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- Vicky Van - 20/40 -

but I had a tremendous interest in her, and I didn't want that little lone, helpless person haled before a court of justice. Vicky did seem terribly alone. Hosts of friends she had, but no one who was in any way responsible for her, or in a position to help her. Well, if she ever returned, voluntarily or perforce, she would find a friend and champion in one Chester Calhoun, of that I was certain!

Mrs. Reeves handed her letter over to the coroner, and he read it out. It ran:

My dear Mrs. Reeves: You have always been such a good friend to me that I'm writing you just a line. You are everything that is good and kind, and now I'm going to ask you as a final favor to forget Vicky Van at once and forever. I am going away and I shall never return. Don't think of me any more hardly than you must, but if you can keep any loving little memory of the hours we spent together, I want you to do so. And as a remembrance, I want you to have my little electric coupe. It is in Rennard's garage, and I have written him to turn it over to you. I shall miss our happy times together, but--I can never come back. Do not worry about me, I am safe. And I am your affectionate Vicky Van.

"You are sure this is from Miss Van Allen?" asked Fenn.

"Oh, yes," replied Mrs. Reeves. "There's no mistaking that writing."

Nor was there. I knew Vicky's penmanship, and it was most peculiar. Never have I seen such a hand. Angular, slightly backhanded, and full of character, it would be difficult to imitate it, and, too, no one would have any reason to forge that letter to Mrs. Reeves. She had verified Vicky's statement, and found that a letter to the garage owner had instructed him to give up the car to Mrs. Reeves, and he had already done so, that very morning.

The letters had both been mailed in New York the night before, the postmark showing that they were mailed in the district that included Vicky's residence.

Was she, then, even now in hiding near her home? Or, had she sent the letters to be mailed by some one else? By Julie, perhaps, who, I felt sure, was with her mistress, wherever that might be.

My leaping thoughts took in all this, and by degrees the slower going coroner, put it in words.

Lowney, the detective, bristled with interest. A clue, he had, he thought, but what a clue! Two letters posted in the city. What did they show of the whereabouts of the missing girl?

Lowney scrutinized the one to Mrs. Reeves. Ordinary paper, such as might be bought in any stationery or department store, no monogram or initial on it, nor was there any maker's name under the flap.

But a dozen people present testified to Vicky's handwriting, and the coroner eagerly took possession of the letter.

Sherlock Holmes, I thought to myself, would read that letter, look at it through his good old lens, smell it, and then walk out, and return in a half hour, with Vicky Van in tow!

But for my part, I could see nothing illuminating in that plain paper and envelope, and the letter in the well-known penmanship.

All I gathered was, that wherever Vicky was, she was not only safe but comfortable. The tenor of the note breathed leisure and composure. Clearly, she was not breathlessly hurrying from one place to another, or vigilantly eluding pursuit. She was at ease, with opportunity to indulge in thoughtful kindness to a friend, and to write at length about herself.

At length, yes, but with no hint of her hiding-place nor any clue to it. Poor little Vicky! She seemed so alone--and yet--how did I know? She may have gone to friends or--somehow I hated to think that she had any man who was her legal--or even willing protector.

Yet she said she was safe, and her letter showed no fear of the future. And then again I was stabbed by the thought that perhaps there was no earthly future for Vicky Van. I didn't want her to kill herself--I didn't want her to be found and arrested--what did I want? I wasn't sure in my own mind, save that I wanted her safety above all else. I suppose I believed her guilty--I could believe nothing else, but even so, I didn't want her brought to bay.

I gave my own testimony, which was all true, and all frank, except that I said nothing of my nocturnal visit to Vicky's house or of our telephone conversation. If my conscience smote me I combated it with my chivalry, which would not allow me to betray a woman into the hands of the law.

The later witnesses, who were mostly the working people whom Vicky employed by the day, told nothing of her or of her home life. They all spoke of her as a kind lady to work for, though, as a rule, they had not seen her, but had been engaged, directed and paid by the maid, Julie.

It seemed to be tacitly assumed that wherever Vicky was Julie was with her. I had had this information from Vicky herself, but others took it for granted, in the absence of any reason to think the contrary.

The whole day's session, to my mind, achieved little of useful information. Mrs. Reeves' letter proved conclusively that Vicky was aware of the search being made for her, and showed her determination not to be found. It was Saturday, and when the inquest was adjourned until Monday morning, I couldn't help feeling that it might as well have been permanently adjourned, for all the further conclusions it would lead to.

I went home at last, thrilling with the thought that that night I was to get Vicky's mail from her box and hide it where she had directed. I secretly hoped she might be in the house herself, waiting for it, but scarcely dared believe this would be the case.



Nor was it. I had secured a latch-key to the house, from the police, who were willing enough for me to search for possible clues, as I had told them I would do.

At their wits' end to locate Vicky Van, they welcomed my help and felt that as a friend of hers, I might learn more than a disinterested policeman could.

So, well after midnight, watching my chance when the patrolman had just passed on his regular round, I went across the street.

Easily I opened the mailbox and extracted a quantity of letters.

Quietly, then, I opened the house door and went in.

I had provided myself with a pocket flashlight, as I didn't want to illuminate the house, and I went at once to the music room, to perform my errand.

How strange it seemed! The lovely room, with dainty white and gold furnishings, reminded me so forcibly of the bewitching girl who owned it all. A thousand questions rose in my mind. What would become of that bijou residence? The bric-a-brac and pictures, the rugs and furniture, while not magnificent, were of the best, and many of them costly. The great Chinese vase, into which I was to drop the letters was a gem of its kind, though not anything a connoisseur would covet.

I raised the dragon-topped lid, and let the letters fall in. Replacing the lid, I still lingered. My errand was done, but I felt an impulse to stay. Everything spoke to me of Vicky Van. Where was she now? Making sure that the opaque blinds were drawn, I dared to turn on one tiny electric lamp. The faint light made the shadowed room lovelier than ever. Could a girl of such cultivated tastes and such refinement of character be a--a wrong-doer? I couldn't say murderer even to myself. Then my common sense flared up, and told me that crime is no respecter of persons. That women who had slain human beings were not necessarily of this or that walk of life. Granted a woman had a motive to kill a man, that motive lay in the impulses of her feminine nature, and revenge, jealousy, fear, love or hate--whatever the motive, it was of deep and over-powering and might find its root in equal likeliness in the breast of queen or beggarmaid. I could not say Vicky was incapable of crime--indeed, her gay, volatile manner might hide a deeply perturbed spirit. She was an enigma, and I--I must solve the riddle. I felt I should never rest, until I knew the truth, and if Vicky were a martyr to circumstances, or a victim to Fate, I must know all about it.

Alone there, in the midnight hours, I resolved to devote my time, all I could spare, my energies, all I could command, and my life, so far as I might, to the discovery of the truth, and I might or might not reveal my findings as seemed to me best.

Leaving the music room, I went back through the long hall, and passed the door of Vicky's bedroom. Reverently I looked inside. The very walls seemed crying for her to come back. Would she ever so do? I wandered on through the bedroom, and even looked in the dressing room. I felt no compunction. It was not from idle curiosity, rather, I walked as one at a shrine. The exquisitely feminine boudoir was a mute witness to a love of beauty and art. I used only my flashlight, but on an impulse, I turned on one light by the side of the long mirror. I looked in it, as Vicky must often have done when dressing for her parties, as, indeed, she must have done, when dressing that last fatal night and seeing my own grim reflection, I gravely nodded my head at myself, and whispered, "We'll find the truth, old man, you see if we don't!"

In the ornate Florentine frame, with its branching arabesques, was a strand of the gold beads that had adorned Vicky's gown that night. I visualized her, whirling her skirts about before the mirror, with that quick, lithe grace of hers, and catching the fluttering fringe in the gilt protuberance. Perhaps she exclaimed in petulance, but, more likely, I thought, she laughed at the trivial accident. That was Vicky Van, as I knew her, to laugh at a mischance, and smile good-naturedly at an accident.

I lifted the strand of little beads from the entangling frame, and put it away in my pocketbook, as a dear and intimate souvenir of the girl I had known. Then, with a final glance that was a sort of farewell, I

Vicky Van - 20/40

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