Morrow proceeded at once to Blaine's office and found his chief awaiting him.
"Here's the letter, sir," he announced, as he placed the single sheet of paper on the desk before the detective. "I can't make anything out of it, but you probably will. It's curious, isn't it! Why, for instance, are those little dots placed near some of the crazy figures, and not others?"
Blaine picked the letter up, and examined it with eager interest.
"It's comparatively simple," he remarked, as he spread it flat upon the desk, and taking up pen and paper, copied it rapidly. "Symbolic cryptograms are usually decipherable, with the expenditure of a little time and effort. There is a method which is universally followed, and has been for ages. For instance, the letter e is recognized as being the most frequently used, in ordinary English, of the whole alphabet; after that the vowels and consonants in an accepted rotation which I will not take up our valuable time in discussing with you now, since we will not even need to use it, in this case.—Here, take this copy, and see if you can follow me."
He passed the sheet of paper across to his operative and Morrow gazed again upon the curiously shaped characters which from close scrutiny had become familiar, yet still remained maddeningly baffling to him:
"Now," resumed Blaine, "presupposing that in an ostensibly friendly message beginning with a word of four letters, that word is dear, and we've two important vowels to start with. We know the letter was addressed to Brunell, from an old partner in crime. We will assume, therefore, that the two words of three letters each, following dear are either old Jim, old man, or old boy. Let us see how it works out."
The detective scribbled hastily on a pad for several minutes, then leaned back in his chair, with a sigh of satisfaction.
"It can only be boy," he announced. "That gives us a working start of eight letters. Add to that the fact that this character is printed twice consecutively in three different places"—he pointed to the figure [. as he spoke—"which confirms the supposition that it is l, and you have this result immediately."
Blaine handed the pad across to Morrow, who read eagerly:
Dear Old Boy.
B— -o-ey -o—— -o yo- -ro- old —ore le— —-a-d —a- —-y —are -or -olle——- -or yo—o r—- —ll -all o- yo- —-r-day a- -o-r -e-.
The operative started to speak, but checked himself, and listened while Henry Blaine went on slowly but steadily.
"Each letter gained helps us to others, you see, Guy. For instance -o-ey must be money; the character following yo three times in different places must be u; the word —-r-day can only be Thursday; -all is call; a- is at; and -o-r is four. That gives us eight more letters, and makes the message read like this." Blaine wrote it down and handed the result to Morrow, who read:
Dear Old Boy.
B— money com-n- to you from old score left un-a-d -hat -s my share for collect-n- for you? No ris- —ll call on you Thursday at four. -en.
"It looks easy, now," admitted Morrow. "But I never should have thought of going about it that way. I suppose the sixth word is coming. That gives us i and g."
"Right you are," Blaine chuckled. "Knowing, too, that the message came from Walter Pennold, we can safely assume that -en is Pen. Use your common sense alone, now, and you will find that the message reads: 'Dear old boy. Big money coming to you from old score left unpaid. What is my share for collecting for you? No risk. Will call on you Thursday at four. Pen.'
"The word risk was misspelled risl. Evidently Pennold was a little bit rusty in the use of the old code. Our bait landed the fish all right, Guy. The money we planted in the bank of Brooklyn and Queens certainly brought results. No wonder poor old Jimmy Brunell was all broken up when he received such a message. More crafty than Pennold, he realized that it was a trap, and we were on his trail at last. We've got him cinched now, but he's only a tool, possibly a helpless one, in the hands of the master workmen. We'll go after them, tooth and nail, for the happiness and stainless name of two innocent young girls, who trust in us, and we'll get them, Guy, we'll get them if there is any justice and honor and truth left in the world!"
THE EMPTY HOUSE
"Don't spare them now. Get the truth at all costs."
With the last instructions of his chief ringing in his ears, the following morning Guy Morrow set out for Brooklyn, to interview his erstwhile friends, the Pennolds, in his true colors.
Mame Pennold, who was cleaning the dingy front room, heard the click of the gate, and peered with habitual caution from behind the frayed curtains of the window. The unexpected reappearance of their young banking acquaintance sent her scurrying as fast as her palsied legs could carry her back to the kitchen, where her husband sat luxuriously smoking and toasting his feet at the roaring little stove.
"Wally, who d'you think's comin' up the walk? That young feller, Alfred Hicks, who skipped from the Brooklyn and Queens Bank!"
"Good Lord!" Walter Pennold took his pipe from his lips and stared at her. "What d'you s'pose brought him back? Think he's broke, an' wants a touch?"
"No-o," his wife responded, somewhat doubtfully. "He looked prosperous, all right, by the flash I got at him, an' he's walkin' real brisk and businesslike. Maybe he's back on the job."
"'Tain't likely, not after the way he left his boarding place, if that Lindsay woman didn't lie." Pennold laid aside his pipe and frowned thoughtfully, as steps echoed from the rickety porch and a knock sounded upon the door. "He's a lightweight, every way you take him—he'd never stick anywhere."
"Maybe he's come to try an' get you into somethin'," Mame suggested. "Don't you go takin' up with a bad penny at your time o' life, Wally. He might know somethin' an' try blackmail, if he's real up against it."
"Well, go ahead an' open the door!" ordered Walter impatiently. "We're straight with the bank. If he's workin' there again we ain't got nothin' to worry about, an' if he ain't, we got nothin' against him. Let him in."
With obvious reluctance, Mame shuffled through the hall and obeyed.
"Hello, Mrs. Pennold!" Guy greeted her heartily, but without offering his hand. He brushed past her half-defensive figure with scant ceremony, and entered the kitchen. "Hello, Pennold. Thought I might find you home this cold morning. How goes it?"
"Same as usual." Pennold rose slowly and looked at his visitor with swiftly narrowed eyes. There was a new note in the young man's voice which the other vaguely recognized; it was as if a lantern had suddenly flashed into his face from the darkness, or an authoritative hand been laid upon his shoulder. He motioned mechanically toward a chair on the other side of the stove, and added slowly: "S'prised to see you, Al. Didn't expect you'd be around here again after your get-away. Workin' once more?"
"Oh, I'm right on the job!" responded Guy briskly. He drew the chair close to the square deal table, so close that he could have reached out, had he pleased, and touched his host's sleeve. Pennold seated himself again in his old position, significantly half-turned, so that when he glanced slyly at his visitor it was over his shoulder, in the furtive fashion of one on guard.
"Ain't back with the Brooklyn and Queens, are you?" he asked.
"No. It got too slow for me there. I found something bigger to do."
Mame Pennold, who had been hovering in the background, came forward now and faced him across the table, her shrewd eyes fastened upon him.
"Must have easy hours, when you can get off in the morning like this?" she observed. "Didn't forget your old friends, did you?"
"No, of course not. I hadn't anything more important to do this morning, so I thought I'd drop in and see you both."
His hand traveled to his breast pocket, and at the gesture, Mame's gaunt body stiffened suddenly.
"Didn't come to inquire about our health, did you?" she shot at him, acrimoniously.
"I came to see you about another matter—"
"Not on the trail of old Jimmy Brunell still, on that business of the bonds found at the bank?" Walter's voice was suddenly shrill with simulated mirth. "Nothin' in that for you, Al; not a nickel, if that's what you're here for."
"I'm not on Brunell's trail. I've found him," Morrow returned quietly; and in the tense pause which ensued he added dryly: "You led me to him."
"So that's what it was, a plant!" Walter started from his chair, but Mame laid a trembling, sinewy hand upon his shoulder and forced him back.
"What d'you mean, young man?" she demanded. "What do we know about old Brunell?"
"You wrote him a letter—you knew where to find him."
"I only wish we did!" she ejaculated. "We didn't write him! You must be crazy!"
"'Big money coming to you from old score left unpaid. What is my share for collecting for you?'" quoted Morrow, adding: "I have a friend who is very much interested in ciphers, and he wanted me to ask you about the one you use, Pennold. His name is Blaine. Ever hear of him?"
"Blaine!" Mame's voice shrank to a mere whisper, and her sallow face whitened.
"Blaine! Henry Blaine? The guy they call the Master Mind?" Pennold's shaking voice rose to a breaking cry, but again his wife silenced him.
"Suppose we did write such a letter—an' we ain't admittin' we did, for a minute—what's Blaine got on us?" demanded Mame, coolly. "It's no crime, as I ever heard, to write a letter any way you want to. Who are you, young man? You're no bank clerk!"
"He's a 'tec, of course! Shut up your fool mouth, Mame. An' as for you, d—n you, get out of this house, an' get out quick, or I'll call the police myself! We've been leadin' straight, clean, respectable lives for years, Mame an' me, an' nobody's got nothin' on us! I ain't goin' to have no private 'tecs snoopin' in an' tryin' to put me through the third degree. Beat it, now!"
He rose blusteringly and advanced toward Morrow with upraised fist, but the other, with the table between them, drew from his pocket a folded paper.
"Not so fast, Pennold. I have a warrant here for your arrest!"
"Don't you believe him, Wally!" shrilled Mame. "It's a fake! Don't you talk to him! Put him out."
"The warrant was issued this morning, and I am empowered to arrest you. You can look at it for yourselves; you've both seen them before." He opened the paper and spread it out for them to read. "Walter Pennold, alias William Perry, alias Wally the Scribbler, number 09203 in the Rogues' Gallery. First term at Joliet, for forgery; second at Sing Sing for shoving the queer. This warrant only holds you as a suspicious character, Pennold, but we can dig up plenty of other things, if it's necessary; there's a forger named Griswold in the Tombs now awaiting trial, who will snitch about that Rochester check, for one thing."
"Don't let him bluff you, Wally." Mame faced Morrow from her husband's side. "They can't rake up a thing that ain't outlawed by time. You've lived clean more'n seven years, an' you're free from the bulls. They can't hold you."
"I haven't any warrant yet for you, Mrs. Pennold," observed Morrow, imperturbably. "I admit that it's more than seven years since every department-store detective was on the look-out for Left-handed Mame. I believe you specialized in furs and laces, didn't you?"
"What's it to you? You can't lay a finger on me now!" the woman stormed, defiantly.
"Not for shop-lifting or forgery—but how about receiving stolen goods?"
The shot found an instant target. Walter Pennold slumped and crumpled down into his chair, his arms outspread upon the table. He laid his head upon them, and a single dry, shuddering sob tore its way from his throat. The woman backed slowly away, and for the first time a shadow as of approaching terror crossed her hard, challenging face.
"Stolen goods!" she repeated. "What are you tryin' to put over? Do you think we're so green at the game that you can plant the goods here an' get us put away on the strength of a past record? You're a—"
"Nothing like it!" Morrow leaned forward impressively. "We don't have to do any planting, Mame. It's a good deal less than seven years since the Mortimer Chase's silver plate lay in your cellar."
"Silver plate—in our cellar!" echoed Mame in genuine amazement.
She stepped forward again, her shrewish chin out-thrust, but Walter Pennold raised his face, and at sight of it she stopped as if turned to stone.
"It's no use!" he cried, brokenly. "They've got me, Mame!"
"Got you? They'll never get you!" her startled scream rang out. "Wally, d'you know what the next term means? It's a lifer, on any count! I don't know what he means about any silver plate, but it's a bluff! Don't let him get your nerve!"
"Is it a bluff, Pennold?" asked Morrow, with dominant insistence.
The broken figure huddled in the chair shuddered uncontrollably.
"No, it ain't," he muttered. "I—I held out on you, Mame! I knew you wouldn't risk it, so I didn't say nothin' to you about it, but the money was too easy to let get by. The old gang offered me five hundred bucks just to keep it ten days, and pass it on to Jennings. He came here with a rag-picker's cart, you remember? You wondered what I was givin' him, an' I told you it was some rolls of old carpet I got from that place I was night watchman at, in Vandewater Street. I hid the stuff under the coal—"
"Shut up!" cried Mame, fiercely. "You don't know what you're sayin'. Wally, hold your tongue for God's sake! Where's your spirit? Are you goin' to break down now like a reformatory brat, you that had 'em all guessin' for twenty years!"
The gaunt woman had recovered from the sudden shock of her husband's unexpected revelation and now towered protectingly over his collapsed form, her palsied hands for once steady and firm upon his shoulders, while her keen eyes glittered shrewdly at the young operative confronting them.
"Look here!" she said, shortly. "If you wanted us for receiving stolen goods, you wouldn't come around here with a warrant for Wally's arrest as a suspicious character, an' you wouldn't have worked that Brunell plant. What's your lay?"
"Information," responded Morrow, frankly. "The police don't know where the plate was, for those ten days, and there's no immediate need that they should. Blaine cleaned up that case eventually, you know—recovered the plate and caught the butler in Southampton, under the noses of the Scotland Yard men. I want to know what you can tell me about Brunell—and about your nephew, Charley Pennold."
Walter opened his lips, but closed them without speech, and his wife replied for him.
"We're no snitchers," she said coldly. "There's nothin' we can tell. Jimmy Brunell's run straight for near twenty years, so far as we know."
"And Charley?" persisted Morrow.
"It's no use, Mame," Walter Pennold repeated, dully. "If I go up again, it means the end for me. Charley's got to take his chance, same as the rest of us. God knows I tried to do the right thing by the boy, same as Jimmy did by his daughter, but Charley's got the blood in him. It's hell to peach on your own, but it's worse to hear that iron door clank behind you, and to know it's for the last time! After all, there ain't nothin' in what we can tell about Charley that a lot of other people wouldn't spill, an' nothin' that could land him behind the bars. I ain't the man I was, or I'd take my medicine without squealin', but I can't face it again, Mame, I can't! I'm an old man now, old before my time, perhaps, but it's been so long since I smelled the prison taint, so long since I had a number instead of a name, that I'd die now, quick, before I'd rot in a cell!"
The terrible, droning monotone ceased, and for a moment there was silence in the squalid little room. The woman's face was as impassive as Morrow's, as she waited. Only the tightening of her hands upon her husband's shoulders, until her bony knuckles showed white through the drawn skin, betrayed the storm of emotion which swept over her, at the memories evoked by the broken words.
"I'm not asking you to snitch, Pennold," Morrow said, not unkindly. "We know all we want to about Brunell's life at present—his home in the Bronx, and his little map-making shop—and we're not trying to rake up anything from the past to hold over him now; it is only some general information I want. As to your nephew, you've got to tell me all you know about him, or it's all up with you. Blaine won't give you away, if you'll answer my questions frankly and make a clean breast of it, and this is your only chance."
Pennold licked his dry lips.
"What do you want to know?" he asked, at last.
"When did Jimmy Brunell turn his last trick?"
"Years ago; I've forgotten how many. It's no harm speakin' of it now, for he did his seven years up the river for it—his first and only conviction. That was the time old Cowperthwaite's name was forged to five checks amounting to thirty thousand, all told, and Jimmy was caught on the last."
"Where was his plant?"
"In a basement on Dye Street. The bulls never found it. He was running a little printer's shop in front, as a blind—oh, he was clever, old Jimmy, the sharpest in his line!"
"What became of his outfit, when he was sent up?"
"Dunno. It just disappeared. Some of his old pals cribbed it, I guess, or Jimmy may have fixed it with them to remove it. He was always close-mouthed, and he never would tell me. I knew where his plant was, of course, and I went there myself, after he was sent up and the coast was clear, to get the outfit, to—to take care of it for him until he came out. Oh, I ain't afraid to tell now; it's so long ago! I could take you to the place to-day, but the outfit's gone."
"And when he had served his term, what happened?"
"He came out to find that his wife was dead, and Emily, the little girl that was born just after he went up, was none too well treated by the people her mother'd had to leave her with. He'd learned in the pen' to make maps, an' he opened a little shop an' made up his mind to live straight, an'—an' so far as I know, he has." Pennold faltered, as if from weakness, and for a moment his voice ceased. Then he went on: "I ain't seen him for a long time, but we kept track of each other, an' when you come with that cock-an'-bull story about the bonds, and the bank backed you up in it, why I—I went to see him."
"You wrote him first. Why did you send a cipher letter?"
"Because I suspicioned the whole thing was a plant, just like it turned out to be, an' I didn't want to get an old pal into no trouble. The cipher's an old one we used years ago, in the gang, an' I know he wouldn't forget it. I never thought he'd squeal on me to Blaine!"
"He didn't. The letter—er—came into Blaine's possession, and he read it for himself."
"He did?" Pennold looked up quickly, with a flash of interest on his sullen face. "He's a wonder, that Blaine! If he'd only got started the other way, the way we did, what a crook he would have made! As it is, I guess we ain't afraid of all the organized police on earth combined, as much as we are of him. It's a queer thing he ain't been shot up or blown into eternity long ago, an' yet they say he's never guarded. He must be a cool one! Anyhow, I'm glad Jimmy didn't squeal on me; I'd hate to think it of him. When I went to see him about the bonds, he wouldn't have nothin' to do with them. Swore they was a plant, he did, an' warned me off. He seemed real excited, considerin' he had nothin' to worry about, but I took his word for it, an' beat it. That's the last I seen of him."
"Did you send your nephew to him?"
"Me?" Pennold's tones quickened in surprise. "I ain't seen him in a long while, an' I don't believe he even remembers old Jimmy; he was only a kid when Jimmy went up the river. What would I send Charley for, when I'd gone myself an' it hadn't worked?"
It was evident to Morrow that the man he was interrogating was ignorant of Brunell's connection with the Lawton case, and he changed his tactics.
"Tell me about Charley. You say you tried to do right by him."
"Of course I did! Wasn't he my brother's boy?" Pennold hunched over the table, and continued eagerly: "Mame kept him clean an' fed, an' we sent him to public school, just like any other kid. But it wasn't no use. He had it in him to go wrong, without the wit to get away with it. He was caught pinchin' lead piping when he was sixteen, an' sent to Elmira for three years. Them three years was his finish. When he came out he'd had what you'd call a graduate course in every form of crookedness under the sun, from fellers harder an' cleverer than he'd ever thought of bein', an' he was bitter besides, an' desperate. There wasn't no chance for him then, an' he just drifted on down the line. I never heard of him turnin' a real trick himself, an' he never got caught at nothin' again, but he chummed in with the gang, an' he always seemed to have coin enough. I ain't seen him in more'n a year. The last I heard of him, he was workin' as a stool-pigeon an' snitcher for the worst scoundrel of the lot."
"Who was that?" asked Morrow.
Pennold hesitated and then replied with dogged reluctance.
"I dunno what that's got to do with it, but the feller's name is Paddington, an' he's the worst kind of a crook—a 'tec gone wrong. At least, that's what they say about him, but I ain't got nothin' on him; I don't believe I ever seen the man, that I know of. He's worked on a lot of shady cases; I know that much, an' he's clever. More'n a dozen crooks are floatin' around town that would be up the river if he told what he knew about 'em; so naturally, he owns 'em, body an' soul. Not that Charley's one that'd go up—he's only in it for the coin—but I'd rather see him get pinched an' do time for pullin' off somethin' on his own account, than runnin' around doin' dirty work for a man who ain't in his father's class, or mine. He's a disgrace; that's what Charley is—a plain disgrace."
Pennold's voice rang out in highly virtuous indignation. Morrow forbore to smile at the oblique moral viewpoint of the old crook.
"What does he look like?" he asked. "Short and slim, isn't he, with a small dark mustache?"
"That's him!" ejaculated Pennold disgustedly. "Dresses like a dude, an' chases after a bunch of skirts! Spreads himself like a ward politician when he gets a chance! He's my nephew, all right, but as long as he won't run straight, same as I'm doin' now, I'd rather he'd crack a crib than play errand boy for a man I wouldn't trust on look-out!"
"Where does Charley live?" asked Morrow.
"How should I know? He hangs out at Lafferty's saloon, down on Sand Street, when he ain't off on some steer or other—leastways he used to."
Morrow folded the warrant slowly, in the pause which ensued, and returned it to his pocket while the couple watched him tensely.
"All right, Pennold," he said, at last. "I guess I won't have to use this now. If you've been square, an' told me all you know, you won't be bothered about that matter of the Mortimer Chase silver plate. If you've kept anything back, Blaine will find it out, and then it's good-night to you."
"I ain't!" returned Pennold, with tremendous eagerness. "I've told you everything you asked, an' I don't savvy what you're gettin' at, anyway. If you're tryin' to mix Jimmy Brunell up in any new case you're dead wrong; he's out of the game for good. As for Charley, he wouldn't know enough to pick up a pocket-book if he saw one lyin' on the sidewalk, unless he was told to!"
"Well, I may as well warn both of you that you're watched, and if you try to make a get-away, you'll be taken up—and it won't be on suspicion, either. Play fair with Blaine, and he'll be square with you, but don't try to put anything over on him, or it'll be the worse for you. It can't be done."
Morrow closed the door behind him, leaving the couple as they had been almost throughout the interview—the woman erect and stony of face, the man miserable and shaken, crouched dejectedly over the table. But scarcely had he descended the steps of the ramshackle little porch when the voice of Mame Pennold reached him, pitched in a shrill key of emotional exultation.
"Oh, Wally, Wally! Thank God you ain't a snitcher! Thank God you didn't tell!"
The voice ceased suddenly, as if a hand had been laid across her lips, and after a moment's hesitation, Morrow swung off down the path, conscious of at least one pair of eyes watching him from behind the soiled curtains of the front room.
What had the woman meant? Pennold obviously had kept something back, but was it of sufficient importance to warrant his returning and forcing a confession? Whether it concerned Brunell or their nephew Charley mattered little, at the moment. He had achieved the object of his visit; he knew that Pennold himself had no connection with the Lawton forgeries, nor knowledge of them, and at the same time he had learned of Charley's affiliation with Paddington. The couple back there in the little house could tell him scarcely more which would aid him in his investigation, but the dapper, viciously weak young stool-pigeon, if he could be located at once, might be made to disclose enough to place Paddington definitely within the grasp of the law.
Guy Morrow boarded a Sand Street car, and behind the sporting page of a newspaper he kept a sharp look-out for Lafferty's saloon. He came to it at last—a dingy, down-at-heel resort, with much faded gilt-work over the door, and fly-specked posters of the latest social function of the district's political club showing dimly behind its unwashed windows.
He rode a block beyond—then, alighting, turned back and entered the bar. It was deserted at that hour of the morning, save for a disconsolate-looking individual who leaned upon one ragged elbow, gazing mournfully into his empty whisky glass at the end of the narrow, varnished counter. The bartender emerged from a door leading into the back room, with a tall, empty glass in his hand, and Morrow asked for a beer. As he stood sipping it, he watched the bartender replenish the empty unwashed glass he had carried with a generous drink of doubtful looking absinthe and a squirt from a syphon.
"Bum drink on a cold morning," he observed tentatively. "Have a whisky straight, on me?"
"I will that!" the bartender returned heartily. "This green-eyed fairy stuff ain't for me; it's for a dame in the back room—one of the regulars. She's been hittin' it up all the morning, but it don't seem to affect her—funny, too, for she ain't a boozer, as a general thing. Her guy's gone back on her, an' she's sore. I'll be with you in a minute."
He vanished into the back room with the glass, and before he returned, the disconsolate individual had slunk out, leaving Morrow in sole possession. If this place was indeed the rendezvous of the gang of minor criminals with which Charley Pennold had allied himself, he had obviously come at the wrong time to obtain any information concerning him, unless the voluble bartender could be made to talk, and that would be a difficult matter.
"Look here!" Morrow decided on a bold move, as the bartender reappeared and placed a bottle of whisky between them. He leaned forward, after a quick, furtive glance about him, and spoke rapidly, with a disarming air of confidential frankness. "I'm in an awful hole. I'm new at this game, and I've got to find a fellow I never saw, and find him quick. He hangs out here, and the big guy sent me for him."
"What big guy?" The cordiality faded from the bartender's ruddy countenance and he stepped back significantly.
"You know—Pad!" Morrow shot back on a desperate bluff. "The fellow's name's Charley Pennold, and Pad wants him right away. He didn't tell me to ask you about him, but he made it pretty plain to me that he'd got to get him."
"Say!" The bartender approached cautiously. He rested one hand upon the counter, keeping the other well below it, but Morrow did not flinch. "What's your lay?"
"Anything there's coin in," returned the operative, with a knowing leer. "Anything from planting divorce evidence to shoving the queer. I've been working for a pal of Pad's in St. Louis for three or four years—that's why I'm strange around here. Pad's up in the air about something, and wants this Charley-boy right away, and he tells me to look here for him and not come back without him, see? This is on the level. If you know where he is, be a good fellow and come across, will you?"
The bartender felt under the counter for the shelf, and then raised his hand, empty, toward the bottle.
"I guess you're all right," he remarked. "Anyway, I'll take a chance. What's your moniker?"
"Guy the Blinker," returned Morrow promptly. "Guess you've heard of me, all right. I pulled off—but I haven't got time to chin now. I got to find this boy if I want to keep in with Pad, and there's coin in it."
"Sure there is," the bartender affirmed. "But he's a queer one—the big guy, as you call him. What's his game? Why, only this morning, he tipped Charley off to beat it, and Charley did. Maybe he thinks the kid's double-crossed him."
Morrow's heart leaped in sudden excitement at this astounding news, but he controlled himself, and replied nonchalantly:
"Search me. He told me I'd find this Charley-boy here; that's all I know. He isn't talking for publication—not Pad."
"You bet not!" The bartender nodded. Then he jerked a grimy thumb in the direction of the back room. "Why, the dame in there, cryin' into her absinthe, is Charley's girl. She's a queen—straight as they make 'em, if she does work the shops now and then—and Charley was fixin' to hook up with her next month, preacher-fashion, and settle down. Now he gets the office and skips without a word to her, and she's all broke up over it!"
The door at the rear opened suddenly, and a girl stood upon the threshold. She was tall and slender, and her face showed traces of positive beauty, although it was bloated and distorted with weeping and dissipation, and her big black eyes glittered feverishly.
"What's that you're sayin' about Charley?" she demanded half-hysterically. "He's gone! He's left me! I don't believe Pad gave him the office, and if he did, Charley's a fool to beat it! They've got nothin' on him—it's Pad who's got to save his own skin!"
"Shut up, Annie!" advised the bartender, not unkindly. "Pad's sent this here feller for him, now!"
"Then it was a lie—a lie! Pad didn't tell him to beat it—he's gone on his own account, gone for good! But I'll find him; I'll—"
The girl suddenly burst into a storm of sobs, and, turning, reeled back into the inner room.
"You see!" the bartender observed, confidentially, as the door swung shut behind her. "She thinks he's gone off with another skirt; that's the way with women! I knew Pad had given him the office, though. I got it straight. You're right about Pad bein' up in the air. He must have bitten off more than he can chew, this time. I heard Reddy Thursby talkin' to Gil Hennessey about it, right where you're standin', not two hours ago. They're both Pad's men—met 'em yet?"
Morrow shook his head, not trusting himself to speak, and the loquacious bartender went on.
"It was Reddy brought the word for Charley to skip, and he dropped somethin' about a raid on some plant up in the Bronx. Know anything about it?"
For a moment the rows of bottles on their shelves seemed to reel before Morrow's eyes, and his heart stood still, but he forced himself to reply:
"Oh, that? I know all about it, of course. Wasn't I in on the ground floor? But that's only a fake steer; this Charley-boy hasn't got anything to do with it, that I know of. Maybe the big guy thought he hadn't got out of the way, and sent me to find out. No use my hanging round here any longer, anyhow. I'll amble back and tell Pad he's gone. Swell dame, that Annie—some queen, eh? Let's have one more drink and I'll blow!"
With assurances of an early return, Morrow contrived to beat a retreat without arousing the suspicions of the bartender, but he went out into the pale, wintry, sunlight with his brain awhirl. To his apprehensive mind a raid on a plant in the Bronx could mean only one place—the little map-making shop of Jimmy Brunell. Something had happened in his absence; some one had betrayed the old forger. And Emily—what of her?
Morrow sped as fast as elevated and subway could carry him to the Bronx. Anxious as he was about the girl he loved, he did not go directly to the house on Meadow Lane, but made a detour to the little shop a few blocks away.
Morrow's instinct had not misled him. Before he had approached within a hundred feet of the shop he knew that his fears had been justified.
The door swung idly open on its hinges, and the single window gave forth a vacant stare. Within everything was in the wildest disorder. The table which served as a counter, the racks of maps, the high stool, the printing apparatus, all were overturned. The trap door leading into the cellar was open, and Morrow flung himself wildly down the sanded steps. The forger's outfit had disappeared.
What had become of Jimmy Brunell? His purpose served, had Paddington betrayed him to the police, or had some warning reached him to flee before it was too late?
With mingled emotions of fear and dread, Morrow emerged from the little dismantled shop and made the best of his way to Meadow Lane. The Brunell cottage appeared much as usual as he neared it, and for an instant hope surged up within him. Emily would be at the club, of course. If her father had been arrested, or had succeeded in getting away safely alone, she would not know of it until she came back in the evening. He would wait for her, intercept her, and tell her the whole truth.
Instead of entering his own lodgings, he crossed the road, and paused at the Brunells' gate. Something forlorn and desolate in the atmosphere of the little home seemed to clutch at his heart, and on a swift impulse he strode up the path, ascended the steps of the porch and peered in the window of the living-room. Everything in the usually orderly room was topsy-turvy, and everywhere there was evidence of hurried flight. From where he stood the desk—her desk—was plainly visible, its ransacked drawers pulled open, the floor before it strewn with torn and scattered papers. Its top was bare, amid the surrounding litter, and even his photograph which he had recently given her, and which usually stood there in the little frame she had made for it with her own hands, was gone.
A chill settled about his heart. Had Brunell been captured, and police detectives searched the house, his picture could hold no interest for them. Had the old forger fled alone, he would not have taken so insignificant an object from among all his household goods and chattels. Emily alone would have paused to save the photograph of the man she loved from the wreckage of her home; Emily, too, had gone!
Scarcely knowing what he was doing, and caring less, Morrow rushed across the street, and descended upon Mrs. Quinlan, his landlady, at her post in the kitchen.
"What's happened to the Brunells?" he demanded breathlessly.
"Land's sakes, but you scared me, Mr. Morrow!" Mrs. Quinlan turned from the stove with a hurried start, and wiped her plump, steaming face on her apron. "I should like to know what's happened myself. All I do know is that they've gone bag and baggage—or as much of it as they could carry with them—and never; a word to a soul except what Emily ran across to say to me."
"What was it?" he fairly shouted at her. But there were few interests in Mrs. Quinlan's humdrum existence, and seldom did she have an exciting incident to relate and an eager audience to hang upon her words. She sat down ponderously and prepared to make the most of the present occasion.
"I thought it was funny to see a man goin' into their yard at five o'clock this mornin', but my tooth was so bad I forgot all about him and it never come into my mind again until I seen them goin' away. I sleep in the room just over yours, you know, Mr. Morrow, an' my tooth ached so bad I couldn't sleep. It was five by my clock when I got up to come down here an' get some hot vinegar, an' I don't know what made me look out my winder, but I did. I seen a man come running down the lane, keepin' well in the shaders, an' looking back as if he was afraid he was bein' chased, for all the world like a thief. While I looked, he turned in the Brunells' yard an' instead of knocking on the door, he began throwin' pebbles up at the old man's bedroom winder. Pretty soon it opened and Mr. Brunell looked out. Then he come down quick an' met the man at the front door. They talked a minute, an' the feller handed over somethin' that showed white in the light of the street lamp, like a piece of paper. Mr. Brunell shut the door an' the man ran off the way he had come. I come down an' got my hot vinegar an' when I got back to my room I seen there were lights in Mr. Brunell's room an' Emily's, an' one in the livin'-room, too, but my tooth was jumpin' so I went straight to bed. About half an hour after you'd left for business I was shakin' a rug out of the front sittin'-room winder, when Emily come runnin' across the street.
"'Oh, Mrs. Quinlan!' she calls to me, an' I see she'd been cryin'. 'Mrs. Quinlan, we're goin' away!'
"'For good?' I asked.
"'Forever!' she says. 'Will you give a message to Mr. Morrow for me, please? Tell him I'm sorry I was mistaken. I'm sorry to have found him out!'
"She burst out cryin' again an' ran back as her father called her from the porch. He was bringin' out a pile of suit-cases and roll-ups, and pretty soon a taxicab drove up with a man inside. I couldn't see his face—only his coat-sleeve. They got in an' went off kitin' an' that's every last thing I know. What d'you s'pose she meant about findin' you out, Mr. Morrow?"
He turned away without reply, and went to his room, where he sat for long sunk in a stupor of misery. She had found out the truth, before he could tell her. She knew him for what he was, knew his despicable errand in ingratiating himself into her friendship and that of her father. She believed that the real love he had professed for her had been all a mere part of the game he was playing, and now she had gone away forever! He would never see her again!
"By God, no!" he cried aloud to himself, in the bitterness of his sorrow. "I will find her again, if I search the ends of the earth. She shall know the truth!"
IN THE OPEN
Guy Morrow's resolve to find Emily Brunell at all costs, stirred him from the apathy of despair into which he had fallen, and roused him to instant action. Leaving the house, he went to the nearest telephone pay station, where he could converse in comparative privacy, and called up Henry Blaine's office, only to discover that the master detective had departed upon some mission of his own, was not expected to return until the following morning, and had left no instructions for him.
This unanticipated set-back left Morrow without definite resource. As a forlorn hope he telephoned to the Anita Lawton Club, only to learn that Miss Brunell had sent in her resignation as secretary early that morning, but told nothing of her future plans, except that she was leaving town for an indefinite period.
There was nothing more to be learned by another examination of the dismantled shop, and the young operative turned his steps reluctantly homeward. A sudden suspicion had formed itself in his mind that Blaine himself, and not the police, had been responsible for the raid on the forger's little establishment—that Blaine had done this without taking him into his confidence and was now purposely keeping out of his way.
When the early winter dusk came, Guy could endure it no longer, but left the house. Drawn irresistibly by his thoughts, he crossed the road again, and entering the Brunells' gate, he strolled around the deserted cottage, to the back. At the kitchen door a faint, piteous sound made him pause. It was an insistent, wailing cry from within, the disconsolate meowing of a frightened, lonely kitten.
Caliban had been left behind, forgotten! Emily's panic and haste must have been great indeed to cause her to forsake the pet she had so tenderly loved! Much as he detested the spiteful little creature, he could not leave it to starve, for her sake.
Morrow tried the kitchen door, but found it securely bolted from within. The catch on the pantry window was loose, however, and Morrow managed to pry it open with his jackknife. With a hasty glance about to see that he was not observed, he pushed up the window and clambered in, closing it cautiously after him. He stumbled through the semi-obscurity and gloom into the kitchen; instantly the piteous cry ceased and Caliban rose from the cold hearth and bounded gladly to him, purring and rubbing against his legs. Mechanically he stooped and stroked it; then, after carefully pulling down the shades, he lighted the lamp upon the littered table, and looked about him. Everything bore evidence, as had the living-room, of a hasty exodus. The fire was extinguished in the range, and it was filled to the brim with flakes of light ashes. Evidently Brunell or his daughter had paused long enough in their flight to burn armfuls of old papers—possibly incriminating ones.
On the table was the debris of a hasty meal. Morrow poured some milk from the pitcher into a saucer and placed it on the floor for the hungry kitten; then, taking the lamp, he started on a tour of inspection through the house. Everywhere the wildest confusion and disorder reigned.
Morrow turned aside from the door of Emily's room, but entered her father's. There, save for a few articles of old clothing strewn about, he found comparative order and neatness. The simple toilet articles were in their places, the narrow bed just as Jimmy Brunell had left it when he sprang up to admit his nocturnal visitor.
On the floor near the bureau on which the lamp stood, something white and crumpled met Morrow's eye; he stooped quickly and picked it up. It was a large single sheet of paper, and as the operative smoothed it out, he realized that it must be the message which had been hurriedly brought to Brunell in the early hour before the dawn. The paper had lain just where he had dropped it, crushed from his hand after reading the warning it contained.
Morrow turned up the wick of his own lamp and stared curiously at the missive. The sheet of paper was ruled at intervals, the lines and interstices filled with curious hieroglyphics, and at a first glance it appeared to the operative's puzzled eyes to be a mere portion of a page of music. Then he observed that old figures and letters, totally foreign to the notes of a printed score, were interspersed between the rest, and moreover only the treble clef had been used.
"Oh, Lord!" he groaned to himself. "It's another cryptogram, and I don't believe Blaine himself will be able to solve this one!"
He stared long and uncomprehendingly at it; then with a sigh of baffled interest he folded it carefully and placed it in his pocket. As he did so, there came a sudden sharp report from outside, the tinkle of a broken window pane, and a bullet, whistling past his ear, embedded itself in the wall behind him!
Instinctively Morrow flung himself flat upon the floor, but no second shot was fired. Instead, he heard the muffled receding of flying footsteps from the sidewalk, and an excited cry or two as neighboring windows were raised and curious heads were thrust out.
Hastily extinguishing the lamp, Morrow felt his way to the kitchen, where he pocketed Caliban with scant ceremony and departed swiftly the way he had come, through the pantry window. By scaling a back-yard wall or two he found an alley leading to the street; and making a detour of several blocks, he returned to his lodgings, to find Mrs. Quinlan waiting in great excitement to relate her version of the revolver shot.
Morrow listened with what patience he could muster, and then handed Caliban over to her mercy.
"It's Miss Brunell's cat," he explained. "You'll take care of it for a day or two, at least, won't you? I expect to hear from her soon, and I'd like to be able to restore it to her."
"Well, I ain't what you would call crazy about cats," the landlady returned, somewhat dubiously, "but I couldn't let it die in this cold. I'll keep it, of course, till you hear from Emily. Where did you find it?"
"Over in their yard," he responded, with prompt mendacity. "I was in the neighborhood and heard the shot fired, so I ran in to have a look around and see if anyone was hurt, and I came across this poor little chap yowling on the doorstep. I won't want any supper to-night, Mrs. Quinlan. I'm going out again."
Within the hour, Morrow presented himself at Henry Blaine's office. This time he did not wait to be told that the famous investigator was out, but writing something on a card, he sent it in to the confidential secretary.
In a moment he was admitted, to find Blaine seated imperturbably behind his desk, fingering the card his young operative had sent in to him.
"What is it, Guy?" he asked, not unkindly. "You say you have a communication of great importance."
"I think it is, sir," returned the other, stiffly. "At least I have the message which warned Brunell of your raid upon his shop. It's another cipher, a different one this time."
"Indeed? That's good work, Guy. But how did you know it was a warning to old Jimmy of the raid? Could you read it?"
Morrow shook his head.
"No, and I don't see how anyone else could! It must have been a warning of some sort, for it was what caused them both, old Jimmy and his daughter, to run away. Here it is."
He passed the cryptogram over to his chief, who studied it for a while with a meditative frown, then laid it aside and listened in a non-committal silence to his story. When the incidents of the day had been narrated, Blaine said:
"That was a close call, Guy, that shot from the darkness. It must have come from the opposite side of the street, of course, from before your own lodgings. The bullet glanced upward in its course, didn't it?"
"No, sir. That's the funny part of it! The spot where it is embedded in the wall is very little higher than the hole in the window pane."
"And Mrs. Quinlan's, where you board, is directly opposite?"
"Yes. It's the only house on the other side of the street for fifty feet or more on either side."
"Then you'd better look out for trouble, Guy. That shot came from your own house, probably from the window of your own room, if it is the second floor front, as you say. There's a traitor in camp. Any new lodgers to-day that you know of?"
"No, sir," Morrow replied, startled at the theory evolved by his chief. "But how do you account for the fact that I distinctly heard some one running away immediately after the shot was fired?"
"It was probably a look-out, or a decoy to draw investigation away from the house had a prompt pursuit ensued. Be careful when you go back, Guy, and don't take any unnecessary chances."
"I'm not going back, sir," the younger man returned, with quiet determination. "I'm sorry, but I'm through. I wanted to resign before, to protect the woman I love from just this trouble which has come upon her, but you overruled me, and I listened and played the game fairly. Now I've lost her, and nothing else matters under the sun except that I must find her again and tell her the truth, and I mean to find her! Nothing shall stand in my way!"
"And your duty?" asked Blaine quietly.
"My duty is to her first, last, and all the time! I know I have no right, sir, to ask that I should be taken into your confidence in regard to any plans you make in conducting an investigation, but I think in view of the exceptional conditions of this case that I might have been told in advance of the raid you intended, so that I might have spared Emily much of the trouble which has come upon her, or at least have told her the truth, and squared myself with her, and known where she was going. I've got to find her, sir! I cannot rest until I do!"
"And you shall find her, Guy. I promise you on my word that if you are patient all will be well. It is not my custom to explain my motives to my subordinates, but as you say, this case is exceptional, and you have been faithful to your trust under peculiarly trying circumstances. I raided Jimmy's little shop last night and carried off his forgery outfit because I had received special information of a confidential nature that Paddington intended to make the same move and lay it to the work of the police, not only to scare poor old Jimmy out of town, but to obtain possession of the outfit himself and destroy the evidence, in case the old forger was caught and lost his spirit and confessed, implicating him. I did not know the raid would be discovered and the warning take effect so soon. I had arranged to have the Brunells watched and tailed later in the day, but they escaped my espionage.
"I shall at once set the wheels in motion to discover the number of the taxicab in which they went away, and I will leave no stone unturned to find their ultimate destination and see that no harm comes to either of them; you may depend upon that. I don't mind going a little further with this subject with you now than I have before, and I'll tell you confidentially that I believe whatever part Jimmy played in this conspiracy, in forging the letter, note, and signatures, was a compulsory one; and in the end we shall be able to clear him. You know that I am a man of my word, Guy. I want you to go on with this case under my instructions and leave the search for the Brunells absolutely in my hands. Will you do this, on my assurance that I will find them?"
"If I can have your word, sir, that at the earliest possible moment I may go to her, to Emily, and tell her the truth," Morrow replied, earnestly. "You don't know what it means to me, to have her feel that I have been such a dog as not to mean a word of all that I said to her, to have her believe that it was all part of a plan to trap her into betraying her father. It drives me almost mad when I think of it! This inaction, the suspense of it, is intolerable."
"Then go home and find out who fired at you from the window of your own house. Watch the Brunell cottage, too—there will be developments there, if I'm not mistaken. To-morrow I may want you to go out on another branch of this investigation—the search for Ramon Hamilton."
"Very good, sir, I'll try," Morrow promised with obvious reluctance. "I know how busy you are and how much every day counts in this matter just now; but for God's sake, do what you can to find the Brunells for me!"
Blaine repeated his assurances, and Morrow returned to the Bronx with considerably lightened spirits. The sight of the little cottage across the way, dark and deserted, brought a pang to his heart, but it also served to remind him of the duty which lay before him. He must find out whose hand had fired that shot at him from the house which had given him shelter.
Mrs. Quinlan had not yet retired. He found her reading a newspaper in the kitchen, with Caliban curled up in drowsy content beside the stove.
"Cold out, ain't it?" she observed. "I went round to the store, an' I like to've froze before I got back. They said they'd send the things, but they didn't."
"I'll go get them for you," offered Morrow. "Was it the grocery to which you went?"
"No, the drug store. I—I've got a new lodger upstairs at the back—an old gentleman who's kind of sickly and rheumatic, and he asked me to get some things for him. Thank you just the same, Mr. Morrow, but there ain't no hurry for them." Mrs. Quinlan's wide, ingenuous face flushed, and for a moment she seemed curiously embarrassed. Could she have guessed that the revolver shot which had created so much excitement that afternoon had been fired from beneath her roof?
"A new lodger!" repeated Morrow. "Came to-day, didn't he?"
"No, yesterday," she responded quickly—too quickly, the operative fancied. The ruddy flush had deepened on her cheek, and she added, as if unable to restrain the question rising irresistibly to her lips: "What made you think he came to-day?"
"I thought this afternoon that I heard furniture being moved about in the room directly over mine," he returned, with studied indifference.
"Oh, you did!" Mrs. Quinlan affirmed. "That's my room, you know. I was exchanging my bureau for the old gentleman's."
"Let me see; that makes four lodgers now, doesn't it?" Morrow remarked thoughtfully, as he toasted his back near the stove. "Peterson, the shoe clerk; Acker, the photographer; me—and now this old gentleman. What's his name, by the way?"
"Mr.—Brown." Again there was that obvious hesitation, followed by a hasty rush of words as if to cover it. "Yes, my house is full now, and I think I'm mighty lucky, considering the time of year. Just think, it's most Christmas! The winter's just flyin' along!"
The next morning, from his bed Morrow heard the clinking of china on a tray as Mrs. Quinlan laboriously carried breakfast upstairs to her new boarder. Guy rose quickly and dressed, and when he heard her descending again he flung open his door and met her face to face, quite as if by accident. She started violently at the sudden encounter and nearly dropped the tray.
"Land sakes, how you scared me, Mr. Morrow!" she exclaimed. "You're up earlier than usual. I'll have your breakfast ready in the dining-room in ten minutes."
She hurried on quickly, but not before the operative's keen eyes had noted in one lightning glance the contents of the tray. Upon it was a teapot, as well as one for coffee, and service for two. Peterson and Acker had both long since gone to their usual day's work. Mrs. Quinlan had lied, then, after all. She had two new lodgers instead of the single rheumatic old gentleman she had pictured; two, and one of them had entered his own room, and from the window fired that shot across the street at him, as he bent over the lamp in the Brunell cottage. He had one problematic advantage—it was possible that he had not been recognized as the intruder in the deserted house. He must contrive by hook or crook to obtain a glimpse of the mysterious newcomers, and learn the cause of their interest in the Brunells and their affairs. They were in all probability emissaries of Paddington's—possibly one of them was Charley Pennold himself.
At that same moment Henry Blaine sat in his office, receiving the report of Ross, one of his minor operatives.
"I tried the tobacconist's shop yesterday morning, sir, but there wasn't any message there for Paddington, and although I waited around a couple of hours he didn't show up," Ross was saying. "This morning, however, I tried the same stunt, and it worked. I wasn't any too quick about it, either, for Paddington was just after me. I strolled in, asked for a package of Cairos and gave the man the office, as you told me. He handed it over like a lamb, and I walked out with it, straight to that little cafe across the way. I had four of the boys waiting there, and my entrance was a signal to them to beat it over and buy enough tobacco to keep the shopkeeper busy while I made a getaway from the dairy-lunch place. I only went three doors down, to a barber's, and while I was waiting my turn there I watched the street from behind a newspaper.
"In about ten minutes Paddington came along, walking as if he was in quite a hurry. He went into the tobacconist's, but he came out quicker than he had entered, and his face was a study—purple with rage one minute, and white with fear the next. I don't believe he knows yet who's tailing him, sir, but he looks as if he realized we had him coming and going. He went straight over to the little restaurant, with murder in his eye, but he only stayed a minute or two. I tailed him home to his rooms, and he stamped along at first as if he was so mad he didn't care whether he was followed or not. When he got near his own street, though, he got cautious again, and I had all I could do to keep him from catching me on his trail—he's a sharp one, when he wants to be, and he's on his mettle now."
"I know the breed. He'll turn and fight like any other rat if he's cornered, but meanwhile he'll try at any cost to get away from us," Blaine responded. "You have him well covered, Ross?"
"Thorpe is waiting in a high-powered car a few doors away, Vanner in a taxi, and Daly is on the job until I get back. He won't take a step to-day without being tailed," the operative answered, confidently. "Here's the cigarette box, sir. I opened it as soon as I got in the restaurant, to see if it was the real goods and not a plant, as you instructed. It's the straight tip, all right. There were no cigarettes inside, only this single sheet of paper covered with little marks—looks like music, only it isn't. I don't know much about sight-reading, but some of those figures couldn't be played on any instrument!"
Henry Blaine opened the little box and drew from it the bit of folded paper, which he spread out upon the desk before him. A glance was sufficient to show him that it was another cryptic message, similar to that which Guy Morrow had found in the Brunells' deserted cottage, and which he had vainly studied until far into the night.
"Very good, Ross. Get back on the job, now, and report any developments as soon as you have an opportunity."
When the operative had gone, Blaine drew forth the cryptogram received the previous evening and compared the two. They were identical in character, although from the formation of the letters and figures, the message each conveyed was a different one. The first had baffled him, and he scrutinized the second with freshly awakened interest:
The three lines fascinated him by their tantalizing problem, and he could not take his eyes from them. The musical notes could be easily read in place of letters, of course, with the sign of the treble clef as a basic guide, but the other figures still puzzled him.
All at once, a word upon the lowest line which explained itself caught his eye; then another and another, until the method of deciphering the whole message burst upon his mind. One swift gesture, a few eagerly scrawled calculations, and the truth was plain to him.
Calling his secretary, he hastily dictated a letter.
"I want a copy of that sent at once, by special delivery, to every physician and surgeon in town, no matter how obscure. See to it that not one is overlooked. Even those on the staffs of the different hospitals must be notified, although they are the least likely to be called upon. Above all, don't forget the old retired one, those of shady professional reputation and the fledglings just out of medical colleges. It's a large order, Marsh, but it's bound to bring some result in the next forty-eight hours."
With the closing of the door behind his secretary, Henry Blaine rose and paced thoughtfully back and forth the length of his spacious office. The problem before him was the most salient in its importance of any which had confronted him during his investigation of the Lawton mystery—probably the weightiest of his entire career. Should he, dared he, throw caution to the winds and step out into the open, in his true colors at last?
It was as if he held within his hands the kernel of the mystery, yet surrounded still by an invulnerable shield of cunning and duplicity with which the master criminals had so carefully safe-guarded their conspiracy. He held it within his hands, and yet he could not break the shell of the mystery and expose the kernel of truth to justice. There seemed to be no interstice, no crevice into which he might insert the keen probe of his marvelous deductive power. And yet his experience told him that there must be some rift, some hiatus in the scheme. If only he could discover that rift, could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt the facts which he had circumstantially established, he would not hesitate to lay his hands upon the culprits, high in power and influence throughout the country as they were, and bring them before any court of so-called justice, however it might be undermined by bribery and corruption.
He had accomplished much, working as a mole works, in the dark. Could he not accomplish more by declaring himself; could he not by one bold stroke lay bare the heart of the mystery?
Seating himself again at his desk, he took the telephone receiver from its hook and called up Anita Lawton at her home—not upon the private wire he had had installed for her, but on the regular house wire.
"Oh, Mr. Blaine, what is it! Have you found him? Have you news for me of Ramon?" Her voice, faint and high-pitched with the hideous suspense of the days just past, came to him tremulous with eagerness and an abiding hope.
"No, Miss Lawton, I am sorry to say that I have not yet found Mr. Hamilton, but I have definite information that he still lives, at least," he returned. "I hope that in a few days, at most, I may bring him to you."
"Thank heaven for that!" she responded fervently. "I have tried so hard to believe, to have faith that he will be restored to me, and yet the hideous doubt will return again and again. These days and nights have been one long, ceaseless torture!"
"You have taken my advice in regard to receiving your visitors?"
"Oh, yes, Mr. Blaine. My three guardians have been unremitting in their attentions, particularly Mr. Rockamore, who calls daily. He has just left me."
"Miss Lawton, I have decided that the time has come for us to declare ourselves openly—not in regard to the mystery of your father's insolvency, but concerning the disappearance of Ramon Hamilton. I want you to call his mother up on the telephone as soon as I ring off, and tell her that you have resolved to retain me, on your account, to find him for you. Should she put forward any objections, over-rule her and refuse to listen. I will be with you in an hour. In the meantime, should anyone call, you may tell them that you have just retained me to investigate the disappearance of your fiance. Tell that to anyone and everyone; the more publicity we give to that fact the better. The moment has arrived for us to carry war into the enemy's camp, and I know that we shall win! Keep up your courage, Miss Lawton! We're done with maneuvering now. You've borne up bravely, but I believe your period of suspense, in regard to many things, is past. Before this day is done, they will know that we are in this to fight to the finish—and to fight to win!"
Henry Blaine was allowed scant opportunity for reflection, in the hour which intervened between his telephone message to Anita and the time of his appointment with her. Scarcely had he hung up the receiver once more when his secretary announced the arrival of Fifine Dechaussee.
Had not Blaine been already aware of her success with Paddington, as the scene in the park an evening or two previously denoted, he would have been instantly apprised by her manner that something of vital import had occurred. There was an indefinable change, a subtle metamorphosis, which was conveyed even in her appearance. Her delicate, Madonna-like face had lost its wax-like pallor and was flushed with a faint, exquisite rose; the wooden, slightly vacant expression was gone; she walked with a lissome, conscious grace which he had not before observed, and the slow, enigmatic smile with which she greeted him held much that was significant behind it.
"You did not keep your appointment with me yesterday—why, mademoiselle?" asked Blaine, quietly.
"Because it was impossible, m'sieu," she returned. "I could not get away. Madame—the wife of M'sieu Franklin—would not allow me to leave the children. This is the first opportunity I have had to come."
"And what have you to report?" he asked, watching her narrowly.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"Very little, M'sieu Blaine. Yesterday the president of the Street Railways, M'sieu Mallowe, called on the minister, and remained for more than an hour. I could not hear their conversation—they were in the library; but just as M'sieu Mallowe was taking his departure I passed through the hall, and heard him say:
"'You must try to persuade her, Mr. Franklin; you have more influence over her than anyone else, even I. Miss Lawton must really go away for a time. It is the only thing that will save her health, her reason! She can do nothing here to aid in the search for young Hamilton, and the suspense is killing her. Try to get her to take our advice and go away, if only for a few days.'"
"What did Dr. Franklin reply?"
"I did not hear it all. I could not linger in the hall without arousing suspicion. Dr. Franklin agreed that Miss Lawton was ill and should go away, and he said he would try to induce her to go—that M'sieu Mallowe was undoubtedly right, and he was delighted that he took such an interest in Miss Lawton."
She paused, and after a moment Blaine asked:
"And that is all?"
"Yes, m'sieu." The French girl half turned as if to take her departure, but he stayed her by a gesture.
"You have nothing else to report? How about Paddington?" He shot the question at her tersely, his eyes never leaving her face, but she did not flinch.
"M'sieu Paddington?" she repeated demurely. "I have nothing to tell you of him."
"You didn't try, then, to lead him on, as I suggested—to get him to talk about Miss Lawton, or the people who were employing him? You have not seen him?"
"M'sieu Blaine, I could not do that!" she cried, ignoring his last question. "I would do much, anything that I could for Miss Lawton, but she would be the last to ask of me that I should lead a man on to—to make love to me, in order to betray him! I will do anything that is possible to find out for Miss Lawton and for you, m'sieu, all that I can by keeping my ears open in the house of the minister, but as to M'sieu Paddington—I will not play such a role with any man, even to please Miss Lawton."
"Yet you have been meeting him in the park." The detective leaned forward in his chair and spoke gently, as if merely reminding the girl of some insignificant fact which she had presumably forgotten, yet there was that in his tone which made her stiffen, and she replied impulsively, with a warning flash of her eyes:
"What do you mean, m'sieu? How do you know? I—I told you I had nothing to report concerning M'sieu Paddington, nothing which could be of service to Miss Lawton, and it is quite true. I—I did meet M'sieu Paddington in the park, but it was simply an accident."
"And was the locket and chain an accident, too? That locket which you are wearing at the present moment, mademoiselle?"
"The locket—" Her hand strayed to her neck and convulsively clasped the bauble of cheap, bright gold hanging there. "What do you know of my locket, M'sieu Blaine?"
"I know that Paddington purchased it for you two or three days ago—that he gave it to you that night in the park, and you allowed him to take you in his arms and kiss you!"
"Stop! How can you know that!" she stormed at him, stepping forward slightly, a deep flush dyeing her face. "He did not tell you! You have had me watched, followed, spied upon! It is intolerable! To think that I should be treated as if I were unworthy of trust. I have been faithful, loyal to Miss Lawton, but this is too much! I have not questioned M'sieu Paddington; I know nothing of his affairs, but I like him, I—I admire him very much, and if I desire to meet him, to receive his attentions, I shall do so. I am not harming Miss Lawton, who has been my patronne, my one friend in this strange, big country. M'sieu Paddington does not know that I am working at Dr. Franklin's under your instructions, and I shall never betray to him the confidence Miss Lawton has reposed in me. But I shall do no more; it is finished. That I should be suspected—"
"But you are not, my dear young woman!" interposed Blaine, mildly. "It was not you who was followed, spied upon, as you call it. For Miss Lawton's sake, because she is in trouble, we are interested just now in Paddington's movements, and naturally my operative was not aware that it was to meet you he went to the park."
"N'importe!" Fifine exclaimed. The color had receded from her face, and a deathly white pallor had superseded it. She retreated a step or two, and continued defiantly: "This afternoon I resign from the service of Dr. Franklin! I do not believe that M'sieu Paddington is an enemy of Miss Lawton; nothing shall make me believe that he, who is the soul of honor, of chivalry, would harm her, or cause her any trouble, and I do not like this work, this spying and treachery and deceit! That is your profession, m'sieu, not mine; I only consented because Miss Lawton had been kind to me, and I desired to aid her in her trouble, if I could. But that he—that I—should be suspected and watched, and treated like criminals, oh, it is insufferable. To-day, also, I leave the Anita Lawton Club. You shall find some one else to play detective for you—you and Miss Lawton!"
With an indignant swirl of her skirts, she turned and made for the door, in a tempest of rage; but on the threshold his voice stayed her.
"Wait! Miss Lawton has befriended you, and now, because of a man of whom you know nothing, you desert her cause. Is that loyalty, mademoiselle? We shall not ask you to remain at Dr. Franklin's any longer; Miss Lawton does not wish unwilling service from anyone. But for your own sake, go back to the club, and remain there until a position is open to you which is to your liking. You are a young girl in a strange country, as you say, and at least you know the club to be a safe place for you. Do not trust this man Paddington, or anyone else; it is not wise."
"I shall not listen to you!" she cried, her voice rising shrill and high-pitched in her excitement. "You shall not say such things of M'sieu Paddington! He is brave and good, while you—you are a spy, an eavesdropper, a delver into the private affairs of others. I do not know what this trouble may be, which Miss Lawton is in, and I am sorry for her, that she should suffer, but I shall have nothing more to do with the case, nor with you, m'sieu! Au revoir!"
"Whew!" breathed Blaine to himself, as the door closed after her with a slam. "What a firebrand! She may not have actually betrayed us to Paddington in so many words, but it isn't necessary to look far for the one who warned him that he was being watched, and put him on his guard, all unknowingly, that the whole scheme in which he is so deeply involved, was in jeopardy. Oh, these women! Let them once lose their heads over a man, and they upset all one's plans!"
Blaine arrived promptly within the hour at the house on Belleair Avenue. Anita Lawton received him as before in the library. He observed with deep concern that she was a mere shadow of her former self. The slenderness which had been one of her girlish charms had become almost emaciation; her eyes were glassily bright, and in the waxen pallor of her cheeks a feverish red spot burned.
She smiled wanly as he pressed her hand, and her pale lips trembled, but no words came.
"My poor child!" the great detective found himself saying from the depths of his fatherly heart. "You are positively ill! This will never do. You are not keeping your promise to me."
"I am trying hard to, Mr. Blaine." Anita motioned toward a chair and sank into another with a little gasp of sheer exhaustion. "You have never failed yet, and you have given me your word that you would bring Ramon back to me. I try to have faith, but with every hour that passes, hope dies within me, and I can feel that my strength, my will to believe, is dying, too. I know that you must be doing your utmost, exerting every effort, and yet I cannot resist the longing to urge you on, to try to express to you the torture of uncertainty and dread which consumes me unceasingly. That my father's fortune is gone means nothing to me now. Only give me back Ramon alive and well, and I shall ask no more!"
"I hope to be able to do that speedily," Blaine returned. "As I told you over the telephone, I have positive proof that he is alive, and a definite clue as to his whereabouts. You must ask me nothing further now—only try to find faith in your heart for just a few days, perhaps hours, longer. You 'phoned to Mrs. Hamilton, as I suggested?"
"Yes. She demurred at first, dreading the notoriety, and not—not appearing to believe in your ability as I do, but I simply refused to listen to her objections. Mr. Carlis called me up shortly afterward, and wanted to know if I would be able to receive him this afternoon, on a matter connected with my finances, but I told him I had retained you to search for Ramon, and was expecting you at any moment. He seemed greatly astonished, and warned me of the—he called it 'useless'—expense. He begged me not to be impatient, to wait until I had time to think the matter over and consult himself and Mr. Mallowe, saying that they were both doing all that could be done to locate Ramon, and Mr. Rockamore was, also, but I told him it was too late, that you were on your way here."
"That was right. I am glad you told him. The fact that you have retained me to search for Mr. Hamilton will appear as a scoop in every evening paper which he controls, now, and the more publicity given to it, the better. You told me over the 'phone that Mr. Rockamore calls upon you every day?"
"Yes. I try to be cordial to him, but for some reason which I can't explain I dislike him more than either of the others. I don't know why he comes so often, for he says very little, only sits and stares at that chair—the chair in which my father died—until I feel that I should like to scream. It seems to exert the same strange, uncanny influence over him as it does over me—that chair. More than once, when he has been announced, I have entered to find him standing close beside it, looking down at it as if my father were seated there once more and he was talking to him, I don't in the least know why, but the thought seems to prey on my mind—perhaps because the chair fascinates me, too, in a queer way that is half repulsion."
"You are morbid, Miss Lawton—you must not allow such fancies to grow, or they will soon take possession of you, in your weakened state, and become an obsession. Tell me, have you heard anything from the club girls we established in your guardian's offices?"
"Oh, yes! I had forgotten completely in my excitement and joy over your news of Ramon, vague though it is, that there was something important which I wanted to tell you. Since Margaret Hefferman's dismissal, all my girls have been sent away from the positions I obtained for them—all except Fifine Dechaussee."
"And she resigned not an hour ago," remarked the detective rather grimly, supplementing the fact, with as many details as he thought necessary.
Anita listened in silence until he had finished.
"Poor girl! Poor Fifine! What a pity that she should fancy herself in love with such a man as you describe this Paddington to be! She must be persuaded to remain in the club, of course; we cannot allow her to leave us now. I feel responsible for her, and especially so since it was indirectly because of me, or while she was in my service, at any rate, that she met this man. If she is all that you say, she could never be happy if she married him."
"There's small chance of that. He has a wife already. She left him years ago, and runs a boarding-house somewhere on Hill Street, I believe," Blaine replied. "I don't fancy he'll add bigamy to the rest of his nefarious acts. But tell me of the other girls. They did not report to me."
"Poor little Agnes Olson was dismissed yesterday. She is a spineless sort of creature, you know, without much self-assurance, or initiative, and I believe she had quite a scene with Mr. Carlis before she left. She was on the switchboard, if you remember, and as well as I was able to understand from her, he caught her listening in on his private connection. She reached the club in an hysterical condition, and I told them to put her to bed and care for her. I ought to be there myself now, at work, for I have lost my best helper, but I am too distraught over Ramon to think of anything else. My secretary—the girl you saw there at the club and asked me about, do you remember?—did not appear yesterday, but telephoned her resignation, saying she was leaving town. I cannot understand it, for I would have counted on her faithfulness before any of the rest, but so many things have happened lately which I can't comprehend, so many mysteries and disappointments and anxieties, that I can scarcely think or feel any more. It seems as if I were really dead, as if my emotions were all used up. I can't cry, even when I think of Ramon—I can only suffer."
"I know. I can imagine what you must be trying to endure just now, Miss Lawton, but please believe that it will not last much longer. And don't worry about your secretary; Emily Brunell will be with you again soon, I think."
"Emily Brunell!" repeated Anita, in surprise. "You know, then?"
"Yes. And, strange as it may seem, she is indirectly concerned in the conspiracy against you, but innocently so. You will understand everything some day. What about the Irish girl, Loretta Murfree?"
"President Mallowe's filing clerk? He dismissed her only this morning, on a trumped-up charge of incompetence. He has been systematically finding fault with her for several days, as if trying to discover a pretext for discharging her, so she wasn't unprepared. She's here now, having some lunch, up in my dressing-room. Would you like to talk with her?"
"I would, indeed," he assented, nodding as Anita pressed the bell. "She seemed the brightest and most wide-awake young woman of the lot. If anyone could have obtained information of value to us, I fancy she could. Did she have anything to say to you about Mr. Mallowe?"
"I would rather she told you herself," Anita replied, hesitatingly, with the ghost of a smile. "Whatever she said about him was strictly personal, and of a distinctly uncomplimentary nature. There is nothing spineless about Loretta!"
When the young Irish girl appeared in response to Anita's summons, her eyes and mouth opened wide in amazement at sight of the detective.
"Oh, sir, it's you!" she exclaimed. "I was going down to your office this afternoon, to tell you that I had been discharged. Mr. Mallowe himself turned me off this morning. I'm not saying this to excuse myself, but it was honestly through no fault of mine. The old man—gentleman—has been trying for days to get rid of me. I knew it, so I've been especially careful in my work, and cheerful and smiling whenever he appeared on the scene—like this!"
She favored them with a grimace which was more like the impishly derisive grin of a street urchin than a respectful smile, and continued:
"This morning I caught him mixing up the letters in the files with his own hands, and when he blamed me for it later, I saw that it was no use. He was bound to get rid of me in some way or another, so I didn't tell him what I thought of him, but came away peaceably—which is a lot to ask of anybody with a drop of Irish blood in their veins, in a case like that! However, I learned enough while I was in that office, of his manipulations of the street railway stock, to make me glad I've got a profession and am not sitting around waiting for dividends to be paid. If the people ever wake up, and the District Attorney indicts him, I hope to goodness they put me on the stand, that's all."
"Why has he tried to get rid of you? Do you think he suspected the motive for your being in his employ?" asked Blaine, when she paused for breath.
"No, he couldn't, for I never gave him a chance," she responded. "He's a sly one, too, padding around the offices like a cat, in his soft slippers; and he looks for all the world like a cat, with the sleek white whiskers of him! Excuse me, Miss Lawton, I don't mean to be disrespectful, but he's trying, the old gentleman is! I think he got suspicious of me when Margaret Hefferman made such a botch of her job with Mr. Rockamore, and yesterday afternoon when Mr. Carlis caught Agnes Olson listening in—oh, I know all about that, too!—he got desperate. That's why he mixed up the files this morning, for an excuse to discharge me."
"How did you know about Agnes Olson?" asked Blaine quickly. "Did she tell you?"
"No, I heard it from Mr. Carlis himself!" returned Loretta, with a reminiscent grin. "He came right straight around to Mr. Mallowe and told him all about it, and a towering rage he was in, too! 'Do you think the little devil's sold us?' he asked. Meaning no disrespect to you, Miss Lawton, it was you he was talking about, for he added: 'She gets her girls into our offices on a whining plea of charity, and they all turn out crooked, spying and listening in, and taking notes. Remember Rockamore's experience with the one he took? Do you suppose that innocent, big-eyed, mealy-mouthed brat of Pennington Lawton's suspects us?'
"'Hold your tongue, for God's sake!' old Mr. Mallowe growled at him. 'I've got one of them in there, a filing clerk.'"
"'Then you'd better get rid of her before she tries any tricks,' Mr. Carlis said. 'I believe that girl is deeper than she looks, for all her trusting way. I always did think she took the news of her father's bankruptcy too d—n' calmly to be natural, even under the circumstances. Kick her protegee out, Mallowe, unless you're looking for more trouble. I'm not.'"
"What did Mr. Mallowe reply?" Blaine asked.
"I don't know. His private secretary came into the office where I was just then, and I had to pretend to be busy to head off any suspicion from him. Mr. Carlis left soon after, and I could feel his eyes boring into the back of my neck as he passed through the room. Mr. Mallowe sent for me almost immediately, to find an old letter for him, from one of the files of two years ago, and it was funny, the suspicious, worried way he kept watching me!"
"There is nothing else you can tell us?" the detective inquired. "Nothing out of the usual run happened while you were there?"
"Nothing, except that a couple of days ago, he had an awful row with a man who called on him. It was about money matters, I think, and the old gentleman got very much excited. 'Not a cent!' he kept repeating, louder and louder, until he fairly shouted. 'Not one more cent will you get from me. This systematic extortion of yours must come to an end here and now! I've done all I'm going to, and you'd better understand that clearly.' Then the other man, the visitor, got angry, too, and they went at it hammer and tongs. At last, Mr. Mallowe must have lost his head completely, for he accused the other man of robbing his safe. At that, the visitor got calm and cool as a cucumber, all of a sudden, and began to question Mr. Mallowe. It seems from what I heard—I can't recall the exact words—that not very long ago, the night watchman in the offices was chloroformed and the safe ransacked, but nothing was taken except a letter.
"'You're mad!' the strange man said. 'Why in h—l should anybody take a letter, and leave packets of gilt-edged bonds and other securities lying about untouched?'
"'Because the letter happens to be one you would very much like to have in your possession, Paddington,' the old gentleman said. Oh, I forgot to tell you that the visitor's name was Paddington, but that doesn't matter, does it? 'Do you know what it was?' Mr. Mallowe went on. 'It was a certain letter which Pennington Lawton wrote to me from Long Bay two years ago. Now do you understand?'"
"'You fool!' said Paddington. 'You fool, to keep it! You gave your word that you would destroy it! Why didn't you?'
"'Because, I thought it might come in useful some day, just as it has now,' the old gentleman fairly whined. 'It was good circumstantial evidence.'
"'Yes—fine!' Paddington said, with a bitter kind of a laugh. 'Fine evidence, for whoever's got it now!'
"'You know very well who's got it!' cried Mr. Mallowe. 'You don't pull the wool over my eyes! And I don't mean to buy it back from you, either, if that's your game. You can keep it, for all I care; it's served its purpose now, and you won't get another penny from me!'
"Well, I wish you could have heard them, then!" Loretta continued, with gusto. "They carried on terribly; the whole office could hear them. It was as good as a play—the strange man, Paddington denying right up to the last that he knew anything about the robbery, and Mr. Mallowe accusing him, and threatening and bluffing it out for all he was worth! But in the end, he paid the man some money, for I remember he insisted on having the check certified, and the secretary himself took it over to the bank. I don't know for what amount it was drawn."
"Why didn't you tell me that before, Loretta?" asked Anita, reproachfully. "I mean, about the—the names Mr. Carlis called me, and his suspicions. I wish I'd known it half an hour ago, when he telephoned to me!"
"That's just why I didn't tell you, Miss Lawton!" responded Loretta, with a flash of her white teeth.
"Mr. Blaine told me to report to him this afternoon, and I meant to, but he didn't tell me to talk to anyone else, even you. When you asked me to undertake this for you, you said I was to do just what Mr. Blaine directed, and I've tried to. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell you, but I thought I'd better not, at least until I had seen Mr. Blaine. I was sure that if I said anything to you about it, you would let Mr. Carlis see your resentment the next time he called, and then he and Old Mr. Mallowe would get their heads together, and find out that their suspicions of all of us girls were correct. You wouldn't want that."