Sunday, January 4, 2015

"Mystery Man of the Death House" by Anonymous/Unknown

Mystery Man of the Death House

"I've never seen any man like Harry Benedict in my twenty-one years as warden! Men condemned to die in the electric chair have done some mighty queer things in the cells of Death Row. They get religion and pray. Some go on hunger strikes. Others spend all their time up to the last minute trying to figure out legal grounds for an appeal. Then there are the mad dogs, the ones who snarl and threaten and make trouble right to the end. But Harry Benedict is a riddle!"

The warden dropped a spoonful of sugar into his coffee, then pointed the spoon at Kramer, the prison psychiatrist. "You're slipping, Doc! You should have an explanation for Benedict's actions."

Doc Kramer gave the warden a sheepish smile and turned to frown at the prison chaplain who was blowing on a steaming cup of black coffee. "Like I've been telling you," Kramer said. "Almost every time you fail to bring a condemned man to his knees, I'm supposed to supply the answer. Why should I take the rap for your failures, Chaplain?"

"Smile when you say that!" the chaplain replied, jokingly. "Brother Kramer, I exhausted every possible method to bring Harry Benedict to his knees. He simply refuses to believe he is going to die!"

"Did he tell you that, Chaplain?" the warden cut in sharply.

"Can you remember the exact words he used?" Doc Kramer asked anxiously.

The chaplain shook his head gravely. "I did not say Benedict told me he was not going to die. I said he refuses to believe that he is going to die. His actions prove my thesis."

The warden snorted. "Bah! He's a psycho! Only a nut would prepare himself for heaven or hell by studying books on automotive engineering." He looked up quizzically at the chaplain. "Would you venture to say that there are autos up above or down below?"

The chaplain smiled thinly. "Chariots, perhaps, but hardly these death-dealing contraptions that swarm our highways. No, Warden. Benedict cannot believe that he is going to use his newly-acquired knowledge in the Beyond. Since the age of seventeen, Harry Benedict has been a professional criminal. Not a bungling moron. A really clever crook. He has a record, didn't you say, of some thirty arrests but he beat the rap every time."

"That's correct," the warden admitted. "Benedict had no peer as a safe cracker. Of course he was no Jimmy Valentine. Benedict used tools. But he never tackled a box that he couldn't open, and only once did he spring a burglar alarm. Killing that watchman was a distinct deviation from Benedict's past performances. Furthermore, it was never suspected that Benedict carried a gun."

Harry Benedict was scheduled to die in the electric chair at midnight on the twenty-ninth day of the month. On the twenty-sixth day as the chaplain was making his rounds, he paused at Harry's cell. "Isn't it about time we talked things over, Harry?" the chaplain asked.

Harry slipped a slide rule between the pages of a book he was studying and closed it. "Time is getting short," Harry admitted. "Only seventy-two hours left, Chaplain. But a lot can happen in three days. Don't worry about me until day after tomorrow. Everything will turn out all right by then."

The chaplain stood close to the cell door, staring through the steel bars at the condemned man. Benedict was a solidly-built man of thirty-eight years. His black hair had begun to turn gray at the temples. His hands were big and powerful, but gentle in their movements. Suddenly out of the maze of information the chaplain had gathered on Benedict, a singular fact came to the fore.

"You never denied that you shot and killed the night watchman, Harry?"

Benedict stood up, stretching his arms and smiling. "I pleaded guilty at the trial, Chaplain. Let's not hash over what's been settled."

The chaplain turned away, muttering to himself. "I do believe the man is holding something back! He has complete confidence that he's going ot be sprung at the last minute, but the warden insists there isn't a chance for that to happen!"

But on the evening of the twenty-eighth, thirty hours before Harry Benedict was scheduled to walk the last mile, the chaplain came to the death house especially to see the condemned man. But the reason which brought him was far from routine.

Benedict wasn't surprised when the chaplain entered his cell. He pushed aside his books and papers, and moved over to the bunk so chaplain could sit on the chair. Benedict's greeting was friendly, but other than that he had nothing to say.

The chaplain's face was grave. "I have news for you, Harry. Two kinds. Good and bad. I think I had better break the good news first."

Harry's thin smile didn't broaden in surprise. "I'm being released," he said with assurance.

"Yes," the chaplain said. "Of course you will be immediately arrested and held for trial on the burglary charge."

"I'll get off with a light sentence," Harry said. "It's my first offense, and the judge and jury, knowing the ordeal I've been through, will give me a break. What if I get five years? I'll be eligible for parole in thirty-six months. I'll get a job as an auto mechanic, and before my parole is up I'll be a shop foreman."

The chaplain clasped his head in both hands and shook it back and forth. "Spill it, Harry! For goodness sake, you've kept all of us guessing long enough! You've decided to go straight. I know that. But how did you know later evidence would prove you innocent of the murder?"

"I guess I can tell you," Harry began. "But I don't want the story to get out, you understand?"

The chaplain nodded. "I shall never breathe a word about it, Harry."

"The safe was in a back room on the third floor of a loft building," Harry said barely above a whisper. "I had cased the job carefully. I knew the floor layout like the back of my hand. The payroll was drawn from the bank the day before pay day, so the bookkeeper would have time to make up the envelopes before noon of the next day. With fifty-six employees, I reckoned that the payroll for the Elite Luggage should run close to four grand. Usually, I operate alone, but I'd taken a gander at the safe and knew it would be a tough job to rip. I'd have to make some noise, and the watchman might come snooping. So I needed a lookout man."

Harry spread his hands and stared down at them gloomily. "I made a deal with an ex-con, promising him one-third of the take. But I waited more than an hour for him, and when he failed to show up I asked my kid brother to come along."

"The medical student? Had he ever helped you before?" the chaplain asked.

"Never!" Harry whispered. "Of course, he knew how I made my living. He'd begged me many times to call it quits. But I hit him when the going was rough. He needed money to pay the second installment on his college tuition. He was desperate, so he came along. But I didn't give him the gun. I didn't know he was packing a rod until I heard the shot."

"You gave him the payroll money, and took the gun from him?" the chaplain ventured.

Harry Benedict nodded. "We ran down two flights and out to the street. There we separated, Buddy heading around the corner and me making for the avenue. The watchman had phoned the cops before coming upstairs, and they nailed me in the next block."

"Buddy ran into the ex-con who had showed up late, and was waiting for me around the corner. The ex-con's name was Louie Clausen. He had a car parked nearby, and he and Buddy took off in it. Louie made his big mistake when he tried to slug Buddy and push him out of the car. Louie wanted the payroll cash, of course. Buddy slugged back at him, knocking him cold. After Buddy took off, a cop found Louie trying to start the car. He ran Louie in, because the car had been stolen. Louie drew two years on that rap. Allowing for good behavior, his time should have been up this week."

The chaplain smiled. "You had it all figured out, didn't you, Harry?"

"Yeah. Every time Buddy came to see me, I warned him what would happen when Louie got out. Louie could nurse a grudge worse than any guy I ever met."

"Then I don't have to tell you the bad news," the chaplain sighed.

Harry Benedict shook his head. "I'll learn the details later. Let's skip 'em now, Chaplain, but here's what I figured would happen. Louie was released from prison this week. He got a gun. He followed Buddy. I guess he forced Buddy into a car, slugged him, then drove to the outskirts and shot Buddy through the head.

"When the police found the body they discovered the note in Buddy's wallet. It told them all they needed to know."

"Even told them to look for Louie," the chaplain put in. "But what if Louie had lifted Buddy's wallet? Wouldn't that have spoiled everything?"

Harry shook his head. "That would have made the killing look like the result of a robbery. Louie wouldn't have wanted it that way. He wanted it to look like what it was. Revenge."

"But aren't you sorry about Buddy?" the chaplain asked. "In another year he'd have finished medical school."

Again Harry shook his head. "The kid was smart, but would you call him honest? He needed only three hundred bucks. Why didn't he return the rest of the money anonymously? Look, Chaplain! I know right from wrong. That's why I'm going straight after I've served my time."

"That was the biggest thing in your favor, Harry. You could be held for second degree murder, since Buddy was your accomplice. But when the governor put it to the warden and me, we recommended a full pardon and no prosecution on the second degree charge."

Harry stood up and reached for the chaplain's hand. "Thanks," he said simply.

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