He drew from his pocket a small but powerful magnifying glass and the slip of paper which Ramon Hamilton had sent him, on which was the signature of the late Pennington Lawton. Through the microscope he carefully compared it with that affixed to the will and then looked up reassuringly.
"It is quite all right, Miss Lawton. In my estimation the will is authentic and your father's signature genuine." He folded the paper, slipped it in its envelope and returned it to her. "There is one thing now which I must most earnestly caution you against. Do not sign any paper, no matter who wishes it or orders it—no matter if it is the most trivial household receipt. Do not write any letters yourself, or notes to any one, even to Mr. Hamilton; you understand they might be intercepted. If anyone wishes you to sign a paper relating to the matter of your father's estate, say you cannot do so until you have shown it in private to Mr. Hamilton—that you have promised you will not do so. Any other papers you can easily evade signing. As for your private correspondence, obtain a social secretary, and permit her to sign everything—one whom you can trust—say, one of your girls from here, that girl downstairs, for instance. What is her name?"
Anita Lawton rose, and a peculiar pained expression passed over her features.
"I am sorry, Mr. Blaine—really, really I am sorry. I cannot tell you her name. That was one of the conditions under which she came to us here—that is why I have given her an official position here in the Club. She is staunch and faithful and true; I know it, I feel it; and she is too high-principled to pass under any name not her own. I know and am heartily in sympathy with the reason for her secretiveness. You know that I trust you implicitly, but I know you would not have me go back on my word when once it has been given."
"Certainly not, Miss Lawton. I realize that many of your protegees here may come of unfortunate antecedents. If you feel that you can trust her, use her. Do you feel equally sure of the other members of your Club?"
"Absolutely. I feel that they all really love me; that they would do anything for me they could in the world, and yet I have done so little for them—only given them the little help which I was able to bestow, which we should all do for those less fortunate than ourselves.... Why did you ask me, Mr. Blaine, if I felt that I could trust the girls who have placed themselves under my care?"
"Because we may have need of them in the future. They may be of the most vital assistance to us in this investigation, should events turn out as I anticipate and they prove worthy of the charge it may be necessary for me to impose on them. But enough of that for now. If at any time you wish to see me, personally, telephone me as you did this morning and I will meet you here."
The detective left her in the office of the secretary, and as he made his adieus to them both he cast a last quick, penetrating glance at the girl behind the desk. Again that vague sense of resemblance possessed him. With whom was she connected? Why was her name so significantly withheld?
In the meantime Guy Morrow, from his post of observation in the window of the little cottage on Meadow Lane, had watched the object of his espionage for several fruitless days—fruitless, because the actions of the man Brunell had been so obviously those of one who felt himself utterly beyond suspicion.
The erect, gray-haired, clear-eyed man had come and gone about his business, without the slightest attempt at concealment. A few of the simplest inquiries of his land-lady had elicited the fact that the gentleman opposite, old Mr. Brunell, was a map-maker, and worked at his trade in a little shop in the nearest row of brick buildings just around the corner—that he had lived in the little cottage since it had first been erected, six years before, alone with his daughter Emily, and before that, they had for many years occupied a small apartment near by—in fact, the girl had grown up in that neighborhood. He was a quiet man, not very talkative, but well liked by his neighbors, and his daughter was devoted to him. According to Mrs. Quinlan, Guy Morrow's aforesaid land-lady, Emily Brunell was a dear, sweet girl, very popular among the young people in the neighborhood, but she kept strictly at home in her leisure hours and preferred her father's companionship to that of anyone else. She was employed in some business capacity downtown, from nine until six; just what it was Mrs. Quinlan did not know.
Morrow kept well in the background, in case Mr. Pennold should put in an appearance again, but he did not. Evidently that conversation overheard by Suraci had been a final one, concerning the securities at least, and no one else called at the little cottage door over the way, except a vapid-faced young man to whom Morrow took an instant and inexplicable dislike.
Morrow made it a point to visit and investigate the little shop at an hour when he knew Brunell would not be there, and found in the cursory examination possible at that time that its purpose seemed to be strictly legitimate. A shock-headed boy of fifteen or thereabout was in charge, and the operative easily succeeded in engaging his stolid attention elsewhere while, with a bit of soft wax carefully palmed in his left hand, he succeeded in gaining an impression of the lock on the flimsy door. From this he had a key made in anticipation of orders from his chief, requiring a thorough search of the little shop—orders which for the first time in his career, he shrank from.
He made no effort to scrape an acquaintance with Brunell himself, but frequently encountered, as if by accident, the daughter Emily, on her way to and from the subway station. If she recognized in him the young lodger across the street, she made no sign, and as the days passed, Morrow, the man, despaired of gaining her friendship, save through her father, whom Morrow—the operative—had received orders not to approach personally.
Before he had seen her, had he known that the old forger possessed a daughter, he would have laid his plans to worm himself into the confidence of the little family through the girl, but having once laid eyes upon her face in all its gentle, trusting purity, every manly instinct in him revolted at the thought of making her a tool of her father's probable downfall.
There was a third member of the Brunell household whom Morrow had observed frequently seated upon the doorstep, or on one of the lower window sills—a small, scraggly black kitten, with stiff outstanding fur, and an absurdly belligerent attitude whenever a dog chanced to pass through the lane. It waited in the doorway each night for the return of its mistress, and in the soft glow of the lamplight which streamed from within, he had seen her catch the little creature up affectionately and cuddle it up against her neck before the door closed upon them.
One afternoon in the early November twilight, as Morrow was returning to his own door after shadowing Brunell on an aimless and chilly walk, he saw the kitten lying curled up just outside its own gate, and an inspiration sprang to his ingenious mind. He seated himself upon the steps of Mrs. Quinlan's front porch and waited until the darkness had deepened sufficiently to cloak his nefarious scheme. Then, with soft beguiling tone—and a few sotto voce remarks, for he hated cats—Morrow began a deliberate attempt to entice the kitten across to him.
"Come here, kitty, kitty," he called softly. "Come, pussy dear! Come here, you mangy, rat-tailed little beast! Come cattykins."
At his first words the kitten raised its head and regarded him with yellow eyes gleaming through the dusk, in unconcealed antagonism. But, at the soft, purring flattery of his voice, the gleam softened to a glow of pleased interest, and the little creature rose lazily, stretched itself, and tripped lightly over to him, its tail erect in optimistic confidence.
Morrow picked it up gingerly by the neck and tucked it beneath his coat, stroking its head with a reluctant thumb, while it purred loudly in sleepy content, at the warmth of its welcome. The hour was approaching when Emily Brunell usually made her appearance, and he trusted to luck to keep the little animal quiet until she had entered her home and discovered its loss, but the fickle goddess failed him.
The kitten grew suddenly uneasy, as if some intuition warned it of treachery, and tried valiantly to escape from his grasp, and never did Spartan boy with wolf concealed beneath his tunic suffer more tortures than Morrow with the wretched little creature clawing at his hands.
Would Emily Brunell never come? What could be keeping her to-night, of all nights? Morrow gripped the soft, elusive bundle of fur with desperate firmness and looked across the street. Evidently he was not the only one impatient for her arrival. The doorway opposite had opened, and Jimmy Brunell stood peering anxiously forth into the darkness.
At that moment the kitten emitted a fearsome yowl, which Morrow smothered hastily with his coat. He fancied that the old man turned his head quickly and glanced in his direction, and never had the operative felt guiltier.
Brunell, however, retired within, closing the door after him, and the kitten's struggles gradually grew weaker and finally ceased.
Morrow felt a horrible fear surging up within him that he had strangled the little beast, and his grasp gradually relaxed. Then he opened his overcoat cautiously and peered within. The kitten was sleeping peacefully, and he heaved a sigh of relief, glancing up just in time to see Emily Brunell pass quickly through her own gate and up to the door.
He sat motionless on the steps of Mrs. Quinlan's, and his patience was rewarded when after a few moments the Brunell's door re-opened and he heard the girl's voice calling anxiously: "Kitty! Kitty!"
Morrow rose with unfeigned alacrity and crossing the road, opened the little gate without ceremony and mounted the steps of the porch.
"I beg your pardon," he said blandly. "Is this your kitten? It—er—wandered across the street to me and fell asleep under my coat. I board just over the way, you know, with Mrs. Quinlan. My name is Morrow."
The girl gave a little cry of relieved anxiety, and caught the kitten in her arms.
"Oh, I am so glad! I was afraid it was lost, and it is so tiny and defenseless to be out all alone in the cold and darkness. Thank you so much, Mr. Morrow. I suppose it was waiting for me, as it usually does, and grew restless at my delay, poor little thing! It was kind of you to comfort it!"
Feeling like an utter brute, Morrow stammered a humble disclaimer of her undeserved gratitude, and moved toward the steps.
"Oh, but it was really kind of you; most men hate cats, although my father loves them. I should have been home much earlier but I was detained by some extra work at the club where I am employed."
"The club?" he repeated stupidly.
"Yes," replied the girl, quietly, cuddling the kitten beneath her chin. "The Anita Lawton Club for Working Girls."
She caught herself up sharply, even as she spoke, and a look almost of apprehension crossed her ingenuous face for a moment, and was gone.
"Thank you again for protecting my kitten for me," she said softly. "Good-night."
Guy Morrow walked down the steps and across to his own lodgings with his brain awhirl. The investigation, through the medium of a small black kitten, had indeed taken an amazing turn. Jimmy Brunell's daughter was a protegee of the daughter of Pennington Lawton!
THE FIRST COUNTER-MOVE
The little paragraph in the newspaper, which, irrelevant as it would seem, had caught the keenly discerning eye of Henry Blaine, grew in length and importance from day to day until it reached a position on the first page, and then spread in huge headlines over the entire sheet. Instead of relating merely the incidents of a labor strike in a manufacturing city—and that city a far-distant one—it became speedily a sociological question of almost national import. The yellow journals were quick to seize upon it at the psychological moment of civic unrest, and throw out hints, vague but vast in their significance, of the mighty interests behind the mere fact of the strike, the great financial question involved, the crisis between capital and labor, the trusts and the common people, the workers and the wasters, in the land of the free.
Henry Blaine, seated in his office, read the scare-heads and smiled his slow, inscrutable, illuminating smile—the smile which, without menace or rancor, had struck terror to the hearts of the greatest malefactors of his generation—which, without flattery or ingratiation, had won for him the friendship of the greatest men in the country. He knew every move in the gigantic game which was being played solely for his attention, long before a pawn was lifted from its place, a single counter changed; he had known it, from the moment that the seemingly unimportant paragraph had met his eyes; and he also knew the men who sat in the game, whose hands passed over the great chessboard of current events, whose brains directed the moves. And the stakes? Not the welfare of the workingmen in that distant city, not the lifting of the grinding heel of temporal power from the supine bodies of the humble—but the peace of mind, the honorable, untarnished name, the earthly riches of the slender girl who sat in that great darkened house on Belleair Avenue.
Hence Blaine sat back quietly, and waited for the decisive move which he knew to be forthcoming—waited, and not in vain. The spectacular play to the gallery of one was dramatically accomplished; it was heralded by extras bawled through the midnight streets, and full-page display headlines in the papers the next morning.
Promptly on the stroke of nine, Henry Blaine arrived at his office, and as he expected, found awaiting him an urgent telegram from the chief of police of the city where the strike had assumed such colossal importance, earnestly asking him for his immediate presence and assistance. He sent a tentative refusal—and waited. Still more insistent messages followed in rapid succession, from the mayor of that city, the governor of that state, even its representative in the Senate at Washington, to all of which he replied in the same emphatic, negative strain. Then, late in the afternoon, there eventuated that which he had anticipated. Mohammed came to the mountain.
Blaine read the card which his confidential secretary presented, and laid it down upon the desk before him.
"Show him in," he directed, shortly. He did not rise from his chair, nor indeed change his position an iota, but merely glanced up from beneath slightly raised eyebrows, when the door opened again and a bulky, pompous figure stood almost obsequiously before him.
"Come in, Mr. Carlis," he invited coolly. "Take this chair. What can I do for you?"
It was significant that neither man made any move toward shaking hands, although it was obvious that they were acquainted, at least. The great detective's tone when he greeted his visitor was as distinctly ironical as the latter's was uneasy, although he replied with a mirthless chuckle, which was intended to be airily nonchalant.
"Nothing for me, Mr. Blaine—that is, not to-day. One can never tell in this period of sudden changes and revolt, when our city may be stricken as another was just a few hours ago. There is no better, cleaner, more honestly prosperous metropolis in these United States to-day, than Illington, but—" Mr. Carlis, the political boss who had ruled for more than a decade in almost undisputed sway, paused and gulped, as if his oratorical eloquence stuck suddenly in his throat.
The detective watched him passively, a disconcerting look of inquiring interest on his mobile face. "It is because of our stricken sister city that I am here," went on the visitor. "I know I will not be in great favor with you as an advocate, Mr. Blaine. We have had our little tilts in the past, when you—er—disapproved of my methods of conducting my civic office and I distrusted your motives, but that is forgotten now, and I come to you merely as one public-spirited citizen to another. The mayor of Grafton has wired me, as has the chief of police, to urge you to proceed there at once and take charge of the investigation into last night's bomb outrages in connection with the great strike. They inform me that you have repeatedly refused to-day to come to their assistance."
"That is quite true, Mr. Carlis. I did decline the offers extended to me."
"But surely you cannot refuse! Good heavens, man, do you realize what it means if you do? It isn't only that there is a fortune in it for you, your reputation stands or falls on your decision! This is a public charge! The people rely upon you! If you won't, for some reason of your own, come to the rescue now, when you are publicly called upon, you'll be a ruined man!" The voice of the Boss ascended in a shrill falsetto of remonstrance.
"There may be two opinions as to that, Mr. Carlis," Blaine returned quietly. "As far as the financial argument goes, I think you discovered long ago that its appeal to me is based upon a different point of view than your own. You forget that I am not a servant of the public, but a private citizen, free to accept or decline such offers as are made to me in my line of business, as I choose. This affair is not a public charge, but a business proposition, which I decline. As to my reputation depending upon it, I differ with you. My reputation will stand, I think, upon my record in the past, even if every yellow newspaper in the city is paid to revile me."
Carlis rested his plump hands upon his widespread knees, and leaned as far forward, in his eager anxiety, as his obese figure would permit.
"But why?" he fairly wailed, his carefully rounded, oratorical tones forgotten. "Why on earth do you decline this offer, Blaine? You've nothing big on hand now—nothing your operatives can't attend to. There isn't a case big enough for your attention on the calendar! You know as well as I do that Illington is clean and that the lid is on for keeps! The police are taking care of the petty crimes, and there's absolutely nothing doing in your line here at the moment. This is the chance of your career! Why on earth do you refuse it?"
"Well, Mr. Carlis, let us say, for instance, that my health is not quite as good as it was, and I find the air of Illington agrees with it better just now than that of Grafton." Blaine leaned back easily in his chair, and after a slight pause he added speculatively, with deliberate intent, "I didn't know you had interests there!"
The Boss purpled.
"Look here, Blaine!" he bellowed. "What d'you mean by that?"
"Merely following a train of thought, Mr. Carlis," returned the detective imperturbably. "I was trying to figure out why you were so desperately anxious to have me go to Grafton—"
"I tell you I am here at the urgent request of the mayor and the chief of police!" the fat man protested, but faintly, as if the unexpected attack had temporarily winded him. "Why in h—ll should I want you to go to Grafton?"
"Presumably because Grafton is some fourteen hundred miles from Illington," remarked Blaine, his quietly unemotional tones hardening suddenly like tempered steel. "Going to try to pull off something here in town which you think could be more easily done if I were away? Cards on the table, Mr. Carlis! You tried to bribe me in a case once, and you failed. Then you tried bullying me and you found that didn't work, either. Now you've come again with your hook baited with patriotism, public spirit, the cry of the people and all the rest of the guff the newspapers you control have been handing out to their readers since you took them over. What's the idea?"
The Boss rose, with what was intended for an air of injured dignity, but his fat face all at once seemed sagged and wrinkled, like a pricked balloon.
"I did not come here to be insulted!" he announced in his most impressive manner. "I came, as I told you, as a public-spirited citizen, because the officials of another city called upon me to urge you to aid them. I have failed in my mission, and I will go. I am surprised, Blaine, at your attitude; I thought you were too big a man to permit your personal antagonism to me to interfere with your duty—"
For the first time during their interview Blaine smiled slightly.
"Have you ever known me, Mr. Carlis, to permit my personal antagonism to you or any other man to interfere with what I conceive to be my duty?"
Before he replied, the politician produced a voluminous silk handkerchief, and mopped his brow. For some reason he did not feel called upon to make a direct answer.
"Well, what reason am I to give to the Mayor of Grafton and its political leaders, for your refusal? That talk about me trying to get you out of Illington, Blaine, is all bosh, and you know it. I'm running Illington just as I've run it for the last ten years, in spite of your interference or any other man's, and I'm going to stay right on the job! If you won't give any other reason for declining the call to Grafton, than your preference for the air of Illington, then the bets go as they lay!"
He jammed his hat upon his head, and strode from the room with all the ferocity his rotund figure could express. The first decisive move in the game had failed.
The door was scarcely closed behind him, when Blaine turned to the telephone and called up Anita Lawton on the private wire.
"Can you arrange to meet me at once, at your Working Girls' Club?" he asked. "I wish to suggest a plan to be put into immediate operation."
"Very well. I can be there in fifteen minutes."
When the detective arrived at the club, he was ushered immediately to the small ante-room on the second floor, where he found Anita anxiously awaiting him.
"Miss Lawton," he began, without further greeting than a quick handclasp, "you told me, the other day, that your girls here were all staunch and faithful to you. Your secretary downstairs had previously informed me that they were trained to hold positions of trust, and that you obtained such positions for them. I want you to obtain four positions for four of the girls in whom you place the most implicit confidence."
"Why, certainly, Mr. Blaine, if I can. Do you mean that they are to have something to do with your investigation into my father's affairs?"
"I want them to play detective for me, Miss Lawton. Have you four girls unemployed at the moment?—Say, for instance, a filing clerk, a stenographer, a governess and a switchboard operator, who are sufficiently intelligent and proficient in their various occupations, to assume such a trust?"
"Why, yes, I—I think we have. I can find out, of course. Where do you wish to place them?"
"That is the most difficult part of all, Miss Lawton. You must obtain the positions for them. These three men who stand in loco parentis toward you, as you say, and your spiritual adviser, Dr. Franklin, who so obviously wishes to ingratiate himself with them, would none of them refuse a request of this sort from you at this stage of the game, particularly if they are really engaged in a conspiracy against you. Go to these four men—Mr. Mallowe first—and tell them that because of the sudden, complete loss of your fortune, your club must be disorganized, and beg them each to give one of your girls, special protegees of yours, a position. Send your filing clerk to Mr. Mallowe, your most expert stenographer to Mr. Rockamore, your switchboard operator to Mr. Carlis, and your governess into the household of your minister. I have learned that he has three small children, and his wife applied only yesterday at an agency for a nursery governess. The last proposition may be the most difficult for you to handle, but I think if you manage to convey to the Reverend Dr. Franklin the fact that your three self-appointed guardians have each taken one of your girls into their employ, in order to help them, and that his following their benevolent example would bring him into closer rapport with them, no objection will be made—provided, of course, the young woman is suitable."
"I will try, Mr. Blaine, but of course I can do nothing about that until to-morrow, as it is so late in the afternoon. However, I can have a talk with the girls, if they are in now—or would you prefer to interview them?"
"No, you talk with them first, Miss Lawton, and to-morrow morning while you are arranging for their positions I will interview them and instruct them in their primary duties. I will leave you now. Remember that the girls must be absolutely trustworthy, and the stenographer who will be placed in the office of Mr. Rockamore must be particularly expert."
After the detective had taken his departure, Anita Lawton descended quickly to the office of the secretary.
"Emily," she asked, "is Loretta Murfree in, or Fifine Dechaussee?"
"I think they both are, Miss Lawton. Shall I ring for them?"
"Yes, please, Emily; send them to me one at a time, in the ante-room, and let me know when Agnes Olson and Margaret Hefferman come in. I wish to talk with all four of them, but separately."
Loretta Murfree was the first to put in an appearance. She was a short, dumpy, black-haired girl of twenty, and she bounced into the room with a flashing, wide-mouthed smile.
"How are you, dear Miss Lawton? We have missed you around here so much lately, but of course we knew that you must be very much occupied—"
She stopped and a little embarrassed flush spread over her face.
"I have been, Loretta. Thank you so much for your kind note, and for your share in the beautiful wreath you girls sent in memory of my dear father."
"Sure, we're all of us your friends, Miss Lawton; why wouldn't we be, after all you've done for us?"
"It is because I feel that, that I wanted to have a talk with you this afternoon. Loretta, if a position were offered to you as filing clerk in the office of a great financier of this city, at a suitable salary, would you accept it, if you could be doing me a great personal service at the same time?"
"Would I, Miss Lawton? Just try me! I'd take it for the experience alone, without the salary, and jump at the chance, even if you weren't concerned in it at all, but if it would be doing you a service at the same time, I'm more than glad."
"Thank you, Loretta. The position will be with an associate of my father's, I think, President Mallowe of the Street Railways. You must attend faithfully to your duties, if I am able to obtain this place for you, but I think the main part of your service to me will consist of keeping your eyes open. To-morrow morning a man will come here and interview you—a man in whom you must place implicit confidence and trust, and whose directions you must follow to the letter. He will tell you just what to do for me. This man is my friend; he is working in my interests, and if you care for me you must not fail him."
"Indeed I won't, Miss Lawton! I'll do whatever he tells me.... You said that I was to keep my eyes open. Does that mean that there is something you wish me to find out for you?" she asked shrewdly.
"I cannot tell you exactly what you are to do for me, Loretta. The gentleman whom you are to meet to-morrow morning will give you all the details." Anita Lawton approached the girl and laid her hand on her shoulder. "I can surely trust you? You will not fail me?"
The quick tears sprang to the Irish girl's eyes, and for a moment softened their rather hard brilliance.
"You know that you can trust me, Miss Lawton! I'd do anything in the world for you!"
Anita Lawton held a similar conversation with each of the three girls, with a like result. To Fifine Dechaussee, a tall, refined girl, with the colorless, devout face of a religieuse, the probability of entering a minister's home, as governess for his children, was most welcome. The young French girl, homesick and alone in a strange land, had found in Anita Lawton her one friend, and her gratitude for this first opportunity given her, seemed overwhelming. Margaret Hefferman rejoiced at the possible opportunity of becoming a stenographer to the great promoter, Mr. Rockamore; and demure, fair-haired little Agnes Olson was equally pleased with the prospect of operating a switchboard in the office of Timothy Carlis, the politician.
Meantime, back in his office, Henry Blaine was receiving the personal report of Guy Morrow.
"The old man seems to be strictly on the level," he was saying. "He attends to his own affairs and seems to be running a legitimate business in his little shop, where he prints and sells maps. I went there, of course, to look it over, but I couldn't see anything crooked about it. However, when I left, I took a wax impression of the lock, in case you wanted me to have a key made and institute a more thorough investigation, at a time when I would not be disturbed."
"That's good, Morrow. We may need to do that later. At present I want you merely to keep an eye on them, and note who their visitors are. You've been talking with the girl you say—the daughter?"
"Yes, sir—" The young man paused in sudden confusion. "She's a very quiet, respectable, proud sort of young woman, Mr. Blaine—not at all the kind you would expect to find the daughter of an old crook like Jimmy Brunell. And by the way, here's a funny coincidence! She's a protegee of Miss Lawton's, employed in some philanthropic home or club, as she calls it, which Pennington Lawton's daughter runs."
"By Jove!" Blaine exclaimed, "I might have known it! I thought there was something familiar about her appearance when I first saw her! No wonder Miss Lawton had promised not to divulge her name. It's a small world, Morrow. I'll have to look into this. Go back now and keep your eye on Jimmy."
"Very well, sir." Guy Morrow paused at the door and turned toward his chief. "Have you seen the late editions of the evening papers, Mr. Blaine? They're all slamming you, for refusing to accept the call to Grafton, to investigate those bomb outrages last night."
Henry Blaine smiled.
"There won't be any more of them," he remarked quietly. "That strike will die down as quickly as it arose, Morrow; the whole thing was a plant, and the labor leaders and factory owners themselves were merely tools in the hands of the politicians. That strike was arranged by our friend Timothy Carlis, to get me away from Illington on a false mission."
"You don't think, sir, that they suspect—"
"No, but they are taking no chances on my getting into the game. They don't suspect yet, but they will soon—because the time has come for us to get busy."
The next morning, when Ramon Hamilton presented himself at Henry Blaine's office in answer to the latter's summons, he found the great detective in a mood more nearly bordering upon excitability than he could remember having witnessed before. Instead of being seated calmly at his desk, his thoughts masked with his usual inscrutable imperturbability, Blaine was pacing restlessly back and forth with the disquietude, not of agitation, but of concentrated, ebullient energy.
"I sent for you, Mr. Hamilton," he began, after greeting his visitor cordially and waving him to a chair, "because we must proceed actively with the investigation into the alleged bankruptcy of Pennington Lawton. We have been passive long enough for me to have gathered some significant facts, but we now must make a salient move. The time hasn't yet come for me to step out into the open. When I do, it will be a tooth-and-nail fight, and I must be equipped with facts, not theories. I want some particulars about Mr. Lawton's insolvency, and there is no one who could more naturally inquire into this without arousing suspicion than you."
"I don't need to tell you, Mr. Blaine, how anxious I am to do anything I can to help you, for Miss Lawton's sake," Ramon Hamilton replied eagerly. "I should like to have looked into the matter long ago—indeed, I felt that suspicion must have been aroused in the minds of Mallowe and his associates by the fact that I accepted the astounding news of the bankruptcy as unquestioningly as Miss Lawton herself, unless they thought me an addlepated fool—but I didn't want to go ahead without direct instructions from you."
"I did not so direct you, Mr. Hamilton, for a distinct purpose. I wished the men we believe to be responsible for the present conditions to be slightly puzzled by your attitude, so that when the time came for you to begin your investigation, they would be more completely reassured. In order to make your questioning absolutely bona fide, I want you to go first this morning to the office of Anderson & Wallace, the late Mr. Lawton's attorneys, and question them as if having come with Miss Lawton's authority. Don't suggest any suspicion of there being any crookedness at work, but merely inquire as fully as possible into the details of Mr. Lawton's business affairs. They will, in their replies, undoubtedly bring in Mr. Mallowe, Mr. Rockamore and Mr. Carlis, which will give you a cue to go quite openly and frankly to one of the three—preferably Mallowe—for corroboration. Knowing that you come direct from the late Mr. Lawton's attorneys, he will be only too glad to give you whatever information he may possess or may have concocted—and so lay open to you his plan of defense."
"Defense? You think, then, Mr. Blaine, that they anticipate possible trouble—exposure, even? Surely such astute, far-seeing men as Mallowe and Rockamore are, at least, would not have attempted such a gigantic fraud if they'd anticipated the possibility of being discovered! Carlis has weathered so many storms, so many attacks upon his reputation and civic honor, that he may have felt cocksure of his position and gone into this thing without thought for the future, but the other two are men of different caliber, men with everything in the world to lose."
"And colossal, unearned wealth to gain—don't forget that, Mr. Hamilton. Men of different caliber, I grant you, but all three in the same whirlpool of crime, bound by thieves' law to sink or swim together. It is because they are astute and far-seeing that they must inevitably have considered the possibility of exposure and safeguarded themselves against it with bogus corroborative proof. If that proof is in tangible form, and we can lay our hands on it, we shall have them where we want them. Now go back to your office, Mr. Hamilton, and dictate this letter to your stenographer, having it left open on your desk for your signature. Don't wait for the letter to be typed, but proceed at once to the office of Anderson & Wallace. You, as a lawyer, will of course know the form of inquiry to use."
The detective handed Ramon Hamilton a typewritten sheet of paper from his desk; and the young man, after hastily perusing it, gazed with a blank stare of amazement into Blaine's eyes.
"I can't make this out," he objected. "Who on earth is Alexander Gibbs, and what has he to do with Miss Lawton's case? This letter seems to inform one Alexander Gibbs that I have retained you to recover for us the last will and testament of his aunt, Mrs. Dorothea Gibbs. I have no such client, and I know no one in—what's the address?—Ellenville, Sullivan County."
"Of course you don't, Mr. Hamilton. Nevertheless, you will sign that letter and your secretary will mail it—that is, after it has lain open upon your desk for casual inspection for a considerable length of time. One of my operatives will receive it in Ellenville."
"But what has it to do with the matter in hand?" Ramon asked.
"Everything. I understand that you employ quite an office force, for an attorney who has so recently been admitted to the bar, and who has necessarily had little time yet to build up an extensive practice. There may be a spy in your office—remember that as Miss Lawton's fiance and her only protector in this crisis, you are the one whom they would safeguard themselves against primarily. When I called you up this morning, to ask you to come here, you very indiscreetly mentioned my name over the telephone. Your entire office force will know that you have been to consult me—this letter will throw them off the track should there be a spy among them, and will also give you a legitimate excuse to call upon me frequently in the immediate future. You realize that we also must safeguard ourselves, Mr. Hamilton."
The young man reddened.
"Of course. I did not think—I called you by name inadvertently," he stammered. "I'll be more discreet in the future, Mr. Blaine."
"Memorize the gist of the letter on your way to your office—particularly the name and address—and place it securely in your vest pocket. When you have left your office to go to Anderson & Wallace, destroy it carefully. You had best, perhaps, stop in the lavatory of some restaurant or public bar and burn it, or tear it into infinitesimal pieces. Remember that everything depends upon you now—upon your discretion and diplomacy."
Hamilton followed Blaine's instructions to the letter, and an hour after he had left the detective he was closeted with the senior member of the firm of Anderson & Wallace.
"My dear Mr. Hamilton, we have had so little time," Mr. Anderson expostulated. "Remember that Mr. Lawton's death occurred little more than a fortnight ago, and even the most cursory examination has shown us that his affairs were in a most chaotic condition. It will take us weeks, months, to settle up so involved an estate.
"At present we can give you little information. It is by no means certain that Mr. Lawton was an absolute bankrupt—we have not yet assured ourselves that nothing can be saved from the wreckage. You cannot imagine how aghast, thunderstruck, we were, when this present state of affairs was made known to us. We have been Mr. Lawton's attorneys for more than twenty years, and we thought that we knew every detail of his multifarious transactions, but for some reason which we cannot fathom he saw fit, within the last two years, to change his investments without taking us into his confidence—and with disastrous results."
"Mr. Lawton was always conservative. He took no one fully into his confidence," Ramon Hamilton replied guardedly.
"You knew, of course, that he had ideas about the disposal of his vast wealth which many other financiers would consider peculiar. He would never invest in real estate, to our knowledge. His millions were placed entirely in stocks and bonds, and for years he had stated that his object was, in the event of his death, to save his daughter and the trustees from unnecessary trouble over real-estate matters. This makes his later conduct all the more inexplicable. Mr. Mallowe has told me that Mr. Lawton made several suggestions to him and to his associates, Mr. Rockamore and Mr. Carlis, to go with him into the unfortunate speculations which ultimately caused his ruin. They were far-seeing enough to refuse."
"Just what were these speculations, Mr. Anderson?"
"I can't tell you at this moment. You'll understand that we don't wish to make any statement until we can do so definitely, and we are still, as I said, quite at sea. We'll try to straighten everything out as soon as possible, and give you and Miss Lawton a full report. In the meantime, why not consult Mr. Mallowe? He can give you more explicit information concerning the late Mr. Lawton's speculation and final insolvency than we shall be able to do for some time; or possibly, Mr. Rockamore, or even Mr. Carlis might enlighten you. All three seem to have been more conversant with Mr. Lawton's affairs than we, his attorneys."
The dignified old gentleman's voice held a note of pained resentment, with which Ramon Hamilton could not help but sympathize.
"I will adopt your suggestion, Mr. Anderson, and call upon Mr. Mallowe at once. I can no more understand than you can how it happens that Mr. Lawton should have confided to such an extent in his business associates, to the exclusion of you and Mr. Wallace—to say nothing of his own daughter; but doubtless there were financial reasons which we'll learn. I will take up no more of your valuable time, but will try to see Mr. Mallowe immediately. If I learn any facts you're not now in possession of, I'll let you know at once."
Mr. Mallowe, when approached over the telephone, welcomed most cordially the proposed interview with Miss Lawton's fiance. When the latter arrived, he was greeted with a warm, limp hand-clasp, and seated confidentially close to the president of the Street Railways.
"Mr. Anderson did well to suggest your coming to me, Mr. Hamilton," the magnate remarked unctuously. "I believe I am in a position to give you a more comprehensive idea of the circumstances which brought about my esteemed friend's unfortunate financial collapse at the time of his death than my colleagues, because I was closer to him in many ways, and I am confident that he regarded me as his best friend. However, I don't feel that I can, in honor, violate the confidence of the dead by giving any details just now—even to you and Miss Lawton—of matters which have not yet been fully substantiated by the attorneys. I know only from Mr. Lawton's own private statements that he was interested, to the point one might almost say of mania, in a gigantic scheme from which we, his friends, tried in vain to dissuade him. He urged me especially to go in on it with him, but because of the very position I hold, it would have been impossible for me to consider it, even if my better judgment hadn't warned me against it."
"Can't you give me some idea of the nature of this scheme?" Ramon asked. "I can't believe, any more easily than Miss Lawton can, that there could have been anything that was not thoroughly open and above-board about her father's dealings. Surely, there can be no reason for this extraordinary secrecy, particularly as the newspapers had given to the world at large the unauthorized statement, from a source unknown to Miss Lawton or myself, that Pennington Lawton died a bankrupt!"
The young man drew himself up sharply, as if fearful of having said too much, and for a moment there was silence. Then Mr. Mallowe leaned back easily in his chair and, removing his tortoise-shell rimmed eyeglasses, tapped the desk thoughtfully with them as he replied:
"That was regrettable, of course, Mr. Hamilton. It must have been distressing in the extreme to Miss Lawton, coming just at this time, but it would have had to be revealed sooner or later, you know—such a stupendous fact could not be hidden. There is no extraordinary secrecy about the matter. When the attorneys have completed their settlement of the estate, everything will be clear to you and Miss Lawton. I must naturally decline to give you any explanation which would be, just now, merely an uncorroborated opinion. I appreciate your feelings in this sudden, almost overwhelming trouble which has come to Miss Lawton, and I sympathize with both of you most heartily; but one must have patience. You will pardon me, but you are both very young, and that is the hardest lesson of all for you to learn."
His watery eyes beamed in fatherly benevolence upon Ramon, and Anita's fiance felt his gorge rising. The older man reminded him irresistibly of a cat licking its chops before a canary's cage, and it was with difficulty he restrained himself to remark coldly:
"You told me at the beginning of this interview, Mr. Mallowe, that I did well in coming to you, since you could give me a more comprehensive idea of the circumstances than anyone else, yet you have disclosed nothing beyond a few vague suggestions—to any other man I should have said, insinuations—and generalities which we were already familiar with. Can't you give me any real information?"
"My dear boy, I intend to tell you all that I know and can verify." The silky smoothness of the magnate's tones had deepened in spite of himself, with a steely undernote.
"I don't know when the project which spelled his ruin was first conceived by Mr. Lawton, but I believe that he started to put it into active operation over three years ago. He went into it with his usual cold nerve, and then, when the pendulum did not swing his way he kept heaping more and more of his securities on the pyre of his ambition and pride in himself, until he was forced to obtain large loans. That he did seek and obtain such loans I can prove to you at the present moment, in one instance at least, for it was through me the affair was negotiated. I think he fully realized his enormous error, but refused to admit it even to himself, and strove by sheer force of will-power to carry a hopeless scheme to success."
"Sought loans! He—Pennington Lawton required loans and obtained them through you?" Ramon almost started from his chair. "Mr. Mallowe, you will forgive me, but I can scarcely credit it. I know, of course, that financiers, even those who conduct their operations on a far lesser scale than Mr. Lawton, frequently seek loans, but your manner and your speech just now led me to believe that you had some other motive in doing what you did for Mr. Lawton. From what you have told me I gather that it was owing more to your friendship for him, than to your financial relations, that he called upon you at that time."
"And it was to my friendship at that time that he appealed, Mr. Hamilton."
"Appealed? I cannot imagine Pennington Lawton appealing to any man. Why should he appeal to you?"
"Because, my dear boy, he was in a mighty bad fix when he had need to call upon me. Oh, by the way, I have the letter here in my safe—I found it only the other day."
"The letter? What letter?"
"The letter Mr. Lawton wrote me from Long Bay asking me to get Mr. Moore's help in the matter—here it is."
Mallowe went to his safe, and opening it, withdrew from an inner drawer a paper which he presented to the young lawyer. After a cursory examination Ramon placed it upon the desk before him, and turning to Mr. Mallowe said:
"I am awfully sorry to have annoyed you with this matter, but you understand exactly how Miss Lawton and I feel about it—"
"Of course, Mr. Hamilton, I realize the situation fully. I am glad to have had this opportunity to explain to you how the matter stood as far as I personally was concerned. You know I will do anything that I can for Miss Lawton and I trust that you will call upon me."
He rose with ponderous significance as if to state tacitly that the interview was at an end, but the younger man did not stir from his chair.
"This letter came to you—when did you say, Mr. Mallowe?"
"When Pennington Lawton and his daughter were at The Breakers at Long Bay, about two years ago last August, as nearly as I can remember."
"If you still had the envelope, we could obtain the exact date from the postmark," Ramon suggested significantly. "The letter I see is only headed 'Saturday.'"
"Yes, it is unfortunate that I did not keep it," the magnate retorted a little drily. "It was by the merest, most fortunate chance that the letter itself came to light. However, I cannot see at this late date what difference it could possibly make when the letter was mailed, since it establishes beyond any possibility of doubt the fact that it was mailed. As to the matter of the negotiation of the loan, I would prefer that you apply to Mr. Moore himself for the particulars concerning it. I am sure that he will be quite as glad as I have been to give you such definite information as he possesses."
This time the dismissal could not be ignored, and Ramon Hamilton took his departure, but not before he had marked well the particular drawer within the safe from which the letter had been taken.
As he went down the corridor, a saucy, red-cheeked young woman with business briskness in her manner came from an inner office and smiled boldly at him. She was Loretta Murfree, the new filing clerk who had been installed only that morning in Mr. Mallowe's office.
Had Ramon known her to be the protegee of Anita Lawton and the spy of Henry Blaine, he might have glanced at her a second time.
The young man proceeded straight to the offices of Charlton Moore, the banker, and found that an interview was readily granted him. Mr. Moore remembered the incident of the loan, and his private accounts showed that it had been made on the sixteenth of August two years previously.
"Mr. Mallowe arranged the matter with you for Mr. Lawton, did he not?" Ramon asked.
"Yes, it was a purely confidential affair. Mr. Carlis came with him to interview me. They did not at first tell me that Mr. Lawton positively desired the loan, but they made tentative arrangements asking if I would be in a position to give it to him should he desire it, and they said they came to me at this early date desiring to make no definite statement. Mr. Lawton had told them that once before I had accommodated him by carrying a note confidentially at his request. Of course I did not care to commit myself, as you can readily understand, Mr. Hamilton, until I was assured the proposition was bona fide.
"Mr. Mallowe and Mr. Carlis suggested that I call Mr. Lawton up on the private wire in his office, but the matter was so delicate that as long as he had not come to me in person I did not care to telephone him. Mr. Mallowe showed me a letter which he had recently received from Pennington Lawton corroborating his statement. But in the matter of the amount desired we could not definitely distinguish the figures. Mr. Mallowe was sure that it was three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Mr. Carlis was equally certain that it was three hundred and eighty-five thousand. To make certain of the matter they called Mr. Lawton up from my office here in my presence, and he stated that the sum desired was three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. There was only one odd thing about the entire transaction, and that was a remark Mr. Mallowe made as he was leaving. After the negotiations had been completed he turned and said, 'You understand, Mr. Moore, that Mr. Lawton is so careful, so secretive, that he does not wish this matter ever mentioned to him personally, even if you think yourself absolutely alone with him.'"
"Mr. Lawton was a very peculiar man in many ways," Ramon said meditatively. "His methods of conducting his affairs were not always easily understood. The negotiations were then completed shortly thereafter?"
"Yes, within a few days. I turned the amount required over to Mr. Mallowe and Mr. Carlis, and accepted Mr. Lawton's note. I will show it to you if you care to see it."
"That will not be necessary, Mr. Moore, but I am going to make a request that may seem very strange to you. Should it be necessary, would you be willing to show that note to some one whom I may bring here to you—some one who may prefer not to see you personally, but merely to be permitted to examine the note in the presence of some responsible people of your own choosing?"
"Certainly, Mr. Hamilton. I think I can safely promise that. But what does it mean—is there anything wrong with Pennington Lawton's note?"
"Not that I am aware of, Mr. Moore," Ramon answered, laughing rather shortly. "I am unable to explain just now, but I think the name of Pennington Lawton carries with it a sufficient guarantee that the note will be honored when it is presented."
An hour later, at the close of the busiest day he had experienced since his graduation from the law school, young Hamilton presented himself at Henry Blaine's office. The detective listened in silence to his story, and at its conclusion remarked quietly: "You did well, Mr. Hamilton. I am going to call one of my operatives and ask you to repeat to him in detail the location of that safe in Mallowe's office and the drawer which contains Mr. Lawton's letter from Long Bay."
"Anyone would think you meant to steal it, Mr. Blaine."
Young Hamilton's laugh was now unrestrained. "There couldn't possibly be anything wrong with the note or the entire transaction. Mr. Moore proved that when he told me how Mr. Mallowe and Carlis called up Mr. Lawton in his presence on his private wire and discussed the negotiations."
"Are you sure that they did, Mr. Hamilton?" The detective suddenly leaned forward across his desk, his body tense, his eyes alight with fervid animation. "Are you sure Pennington Lawton ever received that message?"
"He must have. According to Mr. Moore, the two men used Mr. Lawton's private wire, the number of which was known only to a few of his closest intimates and which of course was not listed."
"But some one who knew that the telephone message was coming might readily have been in Lawton's office seated at his desk, alone, and replied to it in the financier's name. Do you understand, Mr. Hamilton? The note may be a forgery, the letter may be a forgery; that we shall soon know. If it is, and the money so obtained from Moore has been converted to the use of the three confederates whom we suspect to have formed a conspiracy to ruin Miss Lawton, then her father's entire fortune might have been seized upon in virtually the same way."
Henry Blaine rose and paced back and forth as if almost oblivious of the other's presence. "The mortgage of his was forged—we have proved that," he continued. "Why, then, should not every other available security have been stolen in practically the same way?" he continued.
"But how would anyone dare? The whole thing is too bare-faced," Ramon expostulated. "A man like Mr. Moore could not have been imposed upon by a mere forgery."
"But if that note proves to be a forgery, Mr. Hamilton, and the letter as well—we shall have picked up a tangible clue at last. I think I am beginning to see daylight."
Late that night in the huge suite of offices of President Mallowe of the Street Railways, a very curious scene took place. The stolid watchman who had been on uneventful duty there for twenty years had made his rounds for the last time. With superb nonchalance, he settled himself for his accustomed nap in his employer's chair. From the stillness and gloom of the semi-deserted office-building two stealthy figures descended swiftly upon him, their feet sinking noiselessly into the rich pile of the rugs. A short, silent struggle, a cloth saturated with chloroform pressed heavily over his face, and the guardian of the premises lay inert. The shorter, more stocky of the two nocturnal visitors, without more ado switched on a pocket electric light and made a hasty but thorough survey of the room. The taller one shrank back inadvertently from the drug-stilled body in the chair, then resolutely turned and knelt beside his companion before the safe. He dreaded to think of what discovery might mean. If he, Ramon Hamilton, were to be caught in the act of burglarizing, his career as a rising young lawyer would be at an end. The risk indeed was great, but he had promised Henry Blaine every aid in his power to help the girl he loved.
After a minute examination, the operative proceeded to work upon the massive safe door. With the cunning of a Jimmy Valentine he manipulated the tumblers. Ramon Hamilton, his discomfiture forgotten, watched with breathless interest while the keen, sensitive fingers performed their task. Soon the great doors swung noiselessly back and the manifold compartments within were revealed.
The young lawyer pointed out the drawer from which he had seen President Mallowe remove the letter that morning, and it, too, yielded quickly to the master-touch of the expert. There, on the very top of a pile of papers, lay the written page they sought.
"He'll be all right. We haven't done for him, have we?" Ramon Hamilton whispered anxiously, pointing to the watchman's unconscious form, as, their mission accomplished, they stole from the room.
"Surest thing you know. He'll come to in half an hour, none the worse," the operative responded. "We made a good clean job of it."
Henry Blaine could hardly suppress his elation when they laid the letter before him on their return to his office.
"It's a forgery, just as I suspected," he exclaimed, with supreme satisfaction. "Look, Hamilton; I'll show you how it was done."
"It is incredible. I can scarcely believe it. I know Pennington Lawton's handwriting as well as I know my own, and I could swear that his fingers guided the pen. His writing was as distinctive as his character."
"It's that very fact," the detective returned, "which would have made it easier to copy; but, as it happens, you are partially right. This was not a forgery in the ordinary sense. Those are Pennington Lawton's own words before you, in his own handwriting."
"Then how—" the young lawyer inquired, in a bewildered tone.
Henry Blaine smiled.
"You do not intend to specialize in criminal law, do you, Mr. Hamilton?" he remarked whimsically. "If you do, you will have to be up in the latest tricks of the trade. The man who forged this letter—the same man, by the way, forged the signature on that mortgage—accomplished it like this: He took a bundle of Mr. Lawton's old letters, cut out the actual words he desired, and pasted 'em in their proper order on the letter paper. Then he photographed this composite, and electrotyped it—that is, transferred it to a copperplate, and etched it. Then he re-photographed it, and in this way got an actual photograph of a supposedly authentic communication. There is only one man in this country who is capable of such perfect work. I know who that man is and where to find him."
"Then if you can locate him before he skips, and make him talk, you will have won the victory," Ramon exclaimed, jubilantly.
But the detective shook his head.
"The time is not yet ripe for that. The man is, in my estimation, a mere tool in the hands of the men higher up. He may not be able to give us any actual proof against them, and our exposure of him will only tip them off—put 'em on their guard. We needn't show our hand just yet."
"What's the next move to be, then?" the young lawyer asked. "I don't mean, of course, that I wish to inquire into your methods of handling the case—but have you any further commissions for me?"
"Only to accompany me to-morrow morning to the office of Charlton Moore and let me examine that note which Mr. Lawton presumably gave two years ago. Afterward, I have four little amateur detectives of mine to interview—then I think we'll be able to proceed straight to our goal."
The note also, as Henry Blaine had predicted, proved to be a forgery and to have been executed by the same hand as the letter.
The detective betrayed to the unsuspecting banker no sign of his elation at the discovery, but following their interview he returned to his office and sent for the four young girls whom he had taken from the Anita Lawton Club and installed in the offices of the men he suspected.
The first to respond was Margaret Hefferman, who had been sent as stenographer to Rockamore, the promoter.
"You followed my instructions, Miss Hefferman," asked Blaine. "You kept a list for me of Mr. Rockamore's visitors?"
"Yes, sir. I have it here in my bag. I also brought carbon copies of two letters which Mr. Rockamore dictated and which I thought might have some bearing on the matter in which you are interested—although I could not quite understand them myself."
"Let me see them, please."
Blaine took the documents and list of names, scanning them quickly and sharply with a practised eye. The names were those of the biggest men in the city—bankers, brokers, financiers and promoters. Among them, that of President Mallowe and Timothy Carlis appeared frequently. At only one did Henry Blaine pause—at that of Mark Paddington. He had known the man as an employee of a somewhat shady private detective agency several years before and had heard that he had later been connected in some capacity with the city police, but had never come into actual contact with him.
What business could a detective of his caliber have to do with Bertrand Rockamore?
The letters were short and cryptic in their meaning, and significant only when connected with those to whom they were addressed. The first was to Timothy Carlis; it read:
Your communication received. We must proceed with the utmost care in this matter. Keep me advised of any further contingencies which may arise. P. should know or be able to find out. The affair is to his interests as much as ours.
The second was addressed to Paddington:
Have learned from C. that your assistants are under espionage. What does it mean? Learn all particulars at once and advise.
"You have done well, Miss Hefferman," said Blaine as he looked up from the last of the letters. "I will keep these carbon copies and the list. Let me know how often Mr. Mallowe and Timothy Carlis call, and try particularly to overhear as much as possible of the man Paddington's conversation when he appears."
When the young stenographer had departed, Fifine Dechaussee appeared. She was the governess who had been sent to the home of Doctor Franklin, ostensibly to care for his children, but in reality to find, if possible, what connection existed between Carlis, Mallowe, Rockamore and himself. The young Frenchwoman's report was disappointingly lacking in any definite result—save one fact. The man Paddington had called twice upon the minister, remaining the second time closeted with him in his study for more than an hour. Later, he had intercepted her when she was out with the children in the park; but she had eluded his attentions.
"I wish you hadn't done so. If he makes any further attempt to talk with you, Mademoiselle Dechaussee, encourage him, draw him out. If he tries to question you about yourself and where you came from, don't mention the Anita Lawton Club, but remember his questions carefully and come and tell me."
"Certainly, m'sieur, I shall remember."
Agnes Olson and Laurette Murfree, the switchboard operator to Carlis and filing clerk to Mallowe, respectively, added practically the same information as had the two preceding girls. Mark Paddington, the detective, had been in frequent communication with each of their employers. When the young women had concluded their reports and gone, Blaine telephoned at once to Guy Morrow, his right-hand operative, and instructed him to watch for Paddington's appearance in the neighborhood of the little house in the Bronx, where they had located Brunell, the one-time forger.
GUY MORROW FACES A PROBLEM
Morrow, meanwhile, had slowly become aware that he had a problem of his own to face, the biggest of his life. Should he go on with his work? In the event that James Brunell proved, indeed, to be guilty of the forgeries of which he was suspected by the Master Mind, it would mean that he, Morrow, would have betrayed the father of the girl he felt himself beginning to care for. Dared he face such a tremendous issue?
His acquaintance with Emily Brunell had progressed rapidly in the few days since his subterfuge had permitted him to speak to her. He had met her father and found himself liking the tall, silent man who went about the simple affairs of his life with such compelling dignity and courteous aloofness. Brunell had even invited him to his little shop and shown him with unsuspecting enthusiasm his process for making the maps which were sold to the public schools.
Morrow had seen no evidence of anything wrong, either in the little shop or the home life of the father and daughter; nor had he observed Paddington—who was well known to him—in the neighborhood.
Even in these few mornings it had become a habit with him to watch for Emily and walk with her to her subway station, and as frequently as he dared, he would await her arrival in the evening. After his last telephone conversation with Blaine, he called upon the two in the little house across the way, determined to find out, if possible, if the man Paddington had come into their lives. He felt instinctively that James Brunell would prove a difficult subject to cross-examine. The man seemed to be complete master of himself, and were he guilty, could never be led into an admission, unless some influence more powerful than force could be brought to bear upon him.
But the girl, with her clear eyes and unsuspecting, inexperienced mind, could easily be led to disclose whatever knowledge she possessed, particularly if her interest or affections were aroused. It seemed cowardly, in view of his newly awakened feelings toward her, but he had committed far more unscrupulous acts without a qualm, in the course of his professional work.
Brunell was out when he called, but Emily led him into the little sitting-room, and for a time they talked in a desultory fashion. Morrow, who had brought so many malefactors to justice by the winning snare of his personality, felt for once at a loss as to how to commence his questioning.
But the girl herself, guilelessly, gave him a lead by beginning, quite of her own accord, to talk of her early life.
"It seems so strange," she remarked, confidingly, "to have been so completely alone all of my life—except for Daddy, of course."
"You have no brothers or sisters, Miss Brunell?" asked the detective.
"None—and I never knew my mother. She died when I was born."
Morrow sighed, and involuntarily his hand reached forward in an expression of complete sympathy.
"Daddy has been mother and father to me," the girl went on impulsively. "We have always lived in this neighborhood, ever since I can remember, and of course we know everyone around here. But with my downtown position and Father's work in the shop, we've had no time to make real friends and we haven't even cared to—before."
"Before when?" he asked with a kindly intonation not at all in keeping with the purpose which had actuated him in seeking her friendship.
"Before you brought my kitten back to me." She paused, suddenly confused and shy, then added hurriedly, "We have so few guests, you know. Daddy, somehow, doesn't care for people—as a rule, that is. I'm awfully glad that he has made an exception with you."
"But surely you have other friends—for instance, that young fellow I've noticed now and again when he called upon you."
Morrow's thoughts had suddenly turned to that unknown visitor toward whom he had taken such an unaccountable dislike.
"Young fellow—what young fellow?" Emily Brunell's voice had changed, slightly, and a reserved little note intruded itself which reminded Morrow all at once of her father.
"I don't know who he is—I'm such a newcomer in the neighborhood, you know; but I happened to see him from my window across the way—a short, dapper-looking young chap with a small, dark mustache."
"Oh! that man." Her lip curled disdainfully. "That's Charley Pennold. He's no friend of mine. He just comes to see Father now and again on business. I don't bother to talk to him. I don't think Daddy likes him very much, either."
She caught her breath in sharply as she spoke, and looked away from Morrow in sudden reserve. He felt a quick start of suspicion, and searched her averted face with a keen, penetrating glance.
If this Charley Pennold, whoever he might be, wished to see James Brunell on legitimate business, why did he not go to his shop openly and above-board in the day-time? Could he be an emissary from some one whom the old forger had reason to evade? If he were, did Emily know for what purpose he came, and was she annoyed at her own error in involuntarily disclosing his name?
"He is a map-maker, too?" leaped from Morrow's lips.
"He is interested in maps—he gives Daddy large orders for them, I believe."
Emily spoke too hurriedly, and her tones lacked the ring of sincerity which was habitual with them.
The trained ear of the detective instantly sensed the difference, and his heart sank.
So she had lied to him deliberately, and her womanly instinct told her that he knew it.
She began to talk confusedly of trivialities; and Morrow, seeing that it would be hopeless to attempt to draw her back to her unguarded mood, left her soon after—heartsick and dejected.
Should he continue with his investigations, or go to Henry Blaine and confess that he had failed him? Was this girl, charming and innocent as she appeared, worth the price of his career—this girl with the blood of criminals in her veins, who would stoop to lies and deceit to protect them? Yet had not he been seeking deliberately to betray her and those she loved, under the guise of friendship? Was he any better than she or her father?
Then, too, another thought came to him. Might she not be the tool, consciously or unconsciously, of a nefarious plot?
He felt that he could not rest until he had brought his investigations to a conclusion which would be satisfactory to himself, even if he decided in the end, for her sake, never to divulge to Henry Blaine the discoveries he might make.
A few days later, however, Morrow received instructions from Blaine himself, which forced his hand. The time had come for him to use the skeleton-key which he had had made. He must proceed that night to investigate the little shop of the map-maker and look there for the evidence which would incriminate him—the photographic and electrotyping apparatus.
Early in the evening he heard Emily's soft voice as she called across the street in pleasant greeting to Miss Quinlan, but he could not bring himself to go out upon the little porch and speak to her, although he did not doubt his welcome.
He waited until all was dark and still before he started upon his distasteful errand. It was very cold, and the streets were deserted. A fine dry snow was falling, which obliterated his footprints almost as soon as he made them, and he reached the now familiar door of the little shop without meeting a soul abroad save a lonely policeman dozing in a doorway. He let himself into the shop with his key and flashed his pocket lamp about. All appeared the same as in the day-time. The maps were rolled in neat cases or fastened upon the wall. The table, the press, the binder were each in their proper place.
Morrow went carefully over every inch of the room and the curtained recess back of it, but could find no evidence such as he sought. At length, however, just before the little desk in the corner where James Brunell kept his modest accounts, the detective's foot touched a metal ring in the floor. Stepping back from it, he seized the ring and pulled it. A small square section of the flooring yielded, and the raising of the narrow trap-door disclosed a worn, sanded stone stairway leading down into the cellar beneath.
Blaine's operative listened carefully but no sound came from the depths below him; so after a time, with his light carefully shielded, he essayed a gingerly descent. On the bottom step he paused. There was small need for him to go further. He had found what he sought. Emily Brunell's father was a forger indeed!
Guy Morrow, after a sleepless night, presented himself at Henry Blaine's office the next morning. The great detective, observing his young subordinate with shrewd, kindly eyes, noted in one swift glance his changed demeanor: his pallor, and the new lines graven about the firm mouth, which added strength and maturity to his face. If he guessed the reason for the metamorphosis, Blaine gave no sign, but listened without comment until Morrow had completed his report.
"You obeyed my instructions?" he asked at length. "When you discovered the forgery outfit in the cellar of Brunell's shop, you left everything just as it had been—left no possible trace of your presence?"
"Yes, sir. There's not a sign left to show any one had disturbed the place. I am sure of that."
"Not a foot-print in the earth of the cellar steps?"
"And the outfit—was there any evidence it had been used lately?"
"No—everything was dust-covered, and even rusty, as if it had not even been touched in months, perhaps years. The whole thing might be merely a relic of Jimmy Brunell's past performances, in the life he gave up long ago."
Morrow spoke almost eagerly, as if momentarily off his guard, but Blaine shook his head.
"Rather too dangerous a relic to keep in one's possession, Guy, simply as a souvenir—a reminder of things the man is trying to forget, to live down. You can depend on it: the outfit was there for some more practical purpose. You say Paddington has not appeared in the neighborhood, but another man has—a man Brunell's daughter seems to dislike and fear?"
"Yes, sir. There's one significant fact about him, too—his name. He's Charley Pennold. It didn't occur to me for some time after Miss Brunell let that slip, that the name is the same as that of the precious pair of old crooks over in Brooklyn, the ones Suraci and I traced Brunell by."
"Charley Pennold!" Blaine repeated thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought of him. He's old Walter Pennold's nephew. The boy was running straight the last I heard of him, but you never can tell. Guy, I'm going to take you off the Brunell trail for a while, and put you on this man Paddington. I'll have Suraci look up Charley Pennold and get a line on him. In the meantime, leave your key to the map-making shop with me. I may want to have a look at that forgery outfit myself."
"You're going to take me off the Brunell trail!" Morrow's astonishment and obvious distaste for the change of program confronting him was all-revealing. "But I'll have to go back and make some sort of explanation for leaving so abruptly, won't I? Will it pay to arouse their suspicions—that is, sir, unless you've got some special reason for doing so?"
Blaine's slow smile was very kindly and sympathetic as he eyed the anxious young man before him.
"No. You will go back, of course, and explain that you have obtained a clerkship which necessitates your moving downtown. Make your peace with Miss Brunell if you like, but remember, Guy, don't mix sentiment and business. It won't do. I may have to put you back on the job there in a few days, and I know I can depend on you not to lose your head. She's a young girl and a pretty one; but don't forget she's the daughter of Jimmy Brunell, the man we're trying to get! Pennington Lawton had a daughter, too; remember that—and she's been defrauded of everything in the world but her lover and her faith in her father's memory." His voice had gradually grown deeper and more stern, and he added in brisk, businesslike tones, far removed from the personal element. "Now get back to the Bronx. Come to me to-morrow morning, and I'll have the data in the Paddington matter ready for you."
The young detective had scarcely taken his departure, when Ramon Hamilton appeared. He was in some excitement, and glanced nervously behind him as he entered, as if almost in fear of possible pursuit.
"Mr. Blaine," he began, "I'm confident that we're suspected. Here's a note that came to me from President Mallowe this morning. He asks if I inadvertently carried away with me that letter of Pennington Lawton's written from Long Bay two years ago, in which I had shown such an interest during our interview the other day. He has been unable to find it since my departure. That's a rather broad hint, it seems to me."
"I should not consider it as such," the detective responded. "Guilty conscience, Mr. Hamilton!"
"That's not all!" the young lawyer went on. "He says that a curious burglary was committed at his offices the night after my interview with him—his watchman was chloroformed, and the safe in his private office opened and rifled, yet nothing was taken, with the possible exception of that letter. Mallowe asks me, openly, if I knew of an ulterior motive which any one might have possessed in acquiring it, and even remarks that he is thinking of putting you, Mr. Blaine, on the mysterious attempt at robbery. That would be a joke, wouldn't it, if it wasn't really, in my estimation at least, a covert threat. Why should he, Mallowe, take me into his confidence about an affair which took place in his private office? He did not make the excuse of pretending to retain me as his attorney. I think he was merely warning me that he was suspicious of me."
"Probably a mere coincidence," Blaine observed easily.
"I wonder if you'll think so when I tell you that twice since yesterday my life has been attempted." Ramon spoke quietly enough, but there was a slight trembling in his tones.
"What!" Blaine started forward in his chair, then sank back with an incredulous smile, which none but he could have known was forced. "Surely you imagine it, Mr. Hamilton. Since your automobile accident, when you were run down and so nearly killed on the evening you sent for me to undertake Miss Lawton's case, you may well be nervous."
As he spoke he glanced at the other's broken arm, which was still swathed in bandages.
"But these were no accidents, Mr. Blaine, and I have always doubted that the first one was, as you know. Yesterday afternoon, a new client's case called me down to the sixth ward, at four o'clock. In order to reach my client's address it was necessary to pass through the street in which that shooting affray occurred which filled the papers last evening. Two men darted out of a house, shot presumably at each other, then turned and ran in opposite directions without waiting to see if either of the shots took effect. You know that isn't usual with the members of rival gangs down there. Remember, too, Mr. Blaine, that it was prearranged for me to walk alone through that street at just that psychological moment. It seemed to me that neither man shot at the other, but both fired point-blank at me. I dismissed the idea from my mind as absurd, the next minute, and would have thought no more about it, beyond congratulating myself on my fortunate escape, had not the second attempt been made."
"The sixth ward—" Blaine remarked, meditatively. "That's Timothy Carlis' stamping ground, of course. But go on, Mr. Hamilton. What was the second incident?"
"Late last night, I had a telephone message from my club that my best friend, Gordon Brooke, had been taken suddenly ill with a serious attack of heart-trouble, and wanted me. Brooke has heart-disease and he might go off with it at any time, so I posted over immediately. The club is only a few blocks away from my home, so I didn't wait to call my machine or a taxi, but started over. Just a little way from the club, three men sprang upon me and attempted to hold me up. I fought them off, and when they came at me again, three to one, the idea flashed upon me that this was a fresh attempt to assassinate me.
"I shouted for help, and then ran. When I reached the club I found Brooke there, sitting in a poker game and quite as well as usual. No telephone message had been sent to me from him. I tried this morning, before I came to you, to have the number traced, but without success. Do you blame me now, Mr. Blaine, for believing, after these three manifestations, that my life is in actual danger?"
"I do not." The detective touched an electric button on his desk. "I think it will be advisable for you to have a guard, for the next few days, at least."
"A guard!" Ramon repeated, indignantly. "I'm not a coward. Any man would be disturbed, to put it mildly, over the conviction that his life was threatened every hour, but it was of her I was thinking—of Anita! I could not bear to think of leaving her alone to face the world, penniless and hedged in on all sides by enemies. But I want no guard! I can take care of myself as well as the next man. Look at the perils and dangers you have faced in your unceasing warfare against malefactors of every grade. It is common knowledge that you have invariably refused to be guarded."
"The years during which I have been constantly face to face with sudden death have made me disregard the possibility of it. But I shall not insist in your case, Mr. Hamilton, if you do not wish it; and allow me to tell you that I admire your spirit. However, I should like to have you leave town for a few days, if your clients can spare you."
"Leave town? Run away?" Ramon started indignantly from his chair, but Blaine waved him back with a fatherly hand.
"Not at all. On a commission for me, in Miss Lawton's interests. Mr. Hamilton, you have known the Lawtons for several years, have you not?"
"Ever since I can remember," the young lawyer said with renewed eagerness.
"Two years ago, in August, Pennington Lawton and his daughter were at 'The Breakers,' at Long Bay, were they not?"
"Yes. Anita and I were engaged then, and I ran out myself for the week-end."
"I want you to run out there for me now. The hotel will be closed at this time of year, of course, but a letter which I will give you to the proprietor, who lives close at hand, will enable you to look over the register for an hour or two in private. Turn to the arrivals for August of that year, and trace the names and home addresses on each page; then bring it back to me."
"Is it something in connection with that forged letter to Mallowe?" asked Ramon quickly.
"Perhaps," the detective admitted. He shrugged, then added leniently, "I think, before proceeding any further with that branch of the investigation, it would be well to know who obtained the notepaper with the hotel letterhead, and if the paper itself was genuine. Bring me back some of the hotel stationery, also, that I may compare it with that used for the letter."
A discreet knock upon the door heralded the coming of an operative, in response to Blaine's touch upon the bell.
"There has been a slight disturbance in the outer office, sir," he announced. "A man, who appears to be demented, insists upon seeing you. He isn't one of the ordinary cranks, or we would have dealt with him ourselves. He says that if you will read this, you will be glad to assent to an interview with him."
He presented a card, which Blaine read with every manifestation of surprised interest.
"Tell him I will see him in five minutes," he said. When the operative had withdrawn, the detective turned to Ramon.
"Who do you think is waiting outside? The man who threatened Pennington Lawton's life ten years ago, the man whose name was mentioned by the unknown visitor to the library on the night Lawton met his death: Herbert Armstrong!"