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- The Voice on the Wire - 6/37 -

"He is better now, sir. We feared he was fatally injured when they brought him in. I'll be outside in the corridor if you need anything."

She left not without an admiring look at the big chap, wondering why he wore such disreputable superstructure with patent leather pumps and silk hose showing below the ragged overcoat. Strange sights come to hospitals, curiosity frequently leading to unprofitable knowledge: so she was silently discreet. Shirley's garb was not unobserved by the detective chief. Monty laughed reminiscently at the questioning glance.

"These are my working clothes--a fine combination. I nabbed two of the gang. But what became of you?"

"Outside that club door, I wanted to save time for us both. I took the first taxi in sight. Before I could even call out to you, the door slammed on me, the shades flopped down, the car started up--the next thing I knew this here nurse was sticking a spoon in my mouth, a-saying: 'Take this--it's fine for what ails you!'"

"I wonder if it could have been the same machine they left at Van Cleft's? I will tell you how things progressed." So he did, leaving out only the confidence of Professor MacDonald. The Captain became feverishly excited, until Shirley abjured him to beware of a relapse. "You must be calm, for the next twenty-four hours: there will be much for you to do, even then. Meanwhile, let me call up your agency; then you give them instructions over this table telephone to let Howard Van Cleft interview the little chorus girl, with his friend. I'll be the friend."

"I'm afraid I'm going to be snowed under in this case, Monty. The finest job I've had these dozen years. But you're square, and will do all you can."

"Old friend, I'll do what I can to make Van Cleft and the newspapers sure that you are the most wonderful sleuth inside or outside the public library. Here's your office--speak up. Let me lift you."

"Hello Pat!" called Cronin, as his superintendent came to the 'phone. "I am detained at Bellevue, so that I can't be there when Van Cleft comes down. Let him Third Degree that little Jane from the garage. Keep them two men apart, too--oh, that's all right, the fellow is a friend of mine on the 'Frisco police force. He won't butt in." Silence for a moment, then: "Oh, shucks, let 'em yowl! They've got more than kidnapping to worry about for the next twenty-five years."

He hung up the receiver, sinking back on his pillows wan from the strain. Monty handed him a glass of water, and adjusted the bandages with a hand as tender as a woman's. He lifted the instrument again.

"You are sterling, twenty-two carat and a yard wide, Captain! Now, get to sleep while I find out who the ring-master is. I've sworn to keep awake until I do. I think it well to telephone Van Cleft, and arrange for a better get-a-way for us both."

He was soon talking with the son of the murdered man. "Meet me down at the Vanderbilt Hotel--ask for Mr. Hepburn's room, and send up the name of Williams. See you in an hour. Good-bye."

Hanging up the receiver, he turned toward the door, after a friendly pat on Cronin's shoulder. The bell rang, and the Captain reached for it, to sink back exhausted upon the bed. Shirley answered, to be greeted by a pleasant feminine voice.

"Is this Captain Cronin?"

Instantly the criminologist replied affirmatively, suiting his tones as best he could to the gruff voice of the detective chief, with a wink at that worthy.

"I just called up, Captain, to ask about you--Oh, you don't recognize my voice. I'm Miss Wilberforce, private secretary to Mr. Van Cleft. Has any one been to see you yet? I understand that you are very busy, and have already missed two other good cases, this one being the THIRD! Well, don't hurry, Captain. You may get the rest to come--if you live long enough. Good-bye!"

Shirley looked at Cronin, startled. Another mention of the mystic number. He called for information about the origin of the call.

"Lordee, son! Are they at it again?" asked Cronin in disgust.

"Yes--overdoing it. One thing is clear, that whoever is behind this telephone trickery is very clever, and very conceited over that cleverness. It may be a costly vanity. Yes, information?"

"The call was from Rector 2190-D. The American Sunday School Organization, sir--It doesn't answer now; the office must be closed."

Shirley put the instrument down, with a smile on his pursed lips. He waved a good natured farewell to his friend, as he drew the cap down over his eyes.

"Look a little happier, Captain. I'll send down some fruit and a special vintage from our club which has bottled up in it the sunlight of a dozen years in Southern France. I hope they keep the telephone wires busy--they may tangle themselves up in their own spider-web!"

Leaving the hospital, he hurried to the hotel. One of his secret idiosyncracies was a custom of "living around" at a number of hotels, under aliases. Maintaining pleasant suites in each, he kept full supplies of linen and garments, while effectively blotting out his own identity for "doubling" work.

He was known as "Mr. Hepburn" here, and entering the side door he was subjected to the curious gaze of only one servant, the operator of the small elevator. Once in the shelter of his quarters he rummaged through some scrap-books for data--he found it in a Sunday feature story published a month before in a semi-theatrical paper. It described with rollicking sarcasm, a gay "millionaire" party which had been given in Rector's private dining rooms. Among the ridiculed hosts were Van Cleft, Wellington Serral and Herbert De Cleyster! Here, in some elusive manner, ran the skein of truth which if followed would lead to the solution of mystery. He must carve out of this mass of pregnant clues the essentials upon which to act, as the sculptor chisels the marble of a huge block to expose the figure of his inspiration, encased there all the time!

"To find out the source of their golden-haired nymphs for this merry-merry, that is the question! Some stage doorkeeper might be persuaded to unburden what soul he has left!"

He jotted in his memorandum book the names of the other eight wealthy men who were pilloried by the journalist. The younger men, Shirley felt sure, were of that peculiarly Manhattanse type of hanger-on--well-groomed, happy-go-hellward youths who danced, laughed and drank well,--so essential to the philanderings of these rich old Harlequins and their gilded Columbines. As he scribbled, the telephone of the room tinkled its summons.

He started toward it: then his invaluable intuition prompted him to walk into the adjoining room, where another instrument stood on a small table, handy to the bed. Only two people could possibly know he was there. Van Cleft could not have arrived, as yet. The other bell jingled impatiently, but Shirley finally heard the voice of the switch-board girl.

"I'm trying to get you on the other wire, sir. There's a call."

"Don't connect me," he hurriedly ordered, "except to open the switch, so I may listen. If I hang up without a word, tell the party I will be back in twenty minutes."

With a hotel telephone girl tact is more important than even the knowledge of wire-knitting. It was the woman's voice which he had heard at the hospital. Captain Cronin was anxious to speak to Mr. Williams, who was calling on Mr. Hepburn! With the biggest jolt of this day of surprises Shirley disconnected and whistled. Again he laughed--with that grim chuckle which was so characteristic of his supreme battling mood! They had found the trail even quicker than he had expected. Fortunate it was that he had not mentioned his own name in telephoning from the hospital to Howard. Not a wire was safe from these mysterious eaves-droppers now. He hurried into a business suit, and left the hotel, to walk over Thirty-fourth Street to the studio of his friend, Hammond Bell. Here he was admitted, to find the portrait-painter finishing a solitary chafing-dish supper.

"Delighted, Monty! Join me in the encore on this creamed chicken and mushrooms!"

"Too rich for my primitive blood, Hammond. I'm in a hurry to get a favor."

"I've received enough at your hands--say the word."

"Simply this: I want to experiment with sound waves. I remembered that once in a while some of these wild Bohemian friends of yours warbled post-impressionist love-songs into your phonograph. It stood the strain, and so must be a good one. It is too late now to get one in a shop; will you lend me the whole outfit, with the recording attachment as well, for to-night and to-morrow?"

"The easiest thing you know. Let's slide it into this grip--you can carry the horn."

Three minutes later Shirley made his exit, and soon was shaking hands with Van Cleft in his own room at the hotel. He sketched his idea hurriedly, as he adjusted the instrument on the dressing-table near the telephone.

"When the call comes, be sure to say: 'Get closer, I can't hear you.' That's the method, and it's so simple it is almost silly." They were barely ready when the bell warned them. At Van Cleft's reply, when the call for "Mr. Williams" Shirley pushed the horn close to the telephone receiver. Van Cleft twisted it, so as to give the best advantage, and demanded that the speaker come closer to the 'phone.

The Voice on the Wire - 6/37

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