"You wished to speak to me about something in particular?" Prale asked.
"Yes. I have read of the crime of which you are accused. I am sure that you are not guilty."
"Thank you, Miss Gilbert. I assure you that I am not. It is an unfortunate affair, which we hope to have cleared up within a short time."
"I hope that you will be free soon," she said. "And then you will be able to enjoy yourself, I suppose."
"I hope to have my vacation yet," Prale said.
"You are going to remain in New York?"
"Certainly; it is my home."
"Sometimes a man does better away from home."
"But I have been away from home for ten years. I have made my pile, as the saying is, and have come home to show off and lord it over my neighbors," Prale replied, laughing.
They had reached the lower end of Central Park now, and the taxi turned into a driveway, and made its way around the curves toward the upper end. The chauffeur was busy nodding to others of his craft and paying no attention to his fares. Sweethearts, he supposed, talking silly nothings as they were driven through the Park. The chauffeur was used to such; he hauled many of them.
Kate Gilbert leaned a bit closer to Prale, and when she spoke it was in a low, tense voice.
"Go away from New York, Mr. Prale!"
"Why should I do that?" he asked.
"It would be better for you, I feel sure."
"Because of the absurd charge against me? I intend to have my innocence proved, and I'd hate to run away and let people think that perhaps I was guilty after all."
"You have the right to prove your innocence of such a charge to all the world," she said. "But, after you have done it conclusively, you should go away."
"Why?" he asked, again.
"Because—you have enemies, Mr. Prale!"
"I have discovered that; but I do not know why I should have enemies."
"Perhaps you did something, some time, to create them."
"But I haven't," Prale declared.
"Retribution comes when we least expect it, Mr. Prale."
"Yes. I believe that you wrote that in one of your notes."
He had said it! And Jim Farland had told him not to let her suspect that they knew. Well, he couldn't help it now.
Kate Gilbert gasped and sat back from him.
"In my note?" she said.
"The notes interested me greatly, Miss Gilbert. I have saved them. But why should you send them to me?"
"You can ask me that!" she exclaimed. "So you know that I wrote them, do you? In that case, Mr. Prale, you know why I spoke of retribution, you probably know my identity and intentions, and you know why you have enemies!"
"But I do not!" he protested.
"Please do not attempt to tell a falsehood, Mr. Prale. You know I wrote the notes, do you? Then you know everything else. So you are going to fight."
"I fail to understand all this."
"Another falsehood!" she cried. "I have asked you to leave New York and——"
"And I fail to see why I should."
"Then remain—and receive the retribution!" she said. "You will deserve all you get, Sidney Prale! When I think of what you have done——"
She ceased speaking, and turned to glance through the window.
"You were kind enough to say that you believed me innocent of the murder charge——"
"I do. I hate to have you facing a thing like that when you are innocent. But this other thing is——"
"Can't you explain? I give you my word of honor that I do not understand this."
"Your word of honor!" she sneered, facing him again. "You speak of honor—you? That is the best jest of all!"
Sidney Prale's face flushed.
"I had hoped that I was a man of honor," he said. "I always have tried to be honorable in my dealings with men and women, all my life. Please understand that, Miss Gilbert."
"If you have tried, you have failed miserably. Why do you persist in telling falsehoods, Mr. Prale. Do you think that I am a weak, silly woman ready to be hoodwinked by lies?"
"But I assure you——"
"I do not care for any of your assurances," she interrupted. "I wish it understood that we are strangers hereafter. You are going to fight, are you? Fight, Sidney Prale—and lose! What I said was correct—you cannot dodge retribution. It will take more than a million dollars to be able to do that."
"My dear young lady——"
"I am done, Mr. Prale. I have said all that I intend saying to you."
"Then it is my turn to talk!" Prale said. "This thing is getting to be so serious that I demand an explanation. Why should you, and others, be so eager to run me out of New York?"
"Yes—particularly one man we both know."
"His name, please?"
"Why ask, Miss Gilbert?"
"Why do you want me to run away?"
"I did not know that others were trying to get you to leave," she said. "I suggested it because—well, because I am a woman, I suppose. You deserve the worst that can happen to you. But a woman, has a kind thought now and then. I hate to see any man ground down and down, no matter how much he deserves it—and that is what is to happen to you if you do not go away. If you leave, your enemies will not use such harsh measures, perhaps. But when you are here before their very eyes, they will lift their hands against you!"
"Who are these enemies, and why are they after my scalp?"
"You know, Sidney Prale, as well as I. I can see that it is useless to talk to you. I am sorry that I had a moment's compassion and made the attempt. Please stop the cab and let me out here."
"But I demand to know——"
"Do as I say, or I shall make a scene!"
Prale gave the signal, and the taxi stopped. He helped her out, and she started briskly down the nearest path. Sidney Prale paid the chauffeur, and started to follow.
He glanced back, and saw Murk getting out of another taxicab. He had forgotten Murk in his interest in the conversation with Kate Gilbert. But Murk had not forgotten. Murk had his orders, and he was carrying them out; he was keeping in sight, to be on hand if he was needed.
Murk had a little money Prale had given him, enough to pay the taxi chauffeur. Prale motioned for him to approach.
"Here's a roll of bills," he said. "Keep up the game, Murk. Don't get too far away."
"I'll be right at your heels, boss."
"And keep your eyes open."
"That woman was Kate Gilbert."
"Then I'll know her whenever I see her again, sir."
Prale hurried on down the path. Murk kept pace with him, a short distance behind.
Kate Gilbert had been walking swiftly. She had reached the street, and, as Prale watched, she crossed it. Prale followed.
The girl did not look behind. She came to the middle of the block and ran up the steps of an apartment house. Prale passed the entrance, glanced at the number, and continued down the street. At the corner he allowed Murk to catch up with him.
"She turned in at the address Jim Farland gave us," Prale said. "She has gone home, Murk. I fancy that we are done with her for to-day!"
A lot he knew about it!
A MOMENT OF VIOLENCE
Sidney Prale turned around and walked back along the street to the Park, Murk once more following at a short distance, as he had been ordered to do.
Because he wanted to think of his predicament, Prale crossed into the Park and began following one of the paths toward the south, making his way along it slowly, paying little attention to the persons he passed now and then.
He crossed a drive and followed another path; and now he came to a secluded spot where the path was hidden from passers-by on the other walks and drives. Here the way ran through a tiny gulch, the sides of which were banked with bushes. Squirrels scampered and birds chattered at him, but Prale saw none of them.
He was trying to explain to himself why Kate Gilbert had warned him to leave New York, why she had interested herself in his affairs at all, asking himself for the thousandth time what species of net it was in which he suddenly had found himself enmeshed without knowing the reason for it.
He had demanded information and it had not been given him. She had said nothing at all that gave him an inkling as to the nature of what seemed to be a plot against him. He had been as firm as he dared, he told himself. A man could not threaten a woman, could not use violence in an attempt to make her speak and reveal secrets.
"We'll have to work from another corner," Sidney Prale told himself. "I can't threaten a woman, but I can pummel a man; and if I meet George Lerton again, I am liable to forget what Jim Farland told me and use my own methods."
He walked on through the tiny ravine. He came to a cross path, and a man lurched down it and against him.
"Beg pardon!" Prale murmured.
"Wonder you wouldn't look where you're going!" the other exclaimed. "Got an idea you own the whole Park, or something like that? Men like you shouldn't be running around loose!"
"You ran into me, not I into you," Prale reminded him.
As he spoke, he looked at the other closely. He saw a gigantic man who had the general appearance of a thug, whose chin was thrust forward aggressively, and whose hands were opening and closing as if he wished they were around Sidney Prale's throat.
"I've a notion to smash you one!" the fellow said, advancing toward Prale a bit.
Prale's temper flamed at once. His own chin was shot forward, and his own hands closed.
"If that is the way you feel about it, start in!" Prale said. "Perhaps I can teach you to act decently and keep a civil tongue in your head!"
The man before him made no comment—he simply launched himself forward like a thunderbolt. Sidney Prale darted quickly to one side, and tossed his hat and stick on the ground. He did not have time to get off his coat; he could not even remove his gloves.
The other, missing him in that first rush, turned and came back, swinging his fists. Prale did not dart aside now. He put himself on guard, braced himself against the side of the little gulch, and waited for the attack.
They clashed, and Prale knew that he had a real fight on his hands, for the man who had attacked him was no mean antagonist. But, after the first real clash, Prale had no fear of the outcome. The man was brutal, but he had no skill. He delivered blows that would have felled any one—but they did not reach their objective.
Then a second man crashed down through the brush and joined in the attack. Sidney Prale realized in that moment that the attack had been premeditated and the fight forced upon him purposely. It fed fuel to the flames of his wrath. He did not know whether this was the work of some of his unknown enemies or whether these thugs were mere robbers intent upon getting his wallet and watch. It made little difference to him which they were.
With his back against the side of the gulch, he fought with what skill he could, trying to stand off both of them. The attack had come with a rush, and all this had occupied but a few seconds.
Presently a human whirlwind appeared and took part in the battle. There was an angry roar from a human throat, a raucous curse, a rushing body, the thuds of swift, hard blows. Mr. Murk had reached the scene!
The battle immediately became two-fold. Murk fought as these thugs fought, disregarding the finer rules of combat, seeking only to put his opponent out, no matter by what means. Murk was not unaccustomed to fighting of that character, and he was doubly formidable now, for he was angry at the attack on Sidney Prale. Murk had been too far away to hear what had been said when the trouble started, but he had seen, and he guessed immediately that some of Sidney Prale's enemies were engaged in the attempt.
Murk went after his opponent with determination if not with skill. He fought him down the path, and there the fellow rallied from the surprise and rushed back. But Murk was not the sort to give ground. In a fight, a man should stand up to another until one of them was whipped, Murk thought.
He knew how to give blows, but not how to guard against them. He was marked, and marked well, before the battle was a minute old, but he had the satisfaction of seeing blood on the face of his antagonist. Foot to foot they stood and hammered each other, and gradually Murk began wearing the other man down.
As for Sidney Prale, now that he had but the one thug against him, he fought with skill and cunning, knowing that the other was a bit the stronger, but realizing that he would be victor if he used reasonable care.
His flare of anger had passed, and now he was fighting like a clever pugilist. He warded off the other's powerful blows, and now and then he slipped beneath a guard, or smashed his way through one, and sent home a blow of his own.
At the end of three minutes, the thugs were getting much the worst of it. Gradually they were being fought back toward the nearest driveway. Back and back they went, but did not turn and run. Sidney Prale sensed that they were fighting for money, that they were being paid for this attack, and he realized that, but for the presence of Murk, he would have had no chance whatever, and probably would be a senseless, bleeding thing now.
None of them knew that the fight had attracted attention, but it had. Two women, coming around a curve in the path, had seen it, and had run back toward the nearest driveway, screeching. Two mounted policemen hurried toward them, heard the story, and charged down the path.
The two thugs made no effort to escape. They stopped fighting, and Prale and Murk ceased also, though the latter was eager to continue until a decision had been rendered. Murk had fought often where there was no interference and he disliked to be bothered now, but he desisted at Prale's command.
"Well, what's all this about?" one of the officers demanded. He did not address any of them particularly. "I was walking along the path, and these men attacked me," Sidney Prale said. "My valet was a short distance behind and he came to my assistance. I never saw these fellows before."
"Nothin' like it!" one of the thugs snarled. "Me and my pal were walkin' along this path and met these men, and the one with the stick ordered us out of the way as if we were dogs. When we didn't move quick enough, they jumped into us."
"That's a lie——" Murk began.
"You can settle this at the station," the officer replied. "All of you come along with us!"
Prale picked up his hat and stick, took off his torn gloves and threw them away, and motioned for Murk to walk at his side and to keep quiet. They went to the driveway and along it, the policemen watching the four of them closely, the thugs growling to each other and remarking that it was a fine day when honest workingmen could not stroll in Central Park without a dude and his valet trying to beat them up.
There was a short wait when the station was reached, and then, at the lieutenant's command, one of the thugs poured forth his story. He gave his name and address, as did the other, and both made the statement that they were out of work at present.
Prale stepped forward and gave his name. The lieutenant stared at him in surprise.
"Why, it's the guy who croaked that man Shepley!" one of the thugs cried. "There ought to be a way of stoppin' him runnin' around and assaultin' and killin' folks. If it hadn't been for the cops——"
"Shut up!" Sidney Prale commanded loudly, ignoring the presence of the officers. "You fellows made a deliberate attack on me and you know it. And I want to know who paid you to do it—understand?"
"You're crazy!" said one of the thugs.
Prale turned to the lieutenant. "I'd like to have Jim Farland sent for," he said. "He has been handling things for me. I want him to investigate these men. I have an idea that the names and addresses they gave are fictitious. Recently enemies of mine have caused me considerable trouble, and I feel sure that these men were hired to attack me. Fortunately, my valet was walking a short distance behind me, and rushed up and helped me hold them off."
"I'm ready to put up bail, and so is my pal!" said one of the thugs angrily.
"In that case, I'll have to let you go for the present," the lieutenant said. "The charge is fighting and disorderly conduct, and bail will be one hundred dollars in each case. You may use the telephone if you wish, Mr. Prale."
Prale hurried to the telephone, called Jim Farland's office, and was informed that Farland had not been there, and that the girl in charge did not know where he was, or what he was doing, or when he would return. Prale left instructions for Farland and went back to the desk.
"This is a serious business, though it may not look like it on the face," he said. "I'd like to have these men held until we can make sure they have given correct names and addresses."
"No use holding them if they have given bail," the lieutenant replied. "I think it's nothing but a regular scrap. You can talk to the judge later, all of you."
Prale took a roll of bills from his pocket and put up cash bail for both Murk and himself. One of the thugs followed suit and pulling out a roll of bills, stripped off two hundred dollars, and arranged for the release of himself and his partner.
"You seem to have a lot of money for men who are out of work," Prale said.
"Been savin' it, and it's none of your business anyway," growled the other.
They started toward the door, and Prale and Murk followed them, watched them until they started away, and then turned back to bathe their faces and hands. Then Prale got a taxicab, and drove to the office of a physician, who did his best to make the countenances of Prale and Murk presentable.
It was an hour later when Jim Farland called Prale by telephone at the hotel.
"I've investigated that little matter, Sid," he reported. "Those fellows gave fictitious addresses, as you supposed they had done, and it is an even bet that the names they gave were fictitious, too. No doubt about it, Sid—they were hired to get you. You'd better be on guard and a bit careful."
MURK RECEIVES A BLOW
An hour before dinner, Detective Jim Farland suddenly appeared in Sidney Prale's suite at the hotel.
"They are working on me now, Sid," he said. "I got a telephone message when I was in the office, and the gent at the other end of the line informed me that it would be beneficial to my health if I immediately ceased having anything to do with the Rufus Shepley murder case and stopped working for you."
"Any idea where the message came from?" Prale asked.
"It came from a public pay station in the subway. I had the call traced immediately, of course. No chance of finding out who sent it, naturally. I doubt whether I'd recognize the voice if I heard it again—could tell by the way the fellow talked that he was trying to disguise his tones. I told him to go to blazes, and he informed me that I was up against something too big for a man to face, or something like that."
"Jim, if there is any danger, I don't want you to work for me," Sidney Prale said. "You're married and a father and——"
"And that will be about all from you, Sid!" Farland interrupted. "Think I'm going to let some man who doesn't tell me his name throw a scare into me?"
"But, if there is danger——"
"I thrive on danger," said Jim Farland. "Think I'm going to desert you at this stage of the game? That is what they want, of course. If I did, you'd probably hire another detective, and it might be one of their own men—whoever they are. I'm in this game to stay, Sid, first because you are an old friend of mine and I think you are being made the victim of some sort of a dirty deal, and also because I'm not the kind of man to be bluffed out of a job. We are going right ahead. I got a note at the office, too."
"A note!" Prale gasped.
"Typewritten, but not on George Lerton's battered typewriter this time. It remarked that unless I gave up this case, somebody would make things hard for me, or words to that effect. Old stuff! If they are so scared that they send threatening letters, they're whipped right now—and they know it!"
"I had an interesting experience this afternoon," said Prale.
"I don't mean that. I met Kate Gilbert in front of the library. She asked me to get a taxicab and drive her through the Park. I did it. She begged me to leave New York and remain away, and said that my enemies might not be so harsh if I did. I tried to get her to explain, and she insisted that I knew all there was to know. She left the taxicab and walked to her home."
"I'll have to investigate that girl more thoroughly," Farland said.
"She is on guard now, as far as I am concerned."
"Does she know Murk by sight?"
"I think not."
"Then here is where Murk gets a steady job for a time," Jim Farland declared. "Murk, you go up to Kate Gilbert's home and watch a bit. Give him plenty of money, Sid, for expenses. Just see if she leaves the place, Murk, and if so, where she goes, and to whom she talks. Get any general information you can. Try to keep her from knowing that you are watching her, but if she finds it out drop the chase and get back here, and we'll put another shadow on the job. When you are sure that she has decided to remain in her apartment for the night, report back here to Mr. Prale."
"You watch me," Murk said. "I never expected to be caught doin' detective work and I reckon it's somethin' like a disgrace, but this is a sort of special occasion."
Prale gave Murk more money, in case he would have to engage taxicabs or follow Kate Gilbert where money would be necessary for tips and bribes.
"Your face looks pretty good, but you want to remember that there are some marks on it," Prale told him.
"It's looked worse, boss," Murk replied, grinning. "I'll try to do this thing right."
Murk hurried down in the elevator and went from the hotel. He got a cab immediately, and promised that dire things would happen to the chauffeur if he did not get to a certain corner up beside the Park in record time. Jim Farland had given him a badge to be used if he was questioned by a police officer, and he was to say that he was an operative attached to Farland's office.
Murk discharged the taxi at the proper corner, touched match to cigarette, and walked slowly down the street toward the apartment house where Kate Gilbert lived with her father and her maid.
Jim Farland had told him the location of the Gilbert apartment, and Murk saw that the lights in it were burning. It was about time for dinner, he knew.
He went to a drug store on the nearest corner and hurried into a telephone booth. He called the apartment house and asked to be connected with the Gilberts. A woman's hoarse voice answered his call, and he guessed that it was the maid speaking.
"Miss Kate Gilbert there?" Murk asked.
"Who is calling, please?"
"Tell her it is about that Prale affair," Murk replied.
"One moment. I'll call her."
Kate Gilbert's voice came to him over the wire almost immediately.
"Miss Gilbert?" Murk asked. "I was to tell you that——"
And then Murk jerked down the receiver hook, and grinned as he put the receiver on it. Kate Gilbert would believe that a careless central girl had cut them off and put an end to the conversation.
He had learned what he had wished to learn—that Kate Gilbert was at home. He walked back up the street. All he had to do now was to watch, and if Kate Gilbert left the place follow her. If she did not, Murk would wait half an hour or so after the lights in the apartment were turned out, to be sure that she had retired, and then would hurry back to the hotel.
Murk watched from a distance at first, and then went slowly forward, for he did not wish to attract attention by remaining in one position too long. There were few persons on the block; and now and then some automobile or taxicab would discharge a passenger and go on. Murk made his way slowly to the end of the block, always watching the entrance of the apartment house, crossed the street, and started back on the other side.
He came in front of a dark passageway between two buildings, and went on. And out of the mouth of that dark passageway came a blow that caused Murk to groan once and topple forward. Hands gripped his unconscious body and drew him back into the darkness.
MURK IS TEMPTED
The next thing that impressed itself upon Murk's consciousness was the fact that he had a terrific pain in the back of his head. Many times during his career Murk had experienced similar pains. And he knew that the best thing to do was to remain quiet for a short time, keep his eyes closed, and gradually pull himself together.
So he pretended that he had not regained consciousness. He knew that he had been stretched upon a bed or couch of some sort, and that his wrists were lashed together, and his ankles. He was not gagged, however.
Gradually the pain ceased, Murk's senses cleared and he became aware of what was going on around him. He could hear whispered voices, but could not distinguish words and sentences; neither could he tell whether the voices were those of men or women.
Finally Murk opened his eyes.
He found that he was in a small room furnished in quite an ordinary manner. He was stretched on an old-fashioned sofa. There were a few chairs scattered about, and a cupboard in one corner. In the middle of the room was an ordinary table covered with a red cloth. Upon the table a kerosene lamp was burning.
Murk groaned and made an attempt to sit up, but fell back again because of a fit of dizziness. It became evident that his groan had been heard in the room adjoining, for the door, which had been ajar, now was thrown open wide, and two men entered.
Murk knew them instantly; they were the men who had attacked Sidney Prale in the Park.
"Back to earth, are you?" one of them snarled. "If I had my way, you'd have been cracked on the head for good."
Murk snarled in reply, despite the fact that he was bound and at the mercy of these men.
"Sore because I smashed your face!" Murk said.
"That'll be about all out of you! I may take a smash at you yet!"
"You've got a good chance while my hands and feet are tied," Murk replied. "It's the only time you could get away with it, all right! Turn me loose and I can clean up the two of you!"
"You're not doin' any cleanin' for the present," he was told.
Murk began wondering at the object of the assault upon him. He could feel the roll of bills Prale had given him bulging his vest pocket, so he guessed robbery was not the motive. He managed to sit up on the sofa now, and he glared at the two thugs before him with right good will.
One of the men went back into the adjoining room, and the other remained standing before Murk, sneering at him, his hands opening and closing as if he would take Murk's throat in them and choke the life out of Sidney Prale's valet and comrade in arms.
Then the man who had left the room returned, and there was another with him. Murk looked at this stranger with sudden interest. He was well dressed, Murk could see, but he wore an ulster that had the wide collar turned up around his neck, and he had a mask on his face—a home-made mask that was nothing more than a handkerchief with eye slits cut in it.
"Afraid to show yourself, are you?" Murk sneered. "Who are you—the chief thug?"
The masked man pulled a chair up before the sofa and sat down. His eyes glittered at Murk through the slits in the handkerchief.
"You are not going to be harmed, my man—if you are reasonable," he said.
"Reasonable about what?" Murk demanded.
"We want some information and we think you can give it to us; that is all."
"I don't know much," said Murk.
"Tell us why you were prowling around that house near the Park."
"Maybe I was takin' a walk," Murk answered.
"And maybe you were spying, as I happen to know you were. We assume that Sidney Prale sent you to watch the comings and goings of a certain young woman and her friends."
"Go right ahead assumin'."
"It will avail you nothing, my man, to adopt this attitude," Murk was told. "And it might help you a great deal if you are willing to listen to reason."
"I'm listenin'," Murk replied.
"You haven't been working for Sidney Prale very long, have you?"
"Only a few days—since you seem to know all about it, anyway. Why ask foolish questions?"
"Very well. We understand that Prale kept you from committing suicide and then gave you a job. There is no reason why you should feel an overwhelming gratitude for Prale. He merely got a valet cheap."
"What about it?" Murk growled.
"Sidney Prale has a million dollars, but you'll never see much of it. He isn't the sort of man to toss his money away. And there are others, not particularly Prale's friends, who have many millions between them."
"Well, that ain't doin' me much good."
"But it may do you a lot of good. We want information and we stand ready to pay for it."
"I guess you'll have to do a little explainin'," Murk told him. "I never was any good at guessin' riddles. Life's too short to be spent workin' out silly puzzles."
"Very well," the masked man said. "As you perhaps are aware, Prale has certain enemies. That is enough for you to know, if he has not told you more. If you can give me information concerning Sidney Prale's plans, and tell us how much he knows, we will pay you handsomely."
"I getcha," Murk said.
"And if you can manage to continue working for Prale, and let us know everything as it comes up, there'll be considerably more in it for you."
"Want me to do the spy act, do you?"
"Call it whatever you like. There is a chance for you to earn some good money."
"How much?" Murk demanded.
"That depends upon the services you render us. But let me assure you that you will be richly rewarded. We will not fool you or defraud you."
"What do you want to know?"
"What is Jim Farland, the detective, doing? What has he reported to Prale?"
"He ain't reported much of anything," said Murk.
"We want to know what Prale thinks about the situation. Tell us all you know concerning the Rufus Shepley murder case. Has Sidney Prale said anything you have been able to hear about the enemies who are bothering him? You understand what we want to know—everything possible about Prale's plans. And we want you to watch henceforth, and keep us informed in a way I shall explain to you."
"Well, explain it!" said Murk.
"Scarcely, until we know that you are our man. Try to think of things now, and tell us. Be sure you let us have everything. What you deem unimportant may be really important to us."
"I'd feel a lot more friendly to you gents if you'd untie me," said Murk. "I can't talk business when I'm treated like a prisoner, or somethin' like that."
"You'll be untied as soon as we feel sure of you, and not before," Murk was told. "We are not taking chances with you. Are you going to work for us?"
"I'm not sure that the proposition looks good to me," Murk said. "I make a deal with a man whose face I can't see, and do the dirty work—and then maybe you turn me down cold and don't give me a cent, and I lose my job with Mr. Prale and get in a nice fix. Don't you suppose I got some common sense?"
"Make the deal with us, and you shall have five hundred dollars in cash before you leave this room," the masked man promised. "And, take my word for it, you'll be rewarded richly if you serve us well."
"Well, I don't know much about this business," Murk said. "You know I ain't been with Mr. Prale very long. All I know is that he's got some enemies who are tryin' to get the best of him. He says he ain't guilty of that murder charge, and I happen to know he ain't, because he was with me when Shepley was killed."
"Maybe you both had a hand in the killing," the masked man said. "And if you don't come to terms with us, you may find yourself in jail charged with being an accessory."
"You can't bluff me, and you can't threaten me and get away with it!" Murk cried.
"Softly—softly!" said the masked man. "I was merely showing you where you stand."
"Well, don't start talkin' to me that way, if you want to do business with me. If I'm goin' to work for you, I've got to know what's what. Who's got it in for Mr. Prale, and why? That's what I want to know. And what is it you're tryin' to do to him? How can I help if I ain't wise?"
"Some of the wealthiest and most influential men in the city are against Sidney Prale. They are determined to run him away from this, his old home town. They are going to strip him of his fortune if they can. They are going to grind him down until he is nothing better than a tramp."
"Well, why are they goin' to do all this?"
"It is not necessary for you to know at present. Perhaps you will learn that from Sidney Prale, if you keep your ears and eyes open. All we want you to do is to watch and listen and make frequent reports to us. You'll have to be loyal to us, of course. If you are not, we shall punish you."
"But what did Mr. Prale ever do to get such a bunch down on him?" Murk demanded.
"You'll find that out in time—maybe."
"I guess I'd better know right now."
"It is not necessary. Besides, we are not sure of you yet, please remember."
"How could you ever be sure of me?" Murk cried. "If I threw down Mr. Prale, wouldn't I be liable to throw you down, if somebody happened along and raised the price? Why, you simp, I wouldn't turn against Mr. Prale for a million dollars! He's treated me decent, and he was the first man who ever did that! I was just stringin' you, you fool! Mr. Prale himself don't know why your gang is causin' him trouble, and I was tryin' to pump you and find out!"
"So he has told you that he doesn't know why he has enemies?"
"He has—and he told the truth. There's something phony about that murder case; somebody's tryin' to frame him. And when Jim Farland gets through, somebody is goin' to jail!"
"So you will not work for us?"
"You're right; I won't. Maybe I don't amount to much, but I'm mighty square compared to some people I know about."
"And what do you suppose is going to become of you, if you refuse to do as I say?"
"I guess I'll manage to struggle along," Murk said.
"We'll see about that!" the masked man replied, getting up from the chair. "Perhaps a night spent in your present position, without food or water, will cause you to change your mind. If it does not, there are other methods that can be used."
"Goin' to pull rough stuff, are you?" Murk sneered. "Go as far as you like! You can manhandle me, but you can't make me turn against Sidney Prale. That's a golden little thought for to-day, as the preacher says."
A WOMAN'S WAY
The masked man stepped forward, snarling behind his mask, his hands closing, and the two thugs stepped forward also, as if to use Murk roughly if the other gave the command.
But there was an interruption. Kate Gilbert came in from the adjoining room.
The masked man whirled to meet her.
"You should not—" he began.
"It makes no difference," Kate Gilbert said. "This man knows me, or he would not have been set to spying on me. Sidney Prale knows that I am associated with his enemies, since I was talking to him to-day. It is not necessary for me to mask my face!"
"It really was not necessary for you to come," said the masked man. "This fellow refuses to have anything to do with us."
"I cannot blame him. You used violence to get him here. I am afraid that I should refuse to have business relations with a man who knocked me on the head."
"It was the only way. We couldn't approach him on the street very well. We have him here now and perhaps may be able to force him to see the light."
"I shall not countenance more violence!" Kate Gilbert said. "I told you in the beginning that force was not to be used. This man is not to be blamed in any way. He merely is an employee of the man we are fighting."
"I think it justifiable to use any method that will get results," the masked man told her. "You seem to forget——"
"I do not forget!" Kate Gilbert cried. "Who has a better right to hope to see Sidney Prale punished? Who has suffered more than I and mine? But I do not wish to see violence used. This man may be made to help us, but I fear you have taken the wrong method. And what do you intend doing now?"
"Perhaps it will be as well for you to return home and allow us to handle this part of the affair," the masked man told her. "No woman likes violence, of course, but at times it is necessary. We are going to leave him here to-night to think things over. He will be stiff and sore and hungry in the morning."
"But——" Kate Gilbert protested.
"It is the better way, I assure you—and quite necessary. This thing is so big that it must be handled with firmness and decision. You have aided us greatly, but I think it will be a mistake to let you take command of the situation."
Kate Gilbert's eyes flashed angrily, and her face flushed.
"Very well, sir," she said. "But let me talk to this man alone. Perhaps common sense and kindness will prevail where violence did not. I sincerely hope so."
"I am willing to let you talk to him, but you are to be guarded in your speech. Tell him nothing about the real affair; we want to be sure of him before we take him fully into our confidence. All we wish him to do is to keep us informed about Prale and Jim Farland, and any others who may be helping Prale."
"I understand, and I am not quite a fool!" Kate Gilbert told him, still angry.
The masked man motioned the two thugs out of the room, and then followed them, closing the door behind him. Kate Gilbert sat down in the chair before the sofa, and looked at Murk.
"First, I want you to know that I had nothing to do with the blow you received," she said. "That was going a bit too far. I knew nothing of it until I received a telephone message saying that you were spying on the place where I live, and that you had been captured and brought here."
"I understand that, lady," Murk replied.
"I know that you have been with Mr. Prale only a few days. If he were in your place now, I might be inclined to turn my back and let those men handle him. But you are not to be blamed for the faults of your employer."
"No, ma'am," said Murk.
"I am going to tell you only this much: Sidney Prale committed a great wrong against several persons. Those persons have banded together to have vengeance. Sidney Prale deserves everything that can happen to him."
"I think you've got him wrong, ma'am," said Murk. "He's even accused of murder, and I know he ain't guilty."
"Neither do I believe that he is guilty of that crime, but that has nothing to do with this other affair. The persons who are banded together against Sidney Prale have nothing to do with the murder charge, I am sure."
"I reckon he'll be glad to know that. But you've got him wrong in this other thing, lady. Mr. Prale is worried almost to death because he don't know who his enemies are, or why they are causin' him a lot of trouble."
"He has led you to believe that?" she asked.
"I know he's tellin' the truth, ma'am. He's got a detective workin' tryin' to find out what it all means."
"Then he is fooling you, and the detective also. Sidney Prale knows who his enemies are, and why they are troubling him. He tried to tell me that he did not know, and almost in the same breath he told me something that convinced me he did know. You have received an offer to help us. Are you willing?"
"I don't intend to turn against Mr. Prale!" Murk declared. "I ain't a man like that! These gents can keep me here and starve me and beat me up, and that's all the good it'll do 'em. I know a man when I see one, and Mr. Prale's a man, and a square man, and I'm goin' to stand by him!"
"He has fooled you! You do not know him for the scoundrel that he is."
"Maybe it's you that's bein' fooled, lady."
"No. If you knew all, you would understand."
"Well, why don't you tell me, then? If you prove to me that Mr. Prale is a crook or somethin', and that you people ain't, maybe I'll change my mind about some things."
"I can tell you nothing now, except that I am right and that Sidney Prale is fooling you," Kate Gilbert said.
"Then I'll stay right here and take my beatin' at the hands of them thugs."
"You will do nothing of the kind," she said. "I will not see them use violence toward you."
"I don't see how you're goin' to help it, ma'am."
"I am going to have you released. You may return to Sidney Prale and tell him that we intend to punish him, but that I, for one, will not resort to violence. He may fight unfairly, but we do not." She lowered her voice and bent toward him. "I'll attract their attention, and send my maid to release you," she said. "Remain where you are."
Without another word, Kate Gilbert got up and left the room, closing the door behind her. In the other room were the masked man, the two thugs, and Marie, the maid.
"I have talked to him, and I have a plan," Kate Gilbert told the others. "Marie, I wish you to do something for me. Take the taxicab and go on the errand, and after I am done here I will go home in another car."
She stepped across to the maid and gave her whispered instructions, while the men waited. Marie left the room, walked through the hall, and left the house. Kate Gilbert sat down at the table and called the others to her.
"That man is loyal to Prale," she explained. "Prale has fooled him. He honestly believes that Prale does not know his enemies or why he is being bothered, and he is grateful to Prale for what Prale has done for him. So, naturally, he refuses to turn against his employer."
"If you will leave the matter in my hands——" the masked man suggested.
"I may do so after we have had this little talk. Come closer, so I can speak in a low tone and he will not hear."
They pulled their chairs up to the table.
"This man is stubborn," she said. "You could starve him or beat him, and it would do you not the slightest good. It would only make him the more determined to be faithful to Prale. We would gain nothing. We've got to convince him that we are in the right."
"I object to telling him the whole truth," said the masked man.
"He could do nothing except tell it to Prale—and Prale knows it already, doesn't he?" Kate Gilbert asked.
"You want to let the fellow go?" the masked man cried. "Why, we can use him as a sort of hostage!"
"As if Sidney Prale would care if he never saw his valet again!"
"He is more than a valet; he is one of Prale's spies! If we can hold this man prisoner, and attend to Jim Farland, that detective, Prale would stand alone. There are not many men he would trust to help him. And, if he stands alone, it will be easier for us to torment him, cause him trouble, drive him away!"
"Sometimes I regret that we started this thing," Kate Gilbert said. "What will it avail us to make Prale's life miserable?"
"You seem to forget—"
"I forget nothing! I know how I have suffered, how my father and others have suffered. But I am not sure that retribution will not visit Sidney Prale even if we keep our hands off."
"You're a woman; that is why!" the masked man accused. "You have a soft heart, as is right and proper in a woman. But when you remember your father——"
"I am not quitting!" she declared. "I will continue the game. But I will not permit violence toward anybody, least of all to a poor fellow who has nothing to do with the affair except that he is working for Sidney Prale. We can accomplish our aims without becoming thugs and breaking laws ourselves. I understood that we always were to keep inside the law."
"Well, what have you to suggest?" the masked man asked.
"Let Prale's valet go, for he can do us no harm. Prale knows that I am against him, but he can make no move unless we break the law and his detective has us apprehended. We play into Sidney Prale's hands if we do that. Can't you see it? We do not want to give him an advantage, do we? If we use violence or break a law, we do just that. We must break him down cleverly."
"I see that point, all right."
"I am astonished that you did not see it before. You appear to be very vindictive lately, yet you did not suffer as some others suffered."
"I have my reasons. I always have hated Sidney Prale."
"Then you are making this fight for personal reasons?"
"Do not forget that some very good friends of mine suffered because of Prale. But, about the valet——"
"Let him go, I say. What harm can he do?"
"We slugged him to get him here. He can report it to the police, and have you arrested, and these two men."
"And what evidence would he have?" she asked. "Who would testify that he was telling the truth? These two men can keep out of sight for the present. He has not seen your face because of your mask. And to charge me with slugging him would be ridiculous."
"Is vacant, so far as the neighbors know; it is owned by a man whose wife died, and who has been gone for more than a year. The agent who rented it to us furnished, is one of us. We can simply close it up and not come here again. If he complained, and the police investigated, they would find the house closed, and the nearest neighbors would declare that it had been closed since the owner went away. The furniture is not even dusted."
"That part is all right."
"And that attack on Prale in the Park during the afternoon!" she went on. "That was a mistake. Suppose Detective Farland managed to connect that with us. I tell you we must not break a law, or Sidney Prale may get the advantage!"
"We can't handle an affair like this with kid gloves!" the masked man declared.
"We do as I say, or I shall go to Sidney Prale and tell him everything and rob you of your vengeance!"
"You would do that!" the masked man cried, springing from his chair.
"I'll do it if there is any more violence!" she declared. "It was understood that no rough tactics were to be used, and I demand that we carry out the original plan!"
"We'll see about this!" the masked man cried. "I'll talk to some of the others——"
"And I'll leave the game if there is any more violence—do not forget that!" Kate Gilbert cried.
She continued to talk and plan, for she was fighting for time. She had known that, at the last moment, this man would refuse to release Murk.
Marie, the big maid, had hurried from the house, which sat far back from the street and was surrounded by trees. But she had returned after watching for a few minutes.
Murk, sitting on the sofa, heard somebody at one of the windows. He watched the sash being raised slowly and cautiously, and after a time saw the head of Marie. She motioned him for silence, listened a moment, and then crawled inside.
Marie hurried across to Murk and fumbled with the cords that bound his wrists together behind his back. The bonds slipped away, and Murk made quick work of the one around his ankles. He hurried across the room, got through the window, and helped the big maid through. Marie led him toward the street.
"Come right along with me!" she commanded, when they were some distance from the house.
"Thanks for helpin' me out, but I guess I'll hang around," Murk replied. "I'm right eager to get a look at the face of the man who was wearing the mask."
"I supposed you'd want to do that," the big maid told him. "And that's what I've got orders to keep you from doing. You come along with me!"
Murk got a surprise. Marie gripped his shoulder with her left hand—and it was no gentle grip. Then he saw that she was holding an automatic pistol in her right hand.
"There is a taxi at the corner," she informed Murk. "We are going to get into it and drive back to the city. You may be able to find this house afterward, but I doubt it."
"Suppose I take a notion not to go?" Murk asked.
"I'm not afraid to shoot," Marie informed him.
"Aw, let me go!" he exclaimed. "You're in wrong in this deal; see? I tell you that Mr. Prale, my boss, is an all-right man, and you people are makin' some kind of a mistake."
"I like to see a man stick up for his boss," replied the gigantic Marie. "And I'm stickin' up for mine right this minute, and she told me to see that you went to town. Why don't you quit that man Prale and get a real job with a gentleman? You're not a bad-looking man at all."
Murk felt himself blushing at this unexpected announcement. Praise from the lips of a woman was something new in his life. He glanced at the amazon beside him.
"And you're sure some woman!" he said. "And that ain't just nice talk—I sure mean it! But you ain't got this from the right angle. I've got to work for Mr. Prale. I'd be a dead one this minute if it wasn't for him. If I didn't stick by him now, I'd never be able to look at myself in a shavin' mirror again. You don't want me to be an ungrateful pup, do you? You see——"
Having directed her attention to another topic for a moment, Murk put his plan into action. He made a quick lunge forward as he spoke, springing a bit to one side as he did so, and trying to seize the automatic and tear it from her grasp.
But the gigantic Marie had been anticipating something like that, despite Murk's speech and his manner that said he was a willing captive. She lurched forward and hurled Murk back, sprang after him, crashed the butt of the weapon against the side of his head, and then, while he was a trifle groggy from the blow, she grasped him with her powerful hands and piloted him toward the street with strength and determination.
"Never try to play them child's tricks on me!" she announced.
Murk regarded her with mingled admiration and chagrin, and spoke with enthusiasm.
"Some woman!" he commented.
Murk, compelled to ride back to the city in the taxicab with Marie, spent the time in ordinary conversation with the amazon, and told himself repeatedly that she was a great woman, a dangerous state of mind for a bachelor.
The only reason Murk wanted to remain in the vicinity of the cottage was to catch a sight of the countenance of the man who had worn the mask. As far as the cottage itself was concerned, he had noticed a signboard on a street corner not far from it, and he would be able to locate it again if Sidney Prale or Jim Farland thought it necessary.
Marie stopped the taxicab near the Park, and Murk got out and gallantly offered to pay the bill for his enemy, but Marie would not allow it.
"Hope to see you often and get to know you better when this little scrap is over," Murk made bold to say, and then, chuckling at her retort, he started walking down the street.
He did not care to ride, for it was not so very many blocks to the hotel, and Murk wanted time to formulate in his mind the report he intended to make to his employer.
Prale was waiting for him, and Murk told his story in detail and without embellishment.
"So Kate Gilbert had you freed, did she?" Prale said. "And she told the others that she would quit them if they used any more violence? Murk, old boy, when our foes begin fighting in their own camp it is time for us to begin to hope. A house divided against itself cannot stand, as you probably have heard."
"She certainly panned the man who wore the handkerchief over his face," Murk said. "I think I'd know him again, boss. He talked a good deal, remember, and he got careless toward the last and used his regular voice. And I watched his hands—boob didn't have sense enough to wear gloves. Anybody but a boob would know that a hand can be recognized as easy as a face."
"Let us hope that they make a lot of mistakes like that, Murk," Prale replied. "I'll be glad if we ever solve this confounded mystery. It's getting on my nerves."
They remained up until one o'clock in the morning, but Jim Farland neither visited the hotel again nor called them up, and so they went to bed.
They did not rise early, but had breakfast in the suite and took their time about eating it. After that, they waited for Farland to arrive or telephone and give orders and tell news. Farland did not come, but Attorney Coadley did.
Murk admitted him, and the distinguished criminal lawyer sat in the window beside Prale, a grave expression on his face, his manner that of a disconcerted man.
"I gather you do not bring good news, judging from your countenance," Prale said.
"At least, I have not come to say that the case against you is any stronger," Coadley replied. "I'd like to speak to you alone, Mr. Prale."
"Certainly. You may go into the other room, Murk, and remain until I call."
Murk obeyed, and Sidney Prale bent forward in his chair and looked at the attorney again, wondering what this visit meant, what was coming, half fearing that the news would be ill after all.
"Mr. Prale," Coadley said, "I have come here to your apartment to tell you that I wish you to get another attorney."
"I beg your pardon!" Prale gasped.
"I wish to withdraw from the case, Mr. Prale—that is all. An attorney does that frequently, you know."
"But I want you to handle my case," Prale said. "I have been given to understand that you are one of the foremost criminal lawyers in the city. And you have done so much already——"
"I insist that I withdraw, Mr. Prale. I shall be ethical. I shall give the man you name in my place all the knowledge at my command regarding this case, and I shall see that the change does not embarrass you or place you in jeopardy. The court will grant extensions if they are necessary."
"Farland has given me to understand that my alibi now is of such a nature that the case against me may be dismissed. I had hoped that you had come here this morning to tell me so."
"I fancy that any good attorney can get the charge dismissed," Coadley said.
"But I do not want to be freed under a cloud. I want the public to be sure I did not kill Rufus Shepley—I want to have the public know the identity of the man who did."
"That is what I thought, and that will take considerable time, perhaps," Coadley said. "And so I wish to withdraw——"
"If it is a question of fee——"
"Nothing of the sort, Mr. Prale. I am sure you would pay me any reasonable fee I asked. There is no question regarding your financial ability."
"May I ask, then, why you desire to leave the case?" Sidney Prale asked.
"I'd rather not state my reasons, Mr. Prale. Just let me withdraw, and make arrangements with the court, after you have named the man to take my place. The bail arrangement will stand, of course."
"So you do not care to tell your reasons!" Prale said. "Mr. Coadley, a banker refused to handle my funds. A hotel manager ordered me out, you might say, for no good reason whatever. I understand that I have some powerful enemies who are working in the dark, and who cause these annoyances. Do you wish me to understand, Mr. Coadley, that they have been to see you? Do you wish me to think that you are under the thumbs of these persons, whoever they may be?"
The attorney's face flushed, and he looked angry for an instant, but quickly controlled himself.
"I do not care to go into details, Mr. Prale," he said.
"Then it is the truth!" Prale said. "The big criminal lawyer is not so big but that others can force him to do as they please."
"Let us say as I please, Mr. Prale."
"Then you think that you have a good reason for withdrawing?"
"In other words, something has been told you that convinced you I am not a fit client. Is that it? And, instead of telling me what it is, and giving me a chance to refute the charge or explain, you simply take the easiest course and believe my enemies. Do you call that an example of the square deal?"
"Let us not talk about it further, Mr. Prale," Coadley replied. "I feel quite sure that you have a complete understanding of the situation."
"But I have not! I seem to be able to understand nothing in regard to this affair of which I am the central figure. I would give half my fortune, I believe, to have an explanation and be able to set things right."
"No doubt you would be willing to give half your fortune to set things right!" Coadley said. "It is your privilege, of course, to say that you do not understand. Mr. Prale, you must see that this interview is painful to me, and it must be painful to you. Why prolong it?"
"As far as I am concerned, this interview may be terminated at once, sir!" Sidney Prale exclaimed. "I'll send you a check for your services as soon as you submit your bill; and please do not neglect to do so at once. I'll inform you as soon as possible of the name of the man I select to fill your legal shoes in this matter. That is satisfactory? Very well. Murk!"
Murk hurried in from the adjoining room when he heard Sidney Prale's call.
"Show Mr. Coadley to the hall door, Murk!" Sidney Prale said. "And while you are about it, please close that ventilator in the corner of the room. It creates a draft, I am sure, and Mr. Coadley already has cold feet!"
The attorney glared at Prale, and then got up and walked quickly across to the door, which the grinning Murk held open to let him pass out.
UP THE RIVER
Coadley had not gone for more than an hour when Detective Jim Farland arrived at the hotel and made his way immediately to Sidney Prale's suite.
He found Prale pacing the floor angrily, and Murk sitting in a corner and watching him. The police detective, after doing duty for a few days, had been withdrawn, as it seemed evident that Prale had no intention of jumping his bail or eluding trial in any other way.
"What's the trouble now?" Farland asked.
"Coadley has just been here," Prale replied. "He has quit us. Our friends the enemy have reached him."
"You couldn't get any sort of an explanation out of him?" Farland asked.
"Nothing at all. He simply informed me that he was done, and that I had to get another lawyer."
"I'll try to find an honest one for you," Farland declared. "I happen to know a clever young chap who probably will take the case, especially if I explain the thing to him, for he loves a fight. There is no special hurry, but I'll try to attend to it some time to-day."
"Anything new?" Prale asked.
"That is what I am waiting to hear. What did you do last night, Murk?"
Murk related his adventure at length, while Jim Farland listened gravely, nodding his head now and then, and looking puzzled at times.
"I'd like to know the identity of that masked man," the detective said, when Murk had finished. "The main trouble in this case is that we do not know the people we are fighting. We know that Kate Gilbert is one of them, and have reason to suspect that George Lerton is another. But there is somebody bigger behind, and that's a fact."
"What are you going to do next?" Prale asked.
"I'm going to pay a little attention to the Rufus Shepley murder case. I'm going to find out, if I can, who killed Shepley, and why. I am of the opinion that the murder is distinct from this other trouble, Sid. Perhaps a clew to the murder, however, will give us a clew to the whole thing, for it is certain that somebody has attempted to hang that crime on you."
"How about George Lerton?" Prale asked.
"We know that he tried to help smash your alibi by telling a falsehood, and by sending those notes to the barber and the merchant. But we do not know his motive, unless it is simply a hatred of you, Sid, and envy of the million dollars you got in Honduras. I'm going to get out of here now, and get busy."
"Anything for us to do?" Prale asked.
"Keep out of trouble—that is the principal thing. It appears that every time either of you goes out, you get knocked on the head. I'll report again as soon as I can."
Jim Farland left them and hurried from the hotel. He went to the hostelry where Rufus Shepley had met his death, was admitted to the suite, and made an exhaustive investigation, which revealed nothing of importance.
He visited the New York offices of the company in which Shepley had been interested, and questioned officials and clerks, but got no inkling of a state of affairs that might have led to a murder. He was told that the company's business was in proper shape, and that Rufus Shepley had had no financial trouble of any sort so far as his associates knew.
Farland left the office and continued his investigations. In the evening he went to his home for a meal, and admitted to himself that he did not know any more than when he had started out that morning.
"It gets my goat!" he said to his reflection in the bathroom mirror. "I'll have to begin working from some other starting point. I've made a mistake somewhere, or overlooked something that I should have seen. Makes me sore!"
The telephone bell rang, and Farland went to the instrument to hear the voice of a man he did not know.
"I understand that you are interested in the Shepley murder case," his caller said.
"I am working on it, yes. Who is talking?" Farland demanded.
"I'm not ready to mention any names. If you want to hang up, go ahead and you'll miss something important. Or if you want to listen for a minute——"
"I'll listen!" Farland said.
"I know a lot about that Shepley case, but I am in a position where I have to be careful. If you'll do as I say, you can learn something you'd like to know."
"What do you want me to do?" Farland asked.
"Meet me in some place where nobody will see us talking, and I'll tell you a few things. But I must have your promise that you'll not reveal the source of the information."
"I'll protect you, unless you are mixed up in it to such an extent that I'd dare not do so," Farland said. "I'm not guaranteeing to shield any murderer or accessory."
"I had nothing to do with the murder, if that is what you mean," came the reply.
"Then where do you want me to meet you—and when? Can you make it this evening?"
"Yes; and suppose that you set the meeting place, one that you know will be all right for both of us."
Farland was glad to listen to that sentence. He had half believed that this was nothing more than a trap, that some of Sidney Prale's mysterious enemies were attempting to lure him to some out-of-the-way place and get him in their power. But if he was to be allowed to name the meeting place, it seemed to indicate that everything was all right in that regard.
Farland though a moment, and then suggested a certain famous restaurant on Broadway and a table in a corner of the main room, where a man could lose himself in the crowd. But that did not meet with the approval of the man at the other end of the telephone wire.
"Nothing doing in that place," he said. "One of the men interested in this thing hangs out there almost every evening. He'd be sure to see us, he knows how much I know about it, and he'd suspect things in a second if he saw me talking to you. Then it'd be made hot for me. I've got to protect myself, of course."
"Suggest a place yourself," Farland said.
"Make it outside somewhere. How about some place in Riverside Park?"
"Suits me," Farland replied.
The man at the other end of the wire gave the directions after much seeming speculation and many changes. Jim Farland was to go to Grant's Tomb, and from there to a certain place near the river. The other man would be in the neighborhood watching, he said, would recognize Farland as he passed the Tomb, and then would follow and speak to him when nobody else was near.
Farland agreed, and made the engagement for an hour and a half later, saying that he could not get there before that time. It would not be the first time that Jim Farland had obtained an important clew because somebody interested had grown disgruntled and had turned against his pals; and he supposed this to be a case of that sort.
Before leaving home, Farland made sure that his automatic was in excellent condition, and that he had his handcuffs and electric torch and other paraphernalia of his trade. He made his way to Columbus Circle, having decided to walk to the rendezvous. Farland was in no hurry. He observed all who passed him, and he frequently made experiments to ascertain whether he was being followed. He decided, after a time, that if he was being shadowed the person doing it was too clever for him.
He came to Riverside Drive through a cross street, and approached the famous Tomb as cautiously as possible, keeping in the shadows, alert to discover anybody who might be acting at all suspiciously. Farland felt sure that this was no trap, but he was not taking chances. He always had been known to his friends as a cautious man.
He reached the Tomb finally, and glanced around. Half a dozen persons were passing, some men and some women, some alone and others in couples, but none were of suspicious appearance.
Farland glanced at his watch to be sure that it was the appointed time. He strolled around the Tomb and waited ten minutes longer, for he did not care to find later that he had left the appointed spot too early and that the other man had not seen and followed him.
At the end of the extra ten minutes, Farland lighted one of his big, black cigars and started walking toward the river, following the route the other man had designated over the telephone. He walked slowly and not for an instant did he throw caution aside.
Here and there were dark spots where Farland expected to hear his name spoken, spots where an attack might be made if one was contemplated by foes.
It was as he was passing one of these that a whisper came from the darkness:
The detective whirled toward the sound, one hand diving into a coat pocket and clutching his automatic.
"Be as silent as possible. Do not flash your torch yet; you may do so presently, so you can see who is talking. I am the man who called you up by telephone."
"Come out where I can get a glimpse of you," Farland commanded, ready for trouble.
He could see a shadow detach itself from the patch of gloom in front of him and approach.
"That is close enough for the present!" Farland said. "I'm not taking chances on you until I know who's talking to me."
"I don't blame you, Mr. Farland, under the circumstances. If you are sure there is nobody approaching, I'll come out into the light so you can see my face."
Farland glanced up and down the walk quickly. As he did so, he heard a step behind him. He whirled, the automatic came from his pocket ready for use—and a man crashed into him.
The one who had been talking from the patch of shadow rushed forward at the same instant. Farland managed to fire once, but the shot went wild. Then a third man rushed from the darkness, and the detective had the automatic torn away, and found that he had a battle on his hands.
One man was upon his back, throttling him so that he could not utter a cry. The others were trying to throw him to the ground. Farland wondered whether that single shot had been heard, whether assistance would reach him, for he knew that here was a battle he could not win by force.
Finally they got him down. Something was thrust into his mouth and bandaged there, effectually gagging him. He was turned over on his face, and his wrists were lashed behind him. Then his ankles were fastened, and two of the men, at the whispered instruction of the third, picked him up like a sack of meal and carried him into the deep shadows.
They did not stop there, but continued toward the river, holding a conversation in whispers at times, and stopping now and then for a moment to rest and listen. Farland had been quiet, gathering his strength, and suddenly he began to struggle.
It was nothing worse than annoyance for his opponents. He was unable to make an outcry that would attract attention, and he was unable to put up an effective fight. They threw him upon the ground again and held him there.
"Another little trick like that, and we'll give you something to keep you quiet," one of the men whispered into his ear. "We've got you, and you'd better let it go at that!"
Once more they picked him up and went toward the river. They reached it, and one of the men hurried away while the other two guarded Farland. Five minutes passed, and then a powerful motor boat slipped toward the shore. An instant later Farland was aboard it, a prisoner, and the boat was rushing through the great river toward the north.
Farland made an attempt to watch the lights along the shore, but one of the men threw a sack over his face, so that he could not see. And so he merely listened to the beating of the boat's engine, and tried to estimate with what speed they were running and how much mileage the craft was covering.
The sack was heavy, and Jim Farland felt himself half smothered, the perspiration pouring from his face and neck. He had grown angry for a moment, angry at himself for walking into the trap even while suspecting that one might exist, angry at these three men who had captured him so close to Riverside Drive.
Then his rage passed. He was experienced enough to know that an angry man is at a disadvantage in a game of wits, and that wits and nothing else could get him out of the present predicament.
Finally, he felt the boat turning, the speed was cut off, and it drifted against something. Farland was lifted out of the motor boat, but one of the men held the sack over his head, and he was unable to see. Once more he was carried, this time away from the river, and he could tell nothing except that the men who carried him were struggling up a sharp slope.
Farland made no attempt to fight or struggle now, knowing that it would avail him nothing to attempt to throw off these three men. He had decided to conserve his strength, and to trust to his usual good fortune to get a chance later to even things by turning the tables on his captors.
Suddenly the sack was taken from his head, and he was able to breathe better. He found that he was beside a road in which stood an automobile. Two of the men lifted him, tossed him inside the machine, and then got in themselves. The driver started the engine, threw in the clutch, and soon the car was being driven at a furious pace along the winding road.
"Look around all you want to!" one of Farland's captors growled at him. "You won't even know where you are when you get there!"
Through a maze of crossing and winding roads the car made its way, now over highways as smooth as a city pavement, and now over rough mileage that jolted the occupants and threatened the springs with destruction.
Jim Farland did not recognize this particular district. He did not even know upon which side of the river he was being hauled along as a prisoner. In the city proper, his abductors would have found it very difficult to take him to a section where he could not have recognized some sort of a landmark, but here they had him at a serious disadvantage.
The night was dark, too, and a fine drizzle was falling. Farland tugged at his bonds when he could, and finally convinced himself that they would not give. He tried to work one end of the gag from the corner of his mouth and found that he could not do that. He was utterly helpless for the time being, at the mercy of the three men who had kidnaped him, and the chauffeur, and whoever might be where they were going.
For half an hour longer the car made its way across the country, and then Farland noticed that it left the principal thoroughfare and turned into a rough, narrow lane that was bordered with big trees. At the end of a quarter of a mile of this lane, the chauffeur brought the car to a stop. Farland could see a building that had the appearance of being an abandoned farmhouse.
He was lifted from the car and carried to the door. One of the men threw it open, and Farland was carried inside. They took him through a hall, turned into a room, and tossed him upon a couch in a corner there. One of them struck a match, lighted a lamp, and then they turned to survey him.
Farland glared at them, waited for them to speak. They were making no attempt to hide their features. Typical thugs they were, the three of them, and Farland supposed that the chauffeur, who had not come into the house with the others, belonged to the same class.
One of them stepped forward and removed Farland's gag, while another went into another room and presently returned with a dipper of water, which he held to Farland's lips. He drank greedily, for the gag had parched his mouth and throat.
"Bein' as how you are a copper, I'd slip a knife between your ribs and call it a good job," one of the men told him, "but we are supposed to treat you nice and keep you in condition for a little talk with the boss. So you needn't tremble with fear any."
"It'd take more than three bums like you to make me afraid!" Farland told him.
"Nasty, ain't you? Maybe we'll get a little chance to beat you up later, especially if your little talk with the boss ain't what they call productive of results. You've got some reputation as a dick, but I reckon it's all a fake. We didn't have much trouble gettin' you and bringin' you here."
"Isn't that enough to make you worry a bit?" Farland asked.
"How do you mean?"
"Did you ever stop to think that maybe I wanted to be captured and hauled here? Have you any idea how many men watched and trailed us? You've led me to where I wanted to come, to a place I wanted to find, perhaps."
"That bluff won't work," came the reply. "We had a couple of men watchin' for that very thing, and they'd have given us a high sign if we had been followed. You're here all by your lonesome, and so you'd better be good."
Two of the men left the room, and the third sat down by the table to act as guard. Fifteen minutes passed, during which Jim Farland and the man by the table exchanged pleasant remarks concerning each other, neither getting much the best of the argument.
Then the hall door was opened again, and a masked man entered the room!
Remembering what Murk had related to him concerning his experience of the night before, Jim Farland looked up at this newcomer with sudden interest.
This man, undoubtedly, was a sort of leader, one who had hired others to help him in his work and who knew the identities of Sidney Prale's mysterious enemies, and why they were working against him; perhaps, also, the man who could tell a good deal about the murder of Rufus Shepley.
Farland did not betray too much interest, though, for he sensed that he was opposed to a person of brains and cunning, a different type from the thugs he hired to work for him. So the detective merely blinked his eyes rapidly as he looked up at the other and waited for him to speak.
"You are Jim Farland, a detective?"
The voice was low and harsh, a monotone, a disguised voice in fact. Jim Farland knew that at once.
"That's my name, and some people are kind enough to say that I am a detective," Farland replied. "What's the idea of treating me rough like this?"
"I regret that violence was necessary to get you here, Mr. Farland," the masked man replied, "but it seemed to be the only way in which I could get a chance to talk to you freely without subjecting myself to danger."
"Why regret?" Farland asked.
"Because I want you for my friend instead of my enemy, Mr. Farland, and I fancy that we may be able to come to terms. I shall send this man of mine from the room and submit a proposition to you. I hope you see fit to accept it."
He motioned for the other man to leave, which he did immediately, closing the hall door behind him. Then the masked man sat down in the chair by the table.
Farland was watching him closely now. The collar of his coat and the handkerchief mask effectually shielded his face and head. But, as Murk had told, this man did not have the common sense to cover his hands, and Farland looked at them when he could, careful not to let the other suspect his object.
"I am the man who talked to Mr. Prale's valet last night," Farland heard the other say. "In some manner, the valet escaped, and so we were obliged to have you brought here instead of to the place where we had him, and which was considerably nearer the city. I regret it if the long ride annoyed you, but you will appreciate that it was necessary for my men to bind and gag you."
"It certainly was if they expected to get me here!" Jim Farland declared.
He heard the masked man chuckle.
"I understand that you have been engaged by Sidney Prale to clear him of the charge of murdering Rufus Shepley."
"I don't mind admitting that, since the whole city knows it," said Farland.
"And also to aid Sidney Prale in outwitting certain persons who are trying to punish him for something he did."
"I don't know anything about that. I do know that some people are trying to make things hot for Sid Prale, and he doesn't deserve it, and——"
"Pardon me, if I interrupt!" the masked man said. "You say that he does not deserve it. Do you believe that influential persons would persecute him if he did not deserve it?"
"Sid Prale doesn't know what it is all about!"
"That is what he told the valet, too. But believe me when I say that he does know what it is all about, and is deceiving you when he says otherwise."
"What has all this to do with me?" Jim Farland demanded. "Did you have me brought here to argue the case with me?"
"I had you brought here because I want you to cease working for Sidney Prale. I want you to go back to him and tell him that you are done."
"As Coadley, the attorney, did?"
"Your people must be men of influence if they can buy off Coadley like that!"
"Perhaps Coadley was shown that it would wreck his future if he continued working for Prale."
"Well, you can't wreck my future, because I haven't any," Farland told him.
"Do not be too sure of that, Mr. Farland. Agree to my proposition and you may have a great future. You may find business thrown your way. You may find yourself able to spread out, have a protective service, become a wealthy man. If you give up the Prale case, we'll see that you are paid cash immediately, of course, in lieu of the fee you would receive from Prale—and considerably more than he would pay you."
"I suppose that would appeal to a lot of men," Jim Farland said, "but it isn't the right bait to use if you are eager to catch me. I have all the business I want. I can make a living for myself and my small family, and we do not hanker after riches. A larger business would make me a human machine, and I'd rather just drift along and be an ordinary good husband and father. I'd rather be running a little, third-rate detective agency as I am, making just enough to get along, and have a lot of friends. I wouldn't throw down a friend for a million dollars! I suppose I'm the only man in town that thinks this way, but I'm a sort of peculiar duck!"
"You mean to tell me that you are not anxious to better yourself, to get along in the world?"
"Oh, I manage to get along!" Jim Farland replied. "I even eat meat now and then. I haven't seen the face of the famous wolf outside my door for some time. What is money?"
"Everything!" the masked man replied.
"That's what you think. It gives me an inkling as to what sort of man you are. I happen to know a fellow to whom money is everything—and I have reason to suspect that he is considerably interested in the case of Sidney Prale. Be careful you do not betray your identity to me!"
Farland had the satisfaction of hearing the masked man gasp, and he chuckled.
"Well, what is the proposition?" Farland inquired. "You seem to waste a lot of time."
"We want you merely to tell Sidney Prale that you will not work on the case any more—that you are done. Then go about your regular business. We'll have you watched, and as soon as we are satisfied that you are keeping faith with us, we'll send you ten thousand dollars in cash. If you make the agreement with me, I'll give you a thousand cash to-night before you leave this place, as a sort of retainer and expression of our sincerity. Then, following the fee of ten thousand dollars, you'll find that much business is flowing your way. All you have to do to get all this is to withdraw from the Prale case at once."
"You must be afraid that I am finding out some things," Jim Farland suggested.
"That is scarcely the reason," the masked man answered. "We want Sidney Prale to stand alone, to be without help of any sort—that is all."
"But I am more than Sidney Prale's employee. I am his friend!" Farland protested.
"You were his friend ten years ago, sir, but a man may change a great deal in ten years. Are you quite sure that the Sidney Prale of to-day is the boyish, friendly Sidney Prale of ten years ago?"
"I am quite sure; and that is why I am trying to help him," Jim Farland declared.
"I fear that he is fooling you—as he is deceiving others. He is not worthy of such friendship as you are giving him."
"How do I know that?" Farland asked. "If I could have some sort of an explanation——"
He awaited the other's reply. If he could get some inkling as to why Prale had powerful enemies, it might help a lot.
"I can tell you this much: Sidney Prale did something that wrecked and ruined several lives. Certain prominent persons have decided to punish him. He is to have his life made miserable, he is to have his fortune taken away from him, he is to be subjected to petty annoyances and hard blows alike, driven from this, his home town, forced to realize that a man cannot do what he did and escape retribution."
"Sounds like he murdered a nation!" Jim Farland commented. "Did he wreck the national treasury or turn traitor to the flag?"
"I am not jesting, Mr. Farland."
"Neither am I. My eyes have got to be opened, sir. You've got to come clean with me. Prale's enemies may strike at him from the dark, but Jim Farland never works in the dark! I want to see where I'm stepping. I never like to trip over anything."
"I have told you all that I can at present."
"Because I do not care to give you information if you are still to work for Prale."
"You say that Prale knows his enemies and why they are fighting him. If he does, he never has told me. Tell me that much—since you say Sid Prale knows it already. It couldn't hurt your side at all."
"We might tell you later."
"You've got some very good reason for not telling me!" Farland accused. "It is the truth, isn't it, that Prale does not know a single thing about it. You are afraid to tell me because I may inform him of what you say, and we may straighten out the tangle? I can see through you, sir, as easily as through a newly cleaned window."
"I see that you have faith in Sidney Prale," the masked man said. "But I assure you that your faith is misplaced. Is there any way in which I can get you to stop your work for him?"
"Meaning against his influential enemies, or on the Rufus Shepley murder case?" Farland asked.
"We simply want you to stop working for him. If he stands alone, we can punish him the sooner."
"I understand about that, of course. But how about the murder case? Do you think Sid Prale is guilty of that crime?" Farland asked.
"I do not know, I am sure. I understand that the evidence against him is damaging. But we are not awaiting the outcome of that. He may manage to have the charge against him dismissed, and we are going ahead with our plans for punishment."
"Then you want me to quit Prale so I won't be helping him work against his enemies, and not because you are afraid that, in clearing him of the murder charge, I may find something detrimental to other persons?"
"That is the idea," the masked man replied. "The murder case can take care of itself, I suppose."
"Suppose I refuse to make this deal with you?"
"In that event, we may feel called upon to detain you—and perhaps to use further violence."
"Then you might as well start!" Jim Farland cried. "For you are lying to me like blazes! It's the murder case that's worrying you, and you know it! And I know you! I've been trying to place those hands of yours and I have succeeded. Besides, you have said one or two things that have convinced me——"
The masked man gave a shriek and started toward the couch, his hands reaching out, clutching. Two of the thugs ran in from the hall.
AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
Waiting in anticipation of hearing good news, Sidney Prale paced the floor of the living room of his hotel suite until noon the following day, expecting Jim Farland to put in an appearance at any time and make his report.
Murk, having done all the work that there was to do, spent the most of his time looking from the window at the busy, fashionable avenue, and glancing now and then at Prale as if wishing to anticipate his wishes and save him the trouble of voicing them.
Prale had luncheon served in the suite, and then he stepped to the telephone and called Jim Farland's office. Farland's stenographer informed him that the detective had not been there during the morning, though there was some business that needed his attention.
Then Prale got Farland's residence on the telephone, and the detective's wife answered the call. Prale gave his name, and asked where Jim could be found.
"That is more than I can tell, Mr. Prale," Mrs. Farland said. "He got a telephone call last evening, and from what I overheard I think he went some place to meet a man. He left soon after he received the call, and I have not heard from him since. That is peculiar, too. When he is obliged to remain away, he generally finds time to telephone and let me know."
This conversation bothered Sidney Prale, but he tried to tell himself that Farland was following a hot trail, and that perhaps it had led him some distance away, or that he was in a locality where he did not care to telephone.
He did not want to miss Farland if he did call, and so he remained at the hotel during the afternoon and kept Murk there also.
"I have a hunch that something is going to happen soon," Prale said to his valet.
"A little action wouldn't make me mad any!" Murk declared. "I'm spoilin' to mix with the enemy, Mr. Prale. Most of all, I'd like to meet up with them two thugs that got gay with us. You're sure about that Jim Farland, boss?"
"I've told you a hundred times, Murk, that Jim Farland is my friend and as square a man as you can find anywhere. He has not deserted us, if that is the thought in your head."
"I'm beginnin' to like him a bit myself," said Murk. "Ain't you got any idea, boss, who's engineerin' this deal against you?"
"Once more, Murk, old boy, allow me to state that I haven't the faintest idea who my enemies are, or why they are trying so hard to make life miserable for me. If I knew where to start to round them up, I wouldn't be standing in this room talking to you—I'd be out rounding them up!"
"Well, if you ask me, I think it's about time that Farland settled that murder case," Murk said. "If he don't get busy pretty quick, I'll tackle it myself. I've got an idea——"
The ringing of the telephone bell cut his sentence off. Sidney Prale was near the instrument, and he answered the call.
"Mr. Prale?" asked a man's voice.
"I just wanted to inform you that you needn't depend on Detective Jim Farland any more. We've got him—and we'll get anybody else you engage. And we'll get you, too, Mr. Prale, before very long. Don't think we'll not!"
The man at the other end of the wire hung up his receiver. Prale paced the floor and told Murk of the conversation.
"They've got Farland!" Prale exclaimed. "They probably got him last night, decoyed him in some way. Well, Murk, if that is the truth, and I imagine that it is, we'll have to do our sleuthing ourselves."
"Suits me!" Murk said. "I'm ready to start out right now and sleuth until it's settled. Let's get in action, boss!"
"We are in the same old quandary, Murk. We don't know where to start," Sidney Prale said. "If our foes would come out in the open, instead of fighting from the dark, we might have a chance. This is some city, Murk, and there are several million persons in it and around it. Starting right in such a maze isn't the easiest thing in the world, you know."
For the second time that afternoon, Murk was interrupted by the ringing of the telephone bell, and once more Sidney Prale happened to be near and answered the call.
"Send them up at once!" Murk heard him say.
And then Sidney Prale hung up the receiver and whirled around with a puzzled expression on his face.
"Murk," he said, "Miss Kate Gilbert is coming up here with that big maid of hers—coming to see me. What she wants is more than I can guess, remembering what happened the last time I talked with her. It may be good news, Murk!"
They waited impatiently for the ring at the door. Murk opened it and ushered them in.
He grinned at the gigantic Marie, but she did not return the compliment. There was a serious expression in her face, and Murk looked past her at Kate Gilbert, who was being greeted by Sidney Prale.
Something important had happened, Murk told himself immediately. Kate Gilbert did not look frightened exactly or sorrowful or triumphant. There was a peculiar expression about her mouth, and her face seemed pale.
"I felt that I had to come, Mr. Prale, and have this talk with you," Kate Gilbert said, when she was seated near the window. "I wanted to speak to you here instead of in some public place, and so I brought Marie and came to your suite."
"You are welcome, Miss Gilbert, I am sure," Prale said. "If you wish to speak in private, Marie and Murk can step into the adjoining room."
"Please," she said softly.
Murk opened the door, and the maid stepped in. Then he followed and closed the door again. Prale sat down near Kate Gilbert and turned toward her.
"Now, Miss Gilbert," he prompted.
She met his eyes squarely as she spoke, but her lips trembled at times as if she were undergoing an ordeal.
"Mr. Prale," she said, "as you know, I have been associated with others in an attempt to bring retribution home to you. When I became associated with them, it was understood between us that there was to be no violence, nothing outside the law. We were simply to attack you from every angle, cause you trouble and annoyance, take away your money if we could, break you in every way."
"Pardon me, but——"
"Please say nothing until I am finished, Mr. Prale. We began at once to gather all the information we could about you and your affairs. We began to plan for your downfall. We found that we could do nothing that amounted to anything while you were in Honduras, where you were a powerful man. But we were about to try, even there, when we learned that you were selling out your properties and preparing to return to New York.
"You may know how that struck us. You had gone away and made your fortune, and you were coming home, possibly with the hope that the past had been forgotten. We intended showing you that it had not been forgotten, that you could not return and enjoy the fortune whose foundation was——But enough of that!
"I had been in Honduras spying upon you. I was sent because you did not know me, and would not be on guard, as you might have been, had some man gone down there. We did not care to send an ordinary detective, of course. I kept the people here informed of all your movements. I began the punishment by leaving that note in your stateroom and pasting the other on your suit case, began it by reminding you that the past lived in the minds of some persons.