Part 2 out of 4
"Oh, I see! All this has happened because I introduced you to the others
as my fiance. Why, that is positively funny. Didn't you know that was
only a part of the game being played?"
"Yes," he said, ignoring the humour of it, and feeling oddly sober, "I
understood, and was playing, the same as you. Only both of us, I think,
forget an important fact."
"That we were young, socially on a level, and that you were an
exceedingly charming young woman."
She laughed again, yet this time with more restraint.
"That is quite ridiculous, Captain West. Surely, you are not actually
making love to me?"
"No, I am not. I am merely facing the situation very frankly. It would be
useless for me to claim lack of interest in you. From our very first
meeting, you have appealed to me strongly--more so than any other woman
of my acquaintance. Then, perhaps, the peculiarity of our relationship,
with the trust you seemed to impose in me, tended to deepen that
interest. I confess I began to care for you--as a woman."
"Really you are quite flattering. I never dreamed I possessed such
marvellous powers." She remained silent a moment, her eyes shaded by
their long lashes; then uplifted them again to his face. "This makes it
all the more necessary that I now speak plainly," she went on at length.
"That I should explain to you it has all been a mistake. That was why I
asked you to come here now."
"All a mistake! Not the trouble you were in surely?"
"Yes. I must have dreamed most of it, I think. I have just had a long
confidential talk with Percival Coolidge, and we understand each other
perfectly. Everything has been explained. So there is no necessity for
our pretending any longer."
West rose to his feet, comprehending her full meaning, yet unwilling to
yield his position without further explanation.
"Your words are certainly plain enough," he said slowly, "yet I trust I
may be pardoned if I ask a question or so."
"Is it necessary?"
"Perhaps not, but I feel my curiosity is justified. You told me a rather
remarkable story and requested my aid in the solving of a strange
mystery. Now you abruptly dismiss me from that service. Do you mean the
mystery is already solved without my further assistance?"
"I am convinced there was no mystery; that it was only imagination,
Captain West. My calling you was a mistake."
"Percival Coolidge assures you of this?"
"Positively; we have discussed it from every angle, and all that appeared
mysterious has been made clear."
"There is no one else impersonating you?"
"The checks at the bank; the strange person using your name; all these
"Of course. I really believed all I said to you at the time, but
everything has been explained since, and I realize how very foolish I
have been. Uncle Percival has been very nice about it. He simply didn't
understand before how worried I was."
"No doubt. You sent for me then merely to say I was dismissed?"
"And you told Coolidge, of course, how I came to be here?"
"And the others? What will they think?"
"Why, that can make no difference. They can be told that you were
suddenly called away. Let them suppose we had a quarrel, and that our
engagement is broken," and she laughed again, evidently vastly amused
at the idea.
"But you, personally?" he insisted.
She sobered instantly, also rising, and facing him.
"Captain West, let us be sensible. I invited you here for a certain
purpose. You were employed as much as any of my other servants. Is that
a sufficient answer?"
"It certainly is. I will depart at once."
"Thank you. The limousine will be at the door. You will return to the
Club, I presume?"
"Temporarily, until other arrangements are made."
He bowed and left her standing there in the shadows, the expression of
her face veiled, but there seemed no response, no softening in the
rigid attitude of her figure. She did not care; was only interested in
his immediate departure. The change had occurred with such abruptness,
West was unable as yet to realize its full significance, but, with no
attempt to combat her decision, left the room, closing the door behind
him. In that moment his mood changed. The dismissal had been so curt,
his pride rose in rebellion. Finding Sexton in the front hall, he
addressed him crisply.
"My bag will be ready in ten minutes."
"Yes, sir; you are going away, sir?"
"Immediately. A call to return to the city at once."
"I am very sorry, sir," he said respectfully, yet in a tone of such
earnestness, as to cause West to glance toward him sharply. For an
instant it was upon the lips of the younger man to ask a question, but
Sexton turned away, and it remained unasked. Promptly at the time
mentioned came the servant's soft rap on the door.
"I came for the bag, sir."
West handed it over with a glance at the rather expressionless face.
"You said you regretted to see me leave, Sexton," he remarked jovially.
"I presume you meant nothing in particular by that remark?"
"Oh, no, sir," standing motionless, bag in hand. "Only you have been very
kind, sir, and--and--of course, it is none of my business, but I hope
there is no quarrel, sir?"
"Quarrel! With Miss Natalie, you mean? Why should you suspect that?"
"I--I spoke, sir, very thoughtlessly, sir," he stammered. "You will
pardon me, sir."
"Yes, but you must have had a reason, Sexton?"
"Only that she has seemed very much out of humour, sir, since her trip to
town," he explained rather lamely. "I have never known her to be so hard
to please, sir. I'm sure something is wrong, but that is no reason why I
should say what I did, sir."
THE BODY OF A SUICIDE
As the car whirled West down the circling driveway, the only sign of
life visible about the house was the motionless figure of Sexton on the
steps. If either Miss Natalie, or Percival Coolidge, took interest enough
in the proceedings to witness his departure, they chose to remain
carefully concealed within. His glance searched the front of the mansion
vainly; no window revealed an occupant. From behind where the guests were
at play, sounded a distant murmur of voices, and laughter, but the house
itself expressed only calm indifference. There was no pretence even at
speeding the parting guest. He had simply been dismissed, turned out,
decently enough, perhaps, considering his status, yet with a certain
measure of contempt which rankled nevertheless.
The young man could not altogether reconcile this style of treatment with
his preconceived conception of Miss Natalie Coolidge. He had been too
deeply impressed by her to easily relinquish his previously formed
opinion of her character. This latest action did not at all coincide with
her former open friendliness. He had not gone to her as a servant, nor
had she in any way treated him as such. What could account for so
remarkable a change? Even if she had felt his present usefulness was
ended; that she had made a mistake in ever admitting him to her
confidence, the dismissal could have been much more pleasantly achieved.
She could still have exhibited friendliness, and an interest in his
departure. Her words and manner had been extremely abrupt, and her
explanation far from satisfactory.
Perhaps it was the influence of Percival Coolidge which accounted for the
sudden change in the girl. This explanation seemed probable. The man had
in some way regained her confidence, and then, through trickery, had
succeeded in poisoning her mind. There was no doubt he would do this, if
possible, and the probability was that he had finally discovered a way.
From the very first, West had felt the antagonism of the other; there had
never been any love lost between them. Coolidge disliked him
instinctively, and made no effort to conceal his feelings; he resented
the intimacy between him and Natalie, naturally enough, and would use
every means possible to get the younger man completely out of the house.
No doubt he looked upon him as dangerous. But why? There could only be
one answer to this query. His own dishonesty; his secret knowledge of
some trickery relative to the funds of the estate. He had convinced the
girl of his honesty, but, more than ever, West believed the fellow a
rascal. His very helplessness to intervene rendered him the more
These thoughts flitted through his mind, yet not consecutively, as the
car left the grounds, and turned on to the main road, leading citywards.
They were still skirting the Coolidge estate, although the house behind
was concealed by shrubbery. The road descending into a ravine spanned by
a concrete bridge, and a rather dense growth of trees shut out the
surrounding landscape. Nothing moving was in sight. Suddenly, just as
they cleared the bridge, and began to mount the opposite grade, there
came a sharp report, sounding so close at hand the chauffeur clamped on
his brake, and glanced anxiously over the side of the car.
"Blow-out, wasn't it, sir?"
"No," said West shortly, staring himself out into the thicket of trees at
their left. "It was a shot fired over there; a revolver I should say.
Wait a second, Sanders, until I see what has happened."
It was largely curiosity which led him to leave the car. The very
conviction that it was a revolver which had been discharged brought a
desire to learn the cause of the shot. The sound of either a rifle or a
shot-gun in that lonely spot would have been instantly dismissed as
natural enough, but a pistol was different. That was no place for such a
weapon. It somehow had a grimly sinister sound. Led forward by a dim
path, he plunged down the sharp incline of the hill, and pressed his way
through the thick fringe of trees beyond. Behind these ran a wire fence,
guarding a stretch of meadow, the high, uncut grass waving in the wind.
Nothing was in sight except this ripening field of clover sweeping upward
to the summit of an encircling ridge. The silence was profound; the
It was this fact which startled West from curiosity into suspicion.
Surely there had been a shot fired--a revolver shot--almost on the very
spot where he stood. He could not doubt the evidence of his own ears. Yet
who had fired? For what purpose? and how had the party disappeared so
completely during that narrow margin of time? There was no place where a
man could hide unless he lay flat in the clover; and what occasion would
any one have to thus seek concealment? Even if the shooter knew of the
passing automobile, or heard his approach through the trees, there could
be no reasonable cause for concealment. Determined now to learn exactly
what had happened, West pressed his passage forward through the vines of
the fence, and emerged into the field beyond. A half dozen yards and he
found the clover trampled, as though a man had passed that way. The trail
led into a shallow depression, past a rather large boulder, near which
the trampling of the grass was even more plainly revealed, as though the
stranger had remained here for some time, had even seated himself, and
then, abruptly ended a few yards away. Evidently the fellow had turned
back at this point, and retraced his steps.
West, now thoroughly puzzled, and already convinced that some mystery
hovered over the place, began to circle through the untrampled clover,
but without any defined purpose. All at once, at the lower end of the
gully he came, unexpectedly, upon another trail, this one well marked,
apparently frequently used, which led straight across the field, and
terminated at a small gate leading through the wire fence. Evidently
here was a short cut to the road, well known to the servants on the
estate, and possibly others. The discovery, however, told nothing
further than this, and contenting himself with another glance about the
unchanged field of rustling clover, West proceeded along the course of
the path, intending to thus rejoin the automobile, waiting his return
behind the trees.
Within a few steps of the gate, which was closed, he came to a sudden,
horrified pause, staring ahead at a strange something huddled in the
path. It was a shapeless thing, bearing no resemblance to a human being,
until he advanced closer; then he recognized the form of a man, curled up
as a dog sleeps, face down hidden by his arm, and limbs drawn up, as if
in a sudden spasm of agony. A hat was in the path beyond, where it had
fallen, and a revolver lay glittering in the sunlight a few feet away.
There was nothing familiar about either figure or clothing, yet
unquestionably there lay the body of a suicide. The single shot they had
heard, the tell-tale revolver close to the dead man's hand, were clear
evidence of what had occurred.
The unexpectedness of this discovery, the peculiar position of the dead
man, the loneliness of that deserted field in which he lay, shocked West
and, for a moment left him strangely hesitant. Who was the man? What
could have led up to the pitiful tragedy? Yet he advanced step by step
nearer to the hideous object in the path. The man had been shot directly
behind the right ear, killed instantly, no doubt, as the deadly bullet
crashed through the brain. West lifted the arm which concealed the face,
already shrinking from the suspicion, which had begun to assail him. Then
he knew who the dead man was--Percival Coolidge.
Affairs progressed far too rapidly for some hours for West to reflect
seriously over this experience. He could only act swiftly, answer
questions, and do all in his power to assist others. The real meaning of
the tragedy he made no effort to solve; for the time being, at least, he
must leave that to others.
He stood guard beside the body until servants came and bore it to the
house, but made no effort to follow. Instead he gave his address to
Sexton, and continued his journey into the city. After what had passed
between them he had no desire to again encounter Miss Natalie; and under
these circumstances, actually shrank from meeting her. Just what this
man's death might mean to the girl he could not safely conjecture, yet
deep down in his own heart, he felt convinced that this act of
self-destruction would later prove to be a confession of guilt. Yet, be
that as it may, he was already definitely ruled out of the matter. Not,
unless she personally sent for him, could he ever venture to go to her
again in any capacity. To his mind this decision was final.
He was called for the inquest and gave his testimony. The hearing was
brief, and the facts ascertained so clear, there remained no doubt in the
minds of any one, but what this was a case of suicide. No particular
attempt was made to probe into the cause, the personal affairs of the
dead man being left for later investigation. West saw Natalie at the
inquest for the very few moments she was upon the stand, but their eyes
did not meet, nor did the girl give any evidence of recognition. She was
pale, yet calm, answering the questions asked her quietly. These
pertained entirely to her last meeting with Coolidge, and had no direct
bearing on the verdict. The moment she was released she retired from the
room; and West merely lingered long enough to learn the decision of the
jury. Somehow the impression the young woman had left upon him in those
few moments was not a pleasant one. He could not clearly analyse this
result, yet she was either acting a part to conceal her true emotions, or
else she was really indifferent.
It was not until the following day that reason began to reassert itself,
and he succeeded in marshalling the facts of the case more clearly in
his own mind. He even began to doubt and question his own testimony, yet,
before he reached any real conclusion, one of the Club servants
approached his chair.
"Captain West, there is a man out here asking to see you."
"A man! Where?"
"I had him wait in the anteroom, sir. He would give no name, and seems to
be of the working class; so I thought I better tell you first, sir."
"Very well, Mapes. I'll soon find out what he wants."
It was Sexton, twirling his hat nervously in his hands, and still
standing irresolutely in the middle of the floor. As sight of West he
took a hasty step forward, eager to explain the cause of his presence.
"You'll pardon me, sir," he burst forth in apology. "But I must see
"That's quite all right, Sexton. You have some message?"
"Not--not from any one else, sir. It's just my own business, but--but I
thought you would help me, sir."
"Certainly; only too glad. Let's step in here where we can talk quietly."
He pointed the way into a private card room, closing the door behind
"Take the seat over there, Sexton. You came in to see me from Fairlawn?"
"No, sir, I didn't. The fact is, I'm not out there any longer."
"Not there! What do you mean?"
"I've been discharged, sir, with two other servants, since the funeral
"Discharged! Why I understood you had been employed there for years."
"Several years, sir."
"And now discharged! By whom? Not Miss Natalie surely?"
"Yes, sir. She didn't give no reason; just said we were not wanted any
longer. That's one reason why I came here to see you, sir."
"But I hardly know how I can be of help. I have no house of my own,
and--well, the truth of the matter is, Sexton, just at present I am not
on very good terms with the young lady myself."
"I know that, sir," more confidently. "And it isn't a position I am
seeking, at all. I have quite a tidy bit of money laid away, and could
get plenty of work. That's not the point, sir. Why should Miss Natalie
tell me to go like that? It isn't a bit like her, sir; she ain't seemed
natural at all lately, and I tell you there's something wrong goin' on
out there. I'm sure o' that, sir."
"Sure of what?"
"Well, for one thing, it's my opinion that Percival Coolidge never killed
West sat up stiffly, as though struck a blow. These words startled him;
drove his own mind into sudden activity.
"What makes you think that, Sexton?" he questioned slowly.
"Well, there's more than one thing," as though glad to have made the
plunge, and anxious to justify himself. "But first of all that wasn't his
revolver they found lying beside him. He always had one in his valise,
an' it's there now, or was when I looked to see."
"You didn't tell that to the coroner."
"No, sir; he never put me on the stand. Besides I didn't know about it
then. After I thought about it, I told Miss Natalie, sir."
"Oh, you did! and what did she say?"
"She didn't think that proved anything; that he probably had the other in
"This was before you were dismissed?"
"Yes, sir; the evening before, sir."
West whistled gravely, his gaze on the other's face.
"And is that all, Sexton?" he asked finally. "Is there any other reason
why you doubt Coolidge killed himself?"
"Did you notice where he was shot, sir?"
"Behind the right ear; the wound was plainly visible."
"Not very easy for a man to do himself, sir."
"No, but possible, nevertheless. The coroner was satisfied on that
"Yes, sir, but the coroner overlooked one thing, sir. He was sure it was
a suicide case, and wanted to get done with it in a hurry. I and
Simmons, sir, washed the body to get it ready for burial, an' I combed
the hair down over the bullet wound. There wasn't no powder marks on the
skin, an' not a hair was singed, sir. That's what makes me say he never
West sat silent and motionless, looking straight at the man opposite,
endeavouring to decide on a course of action. Someway in the depth of his
earnestness, Sexton no longer appeared a servant. He was a man, voicing a
man's heart. West realized the change instinctively; here was an
intelligent loyal fellow, to be met frankly, and for the time being, at
least, on the ground of equality. It would be useless to try to either
mislead, or deceive.
"Sexton," he began finally, "this is a pretty serious charge you make,
my man, but since I have been thinking things over, I confess some
suspicious circumstances have arisen in my own mind. Of course I was
not aware of these facts you have just related, but they fit in nicely
with some observations of my own. The truth is," he confessed frankly,
"I did not tell all I knew to the coroner's jury. I meant to do so, but
the right questions were not asked me, and certain details slipped my
memory until too late. Do you recall a boulder of rock out in that
"Yes, sir, to the right of the path; it is mostly hidden now by
"Entirely concealed a few yards away. Well, when I crawled through the
fence after hearing that shot fired, I saw nothing, and heard nothing. I
had advanced into the field several rods when I came upon the trail of
some one leading directly north. It was not a path; merely evidence that
a single person had passed that way. I followed, and came to this
boulder. Here there was every proof visible that the previous party had
remained for some time, seated and lying on the ground under protection
of the stone. The occupancy was a recent one. Then evidently, whoever it
was, had advanced to the right in the general direction of the gate
through the fence, near where Coolidge's body was found. The marks of
advance did not lead that far, or even to the marked path through the
field. They ended on a little rise, some ten yards from the boulder,
where the fellow apparently turned about, and retraced his steps."
"How far was that from the gate into the road, sir?" he asked
"Within easy shooting distance for a revolver of that calibre, I should
say. Any good marksman could have rung the bell."
"And you saw no one?"
"No; not a sign; the fact is I failed at the time to put two and two
together. The thought of a possible murder never occurred to me. It was
only afterwards that I began to appreciate what all this might mean, and
now what you have said has driven it home."
"You think it was murder then, sir?"
"Yes, I do," replied West gravely. "It has all the marks, but who
committed the crime? What was the motive? It will never do for us to make
such a charge, after the coroner's verdict, without positive proof."
"And you know of nothing which might clear this up?"
"No, sir; I've been with the Coolidges, sir, ever since Miss Natalie was
a little girl, and I ain't heard of any trouble that ought to end in
"How old was Miss Coolidge when her father died?"
"She must have been seventeen, sir."
"And since then Percival Coolidge had full charge of the estate?"
"Practically, yes, sir; there was another trustee, but he died; and then,
as I understand, Miss Natalie had some funds of her own."
West took a cigar from his pocket, and lit it. Although not altogether
clear in his own mind, he had begun to see light. For a moment he smoked
in silence in an endeavour to figure out his own duty, while Sexton,
nervously clinching and unclinching his hands, watched and waited.
AGAINST A STONE WALL
Was this discovery anything to him? What difference could it make whether
Percival Coolidge had died by his own hand, or been treacherously shot
from ambush? How would it benefit Natalie Coolidge to have the truth
revealed? And, if it would benefit her, why should he devote his time and
labour to such an effort? She had cast him off, thrown him aside; her
affairs had no further interest for him. Let her lawyer take care of
them. These were West's first thoughts.
All true, yet this state of mind brought no satisfaction. He was
interested; he could not escape his first impressions of the girl, or
drive from him a desire to serve her, whether she wished it, or not.
She might, indeed, be in equal danger from an assassin. He could not
determine this until he learned the cause of the slaying of Percival.
Then, on the other hand, suppose some one else's suspicions were also
aroused. Who would they naturally look to as guilty of this horrible
crime? There was but one answer--Natalie Coolidge. She was seemingly
the only person to directly benefit by this sudden death. All these
considerations urged him on, overcame his doubt and indecision. Then
he desired to learn the truth himself. His eyes rested on Sexton's
"I've been thinking it over," he admitted quietly, "and I guess it is up
to you and me to find out what this means."
"Yes, sir," hesitatingly. "You--you don't think it was Miss
"No, I do not, Sexton. I have my own reasons for saying that. Yet
naturally she is the one to be first suspected. Do you know anything?"
"Only that I am sure she was in the garden, sir, when the shot was fired.
I saw her there just after you drove away."
"That is conclusive then, so far as her personal actions are concerned.
But there is an odd angle to this matter, and I might as well explain it
to you first as last. Perhaps you can help figure the oddness out. I was
not engaged to Miss Natalie, Sexton; I was not even a friend. I came to
the house, employed to perform a certain task. She introduced me as her
fiance merely to explain my presence there, and make the way clear. It
was the impulse of a moment."
"You don't say, sir! What, may I ask, was it you was expected to do?"
"To discover who was masquerading in this city under her name."
"Was there some one, sir?"
"So she told me; we went into that rather thoroughly. She claimed it had
been going on for some months; checks had been cashed at the bank; even
her servants had been approached by some one so closely resembling her as
to deceive them; and she had been reported at various places she never
visited. She was very much exercised over it."
"And she engaged you just to find this other woman?"
"Yes; her lawyer and Percival Coolidge only laughed at her story."
"But you believed it, sir?"
"Well, perhaps not at first altogether. It seemed too strange and
impossible. I thought something must have got on her nerves and caused
her to imagine things. But the first night I remained out there gave me a
shock. I do not know whether I left my door unlocked, or whether a
pass-key was used, but I woke up suddenly to discover a woman in the
room. I only had a glimpse of her, for she slipped out instantly, and
disappeared down the hall; but it was moonlight and I would have sworn
the intruder was Miss Natalie. I asked her the next day."
"And she denied being there?"
"Absolutely, and convinced me it was true. There is no doubt in my mind,
Sexton, but what she really is being impersonated by some one who
resembles her most remarkably. Who this person is I have not the remotest
idea; nor what her real object can be. Just at this moment, I am inclined
to believe it has something to do with the Coolidge estate--a criminal
scheme of some kind, and that Percival Coolidge had connection with it."
"I can hardly believe that, sir."
"No doubt you find it difficult. You told me yourself that had always
been his room, the one I occupied."
"That woman knew it; she came there to consult with him." He stopped
suddenly. "By Gad! Sexton, maybe she came there to kill him. I hadn't
thought of that."
"It is too much for me, sir," the other said soberly. "I don't know why
any one should want to kill him. But there's got to be a reason
somewhere. Where was it the three of you went on Sunday in the runabout,
"To a house over in the factory district; some charity case that Coolidge
was interested in--the widow of one of his employees, I believe."
"Did you see the people?"
"No, I didn't go in; waited outside in the car; it was no affair of mine.
Why?" he asked in surprise.
"Because, sir, Miss Natalie seemed like a different person when she got
back. Not in looks, or nothing like that I don't mean, but in the way she
talked and acted. Nothing suited her all the rest of the day. You know
how she was to you, sir. Well she was just that snappy with all of us,
even after we brought the body back to the house. And she wouldn't look
at him, sir, not even after he was dressed proper and laid out. She just
went off up stairs, and stayed there; had a bit of toast an' tea, an'
"I hardly believe," said West thoughtfully, "you can attribute her state
of mind to anything that occurred on that trip. Indeed she was in high
spirits all the way home."
"I can't help that, sir," Sexton insisted blindly. "It was something that
happened yesterday what set her wrong, an' if I was you, sir, I'd find
out what happened in that house first of all. Could you find the place?"
"Yes, I think so. I'll look it up, although I don't have much faith in
your theory." He glanced at his watch. "I'll go out there now. You come
back here about five, and we will talk over any discoveries I may make."
"And what shall I do, sir?"
Both were standing, West with hand on the knob of the door. The light in
his eyes hardened.
"Nothing occurs to me now, Sexton, unless you can find an excuse to
return to Fairlawn, after something you have forgotten, let us say. If we
can learn what Miss Natalie proposes doing it might furnish a clue."
"Very well, sir, and I am to be here at five o'clock?"
"Yes, at five; I will leave word with the doorman to show you in at
West picked up a taxi-cab for the trip, bidding the chauffeur to drive to
a certain section of the city, and then up and down the various streets
until told to stop. He had no idea that his quest would reveal anything
of importance relative to the death of Coolidge, yet no better
suggestion occurred to him and he felt that he must do something. His
conversation with Sexton had greatly strengthened his conviction that
this was a murder, and he had determined to ferret out the truth if
possible. Yet, thus far there was nothing to build upon, no clue, no
motive, no suspicion as to who had perpetrated the deed. He simply faced
a blank wall, in which no entrance was apparent, yet there must be one,
if he was only fortunate enough to stumble upon it. Deep down in his
heart West was conscious that he possessed a motive in this search far
more worthy than mere curiosity. That motive was Natalie Coolidge. He
smiled at the thought, yet confessed it true. In spite of her curt
dismissal, his memory of the girl centred about those earlier hours of
their acquaintance. Something mysterious had occurred to make her change
so quickly, and he was unwilling to condemn her before learning the real
reason. This murder must have some relation to the Coolidge estate; he
could conceive of no other motive for such a cold-blooded affair; and
hence its solving must prove of vital importance to her and her future.
Now, when the verdict of the coroner's jury had been suicide, and when
only he, and the servant Sexton suspected otherwise, it was of the
utmost importance that they endeavour to unravel the crime. For her
sake he could do no less, thus serving and protecting her to the best of
The chauffeur drove slowly up and down obscure streets for half an hour
before West recognized familiar surroundings, and motioned for him to
draw up against the curb. He had discovered the place sought, but from
the street it exhibited no signs of occupancy, nor did any knocking at
the front door bring response from within. He circled the building,
finding an uncurtained window at the rear, which merely revealed an
unfurnished room. Every door was locked, but, as he passed along the
other side to regain the taxi, a man emerged from the next house, and
"Say, what're yer snoopin' round there for? Lookin' for somebody?"
"Yes, the parties who were here Sunday. What's become of them."
"Hobart, you mean?"
"Is that his name? I met him down town, and he told me to come here,"
West explained rapidly. "We had a deal on."
"Oh, yer did, hey," leaning his arms on the fence. "Well, Jim Hobart was
the name he giv' me. That's my house, which is why I happen to know
what his name was. Something queer about that fellar, I reckon, but
'tain't none o' my business. You ain't a detective, or nothin' like
that, are yer?"
"Nothing at all like that," West laughed, although interested. "Why? Did
you think the police might be after him?"
"Not for anything I know about, only he skipped out mighty sudden. Paid
me a month rent, and only stayed there three days. That looks sorter
queer. Then Sunday that fellar what committed suicide out south--I read
about in the papers--came to see him in a car. I got a boy workin' in his
factory; that's how I come to know who the guy was. The next night
Hobart, an' them with him, just naturally skipped out. So I didn't know
but what the police might want him for something."
"I don't know anything about that. I just called on a private matter.
Where did he go to?"
"Hell, man, I didn't even know he was goin'."
"Who did he have with him here--a family?"
"A woman 'bout his age I should say, an' a younger one. I didn't see 'em
only from the window; didn't get no sight o' the girl's face at all, but
could tell the way she walked she was young. They didn't have nothin'
with 'em; that's all my stuff in the house there."
Feeling the uselessness of trying to learn anything more, West thanked
him, and returned to the taxi.
"Back to the Club," he ordered briefly, and settled into his seat to
238 WRAY STREET
The information thus gained had been small enough, yet sufficient to
stimulate his belief that he was at least upon the right trail. The
sudden departure of this man Hobart, and the fact that no young children
were in the family, were important items to consider. Coolidge then had
not visited this cottage to aid a widow and orphans. There had been some
other object in his call. The girl must have known and understood the
real purpose; that was why they both acquiesced so readily to his
remaining outside in the car. It was part of their mutual plan to thus
leave him in ignorance. Yet they had made a mistake in taking him along
at all. This error alone gave him now an opportunity to unravel the
riddle. But did it? What did he know? Merely that Coolidge had not gone
to this house on an errand of charity; that the occupant called himself,
temporarily, perhaps, Jim Hobart; that his family consisted of two
women, undescribed except as to age; and that all three had mysteriously
disappeared together. He might take it for granted that this
disappearance was caused by the death of Coolidge, but, they had left no
trail, no inkling as to where they had gone. He might suspect this sudden
vanishing had direct connection with the crime he was endeavouring to
solve, but he possessed absolutely no proof, and, apparently, any further
movement on his part was completely blocked.
More puzzled than ever, although now fully convinced that murder had been
committed, West could do nothing but wait the reappearance of Sexton. The
latter arrived promptly on time, but, much to West's disappointment,
merely nodded his head negatively to the general inquiry as to whether or
not he had made any discoveries. The early hour enabled the host to
secure a secluded table in the dining room, but there was no effort at
conversation until after the meal had been ordered. Then West told his
story. The retelling of these incidents of the afternoon, coupled with
Sexton's evident interest in the narrative, and the questions the man
asked, caused the discoveries made to assume a greater importance than
before. His listener seemed to sense the situation clearly.
"It wasn't no mistake, your goin' out there, sir," he said, confidently.
"What we know now gives us something to work on anyhow, an' it's just
what I thought--that trip Sunday led up to this killin', an' something
happened while they was in there to stir Miss Natalie all up. Now we got
to find this fellow--what did you say his name was, sir?"
"Hobart--Jim Hobart; that is he was known by that name there."
"And you say he has simply dropped out o' sight?"
"That's true; never left a clue behind him."
"Well, sir, I'm not quite so sure about that. You listen to me, sir. I
walked out to Fairlawn from the car-line, an' come in across the fields
to the house. I didn't have no good excuse for goin' back there, sir, an'
was sorter afraid to meet up with Miss Natalie. She might have thought I
was just spyin' 'round. But I didn't have no need for being afraid, for
it seems she'd driven into town about noon, an' hadn't got back. There
wasn't nobody but the servant around the place, sir. Do you remember
Lizzie, the second maid--sorter full face, an' light hair?"
West nodded, wondering what all this might be leading to.
"Well, she an' I always hit it off together, an' I talked with her quite
a bit. She's goin' to quit too, because of something what happened, so it
was safe enough to question her. She told me, sir, that Miss Natalie had
a telephone call this morning that took her into the city. Lizzie she
went to the 'phone when it rang, an' it was a man's voice. He wouldn't
leave no message, but insisted on speaking to Miss Natalie. Lizzie had to
call her down from upstairs."
"Did the girl overhear the conversation?"
"Not so as to make very much out of it, sir. She was sorter
interested, the man's voice being strange, and hung around in the hall
listening, but about all she could make out was what Miss Natalie
said. It seemed like he was givin' her some kind of address, which she
didn't exactly understand, an' so she repeated it after him two or
three times to be sure."
"What was the address?"
"238 Ray Street, sir."
"You are certain of that?"
"That was what Lizzie said; she was pretty positive, sir; an' then about
an hour later, Miss Natalie ordered her car, an' drove into town."
"Yes, sir; it was the electric she took."
West remained silent, tapping with his knife on the table. This might
prove important, and he could not afford to ignore the information. While
to his mind it was hardly likely Hobart had called the girl, yet the
"I never heard of a Ray Street," he said at length, "but of course, there
may be one. Oh, Charlie," he stopped a waiter passing. "Bring me up a
City directory, will you. You will find one in the office down stairs.
Tell the Secretary Captain West wishes it and will return it at once."
The first course had been served when the man returned with the book,
placing it on a chair next West, who immediately deserted his soup to
inspect the volume.
"Ray Street," he said doubtfully, fingering the pages. "There is no such
street here, Sexton. Are you sure you got that right?"
"That's what she said, sir; I made her say it over twice."
"Ray Street; wonder if it could be spelled with a W? By Jove, it
is--Wray! Here we have it, only five blocks long, extending from Conway
to Grogan. Rather tough section I should judge."
"I don't know, sir. I never heard of any of those streets before. How do
you get there?"
"By car you mean? Well, let's see on the map. Oh yes, that's plain
enough; Milwaukee Avenue to Gans, and then walk east three blocks. It
wouldn't do any harm to take a look around there either. Perhaps that is
where Hobart went; he might have been the one calling Natalie. Rather a
wild guess, but it will give us something to do. What number was it?"
"Good; we'll try our luck after we finish dinner; there will be a couple
of hours of daylight yet. Are you game, Sexton?"
"Quite so, sir."
The sinking sun was still above the sky-line of the buildings fronting on
Milwaukee Avenue, when the two men alighted at the intersection of Gans
Street. West hardly took the adventure seriously, being more influenced
by curiosity than any other motive, but Sexton was deeply in earnest, in
full faith they were upon the right trail. Doubtful as he was, West had
neglected no precautions. The map assured him that they were invading a
disorderly section of the city, where to be well-dressed would only
invite suspicion, and might lead to trouble. To avoid this possibility,
he had donned his most shabby suit, and wore a cap largely concealing his
face. In one pocket of his jacket within easy reach lay hidden his
service revolver loaded, and he had induced Sexton to accept a smaller
weapon in case of emergency.
Gans Street was not inviting, the saloon on the corner being flanked by
several small factories. The brick side-walk was in bad condition, and
littered with junk of all kinds, while the road-way was entirely uncared
for, and deeply rutted from heavy traffic. Half way down the block, was a
tannery, closed now for the night, but with its odour yet permeating the
entire atmosphere. Altogether, the scene was desolate and disagreeable
enough, but the street was deserted of pedestrians, the factory doors
tightly closed for the night.
The two men pressed their way through along the narrow passage, finding
less obstruction as they advanced, the second block being composed
entirely of houses, largely of the tenement type, and apparently
principally populated by children. Wray Street, once attained, was of an
entirely different character, being lined with homes, usually humble
enough outwardly, yet the throughfare was clean, and the small yards had
generally an appearance of neatness in marked contrast to its
surroundings. 238 was a three story brick, on the corner, the second
story evidently utilized for living purposes, and the ground floor
occupied as a saloon. The upper story exhibited no signs of occupancy,
the windows unwashed, and two of them boarded up. The saloon possessed a
fairly respectable appearance, the lettering across the front window
proclaiming it as "Mike's Place," and seemed to be doing some business,
several entering and departing by way of its hospitable door, while the
two lingered in uncertainty opposite. Standing there idly however did not
appeal to West.
"Well, let's go over," he said impatiently. "There is nothing to be
It was an ordinary bar-room, and their entrance apparently aroused no
special interest. Besides the man behind the bar, a rather rough looking
foreigner, a Pole in West's judgment, three customers were in the place,
two with feet upon the rail talking with the drink dispenser, and, one at
a small table moodily contemplating a half emptied stein of beer. There
were three other tables in the room, and the Captain with a swift glance
about, drew out a chair and sat down, his action being imitated by
Sexton. The bar-tender came forward around the end of the bar, while the
man nearest shifted his position slightly so as to look them over,
conversation instantly ceasing. Something indefinable in the fellow's
attitude, and steady stare, gave West a feeling of hostility, which was
not dispelled by the gruff greeting of the bar-tender.
"Well, what is it you fellers want?"
"A stein apiece, and a sandwich--you serve them, don't you?"
"Sure; ham or beef?"
There was no cordiality, no welcome in either manner or speech. It was
plainly evident the proprietor of the saloon felt no enthusiasm over his
unknown customers. The eyes of the two men met understandingly, but the
few words exchanged between them were entirely foreign to the situation.
Mike came back with the beer and sandwiches, pausing this time to wipe
off the table, as an excuse for speech.
"You guys live 'round here?" he asked gruffly, "Don't remember ever
seein' yer in here before."
"No," returned West indifferently, looking directly into the hard face.
"I'm a smoke inspector, an' we just dropped in on our way back to the
"Oh, nuthin'; only we don't get much trade outside the neighbourhood. I
wish ter hell ye'd get after that tannery; can't hardly breathe here
"That's what we were looking after; had some complaints lately."
"Sure, I been kickin' 'bout it for a month. You fellers have another
beer on me."
He walked back toward the bar, pausing an instant to whisper a word to
the taller man who still stood there staring moodily at the table. What
he said apparently determined action, for the fellow addressed, crossed
the room to where West and Sexton sat, deliberately pulled up a vacant
chair, and joined them.
"Bring me another, Mike," he ordered. "That is, if these gents don't
object to my joining 'em awhile."
West smiled pleasantly, glad the man had taken the initiative, thus
naturally opening up a way for asking certain questions. Whatever his own
immediate object might be in thus scraping an acquaintance made no
difference. It would doubtless develop in time, but meanwhile here was
the opportunity sought to discuss the affairs of the neighbourhood. Yet
the subject must be approached with due caution. The very indifference of
the bar-tender coupled with the evident desire of this hanger-on to form
an acquaintance, served to reveal the real nature of "Mike's Place."
Plainly enough strangers were viewed with suspicion, and this was no
ordinary saloon, catering to whatever trade drifted within its doors.
More than likely it was rather a thieves' hang-out, ever suspicious of
the activity of the police.
Yet this fellow bore no outward semblance to the common conception of the
under-world. Nor did his actions or words exhibit any motive other than
ordinary good-fellowship. He was well dressed, easy of manner, with an
exceptionally intelligent face, blue eyes meeting West's gaze frankly, a
carefully trimmed moustache, with white teeth good humouredly showing
when he smiled, and threads of grey in his hair. His very appearance
invited confidence and comradeship, while his outspoken words increased
"Excuse my butting in," he explained genially. "But it's damn dull around
here tonight. Nobody to talk with but a couple o' bums. You see I don't
belong around here; just dropped in for a bit of business with Mike."
"I see," admitted West, puzzled, and wondering how far he dared venture.
"You can get lonelier in a big city than anywhere else."
"You bet you can. I like some one I can talk to; some guy with ideas. You
see I run a broker's office down town, an' its pretty blame slow around a
dump like this--you get me?"
"Sure; this seems to be a pretty quiet place."
"Quiet! Hell! it isn't always so quiet. I've dropped in here when it was
lively enough, believe me. But tonight it's the limit. Fact is I come up
for a little excitement, as much as anything else, but must have struck
an off night. You're a smoke inspector, Mike says?"
"Know Fred Karvan, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes; friend of yours?"
"Used to be; we were kids together down on the southside. He's got a
pretty soft job now; stands in strong with the City Hall, they tell me.
Mean to drop in and see him some of these days."
"You'll find him a mighty good fellow," asserted West to whom the name
was entirely unfamiliar.
"Well, I'm not so sure about that. He's got pretty stiff the last few
years they tell me. But then you work under him, and ought to know. Head
of your department, isn't he?"
"Yes, but I only meet him in a business way, of course."
"Sure; but that is the way you get to know them best. Been a soldier,
"Yes, but what made you think that?" in some surprise at the unexpected
query. The man laughed, lighting a cigar carelessly.
"Oh, it has not been so long since, that the evidence is obliterated.
I've got a habit of noticing things. The way you sit, and square your
shoulders told me you'd been in uniform; besides you're the right age.
Get across to France?"
"Had over a year there," wondering what the fellow could be angling
after. "You didn't get in?"
"No; I was over the limit. I was thinking you might be interested in
looking over a collection of war relics Mike has got stowed away here
somewhere. He had two boys over there, and I reckon they must have put in
most of their time gathering up souvenirs. Anyhow they brought back the
greatest collection of war junk I've ever seen. Say, Mike, what did you
do with those war relics the boys sent home?"
The fellow addressed leaned over the bar, his face glowing with
"They vas in the back-room, all spread out. Why you ask? The gentlemen
would see them, what?"
"Yes; this one was a soldier himself. Maybe he can tell more about them
than the boys could. How is it? You fellows like to see the things?"
West hesitated for just an instant, his eyes turning unconsciously toward
Sexton, who had not spoken. He felt no suspicion, merely a vague doubt as
to what this invitation might conceal. Yet it had all been natural
enough, and promised an opportunity for him to learn something more of
the place. An accident might reveal the very discovery he was eagerly
seeking. Besides there could be no danger; both he and Sexton were armed,
and apparently the invitation was innocently extended. To refuse to
accept would be churlish.
"Certainly," he said at last, quaffing the last of his beer and
rising to his feet. "It will be nothing new to me, I imagine, but
we'll have a look."
The other man, who had been leaning against the bar, had disappeared,
while the fellow at the table had seemingly fallen asleep. Mike came
forward with a bunch of keys in his hand.
"I keep dot room locked," he exclaimed gruffly, "for some beoples run off
with all dings they get their fingers on. Hey, you, Carl," and he roughly
shook the sleeper into semi-consciousness, "wake up, and see to the bar
awhile. I've got some business. Whoever comes, you keep them
here--understand. All right, gents."
The three stood close behind him as Mike inserted the key, and opened the
door. It was already growing dusk without, and the tightly closed room,
with shade drawn at the single window, was so dark that West could
scarcely discern its shape and contents. Mike, without hesitation,
stepped within, his great bulk blotting out whatever view there was.
"Come right in, gents," he insisted. "Von minute, an' I turn on
West never understood why he responded so recklessly to this invitation,
and advanced without hesitation. He had no suspicion of any trick, no
conception of being in any danger. He stepped in directly behind the
leader, and Sexton followed. An instant later, the door closed, with the
sharp click of a night latch, and Mike flashed on the light. As he did
so, he wheeled about, and shot one mighty clinched fist straight into
West's face. This was done so suddenly, so unexpectedly, the man
attacked found no opportunity to even throw up a hand in self-defence.
The giant Pole flung his whole weight into the crashing blow, and the
ex-soldier went down as though struck by a pole-ax. For an instant, he
realized that Sexton was in a fierce struggle; that his assailant stood
poised above him ready to land again if he moved; then consciousness
left him entirely.
He woke up, sitting in a chair, his hands bound to the arms with strips
of cloth. For a moment everything about seemed tinged with yellow, the
various objects in sight vague and shapeless. It hurt him to move his
head, and his mind functioned dully. He could not think, or bring back to
memory a recollection of what had occurred. Yet slowly the mist cleared
and the objects about him assumed natural form. He was in a room of some
size--not the one in which he had been attacked he felt sure--fitted up
with a long table, and a number of chairs. There was no other furniture;
the walls were bare, and only a small rag rug partially covered the
floor. At first he perceived no other occupants; only as, painfully, he
finally twisted his head to the right, his eyes distinguished two men
seated against the wall. The sight of their faces restored instantly his
memory of what had occurred. The Pole rested back, with feet on the table
and eyes closed, but the other--the younger man--was watching him
closely, an unlighted cigar gripped in his teeth.
"So, you've come out of it," the latter said unpleasantly. "I'd begun to
think Mike had handed you a real knock-out that time. Ready to answer a
West, his brain clearing rapidly, sat up straighter in the chair,
determined to play out his part the best he could.
"Perfectly ready," he replied struggling to control his voice. "Only I
should like to know what all this means? Why attack me?"
"You'll find that out soon enough, Captain; but first I'll do the
"Not until I know one thing, at least--what has become of the man who
was with me?"
"Well, I might as well tell you," carelessly. "He got hurt; the fool
compelled me to hit him with a gat; so he's out of it, and you might as
well come through clean--that guy isn't going to help you any."
"You mean you killed him?"
"Well, he's out of the game; that's enough. And as for you, your best
play right now is to talk up straight." He laughed sneeringly, "Unless
you want to call up your friend Karvan, at the City Hall, you know. Hell,
but you was easy!"
"That's what I said. I knew you all right when you first blew in, only I
wasn't quite sure. Just had a glimpse of you once before. I naturally
guessed your smoke-inspector stunt was a sham. So, I ran that Fred Karvan
stuff in on you. You ate it up, which gave you clean away, for I never
knew any guy of that name. Do you see the point, Captain West?"
"Yes, I see all that plainly enough, but it does not explain the attack
on me. You evidently know my name, and this assault has been
deliberately made. Why? What have you against me? I have never seen
either of you before."
"Perhaps I'll tell you when you explain. What brought you into this
neighbourhood. Hunting some one, wasn't you?"
"Oh, don't lie; that will bring you nothing, West. You were sticking your
nose into a private matter which does not concern you in any way. That's
right, isn't it? Very well, you've had your lesson, and now it is simply
up to you to either drop this thing, or else take another. It's up to you
how far we go. Now listen. I believe it was merely curiosity that brought
you here. That's true, isn't it?"
"You suspected something, and wanted to find out if it was so. Well, you
came into a bad neighbourhood. We are not nice to your kind around here.
What really caused your seeking me?"
"I do not know that I did," West answered honestly. "In fact I haven't
the slightest idea who you are."
The other laughed.
"So you are as green as that. Then I'll give you the information. My
name is Hobart, Jim Hobart. I am the guy you were looking for?"
"Yes," West admitted, seeing no reason to refuse an answer.
"I thought so, although darned if I know how you ever located me here.
However, the sooner we come to some understanding, the better. What do
you know about me?"
"Is that so! You knew my name when I spoke it. It was the Coolidge matter
that sent you hunting me. Oh, hell, you might as well cough up, West, for
I've got your number. You thought the girl was here, didn't you?"
"I had reason to believe she came here."
"I see; how did you gain that news?"
"A conversation by telephone was overheard."
"Now we are getting down to facts. And this comprises your entire
information, doesn't it? Let's check up. You connected me with the case
because you were with the uncle and her on their call Sunday. You
discovered in some way that I had since disappeared from that
neighbourhood. Then you accidentally got on to this telephone call, and
decided to run me down. Some cute little detective, I'll say. But what's
the object? What is it you are trying to connect me up with? What
possible cause can you have for butting in on this affair?"
"I told you before; merely curiosity."
"And who was the guy with you?"
"An old servant of the Coolidge family."
"It was mere curiosity in his case also, I presume?"
"So far as I know, yes."
Hobart smiled, showing his teeth cruelly.
"West," he said slowly, "you are a damned good liar, but I am about to
spike your gun. Go on out Mike, and send in the first witness."
THE EDGE OF COMPROMISE
The two men sat silently watching each other, Hobart pretending a
carelessness he was far from feeling, uncertain as to West's real
purpose. The latter realized now the true seriousness of his position,
yet this only increased his belief in the reality of the crime.
Previously his mind had harboured doubts, but the very fact that Hobart
would resort to such desperate methods was ample proof of his
apprehension of danger. If Percival Coolidge had committed suicide, this
fellow would surely have nothing to fear; he could safely ignore any
efforts to trap him; indeed would possess no suspicions along that line.
It was his own guilty conscience which drove him to desperation. Coolidge
had been murdered, and this man was either guilty of the crime, or else
knew the one who was, and had personal reasons for protecting the party.
These thoughts took possession of his mind and were convincing. He no
longer questioned but what he was on the track of crime, yet his thought
at that moment concentrated more vividly on his own personal peril. How
could he escape? What was he about to be confronted with? Nothing around
him afforded inspiration. He was bound helplessly; Sexton had
disappeared, whether dead or a prisoner, he did not know; the walls of
the room exhibited no signs of weakness, while Hobart eyed his every
movement coldly, evidently enjoying his predicament. Apparently the man
comprehended the nature of his thought.
"Perfectly useless, West," he said carelessly. "This place was
constructed for the purpose, and you are not the only one who has tested
its strength. You will get out when I say so, and not before."
"Do you intend to say so?"
"Well, that depends," shrewdly. "Not if your release means my taking
any chances. But frankly, I do not believe it will. So far as I can see
you possess no particular interest in this matter--only the attraction
a young fellow always feels in a pretty woman. Have I got that doped
"To an extent at least."
"Yes, to a very large extent. Of course, curiosity also played a part,
while everybody possesses a sneaking desire to do a detective act. Miss
Coolidge filled you up with a lot of bunk; she was good looking, and you
fell for it. Certain things happened that you failed to understand, so
you rather naturally jumped to the conclusion that some crime was being
concocted. That was what brought you here. Now I take it that,
ordinarily, you are a man of some sense. Consequently I mean to try to
get you to drop the whole affair, as being none of your business. If you
agree to this, I accept your pledge, the door opens, and you go free;
otherwise--" he waved his hand expressively.
"Otherwise what?" asked West quietly.
"I will see that you are removed from all temptation; my plans are too
important to be interfered with by a meddlesome fool."
"But you can scarcely expect me to give such a promise?"
"Well, I don't know about that. It doesn't pay to be too obstinate. You
have been in the army, I understand; then you are aware there is a harsh
side to life, a way to make or break men. All right, now I've got the
power; I can keep you locked up here; I could even kill you if necessary.
You are utterly helpless. There is an argument worth your consideration.
But I will give you yet another which may have even more weight."
The door opened quietly, and then closed, leaving Natalie Coolidge
standing there in the light, her eyes slightly frowning as she looked
silently at the two men.
"The lady, of course," explained Hobart, rising to his feet, "you will,
at least, be gentleman enough to accept her word!"
She waited, seemingly unable to quite grasp the situation, or realize the
part she was called upon to perform, but as West failed to respond,
finally asked a question.
"What is it, Jim? You sent for me?"
"Yes, as a last resort. You recognize this man?"
"Of course," indifferently; "what is he doing here?"
"It seems the fellow hasn't taken his dismissal very seriously, Natalie,"
he explained, "and remains very much interested in your affairs. That
covers the principal known facts in the case."
"You mean he followed me here?"
"He was on the trail, but just for what particular purpose I have failed
to learn; the lad is a bit close mouthed, but it looks to me as though he
was in love with you."
The girl smiled, tossing her head as she stepped forward.
"In love with me," she echoed. "That is a joke, yet I had some such
suspicion when I told him to quit the job. He acted like a fool then, and
began to question me as though he had a right. It was that being engaged
business most likely."
"Sure; he thought he had you copped, fortune and all, and it looks to me
like he needs another jolt to put the idea entirely out of his head. That
is what I brought you in for. I'll explain first just how it happened.
This army guy blew in here before dark, along with another fellow,
Sexton, who used to be a servant out at Fairlawn--you know him?"
"Yes; he was discharged yesterday."
"I was standing by the bar talking with Issy, and I was sure I knew this
lad's face. I was stumped a bit at first where I had seen him; then all
at once it came to me--he was the guy sitting out there alone in the
automobile over on Arch Street. I knew then what he was over here for,
and got to talking with him. He give himself away the first thing, and
that is why we got him up in this dump."
"How did he know I was here?"
"Some of your precious help out there heard you talk to me over the
'phone, and passed it on."
"And what does he want? What do these men want?"
"Well Sexton don't want much of anything--he's knocked out; the fool made
a fight, and had to be hit; and, as to this bird, I rather think he was
just naturally nosing around out of curiosity, and because he was stuck
on you. I don't figure he is anything to be afraid of, but I am not going
to have the fellow gum-shoeing around. I'll take his word to get out, and
stay out; otherwise he and I are going to have a little seance of our
own. That's all there is about it."
West had said nothing, watching the others, and waiting to choose some
course of action. His mind was confused, uncertain, yet he found
encouragement in Hobart's statement of the case. The fellow felt no
serious fear of him; had no suspicion as yet that anyone believed
Percival Coolidge murdered. The probability was that not even the girl
dreamed of such a thing. Whatever her connection might be with this man,
she must be innocent of so foul a crime. If he could only speak to her
alone; bring to her the truth; reveal to her the real character of this
man Hobart, there would be no doubt of the result. In spite of the
strange situation he yet retained faith in the girl; she had been
deceived, led astray in some manner, but his first impression of her true
nature still controlled his thought. He could only believe her a victim
of scheming villains, driven by circumstances to play a part utterly
foreign to her character. His only hope of learning the facts from her
own lips, or of re-establishing her faith in him, lay in a moment's
conversation alone. His mind instantly leaped to this conclusion, and his
eyes met her own. They were wide-open, full of curiosity yet not unkind.
He spoke swiftly.
"That sounds fair enough, Hobart," he said quietly, taking the chance as
though it was the most natural thing in the world. "I am not hunting
trouble in any way, or seeking to butt in where I am not wanted. Your
guess as to my purpose in coming here is about right. I had no other
object but to be of some service to this young lady. If I can talk with
her a moment alone, and thus assure myself as to her wishes, I'll give
you any pledge you want, and forget all about the affair. Is that
"Alone, you said? You want to see her alone?"
"Absolutely; no other arrangement will answer. I want her to talk
freely; to answer my questions with no interference."
Hobart glanced toward his companion inquiringly, evidently inclined to
deny the request.
"Hell, you don't want much," he said rather gruffly. "What do you think
about this proposition, Natalie?"
The girl smiled, her eyes still on West's face.
"Fair enough," she admitted as though the whole matter was a joke. "The
man can do me no harm, and I am willing enough to be interviewed. It
looks like the easiest way out."
His mood changed, influenced, no doubt, by her confidence in the result.
"All right, if you say so. It is my guess you are equal to the job. How
much time do you want, West?"
"Ten or fifteen minutes. I want to get down to the bottom of this thing."
"Oh, you do, hey? Modest as ever, I see. Well, here's luck to you. You
needn't be afraid of the guy, Natalie; we got his gat before we brought
him up here, and if he makes any break, I'll be out in the hall ready to
take a hand. You're still for it?"
"Yes," indifferently, seating herself on a convenient chair. "We might
as well talk it out now as any time. You go on, Jim, and leave it to me."
Hobart was not entirely satisfied, hesitating as he lit a fresh cigar,
his keen eyes watchful of them both. However, it was plain to be seen the
girl had made her decision, and he evidently knew her well enough to
realize the uselessness of revolt.
"All right, then," he replied finally, turning to the door. "Suit
yourself, only watch your step. Anyhow, I'll be within calling distance,
if this guy gets gay."
"Don't worry about that," a flash of anger in her eyes. "I am no baby,
Jim Hobart. Go on now, and leave Captain West to me."
He closed the door behind him, and the two were alone in the room. No
sound reached them from without, not even an echo of Hobart's footsteps
in the hall. West looked across at the girl, who sat motionless, her eyes
shaded by long lashes, and ringless fingers clasped in her lap. She
appeared indifferent, uninterested, scarcely aware of his presence. He
wondered if Hobart was listening at the door; what had become of Mike,
and whether Sexton was alive or dead. For the moment he could scarcely
make himself realize the true situation. His silence served to arouse her
interest, for she suddenly lifted her head and looked at him.
"Well," she said soberly. "You have something to ask?"
"Much--yes; but first, are we alone?"
"This man Hobart, you are sure he is not listening at the door?"
She glanced about; then laughed.
"Little good that would do him; there is no key-hole, no chance for sound
to penetrate. We are quite alone, Captain, and you are perfectly free to
say whatever you please."
"But even then, is this wholly fair?"
"What do you mean?"
"I came here," he explained earnestly, "with no bad intention; no desire
to injure any one, Miss Coolidge; my only thought the possibility of
being of some service to you."
"That is very interesting, I am sure. I am quite grateful."
"Then I am going to ask you a favour. Release my hands and feet. You need
not be afraid; I give my pledge to make no attempt at escape while we are
together. Will you do this?"
WEST MAKES HIS CHOICE
The girl neither answered, nor hesitated, but crossed the room swiftly,
her hands seeking the lashings about his wrists. Her movement thrilled
him, and his blood leaped at the soft touch of her fingers.
"Really, I did not realize you were tied into the chair," she exclaimed
indignantly. "Hobart is a fool to do such a thing. Why, what has caused
him to become so frightened? Tell me, Captain West, how all this
"You know nothing?"
"Only what has been said since I entered the room. Mike simply told me
they had a man here who Hobart thought was a detective, and he wanted me
to come in a moment. I came, and found you. Now, please, what does it
She slipped back to her seat again, her eyes on his face, as he arose and
stretched his limbs to restore circulation. To his quick glance her face
expressed only sympathy, and innocent interest. Any doubt he may have
felt as to the sincerity of the girl vanished instantly; whatever of
crime was concealed here, she had no suspicion. He could tell her the
whole story without fear.
"I'll try and explain, Miss Natalie," he began rather lamely, "although
perhaps, you may not wholly understand the motives which have prompted
me. This, of course, is really no business of mine, and the only thing
that has involved me is the deep interest I have felt in you."
"In me! why that is rather interesting. It was to serve me you
"At least I thought so. Shall I make it more definite? No doubt you are
aware that you are an unusually pretty woman. Well, at least, I think so
for one, and our first meeting, with its subsequent adventures, was
romantic enough to shake me out of a commonplace existence. In fact, I
became quite deeply interested in you."
"Why really, Captain," she interrupted, slightly puzzled. "I perhaps do
not fully comprehend to what you refer. Do you mean there was something
between us? Some special intimacy?"
"Oh, no; not that; probably no dream of what was occurring in your mind.
Yet the circumstances of our meeting were peculiar; they rendered a very
brief acquaintance into what promised to become a real friendship."
"How do you mean?"
"Surely you cannot have forgotten so soon," he exclaimed in surprise at
her attitude, seating himself once more and facing her determinedly. "I
came to you in response to a strange advertisement; you trusted me so
completely as to introduce me to your friends as your fiance, and later
confided to me the special trouble you were in. I pledged you my
assistance, and it was surely very natural that, under these
circumstances, I as a young man, should have become rather deeply
"In both the case, and the girl."
"Yes; so much so, indeed, that even when I was rather harshly dismissed,
I could not accept it without a protest. I had grown to feel that this
was not a mere business arrangement between us. Do you understand now?"
"I can see it from your stand-point. But nevertheless, I am surprised,
Captain West. You--you mean you actually fell in love with me?"
"I felt a very, very deep interest in you," he admitted gravely, "a
greater interest than I have ever felt in any other woman. That is my
sole excuse for becoming involved in your affairs. I could not bear to
see you make a mistake it might be in my power to prevent."
"Well, first of all, trusting in this man Hobart."
She laughed, her eyes glancing up quickly into his face.
"And why now, please? Remember your confession; I may think this only
"You are not so silly as that," earnestly. "Moreover, I may as well be
perfectly frank. I did confess an interest in you, and in a measure, I
still feel eager to serve you in every possible way; but you have
changed so greatly, Miss Natalie, that my confidence in you has been
"You no longer believe?"
"I hardly know; I fail utterly to understand you of late; you seem an
entirely different girl. For one thing, you have deliberately
"Indeed! in what?"
"In your visit to Arch Street with Percival Coolidge. That was no mission
of charity to a poor widow and children."
"An arranged conference with this fellow Hobart. He rented that cottage
for no other purpose, and left it the next day. You made a mistake when
you took me along."
She straightened up slightly in the chair, yet spoke rather
indifferently, her voice cold.
"No doubt I did," she said tersely. "Indeed I have already discovered,
Captain West, that I made an even greater mistake when I first took you
into my service. You have proven altogether too inquisitive. Now I will
be plain with you. Whatever need I once supposed I had for your services
ended with the explanation I received in that Arch Street cottage. I told
you so very distinctly after our return home. You recall that interview,
He bowed, waiting for her to go on.
"You were then and there dismissed from my service. That should have been
sufficient. I knew nothing of your silly feeling of personal interest in
me; nor did I realize any occasion for discussing with you the reasons
causing me to change my plans. You were my employee, and I discharged
you; that was all. It is true Percival Coolidge took me to that cottage
to have certain mysterious things explained, and they were explained to
my complete satisfaction."
"You knew the fellow before?"
She hesitated slightly, although there was no perceptible change in the
"For several years; he was in my father's employ; the--the whole trouble
originated in a joke, and--and was quite amusing, once I understood. Of
course, after that, I had no further need for you. Why did you persist in
West hesitated an instant, his mind struggling with the situation. Was
she honest, truthful, in this statement? Could he say anything which
would change her viewpoint? She must have been deceived by these men, yet
how could he expose them so she would comprehend? He was so little
certain of the facts himself, that he had nothing but suspicion to offer.
"Why do you not answer, Captain West?"
The girl's eyes were clear, insistent, a little amused; they somehow
aroused his determination.
"I will endeavour to make you understood, Miss Natalie," he explained
slowly. "I would not have you feel that I deliberately pushed myself into
this affair. When I left Fairlawn after your dismissal, I had no thought
of ever seeing you again. I have already told you the interest I had felt
in you up to that time, but your abruptness during our last interview,
left me angry, and with no inclination to seek your presence again. You
can scarcely blame me for such a feeling?"
"No," she confessed. "I--I was so excited and nervous I was not
"You certainly hurt me. I departed with a sense of wrong rankling, and no
desire to come back. But fate intervened. You know, perhaps, that I
overheard the shot which ended the life of Percival Coolidge, and I was
the first to discover his dead body. This made no particular impression
on me at the time. I supposed it a case of suicide, and so bore witness
at the inquest. The whole matter would have ended there; but the next day
you discharged Sexton also, and the man sought me out at the Club."
She leaned forward, her lips parted, a new light in her eyes.
"He told you something? He made you suspicious?" she asked breathlessly.
"He caused me to see the affair from a somewhat different point of
view--a point of view which, I confess, revived my interest in you. I
began to believe you had been deceived, and your treatment of me arose
through a misunderstanding; I thought you a victim, and that I would be a
cad if I failed to stand by you. We put this and that together, carried
out some investigations quietly, and arrived at a definite conclusion."
"In the field where the body was found first," West went on steadily, but
no longer looking at her, "tracing the different tracks through the
clover. Then I looked up that cottage in Arch Street, and thus learned
about Hobart. Somehow he seemed to fit into the picture, and your
mysterious visit there made me anxious to interview the man. He had left
no address however, just faded out of sight suddenly, which increased
suspicion. Then, when we were completely baffled, Sexton learned about
your conversation over the telephone."
"How? Was he at the house?"
"Yes; he went out at my suggestion."
"And heard me repeat this number?"
"It makes no difference how he got the information; we knew you were
coming here this afternoon, and jumped at the conclusion that you were
going to meet Hobart for some reason."
"Very bright, I am sure," and there was a tone of relief in her voice.
"And that is your whole story, I suppose? What does it amount to?"
"Not very much, perhaps."
"And the two of you came out here seeking to learn my business, to pry
into my personal affairs. That was not a very gentlemanly act, Captain
West, and I hardly see how you can justify yourself."
"I had two purposes," he insisted, "either of which justify. I felt it
a duty to locate this man Hobart; and also to warn you of the danger
you were in."
"Warn me!" she laughed scornfully. "That is ridiculous enough surely. I
have a perfectly good reason for being here, but I am not accountable to
you in any way for my movements. A duty you say--a duty to locate this
man? A duty to whom?"
"To the State, if no one else," he answered gravely. "Percival Coolidge
did not commit suicide; he was murdered."
"Murdered!" she came to her feet with utterance of the word. "You cannot
"I know it, Miss Natalie; the evidence is beyond question; he was
murdered in cold blood."
"But by whom? for what purpose?"
"These points are not yet determined; I am only sure of the crime."
"Yes, but--but you suspect Jim Hobart. Isn't that true? You came here
seeking him--yes, and me. You even think I know how this death occurred.
You--you connect it with my fortune."
"No, Miss Natalie," he protested stoutly, moved by her agitation. "The
cause is a mystery, and who did it equally mysterious. The evidence thus
far unearthed is all circumstantial."
"Then why did you come out here searching for Hobart?"
"Because of his strange meeting with Percival Coolidge the very day of
his death; because his sudden disappearance furnished the only clue."
"And that is all the knowledge you possess, absolutely all?"
"Yes; I am no more than groping in the dark. My main object in coming was
to put you on your guard."
"You have repeated these suspicions to no one else? The Police?"
"To no one. Only Sexton and I have even talked the matter over. We are
both too loyal to you to ever say a word which might be to your injury."
She suddenly held out her hand, and he took it, conscious of the firm
clasp of her fingers.
"I thank you, Captain West," she said sincerely, "and believe your
purpose was honourable. You have told me frankly all you suspect, and
doubtless you have reasons. You have simply made a mistake, that is all.
Percival Coolidge was not murdered; he killed himself because he had
muddled my affairs, and knew he was about to be discovered. You have got
upon a wrong trail. Will you accept my word for this, and drop the whole
West was almost convinced, but not quite; the explanation had not been
"This man Hobart--who is he? What connection does he have with
She hesitated slightly, yet her eyes did not fall, or her apparent
"Mr. Hobart," she explained, "I have known for years. I told you before
he was once in my father's employ. Now he is a private detective, and
was employed on my case, before I advertised for you. I thought then he
was not accomplishing anything, but at our interview Sunday, all was
"In the presence of Percival Coolidge?"
"Yes; he was given a week in which to straighten matters. That was why he
"But why is it necessary for you to meet Hobart in a place like this--a
veritable thieves' den?"
She shrugged her shoulders, releasing his hand.
"He has not completed his work, and does not think it best for us to be
seen together. I know him so well I am not at all afraid, even here. Is
that all, Captain West?"
"It seems to explain everything," he admitted, yet far from satisfied.
"And you will drop the whole affair?" she asked anxiously.
"If I say yes--what?"
"You will be released from here of course, and the whole misunderstanding
"I have no means of knowing what the men intend to do. They will accept
your pledge, I am sure."
"Possibly, but I am not so sure I will consent to give such a pledge."
"Then you do not accept my word; do not believe what I have told you?"
"Not that exactly, Miss Natalie; I could have faith in your word, except
that I believe you to be mistaken, deceived. Hobart is not square; he is
using you for his own ends. Under these conditions, I would be a coward
to give such a promise, and leave you helpless in this man's power."
"You intend then to refuse?"
"I do; I'll fight it out."
She stared at him, scarcely believing her own ears, her lips parted, a
look of angry fright in her eyes.
"You are a fool, Captain West," she burst forth at last, unable to hold
back the words. "I have done my best for you, and you spurn that. Now
She stepped backward, still fronting him, and, with hand behind her,
rapped sharply on the panel of the door.
The change in the girl was so pronounced, her action so impetuous, as to
leave West startled and silent. The thought came to him instantly that
she was not the innocent victim he had supposed. Her words, and movements
expressed disappointment, rather than regret. She was angry at his
choice, ready to withdraw from him all sympathy, all assistance. Her plea
had failed, and the woman had become a tigress. Then she must have been
endeavouring to deceive him; as deeply interested as these others--in
getting him safely off the trail of this crime. It was a hard lesson, one
that instantly turned all his theories upside down, but the truth came to
him with blinding, sickening force--she was as guilty as Hobart; they
were both working to the same end, endeavouring to get him safely out of
the way. They would accomplish this with lies if possible, if not then
with force. It was for no other purpose he had been granted this
interview alone--in the hope that he might thus be deceived by her. Now
he saw through the trick.
These thoughts swept West's brain in a sudden flash of revelation, but
he had no chance to act; to denounce her, to make a single movement,
before the door opened swiftly, and Hobart slipped eagerly into the
room. The first glance the fellow had of the prisoner, standing erect
and unbound, must have deceived him into believing the girl had
succeeded in her quest.
"So you've set him free," he exclaimed. "The fellow has come to his
senses, has he?"
"No, he has not," she snapped with temper darkening her eyes. "I was not
afraid of him, so I let him loose, but he's made me no promise. Now it is
up to you; I'm done."
She slipped out through the opening, and Hobart leaned against the door,
pushing it shut behind her, his scowling eyes watching West intently.
"So, that is how it stands, is it, my man?" he growled threateningly.
"You even refuse to accept the word of the lady, do you?"
"Those are very nearly the facts," West replied steadily. "Then I told
her I thought she must be mistaken; now I believe she was sent here for
no other purpose but to deceive me. If I ever had any doubt of a crime,
it has vanished since this interview."
"Murder; the killing of Percival Coolidge. Is that plain enough, Hobart?
I want you to understand. I am fighting this case from now on in the
open; it is going to be man to man."
"What the hell do you mean, you cur?"
"I'll tell you," went on West coldly, determined now to so anger the
fellow as to bring the whole matter to a climax, reckless of the
consequences. "I charge you with murder. I haven't the proof, but I'll
get it; I do not know the object, but I'll find out."
"You fool! you'll never get away from here. My God, you must be crazy!"
"Never was saner in all my life, Hobart. I am a soldier, and am taking a
soldier's chance. Now listen. I feel no particular interest in the death
of Percival Coolidge. In my judgment the world is just as well off with
him dead as alive. But what this means to Natalie Coolidge is another
"She told you--"
"Yes, she told me--a lie. That is what hurts; what makes me ready to take
any chance to put you where you belong. You have lied to her, deceived
her, made her your accomplice in crime. I'm fighting for a woman, because
she has got no one else to fight for her."
"Oh, I see; in love, hey--with her, or her money?"
"With neither so far as I know," frankly. "She is a woman helpless in
your hands; that is sufficient."
"But, hell, she hasn't any use for you--didn't she tell you so?"
"Quite plainly--yes. But that is no excuse for any man to play the
coward. I am not afraid of you, Hobart, or your gang. You got me before
by treachery; I was not looking for trouble. But now I am. I am going
through that door, and if you try to stop me you are going to get hurt."
The fellow grinned, one hand thrust into the outer pocket of his coat,
his eyes narrowed into ugly slits.
"You think so! You haven't a weapon on you, West, and if you take a
step, I'll put you out of commission. I know how to handle your kind,
you big bluffer. What I want to know is what you have got in your head,
for, believe me, I don't take any stock in this woman stuff. Are you
after the coin?"
"Well, maybe a slice of old Coolidge's boodle. There's enough of it for
all hands to have a dip. How does that hit you?"
"Sounds interesting at least," admitted West, so earnestly as to attract
the other's attention. "But let's talk it over among ourselves--who is
Hobart glanced behind at the nearly closed door. It was for only a second
he was off guard, yet that was enough. With one leap forward, West
struck, his clinched fist smashing against the side of the fellow's jaw.
It was a wicked, vicious blow, with all the propelling force of the body
behind it, and Hobart went down stunned, crashing the door tightly shut
as he fell. Once he strove blindly to reach his feet, tugging madly at
the weapon in his pocket, but West, feeling no mercy, and wide awake to
the fact that any shooting would mean a call for help, struck again,
sending his groggy opponent flat, and unconscious. It was all the swift
work of a minute, and there had been no noise to arouse alarm. Hobart had
not even cried out; the only audible sounds being the sharp click of the
door, and the dull thud of a falling body.
West emptied the man's pockets, slipping two revolvers into his own; then
stood for an instant motionless, staring down into the white upturned
face. He had followed the impulse of the moment; had struck savagely;
knowing it was his only chance. Thus far he had done well; but what next?
He was conscious of but one thought, one purpose--to escape from this
house, unpledged and still free to act. Yet how could this be
accomplished? He had no plan, no knowledge even of his surroundings, of
what lay beyond the walls of this room. His eyes swept the bare interior,
seeing nothing to inspire hope. Hobart had said this room was practically
a prison, and it looked it--the walls bare, and unbroken, and a rough
single cot. All possibility of egress lay in the closed door, and a
narrow window high up in the opposite wall, also tightly shut, and shaded
by a heavy curtain.
His hand tried the door cautiously; the knob turned easily enough, but
there was no yielding to his pressure. The lock was evidently on the
outside, and he could discover no key-hole, no possibility of operating
it from within. Then, besides in all probability, a guard would be posted
outside in the hall, waiting for some signal from Hobart. West glanced
again at the recumbent figure, bending over to make sure of his
condition, then, gripping a chair, silently crossed the room.
There was not a minute to lose. He knew that he must choose quickly
whatever course he pursued. Any instant Hobart might recover
consciousness, and gain assistance by a rap on the door; indeed his
confederates without might not wait for the signal. The silence within,
the length of time, might arouse suspicion. The only chance lay in
immediate action. Standing on the chair West found the window had been
securely nailed into place, but this had been done so long ago, it was
quite possible for him to work the nails loose, yet it required all his
strength to press up the warped sash sufficiently far to enable him to
gain a view outside. It was not encouraging. Evidently he was upon the
third floor, at the rear of the building, looking down into a cluttered
up back yard. His eyes could scarcely distinguish what was below, as the
only glimmer of light came from a far distant street lamp at the end of
an alley, the faint rays creeping in through holes in the fence. Yet one
black shadow seemed to promise the sloping roof of a shed directly below;
but even with that to break his fall, it was a desperate leap.
He stared into those uncertain depths, endeavouring to measure the
distance, deceived by the shifting shadows, afraid of what lay hidden
below. For the moment he forgot all that was behind him, his whole mind
concentrated on the perils of so mad a leap into the dark. The awakening
came suddenly, the chair jerked from beneath his feet, his body hurled
backward. He fell, gripping at the window seat, so that he was flung
against the support of a side wall, able to retain his feet, but not to
wholly ward off a vicious blow, which left him staggering. Half blinded,
West leaped forward to grapple with the assailant, but was too late.
Hobart rushed back out of reach of his arms, and rapped sharply on the
door panel. It opened instantly, and big Mike, closely followed by
another man, pushed forward into the room. West was trapped, helpless;
one man pitted against three. He backed slowly away, brushing tack the
dishevelled hair from his eyes, watching them warily, every animal
instinct on the alert.
Mike took one comprehensive glance at the scene, at the overturned chair,
the half-open window, the trapped man crouching motionless against the
further wall. The meaning of it all was plain, and his bar-room training
gave quick insight as to the part he was to play. He spoke gruffly out
into the dark of the hall behind him, an order to some one concealed
there; then shut the door tightly, and faced West, his head lowered like
a bull about to charge. West understood; he was locked in to fight it