The Blue Lights: A Detective Story
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He placed it carefully within his pocketbook, and rose. "Nothing more to be done here," he called to Mr. Stapleton, and in a moment the three were proceeding toward the waiting automobile.
Upon the return to the house, Mr. Stapleton drew the detective into his library. "Have you discovered anything, Mr. Duvall?" he inquired, making an effort to conceal his almost frantic anxiety.
"I do not know – yet. I may have a clue; but I am not sure."
"What do you think of the woman's story?"
"It seems impossible to believe it."
"You think, then, that she had a hand in the matter – she and this fellow Valentin?"
"It begins to look like it."
"On what do you base your conclusions, Mr. Duvall? I cannot bring myself to believe that Mary Lanahan is lying, ready as I am to suspect this fellow Valentin."
"First, Mr. Stapleton, on the facts themselves. The boy could not have been taken away without her knowledge. Secondly, upon some minor matters – her error of half an hour, in telling her story, for instance."
"I am sorry, Mr. Duvall, but I cannot believe that you are right. I'd suspect Valentin, at once; but if Mary Lanahan is not telling the truth, then my experience of twenty years in judging human nature has been wasted."
"Yet you yourself heard her admit that she was with Valentin only last Friday, the day she was taken ill."
"Yes. That is true." Mr. Stapleton passed his hand uncertainly across his forehead. "It's too much for me."
"Let me have a word with the nurse, alone, before I go," asked Duvall.
"Certainly," replied the banker. "I'll send her in to you."
When Mary Lanahan entered the room, the detective went up to her and eyed her sternly. "Was Alphonse Valentin with you at any time, in the Bois, that day?"
"No," replied the girl, steadily.
"Does he smoke gold-tipped cigarettes?" asked Duvall, suddenly.
The effect of this question upon the nurse was startling. She recoiled as though the detective had struck her. "He – he does not smoke at all," she gasped, her face gray with fear.
"Don't lie to me!"
"He does not smoke at all," repeated the girl, almost mechanically, and stood confronting him with a defiant air.
"Very well. That is all." The detective turned from the room and left the house.
He did not, however, go very far. It was rapidly becoming dark. He passed down the street until he judged he was out of sight of the house, then slowly retraced his steps upon the other side, until he had reached a point nearly opposite the small iron gateway which served as the servants' entrance to Mr. Stapleton's house. Here, hidden behind a tree, he watched for perhaps half an hour.
At the expiration of this period, he was rewarded by seeing a young man, evidently an under servant, emerge from the gateway. Duvall watched him as he proceeded down the street, then began to follow him.
The young man seemed in no great hurry, and at the junction of the avenue with the Champs ?lys?es, Duvall accosted him, speaking in French.
"Do you want to earn twenty francs, my friend?" he asked pleasantly.
The boy regarded him with a quizzical smile."Who does not, Monsieur?" he replied.
"Let me see the note you have in your hand."
The boy drew back suddenly, and made as though to thrust the letter into his pocket. "It is impossible, Monsieur," he began.
Duvall took out a gold twenty-franc piece. "I intend to have the letter, my man. If you will give it to me peaceably, here are the twenty francs; if not, I shall be obliged to take it from you by force."
The boy regarded the detective for a moment, as though contemplating flight. Duvall seized him by the collar. "Give me the note," he cried, "or I'll call a gendarme and have you placed under arrest!"
The boy allowed the letter to drop to the pavement, seized the twenty-franc piece, and took to his heels.
Duvall picked it up. As he had expected, it was addressed to Alphonse Valentin, – Boulevard St. Michel. He had waited, on the chance that Mary Lanahan would lose no time in warning her probable confederate.
The letter gave him the man's address. That was so much accomplished, at least. Then he tore it open, and read the contents. They proved more mystifying than anything that he had yet encountered in this mysterious affair.
"Destroy the cigarettes!" These three words comprised the entire contents of the note.
ALPHONSE VALENTIN came up to Grace and took her roughly by the arm. "Come with me," he said, and started up the street.
At first she felt inclined to resist him. A signal to a passing gendarme, and she could have had the man placed under arrest. Monsieur Lefevre had taken care to provide her with credentials that would insure her obtaining instant assistance from any member of the police.
Then another thought came to her. This man Valentin she very much desired to see. His position, clinging to the rear of the automobile, indicated that he was in all probability not a confederate of the kidnappers. Just what he was, she could not imagine. She determined to go along with him, and hear what he had to say.
A few minutes' walk brought them to the man's lodgings. For some reason, which she did not understand, the automobile in which she had been a prisoner had stopped on the Boulevard St. Michel within a short distance of Valentin's rooms.
When they reached the house, Valentin, instead of opening the door with a key, rang the bell. The woman who had previously admitted Grace came to the door. Valentin nodded.
"Is this the woman?" he asked.
"Yes," said the landlady, recognizing her at once. "This is the one."
"Good!" Valentin closed the door and led the way to his room. Grace followed, wondering what the man intended to do.
"Why have you come here twice during the past two days?" he asked, abruptly, after he had lit the lamp and carefully shut the door.
Grace determined to be quite frank with him. "I wanted to ask you some questions, Monsieur Valentin," she replied.
"Ha! You know my name?"
He appeared somewhat uneasy. "What are you up to?"
"I am trying to find Mr. Stapleton's child."
A queer smile came over the fellow's face. "Is that why you stole the cigarettes?" he asked.
"I did not steal them. They were taken by a man with a black beard, who came in through the window when I was here."
"A black beard?" He smiled incredulously. "And you let him take them."
"Yes. Why not? Were they of such great value?"
He glanced about uneasily, but did not reply to her question. "Who was the man?" he presently asked.
"I do not know. I followed him. He entered Mr. Stapleton's house."
"Sacr?! It must have been Fran?ois!"
"Hardly. Fran?ois has no beard."
"But he might have been disguised." He seemed very much perturbed. "What a pity I was so careless!"
"Monsieur Valentin, will you please tell me what those cigarettes have to do with the kidnapping of Mr. Stapleton's child?"
He looked at her closely for a moment. "Everything," he answered gloomily, "and – nothing. I was a fool to have left them here."
Grace began to feel more and more composed. This man did not talk like one of the band of criminals. "Do you know where the child is?" she suddenly asked.
"Perhaps." He observed her narrowly. "Do you?"
"No. If I did, I should restore him to his poor mother."
"What were you doing in that automobile?"
"I was a prisoner. And you?"
Again he evaded her question. "It is my own affair," he growled.
"Did you not see who it was that drove the car?" she asked.
Instead of replying, he flung himself into a chair. "Sit down, Mademoiselle, and tell me the whole story. If I find that you are frank with me, I promise to be equally so with you."
Suddenly Grace felt an intuition that the man was honest. She determined to do as he asked. "Very well. I will tell you the truth. I am trying to recover Mr. Stapleton's child. Last night I was watching the house. I was seized from behind, thrown into an automobile, and taken – I do not know where. This morning a message to Mr. Stapleton was given me. Tonight I was brought here, blindfolded, in an automobile. Then I met you. That is all I know."
Valentin appeared disappointed. "Then you do not know where the child is?" he asked.
"The child is where I was – I saw it."
As Grace said this, her companion leaped excitedly from his chair. "Then we have them!" he cried.
"I do not understand."
"Mademoiselle, this evening I was watching Monsieur Stapleton's house. Like yourself, I desire to recover the child. I saw Fran?ois leave in Monsieur Stapleton's automobile. I climbed in behind, as he left the house. It was dark. He did not see me. He drove out toward Versailles."
"Toward Versailles?" exclaimed Grace.
"Yes. Why do you seem so surprised."
"Never mind. Go on."
"After a time, he stopped by the roadside. I got out, and hid in the shadow of some trees. Presently you were brought, blindfolded, by a man, who entered the car with you. When it again started, I climbed on behind. That is how I came to meet you."
"Then you don't know where the house is, from which I was brought?"
"No. There are many houses – all about. There was no way of knowing, in the dark. Did you come far – when they brought you to the automobile?"
"Yes. Several hundred yards, at least. But you know the spot, on the roadside?"
"Yes. I can find it, without difficulty."
"Monsieur Valentin, I have a plan – a very dangerous plan – for recovering Mr. Stapleton's boy. I cannot tell you what it is now. Tomorrow I will tell you – tomorrow afternoon. I shall want your assistance."
"What am I to do?"
"Can you drive an automobile?"
The man smiled. "Decidedly. It is my profession."
"Splendid! You will wait for me here, and I will come, and tell you what you are to do. I shall arrive not later than six o'clock." She rose. "Now I must go; but before I do so, tell me one thing. What is the mystery of the gold-tipped cigarettes?"
Her question seemed to drive from Valentin's face all the good nature that had dwelt there the moment before. "I cannot tell you that," he growled. "You must not ask me. Let me advise you to drop the matter of the cigarettes, and report your message to Mr. Stapleton at once."
For a moment, Grace almost regretted her frankness. Suppose, after all, he should prove to be but a confederate of the kidnappers, in league with Mary Lanahan, the nurse, to spirit the boy away in the first place, and now sent by them, in the guise of a spy clinging to the rear of the automobile, to find out what step she proposed to take to capture them? She paused in indecision. Suddenly there was a tapping upon the door of the room.
Valentin went to the door and cautiously opened it. The landlady stood on the landing outside. "There is a man to see you, at the door below, Monsieur," she said in a low tone.
"Who is it?"
"I do not know. He gives the name of Victor Girard."
"Very well. Send him up."
Grace heard the name – Victor Girard. A sudden wave of weakness swept over her. It was Richard! He had used the name frequently, in the past. She heard him ascending the short flight of stairs. There was no escape. Yet Monsieur Lefevre particularly insisted that he should not recognize her. She hastily drew down her veil. "Get rid of him as soon as you can," she whispered to Valentin, and shrunk back into the shadow.
Duvall came in, glancing sharply about him. He had been waiting to see Valentin since early in the evening, and had inquired for him twice before, only to find that he was out.
"What can I do for you, Monsieur?" inquired Valentin.
The detective drew the note from his pocket – the note which Mary Lanahan had sent to Valentin, and which Duvall had intercepted. "This is for you, Monsieur?" he asked, then suddenly paused, astounded. In the dim light, he caught sight of Grace, standing on the opposite side of the room, watching him closely. "I – I thought – Monsieur – I thought you were alone," he gasped, his eyes fixed on Grace as though he had seen a ghost. "I – I beg your pardon, but – " He was unable to proceed.
Valentin looked at him in amazement. "What is it, my friend?" he asked sharply. "Tell me your business, if you please, and go. I have a visitor."
"Yes – Monsieur – so – so I see." Duvall pulled himself together with a mighty effort and turned his glance to Valentin. He had suffered a great shock. For a moment he would have been ready to swear that Grace, his dear wife, stood before him in the flesh – and yet the thing was an absurdity: Grace, with her golden brown hair, her clear complexion, was three thousand miles away! This woman, dark, typically French, was quite evidently an entirely different person; yet the resemblance was startling – he felt himself shaking in every fiber.
"Well, Monsieur, give me the letter, since you say it is for me," he heard Valentin saying.
In an instant he had recovered his self possession. "Here," he exclaimed, handing the note to the man before him. "It is from Mary Lanahan. I have read it."
"You have read it, Monsieur!" Valentin exclaimed, angrily. "By what right, then, do you presume to read my letters?" He took the note and hurriedly read its contents. "Sacr?!" he exclaimed. "What does this mean?"
"It means, my friend, that I want that box of gold-tipped cigarettes."
Grace started. So Richard, too, was interested in the recovery of these mysterious cigarettes. What on earth, she wondered, could it mean?
"In the first place, Monsieur, let me inform you that I have no cigarettes, gold-tipped or otherwise. In the second place, I question your right to make any such demands."
"Does not the note from Mary Lanahan request you to destroy them?"
Valentin turned pale. "I tell you I have no such cigarettes!" he cried.
"Are they not the sort, then, that you usually smoke?"
"I do not smoke at all, Monsieur."
Duvall laughed. "So you both tell the same story, it seems. My friend, I dislike to discuss these matters before a stranger." He glanced significantly at Grace.
She dared not go. To speak – even to bid Valentin good evening, would, she felt sure, betray her. So she remained silent.
"Then take yourself off. I certainly have no desire to discuss them. I tell you, I do not smoke – I have no cigarettes – that is enough!"
"What does that note mean, then?" asked Duvall sternly.
"That is Miss Lanahan's affair – and mine."
Duvall drew out his pocketbook, and extracted from it the bit of cigarette stump, with the gold tip, which he had found that morning in the Bois de Boulogne. "Monsieur Valentin," he said, "I found this end of a cigarette at the exact place in the grass, in the Bois de Boulogne, where Mr. Stapleton's child and nurse were, when the boy was stolen. The chauffeur was asleep. You could readily have walked up, taken away the child, and no one would have been the wiser. The story of Mary Lanahan, that no one came near her, that the boy disappeared into thin air, is absurd. The presence of the half-smoked cigarette, of a kind which I have reason to believe you use, convinces me that you were there in the Bois, with the nurse, at the time of the kidnapping – if indeed you did not take an active part in it. The message from Mary Lanahan, which I have just handed you, directing you to destroy the cigarettes, – which, no doubt, she feared, after my questioning, might be used as evidence against you, – serves as strong additional proof. I believe that you know where Mr. Stapleton's child is."
The statements which her husband made convinced Grace that she had made a mistake in confiding in Valentin. She herself had seen the gold-tipped cigarettes on his table – had seen them stolen. It was not very conclusive evidence, she realized; but, taken with the nurse's letter, it was significant.
Valentin, however, did not appear to be greatly alarmed by the detective's charges. "You are mistaken, Monsieur," he said quietly. "I know nothing about the affair."
"Then what does this note mean?"
"That I cannot tell you. And, if you have any other questions to ask, I beg that you will come again – at another time. I, as you see, am engaged for the moment." He indicated Grace with a glance.
Duvall looked about, then turned to the door. His object in coming had been fulfilled. He had seen Valentin – located him – he hoped frightened him. It was one of his theories that a man, frightened by the knowledge that he is being closely pursued, is far more likely to make a false step, than one who fancies himself secure.
He darted a curious glance at Grace, as he left the room; but her face, concealed in the shadow, told him nothing. Her silent presence filled him with strange disquietude. He stationed himself outside the doorway of the house, determined to learn, if possible, who she was, by following her, when she left the place. He had not counted on Valentin's being with her.
The two left the house together, and the man at once called a cab. Into this he put Grace, all the while eying Duvall savagely. The latter gave up all ideas of pursuing Grace, and returned, somewhat disgruntled, to his hotel. He had barely reached it, when a message was brought to him, summoning him to Mr. Stapleton's house.
Grace, meanwhile, had driven at once to the banker's, and delivered to him the message with which she had been intrusted by the man in the black mask that morning.
Mr. Stapleton's face grew more and more angry as she proceeded with her story. He jumped up, as soon as he learned the purport of it, and, ringing up Duvall's hotel, requested the detective to come to him at once. Then he turned to Grace.
"You have no idea where this place is located?"
"Not the slightest."
"You say you saw my boy? He was safe?"
"I saw a child, which I was told was yours, Mr. Stapleton. I did not recognize him, of course. You know I have never seen your son. Also, he was dressed as a girl."
Mr. Stapleton produced a photograph with nervous haste. "Was he like this?" he demanded.
"Yes. It was the same." There was sufficient resemblance, even in the disguise the boy wore, for Grace to be practically certain of his identity.
"How am I to know that these scoundrels will keep their word?" Mr. Stapleton groaned, his head on his hands.
"Do you intend, then, to give them the money?"
"Certainly. Do you suppose I would take any chances, for the matter of a hundred thousand dollars – or twice as much, for that matter? His mother and I are unable to sleep, to eat, to do anything in fact, under the strain of this thing. I shall by all means do as they ask."
"But they will get away."
"That is nothing to me. Let them. Once my boy is safe, I can spend another hundred thousand to catch them; but not now – when one false step might mean his death."
"They won't harm him, Mr. Stapleton. They are too anxious for the money, to let anything happen to him."
"I'll take no chances."
Grace rose. "Then I might as well be going," she said. "I don't see that I can do anything more. I shall report the matter to the Prefect of Police at once."
"Very well. And be good enough to say to him that I particularly desire that no steps be taken to prevent the carrying out of the plan. I shall pay this money and regain my boy. After that, the police may do as they like. Good evening."
"Good evening." Grace left the house, feeling singularly disappointed, in spite of the fact that Mr. Stapleton's decision apparently meant that Richard's work in Paris, as well as her own, was likely to be brought to a sudden termination.
As she was leaving the house, she saw Richard drive up in a cab. The sight of him filled her with joy; although she was forced to conceal it, and pass him by with a look of indifference. In the darkness, she knew she was safe. He recognized her of course, – recognized her, that is, as the woman he had seen in Valentin's room, – and her presence here at Mr. Stapleton's house evidently filled him with surprise. For a moment, she thought he was about to speak to her, as he descended from his cab; but she turned away and hurried down the street, and when she looked back, he had entered the house.
MR. STAPLETON was standing in the middle of the library, when Duvall entered. He turned to him excitedly.
"Mr. Duvall," he said, "I have just heard news that I hope will restore my boy to me within the next twenty-four hours!"
"From the woman who just left the house?"
"Who is she?"
"An agent of the police."
"Ah! Are you certain of that?"
"I know only what she says."
Duvall looked at him curiously. "What is the news she has brought you?"
"A message from the scoundrels who have stolen the child. They want a hundred thousand dollars, to return him."
"And she brought you that message?"
"Yes." The banker regarded his questioner uneasily.
"Does it not seem rather singular, Mr. Stapleton, that a member of the Paris police should come to you with a message from the kidnappers?"
Mr. Stapleton frowned. "I had not considered that aspect of the case, Mr. Duvall. I was – and am – too anxious to get my boy back, to care by whom these fellows deliver their terms."
"What was the message, Mr. Stapleton?"
"I am to drive along the road to Versailles tomorrow evening, leaving here at eight o'clock, and moving at the rate of twelve miles an hour. Somewhere on that road, an automobile in passing will signal me with a blue light. I am then to slow up and toss into the other machine a package containing one hundred thousand dollars. If I do this, and make no attempt to follow or capture the rascals, they agree to deliver the child here – at my house – by the time I return home."
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