Delaney has been holding over his head."
Chan nodded. "So very true. One other fact, and then I cease my bruta_aultfinding. Louie, long in confidence of Chinese parrot, is killed. Ye_ouie depart for San Francisco on Wednesday morning, twelve hours befor_ragic night. Is not his murder then a useless gesturing?"
Holley considered. "Well, that is a point. But he was Madden's friend, whic_as a pretty good reason for not wanting him here. They preferred their victi_lone and helpless. A rather weak explanation, perhaps. Otherwise I'm stron_or my theory. You're not so keen on it."
Chan shook his head. "For one reason only. Long experience has taught fata_onsequence may follow if I get too addicted to a theory. Then I try and see, can I make everything fit. I can, and first thing I know theory explodes in m_ountenance with loud bang. Much better I have found to keep mind free an_pen."
"Then you haven't any idea on all this to set up against mine?" Holley asked.
"No solitary one. Frankly speaking, I am completely in the dark." He glance_t the letter in his hand. "Or nearly so," he added. "We watch and wait, an_aybe I clutch something soon."
"That's all right," said Eden, "but I have a feeling we don't watch and wai_uch longer at Madden's ranch. Remember, I promised that Draycott would mee_im today in Pasadena. He'll be back soon, asking how come?"
"Unfortunate incident," shrugged Chan. "Draycott and he have failed t_onnect. Many times that has happened when two strangers make appointment. I_an happen again."
Eden sighed. "I suppose so. But I hope P.J. Madden's feeling good-natured whe_e comes home from Pasadena tonight. There's a chance that he's toting Bil_art's gun again, and I don't like the idea of lying behind a bed with nothin_howing but my shoes. I haven't had a shine for a week."