"Hold on, Weston, I'm in earnest about this special detective. Suppose I engage a private one. Can you and he work in harmony?"
"Oh, yes, I'm not pig-headed. So long as he don't interfere too much, or get me into any scrapes with his highfalutin tricks,—which they all have, go ahead and get him. I'll do my own duty, as I see it and as it's dictated to me by Headquarters; but if you want to engage a dozen private detectives, there's no law against it. And, sir, I'm free to confess I feel mighty sorry for that pretty daughter of yours, and if anybody else can save her man for her, when I can't—why, let him at it!"
"Good for you, Weston, I hoped you'd be above petty jealousy. Go on, now, and see if you can't connect up that empty vial with somebody whose name isn't Thorpe,—and, I say, you're not going to arrest him yet, are you?"
"Not just yet,—but,—well, I'll let you know—soon, where we stand."
His visitor gone, Benjamin Crane put on his hat and went at once to see Madame Parlato. He had acquired the habit of an interview with her when anything bothered him, and his faith in her powers was unshaken.
His request for a seance was granted, for since the book of Benjamin Crane's had made such a success, the medium was besieged with patrons, yet she always gave Crane the preference over other sitters.
Admitted to the private sanctum, Crane told the Madame he wished to learn anything possible concerning the death of Gilbert Blair.
The medium went into a trance as usual, and after a short interval, announced in her low monotone that the spirit of Peter Crane was present.
"My boy," said Crane, eagerly, "do you know who killed Blair?"
"Yes, father," came the reply, through the voice of Madame Parlato; "do not seek further than you already know."
"You mean it was——"
Benjamin Crane hesitated. He was a cautious man, and often as he had had this sort of interviews with Peter's spirit, he was always particular to give no information unnecessarily.
"Well, who? who, Peter?"
"Must I say the name?"
"Yes, boy. But only if you're sure you know. It would be a grave error otherwise."
The medium stirred uneasily, and was silent for a time. Then, with a long drawn sigh, she resumed, "Well, father, if I must tell you, it was Thorpe."
"Oh, Peter, not really!"
"Yes, dad. Don't look any further,—it was Thorpe."
The medium was silent after that. She came out of her trance state, looking a little bewildered.
"Did you get anything?" she asked, for, as she had frequently told her sitter, she herself knew nothing of what transpired while she was unconscious.
"Yes," Crane returned, and knowing there would be no further communication that day, he went home.
He found Thorpe there, discussing the matter with Mrs. Crane and Julie.
"I don't know what to do," Thorpe said, as Mr. Crane joined the group. "I didn't kill Blair,—at least, I don't think I did."
"What does that mean?" Crane asked.
"Only that if I did do it, it was unconsciously."
"In your sleep?"
"No; but under hypnotism. I've not much belief in that sort of thing,—but,—well, you know about occult matters, might it not be possible?"
Benjamin Crane was disappointed. He had hoped for a vigorous denial on Thorpe's part, but this halfway confession seemed to him a mere quibble. He found himself believing the man guilty and that he was using this hypnotism suggestion as a last resort to prove innocence.
"Stop it, father!" Julie cried. "You are thinking Mac did do it, having been hypnotized by somebody! Well, he didn't! and I know he didn't and I'll prove it!"
"Good talk, Julie, but does it mean anything!" asked her father, giving her a look of gentle sadness.
"I'll make it mean something! That thick-witted detective doesn't know a thing! Now, I don't believe in the hypnotism theory——"
"Why, Julie," said her mother, "I've heard you say you believed in hypnotism!"
"Oh, yes, I do, but I mean not in this case. Nobody hypnotized McClellan to kill Gilbert. I'm sure of that, and I wish you wouldn't repeat it, Mac. People will only laugh at you."
"Well, what are you going to do, my child?" asked her father.
"Oh, I don't know! I'm desperate,— I will find out something!"
"Of course you will, Julie, for I'll help you."
It was Thorpe who spoke, and he seemed to have suddenly acquired a new energy.
"I'm going to turn detective myself," he went on. "We'll work together, Julie, and,— Mr. Crane, if we succeed,— I mean succeed in freeing myself from suspicion——"
"And finding the real criminal," put in Crane with a very serious face.
"Yes, and find the real criminal," but Thorpe's face was less bright, "then, sir, will you give us your blessing?"
"Yes, McClellan," but Crane's voice had no hearty ring, "yes, when you are a free man in every sense of the word, you may take my little girl for your own."
Thorpe gave him a searching look. "I can't help seeing, Mr. Crane," he said, "that you think,—or perhaps I may say, you fear I am guilty. I hope I can prove to you that I am not."
Crane noticed the wording of his speech. Thorpe hoped to prove to him,—but he didn't say he was innocent.
And Benjamin Crane believed the man guilty. Greatly influenced by what he had heard at the seance with the medium, Crane was still willing to be convinced to the contrary, but Thorpe's own attitude and words did not carry conviction.
"Well, my children," Crane said at last, "here's my proposition. I can't think your determination to do detective work will produce much fruit. Now, if you like, I'll engage the best detective I can find and put him on the job. What say, Thorpe?"
It was a test question, and Crane eagerly awaited the answer. If Thorpe were really innocent, he would welcome the clever sleuthing that would be likely to unearth the truth.
But he was disappointed to hear Thorpe say, "Not yet, Mr. Crane. Give us a chance. Let me try,—let us try,"—with a glance at Julie—"give us a few days, at least,—then, if we gain nothing,—then bring on your detective."
"But,— I hate to say it, Mac, though I dare say you know it,—you may be arrested any day now."
Thorpe gave a start, and the sudden pallor that came to his face showed how the idea affected him.
"Oh, not that,—hardly that——"
"Yes, it's imminent." Crane thought best to tell him this. "They—they say they've got the goods on you, Mac."
"What—what do you mean by that?"
"Well," Crane couldn't bring himself to tell of the poison bottle, "well, my boy, they say that you and Blair quarreled."
"Over the sketches for the prizes?"
"Yes, over those, and over other matters."
"When was this?"
"We'd been scrapping off and on for some time. Nothing very serious. But,—well, when Gilbert implied that I had used his ideas, I—I got mad."
"And saw red?"
"Yes, I suppose that's what they call it."
"The night he—he died?"
"Mac," Benjamin Crane looked grave, "suppose you tell me just what happened that night."
"Well,—we'd all been to the Club to dinner, you know."
"And when we went home, Bob Knight went with us. He was irritating, somehow,—said he heard Blair and I had combined on our work——"
"Why was that annoying?"
"Oh, it implied that Gilbert and I took each other's ideas, or something,— I don't know,—anyway, he stirred us up, and when he went off, Gil and I were touchy. We had some words, and Blair tore up his sketches, a-and—tore up some of mine, too."
"He did! No wonder you were annoyed."
"Yes; they were the ones I had ready,—or, almost ready, to send in."
"Go on," said Crane, briefly.
"Well, there's little more to tell. I went into my bedroom and slammed the door. Yes, I slammed it, for I had lost my temper, and I was mad at Blair."
"I don't know anything more to tell. I heard Blair around the studio for a time, and once I heard his footsteps near my door, as if he wanted to speak to me,—maybe make up,—but he didn't say anything or knock, or call out,—and then, after a time I heard him go into his own bedroom and close the door."
"And you heard nothing through the night?"
"Nothing unusual. The ordinary sounds in the building, of course."
"And you stayed in your room,—in your bed,—till morning?"
"Yes, I did. I sleep very soundly, and I sleep late. The details of the morning, and my finding of Blair,—you know. Don't ask me to recount all that again."
"No; I shan't. Are you going on with your work for the competition?"
"Of course!" Thorpe's face showed surprise at the question. "Why should I not? I rescued the torn sketches from the waste-basket, and I can copy them. I've a good chance at it, I think."
"Now that Blair's out of the running?"
Thorpe looked up angrily, but as suddenly he became calm. "No, Mr. Crane," he said, "not because of that. But because Gilbert can't steal my plans."
"Unpleasant talk, Mac. I don't like that."
"But it's true. Blair did take my ideas——"
"I think so. Why, he incorporated in his design, a particular bit of drawing that I had invented and shown to him only a day or two before."
"You must see, McClellan, that your saying that puts a bad face on the whole affair?"
"I suppose it does," and the man again relapsed into moody silence. "Oh, well,—it's all in a lifetime."
"A lifetime that has just ended,—or one still being lived?" Benjamin Crane spoke like an avenging justice, and there was no mistaking his meaning.
But beyond a startled glance, Thorpe made no reply.
Carlotta and the Board
Much as Benjamin Crane desired to believe in Thorpe's innocence it was difficult for him to do so, after the disclosure of the medium, Madame Parlato. In her powers he had absolute faith, of her honesty and sincerity he was entirely confident, and it was largely the accounts of her seances that made the bulk of his book about his son's communications with him. The seances were frequent, still, and at each one he gained more material for use in a second book.
The book, the one already published, was in its fourth edition and was still having large sales. It was called "A Prophecy Fulfilled," and dealt with the old prophecy of the gypsy,—that Peter should be lost while on a distant journey, should die a terrible death there, but should mysteriously return to his family.
This, Benjamin Crane held, had been accomplished in full. The long journey, the terrible death, were matters of fact, and Mr. and Mrs. Crane believed that the return of their son was equally a matter of fact.
Wherefore, the book was written in a simple, straightforward style, without excitement or exaggeration, and it gave detailed recitals of the happenings at the seances.
Needless to say that the medium was besieged with would-be clients, but she accepted very few, for the Cranes claimed most of her time. Not that they were continually in her presence, but the exhaustive nature of her trances made it impossible for her to devote many hours a day to their practice. And Benjamin Crane made it quite worth her while, financially, to reserve for him her peculiar talents.
The sessions brought forth little that was new or different, but the parents never tired of what they implicitly believed was absolute direct communication with their son's spirit through the personality of Madame Parlato.
Criticism, disapproval, even ridicule from their friends and acquaintances moved them not a jot from their faith and trust.
Wiser and better people than we, believe in it,—they would argue,—and it is now so much a part of our lives, that I think we could scarcely live without it.
And so, they went along, cheered and made happy by the communications and fully reconciled thereby to the death of their cherished son.
Julie, though never quite satisfied of the truth of the whole matter, had become more or less imbued with the atmosphere that she lived in, and aside from her own feelings, was glad that her parents could be happy in their grief, even though it were a delusion.
And the popularity of this book brought him absorbing work and many outside interests to Benjamin Crane. Continually, people came to see him, to discuss the question of Continuity, or Life after Death, and to argue for or against the reappearance of departed spirits.
Many of these he saw and learned to like and his circle of acquaintances was continually enlarging.
Naturally, when he discussed matters with them, the subject of Gilbert Blair's death was talked of. Crane was a careful man, and rarely told what happened at his seances, save in a general way. For he had learned of the dangers of having his statements misquoted and exaggerated, and as a rule, he was canny enough to let his visitors talk, while he said little.
And from the consensus of opinion thus gathered, he discovered that public sentiment was largely against McClellan Thorpe. This troubled him, for if Thorpe were guilty it was surely Crane's duty to guard his daughter from a criminal. On the other hand, Julie was so deeply in love with Thorpe, and so positive that he was in no way a wrong-doer, that the father's heart was torn.
But his most vital reason for believing in Thorpe's guilt was the message from his son to that effect.
"It rests between our two children," he said to his wife. "Peter tells us Mac is the guilty man,—and Julie tells us he isn't. Now, we must learn the truth. I'm going to get a detective, myself,— I've had a fine one recommended,—and I don't think we need say anything to Julie or Mac about it. They asked for a few days to do some 'detecting' on their own account,—but it won't amount to anything, I feel sure. So I'm going to engage Pennington Wise,—if I can get him. I'm told he's a most successful man, though not one of the 'wizards' or know-it-all variety."
"Very well," Mrs. Crane, as always, agreed; "but don't tell anybody. Need you?"
"Yes, I'll tell Weston. It wouldn't be fair not to. You see, I'm in a peculiar position. I've taken the responsibility of investigating Blair's death, without any real authority, save that of a friend."
"Of course your reason is that Julie cares for him."
"Of course. And I do hope he can be cleared, but if not, it would better be proved against him, and let Julie know it, and get over it."
"Yes," Mrs. Crane sighed. "Poor child, it would go hard with her."
"But she must bear it, if it's the truth. I've hopes of Wise's discovering another criminal."
"Then what about Peter's message?"
"I don't know,—but it's possible Peter may himself be misinformed. You know we've discovered that the disembodied spirits are not omniscient."
In the meantime Carlotta Harper was endeavoring to use her occult powers to solve the mystery of Blair's death.
Carlotta herself was a mystery. Disavowing any especial clairvoyant ability, she yet achieved marvelous results from the Ouija Board.
She scoffed at it herself, yet whenever her finger-tips were on the board it spelled words rapidly and gave messages that were acclaimed as truth by the audience.
One afternoon Shelby was with her, and he, a little timidly, suggested a trial of the Board.
"Why, Kit, I thought you detested it," said Carly, surprised.
"I do; but you're a witch at it, and—suppose it should tell us something about Blair,—something we don't know——"
"You think Mac did it, don't you?" Carly spoke hesitantly, for the two had discussed the subject very little.
"I don't say so, Carly, yet where else is there to look? If you had seen, as I did, how much at odds the two chaps were that evening I dropped in——"
"The night of the dinner?"
"Yes, in the late afternoon. They were rowing no end! Then I went off, but I called for them on the way to the feast,—we always go together,—and Blair was in a regular stew. Nervous,—couldn't get his tie right,—and all that. And—Carly,—what do you think? He asked me if I'd drop you! Think of that! As if I were a sort of man to interfere with a friend's interests! Why, if he'd told me there was anything between you two, of course I should have stepped down and out at once. Was there, Carly?"
"Nothing definite,—no." The girl spoke wearily, pushing back her thick mass of dark, wavy hair. "No, Kit, nothing promised. If he had lived—oh, I don't know. You see, I loved Peter. And I sometimes think I never can care at all for any one else."
"But, dear, Peter's dead and Blair's dead,—and you can't live all your life alone: Just give me a ray of hope, Carly. I won't bother you about it,—only tell me that some time,—maybe——"
"Let it stay at that, Kit. Some time it may be—and now come on,—if you like we'll try the Ouija."
The session was interesting. Carly never, in any circumstances, pushed or guided the board in the very least,—nor did she ever sit with any one whom she suspected of doing so. But with her friends in whom she had perfect confidence, or with acquaintances who, she knew were eagerly wanting to learn, not anxious to tell, she often tried the uncanny thing.
Lightly they rested their finger-tips on the little wooden heart, and after a short wait it began to move.
At Carly's questions, replies came that there was a spirit present and that it was Peter Boots.
Neither of the inquirers was surprised at this, for they had fully expected it. Moreover, both had watched most closely the other's muscles and fingers and wrists, and each was positive the messages, whatever their source, were not the result of human deceit.
After some preliminary talk, Carly said, "You put the questions, Kit."
So Shelby said, "Peter, you know Blair's gone?"
"Yes," returned the board.
"Have you seen him—or I mean, is he with you—in spirit?"
"Yes" came the answer.
"Will he talk to us?"
"Well—then can you give us a message from him?"
Yes and No are designated on the Ouija Board as words. The movement of the Board toward these was quick, almost jerky.
But when the message was asked for,—when Shelby said, "Will he tell us how he died?" there was a pause and the Board moved aimlessly about.
At last, Carly said, "Peter, was Gilbert killed?"
"Yes," came the quick reply.
"Do you know who killed him?"
"Who was it?"
Carly shot out the question quickly, and immediately the board moved to T. From that, as the two breathlessly waited, the pointer very slowly spelled Thorpe.
The word did not go smoothly,—the board swung round in large loops, but paused positively at each letter, and then started slowly to the next.
"You didn't push, Kit?" Carly asked, but more from force of habit than any doubt of him.
"Of course not. Nobody could push with you watching, nor was there any reason why I should. Did you?"
"Of course not. Don't let's ask each other that. We're both honest. But you know, Kit, Mr. Crane had a communication from Peter and he said Thorpe did it. But Mr. Crane thinks maybe Peter doesn't know."
"Let's try to get Blair's spirit."
They tried,—if receptive waiting can be called trying,—and at last they succeeded in receiving the information that Gilbert Blair's spirit was present.
"Will you tell us who killed you?" Carly asked at once, fearing lest he go away.
Slowly the pointer moved away from the letter T. But after a series of swirls it stopped definitely at M.
"Go on," said Carly, in a whisper.
A long swing of aimless motions and then a stop at A.
The next stop was at C, and then the board would move no more.
Carly sighed, and took her hands off.
"Well, there's the message, Kit. You know Gilbert always called him Mac,—now what do you think of Ouija?"
"I don't know what to think, Carly. Mayn't it be only that Thorpe was in both our minds, and that we subconsciously——"
"Oh, well, if you're going to take that tack, there's no more to be said. It's easy enough to say that,—but how can the dead send messages if the human beings always say,—oh, subconscious pushing!"
"But, are you so anxious to believe in Thorpe's guilt?"
"Not that,—but I want to know. Julie's devoted to him, and if he's a—a murderer, Julie must be saved from him. If he isn't,—we must find it out, and give him to Julie free and clear of suspicion."
"We! Are you responsible for Julie's affairs?"
"Yes, in so far as I can help. You say, everybody says, that I have occult powers. If so, I must use them to help,—if they really do help. But how can I be sure?"
"I don't know. But I think, perhaps, you'd better leave the whole occult business alone. It's uncanny if it's real, and it's foolishness if it's faked."
"I think Mr. Crane is going to get a special detective," Carly said, "but, oh, my gracious, I forgot I promised not to tell that. So don't tell anybody else. I don't suppose they'd mind you knowing."
"Who's the man?"
"I think his name is Wise,—good name for a detective!"
"Never heard of him. But, let's hope he clears Mac."
"Yes, and finds the real murderer. Do you know I can't realize Gilbert's gone,—even yet."
"Don't think about him, Carly. It can't do any good, and it only makes you sad and morbid. Let me tell you of my hopes and fears, mayn't I?"
"Of course, go ahead."
"Well, I'm getting up a big,—a really big enterprise."
"I hope you won't disapprove, but it's in the Moving Picture business."
"Why should I disapprove?"
"Oh, some people sniff at M. P's. But this is a really big, fine production."
"Are you the producer?"
"Yes; don't tell it outside, yet. You see, I've written a big story,—a picturesque thriller,—and critics who've read it, think it's a wonder. Now, it's too big to give to anybody,— I mean, it would be foolish for me merely to get a royalty,—so I'm going to put it on, myself."
"Good, Kit, I'm glad to hear it. I always thought you had it in you to be some sort of an organizer or producer, in some important way."
"Yes, I've always had that ambition. Well, this is a great yarn! I want to read it to you some time. Marvelous pictures,—they're being made now. And that's not all of it,— I mean to make it into a book——"
"You can't write a book!"
"If I can't I'll get it written,—but the plot is such a wonder,—and the scenes!"
"Up in Labrador, I'll bet!"
"Yes, they are, Carly. And corkers! Well, I figure to have the book and the pictures sprung on an unsuspecting public simultaneously,—and afterward,—maybe, it will be made into a real play!"
"And after that, into a Light Opera,—and after that, into Grand Opera?"
Carly's tone was mocking, but her smile was sweet and approving, and Kit beamed at her.
"I knew you'd be interested! I want you to hear the plot soon,—and would you like to go to the studios?"
"Where they're making the Labrador pictures?"
"Yes; they're faked, of course. No sense in going up there to take them. I know the stuff so well, I can get it up right here."
"Oh, Kit, you ought to have the real scenes."
"No; it isn't necessary. Snow's easy enough to manage. But the plot's the thing! Carly, it's a peach! And then, it's all done up with real artistry. No crude, raw scenes. All softened with lights and shades and colors; and everything,—even realism, sacrificed to beauty. It will be the success of the season, the talk of the town, and it will make my reputation forever."
"When will it be put on?"
"Soon, now, I hope. Well, I mean in a month or so. I'd like to say the middle of May, and think perhaps I can. It will run all summer and doubtless longer."
"And you don't want me to tell of this?"
"Not quite yet, Carly. I'll let you know when you may."
* * * * *
And so, when, after Shelby had gone, and Julie and Thorpe came, Carly said nothing of the plans for the great Moving Picture.
Nor did she tell of the Ouija Board experiences she and Shelby had had. In fact, Carly said little, preferring to let her guests talk.
And they did.
"We're detecting," Julie began, and Thorpe, his eyes harassed and gloomy, had to smile at Julie's enthusiasm.
"Can I help?" Carly asked, with a loving glance at her friend.
"I hope so,—but not with your old Ouija Board. I hate it!"
"Wait till I suggest it," Carly smiled, for she saw Julie was in no mood for argument. "What can I do?"
"Only advise. I don't think you're a medium, Carly, but I do think you have sort of queer powers. Now a queer thing has happened to me. This morning, on my bureau, there lay a note,—here it is." She handed a folded paper to Carlotta.
It read: "Dear little sister. You must give up old Mac. He did for Gilbert. Peter Boots."
Carly stared at the note.
"It's in Peter's own writing!" she said; "what can it mean?"
"It means fraud!" Julie exclaimed. "I know that's no note from Peter! It is in his writing——"
"But so exactly his writing!" Carly said, "nobody could have written that but Peter himself. Oh, Julie!"
"Now, stop, Carly! Don't you say it's really a materialization of a note from Peter! It can't be! I'm afraid to show it to mother or Dad, for I know they'll say it's really from him,—and I won't believe it."
"You won't believe it's from Peter, because you don't want to believe what it says,—isn't that it?"
Carly looked at Thorpe, though she spoke to Julie.
"Partly," Julie admitted; "but anyway, I can't believe that Peter,—my dead brother,—put that real, paper note on my dresser!"
"If it had said Mac didn't kill Gilbert, would you believe it then?" Carly asked.
Julie stared at her, as she took in the question.
"Yes," she said at last, "in that case, I'd want to believe,—but I don't see how I could——"
"Oh, you could, all right," Carly said, "if it meant Mac's innocence was thereby established."
"I'm out for justice," Thorpe said; "I hate to hurt Julie's feelings, but that note doesn't interest me at all,—one way or the other. You see, if it's a fake,—and I can't help thinking it is, it's somewhat in my favor, for if faked must it not have been done by the real murderer, trying to put the blame on me? And if it's real—but, I never discuss that sort of thing at all. I'm not a believer,—as the Cranes believe, and yet, feeling toward the Crane family as I do, I refuse to combat their beliefs or principles. So, as I say, I leave the note out of my consideration. And, yet, Carlotta, I do want your opinion as to the genuineness of the handwriting, because you know Peter's fist so well,—and you're even less likely to be deceived than his family."
Carly scrutinized the note again.
"It seems to me it must be Peter's writing," she said at last. "Those long tails to the filial letters of the words, those are characteristic. And it's—yes, it's unmistakably his."
"All right," Thorpe sighed. "I just wanted to know, for Mr. Crane will know of it sooner or later, and I'm sure he'll identify it as Peter's writing.
"And it surely is," Julie added, again staring at the paper.
"But, Julie, it's too absurd!" Second thoughts convinced Carly of this. "How could such a thing happen?"
"I don't know how it could, but it did," Julie said, doggedly. "And so, Carly, I feel, as Mac says, there's no attention to be paid to this note. If—mind I say if—Peter sent it, why then Peter thinks Mac did something that he didn't do, that's all. I know Mac is innocent, and so I shall say nothing of this note to any one, and you mustn't either."
"I won't," Carly smiled to herself as she realized how many secrets she was accumulating, "but you will, Julie. You can't keep that from your father, even though you mean to."
"Yes, I can, if to tell of it would cast a straw of evidence against Mac! You see, Carly, we've got to find the real criminal, and I'd rather do it myself than get a new detective on the job."
Carly knew this was because Julie feared the astuteness of the new detective. Which, in turn, meant that Julie, herself, feared Mac's guilt. Oh, it was a tightly closing net round Mac, as she saw it!
"I wish I could help," she found herself saying, most unconsciously, so deeply was she thinking. "But, Julie, you two can do nothing. What are you expecting to accomplish?"
"Success," Thorpe made reply. "Complete success. It may sound absurd, but I think that note is a help to my cause rather than hindrance!"
"I think so, too," said Carlotta.
Wise and Zizi
"Well, Julie, my little girl, the jig is up."
Thorpe spoke despairingly, and Julie knew only too well what he meant.
"Yes, they're going to arrest me. This is the last call I can pay you."
Julie didn't break down and cry, nor indeed did she show great emotion of any sort. She set her curved red lips firmly and said, with an air of determination:
"I'm not sure, Mac, that it isn't better so. I mean now we've something definite to work against. Father's going to get that Mr. Wise, and he'll soon get you out of—out of—oh, Mac, will they put you in prison? In a cell?"
"Yes, dear, until the trial. You see, that little bottle did it for me."
"And somebody put that in your old paint-box! Who did it, Mac?"
"Hastings is the only one I can think of. That man never liked me— I don't know why, but he never did. And he adored Gilbert——"
"You don't think he killed Gilbert, then?"
"Oh, Lord, no! He was always fond of him. But he wants to get me in bad, and so I think he planted that bottle. It must have been planted, Julie, I never put it there. I never had it in my possession."
"Who did kill Gilbert?"
"I've no idea, but I don't think it was anybody we know. I'm inclined to the belief that it was some enemy, of long standing. You know Gilbert Blair's past life was by no means an open book to his friends. He had turned-down pages that we never knew about or inquired into. It would not have been impossible for some one to get into his room in the night——"
"And give him poison? Not likely!"
"But it must have been something of the sort, Julie. Blair never killed himself."
"No, I suppose not. Oh, Mac, how unfortunate that you and he quarreled so much. Otherwise they wouldn't have suspected you at all."
"Yes, they would. It's opportunity they consider, exclusive opportunity."
"And that empty bottle! I should think they'd see that's a plant!"
"They don't see anything an inch away from their noses! I'm the nearest suspect to hang a charge on, so they choose me."
Thorpe wasn't pettish, but he was discouraged and unstrung. He knew that his arrest, which was imminent, was, in part, due to the assertions of the medium and the Ouija Board. These secrets had leaked out somehow, and though the detective, Weston, would have scorned to acknowledge it, he had been more or less biased in his estimates of other evidence by what he had heard of supernatural communications.
But of this Thorpe hesitated to speak to Julie. For it was her father who had brought those things about, and while Thorpe had no use for the whole mediumistic business, he rarely said so to the Crane family.
And the note that purported to be from Peter, he believed a bare-faced fraud. He couldn't understand it, nor imagine how it had been managed, but he would not believe that it was the work of the dead Peter Crane.
And so, he submitted helplessly to arrest, for there was no way to prove his innocence. He had tried "detective work" on his own account, but it amounted to nothing. The police held that it was an "open and shut" case, and that Thorpe must have been the murderer.
Benjamin Crane, though all unwilling to condemn Thorpe, was, of course, greatly swayed by the supernatural messages, and couldn't help his belief in them. But, for Julie's sake, and to give Thorpe every possible chance, he had engaged Pennington Wise, and had invited him to stay at the Crane house while conducting his investigation.
So Wise came, and with him came his queer little assistant, the girl called Zizi.
There was ample room in the big city house, and the two were treated as honored guests.
Wise was alert, quick-witted and tactful, but Zizi was even more so. She made friends with the Cranes at once, and they all admired the odd, fascinating girl. Small of stature, dark of coloring, Zizi was not unlike a gypsy, and the mention of this brought about the tale of the gypsy's prophecy regarding Peter Boots.
"What an interesting story," the girl said, after hearing Benjamin Crane tell it. "It is wonderful how you dear people bear your loss so bravely."
"But it isn't really a loss," said Mrs. Crane, "you see, we have our boy with us continually."
It was only by desperate effort that Zizi kept from laughing, for of all fads or whims, spiritism seemed to her the worst and most foolish. But she was there on business, and part of her business was to gather all the information she could regarding this same spiritism, so she showed only deep interest and apparent sympathy with their beliefs.
"You do believe in these things, don't you?" Mrs. Crane asked, and, being thus confronted, Zizi had to answer directly.
"It's hard to say," she replied, "for, you see, I've had so little real experience. Practically none. But I'm eager to learn, and most interested in what you tell me."
"I'm a frank unbeliever," declared Pennington Wise. He had considered the matter and concluded it was better to state this fact and thereby rouse the others to defense.
"You wouldn't be, Mr. Wise," Benjamin Crane said, "if you'd had the experiences we're continually enjoying. You've read my book?"
"Yes, Mr. Crane, and an able, well written work it is. But you must number some among your friends who find difficulty in accepting it in just the way you do."
"Certainly, and though I do what I can to convince them, I think none the less of them for their honest unbelief. But with you right here in the house, Mr. Wise, it will, I'm sure, be an easy matter to make a convert of you."
"We'll see; at any rate, I'm ready to be converted if you can do it. Now, let's begin with that note your daughter received from—ah, shall I say from your son?"
"Of course, it was from my son. You may compare the writing with Peter's own—we've lots of his letters, and I think you'll be convinced it's no forgery."
"And it doesn't seem illogical to you," Wise went on, as he took the papers Crane handed to him, "that your son should materialize this paper, this note, and leave it for you, when, if he can do such things, he doesn't write a letter to his mother or to you?"
"From the average mortal's point of view there is much that seems illogical in spiritism," Crane said, easily, as if quite accustomed to answering such arguments; "we who believe, never question why or why not. We merely accept."
"Yes," said Mrs. Crane, "and when we are granted such wonderful boons as we are, it seems ungrateful and ungracious to ask for anything we do not get. When I hear my son's voice——"
"Do you recognize his voice?" asked Zizi.
"I can hardly say that, my dear, but we have heard Peter talk so often, through the medium, that it almost seems like his voice."
"And he told you that Mr. Thorpe was responsible for Mr. Blair's death?" Zizi went on, wanting a plain statement.
"Yes, he told us that."
"Then how can you have any doubt of it?"
"Spirits do not know everything. It is quite as likely for them to be misinformed as for earthly people to be. It may be that my boy doesn't know who killed Gilbert Blair, but has some reason to think it was Mr. Thorpe."
"Do you think it was?"
"I can't say that," Mrs. Crane looked very serious, "nor can I deny it. We are all so fond of Mr. Thorpe that we can scarcely bring ourselves to believe ill of him——"
"But if he is a criminal, we want to know it," her husband interrupted her. "Mr. Thorpe is engaged to my daughter, and if he is an innocent man, I want it made clear to the world. If not, then, of course, the engagement must be broken."
"He is an innocent man," Zizi said, quietly.
"Oh, you darling!" cried Julie, running across the room to embrace her. "How do you know?"
"By that letter," and Zizi pointed to the note from Peter, which she had been scrutinizing and comparing with some old letters of Peter's.
"You think it isn't from my brother?"
"I know it isn't. I've made a study of handwriting, and whoever wrote that wrote it in imitation of your brother's writing. I mean the writer was disguising his own hand and imitating your brother's."
"How can you tell? They are very much alike."
"That's just it. The salient points are imitated, the long terminal strokes, the peculiarities of the capitals, but the less conspicuous details, such as slant and spacing, are not so carefully copied. It is a forgery, and though well done enough to deceive the average observer, it would not deceive an expert."
"What a lot you know!" and Julie looked at the other girl in surprised admiration.
"'Course I do. It's my business to know things. Am I right about this, Penny Wise?"
"Yes," he said, smiling at her. "I thought you'd see it. Moreover, Mr. Crane, this note was written by a man, or by a person capable of deep, even venomous hatred. If, as may well be the case, it was written by the murderer of Mr. Blair, and with an intent to throw suspicion on Mr. Thorpe, then we must look for a criminal of great cleverness and of patience and perseverance in the workings of his nefarious plans. I mean a nature of inborn evil, capable of premeditated wrong. This murder of Gilbert Blair was no impulsive or suddenly brought about job. It was carefully planned and carefully carried out. If you will show me some of Mr. Thorpe's writing I will tell you if he forged this note."
"No, he did not," Wise asserted, after a study of a letter of Thorpe's, which they gave him; "we cannot say this note signed with your son's name was written by the criminal we're looking for, but we can be sure it was not written by McClellan Thorpe. You see, Mr. Crane, penmanship is a very exact science. Some one forged your son's writing, but he or she was utterly unable to omit the personal characteristics that are in every one's hand."
"And you can deduce character even from a forged hand?"
"Absolutely. It is those inevitable and unmistakable signs that make the individual writing a true mirror of character."
"But it is often impossible to determine the sex of a writer," Zizi informed them. "Frequently, to be sure, penmanship is undoubtedly that of a man or a woman, but sometimes it is not definitely evident. In this case, I think we have the work of a man, but I can't be sure."
"Who would do it, anyway?" queried Mrs. Crane.
"Any one interested in concealing the identity of the murderer and desiring to have Mr. Thorpe suspected. A clever person, because, knowing of Miss Crane's love of her brother and also knowing of your interest in the occult, it would doubtless seem to you a strong bit of evidence."
"It did," Benjamin Crane admitted, "at least, until you proved to us that it is not a note from my son at all. But you must remember, Mr. Wise, that we are in no way doubting my son's communications with us in other ways. If this is not from him, that does not cast doubt on other communications we have had from him. And, as he has repeatedly told us that Mr. Thorpe is responsible for Blair's death, I can only say that my boy may be mistaken, and I sincerely hope he is."
"Of course, he is," Julie cried. "Peter has sent us other messages that turned out to be untrue, but he was mistaken."
"You believe in the mediums, then?" asked Zizi, flashing her big dark eyes at the girl.
"Oh, I don't know. I didn't at first, and I was unwilling to, but I've heard so much and seen so much, and, of course, I can't help being influenced by Dad and Mother."
"Of course not," agreed Zizi. "It's all so interesting to me. I'm only afraid I'll become so absorbed in the spirits that I'll neglect the detective work."
"It may be they're interdependent," Wise observed.
"They are, I'm sure," said Julie. "You see, Mr. Wise, it's not only father and the medium that have told us things against Mr. Thorpe, but we have a friend who is an expert on the Ouija Board——"
Zizi rolled her eyes skyward.
"Oh," she groaned, "I thought you people were real honest-to-goodness Spiritists!"
"We are," defended Crane.
"Not if you fool with an Ouija Board!"
"But Carly, Miss Harper, can make it tell wonderful things," Julie went on, "things of which she really knows nothing."
"But the other person at the Board knows them?"
"Well, maybe; but they can't get Ouija to tell them without Miss Harper has her fingers on, too."
"And Ouija is against Mr. Thorpe?"
"Yes; at least it has said he was guilty, but, as you say, an Ouija Board means nothing."
"It means something, indeed, but not the thing it says."
"A brilliant remark, Zizi!" Wise smiled at her.
"But I mean just that, Penny. I'm getting a line on this thing, and I think that the criminal or the criminal's friends or accomplices are utilizing occult forces in their own behalf. I think, Miss Crane, the more messages you get telling you of Mr. Thorpe's guilt the more you may believe in his innocence!"
"Look out, Ziz, don't go too fast," Wise counseled her. "You've only begun this thing—there's a lot yet to be learned."
"I'll learn it, and I'm sure I'm headed in the right direction. And I'd like very much to see this Miss Harper. The Ouija witch! Has she told you to suspect Mr. Thorpe?"
"Don't put it that way," Julie begged. "Miss Harper is my dearest friend, and whatever she does with the Ouija Board is absolutely honest on her part, absolutely free from deceit."
"Then she's a unique case," declared Zizi. "Never has such a thing been known to science." Her smile robbed the words of invidious intent, and though Julie stood up for Carlotta's innocence, she had always wondered whether there was not some involuntary, even unconscious helping along done to the little board.
"Let's go to see her now," she suggested, and Wise agreeing, the two girls started off.
* * * * *
"This is Miss——?" Julie looked inquiringly at the girl she was about to introduce to Carlotta, remembering she didn't know her last name.
"Just Zizi," was the smiling reply, and the slim little dark hand was held out in greeting. "I'm so glad to know you, Miss Harper. For, though I admit I don't believe in Ouija, I am interested, and Miss Crane tells me you never 'push'."
"No, I never do that," Carlotta smiled, "but don't think I believe in the thing, for I don't at all. It amuses me, and it puzzled me, at first, but now I understand it, and it's beginning to lose interest for me."
"Understand it?" Zizi looked bewildered. "You mean——"
"I mean I know what makes it work, why it tells the truth, when it does tell the truth, and why it fibs when it does fib."
Carly Harper's face was frank and honest; she had no effect of mystery or clairvoyant power, and Zizi was bewildered.
"I am indeed glad to know you!" she exclaimed, "will you impart this knowledge to me, or is it a secret?"
"It's not a secret, perhaps it isn't knowledge, it's, after all, only my own theory, or rather, discovery, based on long and wide experience."
Zizi was enchanted.
"Oh, goody!" she cried, her black eyes dancing. "I'm crazy to know just what you mean! Will you give me a session with the board?"
"Will you promise not to push?"
"Of course, and, anyway, you'd know it if I did."
So Carly got the board, and the two sat at it, while Julie looked on.
The usual routine followed, and at last the professed spirit of Peter Crane was "present."
On being asked if Thorpe killed Gilbert Blair, the Ouija Board promptly replied "No."
"Oh, Peter, the other day you said he did!" Carlotta exclaimed, but again the Board flew to the corner where "No" was printed.
Julie, watching closely, was sure neither of the girls in any way cheated or helped things along. She was an acute observer, and she was certain both the manipulators were strictly sincere.
"Well, then," Zizi said, her thin, dark fingers merely touching the little wooden heart, "who did?"
There was no reply. Motionless the board remained, and no persuasion would induce it to move.
Other subjects were brought up, questions were asked to which only Carlotta knew the answer, or to which only Zizi did, and they were answered, if not always definitely, at least in a general way. But when they returned to the question about Blair there was no response.
"Don't you know?" Carlotta demanded of Peter's "spirit," which obligingly announced its presence when requested.
But the board remained stationary, and they finally gave it up.
"All of which goes to prove my theory the true one," Carlotta declared, and then Zizi begged her to disclose her discoveries.
"Why, you see, it's this way," Carlotta began, "you get out of the Ouija Board exactly what you bring to it, no more, no less."
"Just what do you mean by that?"
"That nobody gets any information from the board unless it is already in his mind. When we ask questions, to which one of us knows the answer, that answer comes. Mind you, I don't mean that one of us pushes the board in the right direction, at least not consciously, but it is inevitable that the mind leaps ahead, and when a word is started we know, usually, what letter is coming next, and we receptively await it. You see, unless you hold your hands still purposely, the board is bound to move. Naturally it goes to the words you have in mind, and unless you purposely check it, the message is bound to come. If it is something I know and you don't, the board starts off, and as the words form, you don't stop them nor do I, yet we don't really force them, it's more as if we thought on the board. This is proved, to my mind, by the fact that if either party knows the answer, it always comes; if neither knows it, you can't get it. Usually the message is something that can't be verified anyway, and often the message is untrue. But people notice and remember the few times the truth is told, and quickly forget the other times. In no case are they messages from the dead. It is not Peter's spirit talking to us at all. It is merely our minds, subconsciously or not, that impel involuntary muscular action in the slightest degree, and our eagerness to get a certain word or phrase, brings it about. Tradition and habit ascribe the messages to the dead, and the universal desire to get such communications is responsible for the belief that they are such. Now, here's proof. Whenever I have asked the Board who killed Gilbert it has responded with the name of the person whom my companion thought guilty. I have no idea who is the criminal, neither, I take it, has Zizi; consequently, as we are both open-minded and waiting for the answer, we get nothing."
"Right," and Zizi nodded her head. "People fool themselves into believing they get information from Ouija. But, if they were honest, they would have to admit that never has it told a truth that was not known to at least one person present. Of course, I except coincidences, which must happen occasionally."
"But," objected Julie, "then why will it work so much better when Carly has her hands on?"
"Just because I'm impassive," Carlotta said, "and sit quietly while the other one gets the message she wants. Without effort the message desired comes, merely because nobody stops it."
"Then," said Julie, "none of the help we get from Ouija means anything at all?"
"No, and it isn't help," said Zizi.
Kit Shelby's play was a wonderful success. Though a motion picture, it was one of the finest ever produced, and no expense had been spared to make it the sensation of the season. It was called "Labrador Luck."
The Crane family attended the opening night, as, indeed, all Shelby's friends did, and the verdict was unanimous that never had such a beautiful and finished play been screened. The scenes of ice-bound Labrador were picturesque and fascinating, while the plot was ingenious and thrills plentiful. The audience applauded continuously, for so real was the acting that it seemed as if the performers were actually there.
Benjamin Crane had helped Shelby finance the production, and he realized at once that he would get his money back with interest.
"It's a gold mine, boy!" he said to Shelby, as they were all at the Crane home afterward, "and it must be made into a spoken drama. There's scope for a great play in that plot."
"Marvelous plot," commented Pennington Wise. "All your own, Mr. Shelby?"
"Yes," Kit replied, with frank pride; "it did turn out well, didn't it?"
"And you're going to make a book of it, too, aren't you?" asked Julie.
"Yes, a book, and a serial story and, oh, I'm going to do lots of things with it!"
"Grand opera, maybe!" chaffed Julie.
"Why not?" said Shelby, seriously. "Slighter plots than that have been put into grand opera. It may yet come about."
Without undue conceit Shelby was quite conscious of his great success, and as he walked home with Carlotta from the Crane house, he begged her to consent to his repeated proposals of marriage.
"This thing will make me rich, dear," he said, "and while that sounds mercenary, it does make me glad to have a fortune to offer you."
"But I don't love you, Kit," and Carlotta smiled carelessly at him.
"You will, Carly. You'll have to, 'cause I love you so. Oh, sweetheart, I love you just desperately— I must have you, my little girl, I must!"
"Now, Kit, you wouldn't want a wife who didn't care for you as a woman ought to care for the man she marries. Truly, my heart is still Peter's. I sometimes think I'll never marry, his memory is so vivid and so dear to me."
"Weren't you beginning to care for Blair?"
"N-no; not that way. Of course I was fond of Gilbert, and I'm fond of you, but there's always the thought of Peter between us."
"But, Carly, there's no one you care more for than for me, is there?"
"No, I'm sure of that."
"Then say yes, darling. Even though you won't marry me quite yet, let's be engaged, and truly you'll soon learn to love me. I'll make you!"
But Carlotta wouldn't consent, and Shelby had to be content with her promise to think about it.
"Kit," she said, suddenly, "are those queer detectives going to find out who killed Gilbert?"
"Oh, I suppose they'll fasten it on Mac. Poor chap, to think of his being in jail while we're having all this excitement over my play. But I don't see any other direction for Wise to look. What a funny little thing that Zizi is."
"Yes, but I like her a lot. And she's nobody's fool! Her black eyes take in everything, whether she remarks on it or not. You should have seen her watch you to-night."
"At the Cranes', when you were talking about the play."
"She's dramatic herself. She ought to be in the Moving Pictures!"
"Yes, she'd be a film queen at once."
* * * * *
Zizi must have had something of the same idea in her own mind, for the next day she went to see Shelby at his office and asked him if he could give her a chance at film work.
"But you're a detective," Shelby said, amusedly, "what would Mr. Wise do without you?"
"He'd get along all right," Zizi said earnestly. "He's willing I should have a try at a screen career, if you'll take me on."
"I'm not sure I could use you," Shelby returned, "at least not at present. If I do another picture I'll try you out in it."
"Oh, you are going to do another, aren't you?"
"Probably, but not until I've exhausted all the different possibilities of this one."
Zizi showed her disappointment at the failure of her plan, but, after some further talk on general subjects, she went back to the Cranes'.
"Well, Ziz," Wise said to her, as they discussed the case alone, "we're not making our usual rapid headway this time. Rather baffling, isn't it?"
"Everything seems to point to Thorpe, except that I can't think he had motive enough. That foolish jealousy of the plans and suspicion of Blair's stealing his ideas isn't enough to make him commit murder."
"I don't think he did do it, but I can't agree with you that it wasn't a big enough motive. You don't know how the artistic temperament resents anything like that. Nor how it imagines and exaggerates the least hint of it. I think his motive is the strongest point against Thorpe. Who else had any motive at all?"
"That's what we have to find out. And we're going to do it. And, I say, Penny, I want to go to see that medium person the Cranes are so fond of."
"Think she'll help you?"
"Yes, though not by her spiritism. But I suspect she's one big fraud, and I want to be sure."
"Come along, then. No time like the present. Mr. Crane can arrange a session for us."
To Madame Parlato's they went, and soon had the pleasure of seeing that lady in one of her trances.
The room was dimly lighted but not in total darkness. After a silence a faint, low-pitched voice said, "I am here."
"Are you Peter Crane?" asked Zizi, who chose to be spokesman.
"Will you talk to us?"
"Yes, for a short time only."
"Very well, then tell us who killed Gilbert Blair."
"His friend, McClellan Thorpe. Good-by."
"Wait a minute. I own up to being skeptical, is it too much to ask for some proof of your identity, Peter Crane? Will you, can you give some material proof?"
"It is not easy."
"I'm sorry for that, but, oh, I do so want to be convinced. And I can't, unless I have something tangible to take away with me. Do give me something."
There was a silence, and then, apparently from nowhere, a handkerchief fluttered through the air and fell at Zizi's feet.
Amazed, the girl picked it up, and though she could not see it distinctly, she discovered it was a large one, evidently a man's.
Suddenly the medium sat up straight, came out of her trance, and putting on the lights, said, eagerly, "Did you get any message?"
"I should say I did!" Zizi returned, "and a material proof, too. Look!"
"Wonderful!" exclaimed Madame Parlato, as she looked at the white square of linen. "Initialed, too."
"Yes, P. C.," and Zizi scrutinized the embroidery.
Pennington Wise expressed a polite admiration for the medium who could bring about such marvelous results, and the seance over, the two departed, Zizi carrying the handkerchief in her bag.
"One of a set of Peter's," Wise said, confidently.
"Of course. Julie or Mrs. Crane will recognize it. Funny, how she thought a crude performance like that would convince us!"
"Mighty well done though."
"Pooh, in a darkened room one can do anything."
"Well, where did she get the handkerchief?"
"Dunno, yet. Maybe the Cranes left it there by chance."
"Oh, no, that won't do. Guess again."
"I think I could if I tried. But we'll see what the family say about it."
Both Mrs. Crane and Julie declared the handkerchief to be one of Peter's own, and, moreover, that it was one of a set Carlotta had embroidered for him just before he went to Labrador. And he had taken the whole dozen with him, of that they were both sure. It had been Carly's parting gift, and Peter had been delighted with it.
"It's too wonderful!" Julie said, amazed. "Now, how do you explain it, Zizi? We know this to be Peter's own handkerchief. We know he took it to Labrador with him. How did it get back here? How get into Madame Parlato's possession? And how appear to you, out of nothingness?"
"Yes," said Benjamin Crane, smiling happily, "answer those questions satisfactorily, or else admit that it is real materialization!"
Wise looked a little nonplused. Positive though he was of the medium's trickery, he could not tell Mr. Crane exactly how it had come about. Materialization was easy enough for a charlatan, but, as had been said, where could she get the handkerchief to do the trick with?
Convinced of the Cranes' honesty, of course, Wise couldn't doubt that Peter had taken all the handkerchiefs with him. His luggage had never been sent home, therefore how did the handkerchief get to New York, and more especially how did it get to Madame Parlato?
"I can't explain it yet," Wise said, frankly, "but I'll find out all about it. To you, Mr. Crane, it seems additional proof of your son's communication through that medium. To me it is additional and very strong proof of her fraud. Now, we'll leave it at that for the present, but I promise to explain it to you soon."
"All right, Mr. Wise, you'll not be offended, I trust, if I say I don't believe you can make good your word. But I'm not surprised at your attitude. Some minds are almost incapable of belief in the occult, and will accept the most absurd and far-fetched explanations rather than the simple and plausible one of spirit communication. I can't understand such a mental attitude, but I've met so many like you that I'm obliged to recognize its existence."
"Oh, Mr. Wise," Mrs. Crane said, "it does seem so strange that a clear-headed, deep-thinking man like yourself prefers to believe that Madame Parlato could get Peter's handkerchief and could produce it so mysteriously for you rather than the rational belief that Peter sent it himself."
Zizi looked at the speaker with kindly eyes.
"Dear Mrs. Crane," she said, "what will hurt me most when we expose that medium's fraud is the fact of your disappointment."
"Don't worry about that," smiled Benjamin Crane, "you haven't exposed her yet! Meantime, I shall incorporate this experience of the handkerchief in my next book."
"Oh, don't!" cried Zizi, involuntarily. "You'll make yourself a laughing-stock——"
She paused, unwilling to hurt his feelings.
But so assured of his beliefs was Benjamin Crane that he shook his head and said:
"No fear of that, child. I'll take all risks. Have you any idea how my book has been received? It's just gone into another big edition, and my publishers are clamoring for my second book, which is nearly finished. But to return to the case of McClellan Thorpe. Did Peter tell you——"
"Yes," Wise said, "according to Madame Parlato, the spirit of your son said that Thorpe is the criminal, and it was as proof of identity that Zizi received the handkerchief."
"Fine," said Crane, nodding his satisfaction, "I think I'll use that seance for the finale of my book, and get it in press at once."
"Do, dear," said his wife, "as far as the handkerchief is concerned. But don't put in the book that Mac killed Gilbert."
"Oh, no, certainly not. In the first place, we're all agreed that though Peter believes that, it is a mistake on his part; that is, it may be a mistake. Don't let it influence you too much, Mr. Wise."
Penny Wise laughed outright. He couldn't help it.
"No, sir," he promised, "I won't!"
"But have you any other suspect?"
"I'd rather not answer that question quite yet, Mr. Crane."
"All right, take your own time. I've confidence you'll do all you can, but my hopes of your success are dwindling."
"Don't feel that way, on the contrary, I'm beginning to see at least a way to look for another suspect."
"Look hard, then. For I want to get Mac cleared as soon as it can be brought about."
"We'll hope to do that. I'm going over to the Studios now, and I've a notion I'll discover something."
Accompanied by Zizi, Wise went to the home that Blair and Thorpe had occupied, and which was now in charge of the police.
The detective set himself to the task of looking over old letters and papers in hope of finding out some secret of the dead man's past.
Zizi flitted about the rooms, looking for nothing in particular, and everything in general.
"I've sized up his medicines," she said, coming from Blair's bedroom into the studio where Wise sat at the desk.
"His cough syrup hasn't been touched lately. The dried up stickiness of the cork shows that. And one or two other bottles are in the same condition. But in the waste basket in his bedroom I found this."
She held up an empty bottle that was labeled soda mints.
"There's a new full bottle in the medicine chest," she went on, "and as this was in the basket, mayn't it be that he took the last ones, and——"
"And they were poisoned!"
"One of them was. See, somebody had put a poisoned one in among the others."
"That leads back to Thorpe, who else could do that?"
"And we don't know that anybody did, only it might have been."
"Can you smell any prussic acid in the vial?"
"No," and Zizi sniffed at it, "I seem to think I do, but I daresay it's my vivid imagination. Do you suppose a chemist could discern any?"
"Probably not, but we might make a try at it. Pretty slim clue, anyway, Ziz."
"I know it, but I have a hunch it's the real thing. You see, Blair was in the habit of taking these things——"
"How do you know?"
"Carlotta Harper told me. I've quizzed her a lot about Mr. Blair's personal habits, and he always carried soda mints in his pocket, and took one now and then. So, as there was no soda mint bottle found in his pockets, and this was in the basket, it's a logical deduction that he finished this bottle that night that he died. And they all think the poison was given to him through some simple trick, so why not this?"
"It may be. It very likely is. But where does it get us?"
"Dunno yet. But, say it was done that way, it needn't have been done here. Maybe the murderer put a poisoned mint in the bottle when they were somewhere together."
"How could he?"
"Oh, lots of ways. Say Blair had his coat off, playing golf or billiards, or——"
"He'd carry such a bottle in his waistcoat pocket, I think."
"Well, it's all surmise. The thing to do is to begin from the other end. Who had a motive?"
"That's what I'm trying to trace. Nothing doing as yet. Hello, here's that old letter from Joshua, the guide. Look at it! It is in a small, cramped hand, and you know the one purporting to be from him later was in a big, sprawly hand. Somebody faked that letter!"
"Well, there's something to work on, then."
"But maybe Thorpe did it."
"Not he. Why should he? He had nothing to do with that Labrador trip."
"What was the letter about, the other Joshua letter?"
"Advising him not to try to bring Peter Crane's body down to New York, or to postpone the matter, or something like that."
"Queer business, that. Why should anybody want to fake a letter like that?"
"I don't believe anybody did. More likely some one else wrote for the guide. They're an ignorant lot, and writing is an unwelcome task to them."
They were still looking at the guide's letter when Shelby came in.
"I heard you were here," he said, "and thought it would be a good time to come around. I want to see if there's anything in Blair's papers that would help to turn suspicion away from Mac Thorpe. I don't believe that man did it, and I wish we could free him."
"That's what we're after," and Wise made room for Shelby to sit beside him at Blair's desk.
But though they made systematic search of all letters they found none other than friendly. There were some from his mother and sister, pathetic ones, telling of their ill health, for both were invalids.
They had not come East on learning of Blair's death, for they could not well stand the trip, and, too, there was no real reason for their coming. After the police investigation was over Blair's effects were to be sent to them, but for the present everything remained as it was found at his death.
"Let me help you, if I can," Shelby went on to Wise. "You know Blair and I were chums. Poor Gilbert, and Peter Boots, too, both gone, and both by such tragic means. I don't know which death was the worse."
Zizi showed him the small bottle she had found, and asked his opinion of her theory about it.
"What an ingenious notion," Shelby exclaimed; "yes, it might be the truth, of course, but a dozen other ways might have been used either."
"Such as what?" asked Wise, "it's always a help to talk these things over."
"Well, granting that some one administered poison to Blair, secretly, mightn't he have put it in anything that Blair was about to eat or drink?"
"Not this poison," objected Wise. "It acts too quickly. Whatever plan was adopted, it was some scheme by which Blair would take the poison unknowingly, but naturally. As Zizi says, if it had been put in some one of his bottles of medicine, he must take it, sooner or later."
"Yes; well, then say it was put in a cigarette, no that's foolish; why, hang it all, Wise, don't you see there's no plausible theory except that some one put it in a drink Blair took just before going to bed, or even after he was in bed."
"Where's the glass, then?"
"That's just the point. What's the answer, except that Thorpe washed it and put it away? Of course, Blair would take a drink Thorpe offered him."
"Also, he might have taken a soda mint just as he went to bed or after," said Zizi.
"Yes," agreed Shelby, thoughtfully. "He might have done so, but could one introduce poison into one of those things? They're quite hard, you know."
"Yes, it could be done," Wise declared. "I've heard of such a thing before. The little pellet could be soaked in the poison——"
"That would make it taste, and he wouldn't swallow it," Shelby said.
"True. Well, I think, with a hypodermic needle, the poison could be got into the mint."
"Maybe, but I doubt it. However, I don't know much about such things. You're doubtless experienced."
"Yes, I've had a lot of poison cases. And, if we give up all thought of the soda mint, it does come back to a drink of some sort mixed by Thorpe."
"Or Blair might have mixed his own drink, and Thorpe added the poison, unnoticed."
"But I want to get away from Thorpe," Zizi said, her eyes anxious and worried.
"So do we all," returned Shelby gravely. "But where can we look?"
"Where, indeed?" echoed Penny Wise.
A Prophecy Fulfilled
Among the passengers disembarking from a steamer at a Brooklyn pier was a tall, gaunt man, who walked with a slight limp.
He was alone, and though he nodded pleasantly to one or two of his fellow passengers, he walked by himself, and all details of landing being over, he took a taxicab to a hotel restaurant, glad to eat a luncheon more to his taste than the ship's fare had been.
He bought several New York papers, and soon became so absorbed in their contents that his carefully selected food might have been dust and ashes for all he knew.
Staring at an advertisement, he called a waiter.
"Send out and get me that book," he said, "as quick as you can."
"Yes, sir," returned the man, "it's right here, sir, on the news-stand. Get it in a minute, sir."
And in about a minute Peter Boots sat, almost unable to believe his own eyes, as he scanned the chapter headings of his father's book, detailing the death and the subsequent experiences of him who sat and stared at the pages.
He looked at the frontispiece, a portrait of himself, but bearing little resemblance to his present appearance. For, where the pictured face showed a firm, well-molded chin, the living man wore a brown beard, trimmed Vandyke fashion, and where the expression on the portrait showed a merry, carefree smile, the real face was graven with deep lines that told of severe experiences of some sort.
But the real face grinned a little at the picture, and broke into a wider smile at some sentences read at random as the pages were hastily turned, and then as further developments appeared, the blue eyes showed a look of puzzled wonder, quickly followed by horror and despair.
Peter closed the book and laid it aside, and finished his luncheon in a daze.
One thing stood forth in his mind. He must take time to think—think deeply, carefully, before he did anything. He must get away by himself and meet this strange, new emergency that had come to him.
What to do, how to conduct himself, these were questions of gravest import, and not to be lightly settled.
He thought quickly, and concluded that for a secure hiding-place a man could do no better than choose a big city hotel.
Finishing his meal he went to the desk and asked for a room, registering as John Harrison, which was the name by which he had been known on the ship that had brought him to port.
Once behind the locked door of his room he threw himself into an armchair and devoured the book he had bought.
Rapidly he flew through it; then went over it again, more slowly, until Peter Boots was familiar with every chapter of the book that his father had written in his memory.
Memory! And he wasn't dead!
The book, he saw, had gone through a large number of editions, wherefore, many people had read the tale of his tragic fate in the Labrador wild, and of his recrudescence and communications with his parents, and now, here he was reading it himself.
It is not easy to realize how strange it must seem to read not only one's own death notices but the accounts of one's return to earth in spirit form, and to be informed of the astonishing things one said and did through the kind offices of a professional medium!
A medium! Madame Parlato! And she "got in touch" with him! She succeeded in getting messages from him—and materializations!
Peter's chicory blue eyes nearly popped out of his head when he read of the "materialization" of his tobacco pouch.
"Jolly glad I know where it is," he thought; "I've missed the thing, but how did it waft itself to a professional medium! Bah! the stuff makes me sick!
"But Dad wrote it! Dad—my father! And mother's in the game! Got to read the book all over again."
And again he delved into the volume, seeming unable to take in the appalling fact of what had been done.
"They believe it!" he said at last, reaching the final page for the third time; "they believe it from the bottom of their blessed souls!
"Who is that medium person? Where'd she get the dope to fool the old folks? Let me at her! I'll give her what for! Messages to mother from her departed son! 'Do not grieve for me,' 'I am happy over here,' Oh, for the love o' Mike! what am I going to do first?"
Followed a long time of thought. At first, chaotic, wondering, uncertain, then focussing and crystallizing into two definite ideas.
One, the astonishing but undeniable fact of his father's belief and sincerity, the other, what would happen if that belief and sincerity were suddenly stultified.
"Good Lord!" he summed up, "when I appear on the scene that medium will get the jolt of her sweet young life— I assume she's young still, and Dad——
"H'm, where will he get off?"
That gave him pause. For Benjamin Crane to have written such a book as this, for it to have achieved such a phenomenal success and popularity, for it to have been the means, as it doubtless was, of converting thousands to a belief in Spiritism, then, for the whole thing to be overturned by the reappearance in the flesh of the man supposed dead, would mean a cataclysm unparalleled in literary history.
And his father? The dear old man, happy in his communications from his dead son, how would he be pleased to learn that they were not from his dead son at all, but the faked drivel of a fraudulent medium?
It was a moil, indeed.
Peter Crane had come home incognito, because he doubted the wisdom of a sudden shock to his parents. Unable to send or get news, and making his voyage home at the first possible opportunity, he had intended to learn how matters stood before making his appearance.
He had intended telephoning Blair and Shelby, and if they said all was well at home he would go there at once. But if there had been illness or death he would use care and tact in making his presence known.
For Peter Boots had had no word of, or from his people for half a year—all the long Labrador winter he had lived in ignorance of their welfare and had suffered to the limit, both mentally and physically.
And he had thought they would probably assume his death—as, by reason of this astonishing book he now knew they had done—and, what was he to do about it?
Impulse would have sent him flying home—home to his mother, Dad and Julie, and—and dear little Carly.
But—when he thought of the possibility of his reappearance being the means of making his father's name a by-word of ridicule, of heaping on the old man's fame obloquy and derision, of shocking his mother, perhaps fatally, or at least into a nervous prostration, he was unable to shape a course.
Could he tell Carly first? He glanced at a telephone book at his elbow.
No, that would never do. To hear his voice on the telephone would throw her into a convulsion. He didn't believe she stood for that spirit foolishness, but if, by any chance, she had been won over, his voice would surely give her some sort of a shock.
The boys, then. Yes, that was the only thing. He must see them, but he must telephone first and learn their whereabouts.
He could, he concluded, call in a disguised voice, and get a line on things anyhow.
So, still in a haze of doubt and uncertainty, he looked up the number and called Shelby.
As he rather expected, Shelby was not at his home, but the person who answered could give no directions save to say that Mr. Shelby would probably be home by six o'clock, and would he leave a message?
"No," returned Peter shortly, and hung up.
Getting next the number of the Leonardo Studios, he asked for Gilbert Blair.
"W-what—who?" came a stammering response.
"Mr. Blair—Mr. Gilbert Blair," repeated Peter.
"Why—why, he's dead—Mr. Blair's dead."
"No! When did he die?"
"Coupla months ago. Murdered."
Peter hung up the receiver from sheer inability to do anything else.
Of course it couldn't be true. Blair couldn't have been murdered, and he must have misunderstood that last word. But his arm seemed paralyzed when he tried again to take hold of the telephone.
He sank back in his chair and tried to think.
His subconscious mind told him that he had not misunderstood—that Gilbert was murdered. He knew he had heard the word correctly, and people do not make such statements unless they are true.
His thoughts gradually untangled themselves and he began to grapple with the most important problems.
It was clear that he must learn what had happened in his absence. He wanted to get hold of Shelby and ask about Blair. He wanted to go right over to Blair's place—but if—if it had occurred two months ago there was small use going there now.
Also, he must preserve his incognito for the present, at least. His return would be blazoned in the papers as soon as it was known, and the effect on his father's reputation would be most disastrous.
He must learn more facts—the facts he had already discovered were so amazing, what else might not be in store for him?
Concentrating on the subject of Blair's death he concluded his best course would be to get a file of newspapers covering the past two months and read about it.
In a big newspaper office he accomplished this, and spent the rest of the afternoon reading up the case.
Of late the subject was not a principal one in the papers.
McClellan Thorpe was in prison, awaiting his trial, and the police, while still on the job, were not over aggressive.
Pennington Wise was not mentioned, so Peter had no means of knowing that that astute person was connected with the matter.
But the news of Thorpe's arrest struck Peter a new blow. While not as chummy with Thorpe as with Shelby and Blair, Peter had always liked him and found it difficult to believe him guilty of Blair's death.
Back to his hotel went the man registered as John Harrison, and, going to the restaurant for dinner, he ate and enjoyed a hearty meal.
After all, strange and weird as was the news he had heard, his parents were alive and well—and, strangest of all, they were not grieving at his death.
He was relieved at this, and yet, he was, in an inexplicable way, disappointed. It is a blow in the face to learn that your loved ones are quite reconciled to your death because, forsooth, they get fool messages from you through the services of a fool medium!
Peter's ire rose, and he was all for going to his father's house at once, and then, back came the thought, how could he put that dear old man to the blush for having written that preposterous book?
From the papers, too, Peter had learned of the furor the book had made, of the great notoriety and popularity that had come to Benjamin Crane from its publication, of the enormous sales it had had, and was still having, and of the satisfaction and happiness the whole thing had brought to both Mr. and Mrs. Crane.
So, stifling his longing to go home and to see his people, Peter decided to sleep over it before taking any definite steps.
He had small fear of recognition. Nobody in New York believed him alive, or had any thought of looking for him. His present appearance was so different from the portrait in the book that, after he had changed his looks still further by a different brushing of his hair, he felt there was no trace of likeness left save perhaps his blue eyes. And only one who knew him well would notice his eyes, and he had no expectation of running up against one who knew him well.
So, after dinner, he sat for a time in the hotel lobby, not wishing to mingle with his fellow men, yet not wishing to seem peculiar by reason of his evading notice.
Worn with the succession of shocks that had come to him, and weary of meeting the big problems and situations, he thought of diversion.
"Any good plays on?" he asked the news-stand girl, and his winning smile brought a chatty response.
"Plays—yes. Nothing corking, though. But say, have you seen the big movie?"
"No; what is it?"
"'Labrador Luck,' oh, say, it's a peach! Go to it!"
"Where?" and Peter stopped himself just in time from exclaiming, "Labrador anything would interest me!"
"Over in N'York. Hop into the sub and you're there."
Peter hopped into the sub and shortly he was there.
"Labrador Luck," he read from the big posters. "Monster production of the Tophole Producing Company. Thrilling scenes, thrilling plot, thrilling drama."
There was more detail as to the names of the Film Queen who was starred, and the Film King who supported her, but without stopping to read them Peter bought a ticket and went in.
The picture was under way, and as he sank into his seat he saw on the screen the familiar scenes of the Labrador wild.
Not quite true to nature were they, this Peter recognized at once, but he knew they were taken in a studio, not in Labrador itself, and he had only admiration for the cleverness with which they were done.
With a little sigh of pleasure he gave himself up to a positive enjoyment of the landscape, and, as the story went on, he was conscious of a vaguely familiar strain running through it.
Suddenly a scene was flashed on, and an episode occurred which was one of his own invention.
"Why," he smiled, "that's my very idea! Now how'd they get that? Oh, I know, of course, such things often occur to various minds without collusion, but it's sort of queer. If he follows up that lead, it will be awful queer!"
The lead was followed up, and, a bit bewildered, Peter sat gazing while the whole story was unrolled.
Greatly changed it was, greatly elaborated; the main plot side-tracked by a counter-plot; the number of characters multiplied by a score; yet, the mystery interest, the suspense element, the very backbone of the piece was the plot he and Blair had worked out while up in the Labrador wild.
"Labrador Luck!" he mused. "Fine name for it, too. The 'Luck' being that old heirloom—just as I planned it. Wonder how it all came about?"
Then he realized how long he'd been away from Blair. How Blair, doubtless, supposed him dead, and, most naturally, the boy had gone on with the story, and here was the splendid result.
He sat through the thing enthralled, and when the finale came, so exactly as he had planned that smashing great scene, he could have yelled his applause. But he didn't, he simply sat still in glad anticipation of seeing it all over again.
But he was disappointed. It was not a continuous performance—the long play was a whole evening's entertainment, and opening and closing hours were like those of a regular theater.
So Peter determined to come the next night to see it again, and to see the first part that he had missed.
"Great old play," he thought, delightedly. "Wonder if Blair put it on before he died, or if it's posthumous."
He picked up a stray program as he left the place—he had had none before—and put it in his pocket to look over at home.
"At least, I'm not suffering from lack of interests or diversion," he said, "but, by Jingo, I've just thought of it! What about money!
"I've enough to hang out at that hotel about a week and that's all. I'll have to tell Dad I'm here, or get a job or rob a bank. And what can I do to turn an honest penny? And I can't go to work under an assumed name! Oh, hang it all, I've got to come to life! Much as I love Dad and much as I want to save him from all ridicule and disaster about that abominable book, I've simply got to live my own life!
"But I won't decide till my cash gets lower than it is now. I'll go a bit further in my investigations and then we'll see about it."
Comfortably seated in his room he drew out the program to look over.
To his unbounded amazement he learned from the title page that the author of the play and also the producer, or, at least, the president of the producing company was—Christopher Shelby!
"Kit! Good old top!" he cried aloud.
"Oh, I must see him," he thought, "I just must see him! So Kit wrote the thing—well, I suppose he and Blair did it together— I recognize Kit's hand more especially in the producing element—and then, old Gilbert, bless him, was killed, and Kit went ahead alone— I can't think Mac Thorpe did for Gil—oh, I must see somebody or I'll go crazy!"
And because he was afraid to trust himself to keep away from the telephone any longer, Peter Boots went to bed.
The night brought counsel.
Clarifying his thoughts, Peter tried first to see where his duty lay.
To his parents, first of all, he decided, for he was a devoted son, and all his life he had loved and revered both father and mother more than most boys do. Julie, too, but, so far he had no reason to think she had any special claim on him.
Well, then, what did his duty to his parents dictate?
Common sense said that they would far rather have their son with them alive than to rest secure in the success of the book his father had written.
But the book itself was, to his mind, quite outside the pale of common sense, and could not be judged by any such standards.
Certain pages, special paragraphs in that book, stood out in his mind, and he knew that never had there been such a fiasco as would ensue if the long lost and deeply mourned hero of it should return! His return in the spirit was so gloatingly related, so triumphantly averred, that his return in the flesh would be a terrific anti-climax.
He remembered the gypsy's prophecy—how it had come true!
But the return, foretold by the second gypsy, was now verified in the flesh and put to naught all the fake returns narrated in the book.
Much stress was laid, in his father's story, on the spiritual return being what the gypsy meant. Now, Peter had proved that that prophecy meant, if it meant anything at all, his return in the flesh.
Anyway, here he was, very much alive, and very uncertain what to do with his live self.
Should he go away, out West, or to some distant place and start life anew, under an assumed name, and leave his father to his delusion? Was that his duty?
He was not necessary to his parents, either as a help to their support or as a comfort to their hearts.
He did not do them the injustice to think that they had never mourned for him, or that they had not missed him in the home. All this was fully and beautifully set forth in the book.
But they had been compensated by the comfort and enjoyment afforded them by their seances, and by the messages they continually received from him!
And he could see no way, try as he would, that he could inform them of his return without causing them dismay and distress.
For if they knew him to be alive he must take again his old place in the home—and then what would his father be?
A laughing-stock, a crushed and crestfallen victim of the most despicable sort of fraud!
It would never do. He couldn't bring positive trouble into his father's life on the off chance of removing a sorrow, which, though real, was softened and solaced by the very fraud that he would expose.
No; the more he thought the more he saw his duty was to eliminate himself for all time from his home and friends.
He tried not to think about her, for his duty must be his paramount consideration. He would wait a day or so, and then disappear again, and forever.
"Well, Mr. Douglas, what can I do for you?"
Benjamin Crane spoke cordially, and smiled genially at the young man who had called on him in his home.
"You can turn me down, sir, if you like, or, if you'll be so kind, you can give me a few details of these strange experiences of yours in occult matters."