Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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MAX BRAND

THE SILENT WITNESS

Cover Image

RGL e-Book Cover 2017

First published in Black Mask Detective Stories, March 1938

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2017
Version Date: 2017-07-06
Produced by James Inkster and Roy Glashan

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Cover Image

Black Mask Detective Stories, March 1938, with "The Silent Witness"



RIDDLE pressed the Bentley bell and then held the doorknob while he stared through the glass into the downstairs hallway. It had the nakedly expectant look of all entrances to push-button apartment houses. The lock began to click rapidly; it kept on clicking after he had entered the hall and pressed the elevator button.

Everything happened very slowly. He heard the elevator door slam shut above him, a deep-voiced humming began in the throat of the shaft and descended gradually toward him. The lighted elevator slid past the diamond-shaped peephole. It halted. The inner door was pushed clanging back by the ghostly fingers of the machine.

He entered, pressed the button of Number 6, and watched the door slowly roll shut, obeying the electric mind. With a soft lurch the elevator started up the shaft.

At the sixth floor the automatic brake stopped the car softly and the inner door rolled gradually back. This mechanized precision, this mindless deliberation, screwed up Riddle's nerves to a breaking tension. He had to set his lips and his lean jaw and make ready to endure what he knew was ahead of him.

Then the outer door of the elevator was snatched open by Gay Bentley. She leaned against the edge of it with her eyes so big and dark that she looked like a white-faced child. Riddle put his arm around her and closed the door while she clung to him, saying: "Dick... Dick... Dick..."

He took her through the open door into the living-room of her apartment. It was exactly in order, disappointing the horrible expectation with which he had entered. The floor lamps cast two amber circles on the ceiling and two white pools on the floor. The huge litter of a Sunday newspaper lay scattered on the davenport and on the table there was a tall highball glass, almost full.

"Where?" asked Riddle.

She pointed toward the bedroom door. "I'll come with you," she said.

He shook his head. "You sit here. No, lie down."

"I'll go mad if I lie down," said Gay. Her lips began to tremble and her eyes rolled, so he picked her up and laid her on the davenport amid the rustling of the newspaper.

"You be quiet. Will you be quiet? Close your eyes!" commanded Riddle.

She closed her eyes and he crossed the floor with the sense of her light, firm body still making his hands feel strong. He needed that strength of spirit when he entered the bedroom and saw Tom Bentley lying on the bed, far over against the wall with his right arm stretched out, pointing an automatic at his friend in the doorway. But Bentley's half-open eyes were drowsily considering something on the white of the ceiling instead of Riddle, and a spot of deep purple appeared on his temple with one thin, watery line of blood running down from it.

Riddle went back into the living-room where Gay Bentley already was off the couch and sitting on the piano stool with her face in her hands. She started up to face Riddle. He wandered to the table and picked up the unfinished highball. When he tasted it, he found the whisky good but the drink was tepid; it had come to the room temperature.

"The police?" whispered the girl. "Do we have to call the police?"

He sipped the tepid highball again before he put down the glass.

"I want a drink, Gay," he said.

"Take this. It's mine but I don't want it."

"This? This is yours?" he asked, looking suddenly at her.

"Ah, but you like a man's drink," she nodded, unobservant. "I'll make you a fresh one."

She passed him on the way to the pantry, and clung close to him again for an instant.

"Oh, Dick," she whispered, "think what animals we are! When I found him, my mind stopped, and all I could do was to come out here and go through the motions of mixing a drink... Think of that! And then I remembered you. Thank God for you! Thank God for you!"

She went on to the pantry.

"How do you want it?" she called.

"Just like yours," said Riddle. He saw his own pale, thin face in the glass above the fireplace and stared at the gloomy image entranced.

"Just like mine?" she repeated, surprised. "But two lumps of ice, you always take."

"No. Just like yours. One lump. That will do," said Riddle.

She brought the drink back to him, and he sank down into a chair at the table. He put his chin on his fist and stared at nothingness. The girl stood behind him with her hands on his shoulders.

"Poor Tom!" she said. "I know you loved him, Dick, but try not to take it too hard. He was unhappy, you know."

"I knew," said Riddle, "and I kept away from him for a month... Was it money, Gay?"

"No," she answered.

"It had to be debts that drove him to it. There was nothing else," insisted Riddle.

"There was something else," she replied.

"What under heaven?" asked Riddle, jerking up his head so that his face almost touched hers.

"Jealousy, Dick," said the girl.

"Jealousy?" cried Riddle. "Jealousy of you, Gay?"

She made a pause, with her face still close to his, before she answered carefully and gently, as though to a child:

"You know we haven't been so very happy together, lately."

"After a few years, the bubble and zip goes out of most marriages," said Riddle.

"Ah, it was more than that," she answered.

"You mean there was a definite reason for his jealousy?" demanded Riddle. "You mean that there was another man?"

She was silent again before she answered just above a whisper: "Ah, Dick, you blind, blind fellow!"

Riddle reached up and caught one of her hands from his shoulder. "What the devil do you mean, Gay?" he asked.

"He knew I loved someone else," said the girl.

"Who?" asked Riddle.

She pulled to get free. "I don't want to talk about it. I can't talk about it," she said. "Not to you."

Riddle let her hand go.

"You mean that I'm the man?" he said.

She gave him no answer but walked across the room to the window and stood there looking out. A breeze came in from moment to moment and set her bright hair shimmering over the smooth and soft of her neck. She stood there an eternity of minutes. The silence between them—between her beauty and his friendship with the dead man—that silence sang on for minutes.

He tasted her drink on the table then, quickly, took a small swallow from his own glass. After that he glanced at his watch. The silence drew out in length like a dark thread...

"You know that Tom was my best friend?" he asked.

"I know everything," said the girl. "It was because he cared about you so much that I first began to care—too..."

Her voice broke a little. Riddle went to her and took her by the shoulders. He seated her firmly in a chair.

"That's all to be talked about afterward," he told her. Then, walking up and down the room, he said: "Tell me what you know about it."

She lay back in the chair with her head partly turned away from him and her eyes almost closed, and sometimes a smile that was characteristic of her when she talked appeared on her lips. Now, at thirty, wrinkles pinched her eyes a little at the corners but her smile was still very lovely. She talked slowly.

"I went out just before five. I couldn't remember but I thought I had a tea engagement with Martha Gilbert and I couldn't get her on the phone. I didn't find Martha. I ran into Jud Mowbray a little later, and he insisted on cocktails. I didn't want one, but I sort of had to... After a while I left him and got back here at around a quarter to six. And I found Tom—like that; and then I telephoned to you."

Riddle nodded.

"You saw Tom and he was dead—of his own hand. Then you poured yourself this drink and then you telephoned to me."

"What does the drink matter?" she asked, with a sudden curiosity.

"The police always want to know everything," said Riddle. "They eat up every detail. And I'll have to ring them in a moment. You poured yourself this drink about forty-five minutes ago, let's say?" "Yes. Almost exactly."

He sipped her drink, carefully, and then tried his own. He said nothing—endlessly.

"Then by the time I arrived," he finally said, "your drink hadn't been standing more than twenty minutes, had it?"

"No. Of course not... Dick, what's the matter with you?"

"Nothing," said Riddle, standing up and seeing the white of his face in the glass again. Then he glanced at his wrist. A half hour had come—and gone.

He went to the telephone but paused there for a long moment until she asked: "What's in your mind, Dick?"

"I was thinking of the first days out of college when Tom and I were fighting our way up."

"You fought your way up," said Gay Bentley, "and Tom kept sliding back in spite of all his scratching. He was a derelict before the end and the only thing that drew him along was the towline you threw to him, Dick, darling..."

He picked up the receiver and began to dial.

"I want the police," he said.

"Not so soon, Dick!" cried the girl. "I don't want their dreadful, blunt faces near me. I couldn't stand them!"

"This is One Forty-two East Hargreave Street," said Riddle. "On the sixth floor, apartment D, Thomas Bentley is dead. It is murder..." He hung up.

"Murder? Murder?" cried the girl. "Dick, what are you talking about?"

"About a man I loved, and a woman I used to love, too," said Riddle, "and an alibi rotten all the way through."

He sipped from the glasses on the table, one after the other.

"This drink of mine has been standing here for half an hour, but it's still cold," he said. "It still will be cold when the homicide squad arrives and hears me testify that your glass was room temperature when I came in..."

"Dick, what do you mean?" she gasped. "What crazy idea is in your head?"

"My idea," said Riddle, "is that you were out of the house to collect your alibi, but you poured your drink, here, before you left, and all the time you were away the highball was going ahead like an automatic machine gathering warmth and registering murder. You killed Tom."

She went to pieces, flew at him, beggingly.

"Dick, throw the stuff out of the window! Dick, you wouldn't kill me, would you? Not like a rat; you wouldn't kill me, Dick, would you?" she sobbed to him. "I needed a drink—to do it! But, Dick, because I love you—oh, throw it away!"

He covered the glass with his hand. He could not look at her but he knew she was shrinking away from him now—toward the door. And then that she had slipped out into the hallway, running.

Now she would be pressing the button of the elevator frantically; but he knew with what an unhurried steadiness it would respond.

A siren screamed out of the distance and turned loose its howling in Hargreave Street. Riddle opened his eyes as he listened, and in the mirror the white image stared back at him in astonishment and horror.


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is in the Australian public domain.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.