The Blue Lights: A Detective Story
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"How can you prevent it, Monsieur? Mr. Stapleton is determined."
"That, my child, is the question. I cannot stop Monsieur Stapleton if he wishes to drive out the road to Versailles and toss a hundred thousand dollars into the first automobile that passes him, showing a blue light." He rose and began to walk up and down the room.
"I have a plan, Monsieur," said Grace, quietly.
"What is it, my child?" The Prefect regarded her with an indulgent smile. He was very fond of Grace. He regretted that he had been unable to secure the services of her husband in this case. He knew, from past experience, her cleverness; but he did not believe that in a matter of this sort she would be able to outwit men who were probably among the shrewdest criminals in Paris.
"First," said Grace, "we will have the location pointed out to us by Valentin thoroughly searched."
"Assuredly! It will, however, probably result in nothing. Even if Valentin is telling the truth, these fellows will beyond question have moved the child before now to prepare for the work of tomorrow evening."
"Possibly. At any rate, we will try. After that, I shall want Valentin to drive a motor car for me. He is an accomplished chauffeur."
"You will take him into your confidence, then?" asked the Prefect, in some alarm.
"No. I shall tell him nothing, except that he is to drive the car, and where."
"Very well. But be careful. What next?"
Grace leaned over and spoke to the Prefect in low tones for several minutes. He listened to what she said, occasionally smiling, and nodding his head. Presently he brought his hand down sharply upon the table. "Bravo!" he exclaimed. "You were born to be a detective. We will get the kidnappers, the money, and in all probability the child as well. I congratulate you!"
"You think it will work, then?"
"I do not see how it can fail. It is an inspiration. I shall certainly feel very well satisfied indeed, if I can return to Monsieur Stapleton both his child and his money, and at the same time place the kidnappers behind the bars. I could never permit it to be said that the police of Paris would knowingly allow a desperate band of criminals to get away with half a million of francs without lifting a hand to prevent it." He rose and glanced at his watch. "Come, my child. It is after midnight. You have had a long and exciting day. You had better get some rest."
Grace rose. "Richard seemed awfully puzzled when he saw me."
"Did he?" The Prefect laughed mischievously. "Really it is a great joke upon him. To be within a step of his own wife, and not to know her!"
Grace seemed scarcely to appreciate the humor of the situation. "I think it's a shame," she said, "Poor Richard. He'll never forgive me. I really think I ought to tell him."
Monsieur Lefevre shook his head. "If you do that, my dear child, everything will be spoiled. He will insist upon your dropping the case at once, and that would certainly not be fair to me."
"But, Monsieur, after all, you really do not need me, with all the clever men you have upon your staff."
"Who knows? Perhaps you may succeed, where they will fail.I have great faith in the intuition of a woman. And already you have advanced the case further in forty-eight hours than my men have done in ten days. It was a chance, I will admit, that these rascals should have chosen you to deliver their demands to Monsieur Stapleton. I confess I do not understand their reasons for doing so. They must have known that besides telling your story to him, you would also tell it to me. It may have been sheer bravado on their part – it is a characteristic, I have noted, in many criminals. They seem to glory in defying the police. These fellows, no doubt, think that they have matters so arranged that capture is impossible. I think we shall give them a little surprise."
He turned to the door, and held it open, allowing Grace to pass into the hall. "Good night, my child," he called out to her, as she began to ascend the stairs. "I think I will smoke one more cigar."
As for Grace, she lay awake a long time, thinking of Richard, of their home in the country, of the happy hours they had spent there – before this unexpected interruption to their honeymoon. It seemed very queer to her, to be lying there, alone. She had not gotten used to it. And somewhere, in this big city, Richard was also sleeping – and she not with him! The excitement of the affair was beginning to die out. The meeting with Richard on the boat, which she had planned when she set out from home, had not materialized. She had postponed this meeting, in her thoughts, until his arrival in Paris, and now – he had come, and still she had not been able so much as to touch his hand. She finally went to sleep, devoutly praying that tomorrow, and the capture of the kidnappers, would mark the end of their needless and cruel separation.
PROMPTLY at eight o'clock the next evening Mr. John Stapleton left his house in the Avenue Kleber, in a big French touring car, with Fran?ois at the wheel.
The car presented no points of peculiarity, being like a thousand others to be seen any evening upon the streets of Paris. It was of large size, high powered, and painted a green so dark as to be almost black.
Mr. Stapleton sat in the tonneau, wearing a dark blue serge suit, and a Panama hat. In his left hand he clutched a small package, about the size of a cigar box. In the package were banknotes amounting to one hundred thousand dollars.
Close beside his right foot lay a rubber bulb, from which a short pipe extended through a hole bored in the side of the car. The end of the pipe held a small brass nozzle. It projected but a short distance beyond the body of the car, and in the dim light of early evening was quite invisible.
Mr. Stapleton told his chauffeur to drive out the road toward Versailles. "I feel like getting some fresh air," he added. "It's rather warm, tonight." Inwardly he was burning up with excitement.
From Paris to Versailles is a matter of some fourteen miles. Mr. Stapleton's car proceeded slowly. He wanted to run no chances of missing the car with the blue light.
At the Porte de Versailles he paused long enough to see Richard Duvall, standing in the shadow of the gateway. Then he passed outside of Paris.
There were many automobiles and other vehicles on the road. The evening was a pleasant one, and all Paris seemed out taking the air. The majority of the vehicles were coming toward the city. He observed a car, some distance behind him, containing a single occupant, a man of middle age, but paid no attention to it. His eyes were strained to detect in the cars approaching him some evidence of the signal light which was to rouse him to sudden action.
He noticed that Fran?ois, like himself, was carefully scrutinizing each car as it approached them. He wondered if the chauffeur could have any idea of the purpose of his expedition; but presently dismissed the thought as entirely unlikely, and devoted himself to the passing cars.
He had proceeded perhaps four or five miles beyond the fortifications, when he saw a large car approaching slowly from the direction of Versailles. It contained but two persons, the chauffeur, and a heavily veiled woman.
The chauffeur, who was keenly observing the machine in which Mr. Stapleton sat, began to swerve to the right side of the road, so as to pass as closely to the banker's car as possible. At the same moment there showed through the gathering darkness a brilliant spot of blue light in the tonneau where sat the woman.
Mr. Stapleton was on his feet in an instant. The two cars approached each other rapidly. It was necessary for him to act with great quickness. He shifted the package containing the money from his left hand to his right, and a moment later had tossed it lightly into the other car.
He saw at once that it landed safely within, and at the same instant he pressed his foot down hard upon the rubber bulb. In a moment the car with the blue light had swept past, and was disappearing rapidly in the direction of Paris.
Mr. Stapleton leaned forward and addressed Fran?ois in a voice which quivered with excitement. "Drive home at once," he commanded.
In a moment he was following the first car toward the city.
He did not notice, as he swept down the darkening road, the car which had been following him all the way from Paris. It continued on its way toward Versailles. In it were two people. At the wheel sat a man who bore, in the semi-darkness, a striking resemblance to Fran?ois, Mr. Stapleton's chauffeur, while in the rear sat a figure, in dark suit and Panama hat, which seemed for all the world like that of the banker himself. Had a casual observer not seen Mr. Stapleton turn back toward Paris, he would have concluded that he was still on his way toward Versailles.
The occupants of this second car also appeared to be keenly watching the various automobiles which passed them, as though expecting some signal, some recognition; yet, in spite of their eager and expectant glances, they seemed doomed to disappointment.
At last Versailles was reached. The elderly man in the tonneau gave a short command, his chauffeur turned the car about, and they began to return to Paris. Nothing further whatever happened on the Versailles road.
Meanwhile, Richard Duvall, at the Porte de Versailles, was carefully scrutinizing the various incoming machines that passed the gate and entered the city. With a brilliant electric searchlight he examined their bodies and wheels, looking always for the telltale red stains which would identify the kidnappers' car. Beside him stood Vernet, one of the Prefect's assistants, with whom Duvall had become well acquainted during his former stay in Paris.
"Well, Monsieur Duvall," remarked the latter, "a most ingenious plan – this of yours. I wonder if it will be successful?"
"I feel sure of it."
"I hope you are right." He looked at his watch. "Half past eight. About time, I should think, from what you tell me. Here is a big fellow, now. A Pasquet, by her looks. Six-cylinder, too."
Duvall glanced at the oncoming car. A wagon which preceded it was just passing the gates. The big Pasquet slowed up, and almost stopped.
The detective threw the rays of his searchlight on the body of the car, then started back with an exclamation. From one end to the other, the dark green finish of the sides and wheels was spattered and streaked with bright red paint. Dust had settled in it, in places, especially on the wheels; but above, on the doors, it was clear and unmistakable.
"Vernet," he shouted, excitedly, "it is the one! Quick! Don't let them get away."
Vernet stepped up to the quivering motor. At the wheel sat a young man, quite composed. In the tonneau, a veiled woman reclined at ease. In her hands she held a brown paper package.
She leaned toward Vernet, and spoke a single word to him. Duvall did not hear what it was; but its effect upon the Prefect's man was instantaneous – electrical. He stepped back and raised his hat. "Pardon, Madame," he said, and the Pasquet rolled through the gate and into the streets of Paris unmolested.
Duvall had sprung forward, and, as he did so, swept the occupants of the car with his electric searchlight. Suddenly he drew back in amazement, just as Vernet allowed the car to pass on. He could scarcely believe that what he saw was a reality. There was the big black car, its body and wheels plentifully bespattered with the identifying red stain – and there, at the wheel, sat Alphonse Valentin, while the veiled woman in the rear was – Grace!
He did not know it was Grace – he did know that it was the woman who had been with Valentin in his room, who had brought the message from the kidnappers to Mr. Stapleton, who, in some far off and intangible way, reminded him of Grace.
There she sat, in her hand the package containing Mr. Stapleton's money – and Vernet doffed his cap to her, and permitted her to go on! Was this woman, then, hoodwinking even the police?
He sprang to Vernet's side. "Stop them!" he cried, in a hoarse voice. "They are the ones I am after."
Vernet shook his head. "Impossible, Monsieur. They are given safe conduct by Monsieur the Prefect himself."
"But – they are thieves – kidnappers!"
Vernet shrugged his shoulders. "It may be so, Monsieur Duvall; but my orders are to let them pass."
The detective ground his teeth, helpless. His scheme for identifying the criminals had worked perfectly. He had found them, only to see both them and Mr. Stapleton's hundred thousand dollars as well slip quietly through his fingers. He cursed the whole police force of Paris roundly, in his anger.
The arrival of another car distracted his attention. It was Mr. Stapleton, hurrying home, in the hope of finding his boy. Duvall did not stop him. The banker was evidently thinking of nothing but his lost son.
Several other cars passed. Duvall had no interest in them. He was about to turn away, with the intention of hunting up Mr. Stapleton and learning whether or not the boy had been returned to him, when he heard a familiar voice calling him by name. He turned. It was Monsieur Lefevre, in a big dark green car.
"Mon Dieu! Duvall!" the Prefect cried, in pretended surprise. "You here! In Paris! Or do my eyes deceive me?"
The detective looked a bit sheepish. He realized that in not calling on his old friend before now, he had been guilty of an apparent rudeness which Monsieur Lefevre might justly resent. "Monsieur," he cried, "it is indeed I." He put out his hand, and grasped that of his old chief warmly. "A little matter of business brought me to Paris. I have only just arrived."
"Indeed." The Prefect's eyes twinkled. "I hope, my dear fellow, that your other engagements will permit you to come and see me before long."
"I shall come this very evening, Monsieur. In fact, I have a matter of the utmost importance to discuss with you. Shall you be at liberty?"
"In an hour, mon ami. Until then I have other things to occupy me. Come to the Prefecture in an hour. I shall be waiting for you. For the present, adieu." He called an order to his chauffeur, and drove rapidly off into the darkness.
Duvall turned on his heel and began to look for a taxicab. "Good night, Vernet," he called out, as he went up the street.
In half an hour, he had reached Mr. Stapleton's house. He found the unfortunate banker striding up and down his library in a towering rage. "The fellows have deceived me!" he cried. "They have not brought back my boy. Did you see anything of them? Tell me!" He grasped Duvall nervously by the arm.
"The car into which you threw the package of money contained, besides the chauffeur, but one occupant, a woman, did it not?"
"Yes – yes! Did you get her?"
"Why not? Did your scheme to identify the car fail to work?"
"On the contrary, it worked perfectly. I stopped the car at the barrier. The woman in it had the package of money in her hand."
"And you did not arrest her! In Heaven's name, why not?"
"The police would not permit me to do so. The woman was the same one who brought you the message last night, the supposed agent of the police. They allowed her to pass the gates."
"What?" the banker fairly shouted his question. "This is ridiculous! Is the woman a criminal, or is she a detective? She cannot be both, and if she is the latter why was she in that car, with my money in her hand?"
"I do not know. But I mean to find out very shortly."
"How? I'd like to know!"
"I am going to see the Prefect of Police at once."
Mr. Stapleton sank into a chair, and groaned. "I had hoped to have Jack with me by now. His poor mother is distracted. Isn't there anything, Mr. Duvall, that you can do?"
"I hope to answer that question better, Mr. Stapleton, after I have seen Monsieur Lefevre. If this woman, and her companion, Valentin, are really the kidnappers, they are in Paris, and we shall be able to lay our hands on them without difficulty. If they are not, your money, at least is safe. I must leave you now; but as soon as I learn anything, I will report to you at once. Good night."
He left the house, more mystified than he had ever been in his life. From the start, this case had apparently been one in which all the clues led to absurd contradictions, or else to nothing at all.
In fifteen minutes he was at the Prefecture.
Monsieur Lefevre sent out word that he would be occupied for a few moments, and the detective sat down as patiently as possible, to wait.
THE events of the Versailles road left Grace Duvall in a high state of good humor. The plan she had suggested had been a success – at least so far as her own part in it was concerned. How Monsieur Lefevre had fared, she did not yet know. She looked down at the brown paper package she held in her hand, and ordered Valentin to drive to the Prefecture.
The day had been an eventful one. Immediately after breakfast Grace had gone to Mr. Stapleton's house and had a long interview with Mrs. Stapleton. That lady, apparently quite prostrated from worry and alarm over the fate of her son, received her in her boudoir, where she lay, a charming picture, upon a divan.
Grace had no more than entered the room, when she detected the odor of cigarette smoke, faint but unmistakable. She glanced at the table which stood beside the divan upon which Mrs. Stapleton lay. On it, a tiny porcelain ash receiver contained a fluffy mass of gray-white ashes, and the half smoked remains of a cigarette. The tip, partly covered by the ashes, was of gold.
The girl engaged her hostess in a long conversation, quieting her fears, which seemed real enough, and predicting the early recovery of her boy. It was quite evident that Mrs. Stapleton was terribly nervous. No doubt this accounted for the cigarettes. Although Grace did not use them herself, she knew how their quieting effect on the nerves made them almost necessities, at times, to their devotees.
Presently she observed that Mrs. Stapleton held within her left hand, concealed beneath the folds of her kimono, a small pasteboard box, a box of cigarettes. Grace determined upon a bold move.
"May I have one of your cigarettes, Mrs. Stapleton?" she asked, in her sweetest manner. "I've forgotten to bring any with me – and – you know how it is."
Mrs. Stapleton's features relaxed into something approaching a smile. She had been lying there wondering whether she dared offer one to Grace, and thus be able to sooth her own overstrained nerves. She brought forth the box and extended it toward her visitor. Grace took one of the tiny cylinders and lit it. It was of the same make as the one she had secured in Alphonse Valentin's room!
She took her departure a little later, wondering greatly. The whole affair had begun to take on an air of baffling contradiction.
She spent the rest of the morning, and most of the afternoon, searching the houses near the point on the road to Versailles indicated by Valentin. With her were three men from the Prefect's office – silent, able men, in plain clothes, who pretended to be keepers from the Jardin des Plantes, in search of a dangerous cobra, which was supposed to have escaped from its cage the night before.
The terrified householders threw open their doors with unassumed alacrity. The suggestion of a deadly reptile lurking in their gardens was a veritable open sesame. Yet no traces of the missing boy were found, and, more remarkable still, Grace was unable to identify any of the many gardens as the one in which she had seen the child playing with the spaniel. This disappointed her greatly. She knew well that, if Valentin was telling the truth, the garden was here; yet, although they visited every house within a quarter of a mile, they were unable to locate it. She remembered now that in her agitation, her eager examination of the child, she had not fixed upon her mind any salient point in the garden itself. All that she remembered was a bit of grass, a gravel walk, and the child playing with the dog. A dozen of the little enclosures presented similar features. She returned to the prefecture, baffled.
"The fellow is undoubtedly lying," had been Monsieur Lefevre's comment. "He is trying to throw you off the track, in order to protect the nurse, and possibly Mrs. Stapleton as well. I should not be surprised to find that the boy's mother is the guilty person."
Grace did not agree with him; so she said nothing. In spite of the fact that Mrs. Stapleton used cigarettes similar to those which seemed in some queer way to be at the bottom of the mystery, she had an intuitive feeling that the grief which the banker's wife showed was entirely real.
At half past seven, Grace left the prefecture in a high-powered car, furnished by Monsieur Lefevre. Alphonse Valentin was at the wheel. In her hand she held a pocket electric searchlight, across the front of which had been affixed a circular bit of blue glass.
At ten minutes to eight she arrived at Versailles. She at once ordered Valentin to turn and drive back toward Paris at moderate speed. She did not take him into her confidence regarding what she proposed to do, but kept a keen watch for the car containing Mr. Stapleton.
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