The Blue Lights: A Detective Story
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"Then his actions have not been suspicious, during the past week?"
"Not in the least. He has hung around the Stapleton house for several days, asking for news of the Lanahan woman; but that is all. We attribute his actions to a natural anxiety over her illness."
Grace left the house, by no means satisfied with the progress she was making. Her interview with Mary Lanahan, and subsequent visit to the scene of the crime, told her nothing she had not already known. Her greatest disappointment, however, came when she had Mrs. Stapleton bring in Fran?ois, ostensibly to question him about his part in the affair. She saw at once that he was not the man who had broken into Alphonse Valentin's room on the night before. This man had been heavily bearded and tall. Fran?ois was smooth shaved and rather short. Mrs. Stapleton assured her that none of her servants resembled in the least her description of the burglar. She left the house, greatly dissatisfied, after satisfying herself that this was the case.
Her visit to the house of Alphonse Valentin that afternoon was productive of no greater results. The man was out. The woman who opened the door – the same one who had admitted her the previous evening – regarded her with ill-concealed suspicion, and informed her that she had no idea when her lodger would return. Grace left, determined to try again the following day.
Throughout the whole evening she hung about the Stapleton house, hoping again to see the man with the heavy beard who had disappeared within the night before; but he did not put in an appearance. Grace began to feel discouraged. She thought of her lilac bushes, at home, of Aunt Lucy feeding the chickens, of the dogs, the sweet call of the wood robins among the poplar trees on the lawn, and half wished that she had stayed at home and left to Richard the apparently hopeless task of finding the abductors of little Jack Stapleton.
What, after all, could she hope to do, where the entire police force of Paris had failed? The thing was absurd. Monsieur Lefevre had overrated her abilities. She heard the sound of church bells, striking the hour of ten, and decided to go home and forget the whole affair until tomorrow. Tomorrow – the day Richard must arrive! How she longed to be with him! This stupid interruption of their honeymoon seemed peculiarly cruel, now that over a week had elapsed since they had seen each other. She wondered if she would meet him, the next day. Then she thought of her changed appearance, of her hair, dyed a jet black, and worn in a new and to her mind unbecoming fashion, of her darkened complexion, her extremely French costume, her heavy veil, and laughed. If Richard did see her, here in Paris, when he fully believed her to be peacefully tending her flower beds at home, he would never believe the evidence of his senses.
She was strolling toward the Champs ?lys?es, lost in thought, when suddenly she heard the soft throbbing of a high-powered motor car, as it came up the street behind her.She turned and glanced toward it; but the brilliant glare of the electric headlights blinded her. She could see nothing, except that the car was moving very slowly.
Suddenly it stopped, almost abreast of her, and a tall man leaped to the sidewalk. Before she had an opportunity so much as to glance in his direction, he came swiftly up behind her, threw his arm about her neck, and choked her into unconsciousness. Her last sensation was of being lifted bodily into the already moving car, and then the feeling of rapid motion, quickly blotted out by the coming of insensibility.
When she returned to consciousness, it was broad daylight. She lay upon a small wooden bed, in a low-ceilinged little room, the only furniture of which was a small chest of drawers and a chair. Upon this chair sat a large man, his face so thoroughly hidden by a mask that his features were quite unrecognizable. He was regarding her with keen scrutiny.
"Oh – what – where am I?" she gasped.
The man hesitated for a moment, then slowly spoke. "Where you are, mademoiselle, is of no importance. Attend to what I have to say."
Grace made no reply. There seemed nothing that she could say. She sat up and gazed at the man, half dazed. Her head swam. She felt that she had been drugged.
"Ten days ago," the man went on, in a cold and menacing voice, "the child of Monsieur Stapleton was taken from his nurse in the Bois de Boulogne. You are trying to find that child."
"But – " Grace made a movement of protest.
"It is useless to deny it. You have been watched."
Grace gasped in silence.
"I desire to send a message to the boy's father, and I have chosen you to take it to him. I have selected you, because to send one of my own men would doubtless result in his arrest. That is why you have been brought here."
"The – the child is safe?" asked Grace.
"Perfectly. You shall see for yourself." He motioned to the window.
Grace rose, and looked out. The view comprised a bit of garden, surrounded by bushes. She could see nothing beyond – nothing that would enable her in any way to identify the place. On the tiny plat of grass in the garden sat a child – a little girl, playing with a small black and white spaniel. Her dark hair was drawn tightly beneath a pink sunbonnet. Her dress, her whole appearance, was that of a peasant child.
Grace turned from the window, bewildered. "I see nothing," she said, "except a little girl – "
"That is the child of Monsieur Stapleton," the man said. "Now attend to the message."
She sat down again, wondering.
"Tell the boy's father this: He will leave his house tomorrow evening, in his automobile, at eight o'clock. He will bring with him, in a package, the sum of five hundred thousand francs – one hundred thousand dollars. He will have with him, in the automobile, no one but himself and his chauffeur. He will leave Paris by the Porte de Versailles, and drive along the road to Versailles at a speed of twelve miles an hour. Somewhere upon that road, among the many automobiles that will pass him, will be one, from which a blue light will flash, as it approaches him. It will also slow up. He will toss the package of bank notes into that car, and drive on. If the package contains the sum of five hundred thousand francs, he will find his child at his house, upon his return. If not, or if these instructions are not carried out to the letter – if there is any attempt made at pursuit – the child will not be there, and you can tell him that he will be given but one more chance. After that, the boy will die."
The man in the mask made this gruesome statement with the utmost coolness.
Grace listened, aghast at the cruelty of his words, and at the same time struck by the extreme ingenuity of the plan. To catch the perpetrators of the crime, under these circumstances, seemed impossible. A rapidly moving automobile – one of a hundred. An instant's flash of a blue light in passing – the tossing into the car of the money – and it would speed away into the darkness, beyond any hope of detection. Should Mr. Stapleton have others in his car – should he have his car followed by a second, containing armed men, the occupants of the kidnapper's machine would no doubt refuse to give the signal, and nothing would be accomplished. It would be impracticable to line the road, for a possible distance of twenty miles, with gendarmes, nor could their presence accomplish anything, beyond putting the kidnappers on guard, and preventing the carrying out of the plan.
The weakest point in the whole scheme seemed, to Grace at least, the delivery of the child to Mr. Stapleton, provided he paid the money demanded. Just how that was to be accomplished, without subjecting the person who brought the boy to arrest, she did not see. A moment's reflection, however, showed her that a stranger might be employed, at any point, who for a few francs would agree to take the child to the house. She turned to the man before her with feelings not devoid of admiration.
"How can Mr. Stapleton know that you will do as you say?"
The man shrugged his shoulders. "That is a chance he must take. If he does not believe that the child will be delivered to him, provided he pays the money, he had better not pay it. But if he does his part, I shall do mine – and this I swear by the memory of my mother!"
Grace shuddered. A wretch of this sort, talking about the memory of his mother! "Very well," she said quietly, "I will take your message."
"Good! You will not leave here, of course, until it is dark – tonight. You will be blindfolded, and conducted to some point in the city. From there, you can make your way to Monsieur Stapleton's house." He rose, and went toward the door. "Make no attempt to escape. It will be useless. Any attempts on the part of the police to interfere with the plan I have outlined will result in nothing. Food will be sent in to you at once. Good morning."
It was close to ten o'clock that night, as nearly as Grace could judge, when she was led a considerable distance blindfolded, to a closed automobile, and driven away. She could form no idea of her whereabouts. The car continued on its way, for over an hour. Once she attempted to snatch the bandage from her eyes; but a hand was placed upon her arm by another occupant of the machine, and a low voice warned her to desist.
After an interminable ride, the car suddenly stopped, and she felt the man at her side slip away from her and open the door. Instantly she snatched the bandage from her eyes. The man had disappeared. She stepped to the sidewalk, and looked about. She was standing upon a brightly lighted street, which seemed somehow familiar to her. The man on the box of the cab glanced down at her with a look of curious interest. She saw his face clearly, in the light of the street. It was the heavily bearded man whom she had seen take the box of cigarettes from the room of Alphonse Valentin two nights before.
Grace stood with the bandage which had encircled her eyes, still in one hand. Suddenly she saw a dark figure uncoil itself from the rear of the car, and drop noiselessly to the pavement as the machine started off. She gave a low cry of surprise. The man came up to her, a grim smile upon his face. It was Alphonse Valentin.
JOHN STAPLETON, the millionaire banker, accompanied by Richard Duvall, arrived in Paris early in the afternoon, and went at once to the former's house in the Avenue Kleber.
Upon their arrival, Duvall waited for sometime, while the distressed husband and wife were closeted together upstairs. At last they descended to the library, and Duvall was presented to Mrs. Stapleton.
The joy which her husband's arrival had caused her sent a new glow of hope to her careworn cheeks, and she greeted the detective most cordially. Clearly she felt that now something would at last be done, to find her missing child.
Duvall's first questions related to Mary Lanahan, the nurse. He was relieved to find that she had quite recovered from her sudden illness.
"Will you kindly have her brought here, Mrs. Stapleton?" he asked. "I would like to question her."
In a few moments the nurse appeared. She was an extremely good-looking girl, smart and well dressed. Duvall recognized in her frank face, her clear blue eyes, the same appearance of honesty which had impressed him during his interview with Patrick Lanahan, her father.
"Mary," said Mrs. Stapleton, "this is Mr. Duvall. He is trying to find Jack for us. Tell him your story."
The girl turned to Duvall, who had risen. "I can hardly expect you to believe what I am going to say, Mr. Duvall, yet I assure you that it is the solemn truth."
"Go ahead, Miss Lanahan," said the detective. "I am prepared to believe whatever you may say."
The girl sat down, at Mrs. Stapleton's request. She still was somewhat weak, from her recent illness.
"It was a week ago last Wednesday. I left the house with Master Jack at half-past ten, and we drove to the Bois."
"Just a moment, please." Duvall stopped her with a quick gesture. "How long had you been going to the Bois in this way?"
"Over six weeks."
"And you always left about the same time – half-past ten?"
"Who accompanied you besides the child?"
"Fran?ois – the chauffeur."
Duvall turned to Mrs. Stapleton. "How long has this man Fran?ois been in your employ?"
"A year – in June."
"You have found him honest, reliable?"
"Always. Otherwise I should not have kept him."
The detective turned to Mary Lanahan. "Go ahead, please," he said.
"We reached the Bois shortly before eleven – Fran?ois had orders to go slowly, when Master Jack was in the machine – and drove about for fifteen minutes. Then we stopped at the place where we were in the habit of playing."
"Was it always the same place?"
"Yes. There is a smooth field of grass there, and a clump of trees by the road, where the machine always waited."
"We left the car, and walked out over the grass. Master Jack had a big rubber ball, and he was kicking it along, and running after it. Sometimes he would kick it to me, and I would throw it back to him. We played about in that way for over half an hour. Mrs. Stapleton wished the boy to have the exercise."
"I see. And you generally played about in the same place?"
"How far from the road?"
"About three hundred feet."
"And from the nearest bushes, or woods?"
"A little more than that, I should say."
"You could see Fran?ois, in the machine, from where you were?"
"Yes, I could see the machine. I could not always see Fran?ois; for sometimes he would get out, and walk about, or sit under the trees and smoke a cigarette."
"Do you remember noticing him, on this particular morning?"
"Yes. I saw him sitting in the machine."
"What was he doing?"
"Reading a newspaper."
"Had he ever done that before?"
The girl hesitated, as though a new idea had come to her. "No – I cannot remember that he ever had."
"Very well. Go ahead with your story."
"Well – after we had played for about half an hour – I got tired and sat down on the grass. Master Jack still kept playing about with the ball. I sat idly, looking at the sky, the road – dreaming – "
"About what?" interrupted the detective, suddenly.
The girl colored. "About – about some people I know."
"I heard the boy playing, behind me. Then I looked around – and – he was gone!" The nurse made this statement in a voice so full of awe that it carried conviction to her hearers. Duvall felt that, whatever the real facts of the disappearance of the child, this woman's story was true.
"What did you do then?"
"I stood up and looked about. I thought Master Jack was hiding from me – playing a joke on me. Then I realized that there was no place that he could hide. The nearest trees were too far off. He could not have reached them. I called and called. I was very much frightened."
"Fran?ois, who heard me, came running over the grass. I asked him if he had seen Master Jack. He said, no, that he had not seen anyone. After that we searched everywhere – in the woods, along the road – for nearly an hour, but could find nothing. Then we came home, and told Mrs. Stapleton." The girl looked at her employers in fright.
"What about the rubber ball?" Duvall asked, suddenly.
"It – it was gone."
"Then it is clear that the child must have been taken away peaceably, without objection on his part. Had he struggled, cried, he would have dropped the ball, would he not?"
"I suppose so."
"How long was your head turned from him – while you were – dreaming?"
"About a minute."
"How do you estimate the time so closely?"
"I'm sure it could not have been longer. A minute is quite a long time."
"What time was it when you got back to the house?"
"About – about one o'clock, I think." The girl turned to Mrs. Stapleton for confirmation of her answer.
"It was a quarter-past one," said Mrs. Stapleton, promptly. "I noted the time particularly, because it was later than usual. Mary had orders to bring Jack back for luncheon not later than one."
Duvall began to make some figures on a piece of paper. "You fix the time of the boy's disappearance at 11.30. You say you hunted for him an hour. That would be 12.30." He looked at the girl searchingly. "You arrived home at 1.15. That would mean that it took 45 minutes to get here." He turned to Stapleton. "Please send for your chauffeur, Fran?ois."
Mr. Stapleton rang a bell, and ordered the servant who responded to send in the chauffeur. Meanwhile Mary Lanahan was regarding Duvall with nervous apprehension.
"We must have hunted for him longer than I thought," she said, at length.
Duvall made no reply, but waited until the arrival of the chauffeur. He proved to be a short, heavily built man, with long powerful arms, and a swarthy face – evidently from the south of France. His countenance was stolid and emotionless. He appeared the well trained servant.
Duvall addressed him at once. "How long would it take you, my man, driving fast, to reach this house from the spot in the Bois where Master Jack was lost?"
The man responded at once. "Ten minutes," he said, "easily."
"What time was it when this woman," the detective indicated the nurse, "called to you, on discovering that the child was gone?"
"I do not know."
"Have you no idea?"
"It must have been about twelve o'clock. We hunted for the boy till about one – then came home."
"The nurse says it was half-past eleven."
The man shrugged his shoulders. "It may have been. I did not observe the time."
"What were you doing?"
"I was asleep."
Mr. Stapleton started. "Asleep?" he demanded, angrily.
The man nodded. "The day was warm. I had nothing to do. For a time I read the paper. I must have dozed in my seat; for, the next thing I knew, the nurse was calling to me, and the boy was gone."
Duvall frowned. "Then you could not say whether anyone else was near the nurse and the boy, at the time he was kidnapped?"
"No, monsieur. I could not."
"That will do." The detective turned to Mr. Stapleton. "Have your man drive us to the place where all this occurred."
The banker gave the man the order, and he left the room. Then Duvall turned again to Mary Lanahan.
"You were taken suddenly ill one day last week. Tell us about it."
The woman looked up. "It was very mysterious, sir. I went out for a walk. At a caf? in the Rue St. Honor? I had a cup of chocolate."
"Alone?" asked the detective, sharply.
The woman colored. "No," she faltered. "I – I was with a friend."
"A – a gentleman I know." She glanced fearfully at Mr. Stapleton. "I – I would rather not give his name."
"Was it Alphonse Valentin?" asked Duvall, quickly.
The woman colored still more deeply. "Yes," she replied, in scarcely audible tones.
The banker regarded her in surprise. "Alphonse Valentin!" he cried. "The fellow I discharged last year, for dishonesty? Mr. Duvall – he's your man!"
"No – no!" exclaimed the nurse, excitedly. "He knows nothing of the matter – nothing!"
"That remains to be seen," remarked Duvall, slowly. "Where did you meet this fellow, Valentin?"
"At the caf? in the Rue St. Honor?."
"You had met him there frequently before?"
"After you left the caf?, what did you do?"
"We walked to the Champs ?lys?es and sat on a bench, talking. Suddenly I felt very ill. Mr. Valentin called a cab and sent me home."
"Give me the address of this caf?, please."
The woman did so. As Duvall was entering it in his notebook, a servant announced that the automobile was at the door.
In fifteen minutes the party, consisting of Mr. Stapleton, Duvall, and Mary Lanahan, were leaving the car at the spot in the Bois de Boulogne which had been the scene of the kidnapping. Fran?ois was ordered to drive his machine to the exact spot, as nearly as he could tell, that it had occupied on the previous occasion. Mary Lanahan led the others to the place on the grass where she had sat.
It was evident at once that the distances she had named in telling her story were less, if anything, than the actual facts. It was quite impossible to see how, in any way, the child could have been taken from the spot she indicated, to the woods, without consuming a considerable period of time – five minutes, at least. To believe that the nurse could have turned away her head for a moment, and then looked around to find the boy gone seemed the sheerest fabric of the imagination; yet the woman, in repeating her story, stuck to it with a grim pertinacity which, it seemed, could come only from the knowledge that she was telling the truth.
Ten days had elapsed since the boy had been kidnapped. It seemed almost useless to search the spot for any evidences of the crime. Yet Duvall began to go over the ground where the nurse testified that she had sat, with the most minute care. Inch by inch, he examined the turf, subjecting almost every blade of grass to a separate examination. The operation required over half an hour, and both Mr. Stapleton and the nurse grew tired of watching him, and strolled about aimlessly.
Hence they did not see him pick up a tiny object from the grass. It was a half-smoked cigarette, dirty and almost falling to pieces from the action of the weather, yet held together by a slender tip of gold.
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