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- The Voice on the Wire - 2/37 -
tells me all he knows, which ain't nothing. Them guys in that garage was wise, for it meant a cold five hundred apiece before I left to keep their lids closed. Van Cleft begs me to hustle the old man home, so one of my men takes her down to my office, still a sniffling, and acting like she had the D.T.'s. The young fellow shook like a leaf, but we takes him over to Central Park East, to the family mansion,--carrying him up the steps like he was drunk. We gets him into his own bed, and keeps the sister from touching his clammy hands, while she orders the family doctor. When he gets there on the jump, I gives him the wink and leads him to one side. 'Doc,' I says, 'you know how to write out a death certificate, to hush this up from your end. I've done the rest.'"
Captain Cronin leaned forward, a queer excitement agitating him.
"Do you know what that doctor says to me, Monty?"
Shirley shook his head.
He says; "My God, it's the third!"
Shirley's white hand gripped the edge of the table. "The Van Cleft's doctor is one of the greatest surgeons in the country, Professor MacDonald of the Medical College. He said that?"
"He did. I answers, 'Whadd'y mean the third?' Then he looks me straight in the eye, and sings back, 'None of your business.'" Cronin shook his head. "I never seen a man with a squarer look, and yet he has me guessing. I goes back to the garage, over past Eighth Avenue, you know, where two johns come up along side o' me. One rubs me with his elbow and the other applies that brass knuckle,--then they gets pinched. I got dressed up in a drug store, got the chauffeur's license number, and goes on down to my office to see this girl. She's hysterical about his family using all their money to put her in jail. I looks at her, and says, 'You won't need their money to get to jail. That old man's dead!' Her eyes was as big as saucers. 'I thought old Daddy Van Cleft was drunk.' I tells her, 'He was dead in that taxi, with a chorus girl, and a roll of bills gone. What you got to say?' She staggers forward and clutches my coat, and what do you think SHE says to me?"
Shirley made the inquiry only with his eyes, puffing his cigarette slowly.
"She looks sorter green, and repeats after me: 'Dead, with a chorus girl, and a roll of bills gone,'--just like a parrot. Then she springs this on me: 'My God, it's the third!'"
Shirley dropped his cigarette, leaning forward, all nonchalance gone.
"Where is she now? Quick, let's go to her."
He rose to his feet. Just then a door-boy walked through the grill-room toward him. "A telephone call for Captain Cronin, sir; the party said hurry or he would miss something good."
Shirley snapped out, "When has the rule about telephone calls in this club been changed? You boys are never to tell any one that a member or guest are here until the name is announced."
He turned toward the puzzled Captain.
"Did you ask any of your operatives to call you here? You know what a risk you are taking, to connect me with this case like that, don't you?"
"I never even breathed it to myself. I told no one."
"Follow me up to the telephone room."
Shirley hurried through the grill, to the switchboard, near which stood the booths for private calls. He called to one of the operators. "Here, let me at that switchboard." He pushed the boy aside, and sat down in the vacated chair.
"Which trunk is it on? Oh, I see, the second. There Captain, take the fourth booth against the wall."
Cronin stepped in. Shirley connected up and listened with the transmitter of the operator at his ear, holding the line open.
"Go ahead, here's Captain Cronin!"
A pleasant voice came over the wire. It was musical and sincere.
"Hello, Captain Cronin, is that you?"
"Yes! What do you want?"
The voice continued, with a jolly laugh, ringing and infectious in its merriment.
"Well, Captain, the joke's on you. Ha, ha, ha! It's a bully one! Ho, ho! Ha, ha!"
"You're working on the Van Cleft case. Oh, sure, you are, don't kid me back. Well, Captain, you've missed two other perfectly good grafts. This is the third one!"
There was a click and the speaker, with another merry gurgle, rang off.
"Quick, manager's desk," cried Shirley, jiggling the metal key. "What call was that? Where did it come from?"
After a little wait, a languid voice answered: "Brooklyn, Main 6969, Party C."
"Give me the number again--I want to speak on the wire."
After another delay, the voice replied "The line has been discontinued."
"I just had it! What is the name of the subscriber. Hurry, this is a matter of life and death."
"It's against the rules to give any further information. But our record shows that the house burned down about two weeks ago. No one else has been given the number. There's no instrument there!"
THE FLEETING PROMPTER
Monty's puzzled smile was in no wise reciprocated by the Captain, whose red face evidenced a growing resentment.
He began a tirade, but a wink from the club man warned him. Shirley replaced the receiver, and the regular attendant resumed his place at the switchboard. The lad was curious at the unusual ability of the wealthy Mr. Shirley to handle the bewildering maze of telephone attachments. Monty explained, as he turned to go upstairs.
"Son, that was one of my smart friends trying to play a practical joke on my guest. I fooled him. Don't let it happen again, until you send in the party's name first."
"Yes, sir," meekly promised the boy.
"Well, Captain Cronin, as the old paperback novels used to say at the end of the first instalment, 'The Plot thickens!' At first I thought this case of stupid badger game--"
"You aren't going to back out, Monty? Here's a whole gang of crooks which would give you some sport rounding up, and as for money--"
"Money is easy, from both sides of a criminal matter. What interests me is that ghostly telephone call from a house that burned down, and the caller's knowledge of Number Three. I'm in this case, have no fear of that."
Shirley led his guest to the coat room.
"I'll get a taxicab, Monty. We'd better see that girl first and then have a look at the body."
The Captain turned to the door, as the attendant helped Monty with his overcoat. The waiter from the grill-room approached. "Excuse me, sir, but the gentleman dropped his handkerchief in his chair opposite you."
"Thank you, Gordon," he said, as he faced the servant for an instant. When he turned again, toward the front hall, the Captain had passed out of view through the front door.
Shirley received a surprise when he reached the pavement on Forty-fourth Street, for Captain Cronin was not in sight. Two club men descended the steps of the neighboring house. Others strolled along toward the Avenue, but not a sign of a vehicle of any description could be seen, nor was there anything suspicious in view. Cronin had disappeared as effectually as though he had taken a passing Zeppelin!
"I'm glad this affair will not bore me," murmured the criminologist, as he evolved and promptly discarded a dozen vain theories to explain the disappearance of his companion.
Twenty minutes were wasted along the block, as he waited for some sight or sign. Then he decided to go on up to Van Cleft's residence. But, realizing the probability of "shadow" work upon all who came from the door of the club, after the curious message on the wire, Shirley did not propose to expose his hand. Walking leisurely to the Avenue, he hailed a passing hansom. He directed the driver to carry him to an address on Central Park West. His shrewdness was not wasted, for as he stepped into the vehicle, he espied a slinking figure crossing the street diagonally before him, to disappear into the shadow of an adjacent doorway. This was the house of Reginald Van Der Voor, as Shirley knew. It was
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