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- The Voice on the Wire - 4/37 -
"I wonder!" he murmured. He had ample reason to wonder.
THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER
"Well, Mr. Shirley, your coming here was a Godsend! I don't know what to do now. The newspapers will get this surely. I depended on Cronin: he must have been drinking."
Shirley shook his head, as he explained, "I know Cronin's reputation, for I was a police reporter. He is a sterling man. There's foul work here which extends beyond your father's case. But we are wasting time. Why don't you introduce me to your physician? Just tell him about Cronin, and that you have confided in me completely."
Van Cleft went upstairs without a word. Unused to any worry, always able to pay others for the execution of necessary details, this young man was a victim of the system which had engulfed his unfortunate sire in the maelstrom of reckless pleasure.
By his ingenuous adroitness, it may be seen, Shirley was inveigling himself into the heart of the affair, in his favorite disguise as that of the "innocent bystander." His innate dramatic ability assisted him in maintaining his friendly and almost impersonal role, with a success which had in the past kept the secret of his system from even the evildoers themselves.
"A little investigation of the telephone exchanges during the next day or two will not be wasted time," he mused. "I'll get Sam Grindle, their assistant advertising manager to show me the way the wheels go 'round. No man can ride a Magic Carpet of Bagdad over the skyscrapers in these days of shattered folklore."
Howard Van Cleft returned with the famous surgeon, Professor MacDonald. He was elderly, with the broad high forehead, dignity of poise, and sharpness of glance which bespeaks the successful scientist. His face, to-night, was chalky and the firm, full mouth twitched with nervousness. He greeted Shirley abstractedly. The criminologist's manner was that of friendly anxiety.
"You are here, sir, as a friend of the family?"
"Yes. Howard has told me of the terrible mystery of this case. As an ex-newspaper man I imagine that my influence and friendships may keep the unpleasant details from the press."
"That is good," sighed the doctor, with relief. "How soon will you do it?"
"Now, using this telephone. No, for certain reasons, I had better use an outside instrument. I will call up men I know on each paper, as though this were a 'scoop,' so that knowing me, they will be confident that I tell them the truth as a favor. Such deceit is excusable under the circumstances. It may eventually bring the murderer to justice."
Professor MacDonald winced at the word. He turned toward Van Cleft, on sudden thought, remarking: "Howard your mother and sister may need the comfort of your presence. I will chat with your friend until the Coroner comes."
The physician sank into a library chair. The criminologist quietly awaited his cue. He lit a cigarette and the minutes drifted past with no word between them. The doctor's gaze lowered to the vellum-bound books on the carven table, then to the gorgeous pattern of the Kermansha at his feet. Once more he studied the face of his companion, with the keen, soul-gripping scrutiny of the skilled physician. As last he arrived at a definite conclusion. He cleared his throat, and fumbled in his waistcoat pocket for a cigar. A swiftly struck match in Monty's hand was held up so promptly to the end of the cigar, that the doctor's lips had not closed about it. This deftness, simple in itself, did not escape the observation of the scientist. He smiled for the first time during their interview.
"Your reflex nerves are very wide awake for a quiet man. I believe I can depend upon those nerves, and your quietude. May I ask what occupation you follow, if any? Most of Howard's friends follow butterflies."
"I am one of them, then. Some opera, more theatricals, much art gallery touring. A little regular reading in my rooms, and there you are! My great grandfather was too poor a trader to succeed in pelts, so he invested a little money in rocky pastures around upper Manhattan: this has kept the clerks of the family bankers busy ever since. I am an optimistic vagabond, enjoying life in the observation of the rather ludicrous busyness of other folk. In short, Doctor, I am a corpulent Hamlet, essentially modern in my cultivation of a joy in life, debating the eternal question with myself, but lazily leaving it to others to solve. Therein I am true to my type."
"Pardon my bluntness," observed MacDonald, watching him through partially closed eyes. "You are not telling the truth. You are a busy man, with definite work, but that is no affair of mine. I recognize in you a different calibre from that of these rich young idlers in Howard's class. I am going to take you into my confidence, for you understand the need for secrecy, and will surely help in every way--noblesse oblige. This man Cronin, the detective, was rather crude."
"He is honest and dependable," replied Shirley, loyally.
"Yes, but I wonder why professional detectives are so primitive. They wear their calling cards and their business shingles on their figures and faces. Surely the crooks must know them all personally. I read detective stories, in rest moments, and every one of the sleuths lives in some well-known apartment, or on a prominent street. Some day we may read of one who is truly in secret service, but not until after his death notice. But there, I am talking to quiet my own nerves a bit,--now we will get to cases."
The doctor dropped his cigar into the bronze tray on the table, leaning forward with intense earnestness, as he continued.
"This, Mr. Shirley, is the third murder of the sort within a week. Wellington Serral, the wealthy broker, came to a sudden death in a private dining room last Monday, in the company of a young show girl. He was a patient of mine, and I signed the death certificate as heart failure, to save the honorable family name for his two orphaned daughters.
"Herbert de Cleyster, the railroad magnate, died similarly in a taxicab on Thursday. He was also one of my patients. There, too, was concerned another of these wretched chorus girls. To-night the fatal number of the triad was consummated in this cycle of crime. To maintain my loyalty to my patients I have risked my professional reputation. Have I done wrong?"
"No! The criminal shall be brought to justice," replied Shirley in a voice vibrant with a profound determination which was not lost upon his companion.
"Are you powerful enough to bring this about, without disgracing me or betraying this sordid tragedy to the morbid scandal-rakers of the papers?"
"I will devote every waking hour to it. But, like you, my efforts must remain entirely secret. I vow to find this man before I sleep again!"
"You are determined--yet it cannot be one single man. It must be an organized gang, for all the crimes have been so strangely similar, occurring to three men who are friends, and entrez nous, notorious for their peccadilloes. The girls must be in the vicious circle, and ably assisted. But there is one thing I forgot to tell you, which you forgot to ask."
"And this is?"
"How they died. It was by some curious method of sudden arterial stoppage. Old as they were, some fiendish trick was employed so skilfully that the result was actual heart failure. There was no trace of drugs in lungs or blood. On each man's breast, beneath the sternum bone I found a dull, barely discernible bruise mark, which I later removed by a simple massage of the spot!"
Shirley closed his eyes, and passed his hand over his own chest --along the armpits--behind his ears--he seemed to be mentally enumerating some list of nerve centers. The physician observed him curiously.
"I have it, doctor! The sen-si-yao!"
"What do you mean?"
"The most powerful and secret of all the death-strokes of the Japanese art of jiu-jitsu fighting. I paid two thousand dollars to learn the course from a visiting instructor when I was in college. It was worth it for this one occasion."
Shirley arose to his feet, and approached the other, touching his shoulder.
"Stand up, if you please. Let me ask if this was the location of the mark?"
The physician, interested in this new professional phase, readily obeyed. One quick movement of Shirley's muscular hand, the thumb oddly twisted and stiffened, and a sudden jab in the doctor's abdomen made that gentleman gasp with pain. Shirley's expression was triumphant, but the professor regarded him with an expression of terror.
"Oh! Ugh!--What-did-you-do-to me?" he murmured thickly, when he was at last able to speak.
"Merely demonstrated the beginning of the death punch which I named. That pressure if continued for half a minute would have been fatal."
"I wish you would teach me that," was the physician's natural
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