The Fourth Dagger
In which the hunted turn on the hunters and a young man finds himself in trouble
The story: "Tiger" Lillie, a newspaper reporter, is sent by City Editor Jerry Inkerley to get a story about counterfeiters. On the street he meets Gordon Muldrew, a detective friend, and they are passing the Florence Hotel when a scream for help comes from an open window on the third floor. With the hotel manager, Guy Hammerton. they rush to Room 322, and find there a middle-aged man lying dead with a dagger beside him.
A girl, Mona Nelhenvood, is found in the corridor. She identifies the dead man as her father, Aaron Nelhenvood, an ex-actor who registered under the name of Light foot. She was about to visit him. she says, when she heard the scream and ran downstairs for help.
People who come more or less under suspicion are Sperring, a detective-story writer who lives on the floor above; David in Room 32b with whom the dead man appeared to have been friendly; Blayton Anders in Room 324 who admits that his real name is Imho)'sky; Mr. and Mrs. Darling in Room 325.
Miss Netherwood says her father left home for an unknmcn reasim and she traced him to the hotel; that the dagger which killed him belonged to a collection of his.
A policeman, Jamestm, is posted in Room 322, from which the body has been taken, and Muldrew and Tiger occupy another room near by. During the night the corridor lights go out, a wild laugh is heard, and when the lights come on again a second dagger, similar to the first one, is found on the corridor floor. Jamestm says he was awakened by a hand on his face, notwithstanding that he went to sleep behind a locked door. Miss Netherwood says the second dagger belonged to her father also.
Mrs. Netherwood, Mona’s mother and wife of the victim, is found in the hotel under suspicious circumstances.
Sperring, the writer, invites some of the people concerned in the tragedy to hate breakfast with him.
T WAS a strange breakfast, that one in the grill of the Florence Hotel.
The grihroom was fairly well filled when we entered, and a waiter ushered us straight to a table near the dooi leading to the kitchen quarters.
"Better service here, sir," he whispered to Sperring, who seemed to be well known and liked by the staff.
Sperring made an ideal host. His position was a difficult one—with the wife and the daughter of the murdered man beside him, strangers, eating their first meal since the bereavement But his old-fashioned grace and dignity made hospitality so pleasing that it was not hard, for me at least, to forget the one bond between us. I had not, indeed, much as I admired him, thought it was in him to handle such a delicate situation, and I found myself marvelling throughout the meal at his resources. If his aim was to keep our minds from the tragedy until the ice was broken, he succeeded admirably.
His attitude toward Mrs. Netherwood was a perfect combination of gentle sympathy without flagrant pity. There was no sadness about the meal.
As I ate, I studied Mrs. Netherwood. Slowly she brightened, threw aside her hardness, but beneath it all I read a tearing anxiety which she tried to hide even from herself. Again and again I caught her regarding her daughter with frightened, incredulous eyes: and then she would throw a suspicious glance about the room.
Mona, too, was uneasy. Sometimes her glance met her mother’s and both would look away. It worried me.
I found myself wondering what Sperring had meant in those last whispered words. Had he, in his expert study of the case, unearthed something that escaped me? Muldrew, certainly, was suspicious. I refused to entertain thought of the guilt of either of the women. But it would be blindness to ignore their anxiety, their concern for each other.
The meal was half over before the subject of the murder arose. Sperring had pressed on Mrs. Netherwood a fresh helping of toast, and the warm, appetizing slices, with the good coffee, livened the color in her thin cheeks. Mona saw it and sighed.
“I didn’t know I was so hungry,” Mrs. Netherwood said in some confusion. "I ate so little last night . . . Eat your bacon, Mona, dear. You must have had a hard night, too.”
A waiter bustled in from the kitchen, leaving the door to the pantry ajar.
“It was my own fault,” Mona replied, “if I was uncomfortable. There was a bed—if I could have slept.”
Mrs. Netherwood’s eyes flashed.
“They didn’t wish you to sleep. They thought to wear you down, to get you to— They tried it with me—”
She broke off both sentences abruptly, and closed her thin lips. Then I saw that her eyes were fixed on Mona’s in a strange way. Questioning or warning? I did not know.
“Why should he wish to wear her down?” Sperring asked innocently, helping himself to a slice of toast.
The eyes of the two women flew to him suspiciously, but he looked so inoffensive, so sympathetic, that no one could suspect him.
“I’m not so very tired, mother.”
The question had not been answered, and the omission was significant, I thought. Plainly the Netherwoods longed to be alone together, to discuss the night’s events. To warn? To combine? I had no way of knowing that either.
“You shouldn’t have come, mother,” Mona went on. “What could you hope to do?”
“Under the circumstance ...” Mrs. Netherwood let it rest there, but she glared defiance at us all.
PERRING, the perfect host, spoke soothingly:
“Even in fiction. Mrs. Netherwood, we have to make our detectives foolish—a little. Of course there’s a difference.” For a time he elaborated, half seriously, half whimsically. “I’m beginning to think the only agreeable detectives, the only sane ones, are in fiction.”
Loyalty to Muldrew brought a protest to my lips.
“The trouble is no one in real life knows what’s in the detective’s mind.”
“If anything,” Sperring grinned.
We argued. Sperring winked at me, proving what I
already suspected tliat it was part of the entet tainment. “But,” he said finally, “we shouldn’t talk of it. You’d rather we didn’t, I’m sure.” Mona lifted her chin.
"it has to be talked about. Mother and I have to face it till father’s murderer is found. And,” determinedly, "if the police fail I'll never give up.”
Mrs. Netherwood’s hand reached out spasmodically and touched her sleeve.
Sperring saw everything, though he seemed not to be looking.
“Same here,” he said. “Lillie and I have formed a league for the same purpose. His practical experience and my imagination - - well, it's going to be an interesting experiment. Though perhaps I’m the only one to profit from it.”
Some of our earlier criticisms of Muldrew’s methods cropped up, and there Jerry Inkerley joined in. Sperring outlined our course:
“What we must uncover is what Mr. Netherwood was doing here, and who his friends were. Then there’s that Jefferson. In a way, I don’t blame Muldrew for dropping him. The evidence against Jefferson was too llagrant. In my stories I wouldn’t dare make him guilty.”
“Muldrew is nobody’s fool,” I defended, “and the murderer knows it. He must have tried to kill Muldrew last night.”
I was forced then to tell the story of the stiletto in detail. An idea struck me. "Or was it an attempt to get back into 322?”
Sperring’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth and his eyes widened. Then he dived for his notebook.
“That’s it. By Jove, you’ve struck it, Lillie! Great idea. May I use it?” He scribbled feverishly. “Jameson was left on guard. To guard what? The murderer must know -and he wished to get into that room for it -or to destroy it. Some clue, of course. And Muldrew suspected it.” Ilis eyes sparkled. “I wish I had your chance. Lillie. To work beside a real detective - gee!”
He lifted his head and frowned. “Strikes me we’re getting more than our share of that kitchen.” He saw the pantry d(X)r ajar. “If you catch the waiter’s eye. Lillie, please.”
Jerry had said little. He had never quite thrown off the mood aroused by events in Sperring’s room. He addressed me across the table:
“We’d better break away. Tiger; we’ve a lot to do. Have you got your stuff for the counterfeiter screed today?”
I protested indignantly. “Surely a murder is enough for one day.”
Sperring was instantly alert.
“Counterfeiters, you say? Oh, you mean the lot you’ve been writing about in the Star. Good work, too.
All in my line.”
Jerry paid no attention.
“I want that stuff. Tiger. I can handle this murder myself.”
“I’m working with Muldrew,” I returned stiffly. “No one else can get what I get.”
Jerry caught Mona’s reproving eye and dropped the subject.
“But don’t forget the other,” was his last word.
Sperring wTas still looking for a waiter, so I rose myself to close the pantry door. It opened inward, and as I reached for it I caught a shadow of movement in the dark room. All the time one of the staff must have been there, ignoring the open door.
I lammerton should know about that.
The meal over, we left the room; and nothing that had happened surprised me more than the ease and grace with which Jerry drew back rhe chairs of the ladies, made way for them, opened doors for them. So noticeable was his attention to Mona that, as Sperring and I wratched them leave the hotel, I laughed sarcastically.
Sperring’s eyes were half shut.
“Lillie, don’t be too kind in thought about those women; don’t be too easy on them. The perils of a pretty woman—I’ve used it a dozen times in my stories. And Mona Netherwood is beautiful. The mother? Do 1 need to speak of her—those hard eyes, that tight mouth, that cold face? Her husband was a fiend in her eyes. Oh,” with a shrug of his
wide shoulders. “I’m a cold-blooded cuss. If only I could hit on the theory behind this murder. What publicity. What a pr’. re for my stories. To get ahead of a real detective in running down the murderer!" He rublied his hands together.
"I’ve tried that often enough with Muldrew—with no gratifying results.”
“Perhaps I’m an optimist.” Sperring stretched. “But that isn’t going to rob me of the next four hours sleep. That breakfast was a bit of a strain.” He caught my hand and shook it. "So glad of my new friend. Lillie. 1 find you a goad to imagination.”
OUTSIDE it was cloudy. I hurried along Orchard Street, determined to get in my copy to forestall Jerry. In the barber shop 1 had read the brief re[x>rt in the Morning Times, and I exulted at the scope it left me.
Some one touched me on the shoulder and 1 turned to see Muldrew grinning down on me.
"Enjoy your breakfast?”
"You missed a lot, Gordy,” I replied. “A perfect host, perfect meal, perfect companions. But you might have spoiled it.”
"Jerry most of all. The big simp’s in love.”
“Then I did better than I thought when I telephoned him.”
“You telephoned him?”
“Certainly. You see, I wished you all to have a nice, friendly, unrestrained discussion of the murder sort of get yourselves talked out.” Suddenly he was serious. “Tiger. I want your help. I’m looking for two daggers.” “Don’t I know it? But how can I help?”
“By keeping your eyes open, everywhere. You heard Mrs. "Netherwood describe them?”
I repeated the descriptions, and he seemed satisfied. , “I’ll not forget,” I told him; “not if you’ll let me in on things.”
He laid a hand on my shoulder.
“You're a useful friend. Tiger. You’ve earned it. Your discretion at the breakfast table was admirable.”
"So it was you there in that dark pantry?"
But Muldrew had turned into a side street.
JERRY was waiting for me at the Star office. I had written my story at home, conscious that the less we saw of each other under the circumstances, the better for me. lie accepted the sheaf of jxiges and absentmindedly shoved them to the back of his desk, all the time frowning at me as if wondering where 1 figured in events.
“It’ll take two columns.” 1 told him, “with display heading. If that isn’t enough ...” Plainly he wasn’t listening. “It's about the murder,” I shouted. “You may have heard of it.”
"Ah, yes; the murder.” Suddenly his gaze took on understanding and he hx>ked at me sheepishly. “I’ve handled it," he said.
“But but you don’t know half-—”
“I know enough to put in the paper—with what Mona told me.”
So it was “Mona” already!
“Mona,” I declared boldly, “knows little more than you. Or if she does she wouldn’t tell you any more.”
He glared at me. When he said nothing I knew his case was hopeless.
“All right,” I stormed, “go to it. You can take over the whole thing. But you can’t stop me getting the inside doi>e from Muldrew, not even if you fire me. If you do that, you’ll never get it.”
“Of course, the Star needs all the information it can get,” he said apologetically. "And Mona and I need your help. Tiger.”
He was so different from the Jerry I knew that I couldn’t believe my ears.
“You see. Tiger,” he went on, “for some reason—absurd, of courseMuldrew suspects Mrs. Netherwood and Mona.” “Muldrew doesn’t see smoke where there’s no fire,” I retorted.
“And so Mona and I are going to find the murderer ourselves,” he announced. “And that’s where you lit in. You can help a lot by keeping us informed of what Muldrew is doing.”
“The devil I will!" I thrust my hands stubbornly in my pockets. “You’ll get nothing from me that Gordon Muldrew wants kept secret. My first rôle is to help Muldrew. I’m a sight more eager to run down Netherwíxxl’s murderer than to find stuff for the Star; and you and Mona stand a bad third in the list. If you're so sure of her innocence, why do you want to keep track of Muldrew? You’ve nothing to fear.” “That’s what Mona says,” he murmured, and I knew I’d shot my last bolt—and missed.
“If you’re so eager to find the murderer, why not join Sjorring and me?” I suggested. “We’re working on clues.”
“Just what I was coming to. Sperring—there’s a man with ideas that would never occur to a detective.”
“But Gordy is no ordinary detective.” I had a hard time riding so many horses. “And it's not ideas but clues that count. Any one can get ideas—”
“Don’t try to teach your grandmother to suck eggs,” he jeered. “I’m giving you a w'eek off, Tiger, on condition that you stick to this case. I trust you to tell me what you uncover. You’ll enjoy yourself.” “Thanks for nothing. A week’s holiday—at work. The first ten hours of it I’m going to spend in bed. Then I’ll hunt up Sperring. He’ll llave a dozen solutions by that time.” I remembered that Sperring was not apt to divulge them for the benefit of the Nethenvoods.
ISLEI>T only six hours, for Sperring was on my mind.
He received me in a more dishevelled condition than ever, and on his round face there were the lines of mental stress. Smudges from the typewriter stained his fingers, and a chaos of yellow copy paper littered table and floor.
For a moment he 9eemed not to echo, recognize me, then he smiled apolo-
“Sorry, Lillie. When I’m working I’m a poor companion. And this is real labor. Never faced a problem like it; in fact I never before got up against the real thing. Clues, clues—and every one of them only increases the muddle. That open window—what the devil does Muldrew think of that? I don’t believe I’d have noticed it if he hadn’t. Now it looks like the one vital clue.”
"I’m glad you see that Muldrew isn’t quite a washout.” He eyed me with surprise.
“Good lord, Lillie, I never thought that! I’ve rapped his methods and his apparent indifference, but I guess it was only jealousy and irritation because he was moving ahead of me. This is my first chance to test my imagination, and I’d hate to fail. I’d lose my self-confidence. I’ve a sincere regard for Muldrew’s capacity, but I can’t help hoping my brains are something better than useless. I’m staking a lot—”
A knock sounded on the door, and Sperring’s eyes flew enquiringly to mine. With an impatient exclamation he flung the door open. Muldrew walked in.
“They told me in the office you were here, Tiger,” he explained. “Good day, Mr. Sperring. I took the liberty—” “No liberty whatever,” Sperring assured him genially. “A real pleasure. In fact, we were talking about you.”
With the eye that Muldrew could not see, Sperring winked at me.
“I hope you’ve been indulgent.”
“More indulgent with you than with ourselves,” Sperring laughed. “We admit we’re groping in the dark.”
“That’s frank enough. So am I.” The confession surprised me. “You have the better end of the game,
Mr. Sperring—writing about mystery instead of unravelling it. And”—looking about the comfortable room—“evidently it pays better. Nice quarters you have. Never was in an author’s sanctum before.”
“Yes, it’s comfortable. But it looks as if I’m going to have to give it up. I’ve taken a dislike to Hammerton, the silly fop. Silly of me, I know, but these things get under my skin. The hotel isn’t so bad— though not what it might be. But that law-de-daw manager beats me. Fact is”—with that boyish grin — “they’ve been complaining about my typewriter. Hammerton was up here not half an hour ago grousing about it. He tried, too, to pump me about what was going on - the murder, I mean. Of course I didn’t discuss it with him.”
He walked the length of the room and back.
“One thing puzzles me so I can't think of anything else. It’s that open window.”
He had turned directly to Muldrew. But Muldrew’s face revealed nothing.
“Yes, a real puzzler, that,” he returned indifferently. “You’ve no ideas about it?”
“None worth repeating.” Muldrew strolled to the window and stood looking into the darkening street. “That’s only one of the tangles, Mr. Sperring. I can’t see why so few heard the cries. You heard them away up here. The open window would do that—the echo against the opposite walls.” He leaned his hands on the sill and thought for a moment.
“Well, I must drop that part for the moment. If you’re free. Tiger, we’ll toddle along. I’ve something in mind.” Muldrew examined his soiled hands. “These expensive hotels have their weaknesses,” he said. “The maids spend very little time in dusting operations.”
When Muldrew and I reached the third floor he led the way to the room where Netherwood had been murdered. The panel had been repaired and protected inside with iron bars. Muldrew tested the new lock and seemed satisfied.
As we crossed the lobby downstairs I asked where we were going, but he made no reply. The usual crowd of hotel loafers sat about in easy chairs, but Muldrew was too absorbed to notice them or me. Outside, he set off toward Ninth Avenue at a swinging pace. At Ninth Avenue he turned around the comer of the stores that were under the hotel there. They were all dark. After a dozen steps he stopped.
“Did you see him, Tiger?”
“Oh, cut the mystery,” 1 groaned.
“In the hotel lobby we just came through there Siit a man we want the occupant of Room 326, Jefferson.”
'XA’ULDREW stood still so long that I grew restless, lvx “i don’t see why you don’t nab him,” I remarked.
“Because Jefferson, free, is worth an army of Jeffersons in captivity. I’m gambling on that.”
“You leave him free for more of his dirty work,” I ventured. “He’s got some game on.”
“And we may be on hand to see it. Tiger. That’s where you may be useful. A pair is less suspect than one.”
He returned to the comer and peered around it toward the front of the hotel. Ninth Avenue was deserted almost to Markham Street in the north. To the south, a new shopping district, everything was dark except a cheap restaurant and the show window of a men’s wear store.
“If any one comes out of that lane,” Muldrew whispered, pointing to the opening back of the hotel, “get in the shadow and offer me a cigarette.” He lifted his hand to feel the wind. “We’ll retire to the entrance here.”
Presently, after several looks around the comer, he seized my arm and drew me into the dark entrance of the closed shop beneath the comer of the hotel. Through the two comer sheets of glass show window we could see several yards of Orchard Street without being seen ourselves. I took out my cigarette case and offered it to Muldrew. Match and cigarette in hand, he waited. I kept my eyes on Orchard Street.
A man strolled into view from the direction of the hotel.
“You don’t mean you thought that was Jefferson, Gordy? You must be off your feed.”
“Wait!” The hand on my shoulder tightened.
And then there came simpering along, twirling a cane, one of those absurd, young-old gentlemen recognized the world over as “sugar daddies.” Along the hand that held me passed an electric thrill.
“Jefferson !” Muldrew whispered. “A master of disguises. He should be a detective.” Turning his back on Orchard Street, he struck the match.
I was ready to believe anything, for the man who had first appeared was Anders, of Room 324.
“What does it mean?” I asked.
“Simple enough. Jefferson is trailing Anders.”
“And we’re going to trail them both?”
Both men passed beyond our range. Muldrew stepped out on the pavement. He threw me a distressed look.
“I hate to run you into this. Tiger, because I don’t know where it may land us. But it’s sure to be trouble and probably danger. If you wish to drop out—”
“You can’t drop a burr, Gordy.”
He gave me a grateful glance.
“On such short notice I couldn’t get any one else. I’ll need some one all right.”
“Let’s start the procession,” I said.
We moved into Orchard Street. A hundred and fifty yards away the men we followed were in plain view. I snorted.
“Any fool can see Anders knows he’s followed.”
“And Jefferson is no fool,” Muldrew brooded.
“Anders acts it too well.”
“I’m not sure that isn’t part of the plan,” Muldrew muttered.
The sound of a window closing over our heads made Muldrew whirl about.
“Where was that?” he whispered.
“In the hotel.”
Muldrew ran his eye along the rows of windows, many of them lighted. As he turned away, his head shook again and again.
We hurried then to cut down the distance between us and our quarries. It was well we did, for in a minute or two they were almost lost in the crowd of a cross street. They continued along Orchard Street.
“It has me guessing,” Muldrew sighed.
Beyond the busy cross street Muldrew pulled up and took another cigarette from me. Fumbling with the match box, he dropped it. As he straightened from recovering it, he said under his breath:
“Tiger, are you game for the thrill of your young life? If you aren’t, crowd out of this right away. There’s danger, my boy.”
“You can’t get away now,” I told him, but tingles raced through me. “Spill the latest scare, Gordy.”
He spilled it. “The procession has become a parade, Tiger. We’re being trailed ourselves!”
A/f ULDREW had quickened our pace, and Jefferson -^*1. was not more than seventy-five yards ahead. A succession of busy streets demanded it.
We had lost sight of Anders, for the streets were darker here; we could only take it for granted that Jefferson had him in sight. At any rate, it was Jefferson we wanted. We had reached the lower part of the city toward the river, where the foreign element predominated. Small fruit stores and groceries were still open.
Several times we had changed our course, always working westward. Though I knew the city better than most, I had only a general idea where we were.
“Looks as if Anders is really trying to throw Jefferson off now,” I suggested.
“Stop guessing, Tiger. I’m having troubles enough. This thing is bound to reach a crisis soon. One word of warning. Don’t kick too hard against the pricks.”
I didn’t bother to delve his meaning. Just then we caught sight of Anders. Another man had joined him, and as they conversed Jefferson stopped before a fruit stand and bought an orange. Anders and his companion went on, then the latter turned into a side street and disappeared.
“Remember what I said, Tiger,” Muldrew whispered hurriedly. “Don’t fight too hard. They’ll take no chances.”
Before I could digest his meaning, it happened.
Jefferson had gone on in time to make our hesitation not too noticeable. We were passing the mouth of a lane when there came a rush of feet and two men leaped on me, pinioning my arms before I could raise them in self-defense. I had a vision of flailing arms and legs where Muldrew was, and then I fell. A few seconds later I was whisked into the dark lane.
No one had uttered a sound. I couldn’t, for a smelly hand pressed my lips, almost smothering me. Muldrew, too, had disappeared. I recalled his warning and ceased to struggle.
Helpless, arms and legs bound and a thick sack tied about my waist, I was tossed into a closed car. A gag effectively closed my lips. Two men were with me. As we moved away, I could hear another car behind us. A bandage was tied over my eyes.
The car turned and turned, and in a few minutes I lost all sense of direction. For perhaps twenty minutes we drove, then an intensification of darkness and the echo of our exhaust told me we were passing beneath an arch. The car stopped and I was carried into a building. By the echo, I took it to be a factory or large bam.
I was unhurt except in dignity. I could hear Muldrew being carried in behind me. They bore us up a flight of stairs and dropped us in a small room. Some one removed the bandage from my eyes, and there they left us. closing the door behind them. My gag had loosened, and I had little trouble working free. I could hear Muldrew breathing beside me.
“You guessed right that time, Gordy,” I whispered “Something happened.”
“Shut up!” he snapped under his breath.
That we were left so carelessly proved that our captors had no fear of our escape or of making ourselves heard. Muldrew’s sharp command confused me.
Then from a distant comer of the room came a sound that sent the blood pounding in my ears. I raised my head Continued on page !>8
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and listened until my body ached. Muldrew, I could hear, was working his way toward me. I rolled to meet him. and in a moment we bumped together. He put his lips to my ear.
“Are you hurt?”
“1 can't feel whether I am or not.” “Sh-sh !”
We lay listening.
AG AIN that mysterious whisper of sound. as of a heavy body slithering along the j floor. Nearer and nearer it crept. 1 could feel my hair creep. My hands, tied in the ¡sack, shook, a cold perspiration broke out jail over me. I wanted to scream and ¡ couldn't. Still the thing came on. I crowded closer to Muldrew.
“Keep your courage up, Tiger.” he whispered. “I‘11 see what it is.”
He rolled his body away, his head still against my shoulder. The sound came nearer. Muldrew struck out with his feet, and there came a grunt of pain.
“It’s a man!” Muldrew’s exclamation was full of relief. “Here, lie still, you.” He moved away. "Say. Tiger, a man trussed up like ourselves and gagged in the bargain. Wait a moment—lie still. I say. I’ll work around to your gag if you keep still.” Presently there was a great puff of breath and a sigh.
Muldrew asked: "Who are you?”
The immediate reply was a laugh, a reckless gurgle that filled the room with courage and defiance, the chuckle of a man who would never be beaten.
"So it’s you, Mr. Muldrew? Me? I’m the man whose life you’ve just saved. That’s enough. Another minute and I’d have smothered. Now I’m fit as a fiddle for the next scene—and perhaps in a position to repay a debt.”
"If you can untie my hands," Muldrew said.
"I can, but— In a few moments I’ll be free. That gag had me cock-eyed. 1 believe they wanted to smother me. I'm not such a friend of theirs as you. it seems." He panted and staiggled as he talked. "You. too, wish to be free. I’ll consider it.”
“Perhaps you want to be paid,” I sneered. The stranger chuckled.
“How did you guess? But the payment will not be in money. I wish you’d stayed out of this. I find you a nuisance—except to get me out of that gag. One must swallow the bad with the good, I suppose. You see, if I don’t escape—well. I’m not ready yet for Saint Peter. Your case is different. Even a detective has a fighting chance aganst this gang.”
I heard it all. but it sounded so incongruous in that dark room that I thought I must be dreaming. Presently the stranger sighed and stood up.
"Ah, that’s better.”
“What, do you want to release us?” Muldrew asked.
For a moment there was no reply. Then. “Do you know where you are, Mr. Muldrew’?”
"But in a day or tw’o. if you were free, you’d nose this place out.”
“I don’t think it would take me long.” “Precisely. And that wouldn’t do. so we come to my pay. You must promise me not to give the police information that will bring them to this place within a week.” Muldrew snorted. “I’ll remain w’here I am."
“Tut, tut! Foolhardy. I think when it’s too late you’ll regret it. This gang is utterly ruthless. You and your friend— it’ll mean two lives.”
For some time Muldrew’ said nothing. I knew’ how deeply the threat to me would stir him.
“So it’s only a plant,” he said. “Well, you won’t wring a promise like that from me.”
“A plant? You mean I’m not in the same position as yourself? I assure you— I’m a sort of Houdini. that’s all. I can work free from anything except a gag: that throws me into a panic. Sh-sh!”
Some one wras coming, and in a moment the door opened. I had twisted toward it, but the room beyond was only a little less dark than the one in w’hich we lay, so that
I caught but the faintest outline of the man who entered. The door closed.
"Everybody happy?” jeered a voice that touched a familiar chord. The ray from an electric torch shot along the floor, picking us out one after another. As it left Muldrew and moved across the room my eyes followed it eagerly. It lit on the stranger, who seemed to be as helpless as we were.
As the light slid over him I recognized the simpering old gentleman we had followed from the Florence Hotel. Jefferson !
I tried in vain to see the man who held the torch. That voice ! I failed to place it, but I knew I disliked its owner. The light fell on me.
“Fool!” the man sneered. “Why did you butt in?”
In a gust of fury I strained at my bonds.
“You carrot-tops,” he jeered, “you’re all alike.” Abruptly his manner changed. “I wish I was boss.” He hissed it through closed teeth. “I’d set you free, all of you— in the one safe way for us.”
The light snapped off and he left the room.
“Anders!” I cried.
“Bright lad,” said Muldrew.
Jefferson swore under-his breath.
“Of course I knew that stroll of his was affected, but I took the chance. I didn’t think they’d penetrate my disguise. I’ve had such luck before—the time the fuse blew out.” He laughed. “Sort of peeved you, didn’t it, Mr. Muldrew?”
“All you accomplished by it was to convict yourself,” I said.
Jefferson laughed easily.
“I prefer being suspected of murder to being the second victim. I know it doesn’t look like it—running my head into a noose like this. My wits must have been wandering—and I count so much on them.”
His indifference to the fate he appeared to foresee made him more and more a puzzle. Was he, as Muldrew suggested, a plant placed in the room to draw something from us? I didn’t think so. What then?
MULDREW had said little, but I knew nothing escaped him. While I had gabbled, he had kept his eyes on the goal. Jefferson, too, noticed his silence.
“Of course the detective is still suspicious,” the latter said.
Muldrew made no reply.
“Naturally,” I ridiculed, “this sort of tiling all through is apt to allay suspicion. Even detectives are human.”
Jefferson took a turn about the room. “You think I led you into this trap, eh?
So far is that from the truth that I’ll let you into a secret. I’m worse off than you. You’ll probably be allowed to live. 1 haven’t more chance than a pat of butter on a hot stove.”
“Perhaps,” I suggested, “you’re a detective yourself.”
The idea tickled him, and for several seconds he continued to chuckle. I began to think him crazy. Was he so indifferent to his plight—if what he said was true—or so confident of escape? If the latter, why did he linger to chatter with us?
Muldrew said: “You ask for a week. For a week I’m to do nothing—”
“Not quite that. I’m not concerned with your pursuit of the murderer of Aaron Netherwood. but you mustn’t come near this place. I’ll take a chance on being run down, but this place can’t be got out of the way. If a week seems too long, I might make it three days. That might serve my purpose. I don’t wish to be unreasonable.”
“In three days it would be too late,” I sniffed.
Still Muldrew hesitated. All I could do was to leave it to him to decide, though I knew a single night in the discomfort of our position would wring any promise from me.
“You tell the whole story, Jefferson,” Muldrew said presently. “Tiger is right. After three days, nothing.”
“Without the promise,’’Jefferson retorted, “worse than nothing. Take my word for it, even if they let you go it will be too late. You have your choice.”
“And so.” Muldrew said, “you admit you’re trying to wring from me in this way what they can have by simply keeping me here. In other words, getting without danger what they wish.”
Jefferson clacked his lips.
“Dear me! I never recall admitting anything ever. My forte is denying.”
“I believe you.” Muldrew agreed.
“If you can reconcile that with what I’ve told you, you’ve too active an imagination for a mere detective. You should take on Sperring’s job. But let that pass. I’d hate to leave you here. What’s your answer?”
Still Muldrew hesitated. I knew that, his promise given, he would stick to it. since he would never acknowledge his jxisition hopeless enough to justify a promise he had no intention of fulfilling.
I waited, loath to think consideration for me might force his hand, yet aching miserably with the fear that he might refuse.
A decision was delayed by something that happened outside. A scream, distant hut distinct, reached us; a short, piercing scream, and then silence deeper than ever. A woman's scream it was; from within the building. I struggled to free myself.
Jefferson spoke first.
"Aha! Getting desperate, are they? Well. Mr. Muldrew, I can afford to wait no longer. Do you agree, or must I go alone?”
It relieved me to know that it was the scream did it. Not Jefferson’s threat, nor dread of what might happen to me. Instantly Muldrew qualified his promise.
“Unless I find the place by some other means.”
Jefferson was forced to be content with that. But as he worked at Muldrew’s bonds in the darkness, the sound of approaching footsteps sent him scurrying. The door opened, breaking the blank darkness of the wall, and two men entered. A torch flared over us.
Both men were masked, and the sight of those masks alarmed me more than anything that had gone before. In silence they remained just inside the door, the eyeholes of their masks making me creep.
How Jefferson had managed in such a short time to arrange himself to pass inspection I could not understand, but the newcomers suspected nothing. One of them strode across and dealt the seemingly helpless man a brutal kick in the side. Jefferson’s legs contracted, but he restrained himself, grunting protest through the gag he had somehow replaced
His assailant—I recognized Anders — cursed at him; then both men turned their attention to Muldrew. I trembled, fearing an attack, but they contented themselves wit!) going through his pockets. That completed they hurried from the room
Jefferson breathed as if his lungs would burst. "And he’s got only one life to take!” His teeth grated.
“Did he hurt you?” Muldrew asked.
“Ask me tomorrow or the day after. It will hurt till I’ve had my revenge.”
“Pooh,” I scoffed. “They’re just ordinary hold-up fellows. A dollar or two, witli little danger to themselves—”
“And,” Muldrew muttered, “a bunch of keys."
From somewhere outside came the same wild, chuckling laugh 1 had heard twice before in the dark corridor of the Florence Hotel.
To be Continued