THE BLACK BOX
THE UNSEEN TERROR
With a little gesture of despair, Quest turned away from the instrument which seemed suddenly to have become so terribly unresponsive, and looked across the vista of square roofs and tangled masses of telephone wires to where the lights of larger New York flared up against the sky. From his attic chamber, the roar of the City a few blocks away was always in his ears. He had forgotten in those hours of frenzied solitude to fear for his own safety. He thought only of Lenora. Under which one of those thousands of roofs was she being concealed? What was the reason for this continued silence? Perhaps they had taken her instrument away—perhaps she was being ill-used. The bare thought opened the door to a thousand grim and torturing surmises. He paced restlessly up and down the room. Inaction had never seemed to him so wearisome. From sheer craving to be doing something, he paused once more before the little instrument.
“Lenora, where are you?” he signalled. “I have taken a lodging in the Servants’ Club. I am still in hiding, hoping that Craig may come here. I am very anxious about you.”
Still no reply! Quest drew a chair up to the window and sat there with folded arms looking down into the street. Suddenly he sprang to his feet. The instrument quivered—there was a message at last! He took it down with a little choke of relief.
“I don’t know where I am. I am terrified. I was outside the garage when I was seized from behind. The Hands held me. I was unconscious until I found myself here. I am now in an attic room with no window except the skylight, which I cannot reach. I can see nothing—hear nothing. No one has hurt me, no one comes near. Food is pushed through a door, which is locked again immediately. The house seems empty, yet I fancy that I am being watched all the time. I am terrified!”
Quest drew the instrument towards him.
“I have your message,” he signalled. “Be brave! I am watching for Craig. Through him I shall reach you before long. Send me a message every now and then.”
Then there was a silence.
Quest was conscious of an enormous feeling of relief and yet an almost maddening sense of helplessness. She was imprisoned by the Hands. She was in their power, and up till now they had shown themselves ruthless enough. A room with a roof window only! How could she define her whereabouts! His first impulse was to rush madly out into the street and search for her. Then his common sense intervened. His one hope was through Craig. Again he took up his vigil in front of the window. Once more his eyes swept the narrow street with its constant stream of passers-by. Each time a man stopped and entered the building, he leaned a little further forward, and at each disappointment he seemed to realise a little more completely the slenderness of the chance upon which he was staking so much. Then suddenly he found himself gripping the window-sill in a momentary thrill of rare excitement. His vigil was rewarded at last. The man for whom he was waiting was there! Quest watched him cross the street, glance furtively to the right and to the left, then enter the club. He turned back to the little wireless and his fingers worked as though inspired.
“I am on Craig’s track,” he signalled. “Be brave.”
He waited for no reply, but opened the door and stealing softly out of the room, leaned over the banisters. His apartment was on the fourth story. The floor below was almost entirely occupied by the kitchen and other offices. The men’s club room was on the second floor. From where he stood he heard the steward of the club greeting Craig. He was a big man with a hearty voice, and the sound of his words reached Quest distinctly.
“Say, Mr. Craig, you’re an authority on South America, aren’t you? I bought some beans in the market this morning which they told me were grown down there, and my chef don’t seem to know what to make of ’em. I wonder whether you would mind stepping up and giving him your advice?”
Craig’s much lower voice was inaudible but it was evident that he had consented, for the two men ascended to the third floor together. Quest watched them enter the kitchen. A moment or two later the steward was summoned by a messenger and descended alone. Quest ran quickly down the stairs and planted himself behind the kitchen door. He had hardly taken up his position before the handle was turned. He heard Craig’s last words, spoken as he looked over his shoulder.
“You want to just soak them for two hours longer than any other beans in the world. That’s all there is about it.”
Craig appeared and the door swung back behind him. Before he could utter a cry, Quest’s left hand was over his mouth and the cold muzzle of an automatic pistol was pressed to his ribs.
“Turn round and mount those stairs, Craig,” Quest ordered.
The man shrunk away, trembling. The pistol pressed a little further into his side.
“Upstairs,” Quest repeated firmly. “If you utter a cry I shall shoot you.”
Craig turned slowly round and obeyed. He mounted the stairs with reluctant footsteps, followed by Quest.
“Through the door to your right,” the latter directed. “That’s right! Now sit down in that chair facing me.”
Quest closed the door carefully. Craig sat where he had been ordered, his fingers gripping the arms of the chair. In his eyes shone the furtive, terrified light of the trapped criminal.
Quest looked him over a little scornfully. It was queer that a man with apparently so little nerve should have the art and the daring to plan such exploits.
“What do you want with me?” Craig asked doggedly.
“First of all,” Quest replied, “I want to know what you have done with my assistant, the girl whom you carried off from the Professor’s garage.”
Craig shook his head.
“I know nothing about her.”
“She locked you in the garage,” Quest continued, “and sent for me. When I arrived, I found the garage door open, Lenora gone and you a fugitive.”
Bewilderment struggled for a moment with blank terror in Craig’s expression.
“How do you know that she locked me in the garage?”
Quest smiled, stretched out his right arm and his long fingers played softly with the pocket wireless.
“In just the same way,” he explained, “that I am sending her this message at the present moment—a message which she will receive and understand wherever she is hidden. Would you like to know what I am telling her?”
The man shivered. His eyes, as though fascinated, watched the little instrument.
“I am saying this, Craig,” Quest continued. “Craig is here and in my power. He is sitting within a few feet of me and will not leave this room alive until he has told me your whereabouts. Keep up your courage, Lenora. You shall be free in an hour.”
The trapped man looked away from the instrument into Quest’s face. There was a momentary flicker of something that might have passed for courage in his tone.
“Mr. Quest,” he said, “you are a wonderful man, but there are limits to your power. You can tear my tongue from my mouth but you cannot force me to speak a word.”
Quest leaned a little further forward in his chair, his gaze became more concentrated.
“That is where you are wrong, Craig. That is where you make a mistake. In a very few minutes you will be telling me all the secrets of your heart.”
Craig shivered, drew back a little in his chair, tried to rise and fell back again helpless.
“My God!” he cried. “Leave me alone!”
“When you have told me the truth,” Quest answered, swiftly, “and you will tell me all I want to know in a few moments…. Your eyelids are getting a little heavy, Craig. Don’t resist. Something which is like sleep is coming over you. You see my will has yours by the throat.”
Craig seemed suddenly to collapse altogether. He fell over on one side. Every atom of colour had faded from his cheeks. Quest leaned over him with a frown. The man was in a stupor without a doubt, but it was a physical state of unconsciousness into which he had subsided. He felt his pulse, unbuttoned his coat, and listened for a moment to the beating of his heart. Then he crossed the room, fetched the pitcher of water and dashed some of its contents in Craig’s face. In a few moments the man opened his eyes and regained consciousness. His appearance, however, was still ghastly.
“Where am I?” he murmured.
“You are here in my room, at the Servants’ Club,” Quest replied. “You are just about to tell me where I shall find Lenora.”
Craig shook his head. A very weak smile of triumph flickered for a moment at the corners of his lips.
“Your torture chamber trick won’t work on me!” he exclaimed. “You can never—”
The whole gamut of emotions seemed already to have spent themselves in the man’s face, but at that moment there was a new element, an element of terrified curiosity in the expression of his eyes as he stared towards the door.
“Is this another trick of yours?” he muttered.
Quest, too, turned his head and sprang instantly to his feet. From underneath the door came a little puff of smoke. There was a queer sense of heat of which both men were simultaneously conscious. Down in the street arose a chorus of warning shouts, increasing momentarily in volume. Quest threw open the door and closed it again at once.
“The place is on fire,” he announced briefly. “Pull yourself together, man. We shall have all we can do to get out of this.”
Craig turned to the door but staggered back almost immediately.
“The stairs are going!” he shrieked. “It is the kitchen that is on fire. We are cut off! We cannot get down!”
Quest was on his hands and knees, fumbling under his truckle bed. He pulled out a crude form of fire escape, a rough sort of cradle with a rope attached.
“Know how to use this?” he asked Craig quickly. “Here, catch hold. Put your arms inside this strap.”
“You are going to send me down first?” Craig exclaimed incredulously.
Quest smiled. Then he drew the rope round the table and tied it.
“You would like to have a chance of cutting the rope, wouldn’t you, when I was half way down?” he asked grimly. “Now then, don’t waste time. Get on to the window-sill. Don’t brake too much. Off you go!”
Yard by yard, swinging a little in the air, Craig made his descent. When he arrived in the street, there were a hundred willing hands to release him. Quest drew up the rope quickly, warned by a roar of anxious voices. The walls of the room were crumbling. Volumes of smoke were now pouring in underneath the door, and through the yawning fissures of the wall. Little tongues of flame were leaping out dangerously close to the spot where he must pass. He let fall the slack of the rope and leaned from the window to watch it anxiously. Then he commenced to descend, letting himself down hand over hand, always with one eye upon that length of rope that swung below. Suddenly, as he reached the second floor, a little cry from the crowd warned him of what had happened. Tongues of flame curling out from the blazing building, had caught the rope, which was being burned through not a dozen feet away from him. He descended a little further and paused in mid-air.
A shout from the crowd reached him.
“The cables! Try the cables!”
He glanced round. Seven or eight feet away, and almost level with him was a double row of telegraph wires. Almost as he saw them the rope below him burned through and fell to the ground. He swung a little towards the side of the house, pushed himself vigorously away from it with his feet, and at the farthest point of the outward swing, jumped. His hands gripped the telegraph wires safely. Even in that tense moment he heard a little sob of relief from the people below.
Hand over hand he made his way to the nearest pole and slipped easily to the ground. The crowd immediately surged around him. Some one forced a drink into his hand. A chorus of congratulations fell upon his deafened ears. Then the coming of the fire engines, and the approach of a police automobile diverted the attention of the on-lookers. Quest slipped about amongst them, searching for Craig.
“Where is the man who came down before me?” he asked a bystander.
“Talking to the police in the car over yonder,” was the hoarse reply. “Say, Guv’nor, you only just made that!”
Quest pushed his way through the crowd to where Craig was speaking eagerly to Inspector French. He stopped short and stooped down. He was near enough to hear the former’s words.
“Mr. French, you saw that man come down the rope and swing on to the cables? That was Quest, Sanford Quest, the man who escaped from the Tombs prison. He can’t have got away yet.”
Quest drew off his coat, turned it inside out, and replaced it swiftly. He coolly picked up a hat some one had lost in the crowd and pulled it over his eyes. He passed within a few feet of where Craig and the Inspector were talking.
“He was hiding in the Servants’ Club,” Craig continued, “he had just threatened to shoot me when the fire broke out.”
“I’ll send the word round,” French declared. “We’ll have him found, right enough.”
For a single moment Quest hesitated. He had a wild impulse to take Craig by the neck and throw him back into the burning house. Then he heard French shout to his men.
“Say, boys, Sanford Quest is in the crowd here somewhere. He’s the man who jumped on to the cable lines. A hundred dollars for his arrest!”
Quest turned reluctantly away. Men were rushing about in all directions looking for him. He forced a passage through the crowd and in the general confusion he passed the little line of police without difficulty. His face darkened as he looked behind at the burning block. A peculiar sense of helplessness oppressed him. His pocket wireless was by now a charred heap of ashes. His one means of communication with Lenora was gone and the only man who knew her whereabouts was safe under the protection of the police.
The Professor swung round in his chair and greeted Quest with some surprise but also a little disappointment.
“No news of Craig?” he asked.
Quest sank into a chair. He was fresh from the Turkish baths and was enjoying the luxury of clean linen and the flavour of an excellent cigar.
“I got Craig all right,” he replied. “He came to the Servants’ Club where I was waiting for him. My luck’s out, though. The place was burnt to the ground last night. I saved his life and then the brute gave me away to the police. I had to make my escape as best I could.”
The Professor tapped the table peevishly.
“This is insufferable,” he declared. “I have had no shaving water; my coffee was undrinkable; I can find nothing. I have a most important lecture to prepare and I cannot find any of the notes I made upon the subject.”
Quest stared at the Professor for a moment and then laughed softly.
“Well,” he remarked, “you are rather an egoist, Professor, aren’t you?”
“Perhaps I am,” the latter confessed. “Still, you must remember that the scientific world on those few occasions when I do appear in public, expects much of me. My sense of proportion may perhaps be disarranged by this knowledge. All that I can realise at the present moment, is this. You seem to have frightened away the one man in the world who is indispensable to me.”
Quest smoked in silence for a moment.
“Any mail for me, Professor?” he asked, abruptly.
The Professor opened a drawer and handed him a telegram.
Quest opened it and read it through. It was from the Sheriff of a small town in Connecticut:—
Quest studied the message for a moment.
“Say, this is rather interesting, Professor,” he remarked.
“Really?” the latter replied tartly. “You must forgive me if I cannot follow the complications of your—pardon me for saying Munchausen-like affairs. How does the arrest of these two men help you?”
“Don’t you see?” Quest explained. “These are the two thugs who set upon me up at the section house. They killed the signalman, who could have been my alibi, and swiped my car, in which, as it cannot be found, French supposes that I returned to New York. With their arrest the case against me collapses. I tell you frankly, Professor,” Quest continued, frowning, “I hate to leave the city without having found that girl; but I am not sure that the quickest way to set things right would not be to go down, arrest these men and bring them back here, clear myself, and then go tooth and nail for Craig.”
“I agree with you most heartily,” the Professor declared. “I recommend any course which will ensure the return of my man Craig.”
“I cannot promise you that you will ever have Craig here again,” Quest observed grimly. “I rather fancy Sing-Sing will be his next home.”
“Don’t be foolish, Mr. Quest,” the Professor advised. “Don’t let me lose confidence in you. Craig would not hurt a fly, and as to abducting your assistant—if my sense of humour were developed upon normal lines—well, I should laugh! What you have really done, you, and that young lady assistant of yours, is to terrify the poor fellow into such a state of nerves that he scarcely knows what he is doing. As a matter of fact, how do you know that that young woman has been abducted at all? Such things are most unlikely, especially in this part of the city.”
“What reason do you suggest, then, for her disappearance?” Quest enquired.
“At my age,” the Professor replied, drily, “I naturally know nothing of these things. But she is a young woman of considerable personal attractions—I should think it not unlikely that she is engaged in some amorous adventure.”
Quest laughed derisively.
“You do not know Lenora, Mr. Ashleigh,” he remarked. “However, if it interests you, I will tell you why I know she has been abducted. Only a few hours ago, I was talking to her.”
The Professor turned his head swiftly towards Quest. There was a queer sort of surprise in his face.
“Talking to her?”
“Our pocket wireless!” he explained. “Lenora has even described to me the room in which she is hidden.”
“And the neighbourhood also?” the Professor demanded.
“Of that she knows nothing,” Quest replied. “She is in a room apparently at the top of a house and the only window is in the roof. She can see nothing, hear nothing. When I get hold of the man who put her there,” Quest continued slowly, “it will be my ambition to supplement personally any punishment the law may be able to inflict.”
The Professor’s manner had lost all its petulance. He looked at Quest almost with admiration.
“The idea of yours is wonderful,” he confessed. “I am beginning to believe in your infallibility, Mr. Quest. I am beginning to believe that on this occasion, at any rate, you will triumph over your enemies.”
Quest rose to his feet.
“Well,” he said, “if I can keep out of my friend French’s way for a few hours longer, I think I can promise you that I shall be a free man when I return from Bethel. I’m off now, Professor. Wish me good luck!”
“My friend,” the Professor replied, “I wish you the best of luck, but more than anything else in the world,” he added, a little peevishly, “I hope you may bring me back my servant Craig, and leave us both in peace.”
Quest stepped off the cars at Bethel a little before noon that morning. The Sheriff met him at the depot and greeted him cordially but with obvious surprise.
“Say, Mr. Quest,” he exclaimed, as they turned away, “I know these men are wanted on your charge, but I thought—you’ll excuse my saying so—that you were in some trouble yourself.”
“I’m out of that—came out yesterday.”
“Very glad to hear it,” the Sheriff assured him heartily. “I never thought that they’d be able to hold you.”
“They hadn’t a chance,” Quest admitted. “Things turned out a little awkwardly at first, but this affair is going to put me on my feet again. The moment my car is identified and Red Gallagher and his mate arrested, every scrap of evidence against me goes.”
“Well, here’s the garage and the man who bought the car,” the Sheriff remarked, “and there’s the car itself in the road. It’s for you to say whether it can be identified.”
Quest drew a sigh of relief.
“That’s mine, right enough,” he declared. “Now for the men.”
“Say, I want to tell you something,” the Sheriff began dubiously. “These two are real thugs. They ain’t going to take it lying down.”
“Where are they?” Quest demanded.
“In the worst saloon here,” the Sheriff replied. “They’ve been there pretty well all night, drinking, and they’re there again this morning, hard at it. They’ve both got firearms, and though I ain’t exactly a nervous man, Mr. Quest—”
“You leave it to me,” Quest interrupted. “This is my job and I want to take the men myself.”
“You’ll never do it,” the Sheriff declared.
“Look here,” Quest explained, “if I let you and your men go in, there will be a free fight, and as likely as not you will kill one, if not both of the men. I want them alive.”
“Well, it’s your show,” the Sheriff admitted, stopping before a disreputable-looking building. “This is the saloon. They’ve turned the place upside down since they’ve been here. You can hear the row they’re making now. Free drinks to all the toughs in the town! They’re pouring the stuff down all the time.”
“Well,” Quest decided, “I’m going in and I’m going in unarmed. You can bring your men in later, if I call for help or if you hear any shooting.”
“You’re asking for trouble,” the Sheriff warned him.
“I’ve got to do this my own way,” Quest insisted. “Stand by now.”
He pushed open the door of the saloon. There were a dozen men drinking around the bar and in the centre of them Red Gallagher and his mate. They seemed to be all shouting together, and the air was thick with tobacco smoke. Quest walked right up to the two men.
“Gallagher,” he said, “you’re my prisoner. Are you coming quietly?”
Gallagher’s mate, who was half drunk, swung round and fired a wild shot in Quest’s direction. The result was a general stampede. Red Gallagher alone remained motionless. Grim and dangerously silent, he held a pistol within a few inches of Quest’s forehead.
“If my number’s up,” he exclaimed ferociously, “it won’t be you who’ll take me.”
“I think it will,” Quest answered. “Put that gun away.”
Gallagher hesitated. Quest’s influence over him was indomitable.
“Put it away,” Quest repeated firmly. “You know you daren’t use it. Your account’s pretty full up, as it is.”
Gallagher’s hand wavered. From outside came the shouts of the Sheriff and his men, struggling to fight their way in through the little crowd who were rushing for safety. Suddenly Quest backed, jerked the pistol up with his right elbow, and with almost the same movement struck Red Gallagher under the jaw. The man went over with a crash. His mate, who had been staggering about, cursing viciously, fired another wild shot at Quest, who swayed and fell forward.
“I’ve done him!” the man shouted. “Get up, Red! I’ve done him all right! Finish yer drink. We’ll get out of this!”
He bent unsteadily over Quest. Suddenly the latter sprang up, seized him by the leg and sent him sprawling. The gun fell from his hand. Quest picked it up and held it firmly out, covering both men. Gallagher was on his knees, groping for his own weapon.
“Get the handcuffs on them,” Quest directed the Sheriff, who with his men had at last succeeded in forcing his way into the saloon.
The Sheriff wasted no words till the two thugs, now nerveless and cowed, were handcuffed. Then he turned to Quest. There was a note of genuine admiration in his tone.
“Mr. Quest,” he declared, “you’ve got the biggest nerve of any man I have ever known.”
The criminologist smiled.
“This sort of bully is always a coward when it comes to the pinch,” he remarked.
Crouching in her chair, her pale, terror-stricken face supported between her hands, Lenora, her eyes filled with hopeless misery, gazed at the dumb instrument upon the table. Her last gleam of hope seemed to be passing. Her little friend was silent. Once more her weary fingers spelt out a final, despairing message.
“What has happened to you? I am waiting to hear all the time. Has Craig told you where I am? I am afraid!”
There was still no reply. Her head sank a little lower on to her folded arms. Even the luxury of tears seemed denied her. Fear, the fear which dwelt with her day and night, had her in its grip. Suddenly she leaped, screaming, from her place. Splinters of glass fell all around her. Her first wild thought was of release; she gazed upwards at the broken pane. Then very faintly from the street below she heard the shout of a boy’s angry voice.
“You’ve done it now, Jimmy! You’re a fine pitcher, ain’t you? Lost it, that’s what you’ve gone and done!”
The thoughts formed themselves mechanically in her mind. Her eyes sought the ball which had come crashing into the room. There was life once more in her pulses. She found a scrap of paper and a pencil in her pocket. With trembling fingers she wrote a few words:
She twisted the paper, looked around the room vainly for string, and finally tore a thin piece of ribbon from her dress. She tied the message around the ball, set her teeth, and threw it at the empty skylight. The first time she was not successful and the ball came back. The second time it passed through the centre of the opening. She heard it strike the sound portion of the glass outside, heard it rumble down the roof. A few seconds of breathless silence! Her heart almost stopped beating. Had it rested in some ledge, or fallen into the street below? Then she heard the boy’s voice.
“Gee! Here’s the ball come back again!”
A new light shone into the room. She seemed to be breathing a different atmosphere—the atmosphere of hope. She listened no longer with horror for a creaking upon the stairs. She walked back and forth until she was exhausted…. Curiously enough, when the end came she was asleep, crouched upon the bed and dreaming wildly. She sprang up to find Inspector French, with a policeman behind him, standing upon the threshold.
“Inspector!” she cried, rushing towards him. “Mr. French! Oh, thank God!”
Her feelings carried her away. She threw herself at his feet. She was laughing and crying and talking incoherently, all at the same time. The Inspector assisted her to a chair.
“Say, what’s all this mean?” he demanded.
She told him her story, incoherently, in broken phrases. French listened with puzzled frown.
“Say, what about Quest?” he asked. “He ain’t been here at all, then?”
She looked at him wonderingly.
“Of course not! Mr. Quest—”
She hesitated. The Inspector laid his hand upon her wrist. Then he realised that she was on the point of a nervous breakdown, and in no condition for interrogations.
“That’ll do,” he said. “I’ll take care of you for a time, young lady, and I’ll ask you a few questions later on. My men are searching the house. You and I will be getting on, if you can tear yourself away.”
She laughed hysterically and hurried him towards the door. As they passed down the gloomy stairs she clung to his arm. The first breath of air seemed wonderful to her as they passed out into the street. It was freedom!
The plain-clothes man, who was lounging in Quest’s most comfortable easy-chair and smoking one of his best cigars, suddenly laid down his paper. He moved to the window. A large, empty automobile stood in the street outside, from which the occupants had presumably just descended. He hastened towards the door, which was opened, however, before he was half-way across the room. The cigar slipped from his fingers. It was Sanford Quest who stood there, followed by the Sheriff of Bethel, two country policemen, and Red Gallagher and his mate, heavily handcuffed. Quest glanced at the cigar.
“Say, do you mind picking that up?” he exclaimed. “That carpet cost me money.”
The plain-clothes man obeyed at once. Then he edged a little towards the telephone. Quest had opened his cigar cabinet.
“Glad you’ve left me one or two,” he remarked drily.
“Say, aren’t you wanted down yonder, Mr. Quest?” the man enquired.
“That’s all right now,” Quest told him. “I’m ringing up Inspector French myself. You’d better stand by the other fellows there and keep your eye on Red Gallagher and his mate.”
“I guess Mr. Quest is all right,” the Sheriff intervened. “We’re ringing up headquarters ourselves, anyway.”
The plain-clothes man did as he was told. Quest took up the receiver from his telephone instrument and arranged the phototelesme.
“Police-station Number One, central,” he said,—“through to Mr. French’s office, if you please. Mr. Quest wants to speak to him. Yes, Sanford Quest. No need to get excited!… All right. I’m through, am I?… Hullo, Inspector?”
A rare expression of joy suddenly transfigured Quest’s face. He was gazing downward into the little mirror.
“You’ve found Lenora, then, Inspector?” he exclaimed. “Bully for you!… What do I mean? What I say! You forget that I am a scientific man, French. No end of appliances here you haven’t had time to look at. I can see you sitting there, and Lenora and Laura looking as though you had them on the rack. You can drop that, French. I’ve got Red Gallagher and his mate, got them here with the Sheriff of Bethel. They went off with my auto and sold it. We’ve got that. Also, in less than five minutes my chauffeur will be here. He’s been lying in a farmhouse, unconscious, since that scrap. He can tell you what time he saw me last. Bring the girls along, French—and hurry!”
Quest hung up the receiver.
“I’ve given Inspector French something to think about,” he remarked, as he turned away. “Now, Mr. Sheriff, if you can make yourself at home for a quarter of an hour or so, French will be here and take these fellows off your hands. I’ve still a little more telephoning to do.”
“You go right ahead,” the Sheriff acquiesced.
Quest rang up the Professor. His response to the call was a little languid, and his reception of the news of Quest’s successful enterprise was almost querulous.
“My friend,” the Professor said, “your news gratifies me, of course. Your rehabilitation, however, was a matter of certainty. With me life has become a chaos. You can have no idea, with your independent nature, what it means to entirely rely upon the ministrations of one person and to be suddenly deprived of their help.”
“No news of Craig, then?” Quest demanded.
“None at all,” was the weary reply. “What about your young lady assistant?”
“She’ll be here in five minutes,” Quest told him. “You had better come along and hear her story. It ought to interest you.”
“Dear me!” the Professor exclaimed. “I will certainly come—certainly!”
Quest set down the receiver and paced the room thoughtfully for a moment or two. Although his own troubles were almost over, the main problem before him was as yet unsolved. The affair with the Gallaghers was, after all, only an off-shoot. It was the mystery of Lenora’s abduction, the mystery of the black box, which still called for the exercise of all his ingenuity.
Inspector French was as good, even better, than his word. In a surprisingly short time he entered the room, followed by Laura and Lenora. Quest gave them a hand each, but it was into Lenora’s eyes that he looked. Her coming, her few words of greeting, timid though they were, brought him an immense sense of relief.
“Well, girls,” he said, “both full of adventures, eh? What did they do with you in the Tombs, Laura?”
“Pshaw! What could they do?” Laura replied. “If they’re guys enough to be tricked by a girl, the best thing they can do is to keep mum about it and let her go. That’s about what they did to me.”
Inspector French, who was standing a little aloof, regarded Laura with an air of unwilling admiration.
“That’s some girl, that Miss Laura,” he muttered in an undertone to Quest. “She roasted us nicely.”
“I mustn’t stop to hear your story, Lenora,” Quest said. “You’re safe—that’s the great thing.”
“Found her in an empty house,” French reported, “out Gayson Avenue way. Now, Mr. Quest, I don’t want to come the official over you too much, but if you’ll kindly remember that you’re an escaped prisoner—”
There was a knock at the door. A young man entered in chauffeur’s livery, with his head still bandaged. Quest motioned him to come in.
“I’ll just repeat my story of that morning, French,” Quest said. “We went out to find Macdougal, and succeeded, as you know. Just as I was starting for home, those two thugs set upon me. They nearly did me up. You know how I made my escape. They went off in my automobile and sold it in Bethel. I arrested them there myself this morning. Here’s the Sheriff, who will bear out what I say, also that they arrived at the place in my automobile.”
“Sure!” the Sheriff murmured.
“Further,” Quest continued, “there’s my chauffeur. He knows exactly what time it was when the tire of my car blew out, just as we were starting for New York.”
“It was eleven-ten, sir,” the chauffeur declared. “Mr. Quest and I both took out our watches to see if we could make New York by mid-day. Then one of those fellows hit me over the head and I’ve been laid up ever since. A man who keeps a store a little way along the road picked me up and looked after me.”
Inspector French held out his hand.
“Mr. Quest,” he said, “I reckon we’ll have to withdraw the case against you. No hard feeling, I hope?”
“None at all,” Quest replied promptly, taking his hand.
“That’s all right, then,” French declared. “I’ve brought two more men with me. Perhaps, Mr. Sheriff, you wouldn’t mind escorting your prisoners around to headquarters? I’ll be there before long.”
“And you girls,” Quest insisted, “go right to your room and rest. I’ll come upstairs presently and have a talk. Look after her, Laura,” he added, glancing a little anxiously at Lenora. “She has had about as much as she can bear, I think.”
The two girls left the room. Quest stood upon the threshold, watching the Sheriff and his prisoners leave the house. The former turned round to wave his adieux to them.
“There’s an elderly josser out here,” he shouted; “seems to want to come in.”
Quest leaned forward and saw the Professor.
“Come right in, Mr. Ashleigh,” he invited.
The Professor promptly made his appearance. His coat was ill-brushed and in place of a hat he was wearing a tweed cap which had seen better days. His expression was almost pathetic.
“My dear Quest,” he exclaimed, as he wrung his hand, “my heartiest congratulations! As you know, I always believed in your innocence. I am delighted that it has been proved.”
“Come in and sit down, Mr. Ashleigh,” Quest invited. “You know the Inspector.”
The Professor shook hands with French, and then, feeling that his appearance required some explanation, he took off his cap and looked at it ruefully.
“I am aware,” he said, “that this is not a becoming headgear, but I am lost—absolutely lost without my servant. If you would earn my undying gratitude, Mr. Quest, you would clear up the mystery about Craig and restore him to me.”
Quest was helping the Inspector to the whisky at the sideboard. He paused to light a cigar before he replied.
“I very much fear, Professor,” he observed, “that you will never have Craig back again.”
The Professor sank wearily into an easy-chair.
“I will take a little whisky and one of your excellent cigars, Quest,” he said. “I must ask you to bear with me if I seem upset. After more than twenty years’ service from one whom I have always treated as a friend, this sudden separation, to a man of my age, is somewhat trying. My small comforts are all interfered with. The business of my every-day life is completely upset. I do not allude, as you perceive, Mr. Quest, to the horrible suspicions you seem to have formed of Craig. My own theory is that you have simply frightened him to death.”
“All the same,” the Inspector remarked thoughtfully, “some one who is still at large committed those murders and stole those jewels. What is your theory about the jewels, Mr. Quest?”
“I haven’t had time to frame one yet,” the criminologist replied. “You’ve been keeping me too busy looking after myself. However,” he added, “it’s time something was done.”
He took a magnifying glass from his pocket and examined very closely the whole of the front of the safe.
“No sign of finger-prints,” he muttered. “The person who opened it probably wore gloves.”
He fitted the combination and swung open the door. He stood there, for a moment, speechless. Something in his attitude attracted the Inspector’s attention.
“What is it, Mr. Quest?” he asked eagerly.
Quest drew a little breath. Exactly facing him, in the spot where the jewels had been, was a small black box. He brought it to the table and removed the lid. Inside was a sheet of paper, which he quickly unfolded. They all three read the few lines together:—
Underneath appeared the signature of the Hands. Quest moved like a dream to his cabinet and pulled open the right-hand drawer. He turned around and faced the other two men. In his hand was Mrs. Rheinholdt’s necklace!