Ashton-Kirk, Investigator
by John T. McIntyre
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But Ashton-Kirk only nodded; he had arisen upon the departure of Morris, and was now drawing on a pair of gloves. The splendid qualities of Miss Vale apparently had little appeal for him at that moment.

"Are you ready?" he asked, in a business-like way.

"Ready?" repeated Pendleton, surprised.

"To be sure. We can scarcely call this case complete until something has been done in the matter of Locke."

"That's so. But, somehow, I had the notion that your men had already attended to him."

"I always prefer to finish my work in my own way," said the investigator. "Osborne, as soon as he heard of Locke, through Sagon, wanted to take up the trail. But I convinced him that he'd better leave it to me."

Pendleton clapped on his hat.

"I'm with you," said he, "but where do you expect to find him?"

Ashton-Kirk rang for Stumph and ordered the car; then he replied:

"We'll more than likely find him at home. Burgess followed him back to Cordova, last night."

They went down and climbed into the car, and were soon on the road.

A little distance from the Mercer Institute they came upon a compact looking man seated upon the top rail of a fence, chewing at a straw. He wore heavy, much-splashed boots and a sun-scorched suit of clothes.

"Ah," said Ashton-Kirk, "I see Burgess is still on the job."

"Burgess," echoed Pendleton. He looked at the man upon the fence in surprise; except for the very broad shoulders there was no resemblance.

However, Burgess grinned amiably through a rather neglected growth of beard.

"I expected you along about this time," said he, to the investigator.

"Is everything all right?" asked Ashton-Kirk.

"He's still there," answered Burgess, and he nodded toward a house with a peaked and slated roof which stood some little distance up an intersecting road. It was the same house through the window of which Pendleton had seen Edyth Vale some nights previously, but, somehow, it seemed strange and unfamiliar in daylight.

"I can see three sides of it from here," went on Burgess. "And if he dropped out of one of the windows on the fourth side I could sight him before he'd gone fifty yards. You may be sure he's there, all right."

"You've heard of what took place last night, I suppose?"

Burgess tapped a folded newspaper at his breast pocket.

"So has Locke," said he. "Apparently his orders are to furnish him with the papers as soon as they arrive. A man from the Institute building brought one to him more than an hour ago."

Just then Ashton-Kirk noted far up the road upon which Locke's house stood, a very small buggy, drawn by an equally small horse. In the buggy sat a man whose huge bulk seemed to bulge out beyond its sides. Arriving before Locke's house, the small horse stopped, as though from habit. Then with a mighty effort, the fat man rolled out and waddled to the gate. He pressed and re-pressed the button; but no one answered.

Ashton-Kirk looked at his assistant.

"Are you quite sure that our man is there," asked he.

Burgess chewed his straw calmly.

"I'm positive of it," said he.

The fat man now entered at the gate and going to the front door, tried it. But it was evidently fast, and he turned away. Hesitating for a moment, he laboriously approached the work shop, the roof of which could be seen through the trees. Apparently the result was the same here, for in a very few minutes he was seen to waddle back to his buggy and climb in with much effort. Then the small horse ambled forward while the fat man leaned back in great distress.

"You recognize him, do you not?" smiled Ashton-Kirk.

"I do, now," returned Pendleton. "It's our friend Dr. Mercer."

When the buggy arrived at the spot where the motor-car stood, the doctor regarded its occupants with some surprise.

"Good-morning," greeted Ashton-Kirk.

Painfully, gaspingly the other answered this in kind. The round white face wore an expression of martyrdom.

"I am pleased to see you once more," said he.

"You like driving in the morning, then?" said the investigator.

The principal's flesh quivered with repulsion.

"It is an exercise ordered by my physician," he answered. "I protested against it strongly, but he was obdurate. And I am compelled to do it before I have had my breakfast," hollowly. "It is scarcely short of barbarous."

Here the small horse stretched its neck and shook itself until the harness rattled. Pendleton looking from master to beast thought they might exchange places much to the master's ultimate well-being.

There was a short pause; then Dr. Mercer bent his head toward them.

"When you visited the institute a few nights ago," said he, "you also, at my request, visited Professor Locke."

Ashton-Kirk nodded.

"For some time," proceeded the other, "I have fancied that there was something wrong with him. Not of a physical nature, as is, unfortunately the case with myself, but more in a mental way. But since that night I have been sure that some sort of a derangement had fixed itself upon him, or is in progress. He can scarcely be called the same person. More than once I have been afraid," and here the speaker lowered his voice to a husky whisper, "that he is unbalanced."

"That is very grave," said Ashton-Kirk.

"It has occurred to me," went on the doctor, not without shrewdness, "that something happened that night which unsettled him." The eyes seemingly floating in fat, turned themselves first to Pendleton, then to Ashton-Kirk. "I suppose, though, you know nothing of it?"

"We noticed that he seemed greatly agitated," replied the investigator. "And we are alarmed to hear that he seems disturbed."

"It is our rule that no one leave the institute grounds after nightfall," said Dr. Mercer, in a troubled voice. "Last night I had occasion to send for him, but he was gone. This morning I stopped to reproach him for his absence; but apparently he has not returned."

"You're mistaken there," put in Burgess. "Look!"

He indicated the house as he spoke. The small figure of Locke was seen emerging at the front door; he paused for a moment, peering this way and that in his near-sighted fashion, then hastily made his way toward the work-shop. Evidently he had not seen them.

With great labor and much catching of breath Dr. Mercer had turned sufficiently to see these things. He seemed greatly astonished.

"He was there all the time," said he. "It is not possible that he did not feel the vibrations of the buzzer, for he is very sensitive to such things."

His indignation appeared to swell him to even greater proportions than before.

"It is an affront," he stated in a choked tone. "It is a deliberate affront. He felt the buzzer, and he knew it was I. But he did not consider me of enough importance to trouble himself about."

Panting he sought to turn the small horse, but in a moment Ashton-Kirk was out in the road and had the animal by the head.

"I beg your pardon," said the investigator, "but it would probably be more beneficial to yourself and others, if you continued your drive and left Professor Locke to us."

Amazed beyond ability to stir, the doctor sat and stared. But finally he found his tongue.

"Bless my soul and body," exclaimed he with a great wheezing exhalation. "I scarcely understand this, sir."

"My dear doctor," said Ashton-Kirk soothingly, "it is not at all necessary that you do so. The fact is, to state it briefly, there is a trifling matter for adjustment between Professor Locke and the commonwealth."

"The commonwealth!" cried the doctor, and he shook like a great mass of gelatine.

"Nothing less. So, you see, it will be as well for you to do as I suggest." Then turning to Pendleton, Ashton-Kirk continued: "I think we had better walk the remainder of the way; otherwise we might get Locke's attention before it is advisable."

Pendleton jumped down, and without another word to Dr. Mercer, they set off toward the slate-roofed house by the roadside. However, after they had gone about fifty yards, Pendleton turned and looked back. He saw the small horse jogging away, while behind it, helplessly fat and hopelessly befogged, sat Dr. Mercer, swaying dispiritedly from side to side.

As Ashton-Kirk and Pendleton advanced upon the house, they bore in mind the possibility of Locke being on the watch; so they kept out of sight as much as possible.

"It's rather odd, I think, that he hangs on here, knowing that his part in the murder of Hume must now be known," said Pendleton. "I rather expected an attempt at escape."

"That may come later," said the investigator, grimly. "The finish of a thing of this sort is always a matter for speculation. I have seen desperate criminals who surrendered like lambs; and I've seen the other sort give a platoon of police a good day's work in their taking."

"Do you think it possible that Locke is one of this latter type?"

"There is no knowing. But I am inclined to believe that he is."

Pendleton shook his head. It seemed impossible that this dapper little man with his peering, short-sighted eyes could be capable of any determined effort to escape the police when once driven into a corner. However, Pendleton had ample reason to respect Ashton-Kirk's judgment; and so when the latter deemed it necessary to approach with caution, he acted accordingly.

They paused in front of the house.

It was now past ten o'clock and the sun was shining brightly; a little patch of garden, filled with early flowering plants lay between the house and the wood; all about the work-shop were the tall trees which they had noticed upon their previous visit.

"We had better not use the gate," suggested the investigator. "There might be an attachment of some sort that will give him warning."

So under cover of the trees they scaled the fence; then they carefully made their way toward the shop. The windows and door of this were closed, nothing was stirring. Near the door was scattered some rubbish and loose paper. The place had an utterly deserted look.

"Do you think he is there?" asked Pendleton.

"I will know in a few moments," replied the other. "Wait here."

Pendleton expected Ashton-Kirk to continue his cautious approach. But to his surprise the investigator with cool assurance stepped out from behind a tree and advanced toward the outbuilding; when he reached the door he opened it and calmly stepped inside.

The building was in one great room. It had some windows at the side, but the greater part of its illumination came from a huge skylight. As he closed the door behind him, Ashton-Kirk had a vague impression of something huge, made of steel rods and with far-stretching wing-like projections at the sides. But he had no time to give the mechanism even a glance; of greater interest was the small figure which sat at a wide work-table upon which a litter of drawings was scattered.

It was Locke; and as the slight jar of the closing door reached him he lifted his eyes and saw the intruder. If Ashton-Kirk expected any display of fear or other emotion, he was disappointed; upon each of his previous meetings with Locke the latter had shown great trepidation; but now he simply nodded quietly and seemed not at all surprised.

But as Ashton-Kirk made a step toward him, he rose and raised his hand in a gesture that was peremptory and unmistakable. The investigator paused; then Locke pointed to a chair directly before his bench, but some half dozen yards away; and when Ashton-Kirk smilingly seated himself, Locke did likewise.

Then in heavy characters he scrawled upon the back of one of the blue-prints.

"I was expecting a visitor, and fancied that it might be you."

This he held up so that the investigator might read it. Ashton-Kirk nodded. Again the back of a plan came into service and this time the investigator read.

"What has occurred is most unfortunate. I had no hand in it, though, of course, I do not expect anyone to believe me."

Here Ashton-Kirk drew a note book from his pocket and was about to write, but the other stopped him with a gesture. Then the man once more wrote; carefully, heavily, in order that the other might have no difficulty in reading it from the distance.

"Pardon me! But it is not necessary for you to go to any trouble. Moreover—I beg of you not to think me rude—your opinions in the matter have no interest for me."

Ashton-Kirk acknowledged this with a grave nod. The pencil was instantly at work again.

"As I have said, I expected a visitor; but I will now add that I did not expect to be here to receive him."

Ashton-Kirk looked swiftly into Locke's face as he read this; the expression was unmistakable, and the investigator leaped to his feet. But the mute uttered a strange parrot-like cry—evidently the same that Edyth heard that night in Christie Place—and Ashton-Kirk saw his hand go swiftly to a button at one side of the work-bench. Instantly the investigator paused; once more a gesture bade him be seated.

Slowly he obeyed; and once more Locke began to trace bold characters upon the stiff paper. This message read:

"You are a wise man. I had arranged everything before you came in, and had sat down to make an end of it. This button at my hand once started an electric apparatus; but now it is connected with a quantity of an explosive—my own invention, and a terrible one. Believe me, one touch and everything in this building is in fragments."

Ashton-Kirk, when he had finished reading, nodded quietly. Again the mute began to write.

"I have no ill will toward you," the words ran, "you have two minutes to leave here, and get safely away."

When he saw that this had been read, Locke threw down the paper and took out his watch. Then he pointed toward the door and sat waiting.

It was strange to see the little man sitting there calmly, with only the pressure of a finger between him and eternity. But Ashton-Kirk knew stern resolution too well to mistake the look on the mute's face. There was nothing to do but to obey. He waved his hand in a farewell. Locke returned the gesture. Then Ashton-Kirk walked to the door, opened it and stepped out.

Pendleton, patiently watching among the trees, saw him emerge and at once moved toward him; to his amazement the investigator took him by the arm and broke into a run.

"What the deuce is the matter now?" asked Pendleton, after they had passed the gate and were racing down the road.

"You'll know in a few moments," returned Ashton-Kirk grimly.

He permitted no pause until they reached the car, the engine of which had not been stopped.

"Quick, for your lives!" he ordered, as he leaped in.

Pendleton and Burgess followed instantly. The car had scarcely begun its plunge forward when a horrible rending shock staggered them. And as they sped away the debris of the deaf-mute's work-shop was falling all about them.

The evening papers were glaring with the news from Cordova by the time the two friends were once more alone in Ashton-Kirk's library. Pendleton seemed to be pondering.

"I say," said he, at last, "was it Morris or Spatola who remained at Hume's the night of the murder?"

"I spoke to Spatola about that," answered Ashton-Kirk. "He said it was Morris who left first and whom Hume pursued by jeers through the open window. Morris had, according to his resolve, called at the place to demand the plans; but Hume was mad with liquor and was even worse in his manner than usual. Unable to bear it, Morris had rushed out. Spatola later made his way out by way of the scuttle and across the roof, as he frequently did.

"The thing which Spatola had carried under his coat that night was a diploma which he had received from a musical conservatory in Rome. It was in a frame and so made considerable bulk. Hume had denied that afternoon that Spatola had ever studied in this particular conservatory; frantic with rage, but knowing that he was a fool for doing it, the Italian had brought his diploma as proof.

"Morris, under the name of Crawford, occupied a room on the floor below Spatola; and as soon as the musician entered through the scuttle, he descended the stairs and went immediately to his friend's room to console and encourage him.

"Some time passed, and while they were still talking they heard a step upon the stairs leading to the attic. As no one lived there but himself, Spatola looked and in the semi-darkness saw two men descending. He called and asked who they were, and Sagon's voice replied that it was he and a friend. They had gone up to have a talk and smoke a cigar with him; but seeing that he was not in, they had come down at once. And now, as he was apparently engaged, they would not trouble him, and with that they disappeared within Sagon's room."

"Then," said Pendleton, "they had gone up through the attic, across the roofs, committed the deed, and returned while Spatola was with Morris?"

"It would seem so."

"But suppose that on reaching the attic, upon their return they had found Spatola there?"

"Sagon had calculated it all very nicely. One night a week Spatola went to play with two compatriots at their rooms; with piano, harp and violin, they gave vent to the harmony that was in them. That was the night for the trio, and Sagon knew it. But In his rage and his desire to prove his standing to Hume, Spatola had forgotten it. When he descended to Morris's rooms, the two criminals thought he had gone to make his usual visit to his friends. Sagon says he almost lost his nerve when the Italian confronted them on the stairs."

"But here's a thing I've not been able to puzzle out. According to your notion—and you may have proved it since, for all I know—Locke was not in the showroom during or after the murder. And yet it should have been he who dropped the little particle from the railroad ticket upon the desk."

"It would seem that way," admitted Ashton-Kirk, "but the fact is that Sagon visited Locke at the Institute and rode to the city with him that afternoon. The particle may be accounted for in that way."

"Yes," mused the other, "that's so. But, one thing more. I should have asked this of Morris himself if he had not been in such a confoundedly miserable way. Why did he take to hiding immediately after the murder?"

"He spent the night in his lodgings at Christie Place; next day the papers told him that he was suspected. He knew that if he appeared he'd be arrested; and as he desired to recover the plans before the murderers escaped with them, he felt that this would be fatal to his chances. Of course, I am not sure of this; but I think it more than likely."

"Speaking of taking chances on the plans," said Pendleton, "you were willing enough to take pretty long ones on them last night. Why, Sagon actually had them in his hands."

Ashton-Kirk drew a flat packet from his pocket. Opening it he showed that it contained nothing but blank paper.

"This is what Sagon found behind the portrait," said he, with a smile. "The real papers I was very careful to remove two days ago. One moment—that's the telephone."

Pendleton sat rolling a cigarette and wondering, while Ashton-Kirk took down the receiver.

"Well?" said he. Then in a moment his expression changed. "Oh, is it you? Well, how are you after your exciting experience?"

Here Pendleton dropped the completed cigarette and listened.

"You may consider yourself very fortunate to escape with a slight headache," said Ashton-Kirk. Then there was a pause, and he said, apparently in answer to a question: "Oh, yes, he's with me now. Will you speak with him?"

Pendleton arose and took a step toward the stand. But he halted as if shot when his friend continued in the transmitter:

"No?" Pause. "Oh, very well. Good-by."

Ashton-Kirk hung up the receiver and turned to his friend.

"So," said Pendleton, in a queer sort of voice, "she doesn't wish to speak to me."

"Not over the wire—no. But she wants you to come to her—at once. She desires to hear all about what she calls the wonderful way we have handled this case, and she wants to hear it—from you." Ashton-Kirk looked at his watch. "It is now 10:45. You can get there by eleven if you rush."

"Do you call doing that little distance in fifteen minutes rushing?" The young man's face was radiant and he was making for the door as he spoke. "If I don't do it in half that time, I'm a duffer."

Then the door slapped behind him, and Ashton-Kirk heard him bounding down the stairs.

* * * * *

Another story in this series is "ASHTON-KIRK AND THE SCARLET SCAPULAR" (in press)


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