Plattsburg was not the name of the capital, but it will do for this story. The state doesn't matter either. You may take your choice, like the story Mark Twain wrote, with all kinds of weather at the beginning, so the reader could take his pick.
We will say that my home city is Manchester. I live with my married brother, his wife and two boys. Fred is older than I am, and he is an exceptional brother. On the day he came home from his wedding trip, I went down with my traps on a hansom, in accordance with a prearranged schedule. Fred and Edith met me inside the door.
"Here's your latch-key, Jack," Fred said, as he shook hands. "Only one stipulation—remember we are strangers in the vicinity and try to get home before the neighbors are up. We have our reputations to think of."
"There is no hour for breakfast," Edith said, as she kissed me. "You have a bath of your own, and don't smoke in the drawing-room."
Fred was always a lucky devil.
I had been there now for six years. I had helped to raise two young Knoxes—bully youngsters, too: the oldest one could use boxing-gloves when he was four—and the finest collie pup in our end of the state. I wanted to raise other things—the boys liked pets—but Edith was like all women, she didn't care for animals.
I had a rabbit-hutch built and stocked in the laundry, and a dove-cote on the roof. I used the general bath, and gave up my tub to a young alligator I got in Florida, and every Sunday the youngsters and I had a great time trying to teach it to do tricks. I have always taken it a little hard that Edith took advantage of my getting the measles from Billy, to clear out every animal in the house. She broke the news to me gently, the day the rash began to fade, maintaining that, having lost one cook through the alligator escaping from his tub and being mistaken, in the gloom of the back-stairs, for a rubber boot, and picked up under the same misapprehension, she could not risk another cook.
On the day that Margery Fleming came to me about her father, I went home in a state of mixed emotion. Dinner was not a quiet meal: Fred and I talked politics, generally, and as Fred was on one side and I on the other there was always an argument on.
"What about Fleming?" I asked at last, when Fred had declared that in these days of corruption, no matter what the government was, he was "forninst" it. "Hasn't he been frightened into reform?"
"Bad egg," he said, jabbing his potato as if it had been a politician, "and there's no way to improve a bad egg except to hold your nose. That's what the public is doing; holding its nose."
"Hasn't he a daughter?" I asked casually.
"Yes—a lovely girl, too," Edith assented. "It is his only redeeming quality."
"Fleming is a rascal, daughter or no daughter," Fred persisted. "Ever since he and his gang got poor Butler into trouble and then left him to kill himself as the only way out, I have felt that there was something coming to all of them—Hansen, Schwartz and the rest. I saw Fleming on the street to-day."
"What!" I exclaimed, almost jumping out of my chair.
Fred surveyed me quizzically over his coffee cup.
"'Hasn't he a daughter!'" he quoted. "Yes, I saw him, Jack, this very day, in an unromantic four-wheeler, and he was swearing at a policeman."
"Where was it?"
"Chestnut and Union. His cab had been struck by a car, and badly damaged, but the gentleman refused to get out. No doubt you could get the details from the corner-man."
"Look here, Fred," I said earnestly. "Keep that to yourself, will you? And you too, Edith? It's a queer story, and I'll tell you sometime."
As we left the dining-room Edith put her hand on my shoulder.
"Don't get mixed up with those people, Jack," she advised. "Margery's a dear girl, but her father practically killed Henry Butler, and Henry Butler married my cousin."
"You needn't make it a family affair," I protested. "I have only seen the girl once."
But Edith smiled. "I know what I know," she said. "How extravagant of you to send Bobby that enormous hobby-horse!"
"The boy has to learn to ride sometime. In four years he can have a pony, and I'm going to see that he has it. He'll be eight by that time."
"In four years!" she said, "Why, in four years you'll—" then she stopped.
"I'll what?" I demanded, blocking the door to the library.
"You'll be forty, Jack, and it's a mighty unattractive man who gets past forty without being sought and won by some woman. You'll be buying—"
"I will be thirty-nine," I said with dignity, "and as far as being sought and won goes, I am so overwhelmed by Fred's misery that I don't intend to marry at all. If I do—if I do—it will be to some girl who turns and runs the other way every time she sees me."
"The oldest trick in the box," Edith scoffed. "What's that thing Fred's always quoting: 'A woman is like a shadow; follow her, she flies; fly from her, she follows.'"
"Upon my word!" I said indignantly. "And you are a woman!"
"I'm different," she retorted. "I'm only a wife and mother."
In the library Fred got up from his desk and gathered up his papers. "I can't think with you two whispering there," he said, "I'm going to the den."
As he slammed the door into his workroom Edith picked up her skirts and scuttled after him.
"How dare you run away like that?" she called. "You promised me—" The door closed behind her.
I went over and spoke through the panels.
"'Follow her, she flies; fly from her, she follows'—oh, wife and mother!" I called.
"For Heaven's sake, Edith," Fred's voice rose irritably. "If you and Jack are going to talk all evening, go and sit on his knee and let me alone. The way you two flirt under my nose is a scandal. Do you hear that, Jack?"
"Good night, Edith," I called, "I have left you a kiss on the upper left hand panel of the door. And I want to ask you one more question: what if I fly from the woman and she doesn't follow?"
"Thank your lucky stars," Fred called in a muffled voice, and I left them to themselves.
I had some work to do at the office, work that the interview with Hunter had interrupted, and half past eight that night found me at my desk. But my mind strayed from the papers before me. After a useless effort to concentrate, I gave it up as useless, and by ten o'clock I was on the street again, my evening wasted, the papers in the libel case of the Star against the Eagle untouched on my desk, and I the victim of an uneasy apprehension that took me, almost without volition, to the neighborhood of the Fleming house on Monmouth Avenue. For it had occurred to me that Miss Fleming might not have left the house that day as she had promised, might still be there, liable to another intrusion by the mysterious individual who had a key to the house.
It was a relief, consequently, when I reached its corner, to find no lights in the building. The girl had kept her word. Assured of that, I looked at the house curiously. It was one of the largest in the city, not wide, but running far back along the side street; a small yard with a low iron fence and a garage, completed the property. The street lights left the back of the house in shadow, and as I stopped in the shelter of the garage, I was positive that I heard some one working with a rear window of the empty house. A moment later the sounds ceased and muffled footsteps came down the cement walk. The intruder made no attempt to open the iron gate; against the light I saw him put a leg over the low fence, follow it up with the other, and start up the street, still with peculiar noiselessness of stride. He was a short, heavy-shouldered fellow in a cap, and his silhouette showed a prodigious length of arm.
I followed, I don't mind saying in some excitement. I had a vision of grabbing him from behind and leading him—or pushing him, under the circumstances, in triumph to the police station, and another mental picture, not so pleasant, of being found on the pavement by some passer-by, with a small punctuation mark ending my sentence of life. But I was not apprehensive. I even remember wondering humorously if I should overtake him and press the cold end of my silver mounted fountain pen into the nape of his neck, if he would throw up his hands and surrender. I had read somewhere of a burglar held up in a similar way with a shoe-horn.
Our pace was easy. Once the man just ahead stopped and lighted a cigarette, and the odor of a very fair Turkish tobacco came back to me. He glanced back over his shoulder at me and went on without quickening his pace. We met no policemen, and after perhaps five minutes walking, when the strain was growing tense, my gentleman of the rubber-soled shoes swung abruptly to the left, and—entered the police station!
I had occasion to see Davidson many times after that, during the strange development of the Fleming case; I had the peculiar experience later of having him follow me as I had trailed him that night, and I had occasion once to test the strength of his long arms when he helped to thrust me through the transom at the White Cat, but I never met him without a recurrence of the sheepish feeling with which I watched him swagger up to the night sergeant and fall into easy conversation with the man behind the desk. Standing in the glare from the open window, I had much the lost pride and self contempt of a wet cat sitting in the sun.
Two or three roundsmen were sitting against the wall, lazily, helmets off and coats open against the warmth of the early spring night. In a back room others were playing checkers and disputing noisily. Davidson's voice came distinctly through the open windows.
"The house is closed," he reported. "But one of the basement windows isn't shuttered and the lock is bad. I couldn't find Shields. He'd better keep an eye on it." He stopped and fished in his pockets with a grin. "This was tied to the knob of the kitchen door," he said, raising his voice for the benefit of the room, and holding aloft a piece of paper. "For Shields!" he explained, "and signed 'Delia.'"
The men gathered around him, even the sergeant got up and leaned forward, his elbows on his desk.
"Read it," he said lazily. "Shields has got a wife; and her name ain't Delia."
"Dear Tom," Davidson read, in a mincing falsetto, "We are closing up unexpected, so I won't be here to-night. I am going to Mamie Brennan's and if you want to talk to me you can get me by calling up Anderson's drug-store. The clerk is a gentleman friend of mine. Mr. Carter, the butler, told me before he left he would get me a place as parlor maid, so I'll have another situation soon. Delia."
The sergeant scowled. "I'm goin' to talk to Tom," he said, reaching out for the note. "He's got a nice family, and things like that're bad for the force."
I lighted the cigar, which had been my excuse for loitering on the pavement, and went on. It sounded involved for a novice, but if I could find Anderson's drug-store I could find Mamie Brennan; through Mamie Brennan I would get Delia; and through Delia I might find Carter. I was vague from that point, but what Miss Fleming had said of Carter had made me suspicious of him. Under an arc light I made the first note in my new business of man-hunter and it was something like this:
Ask for Mamie Brennan.
Advise Delia that a policeman with a family is a bad bet.
It was late when I reached the corner of Chestnut and Union Streets, where Fred had said Allan Fleming had come to grief in a cab. But the corner-man had gone, and the night man on the beat knew nothing, of course, of any particular collision.
"There's plinty of 'em every day at this corner," he said cheerfully. "The department sinds a wagon here every night to gather up the pieces, autymobiles mainly. That trolley pole over there has been sliced off clean three times in the last month. They say a fellow ain't a graduate of the autymobile school till he can go around it on the sidewalk without hittin' it!"
I left him looking reminiscently at the pole, and went home to bed. I had made no headway, I had lost conceit with myself and a day and evening at the office, and I had gained the certainty that Margery Fleming was safe in Bellwood and the uncertain address of a servant who might know something about Mr. Fleming.
I was still awake at one o'clock and I got up impatiently and consulted the telephone directory. There were twelve Andersons in the city who conducted drug-stores.
When I finally went to sleep, I dreamed that I was driving Margery Fleming along a street in a broken taxicab, and that all the buildings were pharmacies and numbered eleven twenty-two.