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- The Voice on the Wire - 3/37 -
closed because its master, a social acquaintance of the club man's, was at this time touring the Orient in his steam yacht. No man should have entered that doorway. So, as the horse started under the flick of the long whip, Shirley peered unobserved through the glass window at his side.
A big machine swung up behind the hansom, at some unseen hail, and the figure came from the doorway, leaping into the car, as it followed Shirley up the Avenue, a block or so behind.
"It is not always so easy to follow, when the leader knows his chase," thought Shirley. "I'm glad I'm only a simple club man."
The automobile was unmistakably trailing him, as the hansom crossed the Plaza, then sped through the Park drive, to the address he had given his driver.
As Shirley had remembered, this was a large apartment house, in which one of his bachelor friends lived. He knew the lay of the building well: next door, with an entrance facing on the side street was another just like it, and of equal height.
"Wait for me, here," said Shirley. "I'll pay you now, but want to go to an address down town in five minutes."
He gave the driver a bill, then entered and told the elevator man to take him to the ninth floor.
"There's nobody in, boss," began the boy. But Shirley shook his head.
"My friend is expecting me for a little card game, that's why you think he is out. Just take me up."
He handed the negro a quarter, which was complete in its logic.
As he reached the floor, he waved to the elevator operator. "Go on down, and don't let any one else come up, for Mr. Greenough doesn't want company."
As the car slid down, Shirley fumbled along the familiar hall to the iron stairs which led to the roof of the building. Up these he hurried, thence out upon the roof. It was a matter of only four minutes before he had crossed to the next apartment building, opened the door of the roof-entry, found the stairs to the ninth floor, and taken this elevator to the street.
He walked out of the building, and turned toward Central Park West, to slyly observe the entrance of the building where waited the faithful hansom Jehu. A young man was in conversation with the driver, and the big automobile could be seen on the other side of the street awaiting further developments.
"He has a long vigil there," laughed Shirley. "Now, for the real address. I think I lost the hounds for this time."
Another vehicle took him through the Park to the darkened mansion of the Van Clefts'. Here, Shirley's card brought a quick response from the surprised son of the dead millionaire.
"Why--why--I'm glad to see you, Mr. Shirley--Who sent you?" he began.
Shirley registered complete surprise. "Sent me, my dear Van Cleft? Who should send me? For what? It just happened that I was walking up the Avenue, and to-morrow night I plan to give a little farewell supper to Hal Bingley, class of '03, at the club You knew him in College? I thought you might like to come."
"Step in the library," requested Van Cleft, weakly. "Sit down, Mr. Shirley--I'm upset to-night."
He mopped his brow with a damp handkerchief, and Shirley's big heart went out to the young chap, as he saw the haggard lines of horror and grief on his usually pleasant face.
"What's the trouble, old man? Anything I can do?"
"My father just died this evening, and I'm in awful trouble--I thought it was the Coroner, or the police--" he bit his tongue as the last words escaped him. Shirley put his hand on Van Cleft's shoulder, with an inspiring firmness.
"Tell me how I can help. You've had a big shock. Confide in me, and I pledge you my word, I'll keep it safer than any one you could go to."
Van Cleft groped as a drowning man, at this opportunity. He caught Shirley's hand and wrung it tensely.
"Sit down. The doctor is still upstairs with mother and sister. When the Coroner comes, I would like to have you be here as a witness. It's an ordeal--I'll tell you everything."
Shirley listened attentively, without betraying his own knowledge. Soothing in manner, he questioned the son about any possible enemy of the murdered man.
"There's not one I know. Dad is popular--he's been too gay, lately, but just foolish like a lot of rich men. He wouldn't harm any one. He inherited his money, you know. Didn't have to crush the working people. Like me, he's been endeavoring to spend it ever since he was born, but it comes in too fast from our estates."
He looked up apprehensively, at the sympathetic face of his companion.
"It's very unwise to tell this. I suppose it's a State's prison offence to deceive about murder. But you understand our position: we can't afford to let it become gossip. I'll pay this girl anything to go to Europe or the Antipodes!"
"I wouldn't do that," suggested Shirley, thoughtfully. "Let her stay. You would like to bring the culprit to justice, if it can be done without dragging your name into it. If he has planned this, he has executed other schemes. She certainly would not remain the machine if she were the guilty one. Why not employ a good detective?"
"I did, but hesitated to tell you. I secured Captain Cronin, of the Holland Agency. He's managed everything so far--I was too rattled myself. But, I wonder why he isn't here now? He was to return as soon as he visited the garage."
As Van Cleft spoke, the butler approached with hesitation.
"Beg pardon, sir. But you are wanted on the telephone, sir."
"All right, Hoskins. Connect it with the library instrument."
Van Cleft lifted the receiver nervously, and answered in an unsteady voice.
"Yes--This is Van Cleft's residence."
Silence for a bit, then the wire was busy.
"What's that? Captain Cronin? What about him? Let me speak to him."
Shirley was alert as a cat. Van Cleft was too dazed to understand his sudden move, as the criminologist caught up the receiver, and placed his palm for an instant over the mouthpiece.
"Ask him to say it again--that you didn't understand." Shirley removed his hand, and obeyed. Shirley held the receiver to his ear, as the young man spoke. Then he heard these curious words: "You poor simp, you'd better get that family doctor of yours to give you some ear medicine, and stop wasting time with the death certificate. I told you that Cronin was over in Bellevue Hospital with a fractured skull. Unless you drop this investigating, you'll get one, too. Ta, ta! Old top!"
The receiver was hung up quickly at the other end of the line.
Shirley gave a quick call for "Information," and after several minutes learned that the call came from a drug store pay-station in Jersey City!
The melodious tones were unmistakably those of the speaker who had used the wire from faraway Brooklyn where the house had been burned down! It was a human impossibility for any one to have covered the distance between the two points in this brief time, except in an aeroplane!
Van Cleft wondered dumbly at his companion's excitement. Shirley caught up the telephone again.
"Some one says that Cronin is at Bellevue Hospital, injured. I'll find out."
It was true. Captain Cronin was lying at point of death, the ward nurse said, in answer to his eager query. At first the ambulance surgeon had supposed him to be drunk, for a patrolman had pulled him out of a dark doorway, unconscious.
"Where was the doorway? This is his son speaking, so tell me all."
"Just a minute. Oh! Here is the report slip. He was taken from the corner of Avenue A and East Eleventh Street. You'd better come down right away, for he is apt to die tonight. He's only been here ten minutes."
"Has any one else telephoned to find out about him?"
"No. We didn't even know his name until just as you called up, when we found his papers and some warrants in a pocketbook. How did you know?"
But Shirley disconnected curtly, this time. He bowed his head in thought, and then, with his usual nervous custom, fumbled for a cigarette. Here was the Captain, whom he had left on Forty-fourth Street, near Fifth Avenue, a short time before, discovered fully three miles away.
And the news telephoned from Jersey City, by the fleeting magic voice on the wire. Even his iron composure was stirred by this weird complication.
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