The Blue Lights: A Detective Story
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Her plan had worked. Mr. Stapleton, seeing her signal, had tossed her the package of money – she only hoped that the other part of her plan had been carried out with equal success.
The other part of the plan had been this: Monsieur Lefevre, who in build and general appearance was not unlike Mr. Stapleton, was to follow the latter's car in a machine of the same make and general appearance. He was to be driven by a chauffeur made up to resemble Fran?ois sufficiently to be mistaken for him in the dim light of early evening. He himself was to make such alterations in his appearance and dress as would enable him to pass, under a cursory examination, for Stapleton. In the bottom of the car two armed men lay concealed.
When the car containing Mr. Stapleton turned back toward Paris, after having unwittingly delivered the money to Grace, the Prefect would continue on toward Versailles. He would know that the car containing the kidnappers was still ahead of him; since, had it not been, it, instead of Grace's car, would have signaled Mr. Stapleton.
Grace had started out from Versailles especially early, convinced that the kidnappers would not leave there until eight, at least. In this assumption she was correct. The car containing the kidnappers was, at that moment, creeping toward Paris some two miles in her rear, looking everywhere for Mr. Stapleton.
The Prefect pursued his way toward Versailles in anxious expectancy. Each moment he thought to see the blue signal flash from the various cars which passed him. When it came, his men were to spring up, and at once bring the other car to a standstill by firing their guns, heavily charged with buckshot, at its wheels. A punctured tire, and the thing was done. His men, assisted by the chauffeur, would then overpower the occupants of the other car before they could realize what had happened. In it they hoped to find the child.
The plan was well conceived; but unfortunately it did not work. Whatever the reason, none of the cars which passed the Prefect on his way to Versailles displayed the telltale blue light. All seemed but peaceable automobilists, intent on reaching Paris and its restaurants as quickly as possible. Had his disguise been penetrated? He could not believe it. He returned to the Prefecture in great disgust, wondering in what way matters had gone wrong.
Grace was waiting for him, an eager smile on her face. "Here is the money," she said, placing the package on his desk. "Did you get the men?"
"No." The Prefect flung himself into a chair. "They did not signal."
"But why, I wonder?" The failure of her plan was extremely annoying.
"I can think of but one reason. There must have been some way in which these fellows knew the Stapleton car when they approached it – some signal, perhaps, that I was unable to give."
"But no such signal was mentioned in the instructions I brought to Mr. Stapleton. He gave none, as we approached him."
"Did you observe anything peculiar about the appearance of his car, anything that might have served as a clue to enable these fellows to recognize it, even in the dark, with certainty?"
Grace thought a moment, then her face fell."There was one thing that I noticed as Mr. Stapleton's car came up to us; but I am afraid I failed to realize its significance at the time."
"What was it?"
"The electric headlight on the side nearest to me was working very badly. In fact, it seemed to be almost out. The other was burning brilliantly."
The Prefect sprang to his feet. "Sacr?!" he exclaimed. "Of course. The thing is as plain as the nose on your face!"
"But who – "
"Fran?ois! The fellow is in this thing up to his neck. He claims to have been asleep when the boy was stolen. He drives the car which brings you back, after your abduction. He, disguised, steals the box of cigarettes. He fixes the lights so that the kidnappers are advised, not only beyond any doubt that they are signaling the right car, but that all is safe – that Monsieur Stapleton has no detectives or members of the police hidden in his tonneau. The thing is perfectly clear. Believe me, my child, had there been anyone in that car with Mr. Stapleton, those lights would have both been burning with equal brightness, as mine were. They did not give me the signal, when they passed me, because the lights failed to tell them that all was well."
Grace looked up quickly. "Then, if that is true, Fran?ois knew that Mr. Stapleton had thrown the money into the wrong car."
"Undoubtedly, and by this time, no doubt, his confederates know it as well. Naturally the child has not been delivered. We are just where we were before."
"You will arrest Fran?ois at once, I suppose."
"No. It will be useless. By leaving him free, we may learn something. By locking him up, with no tangible evidence against him, we accomplish nothing at all."
"Then what do you advise?"
"You will return the money to Mr. Stapleton at once. You can tell him, if you wish, how it came into your possession. He will be furious, of course; but he must understand that the capture of these scoundrels is quite as important to the city of Paris as the recovery of his son. We have done our best, and failed. We must try again."
"Richard was at the Porte de Versailles," remarked Grace, quietly. "He tried to stop my car."
"Yes. I saw him. He is coming here at once."
The girl rose, in nervous haste. "I must go, then. It would be most unwise to have him find me here."
There was a quick knock at the door. The Prefect rose, and opened it; then turned to Grace with a grim smile. "Your husband is waiting in the anteroom," he whispered.
"But – what shall I do?"
"Wait in here." Monsieur Lefevre opened the door which led to his private office. "You can hear everything quite plainly. From what you tell me, I should not be surprised if he insisted upon your arrest at once."
"It isn't fair to him. Poor Richard! I'm afraid he'll never forgive me for all this."
"Nonsense! You are engaged in a very laudable attempt to recover Mrs. Stapleton's child. So is he. Your interests are identical. Only," he paused with a significant smile, "from my standpoint, I should much prefer that the credit for the boy's recovery should belong to the police of Paris, of which you, for the time being, are one."
Richard Duvall came into the Prefect's office, somewhat ill at ease. The room, familiar to him because of the events of the past, reminded him forcibly of Grace – who had, indeed been upon his mind constantly for the past few days. It was here, in this very room, that she had first told him that she loved him – during the exciting pursuit of Victor Girard, and the million francs. He gazed about at its familiar aspect, and sighed.
"Sit down, my dear Duvall," said the Prefect, shaking hands with him warmly. "What, may I ask, brings you to Paris, at the cost of interrupting your honeymoon? I had supposed that nothing could be of sufficient importance for that. In fact, had I known you would consider it for a moment, I should have cabled to you, to give me your assistance in a most trying case."
"What case, Monsieur?"
"The mysterious kidnapping of the child of Monsieur Stapleton."
"It is that very case that brings me to Paris. I am in Mr. Stapleton's employ."
Monsieur Lefevre affected to be greatly surprised. "Is it possible, mon ami? That is bad news indeed. This fellow Stapleton no longer has confidence in my office. He retains you to do that which he believes I shall fail to do. I am sorry, my dear Duvall, that we are on opposite sides of the fence."
"But, Monsieur, I did not know that you wanted me. Mr. Stapleton is an old friend. I could not refuse to come to his assistance."
Lefevre's eyes twinkled. "Have you made any progress, then, my friend?"
"Yes. Tonight I put in operation a plan whereby I might identify an automobile containing the kidnappers, into which Mr. Stapleton had been directed to throw a package containing one hundred thousand dollars."
"Indeed. You interest me. And did you succeed in identifying it?"
"I did. I stopped the car, at the Porte de Versailles. I knew it to be the one into which the money had been thrown. The car was driven by a man named Alphonse Valentin, whom I have every reason to suspect is concerned in this affair. Its only other occupant was a woman – whom I met last night in Valentin's rooms, and who brought Mr. Stapleton a message from the kidnappers. This woman is, I believe, at the bottom of the whole thing."
"Indeed. And did you arrest her?"
"No. She claims to be an agent of your office. Vernet, who was at the gates at my request, refused to place her and her companion under arrest. She got away with Mr. Stapleton's money. I believe, Monsieur Lefevre, that you are being made a fool of by a member of your own staff."
The Prefect leaned over, and picked up the package containing the money which lay upon his desk. "I do not agree with you, my friend. Here is Monsieur Stapleton's money."
Duvall started back in his chair, amazed. "Good Lord, Chief, am I losing my senses? What is this affair, anyway, a joke?"
"Far from it, Monsieur Duvall. The criminals are still at large. The boy is in their hands. We must recover him."
"But – this money – "
"I arranged to get it, in order to prevent Monsieur Stapleton from making a fool of himself. I wish to capture these men – not to let them blackmail him out of half a million francs."
"Had you not interfered, Monsieur Lefevre, they would have been in my hands, by now. I would have had them safely the moment they attempted to enter Paris. I knew their car."
The Prefect was filled with curiosity. "How?" he asked.
"My means of a device with which Mr. Stapleton's car was equipped, the body of the one into which he threw the money was spattered with red paint. I could have identified it anywhere."
"My dear Duvall! I feel that I should beg your pardon. Your plan was cleverness itself, and I will admit that, had I not interfered, you would in all probability have captured these men. I did not know what you had done, of course. Yet in their escape I have one consolation. It would have been extremely distasteful to me, to have had Mr. Stapleton boast that a private detective in his employ had succeeded, where the police of Paris had failed."
"Then it would appear, Monsieur," said Duvall somewhat stiffly, "that we are, in this matter at least, in opposition."
"Let us rather say, my friend, in competition." He placed his hand on Duvall's shoulder. "You must not blame me, if I feel a pride in my office. When you were working for the city of Paris, you, too, felt that pride. I am truly sorry that I have not the benefit of your services now. However, I think you will admit, mon ami, that the young woman who is handing this case is no mean adversary." The Prefect regarded the detective with a quizzical smile, behind which his eyes twinkled merrily.
"Who is this woman?" asked Duvall, quickly.
"Her name is – Goncourt – Estelle Goncourt."
"Partly. I believe her mother was English." The twinkle in his eye spread – he smiled upon the detective with expansive good humor. "Why do you ask?"
"You will think it strange, perhaps, Monsieur Lefevre, but when I first saw Miss Goncourt, she reminded me strongly of my wife."
"Yes. Have you not observed it?"
"Now that you speak of it, perhaps there is something similar in the manner – the carriage. But your wife, my dear Duvall, is a blonde, while Mademoiselle Goncourt is decidedly a brunette."
"Yes. Of course. But, nevertheless, the resemblance is striking." He rose to go. "I hope, Monsieur, that this kidnapped boy may be restored to his father very soon. I am anxious to return to America."
"What! Leave Paris so quickly? My dear Duvall, I thought you Americans loved our city so well, that you never wanted to leave it."
"Paris is all right, Monsieur; but," he laughed heartily, "I must get back to my wife and my farm. I was forced to leave in the very middle of my spring plowing."
The Prefect roared. "You – a farmer! Mon Dieu! How droll! Potatoes, I suppose, and chickens, and dogs, and pigs – "
"Exactly – and, believe me, Monsieur, they are more to my liking, than all the gaieties of Paris. Some day you must make us a visit, and see for yourself." He turned toward the door.
"I shall, Duvall, I shall. But first we have to find this boy. What do you propose to do next?"
Duvall smiled. "What do you?" he retorted.
"A bottle of champagne, my friend, and a dinner at the Caf? Royale, that we find the child before you do!"
"Done! Now I'll be off. Good night."
The Prefect was still laughing when Grace peeped in from the private office, to find that Richard had gone. "I think it's a shame to treat him so," she said. "The poor fellow! And he would have gotten the kidnappers, if we hadn't interfered."
Monsieur Lefevre picked up the package containing Mr. Stapleton's money and placed it carefully in his safe. "Tomorrow you must return it to him," he said. "And then, I would suggest that you keep a close watch upon Mrs. Stapleton. My men have not been keeping her under surveillance. We have had no suspicions of her whatever. She may, if she is concerned in this matter, be imprudent enough to attempt to visit the child."
"And if not?"
"Then watch Fran?ois. If nothing comes of your efforts in either direction, I fear that we must wait for the kidnappers to make the next move. Of course there is Valentin – "
"Valentin is innocent."
"How do you know that?"
"I have watched him. He did everything in his power, tonight, to assist me. Had he been in league with the kidnappers, he could, after he knew that I had secured the money, easily have driven the car to some quiet spot and taken it from me. I was waiting for some such move; but he, as you know, did not attempt it. I am sure that he is doing his best to assist us."
"In that event, perhaps you can induce him to tell you the secret of the box of cigarettes. I feel sure that this knowledge would go far toward solving the entire affair."
"I'll have a talk with him tomorrow."
"Good! And now, if you are ready, we will return home at once."
"Dear old Richard!" said Grace, as the Prefect helped her into his automobile. "I wish I were with him tonight."
Lefevre smiled, and patted her hand. "So do I, my dear. But, remember, you have only to find Mr. Stapleton's child, and you can return to your chickens and your cows with the knowledge that you have done both his parents and myself an inestimable service."
IT was close to eight o'clock next evening when Grace Duvall arrived at Mr. Stapleton's house with the package containing the money.
She was accompanied, for safety, by two men from the Prefecture, who escorted her to the door.
She had paid a previous visit to the house, during the forenoon; but Mr. Stapleton was not at home, and she was informed that he would not return until evening.
Mrs. Stapleton she saw again; but her talk with the latter resulted in nothing. The poor lady was in utter despair, after the fiasco of the night before, and spent the day in her rooms, weeping.
It was quite clear to Grace that her grief was very real. She made up her mind that, whatever the mystery of the gold-tipped cigarettes, Mrs. Stapleton had nothing to do with it. Nor had the chauffeur, Valentin, been more communicative. He refused pointblank to explain the presence of the cigarettes in his room, or the reason why Mary Lanahan had written requesting him to destroy them. He said that it was a matter which concerned only the nurse and himself, and assured Grace that an answer to her questions would not assist in the least in recovering the missing child.
Mr. Stapleton was awaiting her in the library when she entered. The Prefect had telephoned him, advising him that the money was safe, and would be returned to him at once. Beyond that, he knew nothing, except what Duvall had told him the night before. Consequently he was in a decidedly bad humor.
Grace laid the money on the table. "Here is your hundred thousand dollars, Mr. Stapleton," she said.
The irate banker glared at her. "I cannot thank you for bringing it back, Miss," he growled. "Did I not particularly request that the police take no steps in the matter?"
"You did, Mr. Stapleton; but we acted for what we thought to be your best interests."
"Hang your thoughts about my best interests! I can take care of them. If you had let things alone, I'd have my boy back by now."
"And these men, these criminals, who stole him, would be at liberty to do the same thing over again tomorrow."
Mr. Stapleton was silent for a moment. "How did the thing happen?" he presently asked.
Grace told him. "The real cause of our failure, we believe, lies at the door of your chauffeur, Fran?ois." She explained the reasons for their suspicions.
Mr. Stapleton seemed puzzled. "The fellow seems honest enough."
"Where is he now?" Grace inquired.
"He asked permission to visit his people. As I had no use for him this evening, I told him he might go."
"Ah! In that event, we may learn something. He is being closely watched."
As Grace spoke, a servant entered the room. "There is a gentleman to see you, sir," he said to Mr. Stapleton.
"Who is it?"
"He would not give his name. He said his business was urgent."
"Where is he now?"
"In the reception room, sir."
Mr. Stapleton rose. "Excuse me a moment," he said, and went into the adjoining room.
The library was separated from the reception room by a short passageway, or alcove, in which hung a pair of heavy curtains. Grace sat quietly, waiting for Mr. Stapleton to return. Suddenly she realized that she could distinctly hear what was going on in the room adjoining. For a moment she thought of going into the hall; then a word or two caught her attention, and in a moment she was close to the curtains, listening intently to a most remarkable conversation.
The man who had asked to see Mr. Stapleton stood in the reception room, near a broad window overlooking the street without. He was tall and somewhat heavily built; but what at once attracted Grace's attention was his heavy black beard. She recognized him at once as the man who had broken into Valentin's room to steal the cigarettes, and had later driven the car which brought her back to Paris after her abduction.
He was speaking to Mr. Stapleton in a quiet and assured tone, as though discussing a topic of no greater importance than the weather.
"Mr. Stapleton," he said, "I have your son in my possession. He is quite safe. I gave you an opportunity to have him returned to you last night; but you did not avail yourself of it."
"I did my best," exclaimed the astounded banker, mastering his desire to take the fellow by the throat.
"That may be; yet my plans were interfered with. You did not carry out my instructions."
"I did – to the letter."
The man frowned. "It is useless to discuss the matter now," he growled. "I come to give you one more chance. It will be the last – "
"You damned scoundrel!"
The man with the black beard held up his hand. "It will avail nothing, Monsieur," he said, calmly, "to excite yourself. If you want back your boy, listen to what I have to say."
"Very well. Go ahead."
"First, I want no interference by the police, or by the man Duvall, who is acting for you."
Mr. Stapleton drew back in astonishment. "How do you know that Mr. Duvall is acting for me?" he said.
"It is my business to know, Monsieur. Let it suffice that I do know. If you hope ever to see your child again, you had better listen to what I have to say, and carry out my instructions to the letter." His voice was harsh, menacing.
Mr. Stapleton directed him by a gesture, to proceed. He was too angry to speak.
"Tomorrow night at this hour – eight o'clock – I shall come here, to this house, and ask for you. You will hand me a package containing one hundred thousand dollars. I will examine the money here, and satisfy myself that the amount is correct.
"I shall then leave the house, and walk to the Arc de Triomphe; which, as you know, is but a short distance away. At the Arc de Triomphe, I shall wait for an automobile, which will stop for me. In that automobile I shall drive away. If I get away safely without interference, there will be telephoned to your house, within half an hour, the address of the place where your boy is to be found. If I do not get away safely, that address will not be telephoned to you, and you will not see your child alive again. This is your last chance, Monsieur. It is most important, I assure you, that nothing should happen to prevent my safe departure tomorrow night."
For a moment Grace was undecided as to how she should act. She feared greatly, under the circumstances, to make any move which would endanger the safety of Mr. Stapleton's child. Yet her duty, as an agent of the police, was clear. She must use every effort to effect this man's capture, before he left the house.
She knew that she could not reach the street without passing the door of the reception room, in which case both Mr. Stapleton and his caller would see her. There was nothing to do but telephone. She flew to a small alcove room which opened off the rear of the library, in which she knew the telephone instrument was located. Once in this small room, she closed the door, for fear the others might overhear her, then called up the Prefecture. Monsieur Lefevre was out; but she acquainted one of his assistants with the circumstances, and requested him to send a man to the house at once.
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